the age of the airloom

LI was pleased to receive some compliments on our Pinochet post from our friend in Mexico City, M., the more so as we seem, lately, to have either stunned or bored our readers to the extent that we sadly, visibly lack comments. On other blogs, there are lively debates about censoring or not censoring comment sections, but we don’t have that sort of problem here. Christ, you write an anti-Christmas piece that ties together father Christmas and Hitler and nobody even peeps.

We’ve been thinking, perhaps we haven’t been mad enough. Or is it that we are too mad? And this thought naturally led us to consider the autobiographies of mad political cosmologists before us. The most famous, of course, is Paul Schreber, the son of Germany’s greatest anti-onanist, Moritz Schreber. Paul Schreber’s spacewalk into a new heaven and new earth, which occured in the nuthouse where he was committed, was published in book form and, famously, analyzed by Freud, and then by Canetti, and then by all the epigones.

But Schreber is not modernity’s only mad cosmologist. There is, for instance, Friedrich Krauss, the clerk who fell into confusion in Antwerp in 1816 as he was folded, spindled, mutilated, mocked, and had his thoughts replaced by senseless or obscene images. He realized he was being poisoned by animal magnetism, directed against him by a black magnitiseur, and wrote a warning to the fathers of families and such, Nothschrei eines Magnetisch-Vergifteten (Scream of a man poisoned by magnetism).

Then there is James Tilly Matthews . Matthews, as his biographer, Mike Jay, explains in the summation of his book at nthposition, was a Welsh tea merchant of Republican sympathies who acted as an agent for Pitt with the moderates in Paris in the Revolution. Unfortunately for Matthews, the Jacobin triumph caught him still in Paris, and he was imprisoned for three years. When he was released, he got back to London and started making harsh accusations of treason, like some Edgar Allan Poe figure. And this got him quickly committed by the political establishment to Bedlam, where he met up with the apothecary, John Haslam.

Matthews apparently shared his ideas and papers with Haslam. When it appeared that Matthews family was going to succeed in getting him released, Haslam, to prove that Matthews was truly insane, published his Illustrations of Madness, which is a mixture of Blakean and Schreberian. Haslam begins his account like this:

“Mr. M Insists that in some apartment near London Wall, there is a gang of villains profoundly skilled in Pneumatic Chemistry, who assail him by means of an Air Loom. A description of this formidable instrument will be given hereafter; but he is persuaded that an account of it is to be found in Chambers’s Dictionary, edited by Dr. Rees in 1783, under the article Loom…

It is unnecessary to tell the reader that he will fruitlessly search that work for such information.”

I must quote from Mike Jay’s wonderful summary:

"Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with diabolical rays. They were using a machine called an 'Air Loom', of which Matthews was able to draw immaculate technical diagrams, and which combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged air currents, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances, including 'spermatic-animal-seminal rays', 'effluvia of dogs' and 'putrid human breath', and its discharges of magnetic fluid were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews' brain. There were many of these mind-control settings, all classified by vivid names: 'fluid locking', 'stone making', 'thigh talking', 'lobster-cracking', 'bomb-bursting', and the dreaded 'brain-saying', whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet into his head. As a result of the Air Loom, Matthews was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

"The Air Loom was being run by a gang of undercover Jacobin revolutionaries, bent on forcing Britain into a disastrous war with Revolutionary France. These characters, too, Matthews could describe with haunting precision. They were led by a puppet-master named 'Bill the King'; all details were recorded by his second-in-command, 'Jack the Schoolmaster'. The French liaison was accomplished by a woman called Charlotte, who seemed to Matthews to be as much a prisoner as himself, and was often chained up near-naked. 'Sir Archy' was a woman who dressed as a man and spoke in obscenities; the machine itself was operated by the sinister, pockmarked and nameless 'Glove Woman'. If Matthews were to see any of these characters in the street, they would grasp batons of magnetic metal which would cause them to disappear."

This is magnificent – although it is a bit heartless to say so, since these ravings are so obviously rooted in vast amounts of pain. There is surely some vast underground counterpoint in operation here to Blake – the same mythological sense of the forces at work in the French revolution, some of the same images – notably the near naked, chained up woman. Is there a common Swedenborgian root? Or - as I madly suspect - is there some contact below the surface, some underground, poetic continent whose inhabitants look at the treadmill of production, the uprooting of all things by white magic, with eyes in which are reflected the burning wheels of Revelations?

For the most striking thing, to me, is that Matthew’s Air Loom seems so familiar – isn’t this some horrendous pre-cognition of television? Haven’t we seen, in the last six years, “delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head” on a national scale?