Vanikin in the Underworld
Brentano Books, 2021
Having just finished reading Mark Gullick’s novel, Vanikin in the Underworld, I feel compelled to recommend it to serious readers of both fiction and non-fiction – strongly compelled. Fiction lovers will be drawn to the droll self-mockery of the narrator and delight in the masterful outpouring of sardonic, coruscating wit that assaults contemporary fashions, fads, and politically-correct fetishes. The wild metaphors and caustic similes come flying off the pages with a speed and volume of June bugs hitting your windshield on a warm summer night. Historians, philosophers, and scholars of various persuasions will be enviously struck by the author’s range of erudition, which he puts to use – often with hilarity – in eviscerating the preposterous, bloated fraud that the “modern” university has become. The book is both uproariously funny and deeply sad. I must add: It is acutely descriptive of the sewer that Western culture has slid into. One of the many ironies that emerges for the reader is that the underworld in which Vanikin finds himself turns out to be a more decent and honest place than the overworld that ejected him.
The novel’s central character and narrator, Harry Vanikin, begins with a ghastly telling of his precipitous fall from a high perch of professorial acclaim as the result of a feminist-launched, Stalinist-style public purge. His book, the Decadent Turn, was written for fellow scholars as “a critical examination of academic theory from the Renaissance to the present day.” It was the spark that ignited the short fuses of the cognitively-limited fanatics who call the shots at what’s left of the academy. “[T]he book was remade as a white supremacist tract, a racist screed, a tool of oppression and every other label pulled from the semantic box of tricks a certain type of academic has at their disposal.”
With the purge completed, the “disgraced” professor finds himself entombed in a crummy apartment in an even crummier housing project somewhere in London where you won’t find the tourists. In this bleak underworld where he has been deposited after a bout of temporary insanity, our Lazarus, ex-philosophy professor, is attended to by a cast of characters from a sociological and ethnic demographic appropriate to the ironically-named “Europa House.” Built in the late 1960s, it “resembles a hybrid of an East German tax office and a giant lock-up by a ring road” –perhaps with an East German-style Lebensfreude, the kind that made the attempt to leave worth the risk of getting shot.
Vanikin’s defenestration has turned him agoraphobic. For seven years he blots out the changes from night to day and rattles around inside his cage reflecting on the train wreck of a society – the “overworld” out of which he has been cast – that makes public enemies out of truth-tellers, philosophers who dare to philosophize:
In a world where pinheaded advertising executives spend Third-World-economy-sized amounts selling children plastic and rubber shoes endorsed by multi-millionaire hoodlums who made their own fortunes braying about violent sex acts and ballistic weapons, my teaching methods were inappropriate?
Here in the United States, the black “multi-millionaire hoodlums” routinely beat up their girlfriends and denounce the white racist fans who make them rich in limited vocabularies of which “motherfucker” does the heavy lifting. But Professor Vanikin committed “inappropriate.” “Inappropriate” continues to be one of my favorite weasel-words favored by teacher-ed establishment types, human resources staffers, and effeminate scolds. Amorphous and protean, it is typically retrieved by cowardly duff-sitters behind their administrative desks to complete the banishment of unsuspecting offenders of recently-invented politically-incorrect crimes and misdemeanors, abandoning innocents to be mauled by howling, primitive mobs.
Harry also expounds on the abnormalities and aberrancies of his fellow refuges in the “project.” Declan, for example: “a young man habitually embalmed in cheap Scotch and tax-funded barbiturates.” Then there is the resident caretaker of Europa House, Craig McCerrow: “[He] is one of the most frightening of God’s creations. God, or whoever runs this spiteful orb.” God must have outsourced the management of this Bedlam barracks to one of his surly apparatchiks. Yes, Craig makes a very deep impression on the depressed Professor Vanikin. “To see . . . his sleeveless shirt showing enough of the hinterland of his squamously illustrated body to indicate his likely passage through life thus far, is to see a type of hell.” Well, Sartre did say in No Exit, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.”
Declan, Craig, and an assortment of Vanikin’s other dysfunctional — and occasionally criminally-inclined — neighbors make their way in and out of Harry’s domicile on various missions that result in black comedic exchanges for the reader. Here, for example, is Harry attempting to allay the suspicions of a lady friend, Estrella, about a new resident who has few possessions in his apartment:
Perhaps, Estrella, I want to say, he is uncluttered by the endless inventory of the modern. Maybe he eschews the ranks and files of supermarket detritus. Perhaps he’s a Buddhist, with a mat and a bowl. Estrella, though, I can see, wants him to be a serial killer, an MI5 intelligence agent, a fugitive from the law, a racist.
Preoccupied with his prison cuisine, Harry describes one such repast in excruciating detail:
Lunch is a modest affair: corned beef and a puffy white roll liberally smeared in a butter substitute of the yellow colour found in a child’s paint-box, followed by tinned pineapple rings, stacked neatly in their alloy cylinder on top of one another like tiny vinyl records, and swimming in a sweet syrup flecked with pulp. Is it a coincidence that the rise of the tin coincided with the onset of nuclear armaments? How could you prepare for Armageddon and a barren nuclear winter with fresh food? The atom bomb versus the tin.
After recoiling from this psychedelic picture and deferring my preparation for lunch, I couldn’t help but think of this culinary rendition as a kind of Balzac moment where artful, painstaking description somehow turns into insights that are penetrating, interesting, and striking.
Early in the narration, however, the reader grasps that beneath Vanikin’s unleashed agonizing cascade of his quotidian miseries, what is unfolding is actually a love story. Check that, several love stories.
Vanikin is, above all, a lover. The love of his life is philosophy, since his earliest years. Not the shriveled-up philosophy we know today as that dried-out husk of a specialty taught in academic departments by the uninspiring offspring of technicians like Harvard’s John Rawls or post-modern, word-salad quacks like Berkeley’s Judith Butler. Vanikin’s embrace of philosophy is as a polymath, an all-consuming attempt to grasp reality as it manifests itself in the full range of human experience, the kind of philosophy given to the world by Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant – none of whom, by the way, worried about “inappropriate.”
This account of his love of philosophy also comes with a lament for its fate in the post-modern world. In a hilarious metaphorical riff with “divorce” as the vehicle image, Vanikin captures the post-Enlightenment descent of philosophy from its long reign over the quest for knowing into a hobby for navel-gazers and a comfortable perch for academic backbenchers.
Thus follows for me one of the funniest and most sagacious passages in the novel:
When it became increasingly apparent, post-Enlightenment, that most of what philosophy was doing was actually fledgling science, the resulting schism, had it been framed in the terms of a modern divorce, meant that science got the kids, the house, the car and the pension. Philosophy was left with some old cardboard boxes filled with the stuff science had no use for, morality, metaphysics and language, as well as some post-Romantic pop-psychology which coalesced into existentialism. That and a broken guitar and some CDs with cracked cases. From there, it was just some pyrotechnics and a little snake oil, and we got the three-ring circus of structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism. These were like having the bad hangover without the pleasure of getting drunk first.
In just a few sentences, Gullick executes a priceless take on the “progress” of Western philosophy that would take a plodding historian a tome or two to complete, a kind of irreverent CliffsNotes version that lets you skip the heavy reading and, perhaps, the worst of the hangover.
Now, a second love story. Vanikin, the lover of philosophy, was also the lover of a woman, Clara, who “was pretty rather than beautiful, a Raphael flower-maid rather than a Cimabue damsel or a fat-arsed Reubens roustabout.” Clara, like Harry, is — or rather was — a philosopher: “We had a mutual love of Herodotus and Schopenhauer, cross disciplinary pollination which seemed naturally to lead to other activities undertaken by birds and bees the world over.” The physical side of their love fails in reproduction, but even Harry’s infertility is made into a humorous jab at the failures of the United Kingdom’s modern welfare state: “Vanikin sperm seemed about as willing to work as contemporary British youth.”
Harry’s lady-love, Clara, is snatched out of his life in an instant by a pantechnicon truck – a giant furniture delivery vehicle – that hydroplaned on a wet road and then “batted Clara’s funny little car into an oak tree and killed her. . . . It rained at the funeral and, for me, it would never stop raining.”
After coaxing out this sorrow for the reader relatively late in the novel, the narration takes a dramatic turn, a turning of our Lazarus toward resurrection. Thus begins the third of the love stories embedded in the telling of Professor Vanikin’s experience in the underworld from which he will emerge. It is the love of Estrella for her friend, the battered and morose savant professor who has lost two of his loves: Clara, and the teaching of philosophy.
Bringing Professor Vanikin back to life is a challenging project for Estrella, who becomes his amanuensis, agent, and teaching assistant. Wishing not to give too much away of the ending, I would just add that there then unfolds a surprising and deeply touching twist that is rife with irony. Europa House, a petri dish of UK social engineering pathology, is where Harry discovers the human and spiritual inspiration to step back into the world of philosophy and return to his love of teaching.
I cannot end the review without giving in to the temptation to comment on how much Gullick’s contempt for the “studies” mania in university curricula resonates with my own observation of the poison it has injected, not just into the university, but more broadly in terms of the respectability it has granted to the grievance-mongering in our modern world from which there seems to be no escape.
In a Chapter called “In the TV Room,” Vanikin warns the reader away from the “Studies” fraud:
Media Studies. Non-white Studies. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. Colonial Studies. Queer Studies. Beware any course in further education which has the word ‘studies’ appended to it because studying is one of many standard academic procedures in which you will not be taking part. These hobbyist grudge farms have nothing to surprise you, no card up their respective sleeves, when you set them next to the television.
Yes, with these courses there is no illumination, nothing learned, and less sociological insight to be gleaned, as Professor Vanikin goes on to explain, than one might get from a few hours of daytime television.
“Hobbyist grudge farms” is the key phase here. “Studies” is a euphemism for grievance-mongering now institutionalized and masquerading as higher education. Reading Vanikin’s warning brought back to mind my own observation of this development:
Like poison mushrooms sprouting exponentially in shaded soggy soil, these ‘New Frontiers of Knowledge’ were ripe for exploration and expansion in the 1970s. The ‘Studies’ thing at American universities was metastasizing to accommodate prospective students from the expanding victim classes: Gay/Lesbian Studies (including Queer Theory), African American Studies, Latino Studies, Post-Colonial Studies. . . . The degrees came with a heavy load of self-righteous certitude that was invincible against counter-arguments. With an easily mastered vocabulary of hand accusations, invective, insults and slurs and an in-your-face attitude, you could intimidate most people and send them running for the exits.
Vanikin in the Underworld is an admirable piece of writing: as literature, philosophy, and iconoclasm. I second the urging of James J. O’Meara’s earlier review at Counter-Currents: “do yourself a favor and just go out — or online — and buy it now.” Please do it. You won’t regret it.
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