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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?


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 14th, 2006 02:58 pm (UTC)

i apologize if you’re already aware of this, but Perlman’s use of the term “Leviathan” is almost assuredly a reference to Thomas Hobbes, who introduced a very similar concept during the 17th century. this is hardly forbidden lore; i first encountered this in high school.


Jul. 14th, 2006 03:17 pm (UTC)
Aware. Credited in the book, I think as early as page 1 or 2.
Jul. 14th, 2006 03:26 pm (UTC)
you can try to explain the concepts to others (the way I have here) only to know that it'll fall flat.

Don't sell yourself short. I'm too enmeshed in (probably) the Octopus to try and live outside it, but it resonates with other things I've read and seen: Asherah in Snow Crash; the first entry in RAW's Everything is Under Control, the one on A-albionic research, and one of the last, on The Yankee-Cowboy War; The Invisibles and its rip-off The Matrix (I almost used my Neo icon with the keywords "dreaming of Zion awake", but I decided Gideon Stargrave was a better fit); the realities of life on Earth in this foul year of their Lord 2006...
Jul. 14th, 2006 04:08 pm (UTC)
...and one other thing I just remembered: the Church of Euthanasia's public statement The Octopus. (I wonder if Rev. Chris got the term from Perlman?)
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 15th, 2006 02:32 pm (UTC)
My copy of EiUC is currently somewhat buried, but I guess the thing is possible.
Jul. 14th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC)
Have you read The Axemaker's Gift? It had a similar, if slightly less subversive effect on me.

*adds Against His-Story, Against Leviathan to her books to read list*
Jul. 14th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)

Huh! I wasn't the first one to see this, then.

You might also check out Lewis Mumford's idea of the "megamachine"; society as a "machine" for amplifying political power the way steam engines magnify physical power. Different metaphor; same basic concept.

Jul. 14th, 2006 03:45 pm (UTC)
The way civilization treats aboriginals has seemed like an immume reaction to me for a long time. What you've got there could be a more general explanation.

Edited at 2014-08-04 03:10 am (UTC)
Jul. 14th, 2006 03:49 pm (UTC)
A book that starts with a spell, that induces madness? Great. Thanks. Now I have to read it. I'm glad that copies are still available for a decent price.
Jul. 14th, 2006 03:52 pm (UTC)
PS I'd love your list of "Brad's top forbidden lore books."
Jul. 14th, 2006 05:29 pm (UTC)
Hmmm maybe this is a xenophobic reaction...
Or perhaps this explains the xenophobic reaction. It may also explain why certain groups of people see things like homosexuality as evil, even though they know someone who is and they are OK with that. (I am talking to YOU Dick Cheney!) If the collective consciousness of the group sees the other collective consciousness of the other group, then the initial reaction may be assimilate or die, and then a war breaks out.

The Communist Manifesto indicates that the only way that Communism works is when EVERYONE practices this way. This made Communism very scary to those in 1st world countries, and very attractive to 3rd world countries at the time. It is the same kind of thing, isn't it? Kill the strange.

And yes, I think the Daredevil analogy is apt. (But Dude, I won't have any eyes!)
Jul. 15th, 2006 02:51 am (UTC)
I'm not sure if it's entirely your thing, but if you can track down a copy of GURPS Horror, 3rd edition, by Ken Hite, you should look at the campaign setting on p. 117: The Madness Dossier. In a nutshell: ancient beings (modeled on Mesopotamian myth) created/enslaved humanity and then were buried in a natural disaster so bad, it rewrote history. The result is a setting pretty clearly influenced by VALIS and Snow Crash -- some of the creatures or their servants are still poking around, trying to rewrite history to the way it was before 535 AD (when the cataclysm occured) and using deep linguistic programming to do it. The PCs (as written) are the humans who must maintain the lie to ensure the continued liberty, such as it is, of humanity.
Dec. 31st, 2006 11:38 am (UTC)
I'm new to this journal, and just got here via your "year in review" post. I have a question for you -- could you please define for me your usage of the word "spell" in this post?

After reading this, I went and found an excerpt here and read it. (aside: your post is on the first page of links on a Google search for the title of this book).

Mildly interesting stuff, but from what I've read so far I'm not convinced that the existence of a self-sustaining conglomerate socio-technological organism is necessarily a death warrant for the planet.

I'm not sure I'm perfectly happy with the one(s) we have now, but perhaps we can engineer a new one that still allows us the structure to retain our technology and knowledge without making life inherently more unfair to humans-as-individuals?
Dec. 31st, 2006 08:23 pm (UTC)
That excerpt stops about 1/3rd of the way through the spell, so it's not surprising you're unimpressed.

The Old Testament Hebrew word that is translated as "witch" in Exodus 22 is "kawshaph" or "kawsheph." It's posed a problem for translators ever since, because the word appears in no other document and is never explained, described, defined, or shown in operation. Strong, when he wrote his famous Concordance, argued that the nearest Hebrew cognate, the root of the word, is a word that means "to mutter" or to "whisper," and from his explanation I took away the realization that the best possible English translation of "kawshaph" is "enchanter" -- one who bends or breaks your mind through chanted, muttered, and whispered language. And Perlman's book, here, is just that ... an enCHANTment.

Shortly after the excerpt you linked to, he starts telling the history I mentioned above ... only he very, very deliberately (I think) doesn't define the Babylonian, Sumerian, and Akkadian words that he sprinkles his narrative with until much later. The effect is that of listening to someone who clearly and obviously makes sense, but your brain keeps hitting these speed bumps where it tries to figure out the technical word it doesn't know from context. And the rhythms and language are used with poetic, artistic, precise rhythm designed specifically to break through any conscious resistance you have to his ideas long before you notice that he's doing so. Unlike his "Reproduction of Daily Life," here he doesn't try to persuade you until after he has, in the most literal sense of the words, changed your mind.

As I said, it doesn't work on everybody. But when it does work, I'm comfortable enough with my description that the best metaphor for how it works is to compare what he is doing to casting a spell on you.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )