The Burnt Orange Heresy — Charles Willeford

Published 1971

This post instigated during #heatwave2021

My previous reviews of older or classic books:

When I read this book, my cooler thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

Nothing exists,

If anything exists, it is incomprehensible,

If anything was comprehensible,

it would be incommunicable.

— Gorgias

26 thoughts on “The Burnt Orange Heresy — Charles Willeford

  1. Part One
    Nothing exists

    Chapter One

    “Two hours ago the Railway Expressman delivered the crated, newly published International Encyclopedia of Fine Arts to my Palm Beach apartment. I signed for the set, turned the thermostat of the air-conditioner up three degrees, found a clawhammer in the kitchen, and broke open the crate.”

    Ironically, that’s how this book opens, I have now discovered.
    That’s all I have read so far.
    I shall continue reading it in due course, when it is cooler.

    I shall be far more abstemious about quoting from it in future. Only shorter, more infrequent examples of the text as headings to each instalment of my impending gestalt real-time review, instalments that will cover my piecemeal stream of consciousness regarding this book.
    No spoilers intended.

    • What a fascinating first chapter. A presumably prestigious contributor of articles to the above Encyclopaedia is (so far in this book) our first person singular narrator by the name of James Figueras, one of those rare acclaimed art historians of the day, and we learn a lot about him from his reaction to reading his own articles within the Encyclopaedia, and, somehow, a lot about myself, “a small number, indeed, of men who are able to look at art and understand it, and then interpret it in writing in such a way that those who care can share the aesthetic experience.” No presumption there! My own ‘nothing exists’ of Nemonymous?
      All in Figueras’ sweaty heat of Florida!

  2. Chapter 2

    “Nevertheless, it is more important for a dealer to understand people than it is to understand art.”

    This is BEAUTIFULLY written! How have I never before encountered this book about the art world? — as the character of Figueras develops in my mind, through his own narrative words, about items of art and various artists, including the Haitian primitives, and the business of gallery art itself and the people involved. And as to his larger-than-life girl friend, Berenice, and his love-hate relationship with her, I am spellbound!
    By the way, Berenice was a genuinely very uncommon name to name children in the 1970s when I named my own daughter as Berenice. It is still relatively uncommon, and she has often had to take pains to spell it out to new acquaintances. And she has always claimed I named her after the eponymous vampire in Poe!

  3. Chapter 3

    “I put up genially with bores, I was an extra man at dinners where single, heterosexual young men were at a premium, and when I was in a good mood, I could tell stories or carry conversation over dead spots.”

    The art social scene in Palm Beach, our man’s place in it, those he can influence and be influenced by, his non-existent beard, the drinks he drinks and the mediocre paintings from Haiti et al with which he is faced today and whom he may meet in the future. I feel like one of the figures in this book along — if not synonymous — with F himself. And with where he lives and whom he avoids there. Any lovebiting from his Berenice, notwithstanding!

  4. Chapter 4

    “It was the kind of party where it was assumed that everyone knows one another and therefore no one is introduced. There are many parties like that in Palm Beach.”

    Brilliant chapter, especially as I myself (D.F. Lewis) invented neo-Dada as part of the Zeroist Group in 1967. Take it or leave it, that is true.
    F meets Cassidy for the first time (or last time, because how do I, the real-time literary critic, yet know?) and the utterly fascinating plot direction is set up for me, one that I shall resist divulging here, although it has something to do with an old man (does this novel actually take place in 1971 when I understand this book was first published?) and with neo-Dada.
    This compelling plot direction amid — carp (if not tench, tench being important to my own philosophy) in a pool and a badly-designed sculpture of a griffin by this pool; F’s backstory, Puerto Rico, the variants on his forename, his milliner mother, his developing career as a so-called ‘incorruptible’ art critic; discussion of Matisse and Rothko; and of the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Hitler’s time; and artists arguably, for me, similar to fish in pools as fished by collectors and critics alike… “Collectors and critics live within this uneasy symbiotic relationship.” And Cassidy saying: ‘One dishonest act doesn’t make a person dishonest, not when it’s the only one he ever performs. That is, a slightly dishonest act.” And F saying (to himself if not to us readers): “Berenice makes much better coffee than I do . . .” Any Cyprinidae, notwithstanding.

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  7. Chapter 5

    “Debierue is a difficult artist to explain, I explained to Berenice over coffee:”

    Which gives vent to whole load of info in an info dump! But I can excuse any such literary device when F’s info is so utterly fascinating! Where has this book been all my life!? Thanks so much to the one who recommended this book to me.

    “But the Spanish No pido nuncia a nadie sounds better because the reiterated double negatives don’t cancel each other out as they do in English.”

    My own mythos of Nemonymous and publishing the first ever blank story in the world (in 2002) etc etc and the Zeroist Grouo (1966-69) seem akin to D’s double negative and his Nihilist Surrealism et al.

    “Mass hostility is always omnipresent toward the new, especially in art.”

    We have here a wonderful tour through all the modernist art movements, including D’s own backstory, giving context to F’s forthcoming mission…

    “‘I’m sorry I interrupted, James. May I pour you another cup of coffee?’”

    Brothers Grimm and their Found-Art innovations are new to me. And I happen to have been watching a TV documentary on Hemingway recently and the references to him were well encountered in F’s info dump. As were the references to the superego and to the ‘burnt’ ashes of two dead wives in one urn! How strange and apt it was that, yesterday, RAVISSANTE (Robert Aickman’s story about art and paintings) came up naturally in my current mission to real-time review all his stories. In that story, also, various painters were listed by alphabetical letter, a ritual which is in tune with the discussion of Rothko’s numbering by F.
    D’s painting No. One, too. And the “Scatölögieschul”…

    My process of gestalt real-time reviewing since 2008 is also relevant to F’s reference to the ‘Autotelic’ — ‘“Just that. That the poem, or whatever, should be considered by itself, without reference to anything else.’” And F’s concomitant, almost contrary, argument about this is again utterly fascinating, and may alter the direction of my own thoughts on Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy etc. And, again, this autotelic aspect is amazingly relevant to my double-souled discoveries in Aickman’s RAVISSANTE yesterday!
    Shall I go on?

    “But I was talking to myself. Berenice, I noticed, with some irritation, had fallen asleep.”

  8. “The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.”
    – John Fowles (from ‘The Necessity of Nemo’ in ‘The Aristos’ 1964)

  9. Chapter Six

    If anything exists, it is incomprehensible

    Chapter One

    “There was, I think, too much orange in her lipstick, but perhaps this slight imperfection was the single needed touch that made her so lovely as a whole.”

    We’re filled in with all the angles of B! — her body gestalt as it were, including her possible failings as a floundering teacher of English in the shallow waters of high school education.
    Meanwhile, we learn about F’s optimum balance of morning coffees and the number of drags, yes, drags, on any cigarette that he shares with B . Meanwhile, F fills B in, including the filling in of more info on his mission concerning D, the legendary inscrutable old man artist we learnt so much about yesterday …. The co-mission of F and B, as it has turned out.
    Not forgetting a brief tangent by F on whether whales are born head or tail first! — a topic that seems strangely relevant, but relevant to what?

    • Chapter Two

      “With the art of Debierue, one man is a crowd. Me. Debierue.”

      “Ray Vint painted a trompe-l’oeil fly on every portrait.”

      “‘Yes.’ I grinned. ‘But didn’t Braque say that the subject was not the object?’”

      This is a wonderful portrait of the artist called D, as F and B arrive at his hideaway in Florida, amid surrounding chicken-sheds, an abode arranged by Cassidy.
      D is seen as an ordinary man at first, a standard old retiree just like me, with an alligator on a lapel, not a fly on a portrait as Vint would have done nor even a tiny man on it…!
      But as one homes in on D, via F’s words, we learn so much more. About personal Aesthetics as well as backstory, his confident seclusion as an artist, the corny picture in his bedroom, the contents of a medicine cabinet, the nature of ‘validity’ in art, much play on fresh or frozen ORANGE juice, and a tall story about another D called Duchamp and a drawerful of the latter’s bric à brac, and D as Debierue being a man who belies his own Nihilist Surrealism….
      Homing in on D by F, only for F to find himself instead BEING interviewed by D! – “pulling on me — on me!!” Like that fishing I mentioned earlier!
      Homing in, homing in on D, until F’s brilliant artistic Polaroid ‘Happening’ that I will leave you to read about without further prior comment by the likes of me — me who has also mostly forsaken doing art for doing criticism like F.
      Happenings like gestalt real-time reviews!…?
      I used to take near-instant Polaroid photographs in the early 1970s….

      “The unpainted wooden chicken-houses had weathered to an unpatterned dirty gray, and most of the roofs had caved in.”

      “As you see, I am an orderly, clean old man. Always it was so, even as a young man. So it may be, after all, that I am not the Surrealist. Is it not so?”

      “But for Debierue, who showed his work to no one, the idea was absurd.”

      No. One

  10. F1A8F528-87BB-4F22-B24B-4B13D858F6A6

    Chapters Three & Four

    “The dinners had been purchased by the Negro maid who came every Wednesday… […] He had a delusion that frozen foods were better, somehow, than fresh.[…] Other than tap water, all he drank, because French wines were too dear, was frozen orange juice.”

    Humid, “In the black swamp beyond the house a lonesome bull alligator roared erotically.” Dry turkey dinner. Dry mouth despite the juice. Alongside D’s “so-called dry period” in art! His unique signature, a singular artwork in itself? Mosquitos galore, a drive-in cinema that also has a regular seat for driverless D, with “insane woodpecker laughter” in the earphones provided……..

    I think I may have been waiting for some of these concepts all my life, ever since I started the Zeroist Group in 1966. And with Nemonymous. And much else. Yet, D has surpassed me, had I but known.
    Not kNOWn till now.
    The way D has surpassed me I shall leave you to read and interpret in the context of F’s surreptitious and immoral mission in D’s studio. Although F thinks it to be at best ‘amoral’, I guess.
    All I can say is that I am most thankful that I have read this far into the book so far. Thankful to whatever’s or whoever’s forces suggested that I should read this book! — including the audit trail I myself have instinctively conducted heretofore, thus enabling me to be available for, and thus open to, such forces.

    “Here was a qualified Nothing, a Nothing of such deep despair, I could not be absolved of my aesthetic responsibility — a nonhope Nothing, a non-Nothing —“

  11. Pingback: A non-Nothing | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  12. Part Three

    If anything was comprehensible,
    it would be incommunicable

    Chapter One
    Chapter Two

    “…and gradually developed a complicated, but pyramiding, gestalt…”

    “With cadmium red, chrome yellow, Prussian blue, and zinc white I can mix almost any shade or tint of color I desire […] I added tubes of burnt sienna and lampblack to the others because they were useful for skin tones”

    With a mix of fact, fiction and figurativeness, journalism and critic turned creator, I read these two suspenseful chapters, but I dare not divulge how these two chapters are so important in the critical configuration of my own mind over a lifetime.
    Simply read this book and become me! (That’s a warning as well as an enticement, by the way!)
    And the surrounding interaction between F and B here during this still accretive denouement of the devious conspiracy is a brilliant romcom second to none. Just waiting to be put on a cinema screen?

    And how many ‘yesses’ are there in ULYSSES? And is heresy hearsay for truth?

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  13. Chapters Three and Four

    “…a second-thought overlap of self-doubt, a feeling of ambivalence that vitiated my value judgments…”

    Even I, I who have been almost literally LIVING this book, could not resist finishing it today, not knowing what had happened in the unread pages already written. And yes, even I was staggered at actually what happened. Not just once, but a number of times!
    A literary romcom now become a thriller and, like some of the other books recommended to me by the same person who recommended this one, not necessarily a whodunnit but a ‘how and why did they do it.’ What the motives, indeed what the legacy.

    An utterly fine climax to these book recommendations because, surely, no other book that might be recommended by the same person can live up to what were once the expectations — and now the most surprising fulfilments — of this one!

    Meanwhile, each one of us will have a legacy, however humble, however great, however much based on false or true illusions. And not necessarily just a legacy by the measurement of column inches!

    A legacy, I hope, based on what Art is or what Art can be — simply fill in the blanks, I say.
    As well as being in privileged mutuality with those I love.

    A book that “shone like burnished gold”, a phrase-grab from the end of the book itself.
    And never burn your fingers to snuff another man’s candle. (Isn’t that a famous proverb?)


  14. Pingback: The Phrase-Grab | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

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