Over Christmas I read Dissipatio H.G. by Guido Morselli. This is a story about a man who finds he is suddenly the only person alive in the world.
The book commences with the narrator surveying the offices of the newspaper where he used to work years earlier, as he explores the now-deserted world. What initially seemed to be a mystery disappearance in a small village is now revealed to have occurred in the big city and also in foreign capitals, which are no longer sending in messages or picking up calls. Then we wind back to the events of June 2nd. The time is contemporary to the writing, which was the early 70s, the location is (unstated) Switzerland, near the German border (a US military base is within a day’s driving).
The narrator plays his cards slowly, laying out a sequence of stages in the trauma of the great Event or The Inexplicable. This presents a readjustment to equilibrium after a few days, to what we would label with the banal 2020/1 phrase “the New Normal”:
It was not, at first, a nervous collapse – anxiety, terror – so much as deep, considered horror, fed and abetted by my critical faculties, which would ordinarily fight fear. That, or my violated common sense. It was a thinking, reasoning fear, lucidly recapitulating the situation. The panic came later.
I remember, and try to understand. The Inexplicable is not the unknown, not the attractive mystery (attractive because it’s good enough to stay a decent distance away from us?). No, the Inexplicable is something else, something that when it is overwhelming and persistent saps a person’s life energy. My response to the absurd was physical, animal, natural: unable to wish it away, I perceived it as an immediate, overwhelming act of aggression, and froze. It was an atavistic response: a helpless beast does the same thing, freezes.
That evening, that night, the next day, I was sunk in utter inertia. I felt no impulse to flee, the trauma I’d endured was expressed in paralysis. Locked in my four rooms with doors and windows barred (at one point I’d decided to barricade myself in) I waited for it to arrive and strike me. Finish me off, seeing that my turn was coming soon. I was condemned; beyond my walls, everything was submerged in a death fluid and I was immersed in it, a diving bell at the bottom of the sea. By osmosis, that fluid would creep through the walls. My anxiety was conscious and focused, not frenetic, and I was present to myself. At one point, my mind clear of hallucinations, I coolly listened for the suspect rustling of gigantic bestial creatures lurking outside the house (ancient sauropods or Creataceous lizards). I was able to be somewhat active; the psychological collapse didn’t block me completely. On the second day I was sat down at the typewriter, planning to copy out notes for the revision of a book, which an editor had been waiting for since last year. (Quite grotesquely, that book would rescue me from a nightmare on the third day.) I sat before the typewriter all afternoon, never touching it. The clickety-clack of the keys would have upset me… I felt I must make no sound. Like them, I must be dead. My bodily functions were normal… I slept, dreamlessly, strange to say….
It went on for two days, no more, and not even full days, before the crisis resolved things. As to how it felt: it was a taste of eternity.
But then we get the abrupt reveal that things were not normal before the Event:
..[T]he Inexplicable came about because of me. Or anyway, the events coincided, at the beginning, with a strictly private thing of mine. A conjunction, a correlation, I dare say – not mere chance.
That fanciful night between June 1 and June 2. The night when it was decided that I would commit suicide.
Because the negative outweighed the positive. On my scales. By seventy percent. Was that a banal motive? I’m not sure.
The pretence of precision (“seventy percent”) marks the style of narrator trying to maintain a steady, careful tone of voice whilst clearly at a loss for ideas, but also rather relieved and released from an anxiety that was present in the populated pre-apocalyptic world. That world was well lost; his attempts to reconnect and rediscover connections with it are twitches of nostalgia for experiences of engagements that were fading or unreliable memories already.
I had decided to kill myself in the first place because I was a victim of a kind of mafia. And there’s no escaping the mafia, I knew.
The “mafia” afflicting him are the medical profession, capturing him with warnings about “early detection” of “possible degeneration”, which he feels is a “racket”.
The purpose, patently, is not so much the money, counted by the hundreds and thousands, but the power. The subjugation of throngs of men and women to a class. Or a clan, or a corporazione. I don’t wish to be dramatic, but to my mind, capitalist exploitation, boss over worker, is pretty much an amusing parlor game next to this other forced subservience. And since escape is impossible, the attendant blackmail is bound to be the most vicious and entrapping.
But this concern about bodily illness comes after a period at a clinic to deal with mental health issues as well, and problems with making a career in a media world where he doesn’t have quite the correct politics or attitudes.
The editor used to allot each of us new staff members one column in the paper in turn. The piece I managed to push though once was somewhat pompously titled “Against formalism and conformism: examining some stereotypes” and was meant to be the first of a series. It was dedicated to two terms, alienation and prostitution, circumscribing the first and amplifying the second. I proposed that “alienation” be limited to what the later Marx intended. A worker who is in a position to manage his own employment, if he so desires, and thus be an inventive electrician or a creative blacksmith, yet who prefers the assembly line for the guaranteed paycheck, has no right to consider himself a victim of alienation. As for professional prostitution, it would rightly include those women who legally prostitute themselves with a husband they don’t love, or don’t love anymore, but who continue to accept the ease and creature comforts with which he pays them. The bourgeois ladies were virtuous, the unions philistine, I was told contemptuously. The editor threatened to fire me. I had attacked “the circulation”….
I never had much luck in my few radio appearances. Recently, after I’d given up political journalism, I sat on a so-called round table where I was able to pose the following question: If the press aspires to represent public opinion, as it claims to, why is it still monopolized by the journalist tribe, not more than 150 people in this whole country, editors in chief and managing editors? Open up to the public! Professional journalists could be responsible for reporting the news and offering comments, and those two tasks would be plenty to justify their existence. The rest, the bulk of the paper, would collaborate with the users, the readers, a joint participation that would certainly be unregulated, discordant, and partial, but still only to give voice to an authentic public opinion. One of my colleagues said, very politely, that I didn’t seem to have the slightest idea of what it meant to put out a newspaper. Others stood up to the microphone to declare I was out of my mind.
Remains of petty resentments. Small stuff. I had conveniently forgotten about them. Why they bob up again now I have no idea.
Marx is just one of the authors this narrator has some exposure to, though we are never clear how deep or far this reading has gone (he is not part of the left-wing groups he is aware of). Freud, Durkheim, Nietzsche, Hegel, Pascal, Montaigne, Berdyaev and Marcuse are some of the old and new names to make appearances in this monologue.
The colleague who accused me of reductionism knew me well. I erred, I sinned and continue to commit the sin of simplification. What for anyone else would be an ocean of negativity, an utter horror, is something I’m able to float on in a paper boat. A boat made of a few, mediocre, at times ironic, general ideas.
The thinker who gets the most attention is a genuine and distant voice and also the one phoney element in this construction: Iamblichus, a 4th century Neoplatonist, who did not write the book which this novel purports to take its title from.
Now let’s see. I once read something, a text by Iamblichus that I looked up for some reason, I no longer recall why. It dealt with the demise of the species and it was called Dissipatio Humani Generis. Dissipation not in the moral sense. The version I remember was in Latin, and it seems that in the third- and fourth-century Latin dissipatio meant evaporation, or nebulization, or some physical process like that, and Iamblichus referred to a fatal phenomenon of this kind. He was less catastrophic than other prophets: there was no great flood, no holocaust solvens saeclum in favilla, covering the world in ashes, like a nuclear catastrophe of today. Rather, he wrote of human beings changed by sudden miracle into a spray, or an imperceptible (harmless and probably odorless) gas without any intermediate combustion. Maybe not glorious, but at least dignified.
Our narrator is conscious of religion, since many different denominations have churches and chapels around these empty towns and villages, though there is no mention of the “Rapture” theology that exists in strands of modern evangelical churches and characters such as Dr Chuck Missler, whose influence would be entirely unknown in central Europe in the early 70s. He is explicit that he does not need the concepts of European religion, but perhaps the mind-doctors at the clinic would diagnose that as a sign that they are affecting him at a deeper level.
According to the existentialist Berdyaev, extreme sociologism brings forth extreme individualism. In an analogous, well-calculated reprisal, extreme materialism could bring forth immaterialism. Ontological.
A world of pure body, believing only in the tangible, is disembodied. Contraria per contraria expiantur. But I have never set stock in atonement, in expiation: or punishment, or retribution, either in this temporal world or higher up.
The plan for the suicide was to drown himself in a pool in a mountain cave, in such a way that the floating corpse would never be recovered.
I would be gone, leaving no trace. That point seemed essential to me. People, if they did look into it, must come to the conclusion I was permanently missing. Or better, mysteriously annihilated, dissolved into nothing.
Yet instead he emerged to find a world devoid of other people. It seems everyone evaporated around midday on June 2nd, leaving empty voids in occupied beds, and animals trapped and desperate in closed rooms, whilst in the fields livestock carry on unattended, and slowly wildlife starts to encroach on the towns. Airliners have collided on a runway, answering machine messages in New York have not been updated. All the material detail we would expect from a hard sci-fi apocalyptic story is present and correct. Although our narrator admitted to that moment of expecting ancient monsters to pursue him, after that first day of panic subsided he never pondered too much about deadly innovations being the root cause.
I’m not battling inexplicability.
I possess none of the wishful thinking of science, and none, to my credit, of science fiction either. I don’t fall back on genocide by death rays, or epidemics spread around the Earth by tiny, evil Venusians, or clouds of nuclear fallout from distant H-bombs. I sensed right off that the Event cannot be gauged by the usual measures. Scire nefas: it is forbidden, it is not yours to know. Let me add: ridere lices (it’s permissible to laugh), given that I (I) am the Spectator.
It does occur to him that perhaps the contingent detail that caused him to survive was that he was underground at the moment of annihilation, and so he sets out to look for fellow-survivors at a nearby mine, unsuccessfully. If we were working within sci-fi logic we could could of course presume that the miners were trapped down below by the vanishing of the surface workers, and our literary narrator simply arrived too late and lacking technical know-how to rescue them. That random thought does not occur to him, quite realistically. If this is sci-fi then it’s the peculiar extro-sci-fi that Quentin Meillasoux wrote about. The usual Hollywood resolution, to have it that the central character was in fact dead all along having gone ahead with their plan and then lost all memory of it, does not make any sense either. A ghost would see the other humans carrying on, unless this is a very special Hell in which he has to watch the world he renounced continue, separate from other lives just as he is separate from God.
The abiding thought is the sense that this is a culmination of a mounting dread and pathology that was guiding him toward his supposedly unconsummated desire for self-destruction.
No I am not some comic Alceste le Misanthrope. I am, on and off, an Anthropophobe. I’m afraid of people, as I am of rats and mosquitoes, afraid of the nuisance and the harm of which they are unceasing agents….
Around the middle of May, the snow melts at the Malga Ross, I was sprawled out on the grass under the steep rock face, with no company but the skinny larch tree or two that has the nerve to push up at that altitude. A windy morning. The cave of the siphon, June 2, they were still in the future, and I was indulging in my usual pastime: parenthesizing the existence of my fellow humans, imagining myself as the only thinking being in an utterly empty universe. Empty of human beings, that is. Allow me to prettify my interior thoughts with some pedantry: Hegel dreamed of the Real in and for itself; for me the Real was of and for myself, where others take no part because they don’t exist….
My enthusiasms, furthermore, were and are genuine; there never was anything literary about them. I never extracted a single sentence from my pangs of solitude, never felt gratified by them. There was no need: the experience was deep and demanded no reflection or communication. Nor did I ever imagine I was the only person to experience such states. In fact, the matter must be very old, for in ancient times a sin for which there was no forgiveness was spoken of.
I didn’t hesitate to involve God in this, either. I even prayed, impiety all too evident, for his kingdom to arrive. Today, outside my house and not far from Frederica and Giovanni’s (empty) one, I thanked him, not just faithlessly but cruelly, for having answered my prayer, as I stood under my open umbrella, handkerchief at my nose, a cold just beginning. Alone at last: wish granted. Meanwhile thinking to myself that I must be crazy not to have some aspirin on hand.
The great secret not disclosed in this book is that its author did take his own life in 1973, and it was published posthumously some years later. This edition is the first English translation, and it all reads clearly apart from an odd moment on page 96, recalling the psychiatrist that the narrator made a connection with: “But is it certain that Karpinsky – although he’s Polish and exhibits certain somatic traits – is Jewish?” Surely it should be “semitic” for “somatic”? I have not seen an Italian edition, but it would not fit for there to be any attempt at wordplay here.
In the middle, the end:
The end of the world?
One of the pranks played by anthropocentrism is to suggest that the end of our species will bring about the death of animal and vegetable nature, the end of the earth itself. The fall of the heavens. There is no eschatology that doesn’t assume man’s permanence is necessary to the permanence of everything else. It’s accepted that things might have begun before us; unthinkable that they ever end after us. Old Montaigne, who thought of himself as agnostic, agreed with the dogmatics, the theologians, on this point. Ainsi fera la morte de toutes choses notre mort. Our death will bring about the death of all things.
Come on, you clever, presumptuous fellows, you make too much of yourselves. The world has never been so alive as it is since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared. It’s never been so clean, so sparkling, so good-humored.