An Image for Our Time

Atlantic Abomination 01 (Art by Richard Powers)Edmund Alexander “Ed” Emshwiller (February 16, 1925 – July 27, 1990) was a commercial artist and illustrator and later, in the 1960s, an auteur of so-called experimental film.  He is notably identified with the science fiction genre, having contributed scores of covers to Galaxy magazine, and other similar periodicals, in the 1950s and 60s.  Emshwiller’s illustrations also graced many a paperback cover, as in the case of the Ace paperback edition of John Brunner’s Atlantic Abomination.  I have posted Emshwiller’s Abomination (so to speak) previously at The Orthosphere.  It is time to display it again.  Emshwiller’s painting instantiates the possibilities that lay within the popular and commercial genres of art in the middle of the last century.  It is a powerful image with many resonances in the archives of painting and drawing, which, to my mind, speaks deeply to our condition.

I invite commentary on Emshwiller’s image, or indeed on Brunner’s story, his lone foray into H. P. Lovecraft territory, should anyone have read it.

P.S. I call dibs on any That-Woman interpretation of the image.

22 thoughts on “An Image for Our Time

  1. Pingback: An Image for Our Time | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. The valorization of the monstrous [thing] depicted in this illustration is evoked by a reader comment about the up and coming generation over on Rod Dreher’s blog ( An excerpt:

    The children are all absolutely confused, rightly terrified of being linked or in any way associated with beliefs that have been deemed toxic and contaminated – anything from the western tradition. They are desperate to rid themselves of the contagion of their own history. Being “queer” is the new salvation, it is the new blood in which the children are to be cleansed of the sins of their fathers; the youth are celebrated mightily for their embracing of any lifestyle that erodes the power of the individual to stand alone – that erodes the sacredness and sovereignty of our very humanity. … Where I live their displays of adherence to the new dictate are ubiquitous. Firstly, the youth make themselves look deliberately ugly and or just strange, their appearance must function as a kind of constant disruption of the notion of any kind of underlying or essential order, they are walking, talking protestations. They must aggressify (that’s a made up word lol) their personas, as they have been taught any sort of coherence, or beauty is intricately linked to oppression and evil. As they do not wish to be seen as either of these things (in the new Queer world, original sin only exists exclusively outside of queer – to be queer is to be saved) so they embrace deformity, dissociate themselves from their biological imperatives, their inheritance, they literally sacrifice their biological future and potential to gain elevation in the new queer order. These are the new invaders, they are the ones protected and cheered for sacking the old order; their vanity is stoked daily by all media insuring they will continue with the ravaging of a world they were taught to consciously hate before they ever had chance to know it personally.

  3. Pingback: An Image for Our Time | Reaction Times

  4. A striking image, horrifying and yet mesmerizing.

    Regardless of how it was originally intended, I think it’s an accurate abstract map of decline and fall as envisioned by an old civic republican tradition. The moral and cultural foundations civic life are crumbling away; the citizens accordingly no longer have enough civic virtue to be able to uphold the State; and the State become a monster that doesn’t deserve to be upheld.

    • That is a convincing gloss of the image. Mesmerism, indeed, plays a role in Brunner’s story. The thing in the gigantic howdah is Satanic, but he (I suppose it is a “he”) is linked to the slender, “utopian” towers in the right of the frame midway between top and bottom. Emshwiller may therefore be said to have identified the Satanic with the utopian, while revealing the sacrificial character of their absolute similitude. In respect of the existing American condition, the Atlantic Seaboard is definitely the seat of imperial-dictatorial power, for which Brunner’s title furnishes a good label: An Atlantic Abomination. The Abomination is affiliated ideologically with the corrupt Neo-Marxism of the “Frankfurt School” that came to America, seeking asylum, ironically, from Hitler’s National Socialism, in the 1930s. And which then installed the ideological foundation of what would become a repressive socialist polity. The Thing is an image of critical thinking; that is, correct thinking, and that is, political correctness. The perishing slaves have the task to hoist the Thing above the spiritual abyss that it has created – the pure void of political correctness – an impossibility that will end in total oblivion.

      • This novel is as scarce as chicken’s teeth in the EU. What is not that scarce is its modern rendition through mass media. I kicked the TV habit many years ago, yet with the push of a button one is inundated with dystopian messages glorifying the state. What is the message of series like csi-crime or popular hero’s / avengers taking over from God? Plain entertainment ? I remember B&W television programs aired to educate farmers after WW II. Farmers gathered in their Sunday pubs around the TV. My grandfather was one of them. Lo and behold the cultural Marxists quickly cut that short by branding such programs ‘condescending’. So five decades onward the most dystopian live show on the planet surely must be the US election. Is such a display not condescending to all Americans ? The ‘thing’ has taken over civil society.

        Either way the election ‘plays’ out, the electorate is in for a serious existential crisis. And I am humble enough to admit one can substitute ‘US’ elections with any other one like ‘UK’ or ‘EU’ which is not even a country…

        After so many years, it turns from disturbing into mildly amusing, having discovered the meaning of divine providence. But that ought never stop anyone from kicking up resistance and slow down the entropic forces like those of the cultural Marxists.

  5. I think the monster’s anhedonic exhaustion, expressed in its pose and on its face, is really interesting. It is the picture of wickedness too spent and bored to spread any further: destined imminently to be extinguished whether through repentance, or, more likely, damnation.

    • Yes: The thing’s “essence” (I put the word in quotation marks to indicate my paradoxical usage of it) is nullity; it can only annihilate, and its actions are ultimately self-annihilating. It is always-already exhausted from its exertions in the direction of entropy, like Derrida’s prose.

  6. Intellectually the image immediately calls to mind a Juggernaut bearing the idol of a Hindu deity through a crowd, some of whom wind up crushed beneath the wheels of the remorseless car. Visually it recalls medieval paintings of the damned pouring into Hell, the close-packed bodies pullulating like maggots in a corpse. (A later example is The Fall of the Damned by Reubens [1499]). When writers go on about Man or Humanity or Mankind, it can sound very noble and stirring, but visual representations of humanity en masse are always dehumanizing–suggestive of maggots, or ants, or nameless nasties that dwell under logs.

    • Crowds are invariably sacrificial either directly through the action called lynching or indirectly, as when, every year at Mecca, hundreds of people are trampled to death “accidentally” in the ritual turbulence around the Kaaba. Many other examples could be given. A crowd is a savage, low-I.Q. entity. Goodthink always invokes the crowd under the lofty title, precisely, of Humanity.

  7. Thordaddy: I am admitting your comment on probation. I have normalized your idiosyncratic capitalizations, but otherwise I have not altered your words. Your phrase “willing slaves” is rhetorically ambiguous. All slaves are willing. The Unwilling ones revolt and either die in the insurrection or secede from chattel-status to form their own societies, as did, for example, the Cossacks, who were originally runaway serfs.

    You and Rhetocrates see the Thing as black and invoke a contemporary American racial-political interpretation of the image. The Thing is not black; he is purplish, or darkly vermilion. He is skinned, as one might say, in Tyrian Purple, the ancient color-prerogative of Molochite dictators. Emshwiller’s image transcends the particularities of any specific temporal condition although it corresponds to many of them. The Thing’s minions are not “above-average I.Q.”; they are members of a crowd hence below average in intelligence and prone, as all crowd-members are, to sacrificial behavior. As to your claim that the “master does not self-annihilate” – of course he does, beginning with Satan, who, having no ontology but negation, is always-already self-annihilated. (Read Milton, please, or Goethe.) I have no idea what you mean by “literal perpetuation.” The idea of perpetuity, which you include in your comment, is contradicted by the idea of the “momentary,” which your paragraph also incorporates.

    In Brunner’s story, the Thing enjoys a momentary triumph, but that triumph is undone by the stubbornness of consciousness, which rebels against subjugation. The Thing’s regime is so immiserating that the painfulness of it jerks his telepathically suborned subjects back into their proper subjectivity. They then destroy him. And good riddance.

    Brunner was a card-carrying liberal, but as a master, pardoning the expression, of imaginative narrative, his creativity pushed him back in the direction of reality when he wrote his parable. I wonder how Brunner would have voted in the Brexit referendum. If he were consistent, he would have voted to leave the European Union, that is, to repudiate its mastery. Those who in fact voted to leave, did so despite the quite probable claim that divorcing the Union would have adverse economic consequences. The desire for sovereignty trumped the desire for liquidity and comfort. That is, the ideas of nationhood and selfhood trumped the seductions of collectivist ideology.

    • No, Thordaddy is not banned. I came to the judgment, however, that his comment, now deleted, was rhetorically obscure and advanced the thread in no noticeable way. My reply to him, now also deleted, was, again, irrelevant to the thread and therefore advanced it in no noticeable way. If Thordaddy wanted to reenter the thread in sentences nearer to the topic, I would consider including his comment.

  8. I invite commentary on Emshwiller’s image…

    I accepted this part of the invitation and interpreted the image in relation to “America” circa 2016 and it seems the conveyor belt of above-average IQ “white” males walking off the cliff as a disconcerted and disparate collective only temporarily elevating the Neo-Marxist beast that United States Government simply perpetuates.

    It’s a tough pill to swallow. To be the brains behind all the global machinations. Many a nerd is in great denial about his meta-role even today.

    Emshwiller saw it many decades ago. The denial is now more totally “refined.”

    • Emshwiller saw a zombie-like ideological future through the prophetic character of his artist’s eye. My guess is that, like lots of artists, Emshwiller was a liberal (he was associated with the arts institute Cal-Arts in Southern California, about as ultra-liberal and hippy-dippy as you can get). Probably, were Emshwiller alive today, he would be a Bernie Sanders guy. Frequently an artist’s art is smarter than he is.

  9. Well, I’ve started The Atlantic Abomination. And What Maisie Knew. Same day. There shouldn’t be much trouble keeping them distinct.

  10. But if you do get that Cthulhuvian nightmare, you might take a phrase from Brunner’s eighth chapter and call your work Crazy Days Maisie


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