Twilight Patrol– A Mythology of Truth

I had this crazy notion– this cockamamie, caca-maiming notion– that the Twilight Patrol books had the potential to change the worldview of any one who would take the time and put forth the effort to read this hefty epic. The change would happen almost magically. The books had that effect on me, which most people think is the result of my having written them, because I seem to have the same name as the author, though this isn’t really the case. The first time I got a glimpse of the covers and some story fragments, they just grabbed me. These teasing hints set me off on a quest to piece together complete replicas of all seven issues. And the more I learned about this obscure series, the more it seemed to me they provided a miraculously perfect solution for America in crisis, through an extended parable about mending that which should be unified but has been torn asunder, culminating in a grand finale about the nature of leadership, and the role that culture plays in shaping and selecting leaders. It seemed so timely, so miraculous, for a work originally published in the Great Depression. 

But maybe all seven issues is too much material in this day and age of sound bites and memes. Close to a thousand pages, in all, with around 350 illustrations. I tried feeding excerpts to a friend, but he cut me short. He said, “The first thing people want to know—is this real? That’s what I always ask upfront—like before I go to the movies. Is it real? Sometimes the question is important because I don’t want to watch a movie that is a bunch of fake crap. And sometimes I want to escape from all the real crap. But I always want to know, upfront, is it real? And it is perfectly obvious that the Twilight Patrol books aren’t real at all. They’re too unreal.”

“But that is part of the way they work. They deliver an experience of unreality that reshapes the way the reader views the nature of truth itself.”

“I don’t need a bunch of fake books to tell me what’s true and what isn’t true. Or how to figure it out when I’m not sure.”

What my friend was saying was a repeat of the problems that afflicted the title back when it was first published.  The reprints have acquired a reputation for being fake, which is weirdly ironic.  Because there’s true and then there’s the other kind of true, and real, and the other kind of kind of real.  That’s what the books are all about.  The books tout the notion that reality is blended, inextricably, with unreality, and all truths contain varying percentages of falsehoods, and this is an eternal truth, and like all eternal truths, it must compete with other eternal truths that contradict it.  The series is a mythology of Truth.  And so, the books look a lot like they’re predicting the quality of life in the 21st Century, a time when the nature of truth is actually changing.

    In 1935, the Twilight Patrol alienated many, especially those who had fixed notions of what the truth was and how to find it, objecting to what they thought was the author’s pretensions of the same.  One might suspect the true author’s intent was not to preach, or to entertain, but to confuse and disrupt the readers, and make them work (or maybe laugh) their asses off while their heads are being messed with; that the author was subversively trying to alter the way the readers view the world.  Not change what they believe, but how they view what they don’t believe.   The series pulls stunts not unlike the scene in The Karate Kid where the old teacher makes the young boy paint his fence, wax his cars, and scrub his floors, and when the boy is done, he’s got karate moves.  Only these books don’t teach any karate moves.  They demonstrate the way the world informs its inhabitants– ways to access transcendent glories that lie beyond tedious and mundane things.  Or perhaps these books only show ways to understand how the world passes off tedious chores and exploitation as a path to transcendent glory, while actually exploiting you and wasting your time.  Or maybe they’re a way for you to realize what you thought had been a useless and meaningless exercise had in fact yielded sometime of genuine value, even if it is only a good laugh, and one at your own expense.

So the series sank into obscurity.

***

“Truth is stranger than fiction because the truth doesn’t have to make sense.” Attributed to Mark Twain, though the truth is, that’s not exactly what Twain said.  Still, the attribution makes sense, whether entirely true or not, in the sense that Mark Twain has become a trademark for a species of quote, a labeling that confers prestige upon the quote, intended to make its substance more credible.

From Twilight Patrol #7, Builders of the New Babel

***

We can’t tell how many cities have already

been destroyed.  Perhaps one.  The City of Truth has been destroyed, they say.”

“Is it true?”

“You decide.  The City of Truth is the most beautiful of all the cities, it is said, but that is supposedly a lie spread by the inhabitants of the City of Truth, for truth has the kind of beauty that is rarely pleasing.  But that might not be true, either.  The citizens of the City of Truth might follow, as some say, an aesthetic based only on that which is absolutely knowable, that which is concrete, pure, and irrefutable.  And if that were true, they wouldn’t be lying.  Some say the City of Science is often mistaken for the City of Truth.  And many say the City of Truth is the City of Art because it makes no pretensions of ever making claims that are objectively true, but only reveals truths incapable of manifesting in any other form.  But the truth might be that there is no City of Art.  Or even a City of Truth.  And others deride the City of Truth as the City of that which it simply is, the city of self-serving, self-fulfilling tautologies.  But many say the City of Truth never existed, and is only a myth.  In fact, the 7 cities may be only 6.  Or 8.  Or 9.”

“So, there are 9 cities, maybe, and all of them need to be protected?” 

“There might be only one city.  Who can say for certain?  All cities claim to be the City of Truth.  But in the City of Chymnz which is the city of choice and freedom, we know that truth is whatever you chose it to be.  So most of our citizens say that we are the one city honest enough not to claim to be the City of Truth.  And some of us prefer to think that honesty makes us the only city that can legitimately call itself the City of Truth, though we choose not to.” 

From Twilight Patrol #5—The City Annihilator

***

How is it that an obscure pulp magazine comes suddenly to light, and purports to contain comprehensive keys for understanding the new nature of Truth?  That’s a tall claim, smacking of hubris, especially for a series of books that already hit the literary dust-bins on their first go-round, back in 1935. Weird and disorienting eccentricities permeate The Twilight Patrol books, which are supposed to be 85 years old; yet they are fraught with passages that sound not entirely unlike New Age mysticism, which is to say, not entirely understandable on first reading, but if you persist, you might intuit (or, if you slog through the tougher passages that devolve into hallucinogenic poetry, you might imagine you intuit) the essential message.  

This sort of hocus-pocus was not uncommon back in that age, sandwiched between two world wars.  All manner of quirky spirituality used to lie hidden within the newsstands of the Depression era.  Unfettered by pretenses of respectability that repressed their glossier counterparts, the pulps were hotbeds of metaphysical insurrection. You can see flagrant heterodoxy in the ads of Frank A. Robinson, the man they called the pulp prophet, who profited on his claims of actually talking to God, or in the ads of the Rosicrucians who merchandized spirituality that wasn’t a religion; or in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who channeled the experience of Gnostic revelation to depict a spiritual experience of science as existential terror, or in the writings of Robert E. Howard, who spun Darwinism into a heroic theology, red in tooth and claw.

***

“There once was righteous old man who was well steeped in the learning of the Torah, who had performed countless mitzvoth all the days of his very long life.  So righteous and good was this old man that the Almighty said that he would grant a single boon, the old man’s fondest wish.  But he warned the old man that he would get but one boon, and not to ask for another.

“The old man said, ‘Oh Lord, if thou would but show to me thy face.’”

 “And the Lord granted the old man’s wish, whereupon the old man cried out, ‘please, please, please Lord…’

“And the Lord asked, ‘What is this?  You crave another boon?’

“And the old man said, ‘Oh Lord, please do not show to me thy face.’”

From Twilight Patrol #1, Drones of the Ravaging Wind

***

A sense of the miraculous might come from the canny prophesies found within the crumbling pages of what are ancient texts by Twenty-first Century standards.  Miracles provide their own stamp of authority, because they are supposed to be impossible.  But after a while, the reader gets skeptical.  The veneer of authenticity wears thin in places, so blatantly and deliberately executed, as if daring us to disbelieve the evidence that is right there.  It is that very quality that makes the books so predictive of contemporary life.   

Some might complain these preoccupations, these snide epistemological and ontological shell games, slow down the action in The Twilight Patrol. It is hard to tell if the author is being earnest or playing a prank.  Part of the problem stems from the format itself, the incongruous mix of eternal mysteries with the lurid sensuality and violence of cheap entertainment.  The pulps were supposed to be “all action and no philosophy,” and escapist fiction should provide a haven from the vexing questions that perturb the other aspects of our lives.  The series embraces a view of reality as unreal in the extreme– the essence of its peculiar brand of horror that often goes too far, becoming a comedy too frightening to be actually funny.   

   

Maybe there’s a simpler explanation.  Twilight Patrol books seem prophetic simply because the Great Recession has created a social landscape not unsurprisingly similar to that of the Great Depression.  The books are a product of their age.  Links in the great chain of being were being broken, rending asunder the moral order that linked monarchs and their heirs directly to God.  Russia had changed its name, absorbed its neighbors, and embraced stark atheism.  Germany was descending into a rebranded tribal paganism.  Cataclysmic changes were in the offing, then, and almost certainly now. 

***

The elderly bearded mage conducted Wootin through vorticular winding streets that defied depth, and registered upon the eye as visual confusion and geometric nonsense.  The city seemed too delicate to be standing.  It was as ephemeral as a mirage, threatening to shimmer away as one drew close, or to collapse into its own quirks and illusions.  But it was indisputably beautiful.  Part of its grandeur stemmed from its unabashed fragility, its monumental veneration of the moment, and the moment’s immediate passing.  The naked temporariness of the entire environment seemed the greatest truth of all.

From Twilight Patrol #5—The City Annihilator

***

Albadore had organized the contest in a way that all the participants would be removed from the influences of the outside world.   Perhaps the isolation itself was responsible for the madness that was starting to overtake all the passengers.  Perhaps it was not the Tower of Babel that drove people insane, nor its purported influence on the perception of time, but the closing off of all the participants from any information that might challenge their beliefs.  Perhaps it was nothing but themselves, sharing hallucinations, climbing higher and higher, each one reinforcing everyone else’s sense of unreality, embracing it.  Everyone trying to obliterate a point of view that contradicted their own.

From Twilight Patrol #7, Builders of the New Babel

***

Rooke Howard next dealt with Yevgeni Yot, who was posing a threat of uncertain proportions.  She discretely lured him into corridors that branched into endless contingencies around the armistice negotiations.  Poor poet, he couldn’t resist the temptation to over-analyze the situation and revel in ambiguities.  Yot vanished into the unreality of too many alternatives.  But Rooke Howard had the uncomfortable suspicion she hadn’t completely resolved the problem of the poet.

Yot reappeared from an alternate universe.  He was immediately slain by Bulousov.  Another version of Yot appeared.  Again, he was quickly eliminated.  He continued to reappear.  He was becoming especially dangerous, it would seem, because he was searching for a very specific reality, the limited context, in which he would prevail. 

Rooke Howard persuaded one of the alternative Yots to kill his doubles under the premise they were the product of a single shapeshifter.  She persuaded another of the alternative Yots that his other selves were inferior— or not the true self, and thus needed to be eradicated.  She said, “To thine own self be true, and the only way to do it is to slay all the other selves.”  And finally, she persuaded all the remaining Yots to kill one another by revealing a self-fulfilling prophesy that each was destined to die at the hands of a doppelganger, for that is what doppelgangers do.  It was an easy myth to exploit, under the circumstances.

From Twilight Patrol #7, Builders of the New Babel

***

“You like magic, kid.  I’m going to teach you a magic trick.

“Take a good look at the label on this bottle.  Tell me what you think it means.”

“It is poison.”

“That label could mean all kinds of things.  Maybe the bottle is full tiny bones.  Maybe me and my pals here killed a bunch of babies so we’d have bones small enough to fill a bottle.”

Peyotr shuddered.  The message was coming across quite clearly now.  He could put his own label on O’Deal and the other Americans.

The Corporal continued, “Or maybe it means the bottle is full of a strong brew.  Some might drink from the bottle and die.  But others might drink and feel mighty fine.”

“I wouldn’t drink it.”

“Then you’ll never really know what is inside the bottle.  You won’t drink it because you have a belief.  On account of a label.  You don’t even know who put that label on, or why he did it.  You have a belief but you haven’t actually experienced the contents of that bottle.  And that’s the way you’ve been treating the world, boy.  You think you know… but you don’t.  Until you actually drink it, it is just a caboodle of possibilities.”

“I still wouldn’t drink it.”

O’Deal puckered his lips until they drew into a reddened button. 

“Makes sense.  You’re a sensible lad.  You go on living.  You stay alive.  You haven’t found out the truth, but it doesn’t affect your survival.  You stay alive because you believe a label some stranger pasted on a bottle.  That’s the way evolution works.  It doesn’t need truth.  Survival isn’t connected to knowing what is really there.”

“Sometimes it is.”

“Yeah.  Yeah.  Like now.  Here’s the tricky part…”

O’Deal drew a long-barreled Colt from his holster.  He pressed the muzzle to Peyotr’s temple.  “If you don’t take a drink, I’m going to splatter your brains against that wall.”

Peyotr stiffened. 

“What’s the matter?  Don’t you think I’m telling the truth?  Who are you going to believe?  Me, standing right in front of you with a gun to your head?  Or someone you don’t even know who stuck a label on a bottle?”

From Twilight Patrol #2, Maggot Czar of the Everglades

***

They showed Wootin the rigorous and systematic way they guarded against the encroaching Desert of Lye.  “Not a bit of lye ever gets through,” said one of the scientists.  “We are surrounded by the great desert, the great lye, and yet we keep it out completely.  Surely that makes us the City of Truth, as well as the City of Science.”

From Twilight Patrol #5—The City Annihilator

***

”I’ve been so doped up, I don’t even know if this is really happening.  I don’t know if you’re for real.  I don’t know if this is some kind of test or some kind of trap.”

“You don’t know– this is not an acceptable answer!”

“You wanted the truth.”

“That isn’t it.”

“Oh, but it is.  It really is.  I don’t know anymore.”

“The truth is a strange kind of animal.  You think you can disguise it, or tame it, or force it to obey your commands.  You can try to hide it from yourself to hide it from others.  But you can’t alter its basic nature.  You can take a tiger and paint over its stripes, marking it white with black spots, like a cow.  You can put horns on its head and cover its claws with hoof-shaped mittens.  You can hang a sign round its neck that says ‘cow’.  But God help you if you try to milk it.” 

The nun spoke again, “I asked you a basic question about what kind of man you are.  You know the answer.  I think I do, too.  The problem is… where reality lies… where reality really lies… you are trying to decide what you want to tell me and what you think I want to hear.  Reality lies in the crossing between speaker and listener.  Reality lies in the point at which they meet.  Tell me what kind of man you are.”

From Twilight Patrol #6—The World Without Pain or Death

***

According to the parable, Truth was originally a beautiful crystalline lantern capable of producing its own light.  The lantern was so beautiful, and its light so compelling, and its glories so manifest, men fought zealously and bitterly to possess it.  Truth, in truth, should serve to bring about peace.  Instead, it was a constant source of war and violence.  God decided to break the lantern of truth into pieces, so many pieces, in fact, there were enough pieces for everyone.  And so, it was that every man and woman was given a portion of the lantern of truth, and every faith, and every denomination, and every nation, but none may have the whole.”

“So according to your parable, God’s breaking of the lantern did not bring about peace.  It brought about more violence and more war.”

 “It was one of God’s many jokes.  Here is the truth about the crystalline lantern of truth.  It did not produce its own light.  It was a prism that broke the unified light into rainbow divisions.  And what is the truth?  The unified white light?  Or the rainbow?” 

***

***

When the Queen had sufficiently recovered, Wootin tried to confide his apprehensions.  She shrugged dismissively.  “You will end up summoning our enemies by simply thinking overmuch of them.”

“That kind of thinking, which is mostly associated with magic and primitive cultures, has no place in the City of Science.” 

And yet when Wootin repeated this exchange to the one city’s leading scientists, he was told, “We find that expectation often influences the outcome of our experiments, and often for reasons we can’t explain.  Optimists seem to have better luck in general than the ordinary laws of probability would dictate.  Perhaps it is something simple, some trick of the state of mind.  If you approach a task with confidence, you have better chance of success.  That’s human nature– the most inexplicable of all phenomena.”  He spoke with the paternalistic tone of a physician to an overly inquisitive patient.  “I recommend you stop worrying until you find some evidence on which to base your worries.  Otherwise you will worry yourself to death.”

“Pride goeth before destruction…”

“Goeth…?” queried the scientist, the word and phrase being unfamiliar.

From Twilight Patrol #5—The City Annihilator

 

***

“And your son’s goal and wishes are a perfect example.  Your son will lose if winning and losing is what it is all about, because he wants more than anything else is for his parents to be together and bonded, and not in competition and fighting.  The challenge is—how do you get two opposite and competing views to reconcile?  You and your queen.”

“And love is the answer?  Love solves everything?”

“Love as a kind of magic.  A contradiction.  You have to be able to accept contradictory and opposing ideas in in your mind.  Both, simultaneously.”

“Ah, yes.  While accepting contradictory and opposing ideas, you also have to reject them.  That is a good way to paralyze your decisions, and drive yourself mad.  For in order to truly follow your advice, you would have to both accept and reject the simultaneous holding of contradictory ideas, creating an infinite cross-reflecting hall of mirrors of contradiction and paradox.”

From Twilight Patrol #7, Builders of the New Babel