CRAZY DOCTORS AND DOCTORED TEXT
By way of introduction to this weird piece of ‘found poetry’ from the 1930s, its provenance, and the circumstances behind its writing: its rearrangement and resurrection rather, for I’ve not altered a word, playing only with punctuation and line-breaks – I must first turn back the clock to the 1970s…
Angela Carter (currently enjoying another of her periodic ‘revivals’ since her premature death in 1992) had invited me for a weekend in Bath, where she then lived. Great fun it proved, too. Sex, drugs and jazz, plus, so to speak, some hilarious tossing to-and-fro of assorted fantastical ideas, mostly directed towards a collaborative (let’s say joint) fiction. Our rambling colloquies led to the birth of a Nordic-cum-Central European phoney guru and ‘crazy doctor’ prototype, one Dr Önan, whose pedantically-placed umlaut over the O was, of course, both emblematic and postmodernly crucial.
Sadly, as with so many high-toned stoned fantasies, nothing other than a brief correspondence came of our projected literary-satirical collaboration. A year or so previously, Angela – who was to comment before her death “Sometimes when I read my back pages, I’m appalled at the violence of my imagination” – had published The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman. This was a nod to some questionable Sixties guru-figures and the likes of Önan, MD. My own fifth novel The Stump appeared, around the same time, with its first-person narratrix and medico-mutilatory theme: this was also a fictive examination of what in those days were still controversial feminist-cum-sexpol notions. We had also both found genuinely fascinating the work of that wilfully neglected and vilified visionary, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957).
Our horrorcomical invention the crazed mountebank Önan might, however, have had little in common with the great anti-fascist sexological pioneer Dr Reich, but for Önan’s own confrontational, ‘hands-on’ style of psychoanalysis and his knack of getting metaphorically up the noses of establishment medical practitioners and politicians worldwide. Then again, Önan’s various and not-so-vicarious obsessions were less concerned with ‘the beast with two backs’ than with wild speculation about the roots of what was once dubbed ‘the solitary vice’. Who could have guessed then, that this comically louche character had apparently been impersonated by Arthur Koestler, no less, forty-odd years earlier?
But only in the early 1980s did I ever lay hands on a rare, battered (though not actually very ‘well-thumbed’) Thirties edition of the Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge. Koestler, it seemed, had here pseudonymously chronicled the wettest and wildest of dreams… At any rate, I set aside his opus for yet another decade, and then read as much of the book as I could usefully digest, with the poetic results that follow.
What of Robert Aickman’s comments though? Aickman’s ambiguously macabre stories I much admire. One can only surmise that his curious enthusiasm for Koestler-as-Costler, as exemplified by the epigraph taken from Aickman’s own highly eccentric and unrevealing autobiography, may have been tongue-in-cheek. Yet I somehow doubt it. Aickman’s former lover Elizabeth Jane Howard writes in her autobiography Slipstream (2002) that Aickman himself was “unprepossessing” and “paranoid”, and that he’d had “an extremely lonely and unhappy childhood”; she describes “neurotic fears” he tried to conceal, and his “black moods and scenes”. So is sexual repression and/or psychological dysfunction of some or other variety a sine qua non at least for the writer of weird tales? Who can tell?
What to make, finally, of the inexplicable indulgence of Koestler’s own biographer David Cesarani toward the wild grotesqueries of Koestlerian sexology? One wonders just how that last unfortunate scholar, himself maybe risking blindness and insanity, managed to plough through all that ineffable Koestlerian hackwork. Cesarani couldn’t and doesn’t claim them as classics, but I contend that in 2006 the books may be ripe for rereading – albeit very selectively, and rather in the vein of black humour, satirical fancy or grim subversion. Also, that Doc Costler’s clutch of once jolly lucrative, if never quite seminal, works, is neither better nor worse than many other self-serving, pseudo-authoritative volumes which peddle self-help tips, self-analysis and/or -abuse, self-improvement and all that sort of stuff: but Koestler and his old pals’ act is, it must be admitted, funnier by far.
THE DIRTY THIRTIES – A manual of theory and practice
We consider certain precautions and even treatment useful as a means of reducing this necessary evil to a minimum. [Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge, 1934. Drs. A. Costler, A. Willy & others]
I read those two guides to ‘sexual knowledge’ which Mr Arthur Koestler wrote in the guise of Professor Costler. They are most excellent works… It is hard to imagine how the topic could be elucidated better. [Robert Aickman, The Attempted Rescue, 1966]
The Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge… argues that an open and honest approach to sex has been submerged by hypocrisy… taking a very relaxed line towards masturbation. [David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler – The Homeless Mind, 1998]
The treatment of onanism
must be carried out
The presence of worms is
Constipation should be
relieved by an enema
Rice, maize, oats,
barley, green vegetables
Daily exercises and
games in the open air
Before retiring it is
The patient should lie,
if possible, on his side;
The bedroom should be
cool, and at least
Girls should never wear
corsets as they
All reading matter
should be carefully chosen.
At all events, the last
(Article/intro plus found poem first appeared in Strange Attractor Journal 2, 2006. The found poem, on its own, in Judging By Disappearances, 2007)