& The Quest for the Elixir of Life
I made this fake movie poster for this edition of the Chopping Block. It features our hero, a sociopathic, opportunist twerp from Revolutionary days. The Nathaniel Hawthorne novella Septimius Felton: Or, the Elixir of Life is a gothic romance and cosmological origin story for the United States as we know it.* Piehole encountered it via Bernadette Mayer, in a section of her epic poem Midwinter Day in which prosaic plot summaries of stories become a major motif. Mayer’s summary of Felton was originally recounted onstage by one of our Old Paper Houses characters, but for whatever reason it eventually met the fate of so many other wonderful texts—and was ruthlessly CHOPPED from the script. So, we offer it here:
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where the successful yet spiritually mediocre ruling class of America came from (, it seems to say???).
Septimius Felton is late-period Hawthorne, and Mayer’s elegantly glib summary of it instantly communicates the essential Hawthornian elements: a fairly assholish central male figure, a torrid and senseless female self-sacrifice, an excessively complex and melodramatic plot that verges on the nonsensical, and a structure that screams allegory, yet is so full of details that it strays back into full-on ambiguity, as if the symbols got confused halfway through and forgot what they were supposed to represent. In any case, dependably weird stuff from the gift that keeps on giving, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“After the flower is gone, the leaf developes rapidly and becomes very large and imposing, with many divisions and lobes. The root is reddish and is filled with a blood-like juice, as is also the stem. This is now used in medicines and was formerly used by Indians for coloring purposes. Bloodroot is common from N. S. to Minn, and southwards. It flowers in April and May.” -Chester A. Reed, Wild Flowers of the East Rockies, 1910
See you next time, on the Chopping Block! And see you at Old Paper Houses, which opens next week at The Connelly!
*In the classic sense of certain cosmology narratives—where a figure of masculine moral order brutally discredits and subdues an out-of-control parental figure who is a generally a collage of threatening forces of ‘other,’ in a decisive battle that usually includes some kind of clever trickery, and then uses the physical corpse of the vanquished to somehow contstruct the ordered world we know and love. Classic example: the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish tells the story of handsome young hotshot-god Marduk’s heroic slaying of his own grandmother (and the mother of the universe), Tiamat, who has conveniently become a raging reptilian chaos-monster in her old age, followed by Marduk’s use of Tiamat’s severed body parts to create the earth, sky, geographic features, etc. Then he gives his young god-buddies sweetheart development contracts for the city of Babylon in the conveniently fertile river valley he just made. His descendants have dull and lifeless eyes.