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Beauty & the Least

beauty and the least2,075 words

Andy Nowicki
Beauty and the Least
Chicago: Hopeless Books, Uninc., 2014

Well, I’m certainly glad that someone out there in alt-Right Land has heeded my call to cultivate what Henry James called “the dear, the blessed nouvelle” in preference to another 300-400 page block of text about how life sucks

On the other hand, the call was answered by Andy Nowicki, so we’re not quite out of the Dark Woods yet. Mr. Nowicki has detached a 40-or-so page short story from a proposed collection and sent it out on its own as a solitary blast from the Dark Side, although graced with a relatively upbeat preface from his publisher, Ann Sterzinger, whose cheery Girl Detectives we recommended last week.

It was a wise move, because although we are indeed firmly back in Nowicki Land, this short work is quite a step forward, a new approach that reveals an unsuspected talent for an appropriately dark lyricism that marks a new stage in the development of his work.

Our un-named protagonist — eventually he will even forswear the pronoun “I” for a humble “he” — is at first a typical inhabitant of Nowicki Land, on the populous Loserville side of the tracks. Middle-aged, bald, a not-successful enough novel behind him, a cramped apartment with two boys and a loveless marriage in his present and probable future, a young girl makes the mistake of smiling at him — after church, no less — and he is, to hear him tell it, fatally poisoned by Beauty.

This, of course, is a familiar meme in Western Culture, from Plato to the Beatrice of Dante’s New Life (and, ultimately, reprising her role in Paradiso) to Tadzio in Mann’s Death in Venice.

My soul took wings . . .

Andy being Andy, though, he has to Go There and take as his inspiration no less than Milton’s Satan and the corruption of Eve. Rather than giving us a tale of Beauty inspiring and revivifying his life, Nowicki’s narrator, who, he insists on telling us, was once a lovely child himself, still resents the loss of his own childish charms and is fairly eaten up with jealousy and resentment, which, of course, he presents to us as her fault – she has, after all, poisoned him with her Beauty.

Am I truly to blame for this fatal debasement of my own system, or is it not in the very nature of beauty to compel just such a response in one of her wretchedly seduced disciples?

I did nothing to coax this response out of her . . .

It’s an interesting twist, made possible perhaps by the first person narration,[1] and prepared for the reader by the narrator’s odd little side-trip to take a swipe at the “absurd tenets” of his wife’s ancestral Christian Science beliefs; he’s the kind of crackpot realist type of Catholic convert that’s so proud of being “not fooled” by the evil in the world that he tips over, like Tertullian, into full-blown Gnostic heresy. If there’s Beauty in the world, it will only be corrupted, and see, here I am corrupting it — I win!

Dante and Mann are able to avail themselves of cloak of Platonic myth since their objects of obsession — like those of the beautiful boy school of Islamic mystical poetry — are safely beyond their possession.[2] Ironically, when the narrator is a healthy, non-nonsense American male, the same trope becomes a little suspicious. While Nowicki wants us to think Paradise Lost the work that seems most appropriate is Nabokov’s Lolita.

Indeed, we have here a kind of 40-page distillation of Nabokov’s novel. Of course, the narrator frequently refers to the object of his obsession by the term popularized by Nabokov, “nymphet.”[3] She lives by the sea, in a mansion at one point grandly referred to as a “palace,” thus subliminally reminding us of the palace by the sea where lived Poe’s Annabel Lee, the poem that Humbert gloms on to give his arrested development — a lost seaside sexual idyll — a literary gloss.[4] Our Narrator develops the same obsession with “that which had gone dormant and dark when my childish good looks vanished into the ether.”

And above all, what we might call the Humbertian narrative, unlike the Platonic myth, allows us to glimpse the narrator’s delusions; that he is the helpless victim, that he only wants to protect her from those horrible high school boys, that he will be her mentor.

What is thrilling about Beauty is in part the very equivocal nature of the desires she provokes in the mind of the beholder. One at once wishes to protect her and to devour her, to leave her alone and indulge oneself liberally in her treasure, to worship her and to debauch her, to be both her slave and her master, to attend her with the frowning countenance of the stern father, and at the same time to subject her to the lecherous leer of the insatiable lover.

Now, like the Devil, I would wreak havoc with my crafty wit and my bottomless capacity for deception. [Self-deception?]

Afterwards, once I’d successfully charmed the heart of my love, I’d correct my unseemly and unsightly method of introduction, I would take her hand in mine and lead her along the path to maturity, doing my part to shape her into a woman of destiny while at the same time safeguarding her maidenly honor. I wouldn’t really be evil; I’d just use the guise of the evil one as a means to bring goodness.

He’d also never been entirely able to stop regarding her as a father does his beloved child.

[He would] appear to her anew, this time in the form of a trustworthy mentor.

This last quote also brings us to the most remarkable part of this short text. In the last few pages, the Narrator embarks on a campaign of seduction, making use, again with an irony unperceived by himself, of the mental projection techniques of his wife’s despised Mind Cure or New Thought movement.

My mind drifted away . . .

This mode of projected, light-as-air existence . . .

Each time he projected his serpentine spirit into his Eve’s body . . .

Daring escapades of soaring, sweeping seduction . . .

Mind-trysts with his nymph . . .

In these penultimate passages Nowicki reveals an unexpected talent for what might be called Dark Fantasy, which we can only encourage him to develop further.

Although the Narrator is emphatic that

I certainly did not appear to my Eve in the form of a snake, or in any form whatsoever.

the nature of his visitation is such to suggest, to me at least, the very Nabokovian figure of the butterfly; the previous quote begins “Though I may have made serpentine coils in the atmosphere . . .” and further we read:

I again flew close, this time executing a spirally circular swoop around her chest . . . .

[Returning to] my former hiding spot near the ceiling.

Again, we see the Narrator’s grandiose Satanic self-image cut down to size, back to its first manifestation:

The proverbial moth to the ubiquitous flame.

Both moth and butterfly back to the world of Thomas Harris’s serial killers, such as Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs:

I saw myself as [the mansion] saw me, as some sort of sleek, serpentine, reptilian-eyed abomination that would just gum up the works for good.[5]

The previous novel, Red Dragon (a.k.a. Manhunter), however, brings us even closer to Nowicki’s climax. The eponymous Red Dragon resembles our Narrator,

I am not beautiful myself . . . I am an unimpressive middle aged bald man, gawkily tall, unnecessarily somber in temperament.

dollarhydeAlthough having been born with a harelip, he has never actually been beautiful, nor has he allowed himself to slump into middle age, but developed a powerful physique and martial arts skills, as well as an obsession with William Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun,” which clearly echoes Nowicki’s climactic confrontation. His obsessive brooding over 8mm films of “perfect families” that he plans to “visit” recalls the Narrator’s ghostly visitations (“You’ve seen these films, haven’t you, my man!”) as well.

The Red Dragon’s revelation of himself to the kidnapped reporter:

Francis Dollarhyde: Do you know who I am?

Freddy Lounds: No. I don’t want to know who you are.

Francis Dollarhyde: According to you, I’m a pervert — an animal, you said. You know who I am now?

Freddy Lounds: [afraid] Yes.

Francis Dollarhyde: Do you feel privileged?

Freddy Lounds: I’m very scared.

[Dollarhyde tears off Lounds’ blindfold. Lounds keeps his eyes shut]

Francis Dollarhyde: Open your eyes. Mr. Lounds, you’re a reporter, I want you to report. That’s why you’re here. Open your eyes or I’ll staple your eyelids to your forehead!

[Lounds opens his eyes to see Dollarhyde wearing a stocking mask, arms spread wide]

Francis Dollarhyde: Well, here I . . . am.

francisdollarhydeFollowed by his slide show of victims

Francis Dollarhyde: Look at the screen. That is William Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed with the Sun.” Do you see?

Freddy Lounds: Yes.

Both suggest the Narrator’s ill-fated final meeting:

Can’t you see? It’s me? I’m he! He held up both of his arms, in a feeble effort to mollify the girl, to let her know that she had nothing to fear from him.

where the girl is left not unlike Dollarhyde’s last victim, the blind co-worker Reba:

She now slumped into his arms and catatonically stared straight ahead with no light whatsoever left in her eyes.

And just as the Dragon eventually pointlessly consumes the painting itself, so Nowicki’s Narrator dreams of a religion based around his target, which would

[F]east on her quite tangible beauty, could tear at it with raw, carnivorous abandon, subsume her wholly into himself in a mad quest for . . . what?

But above all, both Red Dragon, and Lolita, manage the feat of making the reader both reject the narrator’s grandiose self-image (“You owe me awe”) and acquire compassion for a monster — though not, of course, to the point of acceptance:

Jack Crawford: You feel sorry for him.

Will Graham: This started from an abused kid, a battered infant . . . My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks. Does that sound like a contradiction to you, Jack? Does this kind of thinking make you uncomfortable?

As does this narrative, which is truly that of the Least, the Nietzschean Untermensch who is:

Perhaps not a terrible man, but—all the worse!—simply a pitiful man, the sort you deride and laugh at, the sort whose behavior makes you cringe, and mutter to yourself, “there but for the grace of God . . .” But there is more to the story and that more is what renders me terrible; yet even in my terribleness, I remain essentially pitiful. Thus I am robbed even of the dignity that accompanies being a straightforward, thoroughgoing villain.

Like Patrick Bateman, the equally delusional American Psycho:

But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.

This may be true of our narrators, but not of us, the readers, who can indeed extract considerable knowledge from such narratives. With this little tale Nowicki has taken his art to a whole new level, one that I hope he will continue to explore in many future books.

Notes

[1] “One wonders whether Thomas Mann would have been able to make Death in Venice an allegory about art and the artist if Aschenbach had been its narrator” (Appel, “Introduction,” The Annotated Lolita, xxxix).

[2] Beatrice is rarely seen outside the family house, and soon dies; Tadzio is sheltered by his mother and siblings, and Aschenbach morbidly muses that he “will probably not live long.” On the initiatic sources, including Sufic, drawn on by Dante see René Guénon’s The Esotericism of Dante (Sophia Perennis, 2004) and, for the Islamic, Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998).

[3] Actually, Humbert introduces the term (op. cit., p16) to refer to “demonic” creatures between nine and fourteen, while Nowicki’s narrators is careful to establish the object of his attraction is an almost legal seventeen.

[4] At one point it’s described as “Eden-by-the-Sea,” combining both motifs.

[5] As in Buffalo Bill’s real name, Jame Gum.

 

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