FRR Books Podcast: Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch
“Much that is terrible we do not know. Much that is beautiful we shall still discover. Let’s sail till we come to the edge.”
There is something about books with shitty protagonists that I love and find compelling. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim usually comes to my mind first with Bron from Delany’s Trouble on Triton entering my mind second with a nod to Dostoevsky’s lead in Notes From the Underground. These are incredibly flawed and weak characters with Dostoevsky starting his novel with “I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man.” Sometimes these characters are insecure and sometimes they are full of braggadocio such as Bron. Thomas Disch’s novel Camp Concentration is in large parts the journal of Louis Sachetti(think Sacco and Vanzetti of anarchist fame) who is a peak liberal basking in his self-righteousness. Louis is a conchie(conscientious objector) very satisfied with his righteous imprisonment and his poetry. Disch is bold enough to write poetry for Louis throughout the novel, which some of the other characters take hilarious jabs at. Reading a novel with a character such as Louis forces a reader to either become a good reader(reading closely and several times over) or to miss all of the beauty and depth within the novel. When I read Camp Concentration I must find empathy and understanding for Louis, a person who if I met in real life I would find completely repulsive. But, the truth is that there is much I dislike in Louis that I dislike in myself. I have been self-righteous, I have written shitty poetry, I have thought of myself as the smartest person in the room. There is so much more to Camp Concentration, but this first and most basic issue, the shitty protagonist, sets the stage for the discussions of beauty, life, death, and freedom that follow. Disch’s novel is a prison novel, it is a deeply physical novel, and it is a novel against death. A novel that seeks out anarchy in the fight against biology, the fight against anything that is put onto me or told is necessary for me. It is an exploration of agniology(the study of ignorance) and knowledge. What happens when we bite from the fruit? As we chew and digest how are we changed? Discussing Camp Concentration is discussing these questions.
Imagine this: The government is taking members of society nobody will miss and imprisoning them in Camp Archimedes. Here the prisoners are injected with a form of syphilis that makes the subjects exponentially smarter, and exponentially sicker until they eventually die, usually within about a year. The prisoners are allowed any books, media that they want, along with fancy food and the freedom to decorate their cells and roam freely within the deep underground prison. The goal of this is for the government to see if it is easier to make smarter humans comply. This is the background of Camp Concentration.
Can we accept that the way of the world is slavery and concentration camps? Can we play along with Disch as his characters play with these ideas?
“The fascination with Germany in this century is the fascination of the abomination. You go there to catch a whiff of the smoke that still hangs in the air…I’ve been dreaming of deathcamps lately. Admittedly, it’s only an analogy to our little home in the west here. Except that I’m a prisoner and except that I’m marked for extermination, I can’t complain. And isn’t everybody, after all…The difference is I’ve had the bad luck to sneak a look at the execution orders, while most people walk off to the ovens thinking they are going to take a shower.” He laughed harshly. “It isn’t just Germany,” he said. “And it isn’t just Camp Archimedes either. It’s the whole universe. The whole goddamned universe is a fucking concentration camp.”
And what of this? We are all marked for death and the basic functioning of the universe is the same as the concentration camp. We are born into a world where punishment and reward are arbitrary. “Good” people like Job suffer tremendously at the hands of an indifferent universe while the same universe rewards “bad” people. The world we are discussing here is arbitrary. In the words of Mordecai, the charismatic leader of the prisoners,
“Why didn’t your sainted Pope Pius protest the Nazi’s ovens? Not through prudence or cowardice, but from an instinct of corporate loyalty. Pius sensed that the deathcamps were the nearest approximation that mortal man has yet made to the Almighty’s plan. God is Eichman writ large.”
Cause and effect are often a myth, just like in concentration camps. Just like in concentration camps where prisoners are marked for death, so are all of us born into this world. It is no surprise that we as a society and individuals within it are so fascinated by concentration camps. People visit them still, but why? Where is the value in this? Frank Wilderson, an afro-pessmist scholar, says that white people watch movies like 12 Years a Slave to remember their power, to maintain their psychic health which he believes is dependent on anti-blackness. Is our psychic health, our libidinal economy, dependent on knowing that we can perpetuate such abomination? I do not believe that vegans are being hyperbolic when they compare the way we treat animals to concentration camps and slavery. This is accurate, but for me it doesn’t mean I need to be vegan anymore than it means I need to go out and start another holocaust. But, there is something here in this space of abomination and spectacle. The amount of suffering that the world rotates on is ineffable and incalculable. For each new beauty discovered comes another abomination and often it is nearly impossible to tell the difference. Early in the novel Louis laments his imprisonment by saying
“Not since the playground tyrannies of childhood have the rules of the game been so utterly and arrogantly abrogated, and I am helpless to cope. To whom shall I complain?”
Many people when confronted with the injustices of the world are solely looking for someone to complain to and often this looks like complaining to those with the power to give some of it up. Accepting the world as unfair and accepting the tyrannies of childhood as the normal functioning of an indifferent universe, are starting points for living an exploratory life. Railing against these uncertainties, the futility of complaining, are simply coping mechanisms that effectively result in accepting that one has no power. Being comfortable having power, being dangerous, being able to act in whatever way I think is right, is a way for me to function in this indifferent concentration camp we call Earth. Doing this requires imagination, creativity, dreaming far bigger, and going beyond complaining because complaining is for the weak and if I have one thing I am willing to fight for against all futility it is for my own strength.
Knowing me or seeing me is akin to watching someone take a ride into the depths of agniology as I fumble and bumble, at times gracefully, at times like a klutz, toward knowledge and understanding. The older I get the more I realize how ignorant I am in so many ways. The more I understand an idea the more I realize there is to understand about it. The bottom always falls out for me and I am left on unstable ground. I find this in fiction, where reading one novelist leads me into a web of their influences and what they have read and experienced that leads to yet deeper understandings of their work. I find this in politics and anti-politics, and I find it in knowing myself and in the ways in which I continually learn to navigate interpersonal relationships. My personal style lately, maybe if I’m being honest more than just lately, has been to take on an idea/concept and wear it and act out of it and from it so that I can see how others react to the idea without them having to read or think exactly what I did to get here. Some of the clothing sticks and sometimes I must discard it all, but regardless of how it goes I continually trying new outfits on for size, fit, and aesthetics. Sometimes this looks like bold assertions and playing the fool. As Mordecai tells Sachetti, “ The fool says in his heart there is no God. The wise man says it aloud.” Mordecai is being ironic here, because Mordecai doesn’t know if there is a god or not, but he believes like the devil believes that our only source of freedom is loudly, boldly, and foolishly thumbing his nose at God. I believe in loudly, foolish, recklessly playing with my ideas and this involves letting go of shame. Sometimes I am the emperor and my ideas are bankrupt and I am left naked, but so the fuck what. I lose no sleep wondering if I am smart enough, or if my ideas are good enough, because they are mine(maybe mostly stolen from novelists, friends, and enemies) and I know that I put work into them and that I practice them and play with them and that I am often wise enough to listen to others when they point out the holes and flaws in my logic and dreams. I realize working to let go of shame and fear of judgement is difficult, but I want to orient towards strength and play, and it’s no fun to play if I’m scared of those watching me instead of searching out others to play with. Mordecai helps again by further attacking Sachetti,
“Now, what I’d suggest, if you’re going to lose your faith is that you goddamned well go to a dentist and have it pulled. It only hurts if you keep playing with it.”
Fuck, I love the way that Mordecai lambastes Sachetti for his liberal guilt and latent leftism. In Mordecai’s world it is always best to jump into the unknown, to free ourselves as much as we can from fixed ideas, and to embrace what is unknown. I work on this for myself all the time for my tethers are deep and many, my paradoxical essence lugging along chained to the things that I believe cause me happiness. How do I live like this and maintain loyalties? Louis says it himself when he asks,
“How to distinguish between righteousness and self-will? Between the two Louies? How, once committed, to stop questioning? (That is the question.)”
If that is the question, then is there an answer? Unsurprisingly, I answer a question yet again with a question. The beauty is that the choice is arbitrary, and it is mine, even if it isn’t. Embracing the paradox and a certain level of incoherence allows me to maintain some loyalties, mostly to myself and my real friends, while letting go of all the isms I once tethered myself to.
Now onto the winguttery of transhumanism that is the heart of Mordecai, the heart of camp concentration, and the biggest tether I have, that of fighting death. As our sage Mordecai says
“Science acquiesces, fatally, to the second law of thermodynamics- magic is free to be a conscientious objector. The fact is that I’m not interested in a universe in which I have to die.”
The only way anarchy has relevance to my life is in the no. All the positivistic and arbitrary values I hold and build relationships from must start with a no and then move forward from a place that definitely is not anarchism, because that is too boring and small and restrictive in the traditional and classic sense of the word. So, there are two ways to approach death for me. One is accepting that there is no death, that time isn’t linear, that death does not exist, but instead that what we conceive of as death is just some sort of change like growing or getting old. The other is in believing in death as a reality and fighting against that. Mordecai straddles both of these opinions but settles on the latter, which is sort of an inverted form of Pascal’s Wager. Mordecai fights biology in Camp Concentration and eventually figures out how to make himself more than a body or a mind and move freely among bodies. Mordecai manages to trick the prison staff and switch bodies with the warden of the prison, forcing the warden to quickly die in his old decrepit and poisoned body. Mordecai defeated death. Can I? Do I need to? These are the questions I am interested in and I want to read books like Camp Concentration and discuss them without shame or fear of judgement so that I can continually change the way I live and act in this world.
“Much that is terrible we do not know. Much that is beautiful we shall still discover. Let’s sail till we come to the edge.”
Audio and Sound and Editing by Nev
Internet Slavery and Writing by rydra wrong
Voiced by Nev, John Henri, & rydra wrong