Tuesday, December 23, 2008

W.B. Seabrook - The Magic Island

At a second-hand bookstore - for a mere € 15 - I found a beautiful hardcover edition of W.B. Seabrook's 1929 book 'The Magic Island', published by The Literary Guild Of America in 1929, in New York. It is illustrated with (politically very incorrect!) quasi-expressionist drawings by Alexander King, and with photographs by the author. Some of these are reproduced below (click to enlarge).

Seabrook was an exceptional figure: he was a Great War veteran, a journalist and a traveller, a friend to both the Surrealists and to the notorious sorcerer Aleister Crowley, an alcoholic and a sadist. He had supposedly eaten human flesh ("like good, fully developed veal"). The Surrealist photographer Man Ray was inspired by Seabrook's sadist practices to create pornographic photographs such as "The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook", "Lee Miller and William Seabrook" and "Homage to D. A. F. Sade", all with Lee Miller as a protagonist. In 1933 Seabrook was voluntarily committed in order to cure his alcoholism, and he documented the experience in his 1935 book "Asylum". Despite the treatment, Seabrook remained an alcoholic. He committed suicide by a drug overdose on September 20, 1945.

The illustrator, Alexander King, was a rake also, described "as a thief, morphine addict, failing playwright and painter, a man of iconoclastic observations and caustic humor who began his career as a painter of human figures, focused primarily on the face. Then he became an art thief, stealing fifty prints from the Metropolitan Museum." King, who claimed to have been married five times, published anecdotes on his life in a series of humorous books, such as May This House Be Safe from Tigers, Mine Enemy Grows Older, I Should Have Kissed Her More, and Is There Life After Birth. King was a frequent guest on on TV talkshows from roughly the mid-1950s until his death in 1965.

Georges Bataille's Surrealist journal Documents published an appreciative article on Seabrook's 'The Magic Island', written by Michel Leiris and Bataille himself. Even if Seabrook's reputation amongst anthropologists is quite bad (his account of Voodoo is often regarded as crypto-racist), Leiris credited Seabrook with being a "conscientious observer and the first man of the white race initiated into the mysteries of voodoo" and praised him for his "humane attitude" toward his subject. Bataille was especially appreciative of the final paragraph quoted below - it echoes Bataille's philosophical attempt to harness the forces of a dis-enchanted sacred to revitalize Western society.

From 'The Magic Island':

"And now the literary-traditional white stranger who spied from hiding in the forest, had such a one lurked near by, would have seen all the wildest tales of Voodoo fiction justified: in the red light of torches which made the moon turn pale, leaping, screaming, writhing black bodies, blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened, drunken, whirled and danced their dark saturnalia, heads thrown weirdly back as if their necks were broken, white teeth and eyeballs gleaming, while couples seizing one another from time to time fled from the circle, as if pursued by furies, into the forest to share and slake their ecstasy.

Thus also my unspying eyes beheld this scene in actuality, but I did not experience the revulsion which literary tradition prescribes. It was savage and abandoned, but it seemed to me magnificent and not devoid of a certain beauty. Something inside myself awoke and responded to it. These, of course, were very individual emotional reactions, perhaps deplorable in a supposedly civilized person. But I believe that the thing itself - their thing, I mean - is rationally defensible. Of what use is any life without its emotional moments or hours of ecstasy? They were reaching collective ecstasy by paths which were not intrinsically peculiar to their jungle ancestors, but which have been followed by many peoples, some highly civilized, from the earliest ages, and will be followed to the end of time or until we all become mechanical, soulless robots. It is not necessary to look backward to the Dionysian orgies, the bacchanalia, the rites of Adonis, or frenzied David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. What, after all, were they doing here in these final scenes, when formal ritual had ended, that was so different from things which occur in our own fashionable and expensive night clubs, except that they were doing it with the sanction of their gods and were doing it more succesfully? Savage rhythm, alcohol, and sex excitement - yet there was an essential difference, for here was a mysterious something superadded. Lasciviousness became lust, which is a cleaner thing, and neurotic excitement became authentic ecstasy, the 'divine frenzy' of the ancients.

There us nothing quite as stupid and pathetic as an orgy that doesn't quite come off. Perhaps there is a deep mystical truth in the saying attributed to a much-misunderstood voice, 'Whatever ye do, do it in my name.' Perhaps if we mixed a little true sacrificial blood in our synthetic cocktails and flavored them prayerfully with holy fire, our night clubs would be more orgiastically succesful and become sacred as temples were in the days of Priapus and Aphrodite."


Passerby said...

Hi Valter, do you know if there's any way to read Michel Leiris' review of ‘L’Ile magique online? The orginal text, in French? Thanks in advance.

Carl said...

Really good to read about the W.B. Seabrook's 1929 book 'The Magic Island,interesting to read and also great to share.


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