October 2012

Christopher Merkel


The Cyclist Conspiracy

Among the names included on the (incomplete) Secret List of Members of the Evangelical Bicyclists that comprises the final appendix of The Cyclist Conspiracy are the names of Michael Moore, Gary Hardwick, and Woody Allen. Granted, the list is also unverified. Still, given that the American film industry might have had its ties to the activities of the Bicyclists, it should be well within the organization's realm of oneiric possibilities that the making of Premium Rush figures into its eschatology. "I like to ride," the trailer starts. "Fixed gear. No brakes. Can't stop. Don't want to either." Then you gradually realize that the movie is both for real and for serious. I had thought (and I'd thought that we all thought) that the brakeless fixed gear trend was certain to lose momentum after the publication of the Bike Snob's book two years ago. Apparently it hasn't. Or the fact may be that it has, but that 2012 has still seen the mainstream release of a brakeless fixie bike messenger movie. At least the appearance of The Cyclist Conspiracy in English translation has allowed us a stab at an explanation.

But now that I really come to think of it, not a few of the cyclists I knew back in bicycle-happy Portland were students of philosophy -- and not a few of them rode fixed. Come to think of it, actually, what I considered to be the solipsistic bandying of terms like solipsistic (deterministic and nihilistic) during generally dissipative rides or (generally intoxicated) post-ride porch conversations might actually have been something more significant. Not less solipsistic or dissipative, but more significant. Cosmically even. A conspiracy? Or just a very concerted plan... although no less perfunctory for its concertedness. And that's the plan that Svetislav Basara documents in his book about the Bicyclists, which was translated from Serbian by Randall A. Major and published very opportunely this year.

The truth is, however, that I came to read Basara's book because I'd read another, The Chinese Letter, which a friend had happened to bring me as a gift when she'd visited me abroad in April. I've forgotten everything about that other book except that it was the catalyst for my ordering a copy of The Cyclist Conspiracy, which had piqued my curiosity simply by its title, but which I shelved for several months because it wasn't what I'd initially judged it to be by its cover. Not exactly. The Cyclist Conspiracy was not, it seemed to have turned out, about the people I knew in Portland. But then came the release of Premium Rush, I felt suddenly compelled to finally read that other book of Basara's, and it turned out that it was. About the people I knew, that is; and that one of those people had been responsible for my discovery of Svetislav Basara seemed more than just coincidence.

I've written something similar, I realize, about another Serb, David Albahari, in regard to his novel Leeches. And that -- what can I say, other than to admit that I intended it as simple cleverness. It's nonetheless true that the Serbs do seem to have a special affinity for religious mysticism in concert with conspiracy. And I wrote conspiracy into my writing on Albahari because he wrote not just about a conspiracy but about writing about one. Here though, the conspiratorial tone is justified not just for the verbal flourish but because, well, it turns out that that's just the inevitable episteme. The one way and the other don't offer any way around it. There are, in other words, two ways about it, but both of them are part of the Bicyclists' plan, which, in the twentieth century, probably included the raising of the mystic Joseph Stalin to power so that he could do his part to keep history on course (and that only outwardly along the lines of the material dialectic).

Basara himself discovered the Bicyclists by what we might call chance, in the cellar of the Municipal Library in Bajina Bašta. But what his novel reveals is this: what we call chance might more rightfully and consistently be called destiny. And, to be sure, what Basara has written (and what Major has translated) is a novel. The document by Charles the Hideous that is the basis for Basara's "voluminous almanac dedicated to the secret of the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross" is itself apocryphal. What's more, Charles admits that his is a fabrication. He preemptively promulgates the future in order to "end the tyranny of the unborn," to avenge himself against the writers of his history so that "the profane who are wallowing in the mud of the past will not be able to find arguments to justify their own present time."

The Cyclist Conspiracy is undeniably a novel, and even refers to itself as such. But as one Pavel Kuzmich says to one Joseph Vartolomeyich in one of the documents that Basara has collected for his book, "there's not much difference between a novel and life. It is just a matter of whether a concrete being, you or I, forced the story to come alive." Charles the Hideous was familiar with the Bicyclists because the majordomo that he imagined into existence wrote the organization's history. So he would also have been aware that the Bicyclists were (or would be) in the habit of shaping history from the vantage of the future. In 1928, they planned the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand, fourteen years after the fact, "so that the secret police would not uncover the conspiracy." (Gavrilo Princip is on the secret list.) Knowing what he did about how the future might try to shape his present, it was understandable that Charles did what he did to shape the present of the Bicyclists from the past. Basara's voluminous almanac fills in the gaps.

The Cyclist Conspiracy is a novel, but it is also a history, a history of History itself, but very much also a specific one, which is to say only and exactly what Basara decides that Charles will make of it, but scrupulously documented. "The iniquity of solipsism," of which one Ernest Meier accuses his mother in a letter that he sends her from Constantinople is of central concern for the Bicyclists. Ernest had disappeared from Zurich on his bicycle two years earlier, at which time his case -- and specifically his dreams -- had been under analysis by Freud. Freud, Ernest, and Mrs. Meier are, of course, all creations of Charles's, as is Joseph Kowalsky, who we might say is the main character of Charles's history, and who in 1920 writes to the Roman Catholic pope to advise him against riding in an armored automobile. "The very name automobile contains the principle of self-movement, self-sufficiency, which is Satan's ideal..."

Some words, then, on the bicycle as it figures into Bicyclist theology. For the Bicyclists, the bicycle represents a vision of time and space that is anti-Euclidean, anti-rational. The bicycle aspires to verticality in contradiction to gravity, which translates into the movement of its rider upward toward the Holy Spirit. Seen from above (from the Spirit's perspective), a bicycle is also representative of the cross, where the handlebars form the crossbeam. Seen from the side, the frame and its wheels have their correspondences in a number of symbologies, the archetypal significance of which has been documented by psychoanalysis.

Bicyclism is very much a religion, which claims to be the inheritor of the mystic tradition of Byzantium, and which exists at odds with the rationality of the Western church. However, the Bicyclists do understand the necessity of contributing to certain movements in the rational and secular worlds, insofar as those movements are conducive to the development of their plan. For example, "Franz Ferdinand, who was supposed to inherit the Austro-Hungarian throne, was also supposed to develop into a brilliant ruler who would expand the borders of the Western Roman Empire as far as Central Asia. That is why he had to die." Unfortunately, "the Third Reich was inevitable so that a greater evil could be stopped." "At first glance," yes, "a lot of different things are being talked about, but all of that can be reduced to one simple sentence: solus ipse sum." And "That is exactly how the mystics describe hell." Or that's how the Evangelical Bicyclists of the Rose Cross do anyway.

In the light of my own limited reading experience, the Serbs do seem to be preternaturally disposed to conspiratorial thinking, but like a Serbian flamenco percussionist I once knew told me, "if you were a Serb, you'd be looking over your shoulder too." (His name isn't on the secret list, but I wouldn't put it past him to have had his part in the conspiracy that brought me to Basara.) And for a Serb like Basara, with the new knowledge of history that he's been given -- and with the experience of history that he shares with his countrypeople -- it's not surprising that he's taken the line that he has in his investigation of the Bicyclists. The dialectics of East versus West, rationality versus mysticism (and sanity versus other sanities) that are examined in his almanac on the historical conspiracy of that evangelical brotherhood would seem to have been already among his daily concerns. And the base conflict between vanity and Nemesis that has generally driven the (rational, linear) history of American capitalism appears, by comparison, as nothing that should elicit an investigation into a possibly more esoteric rationale. Until now, perhaps.

"One of the most repulsive things in history, which is full of disgusting things," Joseph Kowalsky writes in an undated latter, "is the excitement with which common sense accepts 'progress,' against which the next generation is already protesting." And on that, all historical dialectics and the possibility of communist mysticism aside, I think we can all agree as we discuss the failures of the bygone nuclear age at the speed of 4G. The Cylist Conspiracy was about the people I knew, the people who brought me to it, those intoxicated fixed gear nihilists whose solipsistic railings against solipsism was the ethos that brought Premium Rush to the big screen. (Basara makes it so easy, which makes it so hard!) The resurrection of the Babylon that fell with Quicksilver twenty-six years ago should need to serve no other purpose than that, which is to say the carefully calculated and scrupulously documented pursuit of the irrationality that will ultimately carry us close to God. And speaking of Quicksilver, all of those degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon have probably been the future work of the Bicyclists too.