Monday 4 April 2016

Mr Toomey takes on the Nazis

In Anthony Burgess's clobbering masterpiece Earthly Powers (1980) the narrator Kenneth Toomey (a gay author who, Zelig-like, happens to be present at most of the significant events of the 20th century) has at one point  in the Second World War, to win his freedom by agreeing, for propaganda purposes, to appear on a radio programme in Nazi Germany. The interview concludes thus, Toomey speaking first:


arcus Aurelius put it rather well, I think. He said: "For us creatures, knowledge that He exists beatifies life".

'Very beautiful, Mr Toomey.'

'" - Or opens doors, yielding noble actions. Zeal inspires sanctity."'

'Have you a message for the German and the British peoples?'

'Yes. May all your hearts in the long eras rolling relentlessly on teach innosence, not hate. Everyone - everyone - '

'Yes, Mr Toomey?'

'Learn love.'

© The Estate of Anthony Burgess

Its seems straightforward, but Burgess via Toomey, has concealed an acronymic insult. Marcus Aurelius never wrote anything like the passage beginning 'For us creatures, knowledge . . .' so go back and carefully pick out the insult to der Führer and his vermin..

I wonder - has any Joyce scholar ever picked through Finnegans Wake to find such hidden formulations?  I find it hard to believe that there aren't many such - formulations I mean. And scholars, come to that. Get weaving, chaps.

There's a useful term linked to the sudden recognition of hidden messages in a text. In the satirical and cultish Illunminatus trilogy (1975) the authors Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson coined - or rather borrowed - the word fnord. Here's Wikipedia:

In these novels, the interjection 'fnord' is given hypnotic power over the unenlightened. Under the Illuminati program, children in grade school are taught to be unable to consciously see the word 'fnord'. For the rest of their lives, every appearance of the word subconsciously generates a feeling of uneasiness and confusion, and prevents rational consideration of the subject. This results in a perpetual low-grade state of fear in the populace. The government acts on the premise that a fearful populace keeps them in power.

In the Shea/Wilson construct, fnords are scattered liberally in the text of newspapers and magazines, causing fear and anxiety in those following current events. However, there are no fnords in the advertisements, encouraging a consumerist society. It is implied in the books that fnord is not the actual word used for this task, but merely a substitute, since most readers would be unable to see the actual word.

The triumphant phrase 'I see the fnords!' comes at the moment of enlightenment, or illumination, when the hypnotic spell is broken and authority rejected. I admired the Illuminatus books as a teenager and even saw the legendary Ken Campbell production at the National Theatre - eight hours (was it?) of ramshackle anarchy. I doubt whether they have stood up after all these years, although the skewering of consumer society values and the commodification of everything was then the subject of dysptopian speculation - now it's here for real. The idea of fnords comes to mind whenever I visit the Daily Mail website - but that's another subject for another blog, and soon. 
Fnords, then, are the lexical equivalent of those 'invisible' subliminal cuts in cinema advertising (now apparently outlawed) that influence the spectator at an umconscious level. To be sure there are other words, real words, that have a certain trigger value exploited by journalists and politicians - think of the various weights given to refugee, asylum seeker, migrant and immigrant.

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