The OF Blog: Blogger Book Club Review: Thomas Disch, Camp Concentration

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blogger Book Club Review: Thomas Disch, Camp Concentration

Almost 11 years ago, in late October 1997, I, two other history graduate students, and our professor attended a dress rehearsal of George Tabori's Mein Kampf. Like many of his plays, Tabori's titles and characters contained double-edged twists, as this story dealt not just with Hitler during his young adulthood in Vienna, but also with the struggles of the Austrian Jew Herzl as he learns of Hitler's probable fate. During the climatic scene, one of the characters uttered this devastating double entendre: "What is the shortest German Witz [joke]?" After a pause, he replies with "Auschwitz."

While many others who have reviewed Thomas Disch's 1968 novel, Camp Concentration, likely thought about matters such as the inversion of the "concentration camp" theme, I couldn't help but to wonder if Disch and Tabori ever were aware of one another during their lifetimes. In Tabori's play and in Disch's novel, there is a sense that there is some sort of cruel joke that is playing out during the course of the narrative, a joke whose punchline does not arrive until the final, chilling conclusions. What that "joke" is, however, is not a simple one-to-one connection with the various catastrophic events of the 20th century (the two World Wars, the Holocaust, demographic explosion), but rather is a multi-faceted commentary on life and how we perceive it to be.

Disch structures his novel as a journal written by a "conchie," a conscientious objector named Louis Saccheti (with some echoes of Sacco and Vanzetti there?) imprisoned for five years for refusing to fight in a Vietnam War that has continued well into the 1970s, this time with the Westmoreland strategy of "bomb them into the Stone Age" taken to the extreme of using nuclear weapons. Although this backdrop is rarely referenced, it serves as the first clue that there is a madness that is lurking at the edges of this novel, one that is reinforced throughout the narrative. Take for example one of Louis's opening entries:

However, we lead here no worse a life than we would be leading now outside these walls had we answered our draft calls. Nasty as this prison is, there is this advantage to it - that it will not lead so promptly, so probably, to death. Not to mention the inestimable advantage of righteousness.

Ah, but who is this "we"? Besides myself there are not more than a dozen other conchies here, and we are kept carefully apart, to prevent the possibility of esprit. The prisoners - the real prisoners - hold us in contempt. They have that more sustaining advantage than righteousness - guilt. So our isolation, my isolation, becomes ever more absolute. And, I fear, my self-pity. There are evenings when I sit here hoping that R.M. will come by to argue with me.

Four months! And my sentence is for five years...That is the Gorgon of all my thoughts (p. 2)
Louis, however, soon is taken from this first prison and taken to Camp Archimedes (doubtless an eureka moment for a few readers), where he is injected with a drug, Pallidine, which has the double-edged nature of increasing one's intelligence while simultaneously causing the rapid aging and disintegration of the body within a year. There he and the other inmates are tasked with discovering alchemical methods for how to prolong life (after all, it is in their best interest). It is in this second part that Disch's narrative musings, via Louis's numbered journal entries, begins to hit its full stride.

Dizzy with the burning Camels and attacked by bellycrabs as well, I found my attention straying from the prayer to the brute business of unsealing the egg, which was taking place almost directly above me. Only when this was accomplished did the Bishop's viscid incantations emerge from the humming darkness of the Latinate into the realm of ordinary humbug, just as sometimes, in a supermarket or elevator, one recognizes the tune playing on the Muzak.

"...and just as Thy only begotten son is at once God and man, just as He, born without sin and not subject to death's dominion, chose to die that we might be free of sin and live eternally in His presence, just as He rose glorious on the third day, just so is the Carmot, philosophic gold, without sin, ever the same and radiant, able to survive all trials, yet ready to die for its ailing and imperfect brothers. The Carmot, gloriously born anew, delivers them, tinctures them for life eternal, and bestows on them the consubstantial perfection of the state of pure gold. So do we now, in the name of that same Christ Jesus, ask of Thee this food of angels, this miraculous cornerstone of heaven, set in place for all eternity, to govern and reign with Thee, for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever." (p. 100)
In this scene, not only is religious ritual seen to be hollow and out of place in a mad sort of experimental prison camp, with the reference to "philosophic gold," one finds echoes of the mad researched bequested upon Louis and his fellow Pallidine-infected prisoners by one of the prison commandants. Moreover, immediately following this quoted passage, there is a key twist to the story, one which takes nearly the rest of the novel to unfold. It is a twist that some might claim deals with the futility of hope, the madness of rational exploration, or of how life can cheat death for at least a little while longer. In other words, this quoted passage begins an exploration of the problems, worries, and wild expectations of humans trapped in that most vile of prison camps, that of Life.

Without science we wouldn't have these rows of uprisen stelae. It (science) is a veil over open lips, it is the word unspoken. Even the damned are reverent at that altar. (p. 114).

Someday in our colleges Himmler will be studied. The last of the great chiliasts. The landscapes of his interior world will elicit only an agreeable amount of terror. (Of Beauty, therefore.) Consider that the transcripts of the atrocity trials are already, these many years, offered for our entertainment in theaters. Beauty is nothing but the beginning... (p. 115)
The sin of death spares the sons of David. Hope is a swampland under a glouting sky. A prehistoric wilderness of island-nights. Hinges of cell-mud. Hell grows, joylessly, out of the testes of the dying. (Whispers: Oh, the lecherous thickets of death!) O Mephistopheles!

The death camps: fat, swollen, blossoming exorbitantly. Roots sucking at the ground made ready by the Almighty's plan. (Only He can.)

God? God is our F--er; and here between the floating flowers, mental organizational principles. These, birds of a strange nature, existing between behavior and reward. Standing in the muck, looking at something wrong, eyes slightly askew, as in an old woodcut.

"You are punished with stalks of bamboo," he says. You do as you're told...He felt his heart knocking against the god that had organized this camp. Ecclesiastes. (pp. 116-117)

These quoted passages form the central philosophical angle of Disch's novel. Science and its "veil." Atrocity as entertainment. The evocation of Mephistopheles, as if we were the willing Fausts who failed to consider the consequences of accepting Satan's bargain. The reference to the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and countless others. God as being the organizing "principle" behind all of this. When taken as a whole, these are rather damning conclusions that Louis/Disch has made about human existence, one in which perhaps it is best to laugh off as a joke, rather than weep over. The shortest German Witz, indeed.

And so it goes to the conclusion, with Louis confronting several troubling facets of human societal goals and aspirations, each tying back into the theme of human Life/existence being but one more, mass form of the concentration/death camps. There is a plot twist at the end that solidifies this sense of sardonic hopelessness, one that Disch accomplished fairly well in retrospect, although I recall on my first reading of the novel believing was a sort of a weak cop-out. As a thematic exploration of fractured humanity beset with lusts and fears, Camp Concentration was a brilliant read, albeit a bit too disjointed in places, particularly in the first, slower-going half of the novel. But perhaps others have things to add to this?


Anonymous said...

I´m halfway through my review, but I would like to start the comments saying that I don´t know if I agree with you. I think Sachetti diary is a veritable descent to hell (an image with which he is obsessed, BTW, and he opens 334 with Dante´s description of it), and that descent includes his total disintegration, in language as well as in spirit. The first half of Camp Concentration seems to me a study in hubris, in the sense that it is oh-so-smart. But soon Sachetti finds out the bitter truth. Even knowing what was to become of him, I was very saddened when I read these pages - almost as sad when I learned of Disch´s death.

Larry Nolen said...

Oh, I can agree with much of that, as I was thinking beyond Louis's own hell-sinking and into how it could be interpreted as a societal malaise of sorts that Disch was relating in the form of Louis's notes. I do agree that there is much sadness in the story, even though the end negates some of it.

I wonder if we need to start analyzing that conclusion in the comments here or on one of the blog entries?

Anonymous said...

I don´t know, maybe both. I picked up part of my comment to fuel my review-in-the-making. I thinks that´s a quite agreeable process after all, very healhty insofar as we all can exchange opiniões and benefit from them.

Braulio Tavares said...

Larry: I tried to find some allusion in Louis Sacchetti's name, but found none, apart from a poet and a painter in Italy - nothing that clicked in a special way. But I think that "Sacco and Vanzetti" sounds like a good guess. Sacchetti is a conscientious objector and, as a prisoner, he shares with S&V the same semi-guilty, semi-innocent condition.

Anonymous said...

I was rather less impressed by the book, and discussed it as part of an earlier book club here.

Larry Nolen said...


Looking forward to seeing what you concluded about the book and then seeing what comments may arise from it.


I suspect Louis's last name might be a mystery, but it certainly does conjure up some negative memories of 20th century US History, no?


Interesting discussion there. Might link to it in my other thread, so others can see that discussion as well.

Kristen said...

Excellent review. I found it interesting that you found the end to be a cop out the first time you read the book but not on rereads. This was my first time reading the book (in fact, I'd never even heard of it until it was an option for the book club) and the ending did seem out of place with the rest of the story to me. After finishing it, I did wonder how much my view on the ending would have changed had I known how the story would end from the beginning.

Si said...

Great review Larry. It seems like you put a lot of energy into it... Very interesting.

Larry Nolen said...

I don't think of it as much as a "cop out" as it being rather disjointed from the rest of the story. I still do, to an extent. It's as if genre conventions of the Hero/Protagonist overcoming great odds to triumph overwhelmed the more mimetic tradition of "if there's a deadly virus loose and the Hero/Protagonist is infected, s/he will die by novel's end." But yet the notion of the inmates figuring out how to subvert the system, cruel and as pointless as it was appearing by the halfway point of Part II, that is intriguing as well and it might be that I overlooked part of what Disch was aiming to accomplish there.

Larry Nolen said...

Thanks, Simon! I'd have to say the others who participated did just as much as I did. It is a meeting of the minds, no? :D

Kristen said...

Blogger ate my comment last night (or perhaps I just shouldn't post right before bedtime since I probably hit "edit comment" instead of "save" from the preview or something silly like that).

I do agree that disjointed is a better term for the ending. Last night I started to say that I thought the protagonist overcoming great odds to triumph seemed out of place with the "cruel joke" aspect of the novel you discussed. With such a dark book, I expected a darker ending. Yet it did fit with being a cruel joke - just in the end, the joke was on the experimenters instead of the guinea pigs. I'm not completely convinced it wouldn't have worked better with a different ending, but I at least think the ending is better than I thought when looking at it from that perspective.

I'm having far more fun discussing this book than I did reading it. :)

Larry Nolen said...

The more I think about it, it might have been even crueler and darker to have Louis "survive" and to watch his "body" die - Death still will get him, eventually, and how he is inhabiting another's form. Very dark and cruel joke indeed, even if it isn't hinted as much as it could have been in the preceding scenes.

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