November 2011

Matt McGregor

fiction

Thrown Into Nature by Milen Ruskov, translated by Angela Rodel

For all the pompous platitudes on the sanctity of the Western Tradition -- I'm looking at you, Niall Ferguson -- you will find, if you care to look, that the archive of western thought is mostly one of official-sounding bullshit. Let me give you an example. In the middle of the eighteenth century, prominent scientist, physician, archaeologist, vicar, Freemason, and druid William Stukeley gave a lecture to the Royal Society, entitled "On the Spleen." To general acclaim, Stukeley looked into the common assumption that the spleen was responsible for melancholic dispositions like "the vapors," which afflicted, as everyone knew, both women and the English. As Anne Finch would put it, the spleen was "Proteus to abused mankind"; but Stukeley believed that the spleen could also produce†humor, mirth, and pleasure. "Nature," he declared in his lecture, "seems to have made it in a very merry mood."†Behind Stukeley lay a deceased elephant, recently dissected for the crowd.††

Later, Stukeley would become famous for his treatise†The Philosophy of Earthquakes,†and would write the first official biography of his friend Isaac Newton. At the time, the speculations of this learned druid were as respected as the†Principia Mathematica. Today, Stukeley's grand array of treatises have devolved into a historical quirk, as scientifically respectable as Ezra Pound's theories of money, Hegel's theories of race, and Milton's theories of the divine.††

The point, as Milen Ruskov implies in†Thrown into Nature, is that truth is less interesting, less important, and less hilarious than belief. Accordingly, Ruskov places at the center of his novel the famous Dr. Nicolas Monandes, tobacco-expert and pro-cigarillo propagandist, whose "tract about tobacco was published in Sevilla under the title†On Tobacco and its Great Virtues, by Dr. Nicholas Monandes, M.D. LL.D. I.S.O. M.A. D.J. M.C." Accompanying him is Guimar„es da Silva, his student and our narrator, a self-interested, often tiresome charlatan, whose dull beliefs about nature ("Is there anything more endlessly energetic, more lavishly fertile, yet crazier than she?") are one of the few drags on this consciously "madcap" ride through Renaissance Europe.††

This book has its pretensions -- including the title, which, believe it or not, echoes Heidegger -- but it's mostly a book of jokes, of oddball throwaways, historical quirks, and farcical plotlines.†Thrown into Nature, that is, makes sure it is stupid before it tries to be smart. And that's absolutely how it should be. For an example, let's turn to the table of contents, which begins: "1. Against Death. 2. Intestinal Worms, Enemas. 3. For Having a Good Time. 3b. The Title Will Be Thought Up in December. 3c. The Following Summer. 37. Costa del Sol, Costa del' Luz. 373. Clarification? 4. Female Swelling."††

You either get it or you don't. Sometimes, Ruskov is brilliantly deadpan: "I approve of and recommend tobacco smoke as necessary and useful to people with an elevated content of cold and wet elements in their bodily composition." Later, after transcribing a debate at Oxford, Guimar„es admits that, "The reader might be wondering how I learned English so quickly as to be able to act as stenographer." As he explains, "I learned it on the ship, the†Hyguiene, on our way here. The truth is that I have an exceptional gift for languages."†††

The gags keep coming. In one of many medical scenes, Monandes lights a cigar and hands it to his protťgťe, who is standing over a diseased-ridden corpse. After Guimar„es pauses, Monandes says, "Don't worry, it's the perfect disinfectant." "I knew this was the case," Guimar„es explains, "but sometimes fear takes hold of you." When the doctor travels to England, he is invited to give a lecture at Eton college. Here, the students managed to survive the plague after the dean thoughtfully "arranged for all the boys of Eton to smoke a pipe every morning as a disinfectant." The tobacco-as-cure deadpans pile up: tobacco exorcizing the devil, tobacco curing bad breath, tobacco curing toothaches, etc. So yes, as always, Ruskov mercilessly harvests the low hanging fruit, and sometimes leans rather too heavily on the innate hilariousness of Renaissance quackery. At times, you begin to skim for gags, as da Silva's dumb philosophizing, labored banalities, and periodically forced slang begin to grate. But, in the end, for the most part, this book is fucking hilarious.††††††††††††

Which is not to say that some jokes aren't on the nose. Wacky Historical Coincidence is one of the biggest, fattest clichťs of comedy writing -- what comedy writers call a "clam" -- and Ruskov dives into what might well be the clam of all clams. On their visit to England, our characters are guided around London by the respected "Senor Johnson" -- that's right -- who takes them to a theater called The Globe -- I know, I know -- where they watch -- oh boy -- a production of†Hamlet.††

But Ruskov, rather miraculously, rescues the tale from these clammy depths. When we get to the scene with the saucy gravediggers and Hamlet's meditation on the skull of Poor Yorick ("I knew him, Horatio"), a voice rings out from the audience: "I knew him, too!" Soon the crowd is crying, "Bravo! Bravo! And applauding. Then someone began whistling. Mr Perky, Dr Monandes, and Senor Johnson beat out the others, being the first to begin booing. Naturally I joined them immediately." By this stage, our narrator is more concerned with the snack-boy -- "Pluck for me, too" --than the action on the stage. The crowd stop listening to the enigmatic lines; and eventually, we must turn to old Ben Johnson to summarize the action: "'That man Bill... he always does that... he puts one ingenious phrase... in a sea of nonsense.' He tossed two hazelnuts in his mouth."†

This is a not a stupid novel, but a novel in which stupid things happen. There is a difference. While they are in England, our heroes attend a debate at Oxford, organized and introduced by King James I, on the efficacy of tobacco as a cure. James, for his part, wishes to use the debate to justify a tax on tobacco consumption. After the King gives his argument, he introduces the "scholar Joshua Sylvester," author of the book "Tobacco Shattered and the Pipe Shattered about their Eares, that idely Idolize so base and barbarous a Weed, or at least overlove so loathsome a Vanity, by a Volley of Holy Shot Thundered from Mount Helicon." Sylvester expands on the king's case against tobacco, based on his "experiments with the poor in London."†

Dr. Monandes, among others, is then given the opportunity to rebut; and while the arguments on either side are predictably ridiculous, the point is that Dr. Monandes†wins.†Throughout this book, nominally an extended study on the capacity of tobacco to cure-what-ails-you, we wait in vain for the pompous charlatan Monandes to† receive his comeuppance. But†Thrown into Nature†is, happily, comeuppance-free. While, toward the end, Monandes begins to suffer the effects of what is presumably lung cancer, he never doubts "the powerful and exotic qualities of that vigorous substance."†

And Monandes is not the only example of officially sanctioned charlatans.†Thrown into Nature†is rich with corruption and bum remedies, tricksters and schemers, officials taking a slice and experts growing fat from misfortune. The most disheartening example is that of the plague, a familiar sight in Renaissance Europe, and a most profitable one for doctors like Monandes.†Predictably, as it arrives, the hucksters swoop, and the cities most reputable physicians agree to take turns at the public teat. While the poor die in their thousands, Monandes performs his general cure, burning, at the city's expense, small piles of tobacco at every crossroad. As Guimar„es explains, "The whole trick is to scare them. They'll go around shitting themselves from fear and emptying their pockets, yet thankful they are alive and well."††

Guimar„es makes a great fuss about the nature of nature, and it is funny, for a while. On seeing a corpse, he initially exclaims, "Murdered by Nature!" Mostly, though, his speculations are bog-standard pop-philosophy:†

Nature is very inefficient.†Everything is done slap-dash, willy-nilly. She alone is the procreator of the world! Nature may be all sorts of things, but at least she is all-powerful.†How cleverly Nature has done things, I thought to myself.†She made both the male and the female.†If she had only made one, the world would be different.†

As the novel progresses, Guimar„es's rants become increasingly facile. Yet he expects profundity: in a tragic moment of sustained introspection, Guimar„es searches for a revelation, a Joycean epiphany, but finds only indecision and clichť: "Something very important should appear in my mind at this moment. But where? No matter how long I turned it inside out, I couldn't find anything too important in there." The general irony of†Thrown into Nature†is that Guimar„es obsesses about nature, but misses the fact that he isn't thrown into†nature†at all. He is -- and here is the Heidegger -- thrown into the†world, a place of birth, death, shit, and sickness, but also a place of kings and peasants, palaces and slums, soldiers and slaves.†††††

As the intentionally choppy and episodic plot unfolds, we begin to see, beyond Guimar„es's exuberant charm, a cruel view of life, as Ruskov dribbles spots of gray into his generally colorful romp. Guimar„es's resentment of his master, and Monandes's low opinion of his student, becomes more obvious. While the master believes in the healing qualities of tobacco, the student doesn't really care; and while the master is busy writing treatises and debating kings, Guimar„es comes to more prosaic conclusions: "Nourishing tobacco differs from ordinary tobacco in that someone says it is nourishing and also finds someone who believes him and is even willing to pay him for it."†

Gradually, the moral of†Thrown into Nature†becomes clear. We learn that Dr. Monandes, who initially appears as a spectacularly successful but harmless charlatan, has made most of his fortune in the slave trade. This is a cynical book, for cynical times; and behind the hilarious nonsense there is a rather obvious political critique. Here, he can be a little heavy-handed. "Spain is bankrupt," Guimar„es is made to point out, "because the money has passed into someone's private possession." But mostly Ruskov is too cynical to allow such tiresome moralizing. Early on, Guimar„es boasts, "Once I master the trade, everything else will fall into place on its own." This lame assumption can only remind us that beneath Guimar„es's world-weary amorality, there lies a naive dullard; and he is quickly undercut by Monandes's reply, the reply of a truly hardened cynic: "If you say so."††

Thrown into Nature†by Milen Ruskov, translated by Angela Rodel†††††††††
Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1934824566
294 pages