July 14th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Regarding Against His-Story, Against Leviathan

I got one surprise from cataloging my library on LibraryThing.com. I found out that, even no more users than there are yet, there are at least two other people on LibraryThing.com who own what I thought of as the single most obscure book in my library: Fredy Perlman's Against His-Story, Against Leviathan. An anonymous fan of my Fidonet BBS "Weirdbase" sent me a copy back in the mid to late 1980s. It's a nearly incomprehensible but deeply fascinating book. And if there's any one single book in my collection that seems best equipped to prove the idea that a book can drive you insane, it's probably this one.

The book itself starts, although it doesn't warn you of this, with a spell. As with the famous (fictional) The King in Yellow, if you read that first chapter all the way through then the spell is automatically cast on you, and you lose a certain amount of sanity to start with. Its beginning is as incoherent as the famous opening chapter of Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy, and for a similar artistic reason. The author doesn't just want to teach you history. He doesn't just want to teach you an alternate reading of history. He wants to challenge the assumptions that underlie everything you think about history, the deepest habits of thought that you use to construct a meaningful interpretation of chronology. He could try doing that with a reasoned, philosophical argument. In fact, in his much earlier and most famous 1969 essay, "The Reproduction of Daily Life," he tried just that. But when it comes to over-writing deep linguistic and logical structures, philosophy is a poor tool, like trying to use a screwdriver to pound a nail. So he opens his 1982 book with (although he doesn't label it that) page after page of poetry and spellcraft.

That gives the book a certain "surface tension" that, I don't doubt, has kept many people from finishing it, and thereby preserved their sanity. But to the susceptible, once you break that surface tension you find that it's just as hard to penetrate from the underside going up and out as it was from the top down and in. Once you've absorbed his pattern of thought, and learned the unique constructed vocabulary of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, the harder it is to un-think it.

To try to strip the glamour away from the book without leaving behind only dead, dry bones, Perlman's thesis was this. When neolithic humans first began agricultural cultivation in modern-day Iraq, between the boundaries of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, they found (as all students of history know) they had discovered a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, they had discovered some of the most fertile soil on earth. On the other hand, that land was almost always too swampy to cultivate. What made it possible for them to even begin building civilization there was the digging of drainage canals. But Perlman hypothesizes that a day came when a war leader, the first lugal, came up with the brilliant idea of instead of driving neighboring tribes off of their land during war, of leaving behind the (less fertile than his own) land and taking away the tribe itself, making them the first zeks. He was the man who invented slavery. By using the force of his military victory to make other people dig the drainage canals so that his own tribe could enjoy the benefits of having maintained drainage canals without having to do the work, he invented the self-sufficient structure that orthodox historians call the Bronze Age -- the first divine king, the first hereditary aristocracy, the first nation where everybody else who lived there were slaves to that king and his small tribe. But (and this is fundamental to Perlman's analysis) the lugal himself was unaware of the fact that he had created not just new rules, but a new system. And not just any system, but one that fulfills all of the scientific definitions of a living organism: irritability, self-sustenance, self-repair, and reproduction. He had not just changed the way his tribe and the nearby tribes lived, he had given birth to a vast psychic organism, a colony creature, a hive mind that twists and absorbs the lugal and his tribe just as thoroughly as it twists and absorbs the zeks. And, Perlman documents, the appetites of this creature, which he names Leviathan, are such that it can only be defined as mad.

From that change in perspective onward, and with his own constructed vocabulary no less opaque (and yet useful) than Internet jargon or the constructed slang of A Clockwork Orange, he tells the same story you learned in your history classes ... but now you're seeing it through a fun-house mirror. (Or, Perlman would say, you're seeing it clearly for the first time in your life, free of the psychic domination of Leviathan.) What historians call the progress of civilization, Perlman calls the expansion of Leviathan, then the hiving of Leviathan into two warring members of the same species, Leviathan (monarchic totalitarianism) versus the Octopus (hierarchical classist, aka "republican," capitalism), whose struggle for dominance over each other is wrecking the world. But they don't just struggle against each other. From the days of the very first zeks under the very first lugal, there have been escapees, human beings who broke the spell and fled beyond the skin of Leviathan (or the Octopus) to live in freedom -- barbarians, pilgrims, ranters and diggers, tri-racial isolate communities, communards and so on. But Leviathans instinctively recognize any colony of free people as a dangerous microorganism. If the idea of living without Leviathan were to migrate inward through the creature's skin, zeks might flee in sufficient numbers to threaten the survival of the organism, and it is this, even more than hunger for more land to despoil and minds to enslave, that drives the relentless expansion of civilization to the furthest corners of the globe.

Entirely convincing? Not entirely. Although there have been people who (as I have no doubt Perlman hoped) read this book and dedicated their lives to anarcho-primitivism, most people put the book down and attempt to go back to living their daily lives, as if they had only read a book, as if it were only one more philosophy or theory or fiction like any other that they've read. But once you've read this book, you're equipped with a vocabulary and a set of concepts that let you see, understand, and describe things around you that are incomprehensible or even invisible to the people around you. That puts your sanity in a precarious position, that of the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. Worse, really. It's more like if you were in the position of someone who lost both eyes to bizarre toxic waste only to discover that anybody who did so would instantly inherit much-superior senses; anybody you tried to show this to would resist you as if their very life was at risk, no matter how many times you showed them that your new, enhanced senses were better than theirs. Having read Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, you can try to explain the concepts to others (the way I have here) only to know that it'll fall flat. Or you can try to get them to read the book, knowing wryly that most people you try to persuade to read it will never try and that of those who try, few of those who attempt to complete the "spell" that is the opening chapter will ever manage it. That leaves you with a curious kind of "double vision" not entirely unlike Philip K. Dick's personal "VALIS" experience, a kind of induced near-schizophrenia. And if that's not "being driven insane by a book," what is it?