Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Walter Arensberg

“You know who Walter Arensberg was…”

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"You know who Walter Arensberg was..."

(Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 29. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Most conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous. When they aren’t based on outright fabrications, like the legend of the Priory of Sion, they’re generally founded on a very selective interpretation of the available evidence, with tenuous connections presented as gospel while inconvenient facts are elided or ignored. And as I’ve mentioned before, these days, it’s easier than ever to construct a conspiracy that seems plausible at first glance. With a world of information available to even the most casual paranoid, the wildest theories can be supported by a few cherry-picked facts, as long as we don’t try to put them in context. It’s the kind of sloppy thinking that often finds a home in politics and junk science. As we saw in last year’s election, no matter what you want to prove about tax cuts or the budget deficit, there’s always a study somewhere to back you up, and you only need to look at some of our less reputable recent works of popular science to see how easily you can draw any conclusion you want about the brain.

When it comes to writing a conspiracy novel, a writer has an even greater degree of freedom. He can indulge in as many outlandish assertions as he likes, as long as they’re presented with a veneer of credibility—unless, like certain authors I could name, he coyly hints that the secrets he’s describing are really true. But he needs to be careful. The crucial element, as always, is suspension of disbelief. Even if few readers take the story’s claims at face value, it’s still important that they believe that they’re true within the context of the plot, which generally means that you can’t open with anything really wild. Suspension of disbelief works exactly the same way in a conspiracy novel as in any other kind of speculative fiction: you’re more likely to draw readers into the story if your implausibilities present themselves gradually, even casually, and in a reasonable disguise. If the author pulls it off, the transition between the merely unlikely to the blatantly impossible will be so subtle that the reader won’t realize until after the fact that he’s been taken in.

"April 23, 1916..."

In The Icon Thief, I had to build my central conspiracy in stages, moving from the assertion that Marcel Duchamp had been influenced by the Rosicrucians—an argument that has been made repeatedly by serious academics—to even more farfetched claims, culminating in a vast, shadowy conspiracy that extends into all corners of history. In theory, the pieces could have been presented in almost any order. As a practical matter, however, I knew that I had to start with points that even a skeptical reader might be willing to accept on faith, at least in the interest of advancing the story. The conspiracy theme of the novel really begins in Chapter 14, when Tanya lays out the case that Rosicrucian symbolism can be found in the work of Duchamp and his contemporaries. It’s an argument that sounds great only if you take it out of context, and choose to ignore most of the evidence of Duchamp’s career and personality. But it’s the kind of selective misinterpretation that has an honorable history in art criticism, and it serves to introduce the novel’s skewed vision of the world in easy stages.

But there’s an even more interesting connection between Duchamp and Rosicrucianism, and it has the benefit of being more or less real: Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s leading patron and close friend, was obsessed with the Rosicrucians, and in particular with the idea that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Any argument about Duchamp’s Rosicrucian influences really ought to begin here—it’s a legitimately fascinating sidelight on the history of art, even if Duchamp himself seemed justifiably skeptical of Arensberg’s claims. Yet I chose to save this detail for much later in the novel, to the point where it’s only mentioned here, in Chapter 29, more than halfway through the book. A conspiracy theory, like any form of creative writing, needs to start strong, but it can’t reveal all its cards at once. Like the plot of the book in which it appears, it needs to save a few big moments for later, in places where the story needs a jolt of energy. By introducing it here, I might not be able to convince a reader to take the argument seriously, but I can at least make the case that these characters might. And they’re going to start taking it very seriously indeed…

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2013 at 9:50 am

How I learned to love the Rosicrucians

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Why did I write a novel about the Rosicrucians? Mostly because they were available. The recent renaissance in conspiracy fiction has made it hard to find a secret society that hasn’t been done to death: Dan Brown alone has made it impossible to write about the Masons, the Priory of Sion, or the Illuminati—even if Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea hadn’t already done so—and Umberto Eco definitively took the Templars off the table, even if a wide range of authors have done their best to bring them back. As a result, when I began to think seriously about writing a conspiracy novel, and especially an homage to Foucault’s Pendulum, I realized that the Rosicrucians had one big advantage: there hadn’t been a major novel about them in years. Consequently, when most of us, including me, think of the Rosicrucians, the first thing that comes to mind is the modern incarnation about which Woody Allen says in Annie Hall: “I can’t get with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics.”

And yet much of the world was obsessed with the Rosicrucians for decades, almost from the moment they first appeared in a pair of manifestos published anonymously in Germany in the seventeenth century. The manifestos are famously impenetrable—I’m not sure I ever managed to get through all of them—but the story they tell set the standard for all secret societies to come: a brotherhood of learned men, originally eight in number, later thirty-six, quietly preparing for a revolution that would transform all of Europe. What kind of revolution? It isn’t entirely clear—and part of the fascination of the Rosicrucian tradition is that it promises so much while spelling out so little. The legendary founder of the Rosicrucians, a mysterious figure later known as Christian Rosenkreuz, emerges from a background of alchemy, magic, and Eastern mysticism, and whatever the Rosicrucians were planning was evidently based on a similar body of secret knowledge that, once revealed, would change the world forever.

The really strange thing is that the Rosicrucians did start a revolution, despite the inconvenient fact that they probably never existed. The idea of a secret society of learned men working to save the soul of civilization, which appears for the first time in the manifestoes, is incredibly compelling, even if the details remained obscure. It isn’t surprising, then, that readers across Europe hastened to found Rosicrucian societies of their own, like kids who start a secret club based on one they see in a comic book. On the scientific side, the manifestoes were the inspiration for a number of groups, dedicated to natural philosophy, that ultimately resulted in the Royal Society, and everyone from Descartes to Newton was accused of being a Rosicrucian. Meanwhile, Rosicrucian orders dedicated to magic and alchemy were founded in most countries, Rosicrucian imagery was appropriated by the Freemasons and other fraternal orders, and Rosicrucian novels were written by everyone from Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame) to Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and eventually, interest in the Rosicrucians began to wane, supplanted by more exotic and terrifying societies, although the Rosicrucian strain in conspiracy theories never entirely went away. (Witness, for instance, the curious career of Walter Arensberg, who plays a small but crucial role in The Icon Thief, and about whom I’ll have much more to say later.) And as I continued to dig, I found that the Rosicrucians would take me, as a writer, in a lot of fascinating directions. Most promisingly, in light of my intended project, the Rosicrucians had a surprising influence on both the history of art and the history of Russia, where, as I learned from James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe, the Rosicrucians in Moscow were the first of the secret philosophical societies that would play such an important role in Russia’s evolution. It was a novelist’s dream: a genuinely mysterious tradition, long neglected, but rich in symbols and secrets, that would bind together much of the story I had in mind. And that’s when I decided that it was finally time to give the world another Rosicrucian novel.

This was all very well, but I still lacked one crucial element: an artist who would tie all these threads together. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, it was by the purest accident that I arrived at the final piece of the puzzle, the man whom André Breton called “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century.”

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