Axel’s Castle, a mirror and an encyclopaedia

When I was about fifteen, I found Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle in a library. It was my introduction to literary modernism, and their progenitors, the French symbolists. Over time I would read most of the authors to whom Wilson was my accidental host: Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Valery, Eliot, Stein. In time, I would find other guides to the great modernist canon. But the symbol of Axel’s Castle would remain as a ghostly survivor of my initiation into high culture.

There was nothing in the outward circumstances of my teenage life that would have led me to value the pursuit of writing as a form of symbolist transcendence of mundane reality.  My parents were primarily interested in science, but with an occasional indulgence of Rilke and Hopkins. I spent much of my childhood reading Wisden, and playing cricket, in the forlorn dream of overcoming my physical limitations to become a professional cricketer. My maths teacher at school, impressed with my talent with trigonometry, algebra and arithmetic, urged me to become an actuary. I had no literary friends – few friends really – except perhaps two girls, whose literary tastes involved a love of Leonard Cohen songs, which I could not share, and who I have never seen again since high school

But inwardly, as the pain of my family breakdown, my mother’s madness, my father’s greed and grandiosity compounded, I grasped for the symbols of inner experience beyond the real. So, Axel’s Castle became my symbol of a higher inner life. But it was and has long been an oppressive illusion because I could never live like the disdainful aristocrats of the soul imagined in Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s lonely, isolated tower: “Living? our servants will do that for us.” Nor could I ever bring together around me the salon of the spurned genius, Mallarmé, who puffed smokescreens between himself and reality, and engaged in the most radical experimentations with the limits of poetry, its incarnation in the letter and its instantiation by chance.  And Nerval’s ecstatic transportation into madness frightened me, as for years I would help my mother find her way to treatment amidst her hypomanic fantasies. The dream of Axel’s Castle took me on a night journey of enriching torment, but left in my catatonic fear of its denouement: the suicide pact and the renunciation of life.

The lonely, gothic occult tower took me down a path with many waystations of self- destruction; but ultimately it was a path that opened into a clearing, where I learned to write in my own way. And now that I have shaken off its magic, it is time perhaps again for me to walk with my pen into the great forest again.

The strange thing too, as I write these words of reflection prompted by this persistent memory, is that I have begun to doubt whether I ever read Axel’s Castle at all. Certainly I have never read Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel, from which the archetype that has ruled my literary life was born. But now I wonder if it was only ever in a footnote reference in a compendium volume of studies on modernism, edited by Malcolm Bradbury, which was really the book I acquired at fifteen from the library, where I was captivated by the symbolism of Axel’s Castle. So all that I imagined in that title truly only came from my preexisting imagination, and I have long imprisoned myself in one of my own illusions.

It is like the Borges story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, that labyrinthine story, in which the narrator tells of the history of Tlön which he discovered – through the “conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia” – in a single edition of the Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Except that he reveals in his narrative, no-one else can find this edition of a book to which he has devoted much of his scholarly life.

already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even that it is false…. A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön. (Borges, Labyrinths pp. 41-42)

 

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