In Extremis



Alfred Kubin was an Austrian artist and, to hazard a guess, a fairly tortured soul. Today is his birthday, and as a peg it’ll have to suffice, though I don’t imagine he was the type to put on a party hat. He was known to live in a small castle in Zwickledt, and his biography includes a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt—the latter on his mother’s grave. His early drawings, shown here, often feature monsters, deformities, disfigurements, human bodies in decay—a grim phantasmagoria of the bleak, the macabre, and the merely unsettling, with a palette that tends toward soot. What keeps me looking at it is some element of detachment in his style, as if a savage disembowelment by a fantastical creature were no big thing; we’re not accustomed to seeing the brutal without the lurid. As Christopher Brockhaus notes, “these drawings revealed Kubin’s abiding interest in the macabre. Thematically they were related to Symbolism, as shown by the ink drawing The Spider (c. 1900–01; Vienna, Albertina), which depicts a grotesque woman-spider at the center of a web in which copulating couples are ensnared. This reflects the common Symbolist notion of the woman as temptress and destroyer.” Not surprisingly, Kubin admired Schopenhauer.

The artist was a novelist, too, and one book in particular, The Other Side, continues to haunt readers today. In an excellent appraisal of Kubin, Jeff VanderMeer offers a chilling synopsis of the novel, which he describes as Apocalypse Now by way of Hieronymus Bosch:

The Other Side tells the tale of a Munich draftsman asked by an old schoolmate named Patera to visit the newly established Dream Kingdom, somewhere in Central Asia. Patera rules the Dream Kingdom from the capital city of Pearl. The wealthy Patera has literally had a European city uprooted and brought to its new location, along with sixty-five thousand inhabitants. The narrator, after some hesitation, agrees to visit and travels with his wife through Constantinople through Batum, Batu, Krasnovodsk, and Samarkand—Samarkand being the last of any identifying landmarks on their journey.

The narrator soon finds that the Dream Kingdom is, well, a kingdom of dreams. People experience or live “only in moods” and shape all outer being at will “through the maximum possible cooperative effort.” A huge wall keeps out the world and “the sun never shone, never were the moon or the stars visible at night … Here, illusions simply were reality.”

Over time, strange rituals and aberrations have sprung up. Pearl also shifts in odd ways, and in this sense has a kinship with M. John Harrison’s far-future Viriconium, which also function from more of a metaphorical than a chronological foundation. This doesn’t bother the narrator at first, but as the city’s changes become more and more grotesque, it’s clear that the Dream Kingdom is faltering, descending into madness.