Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
I Piss on You From a Great Height!
1/29/2008 8:01:57 PM
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Convention as a structural socialising component of civilisation invariably tends to result in conceptual entrenchment of tradition, solidification of cultural heritage, consolidation of economic uniformity, and the hegemony of mainstream social conformity. There are a great many human institutions set up on our planet to assure that convention reigns supreme over the behavior affects and attitudes of the broad masses of people. Since convention is the norm, therefore all the more do I tend to appreciate those solitary, often singularly unique, and always controversial social iconoclasts and deep thinkers who repudiate convention and dare to dream outside the constraints of that typically oppressive uniformity. The following paragraphs concern themselves with several of these extreme individualists.
“I PISS ON YOU FROM A GREAT HEIGHT!”...
What great mountaineer uttered these immortal words? If you guessed Aleister Crowley, you’d be wrong (but nice try anyway!) and it certainly wasn’t recently demised New Zealander Ed Hillary! If you guessed Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (who used the pseudonymic surname ‘Celine’ in his writings--actually the Christian name of his maternal grandmother), you’d still be wrong, but only by virtue of a technicality (since Celine was NOT a mountaineer, although it is indeed his memorable phrase).
The phrase in reference is reputed to have been disparagingly levied at Celine’s critics, after he returned to France from exile, and it is (I believe), a testament to Celine’s unique individuality that he was able (by virtue of his supremely strong faith in his nihilistic assessments of the human race) to summarily dismiss those who savagely castigated him for his pro-German, anti-Semitic associations, during the German occupation of the Second World War. I was personally somewhat disappointed to learn that a triumphant climb of the Grandes Jorasse in the French Alps somewhat ahead of a competing English party of climbers had not inspired this wonderful bit of repartee, but it is still a wonderfully stylish way of saying “Piss off!”
Celine was as outrageous as he was unique, and although a physician as well as a writer, his personal view of life was anything but congruent with the Hippocratic Oath. Although perhaps a hypocritical hypochondriac.
Celine may not have been a mountaineer, but it is probably good that he wasn’t, since even without assuming the characteristics and traits of uniquely distinctive individualism that an infatuation with high places seems to foster, the schadenfreude nature of his personal Weltanschaung placed him well within the league of other supreme egoists (such as Crowley, whom I shall address somewhat later in this discourse) who utterly rejected hope as a faith for fools to embrace.
Celine’s transcendent disdain for humanity is palpably felt in the following excerpt from his first novel, ‘Voyage au Bout de La Nuit’ (‘Journey to the End of Night’): “From up high where I was, you could shout anything that you like at them. I tried. They made me sick, the whole lot of them. I hadn’t the nerve to tell them so in the daytime, but up there, in the anonymity of blackest night it was safe. ‘Help, help!’ I shouted, just to see if it would have any effect on them. None whatsoever. These people were pushing life and night and day in front of them. Life hides everything from people. Their own noise prevents them from hearing anything else. They couldn’t care less. The bigger and taller the city, the less they care. Take it from me. I’ve tried. It’s a waste of time.”
His first two books, ‘Journey to the End of Night’ (1932) and ’Death on the Installment Plan’ (1936) written after he had taken his medical degree and been established in Parisian medical practice for a while, boosted Celine into public prominence. They were thinly disguised autobiographical interpretations of his own early personal life experiences and reflected his nihilistic recoil at the infinitely sad complexities of life that fluctuated insanely between the polar chaos of wildly unstable rational thought and utterly relative emotional objectivism. Celine’s later published works, most of which have seen translation from the original French into English, paint a progressively bitterly hopeless, chaotic, nihilistic, and utterly despairing picture of the collective fate of humanity. Descending from tragic pathos into the stygian depths of abject hopelessness by virtue of his inability to actively share his acutely painful outlook with any other person, Celine increasingly painted himself into a mental corner of hateful rage against the perceived sufferings of human kind until he fell entirely through the false bottom floor of reality.
Another excerpt from ‘Voyage au Bout de La Nuit’ follows: “In this world we spent our time killing or adoring, or both together. ‘I hate you! I adore you!’ We keep going, we fuel and refuel, we pass on our life to a biped of the next century, with frenzy, o any cost, as if it were the greatest of pleasures to perpetuate ourselves, as if, when all’s said and done, it would make us immortal. One way or another, kissing is as indispensable as scratching.”
An argument may be made that his experiences in the First World War had profound impact on what followed in his life, since having only received a basic education by the time the war broke out in 1912, at the moment of his enlistment in a French cavalry unit, he was only 18. During the savage, brutally inhuman carnage experienced at the Ypres Salient, he was severely wounded. Injuries received there left him with a left arm handicap, severe headaches, and a lifetime affliction with Tinnitus (ringing and buzzing of the ears). Infrequent note is made of the immensely internalised emotional trauma incurred by any and all who fought in the WWI trenches and who were subject to the unimaginable horrors of being shelled by artillery that so characterised static trench warfare, but Celine was undoubtedly as greatly traumatized (or more so) by his wartime experience as any modern war victim with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. All of this, added to the base quality of post-war France and world affairs set into motion as a result of that war (the Communist Revolution chief among them), contributed immeasurably towards Celine’s utter loss of faith in his fellow man.
Another quote from ‘Voyage au Bout de La Nuit’: “Those who talk about the future are scoundrels. It is the present that matters. To evoke one’s posterity is to make a speech to maggots.”
When France fell to Germany in 1940, the result of a war as fully provoked by the unsatisfactory termination of the first one as by any other factor, Celine remained in France where he worked in municipal clinics. The development of Celine’s strongly anti-Semitic feelings resulted in a series of pacifistic pamphlets in the traditional French manner (hundreds of pages) that delineated these feelings and although these sentiments were pointed to later as primary evidence of collaboration with the Germans, it remains a fact that he was often anti-Communistic in his orientation, and at odd times even anti-German. When the Allies repatriated France, Celine fled to Germany and the devastation of Berlin, eventually settling in Denmark, where he was arrested and imprisoned at the behest of the French Resistance.
In 1951 Celine was eventually cleared by a court in France and exonerated, although his post World War 2 life was forever haunted by the lingering accusations of anti-Semitism and German collaboration. Black-listed by the French literati (even by Sarte and others whom he had originally inspired and whom he had originally lionised), his works were ignored and rejected. In 1961 he suffered an aneurysm and died on the outskirts of Paris.
In recent years, his brilliantly tragic awareness of the absurdity of all human life and the senselessness that humanity endures has been rehabilitated to a great degree and in more recent years an increasing number of his later works have been translated into English.
It has always been to me most interesting that Celine’s works were all more or less based on his own life and his personal experiences. This has traditionally been a prime dictum for any aspiring author—write about what you know—and quotes most often attributed to him today are invariably pithy, scathingly pessimistic and futilely antiheroic in the essence of that hopelessness they convey about human life.
I have a feeling that had Celine not been so powerfully affected by his wartime experiences and instead found refuge in the vastly beautiful French mountains, the world would be the worse off for having not been so profoundly impacted by his usefully antagonistic rejection of religious hope, faith, and the (fanciful) promises of figurative human redemption offered as a sop to dreadful reality by most conventional deities (God, Allah, or whomever).
Having related all of the foregoing history, I am reminded that Celine’s famously disdainful declamation “I piss on you from a great height!” was well recalled by Yosemite Valley rock climbers of the late 50s and early 60s (Yosemite Valley ‘Golden Age’ rock climber Steve Roper references this in his book, ‘Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Climber’), since their original artificially aided ascents involved prolonged bivvies, perched precariously over the abyss of that awesome infinity that stretches thousands of feet above the Valley floor. Taking dumps and loosing a whiz or two from those ‘great heights’ were physically real and genuinely necessary counterparts to Celine’s more figurative and allegorical act, a fact that was not for a moment lost on the irreverent (and also mildly nihilistic) Yosemite ‘Golden Age’ Camp 4 rock-rats who pioneered the first free climbs of those sheer granite walls.
At an opposite corner of the radically nihilistic portion of the mountaineering envelope was another of the ‘Fin de siècle’ notables, Aleister Crowley. Crowley, arguably one of the simultaneously most interesting and repellently bizarre personalities of the late 1800s and early 1900s, garnered a reputation throughout his life as ‘the wickedest man on Earth’ for his interest in the occult.
Crowley, destined to become notorious as (among many other things) a supreme egoist (in an age that produced many), was born on 12 October 1875, some 18 years after the founding of the English Alpine Club and only 10 years after early Alpinist Edward Whymper’s first successful ascent of the Matterhorn. The son of a man who had inherited his wealth from a well-to-do English producer of ales (The Crowley Brewery) was involuntarily immersed at birth in an ultra religious Christian evangelical environment, since his parents belonged to an extreme sect of the ‘Plymouth Brethren’ known as the ‘Exclusive Brethren’. Long story short, Crowley was ‘lifestyle-enabled’ by virtue of his family’s wealth and probably largely the result of being a strong-willed, rebellious, and highly intelligent young man, was propelled towards the opposite extreme of Christian convention after the early death of his father left the family’s rather substantial fortune to him. Entering Cambridge, subsequent to having studied in several public schools in the UK, Crowley read English literature (after having switched from the moral sciences). At the age of 21, for reasons still not fully understood, he veered off on a course that found him increasingly drawn up in a study of the occult and ‘black magic’. He was also involved, while at Cambridge, in homoerotic associations with several others, although it should be noted that Oscar Wilde was first arrested and imprisoned for ‘the love that dares not speak its name’ during the first year Crowley was at Cambridge. [it should also be mentioned that the late 1800s and early 1900s also found much homosexual ‘admiration’ in common currency among young men. This fact doubtless had much to do with the nature of the English ‘public school’ system and it figures in literature of the period to a substantial degree (viz. D.H. Lawrence’s works, etc.). Even legendary Everester George-Leigh Mallory (lost with Irvine on the tragic 1924 British Everest Expedition) was subject to innuendos of this sort, due to the celebration of masculinity that commonly pervaded male ethics of that era, and in fact there is enough evidence to suggest that homoerotic passions certainly circulated around Mallory among his close friends, even though there appears to be no direct evidence to show that he was ever willingly a homosexual, to the best of my knowledge].
It was while at Cambridge that Crowley became interested in mountaineering and after learning the basics at Cumberland Fells and Beachy Head, he spent a great number of holidays in Europe climbing frequently in the Benese Oberland region (Eiger, etc) o Switzerland. With his fanatical personal conviction and supreme self-confidence, he soon established a reputation as an excellent climber, being credited many solo climbs and also with several first ascents of various Alpine routes in the Swiss Alps. This is not too hard to understand, for in the early 1900s, mountaineering was widely regarded in the same manner as was Arctic exploration--a very masculine and uniquely English undertaking, combining elements of adventure, heroism, egoism, and the very stuff of classic late Victorian English eclecticism. This was also a period in which lectures and public speaking events focused upon the early Alpine ascents were proving very popular in London and other major population centers in England, since the pioneering Victorian preoccupation with climbing mountains for sport had caught the public’s fascination in a spectacular manner.
Crowley’s participation in mountaineering found him involved in 1902 with the first attempt to climb K2, the so-called ‘killer mountain’, situated in the Karakorum Range between Pakistan and China. Although unsuccessful, that expedition was a highly contentious undertaking for a number of reasons. Among these was the arrest of the expedition leader (Oscar Eckenstein) in Pakistan, a circumstance that reportedly involved the then-president of the English Alpine Club, one William Conway (who was apparently Eckenstein’s nemesis). Shortly after being interned for a three week period of detention in Kashmir, owing to his arrest, Eckenstein then returned to the K2 basecamp only to find himself immersed in a raging disagreement over which route to take up the formidable mountain. Despite a consensus among the climbers that favored taking the Northeast crest route, Crowley (described in accounts of the affair as ‘bizarre and irreverent’) held out for an ascent of the Southeast ridge. Crowley, as events turned out, was correct, and the first climbing attempt had to turn back at only 6000 meters. In base camp, There was talk of ending the expedition at that time, but Crowley is reported to have pulled out a revolver and threatened several of the other climbers to make his point that the Southwest ridge would ‘go’; whatever the circumstances of the decision to press on, a second attempt was subsequently made up his suggested Southeast ridge route.
This route, taking the climbers into the saddle between K2 (at 8611 meters, the world’s second highest mountain after Everest) and Skyang Kangri (a peak of 7544 meters), promised to allow the possibility of success, but when a fellow climber showed evidence of developing pulmonary edema, Crowley supposedly recognised the man’s peril and insisted on evacuating the man off the mountain. While his actions apparently saved the man’s life, it also ruined any slim chance of the team’s successful ascent.
Simply a further enigmatic episode from a continuing subsequent series of enigmatic events in Crowley’s life, perhaps, but it is highly interesting to speculate that K2, still to this day widely regarded as one of (if not the) most dangerous mountains in the entire world, might have fallen to a successful summit team led by Crowley as early as 1902 (K2, ‘The Killer Mountain’, finally fell in 1954 to two Italian climbers, some 52 years later!). Of course, one of the things that makes K2 especially dangerous is its notoriously unstable weather, a subjective hazard created by its isolated location in the midst of an otherwise sheltered geographic location, that has repeatedly frustrated attempts on it throughout the years. In much the same manner that an isolated peak, such as California’s Mount Shasta that also stands alone, K2 can and usually does create its own unique meteorological microclime that makes it an especially hazardous climb (when factored into its other liabilities of extreme height and vertical nature).
After the return from K2, Crowley’s mountaineering interests continued at least sporadically until in 1905, when at the age of 30 he was approached to join a team that was proposing to climb Kangchenjunga in Nepal (the world’s third highest mountain, at 8586 meters). This expedition, also highly embroiled in conflict and unfavorable circumstances, found Crowley involved in a climbing accident in which 3 sherpas and a fellow climber were caught in an avalanche at high altitude and buried under the snow. Various accounts speculate on the circumstances, but accusations were made that Crowley failed to help the others try to recover the buried climbers and essentially turned his back on the attempts. Whatever the true circumstances of that particularly contentious event, this expedition also failed to summit the peak after reaching about 22,000 feet (Crowley claims he personally reached over 25,000 feet) and shortly thereafter returned to England.
Upon his return, Crowley became even further involved in the pursuit of ‘magick (his unique term) and the more extreme limits of the pursuit of the occult. At any rate, this pivotal vector off the mainstream of conventional occult belief led to an intensely sensational cult-following attendant to Crowley’s supreme egotism and interest in what he deliberately termed ‘Black Magick’ (to differentiate between it and traditional preoccupations with traditional ‘magic’). Crowley became actively involved with a number of prominent occult organizations and as a highly literate individual, poet, and writer, published a number of papers on this arcane area of activity. This, combined with the always strong demands of his sexual drive, resulted in his literally taking over several occult groups of the era and establishing himself as the supremely notorious and outrageous figure he is today regarded as.
Another influence on Crowley’s life that is worth mentioning here is an increasing addiction to heroin, a narcotic that was in those days commonly prescribed for relief of bronchial asthma (!). It is interesting to speculate on the fact that Crowley was an asthmatic, I think, since asthma is a symptom indicative, in all too many cases, of an extremely high level of emotional volatility.
As Crowley’s heroin use and his experimentation with a wide range of drugs continued over the following decades, he became increasingly more and more bizarre in both his behavior and beliefs. At one point he believed his second wife was a bat and had her tied up and forced to sleep upside down at night in a closet (hard to believe, but apparently true). His several wives were either driven mad by his behavior or otherwise perished, and to say that Aleister Crowley was one of the most unique and distinctively different anti-social characters to emerge from the early 1900s is considerably understating things. He died in 1947, at the age of 72, of a respiratory infection—a rather long life for someone who had religiously violated just about every tenet of good health and prudent living anyone could imagine. At the time of his death he was addicted to a daily amount of heroin in general described as ‘5 times the dose’ that would be terminally deadly to an ordinary individual.
Among the characteristics Crowley is today noted for, in addition to his arcane occult predilections, his profuse literature, his sexual aestheticism, and his reputation as a seeker after moral ‘wickedness’, Aleister Crowley was also an outspoken racist, an extremely chauvinistic sexist, and a heavy substance abuser. It is safe to say that Crowley was the product of an era that set the stage for such an exaggeratedly extreme lifestyle (the end of the morally repressive Victorian age), but he was certainly decades ahead of his times in pursuit of vices that even today would be considered shocking and highly controversial. Despite those excesses for which he is best known, his reputation for being a considerably talented and driven mountaineer early in his life (before he started abusing substances) should not be dismissed or otherwise buried in the avalanche of notoriety that surrounded his always outrageous life. He was arguably brilliant in terms of setting himself apart from others of his era, no matter what you may think of his morals.
For an excellent summary of information surrounding the many events of Aleister Crowley’s controversial life, dial up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleister_Crowley .
(Caution: Don’t try any of these things at home, kids. Professional lunatics, closed course lifestyles).
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