THE "ATROCITY EXHIBITION" DISCUSSIONS (from the JGB list at Yahoo Groups)

2: THE ASSASSINATION WEAPON


[MH: 27 October 2006]

As promised yesterday, here are a few thoughts on re-reading "The Assassination Weapon":

"The Assassination Weapon" was the second of the main sections of AE to be written, and some of the main themes are apparent for the first time: the first of Traven's psychodramas, a re-enactment of Kennedy's assassination, is staged; the three psychic companions - Kline, Coma and Xero - appear; and Dr Nathan starts to discourse at some length on the meaning of Traven's actions.

Although most of the lightness of tone that showed occasionally in "You and Me and the Continuum" has disappeared, "The Assassination Weapon" still seems a fairly restrained text compared to, say, "The University of Death". Traven is an H-bomber pilot who has suffered a psychological dislocation after a plane crash. Apart from restaging Kennedy's assassination, his main concern in this story is to re-establish a meaningful relationship with space and time. But he's not yet obsessed with the geometry of the world, as he will be in "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe", and restricts himself to drawing mandalas, playing with an assembly of mirrors, and performing unusual callisthenic exercises. According to Dr. Nathan, Traven wants to "merge with the object in an undifferentiated mass. ... the previous career of the patient as a military pilot should be noted, and the unconscious role of thermonuclear weapons in bringing about the total fusion and non-differentiation of all matter." So Traven's mind reflects a twofold deracinating effect of the nuclear explosions of the 1940s and 1950s; a personal crisis in terms of his relationship with the rest of the universe, as well as the wider cultural impact of the end-result of Western science - 'science as pornography' as Dr N. might put it.

Another reason that "The Assassination Weapon" reads as a more 'restrained' piece is that in several of the paragraphs Traven is alone with Kline, Coma and Xero - the three avatars of his psyche - on an island, which is possibly Guam in 1947, but might equally well be located on a disused airfield near Shepperton, or in Traven's unconscious mind. On the terminal beach of this island, Traven does nothing much, except play with various objects that he finds in the sand, and observe the 'flat, endless terrain'.

Thinking back to Rick's comments about the possible autobiographical elements in AE, I suppose we might consider Traven's island to be some sort of mental equivalent of Lunghua. But it was actually the sections relating to the Kennedy assassination that struck me as being autobiographical, albeit in a rather oblique way. For a start, the assassination psychodrama takes place around the Staines/Shepperton reservoirs; and it isn't Kennedy who dies, but his *wife* (in the form of Nurse Nagamatzu). The intended result of the assassination attempt is that Traven will be reborn in some way - "Was this watery world the site where he hoped to be reborn, in this fragmented womb with its dozens of amniotic levels?", Margaret Traven ponders, as she wanders around the reservoir embankments. I wondered whether this was a reflection of JGB being re-born in Shepperton after Mary Ballard's death, so I turned to "The Kindness of Women", and found the following: "As we drove away from Shepperton towards the south-east I felt my usual pang of uneasiness at leaving the Thames-side town. ... in the two years since Miriam's death the familiar gardens and water-meadows had come to my rescue". ("The Assassination Weapon" was published in 1966, two years after the death of Mary Ballard.)

The reference to Traven's 'rebirth' is also interesting in light of the discussion that we had a few days back on the blastosphere, passivity, etc. If we put an autobiographical reading to one side, what is the end result of Traven's efforts? In the last paragraph, we see him alone on his island, watching a rusty bicycle wheel, with Kline, Coma, and Zero having apparently departed: "He continued to examine the wheel. Nothing happened." Does this indicate that the attempt at rebirth by assassinating Kennedy for a second time has succeeded? ... or that it has failed and that Traven will need to try again in another incarnation?

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[DP: 27 October 2006]

MH wrote: ... in several of the paragraphs Traven is alone with Kline, Coma and Xero - the three avatars of his psyche - on an island, which is possibly Guam in 1947, but might equally well be located on a disused airfield near Shepperton, or in Traven's unconscious mind. On the terminal beach of this island, Traven does nothing much, except play with various objects that he finds in the sand, and observe the 'flat, endless terrain'. ... In the last paragraph, we see him alone on his island, watching a rusty bicycle wheel, with Kline, Coma, and Zero having apparently departed: 'He continued to examine the wheel. Nothing happened.'

Have you -- has anyone -- noticed that JGB's "Which Way to Inner Space?" guest editorial written four years earlier (New Worlds, May 1962) ended thus? :-

"... from now on, I think, most of the hard work will fall, not on the writer and editor, but on the readers. The onus is on them to accept a more oblique narrative style, understated themes, private symbols and vocabularies. The first true s-f story, and one I intend to write myself if no one else will, is about a man with amnesia lying on a beach and looking at a rusty bicycle wheel, trying to work out the absolute essence of the relationship between them. If this sounds off-beat and abstract, so much the better, for science fiction could use a big dose of the experimental; and if it sounds boring, well at least it will be a new kind of boredom. ..."

So, whatever's going there in that "Nothing happened" scene in "The Assassination Weapon," JGB had it in mind four years earlier -- before, even, the writing of "The Terminal Beach."

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[RMcG: 27 October 2006]

after mike's invigorating reading of Assassination Weapon (I agree with some, but place emphasis on different aspects of it -- like the think the ending is the real "alternate" death... but regardless, again JGB gives the "explanations"... and he's quite blunt (or obtuse) in the annotation section, which I think also is now a part of the "novel", insofar as it simply adds more "science" to the overall piece... it's like god "explaining" his creation to another god... or rationalizing...

AX... hard to pin down... it's sort of a "ulysses" for the 20th century... surrealistic landscapes pumped up with JGB's oft-cited desire to force the reader into a complicit role, offering up a tsunami of images and drowning us in endless connections and we try to create order from the chaos... only to discover the more chaotic the prose, the more "meaning" it seems to have... even nathan keeps the science enigmatic, starting his speeches with crisp meaning, and then fumbling out into some form of babble by the time you're nodding your head...

on the textual level, tho, it's hard not to notice the inclusion of tons of "deep undercover" JGB stuff... dave, that connection to the 1962 essay is fantastic -- and all the shanghai history, which, of course, was alien news to us in 1970... 14 years before Empire...

wonder if the "storyline" is any different if the "chapters" are read in the order they were written? is this the flipside of Vermillion Sands, where the inherent boredom of the pleasure principle is examined? is AX an imaginative tour-de-force on that theme beyond the pleasure principle? that in the mediatised world, where reality is the fiction, the only way to inner peace is through the death instinct -- not by suicide, but thru a fictionalized death, the only true escape from a fictionalized life...

isn't that what traven hates about this "space-time continuum" he feels trapped in? he knows it's a fake? and his "experiments" are either mad or genius ways of escaping the matrix-like insanity of this media-driven reality?

have you noted? whenever JG mentions them, the patients are happy...

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[MH: 28 October 2006]

RMcG wrote: AX... hard to pin down... it's sort of a "ulysses" for the 20th century... surrealistic landscapes pumped up with JGB's oft-cited desire to force the reader into a complicit role, offering up a tsunami of images and drowning us in endless connections and we try to create order from the chaos... only to discover the more chaotic the prose, the more "meaning" it seems to have...

Well put ... the more I try and find connections between the various bits of AE, the more conscious I am that I'm putting together "Atrocity Exhibition v14.12". So I guess we shouldn't consider the later annotations to be 'explanatory', but more like an enlargement of the text ... which is helpful as it gives more scope for 'interpretations'.

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[MH: 28 October 2006]

DP wrote: So, whatever's going there in that "Nothing happened" scene in "The Assassination Weapon," JGB had it in mind four years earlier -- before, even, the writing of "The Terminal Beach."

Thanks for pointing that out, David ... there's a lot of stuff in "Assassination Weapon" that had been in JGB's mind for some years, isn't there? That last bit with the rusty wheel, the sections where T is on his island ('Terminal Beach'), Kline-Coma-Xero from the 1950s collages ... and some of the paragraph headings are taken from those collages - 'Thoracic drop', 'Coma: the million-year girl', 'Pre-uterine claims', 'An Existential Yes'.

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[DP: 28 October 2006]

MH wrote: there's a lot of stuff in *Assassination Weapon* that had been in JGB's mind for some years, isn't there?

Yes, absolutely.

And we know that the novel he allegdly had "nearing completion" in 1956 was to be titled _You and Me and the Continuum_.

So there was a great deal of old stuff he carried over from the mid-to-late 1950s into the "Atrocity Exhibition" stories. Perhaps from even earlier -- this makes it more likely, in my view, that the "Too Bad" section of "Tolerances of the Human Face" (1969) was old stuff too.

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[RMcG: 28 October 2006]

MH wrote: the more I try and find connections between the various bits of AE, the more conscious I am that I'm putting together "Atrocity Exhibition v14.12". So I guess we shouldn't consider the later annotations to be 'explanatory', but more like an enlargement of the text ... which is helpful as it gives more scope for 'interpretations'.

precisely... which makes criticism so hard... the yawning gulf of subjectivism is always ready to take you down and make the "meaning" just a babel of personal interpretations...

I wonder if even JG knew what was going on when he wrote it... these exercises in free association tend to reduce themselves to the author's "bravery" quotient, as this form is the most revealing of the author's inner worlds... which is also a tempting space to go to, as "explaining" JG might be like explaining the book, but it isn't...

on the other hand, it's hard to overlook the fact that JG has a tremendous desire to make his audience avert their eyes and squirm in their seats... like kafka, he wants to "take an axe to the frozen sea within us" and offers encouragement for us to get out and live... ya never know what's gonna happen tomorrow...

that he can so dramatically represent the non-sequitor-like existence of his damaged protagonists is a function of JG's surreal imagination and vast storehouse of scientific "files".... really, there never is any "science", but there's a lot of scientific facts... and traven's endless "experiments" -- he's a hardnosed skinner behaviourist on one hand, freudian art-therapist on the other...

freud says the trinity is a symbol for male genitalia... who is who?

traven feels alienated from the universe because its "uniqueness" affronts him... in other words, it can't be duplicated... so it can't be "controlled"... aren't we back on familiar territory here? don't all JG's characters first seek to make some kind of psychological connection to their new (inverted) landscape (mental), then attempt to control it? are these "exhibitions" traven's way of attempting to control his altered perceptions by re-enactment? but re-enactment of what? I smell the strong stench of guilt in traven's preoccupations: assassinations, weapons of mass destruction, sadism, masochism, the all-pervasive media (for most of the book the action is being filmed), his fascination with linear relationships (form over no content), sexual brutality, etc etc ... or, perhaps more deeply, the guilt a survivor feels... might that have anything to do with death of affect?

I guess how well it works can be judged by how long JG keeps you in his twisted vortex... how long can you go before suspension of disbelief disintegrates and you say, "now, wait a sec..." it's like in high-rise... sooner or later you'll ask yourself: why hasn't one of these cats called the cops?


Forward to You: Coma Marilyn Monroe


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