Henry Miller once wrote that “As a people, we Americans have submitted to some perilous experiments.” The quote comes from Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Miller goes on: “Ever since 1914 we have been trying to patch things up for the world. Not with a clear, clean conscience, it is true, but not entirely in hypocritical fashion either.” Miller was writing in the ’50s, and by then the notion of America as world leader was old enough to have lost its novelty; in the decades to come, it would turn altogether sour. Miller could still pull off punchy lines — “All we seem able to do is to give ourselves more injections and arm to the teeth” — but for the most part he sounds resigned. The film Dr. Strangelove might be the last attempt at humor about that state of affairs, and its humor is undeniably dark. Likewise, the slapstick in Thomas Pynchon’s novels can’t mask their sense of apocalyptic dread. After a certain point, American hegemony just wasn’t funny anymore. It was simply the norm; short of oblivion, there was no alternative scenario. Trying to make a joke of it would be like trying to crack wise about the weather.
In his final novel, unpublished in his lifetime but brought out in 2013 by Overlook Press, MacDonald Harris brings some rare levity to the topic of American imperialism. The Carp Castle takes place a few years after the First World War, when the world is just beginning to witness U.S. attempts to, as Miller put it, patch things up. One character in the novel, a German veteran of World War I, can comfortably mock president Woodrow Wilson as a “snively schoolteacher” with outlandish ideas — “Self-Determination! The Fourteen Points! . . . God had only ten points, but Wilson needed fourteen!” — because these ideas stand so little chance of becoming reality. The latter half of the century would be about coming to terms with what, in The Carp Castle, seems a far-fetched notion, a source of amusement: that naïve American optimism would dominate the course of world events.
Setting his novel at the beginning of the American century, Harris has the freedom to explore American optimism in a cosmopolitan context. While the U.S. emerged from World War II as the sole Western superpower, free to set the global agenda, at the end of the First World War the country’s stature wasn’t nearly as dominant. The U.S. way of doing things was only one of many ideologies vying for supremacy on a turbulent global stage. Into this expanded arena Harris places a very American type, the huckster, and allows the American point of view to butt heads with others, German idealism among them. Events later in the century would reveal the political consequences of these strains of thinking, and these events loom over the novel’s period setting; Harris doesn’t ignore them. But criticism of the American worldview is too often suffused with despair at its inevitability, and this despair has a way of reinforcing that worldview. By focusing on the time before the cataclysms of World War II and post-war American rule, Harris allows for a vision of a time when the U.S. could participate in world affairs without dominating them. In the last century, the world has had to submit to some perilous American experiments. The Carp Castle hearkens back to a time when the U.S. was just another player in the tragicomedy of world events.
* * *
Captain Georg von Plautus takes his seat at the séance. The others with him in the room are members of the Guild of Love and passengers aboard the zeppelin he commands, a vessel called the League of Nations. They have all recently arrived in London. The séance begins, the German captain holding himself at some remove from his surroundings. “When the lights go dim and the five magic letters in green appear in the gloom, he is at first amused, then faintly moved, then amused at himself for being moved.” The five letters spell out a name, “Moira.” It is the name of his employer — he knows her as Mrs. Pockock — who presently “appears in the green light, as though coagulating from the air.” The captain wonders vaguely how she can pull off such a trick.
The Carp Castle is the story of a huckster and her dupes. It follows Moira and the lost souls drawn into her orbit, a few confused years after the First World War. Moira, an ethereal Long Island heiress, travels around Europe and the U.S. in search of followers for her new religion. She’s magnetic in her way, a kind of ascetic Jay Gatsby. She may have come up with her own unique dogmatism, but she also embodies a familiar type, that of the naïve American optimist. She has a diverse group of followers; together they form a cosmopolitan grab bag of continental disillusionment. Despite their different backgrounds, they are united in being world-weary enough to buy what Moira’s selling.
Moira is not a con artist in the strictest sense: she is cynical in some of her methods, but her intentions are sincere. The pageantry of her séances is a marketing tool: “The truths she tells her followers are only half truths, fables for children. The children must grow up before they can be given the stories for adults.” The adult stories, however, don’t seem that meaningful either. Moira’s actual beliefs are rather vague, expressed in grand abstractions with little clear meaning. Here is her dull reason for naming her zeppelin the League of Nations:
This was what she had decided in her mind to call the airship; she had in mind not only this great organization which was the last hope of mankind for peace, but the analogy to her own band of followers, drawn from many nations and dedicated to love and brotherhood.
Moira’s way of thinking is characterized not only by exaggerated rhetoric — “the last hope of mankind for peace” — but also by a simplistic faith in the rather weak symbol of pluralism she hopes her followers present.
But Moira is more calculating than she lets on. By that same token, her devotees do not follow her blindly. One of these, the unemployed philosopher Romer, an American, comes to grow more skeptical of Moira’s doctrine, but in her presence he is enthralled in spite of himself. Romer’s reaction to Moira mirrors von Plautus’s, and to a certain extent, that of the others in Moira’s band: they all willingly allow themselves to be manipulated.
It might be imagined that Romer, who had a lively and vigorous mind and a pervasive curiosity about new things, would grow weary of these identical meetings [the séances] in time, but he sat with the same rapt attention in each . . . he felt always the same prickle of the uncanny, the same spasm of pity for himself and for all mankind that he had felt the first time.
The unfortunates who form the Guild of Love’s membership have a variety of motives for joining. In their diversity, they in fact do fulfill Moira’s somewhat banal ideas about representing all of mankind. Some are attracted to Moira’s charisma and some to the seemingly guileless spirituality she preaches in her séances, with its promise of an earthly paradise named Gioconda. Some are grateful for the sense of purpose the Guild gives them; some have nowhere else to go.
* * *
Nineteenth-century American literature is filled with con men, zealots, and the overly credulous. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the King serve as comic relief and a way of skewering frontier rube-ishness. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” the title character begins to doubt the piety of his Puritan neighbors, and this loss of faith brings his life into question. Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man uses the dynamic of the con man and his mark to explore larger questions, not only of the nature of truth, but also of a particularly American strain of optimism and gullibility. When Melville’s hucksters espouse faith in humanity, that faith is explicitly bound up in ideas of the beneficial effects of progress and capitalism.
The Confidence Man takes place aboard a steamboat on the Mississippi. In one scene, two men argue about one of the flimflam men on board who has just been hawking medicine in their cabin. The first of the two is convinced the man is a “knave” — dishonest, a con man. The other takes a more nuanced view: “He is not wholly at heart a knave, I fancy, among whose dupes is himself. Did you not see our quack friend apply to himself his own quackery? A fanatic quack; essentially a fool, though effectively a knave.” The more charitable passenger sees whatever evil the flimflammer does as a by-product of his foolishness; he is not ill-intentioned, only simpleminded. The focus remains on the fool’s ideas, and not the harm they can cause.
The Carp Castle takes these themes out of the provincial confines of nineteenth-century America and puts them on a world stage. Moira is an American huckster set loose on the unsuspecting European continent. The novel’s gentler, comic tone foregrounds Moira’s foolishness, not its consequences. “Essentially a fool, though effectively a knave” — Harris has the same forgiving eye for his characters. Moira asks for her followers’ trust. Any skeptic can see there are no grounds for her optimism; but the charitable skeptic can understand her motives.
* * *
The plot of The Carp Castle relies on its characters credulity — after all, they have to believe enough to climb aboard Moira’s dirigible — but the language of the novel is suffused with skepticism. Metaphorical language fills each page, with the construction “as though” appearing particularly often. The comparisons are both evocative and strikingly specific: a character “swinging her arms as though exercising with Indian clubs”; another who is “consoled by a secret reverie that kept repeating itself in her imagination, as though she were unrolling a roll of wallpaper and discovering a gorgeous figure in it, only to find by more unrolling that the figure is repeated over and over.” This wordplay seems a rebuke to Moira’s literal-minded notion of paradise on Earth. The effect is to throw everything onto a figurative plane, the specificity of the metaphors in stark contrast to Moira’s vague abstractions.
Though what she promises is spiritual, much of the effect Moira has on others comes from her appearance. Moira cultivates an image almost devoid of physicality; indeed, she has disciplined herself to slough off as much of the physical as possible. Fasting is a key component of her spirituality, and when she does eat she subsists on a diet of “broth, rusks, and a little white meat of chicken, barely enough to sustain her.” She wins converts through her ability to transmit “a love devoid of sensual grossness.”
Still, despite Moira’s conscious negation of physicality, the other characters’ attraction to her is expressed in sexual terms, if only as a metaphorical way of conveying a longing for a more profound connection. Thus Captain von Plautus, who throughout the book is tormented by his hidden homosexuality, comforts himself with a fantasy of how “he and Moira might merge in a kind of Schopenhauerian coitus without sex.” Or another Guild member, Joan Esterel, who sees Moira as the “final consummation” in her series of older female sexual partners, “the strong-willed Earth Mother who would enfold her and solace her in her bosom.” Moira preaches a unity that surpasses the physical, but in her followers’ imaginations, and even in her own talk of an “Astral Body,” she cannot escape physical language.
This nagging problem of the physical is at play in some of the book’s funniest sections. Romer has a particularly tough time grappling with it — even in the face of the most rudimentary human connection. Take this conversation between Romer and Eliza, who consummate their romance in the book’s first chapter. Here Eliza is talking about what she felt afterwards:
“Anyhow,” she says, “I only mentioned angels as a metaphor. I said it was as though an angel passed. You seem to be talking about them as though they really exist.”
“Of course they exist,” he says, emerging from his slump and becoming animated. “They exist in our minds.”
“Oh, what nonsense! What kind of existence is that?”
“But,” he explains painfully, as though to a freshman, “everything else exists only in our minds too. You exist only in my mind.”
“What do you mean?” She is a little suspicious.
“I mean,” he tells her, “that I can only be sure of my own mental life. There is no question that I am thinking, or more precisely conscient, as a philosopher would say, meaning that all my five senses are working. I’m conscient of you. But I can’t really be sure that you’re there, only that I’m conscient of you. It’s the question of the Ding an Sich, which philosophers have debated over for centuries. According to the German idealists, we can never know the Thing in Itself, only our thoughts about it.”
“Are you conscient of having screwed the living daylights out of me in the woods this afternoon?”
Here, Romer expounds upon an entire system of thought evolved to explain his and Eliza’s alienation from one another. Eliza’s response is a frankly sexual rebuttal to his philosophy: while Romer was “screwing the living daylights” out of her, they weren’t in fact alienated; they were connected.
Passages like the above are more than just comic. They make the clarity and sense of connectedness Moira is selling all the more attractive by showing how slippery other then-popular systems of thought can be. What’s more, in mocking Romer for his pedantic way of expressing himself, Harris places value on Eliza’s less articulate but more direct manner. The novel prizes this directness, as in a passage in the book’s epilogue detailing Captain von Plautus’s fate which again makes use of explicitly physical language: “He briefly tried life in Berlin, but found that the development of political events in the Thirties made him want to throw up.”
The folly of Moira’s idealism — and of the broader American optimism with which it is linked — is that it lacks subtlety. In search of a positive outcome, optimism paves over nuance. It does so at the expense of truth. In The Confidence Man, one of the characters has doubts about so rosy an outlook: “Ah, wine is good, and confidence is good; but can wine or confidence percolate down through all the stony strata of hard considerations, and drop warmly and ruddily into the cold cave of truth? Truth will not be comforted.”
Moira manages a kind of private apotheosis in the final chapters of The Carp Castle. She’s no Ahab; her end isn’t tragic, nor does it mean doom for her followers. These are left to muddle along as best they can in her absence, and the book keeps up its tone of melancholy farce. Those characters who survive being swept up in Moira’s mania accept this as just another of many disillusions. Truth itself won’t be comforted, but there’s solace in seeing the huckster unmasked.
Looking back, it’s hard not to see the calculating side of Moira’s nature at play in much of the U.S.’s activity abroad, specifically in actions the country has undertaken under the guise of idealism while masking a more cynical motive. Conflicts like Vietnam or Iraq are justified in lofty terms — Wilson’s “Self-Determination!” again — while the reasoning behind them, be it Cold War domino theory math or the economics of oil, is far more calculating. And yet even with this cynicism, the naïveté remains — we still think we’ll be seen as liberators. We’re now nearly two decades into a new, potentially less American century. Remembering Miller, we might have some perilous experiments ahead of us still. Then again, maybe all this talk of “leading from behind” and a “pivot to Asia” is a sign of change — maybe we can still make a turn towards the comic.
Marshall Yarbrough is assistant music editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He has written for Electric Literature and Tiny Mix Tapes, and his translations from German have appeared in n+1 and InTranslation.org.
Image source here.