Juan Rodolfo Wilcock - Compellingly whimsical, alienated, pseudo-scientific, bizarre: all these adjectives describe this fiction in the form of a short reference work


 
Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, The Temple of Iconoclasts,. Trans. by
Lawrence Venuti, Mercury House, 2000.




"One of the greatest and strangest . . . writers of this century." - Roberto Bolaño

From an armchair in England, Rosenblum hatches a complicated plot to return the world to the year 1580-reintroducing ruffs, doublets, codpieces, and sundry period diseases. By sheer force of will, Littlefield discovers that he's able to crystallize table salt into the shapes of "chickens and other small animals." Babson founds an international organization with the declared aim of annulling the law of gravity. These are only a few of the dozens of eccentrics, visionaries, and downright crackpots who populate the pages of Juan Rodolfo Wilcock's charming fiction in the form of a biographical dictionary. Temple's brief portraits blend mordant satire and profound imaginative sympathy, taking in the whole dazzling spectrum of human folly-including a handful of colors that only Wilcock's Swiftian eye could possibly have perceived.

"Rodolfo Wilcock is a legendary writer. . . . His greatest work, The Temple of Iconoclasts, is without a doubt one of the funniest, most joyful, irreverent, and most corrosive books of the twentieth century . . . a festive, laugh-out-loud read . . . a writer whom no good reader should miss." - Roberto Bolaño


"Fictitious histories so engaging as to seem true and true histories so amusing as to seem fictitious." - Roberto Calasso

Wilcock describes imaginary sciences and philosophies with deadpan sobriety and wild terminology. These inventions are individually piquant, but become surfeiting if swallowed in one gulp." - Phoebe-Lou Adams

Compellingly whimsical, alienated, pseudo-scientific, bizarre: all these adjectives describe this fiction in the form of a short reference work, the first book by admired Argentinean-Italian novelist Wilcock (1919-1978) to be published in English. Wilcock's early career in Argentina brought him close to the young Borges, and fans of Borges, Italo Calvino or Stanislaw Lem will recognize Wilcock's methods. The book (his best known in Italy) consists of short essays describing the lives of obsessive eccentrics, some real and some imaginary, with each entry giving significant dates, major works and summaries of the relevant obsessions. Some of the real people here seem stranger than fiction: Roger Babson was a rich American pseudoscientist who directed a foundation dedicated to isolating a gravity ""atom"" and finding a substance that could resist it. Another all-too-real oddball is John Cleves Symmes, whose arguments for a ""Hollow Earth"" inspired a story by Poe. Wilcock's greatest aesthetic successes come with the characters he makes up from scratch. Catalan director Llorenz Riber believed he was a rabbit, and therefore brought rabbits onstage in his avant-garde interpretations of Europe's classic plays: he also adapted, for the stage, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, in order to depict the thinker's famous ""duck-rabbit."" Wilcock's inventions get stranger as he moves on: ""At the age of fifty-nine, the Belgian Henry Bucher was only forty-two."" The telepathic hypnotist Jos Vald s y Prom sabotaged an 1878 congress of theologians and scientists by taking over their minds. So Wilcock proceeds, through 30 other oddly comic entries. Venuti renders Wilcock's Italian into lucid, captivating English, and offers a biographical introduction. Lovers of postmodern mind games should certainly start seeking out Wilcock's work--assuming they can be sure it really exists. - Publishers Weekly 

"Wilcock’s presentation of these passionate eccentrics, both real and unreal, deserves to have a wide audience." - Sally E. Parry

"Wilcock's book restored happiness to me, as is only the case with those masterpieces of literature that are also masterpieces of black humor (.....) If you want to have a good time, if you want to cure what ails you, buy it, steal it, borrow it, but most importantly, read it. (...) The Temple of Iconoclasts is one of the best books of the twentieth century." - Roberto Bolaño, in Between Parentheses

This 1972 story collection is the best-known work of an Argentinean native (1919–78) who fled Juan Peron's dictatorship and became a successful translator, sometime actor, and writer of fiction in the Italian language. It's a mock encyclopedia containing 35 brief `biographies` of renegade scholars, scientists, engineers, and inventors. That several of them happen to have been historical figures (like John Cleeves Symmes, propounder of the quickly discredited `hollow earth` theory) in no way lessens this terrific little book's urbane-madcap charm. One wishes to know even more about the German geologist who `proves` the healthful benefits of radiation; or the biblical researcher who discovers, in modern-day Sodom, the figures of Old Testament patriarchs preserved as (what else ?) pillars of salt; or the new Zealand entrepreneur who harnesses stray dogs to `man` his `canine-powered [water] pump.` A deft, daft treasury of subversive wit (and, come to think of it, invention), beautifully translated and presented by the invaluable Venuti. - Kirkus Reviews


The Temple of Iconoclasts is apparently the first work by Juan Rodolfo Wilcock to be translated into English -- and it certainly looks as though readers have been missing something. Argentinian, and an associate of Borges, Bioy Casares, and Ocampo, Wilcock became an exile and transformed himself into an author who wrote in Italian -- prose, poetry, drama, the whole lot. The Temple of Iconoclasts (La sinagoga degli iconoclasti in the original) seems a fair introduction to his work: it consists of what are largely very small pieces about very unusual people.
       Wilcock's style here is clear, precise and straightforward, almost always nonjudgmental. There's a great deal of humour in these stories of misguided men, but Wilcock's writes straight-facedly. There is little pity and little cynicism, and it works to good effect.
       The iconoclasts collected here are, in fact, a highly unusual bunch of generally very deluded men. A number of Wilcock's portraits are, in fact, based on actual people -- using information largely taken from Martin Gardner's 1952 collection, In the Name of Science. Tellingly, they can hardly be differentiated from the invented figures.
       The characters have absurd ideas or absurd talents, typically summed up in the opening of each piece. For example: 

With the mere force of his will, the surgeon Charles Wentworth Littlefield succeeded in making table salt crystallize into the shapes of chickens and other small animals.
       The characters are utopians, visionaries, possessed of supernatural powers (like shaping salt at will), and many are, above all, scientists -- with theories and inventions that sometimes find adherents but ultimately are not taken too seriously. Many devote their lives to the singleminded pursuit of their looney goals.
       There is Aaron Rosenblum, a utopian who wants to return the world to the state it was in in 1580. There are the doings at the Gravity Research Foundation, trying to counter that insidious force. There is Henry Bucher: "At the age of fifty-nine, the Belgian Henry Bucher was only forty-two." There is Philip Baumberg, inventor of the labour-intensive but canine-friendly dog pump, a novel method of transporting water. There is Llorenz Riber, "summoned to Oxford to direct the dramatic adaptation of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations."
       Others believe that they are simultaneously many other people (possibly all people, in fact) or have theories about the earth (hollow inside, with huge holes at the poles) or about light and sound (sound being sinful light). One writes a dictionary-novel, with each dictionary entry linked by narrative passages to the next (examples of the curious result are given).

       Wilcock doesn't aim for broad humour here, and he avoids a sarcastic tone: his mock-serious approach carefully and effectively doses the mockery. There are occasional broad swipes (the road to a French "hospice for cretins" near the Swiss border is blown to smithereens during World War II because "the Germans believed it led to Switzerland because a sign read 'Shelter for the Deficient' ") but generally he takes just the right approach.
       The pieces are all well-crafted, and often both clever and humorous. The 35 portraits are perhaps a bit much -- it is a good thing, but too often a similar thing. Wilcock's imagination and presentation have a surface appeal -- they are neat little entertainments -- but they are also ultimately without great or resonant depth.- Complete Review


Which of the following individuals were real and which imaginary: Jose Valdes y Prom, hypnotist and telepathy master, who was allegedly able to stroll six stories in midair until he took a misstep and plunged to his death; Alfred William Lawson, eccentric millionaire, who established the University of Lawsonomy and immodestly proclaimed that "in comparison to Lawson's Law of Penetrability and Zigzag-and-Swirl movement, Newton's law of gravitation is but a primer lesson"; Jules Flamart, author of a novel consisting of sentences using every word in the dictionary in sequence; and Charles Wentworth Littlefield, whose psychic willpower was so great that he was able to make table salt crystallize into the shape of a chicken?
J. Rodolfo Wilcock's marvelously bizarre "The Temple of Iconoclasts" contains short biographical sketches of the four above-mentioned crackpots along with several dozen others, some actual and some fictional. Of course, there's no distinguishing among them unless you have certain esoteric knowledge, but that's either entirely beside the point or precisely the point. The real figures are too flaky to imagine and the imaginary ones are just as palpable as the real ones. Wilcock deliberately blurs the already blurry line that tends to define the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
Wilcock, who fled Argentina in the 1950s to live in England and then Italy, came of literary age in the 1940s in the group that included Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, Wilcock's mock scholarship on mock scholars is intellectually self-reflexive (as opposed to psychologically self-reflective) in the same manner as Borges' stories, complete with dates, occasional genealogies and bibliographical data. Elegantly translated by Lawrence Venuti, some are more overtly fabulist than others, yet they all share a gleefully obsessive quality similar in fact to Wilcock's own endeavor and a willful refusal to accept society's norms and science's principles.
The congregation of this particular temple ranges across the globe, from Franz Piet Vredjuik, a Dutch gravedigger who pursues his notion that sound is merely the degeneration of light, to Theodor Gheorghescu, who preserves 227 Brazilian natives in salt without quite realizing that the process will kill them.
Other scientists include Roger Babson of the Gravity Research Foundation, which assumes "that spiritual forces can modify the pull of gravity," and Klaus Nachtknecht, whose faith in radiation therapy is only slightly fazed by Hiroshima, when "many realized that radioactivity didn't always result in a splendid complexion."
In addition to scientists, Wilcock presents several obsessive authors. Yves de Lalande, a kind of Henry Ford of fiction, develops a novel factory; Carlo Olgiati produces nonsense worthy of the most recent issue of Social Text in his magnum opus, "The Group Struggle Among Fauna and Flora"; and Absalon Amet invents a prose machine that combines parts of speech into statements that may be profound and are more often ludicrous. (Actually, I think I saw such a machine at the Whitney Biennial a few years ago, but Amet didn't, and neither did Wilcock, who died in 1978. In some cases, reality has caught up with imagination.)
Beneath the giddy whimsy of "The Temple of Iconoclasts" lies a profound skepticism about modernity that bleeds through as many of Wilcock's subjects willfully eschew their own time. Charles Piazzi-Smyth, pyramidologist, advocates a return to Egyptian forms of measurement, and Aaron Rosenblum strives to eliminate everything created after the 16th century, from germ warfare to penicillin. It's as if these people cannot bear the pressure of contemporary existence.
Amazingly, these lunatics find adherents, and Wilcock's vision of a world that takes them seriously is scarier than anything in their theories. Masses of followers eagerly adopt the mania of these self-defined leaders, whose ideals frequently turn evil.
Take as one last example Alfred Attendu, director of the Sanatorium for Reeducation. Attendu believes that "the brain is a source of vexatious tedium," and maintains "a hospice for cretins" that attempts--in the name of a return to innocence--to further retard them by "abolishing the patients' contact with language." The doctor's theory that "we are the degenerates and they [the patients] the paragons" could be proven only when, after his sanatorium collapsed, "another interesting scientific detail came to light. Nearly all of the mental deficients found in the sanatorium at the age of 1, 2 or 3 years. . .were his offspring."
Ultimately, Wilcock's iconoclasts' ideas transform themselves and their surroundings in a manner reminiscent of Borges' masterwork, "Tlon Uqbar, Orbius Tertius," in which the encyclopedia of a fictional world created by a secret intellectual society gradually usurps the ostensibly real world. Alas, Wilcock is not Borges, and his sketches--best taken in small doses--have a gossamer quality that tends to evaporate rather than echo in the reader's mind. Still, it's unfair to compare anyone to the Argentine genius, and any friend of Borges is a friend of literature.
By the way, Lawson and Littlefield were real, Flamart and Valdes y Prom were not; Olgiati was Wilcock's great-grandfather. - Melvin Jules Bukiet

“It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned,” runs the inscription on Walter Benjamin’s memorial in Port Bou, a quotation that would well form an epigraph for J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s newly-republished The Temple of Iconoclasts. So many untold billions have passed from this world utterly unnoticed, and even for those who have been remembered in some form or another, not even the most extensively researched biography could hope to illuminate all the recondite corners of their souls. It is literature that can perform that vital act of remembering: it is the nature of words, after all, to hold memory.
The Temple of Iconoclasts is a vivifying corrective to our all-too-human tendency to forget. It gives names and faces and lives to those who had been unnamed. It restores a reputation to those who have been (perhaps, in some cases, justly) forgotten. The book contains thirty-five brief accounts of the lives of men who have, in some way or another, attempted to challenge the orthodoxies of received belief systems, be they scientific, theological, geographical, cosmological, theatrical, literary, bibliographical, or critical.
Among these biographies are those of Luis Fuentecilla Herrera, who believed humans originated as dried spores, and could therefore be posthumously reanimated by immersion in water; of Alfred Attendu, who thought intelligence a curse and a state of stupefied boredom the finest condition for a human to attain; of Jules Flamart, who tried to enliven his dictionary by having each entry tell part of an increasingly intricate story, of Antoine Amédée Bélouin, who pioneered the undersea train.
The book is a record of brave, often foolhardy and occasionally idiotic attempts to challenge a stifling orthodoxy of thought and hierarchy of truth. None of these men wanted to disappear, but few seem to have been overtly worried about their immortality—except in their work. These are monomaniacs, obsessives, people so intensely dedicated to their respective visions that they often seem to give up even their very selves in an attempt to prove their theories or realize their febrile creations. (The notable exception here would be Alfred William Lawson, who—Wilcock tells us—set up an entire university dedicated to "Lawsonomy," his own particular brand of scientific and philosophical thought. The university, somewhere near Des Moines, Iowa, is now—we are ruefully told—a shopping mall.) Roger Babson, for example, wanted nothing named after him, nor his biography written, but did hope for his Gravity Research Foundation to be recognized despite the fact that it was "considered by its detractors to be the most useless scientific institute in the twentieth century." Armando Aprile, a Utopian revolutionary, on the other hand, "left nothing behind, except for a name that sounds fake and an address that didn't belong to him." Wilcock dutifully lists only seventy-eight of the hundreds of inventions patented by Jesús Pica Planas (including "a bicycle with slightly elliptical wheels to mimic the pleasant gait of a horse" and a "steam-driven piano"), the man more interested in realizing them than preserving his own memory.
And yet. Many of the men Wilcock records are overreachers, attempting to ensure they will never be forgotten by attempting never to die. Not for nothing is immortality and resurrection a recurrent theme: Aram Kugiungian has a soul which can continually transmigrate and replicate itself, becoming “A.J. Ayer . . . Princess Margaret, the Dalai Lama . . . Fidel Castro . . . Elvis Presley and Anita Ekberg,” Wilcock informs us, while Kugiungian himself “currently lives in Winnipeg.” Morley Martin discovered a form of immortal primordial protoplasm while Dr. Benedict Lust proposed “zonal therapy” which could bring eternal youth. More magnificently, in 1914 Socrates Scholfield filed a patent for a mechanical device which proved the existence of God.
The reader may easily impute that a doubtful relation to sanity is one thing which links each of these biographies. Wilcock, however, makes no judgement, never mentioning the word or its opposite. Who, he implies, are we to judge? His own chequered life story and his own fertile and unique imagination may well have liberated him from such stultifying value judgements.
It is notable that all of Wilcock’s iconoclasts are men. Women, it may seem, are less given to extravagant attempts to challenge received patterns of thinking—yet I scarcely believe this to be so. Perhaps, sadly, such women are in need of an even greater forces of remembrance, or a radical iconoclasm which would allow Ada Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin or Hypatia to rightly enter the temple themselves—though their contributions, on the other hand, were far too sane to be allowed into Wilcock’s pantheon.
The more skeptical and less imaginative reader may quibble that some of these bizarre curriculae are not entirely based in fact, and cannot be adequately footnoted or referenced. (Wilcock leaves us only a teasing reference to Martin Gardner’s book In the Name of Science, and a few other personal connections in a final, tantalizingly brief author’s note.) To such readers I would simply say that the biographer’s art is necessarily a slippery one—the few facts we may able to wrest from a morass of anecdote, gossip, notebooks, letters and archives are themselves unreliable at best, and have to be supplemented by hypothesis, conjecture, speculation. The slippage between what is remembered and what is imagined, what can be documented and what can’t, between what actually happened and what may have happened is, surely, much of what literature actually is.
All writers, perhaps, make each other up: Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s own life story is hardly more credible than those whose lives he describes. Born in Buenos Aires in 1919, only child of an English father and Italian mother, Wilcock befriended Borges, Casares and Ocampo, while writing “existentialist parables and symbolist poetry with a homoerotic subtext” (according the information in this handsome new volume). Fleeing from the Peronist dictatorship, Wilcock wandered for a while before landing in Italy, where he finally settled. There, he befriended Moravia, Morante and Pasolini, devoting himself to journalism, translation, acting and his own writing. He died of a heart attack in 1978, in his small house on the far outskirts of Rome, a book about cardiac diseases open on his desk.
He was a man, then, given to rootlessness, to insecurity and transnationality, a man fascinated by language and literature and their imaginative potential. Is it any wonder he decided to record the lives of others so shifting?
His bibliography is huge, numbering nearly two dozen books, most still untranslated into English. He is rather better known in Italy than in the (sadly so often limited) Anglophone world, yet even in Italy he occupies the awkward status of “cult writer”—one more read about than read.
The Italian publishing house Adelphi has kept much of his work in print back in his homeland, including a volume of his poetry, a collection of his journalism entitled Il reato di scrivere (“The Crime of Writing”), L’abiminevole donna delle neve e altre commedie (“The Abominable Snow-Woman and Other Plays”), Lo stereoscopio dei solitari (“A Stereoscope for the Lonely”—described by Wilcock himself as “a novel with seventy main characters who never meet”), though his best-known work in Italy is I due allegri indiani (“The Two Happy Indians”), a book consisting of thirty editions of a literary magazine called Il Maneggio, itself in turn containing a comic strip entitled “Two Happy Indians,” whose adventures spill over into the august pages of the surrounding journal.
Lawrence Venuti’s translation of The Temple of Iconoclasts flows wonderfully, shifting from the academic, to the mock-pompous to the demotic, and seamlessly interspersing a number of asides to the reader. He gets the punchy first lines of each entry perfectly (“Manila-born José Valdés y Prom became quite well known for his extraordinary powers of telepathy, especially in Paris,” “Ill-advised reading and a surplus of faith induced the evangelical minister Theodor Gheorgescu to preserve in salt numerous Afro-Brazilians of every age”) and copes impressively with the occasionally lengthy philosophical or scientific digressions. I hope this volume will be successful not only due to its own merits, but also because it may encourage Venuti (and the brave Godine Publishers) to make more of Wilcock’s work accessible to an Anglophone readership.
Venuti’s energy in translating must have been as great as Wilcock’s in writing. Wilcock confidently ranges across the various fields of intellectual enquiry named above, but once stopping on them, he rarely skips over them. It is not enough for Wilcock to tell us that Carlo Olgiati was the founder of a school of philosophy (and its only member); he then goes on to tell us in some detail exactly what the tenets of Historical Metabolism were. It is not enough to tell us that Llorenz Riber was a dramatist known for his unusual passion for rabbits: Wilcock gives us four detailed reviews of Riber’s somewhat bizarre productions. There is immense detail in the narrow breadth of these accounts. While this may occasionally suggest that what these men had produced or explored was more important than the men themselves, Wilcock gives us just enough life detail to make it clear that the life lived, the attempt, is often much more than what it may have resulted in.
Reading this book, I was reminded of several authors who themselves were sui generis. Certainly The Temple of Iconoclasts has a Brautigan-like air of absurdity and sadness, a delightfully Borgesian encyclopedism, and all the best qualities of Bolaño in Nazi Literature in the Americas. (Bolaño, himself no slouch at being forgotten then re-remembered, was a great admirer of this book, calling its author “a legendary writer,” and describing The Temple of Iconoclasts as “one of the funniest, most joyful, irreverent, and most corrosive books of the twentieth century.”) Like those writers, Wilcock has created his own canon, a neglected pantheon of the mad, inspired, lost, visionary, deluded greats.
The book ends with the tale of Félicien Raegge who “on the deserted streets of Geneva . . . intuited the reversible nature of time.” The future has already happened, believed Raegge, and we are now hurtling incontrovertibly and unavoidably into the past. Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of Iconoclasts, in its way, performs the same feat, retrieving hope from unhappened futures, giving life to unacknowledged pasts and in so doing, creating a space for writing that is neither now nor then, neither true nor false, both here and not here. - C.D. Rose

Much of the self-help schlock these days encourages one to "think positive" and set goals, or offers other insipid suggestions, sometimes surprisingly grounded in psychological research, but for the most part deeply obvious. But in general the advice neglects one half of our humanity: our madness, or irrationality, that fine psychic chaos that liberates us from the merely mechanical. It’s important to keep one’s madness shipshape, lest it lose its fizz and render you that most pitiable of creatures, the bore, or, conversely, go unchecked and shred one’s rational cartography.
To this end, I prescribe J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of Iconoclasts. Encyclopedic in form, in the tradition of Borges’s paramount A Universal History of Infamy and the inspiration for Bolaño’s mordant chronicling of fascist writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas, Wilcock’s pantheon features a strain of kaleidoscopic humor incomprehensible to those who confuse seriousness with solemnity. The book is a nutritive and irony-rich chronicling of special persons in what I would describe as Wilcock’s undeadpan delivery, and can be used as a daily corrective to sanity.
In its pages we learn of a man whose karmic cycle has accelerated to the point at which he is reborn as other people while he still lives. Elsewhere, Wilcock offers us a mechanical proof of the divine: a man by the name of Socrates Scholfield patented an apparatus that “consists of two brass helices set in such a way that, by slowly winding around and within one another ... they demonstrate the existence of God.” In another, a man builds a machine designed to discover all of philosophy via randomly iterating six-word strings until all wisdom has been produced.
The rest you’ll have to discover on your own -- that is, if you can find a copy. - Jeff Bruemmer


In the customary and deeply-rooted division of Italian writers into those from the north and those from the south, the iconoclastic writer Juan Rodolfo Wilcock (1919-1978) might best count as one from the west. Wilcock is that rare figure who led two literary careers in two different languages, the first in Buenos Aires as a member of the group that included Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; then second, after fleeing the Perón dictatorship, in and around Rome where he wrote exclusively in Italian and moved within the eminent circle that included Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, and Pier Paolo Pasolini (the screenshot above shows Wilcock playing Caiaphas in Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Thus the timely republication of Wilcock’s 1977 book, The Temple of Iconoclasts (Sinagoga degli iconoclasti), makes for an ideal bridge between my current explorations of Italian literature and the annual Caravana de Recuerdos “Argentine Literature of Doom” reading event. Though I’d been curious to read the book after learning of it in an interview with translator Lawrence Venuti years ago, it had proven maddeningly impossible to find. I now know why. Venuti, in a new preface, explains that all but some 500 copies of the original edition of his translation were accidentally pulped.

In this new edition, Venuti expands on Wilcock’s improbable life. I won’t repeat the details (far richer than Wilcock’s current Wikipedia entry), but suffice to say that Venuti’s choice to title his preface simply “J. Rudolfo Wilcock,” thus appearing to slot the writer democratically among the 35 names that follow it in the table of contents, is an apt and clever one. The Temple of Iconoclasts consists of brief fictional and semi-fictional biographies, from 5 lines to 25 pages, of equally improbable inventors, metaphysicians, biologists, artists, sociologists, clerics, anthropologists, engineers, chemists, and others who, despite day jobs ranging from clockmaker to gravedigger, pursued fantastic theories, created unusual inventions, or simply asserted their existence in some idiosyncratic way. In Wilcock’s melding of fact, fiction and whimsicality, he subversively lances intellectual pretense and arrogance. His pieces inhabit that murky zone between human intellectual endeavor and madness, a line further muddied by Wilcock’s tossing in actual persons whose names pop into these sketches from time to time, including Thomas Edison, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, Wilhelm Reich, and even Wilcock’s own great-grandfather.

Nearly all of Wilcock’s brainiacs also write. If only as a source for additions to The Invisible Library, The Temple of Iconoclasts would still provide abundant amusement. There’s hack vulcanologist’s Klaus Nachtknecht’s The Salubrious Magma; philosopher Absalon Amet and his wife Plaisance’s Select Thoughts and Words from the Universal Mechanical Philosophy; Antonine Amédée Bélouin’s The Bélouin Network: Initial Project for an Underwater Railroad;” Franz Piet Vredjuik’s Universal Sin, or A Discourse on the Identity between Sound and Light; and Aaron Rosenblum’s  beguiling utopian failure, Back to Happiness, or Joyride to Hell, proposing a return to the purportedly rosiest period of human history, identified by Rosenblum as England under the reign of Elizabeth 1. Like César Aira’s Dr. Aira, with his proliferating screens aimed at excluding everything in the universe incompatible with his miracle cures, Rosenblum attempts to subtract from the present everything incompatible with life in the year 1580. The narrator’s extensive list of the glories and afflictions lost and regained through this mercifully unrealized project is both one of the book’s highlights and an almost irremediable skewering of utopian thought.

In another sketch, Jules Flamart, a lexicologist bored with the typical dictionary, creates a dictionary-novel, La Langue en action, which pairs each word with a narrative connection to the next word. Wilcock creates three entire pages of excerpts that had me wishing he’d gone on to complete the entire 850 page work. This is one of several texts Wilcock creates for his “iconoclasts.” The longest of these, in a piece on radical theater director Llorenz Riber, includes four theater reviews and an entire three-act screenplay, all of which reveal that a neurotic obsession with rabbits, born in Riber’s childhood, has burrowed its way into everything the director has created, including adaptations of Sartre’s No Exit and a Georges Feydeau-inspired, everyone-in-the-closet farce in which Riber has replaced the main characters’ family names with those of Nazi concentration camps. The cringe-worthy critical assessments of Riber's productions, worth the price of the book by themselves, are so are gloriously over the top that they could scare off anyone from creative or critical effort, yet simultaneously create an almost desperate desire to see Riber’s pieces produced on stage (or at the very least, some of Wilcock’s own criticism translated into English). Wilcock’s prodigious imagination is perhaps most amply revealed in a lengthy list of inventions created by Jesús Pica Planas, which echoes Kenji Kawakami’s useless Japanese inventions, and each item of which might well have served as a seed for helping populate an additional volume of Wilcock’s eccentrics.

The Temple of Iconoclasts is strikingly reminiscent of the weird, wild stories of Wilcock’s fellow Argentinian, Leopoldo Lugones, an evident influence even to the point of some of Wilcock’s examples seeming to riff on Lugones’ own extravagant conceits (Roger Babson’s nutty experiments with gravity, for instance, or John O. Kinnaman’s unsuccessful attempt to locate Lot’s wife in mounds of salt near ancient Sodom). In some sketches, the patient and detailed elaboration of Wilcock’s creations echoes those of Raymond Roussel. Venuti also notes as a precursor to The Temple of Iconoclasts Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, and as a descendent Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño acknowledged Wilcock’s book as the key influence on his own, and the handful of references to Nazism in The Temple of Iconoclasts seems even to provide the thematic spark for Bolaño’s homage. But Wilcock’s language possesses a density and expressiveness (no knock on Venuti, but one can scarcely imagine how delightful this book must sound in the original Italian); an affection for his subjects; and above all a fat streak of hilarity that rivals and even surpasses those of these other writers. This is one funny book, filled with glacial understatement, pointed one-liners, and a wit that ranges from tender to withering. Given Wilcock’s great funds of whimsy and waggery, his work also calls to mind Los Angeles artist David Wilson’s enchanting and stupefying Museum of Jurassic Technology, where the visitor is seduced by what appears to be a natural science museum until he or she pauses to reflect on the exhibits on display, which, in a moment of epiphany like a quick intake of nitrous oxide, produce a giddy euphoria. To read Wilcock’s book is to enter the paradise of both the mad dreamer and the wry skeptic, to marvel at the varieties of the human pursuit of knowledge, to feel chastened and humbled in one’s most insignificant mental efforts, and to have an exceedingly good time.
 - seraillon.blogspot.hr/2015/10/in-praise-of-folly-j-rodolfo-wilcocks.html

Born in Buenos Aires in 1919, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock was a member of the circle of innovative writers that included Borges and Bioy Casares. Self-exiled in Rome, he became a leading Italian writer, publishing numerous books of poetry, journalism, fiction, and translation.

Comments