The R.E.M. [Random Excess Memory] Trilogy, 2:
The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. A Novel by Jack Ross. ISBN 0-9582586-8-6. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006. 164 pp.
Who am I? Automatic Writing
A Princess of Lemuria
Living without a Memory
To Poley Bay
Just Call Me Alcibiades
The Dungeon of the Sacrifice
The Thirteen Gates
Where am I? Cuttings
WHAT IF you awoke to find yourself alone on a beach, with no memory of how you got there? No memory of how you got there, or of anything else in your past?
WHAT IF a young girl found you (like Nausicäa), and took you back to her house (like Odysseus)?
WHAT IF you started to scan the books she had for clues to where – and who – you were?
WHAT IF those books were New Age texts about the mysteries of the unseen world, the supernatural, Atlantis?
WHAT IF that’s where you assumed you were? That this strange new world, New Zealand, was indeed Plato’s fabled lost continent?
Auckland’s triple-ringed harbours and sun-dappled streets provide an unexpected backdrop to the Imaginary Museum of Atlantis in Jack Ross’s new story, a successor to Nights with Giordano Bruno (described by Alan Brunton as “this crazy, obsessively sexual novel … an echo in Auckland of Eco …”).
How do you recover your past if you have retrograde amnesia?
– Write down, blindly, everything that comes into your head
check it back for clues
How do you hold onto the present if you have anterograde amnesia?
List the things that strike you
link them up to preserve your train of thought
If you forgot everything you did as soon as you’d finished it, it’d be almost impossible to write a book. Of course you could resort to automatic writing, recording things at random, checking them back for clues. Alternatively, you could keep a scrapbook of pictures and quotations, indexing and annotating them to preserve the associations you – once – saw between them.
What if you chose to do both? Or, rather, if you happened to open your notebook one way, it told you to do the first. If you opened it the other way, it told you to do the second.
All the things you really wanted to say would be hidden under a mask of random words. You and the reader would be, to all intents and purposes, equal – digging into the mask of a culture to uncover the repressed, the collective memories concealed beneath.
This novel uses the metaphor of Atlantis to construct a portrait of a world few of us could claim not to recognize. It’s a mediascape, a romance, a detective story and a history lesson all rolled into one.
PO Box 102
RRP: $NZ27.95 (+ $2 postage & packing)
[Gabriel White: Aucklantis]
Reviews & Comments:
- Michael Morrissey. "Dead Men’s Tales." Investigate 6 (69) (October 2006): 84.
Tired of airport books? Bored by Tom Clancy and Dan Brown? Wearied by puerile web sites? Seeking a challenge? Try a “novel” by Dr Jack Ross. I use quotes here because rather than a novel with identifiable characters, a plot, realistic detail etc this is an assemblage, a collage of texts of the most extraordinary variation. Ross’s method variously reminded me of Borges, Eco and Nabokov though he pushes the boundaries of the avant garde further than any of the above — further also than the reviewer who enjoyed something of a reputation as an avant gardist back in the 80s.
... if you have the kind of mind that enjoys cryptic cross words, codes, and esoterica, this book can keep you busy for hours. Better make that days, weeks, years. Ross’s book won’t be for everyone but it’s more than challenging. You might think of it as The Atlantis Code — with footnotes.
- Patricia Prime. Takahe 60 (2007).
Magic, freshness, delight in being, are captured with remarkable energy, musical fullness and courage in this wonderful book.
- Gabriel White, “Planet Atlantis – The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis: A Novel by Jack Ross.” Gabriel White – ongoing work (24/11/06).
The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, by Jack Ross, is a raw creation, a desolate planet, extremely porous like Swiss cheese. Orbiting planet Atlantis we perceive unfamiliar orders, enigmatic music. The sequel to Nights with Giordano Bruno, Atlantis is the middle book of a promised trilogy. Unintelligible and perverse as they may seem, these books are loaded with scholarly knowledge, playing around with it provocatively and confidently.
... Ross’s interest in the imagery of memory systems ties in directly with his quite surreal deployment of ‘debased’ forms, i.e. the language of repression – pornography, confession, UFO websites, and teenage poetry. It is the freakish, hysterical or ‘stream of consciousness’ quality that, for example, Hypnerotomachia Polyphilii shares with Penthouse Forum or America’s Next Top Model that attracts his curiosity. The Da Vinci Code gets geometric cum stain on it.
- Jen Crawford. "Possibilities at Play." Landfall 214 (2007): 180-84.
The Museum finds a place for Plato as it does for Dr Who, its curation compelled not by surface effect (though kitschy pleasures abound) but by commitment to theme, to philosophic investigation and to imaginative liberation. In this way Ross assembles another kind of Atlantis, a world where canonical and personal excisions are rescued from moral and aesthetic disdain, and are restored through lively connection to the texts and voices we accept and revere. The result is an entirely intelligent and enjoyable book.
- Gabriel White. "Alphaghetti – The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis by Jack Ross." brief 37 (2009): 96-114.
The original purpose of the so-called Roman novel, at least in surviving examples of it, was to provocatively oppose the exalted tone of the epic poem with bawdy subject matter and the accessibility of prose. Here in a nutshell is the underlying, subtly comical, objective of Ross’s project. His idiot-savant ‘novelist’ inevitably defiles the niceties of the genre, but in doing so perversely redeems it.
- Jen Crawford. "“Altered Consciousness, Narrative Structure and Syntactical Disruption in New Zealand Fiction.” Conference paper, Ankara, Turkey, 2010 [sent 20 July, 2011]:
In Ross’s novel, the establishment of stable identity is held out as a possibility which may be sought through the text, but which is not easily completed. The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis is a book about amnesia, where a protagonist begins a process of self-reconstruction with the questions “who am I?”, and “where am I?” Aided by a notebook he finds in his pocket, the fragmentary texts which follow (some apparently written in the notebook, some excerpted from published texts) seem to offer both him and the reader the possibility of reestablishing a sense of continuous identity. One might begin by identifying similar elements across the various story spaces that emerge: for example, when we read of Princess Tela of Lemuria, who has never seen herself in a mirror, an invitation is clearly made to see this in conjunction with the story of the amnesiac – we begin to establish a generic space of the character who does not know him or herself, which we might also blend in analogical connection with the physical ‘lost places’ that are referred to, such as Atlantis, Lemuria and Gondwanaland.
But the form and content of the book also work to undermine these possibilities: it’s a reversible book, in the sense that one can begin it at either physical end (the facing pages are inverted, and in one direction run “Automatic Writings” and in the other, “Cuttings”). It’s also reversible in the Barthesian sense that it has multiple entry points, each opening a different system of emphasis and association through which the reader/writer finds and loses parts of the self through reading and writing. The attempt to blend components of the fragmentary narrative to establish character stability is overwhelmed by the variety of texts, the many interruptions and lacunae, and the paratactic arrangement of fragments, which makes it difficult to be sure which fragments occur in the same story space as, for example, the amnesiac’s search for identity.
Frame’s novel [Scented Gardens for the Blind] does give a unification of parts at its end. To find a unification of identity in The Imaginary Museum, one might perhaps take the artifact of the book itself as its physical manifestation of that unity. The resolution of unified identity does not happen within the individual story spaces, but is perhaps inferred by the layers of paratext, including various contents lists, cross referencing footnotes, and most interestingly, by the presentation of a “Table of Synapses” (Ross 10). The table presents the ordering of the cross references between excerpted material: though the references themselves at times appear arbitrary, the table tells us that they are contained within the order of a memory system, however artificially generated. If we think about the Table of Synapses as an alternative to its sound-alike, a synopsis, we can see how much blending is actually resisted by this formal approach: the composition of a synopsis is a blending process, generating linearity from the selective projection and completion of details from a lengthier narrative. The table instead acts as an index for fragments which retain both incompatible elemental contents, and visible incompletions. For example, while we might draw a connection of similarity between the mediaeval world of Princess Tela and the contemporary realist world of the amnesiac, Tela also appears in a different story space, in the form of a contemporary soft-porn fantasy set on an airplane, with words and phrases erased to an unexplained formal rule that has nothing to do with the redaction of this and other narrative fragments. The Table of Synapses, then, provides a formal index of the linking structures between the textual units – very much more static than the actual operation of synaptic networks, but quite a poignant indicator of the function of artificial memory systems (including writing and reading) for a character intent on constructing self in the loss-state of amnesia. ...
[Gabriel White (photograph by Lies Vandesande)]
[reprinted by permission]
Gabriel White. "Alphaghetti – The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis by Jack Ross." brief 37 (2009): 96-114.
The first time Jack Ross told me about his novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis we were walking along Pakiri beach. While Jack drew the outline of the novel it merged, for me, with our bleached, windswept surroundings. Curiously, Jack didn’t mention the book’s coastal imagery, though it must have crossed his mind. In retrospect, this casual absorption of the story into the dazzling, limbo space of Pakiri is an image that sums up the novel’s resolutely dissolute form and its obsession with amnesia, disorientation and temporal suspension.
1. Fish ‘n’ Chips
- Are you okay?
the voice comes into focus
with the rest of his surroundings
black to red to green to blinding dazzle
he opens his eyes, revealing them to the sun
there’s something gritty under his back
blue & white & yellow
his head is tilted back
he doesn’t appear to be wearing … anything
he’s on a beach
The fictional author of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis has amnesia. Just the sort of cliché Jack Ross relishes.
Nausicäa, he thinks
I’m on that beach
Odysseus, washed up by the sea
Poignantly, the intellectual shell of the pseudo-author’s encyclopedic mind remains intact. He notes mechanically that the comparison with Odysseus doesn’t quite fit. In other parts of his notebook he will dwell on Apuleius’s spiritual autobiography Metamorphoses, popularly known as The Golden Ass, which culminates with the awakening of Lucius on the shores of Cenchreae when he is redeemed by the goddess Isis. While the original Lucius is transformed into an ass, Ross’s ‘Lucius’ loses his memory. As with Lucius, the transformation does not annihilate the soul but suspends it.
In Metamorphoses Lucius, like Odysseus, recounts his own ordeal from beyond it as a straightforward narrative. But in the case of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis the character’s ordeal is bound up in the book itself, which is an account from inside amnesia. The effect of this is that both the character and the story become an elastic material to be shaped. Accordingly, characters and stories can overlap or evaporate. Yet in spite of the belligerently anarchic results, the semblance of a plot and a central figure, ‘the writer’, persists.
The defunct navigational term “periplum” is one way to explain the novel’s approach. The word was used by Ezra Pound to illustrate the idea of a personal navigation of history and myth through a multiple hero. The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis offers us less a hero than a kind of tabula rasa. There are no heroics, no prevailing voices, just a tenuous stasis between personae, stories and other disparate elements that are radically and cryptically interspersed. Ross himself seems to feature directly, recounting with excruciating intimacy an unsuccessful love affair, though in the circumstances his book creates, nothing is assuredly factual.
Outwardly, Ross’s amnesiac retains the semblance of a mature, educated member of society and is thus only inwardly a tabula rasa. On this inward level we might better imagine him as an innocent Pinocchio inclined to assimilate any notion of humanness. This unresolved division between the shell and the core of the writer is a pointed one. For instance, Where Am I? – Cuttings, the subtitle of one half of the book, is a kind of summary of the modern occultist’s library, offering dubious insights into the mysteries of the human soul. Extracted from a book entitled Egypt or Atlantis?, one entry diagrammatically illustrates a supposed Egyptian concept of man as consisting of five parts. Such an alien view of the human subject, formed in effectively unknowable conditions, would perplex even the most susceptible modern mind. But relieved of personal experience, the tabula rasa is freer than any “I” to assimilate whatever divine truth it may contain.
With the exception of a few pages on the ‘edge’ of the book, the whole novel is presented as the amnesiac’s notebook. Clues of how the notebook works are given intermittently:
The amnesiac writer has forgotten his life prior to the onset of amnesia (retrograde amnesia) and is also unable to remember subsequent events (anterograde amnesia). His book deals separately with each kind of amnesia in two unaligned though related compilations entitled Who Am I? – Automatic writing and Where am I? – Cuttings. The compilations progress in opposite and inverted directions (you have to turn the book upside-down to read it in the opposite direction). The way the book is picked up theoretically decides the order of reading. But as soon as this binary selection is made, the texts devolve anyway into a multiplicity of possible orders.
The astute, or willing, reader will appreciate that this state of apparent disorder is a premise of the book, i.e. reflective of its fictional maker’s condition. Getting a picture of this condition demands almost an act of surrender. The reader who submits may sense a transient affinity with the amnesiac, turning the same pages the amnesiac turns, reading the same words he reads. The amnesiac in turn is perusing a stranger’s bookshelves, cutting and pasting as he goes, absorbing this odd-tasting but pungent cocktail of texts, symbols and pictures into his mind, in perpetual search of who and where he is.
Any feeling of affinity though is eternally undone by the writer’s unresolved condition of amnesia. Our noses seem to be continuously rubbed in the character’s brute struggle to generate memories via an incomplete text. In one direction, under the title Where am I? – Cuttings this struggle takes the form of convoluted lines of reference which are generally governed by a Table of Synapses provided at the front.
The cuttings use an arbitrary listing system, seemingly to record a subjective thought process. This exercise resembles the listing-and-linking methods, mentioned above, of the anterograde amnesiac, while the retrograde stream of the novel is a series of temporal (prose) encounters rather than ‘synaptic’ cuttings. These use automatic writing among other techniques.
The sense of disorientation or abandon is relentlessly pursued like some holy grail. One diary excerpt records being momentarily lost in the Rimutaka ranges and mentions a discussion about ‘learning how to get lost’. The descriptions of sexual abandonment and hysteria are another way of pointing towards this hunger for rapturous oblivion. On the subject of “hunger”, in the cutting entitled Cannibal Worms, we learn of an experiment in memory encoding involving worms in a maze. Worms are fed through a maze and upon finding their way out are fed to other worms. The cannibal worms conquer the maze quicker. This deterministic process of recollection and navigation by cannibalism is akin to the blind reading and writing processes forming the amnesiac’s notebook.
In spite of their reliance on deterministic procedures, both Where am I? – Cuttings and Who Am I? – Automatic writing seem to be concerned, perhaps desperately so, with cutting through the inhibiting machinery of language to express and reabsorb the raw processes of thought. Particularly in Who Am I? - Automatic writing, this idea seems to have been linked with the ancient mnemonic techniques of notae and imagines agentes. The notae technique involves underscoring or highlighting key words in a text. We imagine the writer making these notae as he checks back for clues.
According to Frances Yates, notae may invoke specific thoughts in the reader, a series of words for example. What is invoked may indeed have a thoroughly arbitrary relationship with the word itself as it appears in the text. Imagines agentes are strong, often quite strange images, stored in the memory, that can excite highly detailed recollections. The imagery of the book is certainly intense and wild and is conceivably providing its fictional author with an artificial memory. Again, the book’s bizarre scenarios may be ways to capture fragments of personal memory not necessarily stated in the text itself.
While the amnesiac writer worms through the text, here and there catching glimpses of himself, he seems to align himself with Hermetic philosophers of the Renaissance like Giordano Bruno, the radical Magus and fantasy hero of the previous book in the trilogy, Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000). Another Magus figure with whom the writer indirectly communes is Giulio Camillo, who sought sparks of divinity in magical combinations of words:
…in Egypt there were such excellent makers of statues that when they had bought some statue to the perfect proportions it was found to be animated with an angelic spirit… Similar to such statues, I find a composition of words, the office of which is to hold all the words in a proportion grateful to the ear… Which words as soon as they are put into their proportion are found when produced to be as it were animated by a harmony.
Camillo seems here to be describing a state of linguistic ecstasy functioning outside of the constative plane of language, as linguists put it, on magically enhanced performative plane. Perhaps the amnesiac writer’s search for a profound or ‘platonic’ state of bewilderment is akin to the quest of the Magus. With his mnemonic tools such as notae and imagines agentes he possibly seeks magic properties in language to cope with or cure his amnesia. Perhaps in all that rupturing of language in its multifarious modes he hears an inaudible music.
The cuttings are arranged according to the Latin alphabetical sequence and grouped in threes under each letter – three headings on three pages, i.e. Cannibal worms, Cicero, Critias. Thus there are three times twenty-four headings, each on a separate page. Three times twenty-four is seventy-two, a central number in Judaic-based religions. Each page of Where am I? – Cuttings will contain a predetermined number of signposts, which link particular words and symbols embedded in the cuttings to a general heading elsewhere. We may also reverse this relationship collecting up the various scattered links relating to a single heading elsewhere.
The synaptic system imposes a regimented and elaborate sort of alphabetic dance in which some kind of Kabbalistic code might conceivably be discerned. The following version of the Table of Synapses uses only the first letter of each heading and bold letters to highlight its logic:
- S Z – A
- A - C H
- C - P W / H - B O
- P - P E R / W - N P L / B - S T V / O - G A B
- P - F M I N / E - Z Y X T / R – K U D K / N – G Y E S / P – D N I F / L – L H O R / S – Y H E L (Q) / T – (Q) Q K R W / V – D C M C / G – F O G Q / A – A T V M / B – B W X F
- F M I N Z Y X T K D U K G Y E S - X / D N I F L H O R Y H E L Q Q K R W – S / D C M C F O G Q A T V M B W X F – Z
- X (S) – S / (S) Z – Z
The table is co-governed by the number 49. Its synaptic links are arranged in sets placed in seven rows (the square root of 49 is 7). The number of links per set graduates logically from 1 to 49 then back to one. The importance of the numbers seven and forty-nine aligns it both with Lullism, important in the previous work in the trilogy, and also with Camillo’s famous Memory Theatre.
Lull’s astral science deterministically interrogated the universe according to a fixed series of letters interacting through moving rotae and was not a memory system per se. Camillo’s more classically inspired Memory Theatre was a simplified semi-circular Virtruvian theatre, only reversed, with the ‘spectator’, or Magus, in the arena and the ‘spectacle’ in the stalls. The stalls consisted of 49 places separated by gangways radiating up seven levels in seven rows from seven imaginary pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom. Thus the whole system was anchored fancifully in this legendary Judaic temple, with the podium of the philosopher as the pulpit / altar. The Theatre was essentially a scaffold used to verbally extemporize around ideas stored mnemonically in special images called impressa representing types of knowledge that were conceived to stem successively from one of seven planetary sources. There is scant record of what these receptacles actually looked like, though, according to Frances Yates, they were probably made of wood and may have had drawers of some kind containing writings.
For Camillo, the Theatre approximated a divine order through which a Magus could synthesize every branch of knowledge to eventually yield a kind of beatific and panoptic vision of reality, as from a height. Camillo believed that a Magus could mentally ascend from the inferior world to a superior causative level. His Theatre was a private arena for spectacular cogitation where the Magus held a preeminent but utterly remote position. This gloriously conscious actor in God’s theatre was vulnerable to a lack of oxygen, perhaps destined to withdraw from the world.
Ross’s amnesiac is certainly withdrawn, but unlike Camillo’s Magus, he is debarred from holding any sense of certainty or self-unity. Unless, that is, his notebook does succeed in enabling him to contemplate himself as if from above, which seems doubtful. His existence is swamped with humiliating, criss-crossing, causally interrelated ‘inferior’ “effects”, a state which parallels Lucius’s magical entrapment within the body of an ‘irrational’ animal. The whole thrust of his notebook seems to suggest a flight from control rather than a pursuit of it. The amnesiac writer does not seek to control his terrestrial reality by ascending, but to return to himself from remote space.
As if to further undermine the situation, the contents of the notebook assault ascetic strivings to beatific visions such as Lull’s and Camillo’s with sacrilegious profanity. In one cutting, a pornographic extract from Sisters 29 (11) (2004), pp. 7-8, a mother recounts spying on her daughter “Penny” having sex with a stranger. The following note is glibly attached: “Penelope was Odysseus’s wife, famed for staying faithful & resisting all suitors during his twenty years of exile”.
This sarcasm about the chastity of Penelope is reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, but it is equally in the manner of Apuleius, whose Metamorphoses is a deliberate contamination of orthodox poetic and philosophic traditions of the time. The debased style of the story mirrors Lucius’s painful plunge into an ‘inferior’ state, a divine punishment, and a canonical instance of salvation through profanation.
The original purpose of the so-called Roman novel, at least in surviving examples of it, was to provocatively oppose the exalted tone of the epic poem with bawdy subject matter and the accessibility of prose. Here in a nutshell is the underlying, subtly comical, objective of Ross’s project. His idiot-savant ‘novelist’ inevitably defiles the niceties of the genre, but in doing so perversely redeems it.
The incomprehensibility and rampant irreverence of the amnesiac’s pseudo-kabalistic pursuit almost certainly owes something to Giordano Bruno, the martyr figure of Hermetic philosophy who, incidentally, was a great fan of The Golden Ass (Apuleius, who was evidently some sort of magician, was wrongly believed at the time to have been the Latin translator of the Asclepius, a primary text of the Hermetic tradition). In The Art of Memory, Yates presents a diagram of the ‘secret’ combinatory system “excavated” by her from Bruno’s Shadows The diagram consists of minutely segmented concentric circles for which she offers the following apology: “On these divisions there are inscriptions which will, I am afraid, hardly be legible. This does not matter for we shall never understand this thing in detail. The plan is only intended to give some idea of the general layout of the system, and also some idea of its appalling complexity.” Ross’s cuttings and the method applied to them certainly give an impression of “appalling complexity” and present an anxious and irreverent intelligence, reminiscent of Bruno. Bruno, the unrepentant heretic, might even have condoned Ross’s debasement of the removed, Christian worldview of his own mentors, Lull and Camillo.
It is as if the amnesiac-author of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis is haunted by the fiery spirit of Bruno (perhaps to a lesser extent than the insomniac author of Nights with Giordano Bruno). And wherever the spirit of Bruno lurks there will also be some residue of the enigmatic Lull, possibly washed up on the west coast of Twenty-first Century Auckland after being shipwrecked off Pisa at the dawn of the Fourteenth Century. In Nights with Giordano Bruno, the concentric wheels of Lull’s arcane art merge mysteriously with modern provincial Auckland as at the planetarium by One Tree Hill.
The use of banal Auckland sites as hallucinatory loci for esoteric cogitation recalls Bruno’s escapades through Elizabethan London in Cena de le Ceneri which draw a rich and bawdy portrait of the central city whilst a self-caricature expounds on heliocentrity.
In The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, Ross merges various coastal parts of the North Island and Auckland’s outlying suburbia with various terra incognita of the Mediterranean: Ogygia, Ithaka, Atlantis, Phaeacia. The back blurb playfully confuses Auckland with Atlantis as described in the Critias: “Auckland’s triple-ringed harbours and sun-dappled streets provide an unexpected backdrop to the Imaginary Museum of Atlantis”. The Manukau Heads can be the Pillars of Hercules, The Hauraki Gulf the Mediterranean, the Tasman the Atlantic, Bethell’s beach a shore of Phaeacia, Poley Bay the inlet at which Odysseus makes his discrete return to Ithaka.
More ironic Joycean allusions, of course, though executed through very different mechanisms and upon a very different time and place. The effect on a resident of the same locality is particularly surreal, which I will illustrate with an anecdote.
I was having fish and chips one day in Devonport by the seaside. On the newspaper from which I was eating I found an article about a high-profile Auckland lawyer whose body had washed up just up the coast at Narrow Neck. There were a few theories as to how he’d drowned, but it was thought that he’d gone into the water somewhere around North Head, coincidently where I’d just been walking. The hero of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis also washes up or awakens on the beach like Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus or Lucius. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the shore awakening I found myself thinking of from the novel. It was the synaptic table, its web of currents, endlessly dragging the reader out of their cozy place in the text, exposing them completely, then redepositing them. This silent web can be visualised as a narrative element, a wine dark sea across which the reader and character voyage.
The table begins and ends with Amnesia, emptiness reflecting itself, emptying itself, enclosing the whole in a void. The answer Where am I? – Cuttings gives to its question is not actually “nowhere”, but somewhere between Amnesia and Amnesia, somewhere between North Head and Narrow Neck.
2. The Raft of the Medusa
Who Am I? - Automatic writing, the counter-compilation of the book, starts with the writer stepping off a ferry at Devonport (“thriftless shops” gives that away to a local). Settling down on a public bench, he begins reading a notebook he finds in his pocket. We read thereafter with him. Thus the entire text is figuratively anchored in an engrossed ‘reading’ posture. The writer-compiler of the notebook has clearly become separated from what ever reality may be contained in the things he is about to read, and so he at least begins reading with the same interested-disinterest as any reader might. In his other pocket, however, he has found a pencil, and the urgent words “READ ME” make his reaction to the book a creative and personal one from the outset. This prologue, written in the third person, speaks of “irredeemable” things, a wave, a girl. This itself presents the act of reading and writing as substitutes for remembrance – of redemption through a text.
The 21 automatic writing sessions of Who am I? – Automatic writing have taken place on mornings, probably soon after waking, over a September. They alternate between three stories, which are as follows.
- The core story of the writer’s shore awakening and subsequent experiences as a guest of Annie.
- An erotic fantasy story about the last days of the lost continent of Lemuria.
- A disjunctive and sexually explicit account of the escapades of Keiko, Tela, Sabra and ‘Atlanteans’ Micael and Shasta.
The second and third stories are secondary in that they are seemingly fantasies originating from the bookshelves mentioned in the writer / Annie story.
Interspersed through these 21 sessions are numerous boxed texts of varying lengths. Some of these seem to come from an earlier diary – apparently from 2003, since one excerpt is written on “Monday, 17th March”, the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Boxed texts and automatic writings are arranged into six general sets. These are not titled in the printed version of the novel, but in the online version are more helpfully presented under the following headings.
- Lemuria, including automatic writings set in Lemuria and several boxed texts.
- Atlantis, the automatic writings about Keiko et al.
- Antiterra, assorted clippings tending to present uncanny landscapes.
- Priapus, boxed confessional diary entries tending to fixate on the writer’s penis.
- Perpetua, an account of a sacrificial ritual in Nimes, 3rd Century AD.
- Nausicäa, the automatic writings about the writer and Annie.
Once again there are seventy-two pages – the texts are after all on the reverse sides of Where am I? – Cuttings. Each separate part is identified in a list of twenty-four titles at the front.
Whereas the cuttings are arranged under clear alphabetically-ordered headings, these texts are only circuitously attached to their titles, given only at the front. It is easy to lose the thread, especially as page numbers have been deliberately omitted. The sequence is further confused as stories are interrupted mid-flow by others, either new texts or ones continuing from earlier on. The mangled effect is analogous to a busy network of roads suddenly stripped bare of any indicative demarcations. Thus, what intitally promises to be a more straightforward read than Where am I? – Cuttings, soon forces one to resort once again to intuitive navigation, to the periplum.
Both the synaptic operations and the attempts at automatic writing trace and retrace a pathetically rigid weave, a retarded approximation of the weaving ways of thought. In contrast with the linearity of language, a spontaneous mind tends to take short cuts – to montage – seldom completing any ‘statement’ once a thought has been transmitted. But in the infant-like state of amnesia portrayed so directly in the text, we confront a mind which is forced to affect synaptic formations by writing. Writing has stepped in to do what the brain ought to do spontaneously. One of the signs of a healthy mind, however, is that it busts the seams of language. Consequently, it is at points in the book where sense appears to break down, that we might suspect that some hope of a return to wholeness gleams for the amnesiac writer.
Ross’s handicapping of his reader is clearly a pointed examination of his character’s predicament that calls into question the authority of clinical observation. But this questioning of science is equally a radical reconsideration of art, and specifically the art of writing, since the book is provocatively presented as a novel. Even the idea of this seemingly dissembled assortment being “a novel” seems to have been slotted in like a ‘cutting’. The real author is camouflaged behind a plethora of dislocated texts and deliberately misleading reader cues. Provided with only the most formulaic characterization and virtually no conventional scaffolding, the reader endures an undressing similar to that of the amnesiac in his Homeric shore awakening scene.
This framing scene of the book is the moment the writer meets his ward Annie, whose book collection apparently supplies much of the material for the novel. The back blurb of the novel reports that this mostly consists of “New Age texts about the mysteries of the unseen world, the supernatural, Atlantis”. A recluse of the outer suburbs, Annie exists on the fringe, a blithe and bland spirit. Her mediocrity and occultist inclinations make her like Fotis, the servant girl who leads Lucius astray in Metamorphoses.
The writer’s first sight of Annie:
Looking up he half expects to see the girl
that blonde metallic girl
but it isn’t her
the face leaning over his is dark
dark hair, bronze sun-tanned skin
it seems to hold concern for him
her voice sounds earnest
The use of “blonde metallic” for the mystery girl and “dark hair, bronze” for Annie likens both to statues. Nausicäa and Odysseus are brought to the author’s mind, but the vibrancy of the imagery is more akin to the vision Lucius has of shining Isis in Metamorphoses. The bottle of H2go Annie is holding appears fleetingly like some symbolic attribute. In fact, all her attributes: her loose, shoulder-length hair, her ‘muumuu-like’ garment (loose-fitting, Hawaiian) do set her up as a kind of nymph. As the trustee of the archives out of which the book is constructed, Annie is clearly placed in the role of muse. The word “museum”, as we learn in the book, means Temple of the Muses. Annie embodies the whole disjunctive reading process of the novel, which explores in language the same sense of loosened, drifting plains of meaning she exudes.
Like Odysseus and Nausicäa, the relationship between the writer and Annie is presented at the surface as a chaste one. Annie’s sisterly attachment to the writer is spurred by a dubious longing for her lost brother Michael to whom he bears a resemblance. Beneath the surface then, as with Odysseus and Nausicäa, or Lucius and Fotis, incestuous attraction plays a role.
Having checked he has no clothes
left in a little pile above the tideline
Annie drapes him in her towel
The little pile of abandoned possessions and the ritualistic draping of the naked writer are images with a ceremonial quality that connote the sacred air of the relationship. Later, the writer borrows some “fairly unisex though far too small overalls & T-shirt” from Annie, a prelude to his adoption of her books as a costume for self-recognition. Like a child raiding the parental wardrobe, the writer absorbs and assembles combinations of impossible incongruity, reproducing pornography, confession, conspiracy theories and techniques like automatic writing in a consciously ‘ill-fitting’ way.
The key to the book’s many contrasting references to dressing and undressing is the famous Odysseus / Nausicäa encounter. Nausicäa requisitions laundry for the naked Odysseus, symbolizing his rebirth through her. In the culminating sequence of the novel, significantly entitled Sky-clad, the writer attends a New Age rite. There he removes his clothes, becomes unconscious and wakens once more to the sight of Annie. Thus the Nausicäa theme completes the circle of the story, though on this occasion we seem to move cathartically into darker, Bacchanalian territory.
He observes with a shudder
that her nails are caked black
dirt, mould, corruption?
those red stains on her body
are they wine, or blood?
What’s held there
cupped inside her hand
he neither sees nor knows
“What’s held there” remains a gory mystery. It might be the cure to or the cause of the writer’s amnesia, but it seems that he prefers it to be left unexplained.
The muse or ‘museum’ theme in the novel works as a complimentary conglomeration of stories and ideas to the Atlantis theme. Like the fluctuating conceptions of the muse, the Atlantis myth is eternally renewed by new theories of its location, time and nature. While the novel is presented as an amnesiac’s notebook, it is clearly a sampler of occultism and especially a repository for ‘Atlantiana’. The amnesiac, whom I have earlier described as a kind of robotic walking encyclopedia, is perhaps even a Frankensteinish figurehead for a parochial cult. The notebook would be the handbook to this cult, its characters and scenarios serving to weave an enigmatic mythology and other arcane ideas into a New Age myth.
The original written source for the Atlantis legend is of course Plato, though it is likely he was drawing from a pre-existing story. Both Atlantis and the catastrophe that destroys it are dark forces that serve to highlight Plato’s utopian vision of the State, founded on reverence for abstract ideals and not terror of military or cosmic power. Like several of Plato’s parables and analogies, the Atlantis story is so captivating that it has transcended his purposes, taking on a life of its own. Sensing our looming political, economic and ecological catharsis, we ourselves cannot but be stirred by the story.
Of course this occultist take on Plato, through the Atlantis myth, Hermeticism and so on, is deliberately subversive. Another of Plato’s works that features in the novel is The Symposium. It emphasizes the manly exuberance and hedonism surrounding the stoical figure of Socrates, summed up in the contradictory intimacy of Socrates and Alcibiades. In Where am I? – Cuttings Ross pronounces this aspect of The Symposium in the table of ten contrasts alongside other suggestive fragments.
The eventual mistreatment of the pair gives their very human relationship a political edge: Athena’s complimentary sons Alcibiades and Socrates, both condemned to death by their fellow citizens. Athens invites the wrath of its patroness. Is this why the footnote at the bottom of the page directs us to the book’s double horizon, Amnesia? The other cutting on this page connects the exile of Alcibiades from Athens with a symbolic emasculation of the city, signaling the Goddess’s retribution.
It would seem that the writer consciously or unconsciously draws a connection between this symbolic emasculation and his amnesia. Several excruciating confessional passages about male impotency treatment and other references to emasculation perhaps allude to his mnemonic impotency.
…I was led to a bed and questioned by a succession of nurses, doctors, form filler-ins, etc. The same humiliating story to rehearse each time.
Luckily the erection began to subside as I sat there by the bed (“luckily” because I had absolutely no desire to have needle inserted in my cock to drain out excess blood…) The Chinese surgical registrar – Call me Chen – contented himself with ice-packs and some heavy handed squeezing of the offending member through clammy plastic gloves.”
The writer’s priapic seizure resembles Lucius’ comical transformation into an ass as does the self-mocking style of this account. A humorous connection with the statues of Hermes is easily made, but this disastrous attempt at self-animation is also a reversal of the magical animation supposedly achieved by Egyptian sculptors as recounted above by Camillo.
At times, the writer’s purgatorial struggle with amnesia in The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis seems to point to a more general human struggle against intellectual impotence. At least in this book, liberation is anything but a reasonable aim. It is a perpetual thrusting away from rationality, from “hope”, into irrationality. The dislocated state of everything is the premise of a game whereby the reader fills the gaps, forms meaning, associates.
The kiss was long, deep and [ ]
When Tela [ ]
her nipples were pressing hard against her [ ]
“God!” Tela breathed, her hand on Sabra’s [ ]
“I’ve missed [ ]
Sabra caressed Tela’s [ ]
lifting it to her mouth and sucking one of Telas’s [ ]
her tongue caressing the long [ ]
“Oh, don’t start that [ ]
I want you so [ ]
Sabra laughed and settled [ ]
happy to be with her Atlantean friend [ ]
Tela drove them away from the [ ]
towards her new [ ]
On the [ ]
Tela pointed out places and suggested things that they could [ ]
including a nude beach she’d found along the [ ]
“A nude beach?” Sabra [ ]
looking at Tela’s [ ]
What happens in those square parentheses is wonderfully free of syntax, wonderfully “nude”, farcically disrupting and renewing the prose. In their dislodged state, the neighbouring fragments may be freely woven into the novel’s other narratives and themes. Who will they meet at the nude beach? Perhaps the writer and Annie, or Odysseus and Nausicäa?
The deletions, imposed in such an arbitrary manner, also seem to mock the selective operations of a censor who targets specific obscenities. The issue of censorship is directly addressed in a cutting entitled Notice of Seizure of Goods under Customs and Excise Act 1996. The important word is “seizure”. Like a museum specimen, a suspect item is seized and isolated. The item specified is a publication entitled La Metamorphose de Lucius. According to the notice, “This publication contains a cartoon story depicting sexual activity between adults. A scene in the story depicts a male turning into a donkey and then having intercourse with a female.” Once again, the clinical language used by officials is quoted mockingly.
The detention of a Roman classic at the New Zealand border is not resolved but further complicated by the fact that this is indeed a rather questionable rendition of the original, as another cutting reveals. Metamorphoses is a victorious degradation of other works, but is also an expression of a highly educated sensibility. Its degeneration into vulgar smut would hardly have surprised or worried Apuleius, who was sophisticated enough to have invented his own variety of burlesque.
Perhaps the point of Metamorphoses is this educated-intuitive distinction between authentic and inauthentic poetry, where equal weigh is placed on imagination and experience. Lucius learns that without instinctive awe the eloquent and enlightened mind succumbs to seizure. Detained in a state of nature, he returns a better man for knowing his animal side. Likewise, the position of the amnesiac writer is, in spite of everything, presented optimistically. Suspended outside the loop of time, he strives, sensibly enough, to reenter it. If his arid and jaded perception is a symptom of his amnesia, his amnesia stands for a broader desolation from which this novel does not offer any quick relief. Bleak though this is, there is something fortifying in his persistence, sense of wonder even, amidst the disarray. Like Metamorphoses, the book insists on recapturing a sense of self and place through a rejuvenated sense of awe. Stranded in the ephemeral, the amnesiac writer constructs a raft from what comes to hand, unpalatable as it may be. The island of Atlantis, ridiculous and impossible, but which has endured in the human imagination for millennia, is a fittingly hazy point of orientation for his curious voyage.
I will finish with a few remarks about the outer presentation of the book. It is curious that the novel’s construction as two inverted streams is not followed through in its cover design. The conventional front and back cover format has perhaps been retained in order to present the book unequivocally as a “novel”. In a way though, this is more, not less equivocal. Even with two inverted front covers, the idea of a “novel” would be not so much endangered as extended, provided they bore the same title, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis.
My suggestions for cover images would be:
- An identikit portrait of Jack Ross, subtitled Who am I? – Automatic writing.
- For Where am I? – Cuttings, I am less certain. Something in the vein of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa? Louis John Steele and Charles F Goldie's The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898), might be a little too perfect, certainly too culturally and historically laden.
Let us say that this image points, as it were, in the right direction. Like popular mythologies such as Atlantis, the Raft of the Medusa is one of those icons that has spawned enough references and pastiches to become a sub-genre. The imagery, themes and bombastic romanticism that inspired Goldie and Steele’s faux pas beg to be cast back upon the open sea of this very twenty-first century castaway story.
- Apuleius. (1954) The Golden Ass, trans. R. Graves. London: Penguin Books.
- Crawford, J. (2007) “Possibilities at Play,” pp. 180-182. Landfall 214: Open House, ed. J. Ross. Dunedin: Otago University Press.
- Joyce, J. (2000). Ulysses. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Plato (1983). The Symposium, trans. W. Hamilton. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
- Ross, J. (2000). Nights with Giordano Bruno. Wellington: Bumper Books. Available online here.
- Ross, J. (2006). The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. Auckland: Titus Books. Available online here.
- Ross, J. (2008) EMO. Auckland: Titus Books. Available online here.
- Wittgenstein, L. (1973). Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. Anscombe. London: Blackwell.
- Yates, F. A. (1975). Astrea – The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
- Yates, F. A. (1991, paperback edition). Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Yates, F. A. (1966). The Art of Memory. London: Pimlico.
- Yates, F. A. (1974, paperback edition) The Art of Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898) Louis John Steele and Charles F Goldie. Auckland City Art Gallery collection.
- Other plates from The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (2006) Titus Books.
1. Moreover, the focus on amnesia in this, the middle book of the trilogy, belongs with Ross’s general interest in the notion of parataxis, pioneered once again by Pound. Amnesia is a condition that ‘makes new’, an interesting spin on Pound’s axiom “make it new”. In this way it is possible to see amnesia as a transformative agent Ross is using to radically renew the Novel.2. Throughout the REM (Random Excess Memory) trilogy, a riotous multiplicity masks or silhouettes a proto-persona, someone (an author) Ross is deliberately imagining himself to be. This proto-persona in turns adopts other personae.3. Like Lucius, Pinocchio is transformed into a donkey.4. These parts, according to the entry, are the Ka, the “etheric double”, the Ba, the “immaterial soul” (“symbolized by Isis”), the Saha, or “oversoul” (“containing the fourteen dismembered pieces of Osiris”), the Name, or “flesh” and the Shadow, or “nemesis”.5. Nights with Giordano Bruno, the first book of the REM trilogy, similarly uses verso pages for “diagrams, fragments of text, engravings etc.” and recto for “more-or-less straightforward, albeit disjointed narrative.” (see Game for One Player, an appendix written after publication, available in the online version of the book).6. The chapter entitled The Great Hunger in Nights with Giordano Bruno describes a nocturnal joyride northward. It makes a very literal connection between driving and satiation.7. See Yates, The Art of Memory, 1974, pp. 51-55.8. For a detailing of Latin sources and terms for the art of memory see Yates, 1974, pp. 1–26.9. Yates, 1974, p. 159. Also See Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, chapters 1 – 3, which recount Ficino’s Pimander and Asclepius, the translations of the Corpus Hermeticum - the texts from which this Renaissance knowledge of the ‘Egyptian statues’ was largely derived.10. Nights with Giordano Bruno refers extensively to Kepler’s concept of the music of the spheres and also an obscure form of bagpiping music known as Piobaireachd. Yates, in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, describes “Orphic magic” as a simple kind of monodic music used by Ficino to reproduce the notes emitted by the planetary spheres, an aural technique of drawing down magical stellar influences. (Yates, 1991, p. 78) Yates also discusses Renaissance attempts at reviving ‘orphic effects’ in music in a study of the Joyeuse Magnificences (Yates Astrea – The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, 1977, pp. 153-167).11.The seven basic images of his theatre were the planetary Gods and Goddesses Diana (the moon), Mercury, Venus, Apollo (the sun), Mars Jupiter and Saturn.12. See Yates, 1974, p. 144.13.“…in order to understand the things of the lower world it is necessary to ascend to superior things, from whence, looking down from on high, we may have a more certain knowledge of the inferior things.”(Yates, 1974, p. 143, from L’Idea del Theatro, pp.11-12).14. Frances Yates, in her works discussing Renaissance revival of chivalry, relates Hermeticism to the theme of the knight who retires in dignity as a hermit (Yates, Astrea – The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, 1975, p. 106). The hero of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis is, in a certain sense, a disarmed hermit briefly recalling his former knightly self in the clash of texts. Metamorphoses also follows this pattern, with Lucius emerging as a hermit from his vivid ordeal.15. Yates, 1974, p. 212, also Pl. 11.16.The proto-personae of each book of the trilogy suffer respectively from insomnia, amnesia and, in the final book, EMO, hysterical blindness or “conversion disorder”.17. We read his penciled notes in typed form, tellingly transcribed and dislocated.18. The notes which track the writer’s encounters are also generally written in third person. There is of course no first person as such, no “I”, until the question “Who am I?” is answered. And it never is answered. The use of third person might be a clue that the book is in fact something other than an amnesiac’s diary, as will be discussed presently.19. At the other end of the novel - on the corresponding page preceding Where am I?– Cuttings – is a loose page of an unsigned letter. Whereas the prologue to Who am I? leads us into the novel through the idea of the amnesia, this letter takes us in through the Atlantis theme. The two framing questions of the novel are thus accompanied by two pieces that signal separately the framing themes. Two quotations from Herodotus perform a similar role.20. Lemuria is a hypothetical lost continent in the Indian ocean, named after the lemur species of Madagascar. Lemurs are named after the lemures, ghosts of the restless dead, for which in Roman religion there was a nocturnal festival called Lemuria. Ross makes references to both Lemurias.21. “Antiterra” undoubtedly refers to the parallel planet which provides the setting in Nabokov’s science fiction novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.22.As pointed out before, twenty-four times three is seventy-two and is the number of letters in the Latin alphabet.23. Lucius falls for Fotis on account of her hair and worships her as a living statue. “She snatched away the plates and dishes, pulled off every stitch of clothing, untied her hair and tossed it into a happy disorder with a shake of her head. There she stood, transformed into a living statue: the Love-goddess rising from the sea.” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans Graves, 1954, p. 59).24. A certain Michael, featured in the diary excerpt cited above, is the originator of the idea of ‘learning how to get lost’. A Micael features as an Atlantean who participates in an orgy with his sister.25. In Metamorphoses Osirus orders an impoverished Lucius to pay for his initiation into that god’s sacred mysteries by selling his robe. (Apuleius, trans. Graves, 1954, p. 291).26. One which posits Atlantis as Zealandia, that long sunken continent beneath the Land of the Long White Cloud.27. The story is developed in two separate dialogues, The Timaeus, a monologue on cosmology and science, and The Critias, an incomplete dialogue that was probably intended as the second of a trilogy of which Timaeus was the first. It contains many curious details, including, in Timaeus, what appear to be intimations of the existence of the American continent.28. A young knight and an old hermit in the language of Chivalry.29. Wittgenstein famously spoke of a “bewitchment” of the intelligence stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding in Western philosophy of the nature of language, authored in his eyes by Plato. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1973, p. 47e,111).30. Think of the cover of the Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 1985, and also John Reynolds’ 1992 version.31. The legend goes that Goldie was cursed for painting this work, a lesson in the manner of Metamorphoses on the dangers of over extending one’s reach in deep matters. Goldie himself atoned somewhat with a late work, The Story of the Arawa Canoe (1938). Painted on a tobacco box, I understand, this serene scene of an old woman quietly imparting the story to a child is a remarkable reversal of The Arrival.