“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 is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House), and a keen student of the lost, neglected and forgotten. While he currently lives in Norwich in the east of England, he travels widely, finding himself at home anywhere there are dark bars, dusty libraries and good secondhand bookshops.