Satan, God, H.P. Lovecraft and Other Mephitic Models: Interview With Paul Laffoley
- January 24, 2013
by Robert Guffey
“Lucifer is this creature who, having received an infinite revelation, believed he was God. That‘s the first sin of pride. It‘s also a moment at which the first transsubstantiation occurs. … He becomes a humanoid, but he has an infinite number of physical senses.”
“Where Heaven and Hell are, who the hell knows that now? Because we‘ve got so many dimensions going. I don‘t think one person could ever make a total theological statement about that.”
On Valentine’s Day, 2004, I attended Paul Laffoley’s slide show at Melrose Light Space, a hip art gallery tucked away unobtrusively on the second floor of a Hollywood strip mall, the entire bottom floor of which was populated by abandoned store fronts. The slide show represented an overview of Laffoley’s idiosyncratic paintings stretching back well over thirty years. Each slide invariably triggered in Laffoley’s mind a fascinating five-minute long monologue about the unusual circumstances under which the painting was conceived and the metaphysical and/or scientific theories that inspired it. Eighty slides were included in the show. By the end of the evening, Laffoley had discussed only about half of them.
Later in the evening, I asked Laffoley what exact percentage these paintings represented in terms of his entire corpus of work. He replied, “About ten percent.” This suggests, of course, that he’s completed somewhere around 800 paintings in his lifetime, the most celebrated of which have been featured in over 300 exhibitions both nationally and abroad. This would be an impressive body of work for any artist, but particularly for someone whose paintings are as rich in detail as Laffoley’s.
Laffoley, an architect by trade, aspires to create paintings that meld both the Dionysian (the purely emotional) with the Apollonian (the purely rational), thus managing to capture the anarchic spirit of a Jackson Pollock within the grid-like confines of an architectural blueprint – a blueprint conceived in the mind of a mad genius obsessed with building only the impossible. Such “impossible” projects include a fully functional time machine called the “Geochronmechane,” an interactive painting called the “Thanaton” that helps the viewer project his etheric body into the astral realms, a single family farm designed to resemble the ten Sephiroth and twenty-two paths of the Kabala (complete with trees growing upside down beneath the ground in order to replicate the dark side of the Tree of Life), an immense spherical house composed of genetically-engineered vegetation, and a Christian fundamentalist theme park built in the shape of the Star of David.
After the show, I accompanied Laffoley back to CSU Fullerton where he was serving as the visiting Artist-in-Residence. During the car ride we touched upon numerous other impossible topics. These topics happened to include Laffoley’s most important influences, his pantheon of “mephitic models”: Paul Laffoley, Sr., R. Buckminster Fuller, Orfeo Angelucci, Leon Theremin, Nikola Tesla, Richard Upton Pickman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Satan himself.
The interview concluded in Laffoley’s temporary studio in Santa Ana where he was hard at work on his latest painting, “Pickman’s Mephitic Models,” based on the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. The Grand Central Art Gallery in Santa Ana specifically commissioned the painting in order to include it as the centerpiece of their ambitious “100 Artists See Satan” exhibit, which ran from July 3rd to September 19th in 2004. (The painting can be seen at: www.grandcentralartcenter.com/gcacPages/Artists/100ArtistSeeSatan/100Artists_P_07.html#laffoley as well as in a wonderful book entitled, 100 Artists See Satan.)
Our conversation about the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft at the very end of this interview occurred while Laffoley was putting the finishing touches on the marginalia that surrounds the painting. Pickman’s central images, interpreted by the artist Arnold Clapman, had yet to be included.
RG: Robert Guffey
PL: Paul Laffoley
RG: During your lecture I noticed a lot of the references you made to certain esoteric scholars. More than once you mentioned Manly P. Hall [author of The Secret Teachings of All Ages and numerous other works of occult philosophy] and C.W. Leadbeater [author of The Hidden Side of Freemasonry and other Theosophical texts]. You mentioned Theosophy a lot as well. How did you first come upon these alternative systems of thought?
PL: To me they were part of what growing up in New England was all about.
RG: Were there a lot of people in New England who were into C.W. Leadbeater?
PL: Sure, yeah. My father knew all about this stuff. I owe a lot of what I’m doing, I think, to him. I’m sort of continuing my father’s work.
RG: What did your father do?
PL: He was a banker. He was the president of the Cambridge Trust Company, the head of the trust department, and he taught classes at the Harvard Business School. And he was a member of the Harvard Faculty Club, which I am, too, because what I did is… I have the same name as my father, only Jr. So I kept paying the bills, and now they must think there’s a prof walking around that’s 130. I like going there to eat. It’s nice.
RG: Your father was a medium, wasn’t he?
PL: Yes. Of course, I didn’t know him when he was extremely young. I was born rather late in his life, in his mid‑40s. And so what he did up until the time he was 15, I think probably from age 12 to 15, my grandfather made him demonstrate mediumistic powers at the Exeter Street Theater, the first Spiritualist church in the United States. It’s near Coply Square. The Exeter Street Theater is the place where William James found Leonora Piper, the medium he called the White Crow. The one that wasn’t a phony. In other words, the exception to the rule.
At 15 he revolted against his father like any teenager, and said, “I’m out of here! What are you doing to me?” He thought he wouldn’t be involved in that kind of stuff for the rest of his life. He just wanted to make money. He was one of those people who took over the family responsibility. His own father was pretty irresponsible with money and borrowed from people all the time.
You know, he was always saying I’d end up like my grandfather. Okay. My grandfather was an architect, I’m an architect. It’s true, certain characteristics are similar. But anyway, my father became super-responsible. You know, he was the kind of person that absorbs all responsibility in the family, and then everybody else can act like a child in relation to him. So then, when he reached his majority, he was the head of the family. Everybody depended upon him. He went into a very uptight appearance; he would wear Chesterfield coats to work, Homburg hats, really getting into the whole thing. He knew people like Oscar Levant. He loved New York. He wanted to live there.
He was always upset that my mother didn’t want to live in New York. Because he said he wanted to live in a hotel and not have to mow the lawn and all that. In other words, he never liked sports clothes, he always liked to be dressed up formally, 24/7. And he drove big cars and, you know, just loved to act the banker. He was also a lawyer in his bank and specialized in tax law. He would have to do the tax returns for all the Harvard profs because they were buffaloed by that kind of reasoning. Professors in the economics department, even they knew nothing about it.
He developed inventions too. And this was the time just before the patent office would allow ideas and systems to be patented. When computers came along it was possible to patent ways of using them, what we now call programming. Before that it had to be a gizmo, a gadget that you could put on a table. Now, of course, that’s untrue. And today the patent office is obsolete. You just take whatever you do, tool up, and start production for six months. At the end of the six months you put the data on all the computer inputs all over the world and you got your business. You can make all your money, and then people can steal it, but by then it doesn’t matter because you’ve made the money up front and you avoid wasting money in lawsuits. He had all these kinds of ideas years ahead of others.
But he had this quirky thing of not believing in gravity. And giving me a constant headache about that one. He would say if I showed any interest in gravity, I was becoming a dupe of the system. He could see indications I was beginning to believe in it.
RG: What indications?
PL: Well, I would say, “Why don’t you actually take some courses in physics instead of saying this?” But he would never do it. Businessmen for some reason or other, think, because they’re successful in a single direction, that they know everything. You know what I mean? You ever meet people like that?
PL: The Babson Institute, which is now an actual university, was started by this guy who also had a problem with believing in gravity. And so he started the Babson Institute in New Boston, New Hampshire, which then moved to Gloucester. Each year they have a competition of one thousand dollars for one thousand words of an essay on gravity. That’s the way they do it. Stephen Hawking won it one year with his black hole stuff. It’s keeping an open mind on whether gravity exists or not. I think my father believed this because … when the wind blew on him, he’d get angry, because it was something he couldn’t control. He was afraid of being out of control. Forms of energy from nature gave my father trouble. He refused to believe he was going to die. He had these weird delusions. It’s amazing. Along with all the great thoughts, he had all this funny stuff.
So, as a kid, I was getting information in areas that no one else was getting. I think that was one of the reasons my mother didn’t want me to go to school too soon. Because I would be beaten to a pulp, you know, if I walked down the street and said there was no such thing as gravity. Kids would say, “Oh yeah? I’ll show you gravity,” and a rock would drop on your head.
RG: Did your dad have an alternate theory of gravity?
PL: Yes. In other words, he thought it was like a push, which is very similar to certain things that Descartes thought about, such as his vortex theory. My father would conclude his dissertations by saying, “Of course, Einstein never believed in gravity. It was a distortion of space.” And so my father couldn’t believe that an attraction at a distance was a reality.
RG: You know, Jonathan Swift didn’t believe in gravity either. He said that Newton had discovered levity, not gravity.
PL: Yeah, all this stuff worked into the mix. You know, in the suburbs, most people believe in gravity, but they don’t have much of a sense of humor.
RG: Of course.
PL: And so, to have that radical a mind in that bourgeois-looking body was really hard for a lot of people to take, because, when my mother would want to have people over she’d tell him, “Don’t start with the gravity stuff.” And then he would invariably do this and the guests would look at each other and say, “Well, I think it’s time to go now.”
RG: So was that the only taboo subject he was into?
PL: No, no, there were other things. But this was the big one. He felt passionately invested in the concept.
RG: Have you come to the conclusion that he was right?
PL: Well, I met a guy who had the same theory and wrote a book about it. His name is Walter C. Wright Jr. His book is called Gravity Is a Push. I wrote to him and told him about my father, and he said he wished he’d met him. My father died quite a while ago. This guy has a more cogent presentation than my father did about it being a push. But he had the same basic belief, that the idea of magnetism attracting something was not the reason why the effects of what we call gravity occur.
RG: There’s this eccentric guy who used to be in Mensa. His name is Ralph René, and he wrote a book [The Last Skeptic of Science] that had a whole chapter on that exact theory. It’s the kind of book that’s bound with masking tape. But, you know, it seemed plausible.
PL: Yeah. My father was an extremely brilliant man. I consider him a genius, and so he probably could have joined Mensa. But why? I got in it with a 79 I.Q. and the first day I said, “I’m getting the hell out of here quick!” They’re all losers. All they do is talk about their IQ. [Laughs]
RG: In your lecture you mentioned the medallion you were given as a child, the one with the swastika and the Star of David on it.[In his essay “Disco Volante,” Laffoley writes that he had been “regaled since 1947 by stories of riding in flying saucers by the man who came to cut our bushes at my family home in Belmont, Massachusetts” (Laffoley 24). This man was named Giuseppe Conti. On Laffoley’s fifteenth birthday, Conti gave him a medallion composed of a swastika circumscribed by a Star of David. Conti claimed the medallion was extraterrestrial in origin. Ten years later, the medallion was stolen from Laffoley on the streets of Paris by a man who identified himself as “Claude Vorilhon.” Laffoley wouldn’t see the medallion again until the mid-’90s when he happened to come across a photograph of UFO cult leader Claude Vorilhon in a book entitled Kooks by Donna Kossy. In the photo, Vorilhon is wearing the very same medallion around his neck. Laffoley believed the medallion’s symbol represented “the reconciliation of opposites.”]
PL: Yes, right.
RG: And you tied that into the reconciliation of opposites. It sounds like your father was a kind of yin-yang situation as well. He was working at Harvard, but meanwhile he was a medium. He was straddling two worlds.
PL: Yeah. He knew Gardner Murphy, who went to Topeka, Kansas to be the head of a psychical research thing. But at the time that he knew him he was a graduate student at both Columbia and Harvard and worked with the American Psychical Research Foundation in New York. And so they got together and put Troland’s notes together [L.T. Troland, a Harvard psychology professor who performed a number of experiments involving telepathy in the 1920’s]. He was doing four volumes. The final one was the ultimate theory of mind and matter, how they connected. And they took these notes and kind of buried them at the Harvard Graduate School of Design library. That’s basically the only reason I wanted to go there. I really wanted to study with Bruce Goff [one of the masters of “organic architecture”] at the University of Oklahoma, but I said if I can find those notes I’d have a leg up on the future. I found shards of them, and people say that if they’re not just dust, which could be by now, that they must be in Brockton, Massachusetss in a permanent archive someplace. It would take some doing to unravel what he was going to write. But my father said he did have the mathematics of mind physics, or the physics of consciousness.
RG: So when you grew up in this environment with your dad, you must have thought all this was normal.
PL: Yeah, that’s the point.
RG: Was there a certain point when you realized it wasn’t normal?
PL: I’d say it was the day at school when they asked me to talk about gravity.
RG: [Laughs] Oh, I see.
PL: And I said, “I don’t have to do it because it doesn’t exist.”
RG: During your lecture you mentioned Buckminster Fuller [U.S. inventor, mathematician, philosopher, author of Critical Path and other books, perhaps most famous for inventing the geodesic dome].
RG: How did you meet Fuller?
PL: At one time in the mid-’70s I became the president of the Boston-Cambridge chapter of the World Future Society. Because I’d been in my studio by myself since 1968 on up. And the thing is that my social life consisted of being involved in organizations like that. I would get people to come and speak, and speak myself and that kind of stuff. So Fuller was down in Pennsylvania, then he’d come up and go to his island in Maine. He wanted to remain a New Englander. He taught from ’48 to ’49 and ’50 at Black Mountain College. That’s where he met Kenneth Snelson. Fuller kind of stayed a Yankee right in the New England area. So it was pretty easy to get him to come on over, and we would have lectures at the Harvard Science Center. He always liked to say that he got kicked out of Harvard three times. Mostly you only got kicked out once, but he kept coming back. What it was, he never got past his freshman year, because the guy was an insane womanizer and he did parties every night, never studied anything, never took a note, didn’t care about anything and just had a blast. So they said, “We gotta let you go. You get zeros all the time.” Today it wouldn’t even matter, because they don’t care if you can read. So he was quite willing to talk. He’d talk at the drop of a hat.
I learned to talk in front of people by listening to the way he did things. Because he would give lessons in how to lecture. He would say, “Never take a note, just stand up and start babbling. And then eventually you’re going to be able to make some coherent statements, and so it’s like you’re vamping. And then people will gradually start to listen to you when this spot of logic shows up in this torrent of verbiage. Just keep on talking.” And he could do four, five hours straight where some people would leave, eat, get a snooze and come back and he’s still going. He was like a fireplug. I started modeling myself on him, like with the hair. I reached an age where I sort of, kind of, looked like him a little bit, you know? I thought it was great.
We would go on retreats to Florence. The people in the planning team got to be good friends and so we did things like, we’d all go over to the Fort Belvedere in Florence and take that thing over. Because it’s up for grabs, you can rent it. And then have New Age meetings and all that kind of stuff. Fuller loved to go there. Because it was like transporting a lot of the people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Florence. So we’re just talking to ourselves again, but in another venue.
I would have private conversations with him. I once had an argument, for four hours, about the existence of the Mobius strip. Because he believed in the Klein Bottle, you see. And I said, “How in hell can you claim to believe in the Klein Bottle and think that the Mobius strip is dubious?” He said, “Well, it’s a torus.” I don’t know what he had in his mind as a mathematical background, because I don’t think he got topology. Because, in other words, the Mobius strip didn’t have angles in it. The tetrahedron was his big thing. He’d talk about it in the same way Plato talked about angles. And I said, “Well, why do you believe in the Klein Bottle?” He said, “Because I can imagine it.” I said, “You don’t have to imagine a Mobius strip. It’s right there in front of you!” But he couldn’t see how that could involve a cross cap, meaning something that couldn’t be reduced to a two-dimensional surface. Which it does. It’s because he was thinking that the matrix was the thing that a fly could walk over the edge of, like a torus. It’s not. The Mobius strip is only an analog for the reality of what it is. And then he says, “Like a shadow… shadows don’t exist, they’re the absence of light.” He was quite a Newtonian in certain ways. But he was an excellent inventor and kept people on their toes.
RG: You know, supposedly he once told Marshall McLuhan that during questions and answers, he would wear earplugs in his ears so he wouldn’t hear the questions.
PL: [Laughs] I think that’s true, because he would pretend to be deaf at the right times.
RG: Earlier I brought up those weird metaphysical charts I always see in Theosophical and Masonic books….
PL: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: Did they inspire you to adopt your style?
PL: I think it wasn’t that I was inspired so much. I was corroborated by them.
RG: I see.
PL: In other words, as an approach to spiritual realms. I always had a sense of liking diagrams, from the time I was studying architecture. Architecture is built diagrams, basically. And so it meant that you had something that could move from the ideal into the real. Any sort of working drawings are simply diagrams. Architecture encourages your imagination to work that way.
I actually challenged The Theosophical Society on their concept of planes of reality. I said, “What you’re doing is, you’re stacking two-dimensional surfaces in three-space. And you are not going into any other dimensions at all.” And they were furious, because they thought I was attacking Madame Blavatsky. They’re ideologues in terms of the way they present the material. That’s one of the reasons why, when they teach their courses, you only get a smidgen of stuff and you have to keep coming back every week. They won’t do an overview. Because they’re trying to bypass your conscious critical faculties by leaking the information slowly.
RG: At what point did you adopt that style? Did your style just come full blown or was it a small, gradual progression?
PL: I’ve kind of always done diagrams. It helped me think. I hear some guy teaches a course in diagrammatic thinking now; he’s written books on it and stuff like that, and so it was kind of natural for me. Because it was a way in which words naturally fitted into something that’s visual. I was always interested in doing that.
RG: Were you ever interested in comic books?
PL: Oh yeah. How that came about was… from the fact that I went to a progressive school. I went to the Mary Lee Burbank School in Belmont. And it was a place where you, like, learned to go to the store? And I was saying, Oh God, I want to learn something else. I wanted to learn to read and write better and do mathematics better. They were very much into Abstract Expressionism and that artsy stuff. And where most kids did what I call meaningless blobs, I could render perfectly. I could do Superman, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, this kind of stuff. And kids would give me their lunch money to have these things.
I would be constantly brought up on the carpet by these teachers who were brought up with Abstract Expressionism, saying, “You’re too uptight, you’re not expressing yourself, why don’t you feel freer?” I said, “Well, I don’t like that stuff. It means nothing to me.” I could draw, and I knew these people couldn’t. You know, people who can draw get upset when people who can’t start telling them what to do!
So eventually, to get through school, I would make good meaningless blobs if I had to. And so they thought I was falling in with them and stuff like that. But on the playground, kids would come up to me and say, “I need three Supermans and a Captain Midnight by four o’clock because I’m going to sell them to somebody else.” So I’d take all their lunch money and whip these things out, and they’d have to stick them in their underwear to get the pictures home, because if the teacher ever found out about that. Well, they eventually did and they said to me, “You’re out of here!”
At that point I was sent to the regular public schools until I had to go to Belmont Hill. Because I wasn’t doing anything. The public school was nothing, just a total waste of time. So anyway, I was always doing paintings. I actually started painting with oil paints when I was four years old. Not crayons, not pencils and that kid of stuff. I’d paint birds. Anything that moved, stuff like that. So to answer your question, I did do, well before Pop Art, all the cartoon characters as paintings.
RG: Is that because you were asked to do it, or because you wanted to?
PL: I think it was because the kids asked me to do it, and reading comic books, I could imitate the styles quite easily.
RG: Your paintings do look like full comic book pages sometimes, with panels stacked on top of each other.
PL: Sure, yeah.
RG: In your lecture you mentioned Orfeo Angelucci [author of The Secret of the Saucers, Amherst Press, 1955], which is strange because he’s a very obscure figure, even among UFO people.
PL: Yes, I know. I first heard of him from Giuseppe Conti who gave me some books by him. When I was in New York working for Kiesler [Frederick Kiesler was a pioneer of “organic architecture,” whose most famous building is arguably the “Shrine of the Book” in Jerusalem], at night I listened to Jean Shephard who lasted from 1957 until 1976 and then went off the air. But also I was listening to Long John Nebel. Now, Long John was what Art Bell and George Noory do now.
PL: But Art Bell didn’t do it till like 1985. Long John I think went off the air in about ’79 or something, so there was a hiatus. That’s why I think Art Bell thought there was a spot to be filled. He was doing exactly the same thing. And it was on Long John’s show that I heard Orfeo Angelucci being interviewed. In other words, the whole thing about the green globes on the top of a car bumper and the voice coming out, you know, and then this beautiful lady…. So he went through the whole number, what you read in his book, that kind of stuff. A whole raft of things.
You know, Long John would sometimes hold his interviews in the Carnegie Delicatessen, which is the most famous delicatessen in New York up by Carnegie. Let’s see, 57th Street, you’re down to like 50th Street and 7th Avenue… You’d go in there and everybody would be eating a heart attack on a plate, pastrami, malts, that kind of stuff. But it literally was the place where Woody Allen would go. A classic place. Around the corner is the Russian Tea Room, which is now out of business. Which is awful. I remember going in there and seeing the ballerinas trotting in there like they were prize horses, with their hair, their sunglasses. Really amazing. They were all White Russians. This is where Theremin [Leon Theremin, Soviet physicist who invented the first electronic musical instrument in 1920] met a lot of people, and where the KGB eventually picked him up. People thought he was dead, but he was actually in a gulag.
RG: I wanted to talk to you about Theremin. Before we do that, though, I wanted to ask, was there something about Orfeo that resonated with you more than any other contactee story?
PL: Well, I mean… I thought George Adamski [author of Flying Saucers Have Landed, British Book Centre, 1953] was actually a fraud. Looking at him, I found him repulsive. In other words, he didn’t have the wide-eyed, innocent look that Orfeo Angelucci did. I mean, I liked Orfeo’s name! I mean, Orfeo! Orpheus. And Angelucci, of course, from the angels.
RG: Yes, Carl Jung was impressed by that.
PL: I know it. He put him in his last book [Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959]. He said Orfeo had made up a new bible.
RG: I was just reading your essay about The Day the Earth Stood Still. You go into Theremin quite a bit. Is there something about Theremin that particularly inspired or influenced you?
PL: Well, I think it was because Tesla [Nikola Tesla, Croatian-born electrical engineer who invented the first AC induction motor in 1888] and Theremin were part of what made up the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Klaatu was actually a European among the Americans. In the story the landlady says, “You’re from far away from here.” He says, “How did you know?” And she says, “I can always tell a New England accent.” And in the story, the boarding house is on Harvard Street, all this kind of stuff. And so the person who wrote the story said that Klaatu came from Europa, the fourth moon of Jupiter, which is now being investigated for life. There’s water and ice on it and that kind of stuff.
RG: You mean in the original short story? [“Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates.]
PL: Yeah. You have to read the story to get a lot of the stuff that is implied, but doesn’t show up, in the movie. You know, they made a lot of technical errors. Like Klaatu was in 309 at Walter Reed, and then he says he’s in 306. They just let that slip through in the movie, and I’m saying, what’s going on? And there are other funny things like that. But I always thought of Klaatu, like, he was 78 years old and he looked 35 and he said the life expectancy was 130 on his home planet. Both Tesla and Theremin were preternaturally young. I mean, for a long time Tesla was a young man well into his 70s. And so was Theremin, even though, at the end, he looked pretty old. But he was still doing things that young guys do, beyond the time you’d normally think people should be doing that stuff. They were European gentlemen, very well-mannered, all of the stuff you associate with living in Europe. So I began to analyze the movie and said it was really made out of these two characters who were brought together. That made it fascinating to me. And especially the language they made up, that Klaatu speaks. Because it has a Latin word order. It’s like medieval Latin, but it had some Navajo phonemes in it and that kind of stuff.
RG: Klaatu barada nikto.
PL: Yeah, right. At one time I could reel off things that he says in front of the interrossitor, the device on the ship. And then, of course, he uses the Theremin thing. He doesn’t touch anything. He just has his hands come near it, which is the way you play the Theremin. With one hand you raise the pitch and with the other hand you change the volume. You didn’t actually touch the thing. So he’s doing that, opening the doors, running the whole ship that way. And then in the scene where Klaatu gets brought back to life, Gort brings him into the flying saucer. He lays him down in this thing, and there are like zap rays coming from the feet to the head. Well, Theremin actually tried to make somebody come back to life. He had a lot of friends and one of them died. He was very lonely after she died, and so he started to concoct this gadget that would bring people back to life. And that gadget was the model for the revival of Klaatu in the movie.
RG: Did Robert Wise or the screenwriter actually say that the movie was based on either Tesla or Theremin?
PL: Well, they’re dead now. But I think anybody who would be able to come up with that kind of a movie has got to have a breadth of knowledge that’s pretty wide. He’s casting his net over a big water, and so you wouldn’t even dare attempt something like that, that would have that impact, unless you had a lot of knowledge. I saw it the first day it came to the RKO Keith Memorial Theatre on Tremont Street when I was, like, eleven years old. Because I’d had the experience with Giuseppe Conti, I said, “My God, that’s my movie!” I kept seeing it everywhere I could. Then finally, when VHS and DVDs came out, I got that. And I keep watching it all the time.
RG: A few years ago I read Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney.
PL: Yeah. Good book.
RG: Somewhere in the book Cheney says that when Tesla would write out a blueprint or a diagram, it was as if he were tracing an image that was already there.
PL: Oh yeah. He’d do it through lucid dreaming. He would, in a sense, dream up the engine, forget about it, come back, and then discover where it was wearing. You know, where the parts were wearing out. Now, that’s inner visualization and a half! And that was the secret of why he did so many inventions.
RG: Wait a minute. You’re saying that he would dream of the engine, one he hadn’t built yet, and then he’d…?
PL: Set it in motion, come back, see where the machine had worn out over time. All in his head. Yeah.
RG: And do you think it was entirely intuitive on his part, or did he know exactly what he was doing?
PL: I think he was always like that. And so it was inevitable that he would be an inventor. Because it was so easy for him to think fourth-dimensionally, dynamically. It wasn’t just a static thing with him. In other words, it isn’t the way an architect thinks, which is essentially static. You know, in terms of space. He was thinking of parts actually moving, like exchanging positions in space through time. This would go over here, then that would go over there, and then something else would happen.
RG: Do you think he was a contactee, like Orfeo?
PL: A lot of people claim that. He said he had no interest in the spiritual. He didn’t believe in telepathy, didn’t believe in any of that stuff, didn’t believe in any religion, and he just thought all these people were being superstitious and wanted them to go away. And in that way he was very close to H.P. Lovecraft, who was almost a believing atheist. In other words, he was areligious, asexual, neurasthenic, he just didn’t want to react to the world. Like Virginia Woolf, who considered religion the ultimate obscenity.
RG: I was reading S.T. Joshi’s biography of Lovecraft. He said that the original story “Nyarlathotep” might have been based on Tesla. Because, of course, Nyarlathotep first appears in the story as this kind of odd person who’s doing weird experiments with electricity on the stage. They were contemporaries, weren’t they?
PL: Oh yeah, sure. Because Tesla lived to almost 1943, whereas Lovecraft died in 1937.
RG: It’s fascinating when you consider that if Lovecraft had lived a normal life span, he would’ve been alive well into the 1960s.
PL: That’s true.
RG: Which is amazing, when you think about what he might have been writing during the Vietnam War say.
PL: Right. Well, he might have been doing something else. I think he wrote himself out.
PL: You know what I mean? In other words, he had already said what he had to say.
RG: Colin Wilson was talking about his last major story, “Shadow Out of Time,” in this essay I just read, and he said that H.P. Lovecraft was still thinking of himself as writing supernatural horror stories even though he had obviously gone way beyond that. But Lovecraft had not reconciled that paradox yet. So Wilson thought his cancer was unconsciously brought on by his frustration of not knowing where to go next. When did you become aware of Lovecraft?
PL: When I was at Brown. In other words, I’d heard about him, but I didn’t pay that much attention till I happened to go to a meeting about it. And then I got just totally turned on.
RG: And did you start reading him at that time?
PL: Oh yeah. I started with “Pickman’s Model,” because it was about Boston. I mean, what I loved about him at first is his sense of scholarship of an area, setting an environment, enlivening it. I think that’s one of the secrets of writing. In other words, you’ve got a journey as the plot, but it has to be in a lively environment, being able to create the mood. If you read “Pickman,” in other words, they’re winding their way through the Boston Streets and Lovecraft researched what was there. As a matter of fact, in 1927, when he came back, he was so disappointed, ’cause they had started to destroy a lot of those old houses from the 1700s that were in the North End. Of course, that was the place where Bostonians first landed and set up shop, because they could watch the Charles River and the Boston Harbor simultaneously, and then they dug all those tunnels so that the people could go underground from one house to another and watch who was approaching, in the dark, without being observed. Which, of course, was used later for the underground railroad, moving slaves up to Canada.
RG: When I was reading that Tesla book I was surprised to see that there’s a man named George Viereck who has connections with both Tesla and Lovecraft. He hired Lovecraft to ghost-write for him, and he was also a fan of Tesla and was hanging around his lab all the time.
PL: Well, Lovecraft did work for Houdini too.
RG: That’s right. He wrote “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs” for him. You know, if you read his story “Dreams in the Witch House” you can tell he’s writing about what theoretical physicists now call hyperspace. Do you think he was just naturally attuned to his unconscious, or did he have esoteric interests he didn’t like to talk about it?
PL: Oh, I think he knew the whole gamut. He just didn’t believe any of it! He probably liked to use the esoteric stuff because he knew it would tick people off and freak them out.
RG: The painting you’re working on now is about Lovecraft?
PL: It’s called “Pickman’s Mephitic Models,” based on the story. Certain things about it many people don’t realize. Pickman was a real painter who lived between 1888 and 1926. Now, there’s a question mark [gesturing toward the writing in the margins of the painting], because Lovecraft claims that he turned into a ghoul. God knows how old he is now.
RG: Well, we know he reappears in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath as a ghoul. So, let me get this straight, you’re saying Pickman really lived in Boston?
PL: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. In other words, the reason why I found out about that is that I went to Brown University. I belong to the Lovecraft Society, which meets at the University. They do things like follow in Lovecraft’s footsteps, just like he followed in Edgar Allan Poe’s footsteps. I mean the actual footfalls, you know, like they’re going out looking for sasquatch, this kind of stuff. I mean, these are really dedicated people when it comes to Lovecraft. But in the top floor of the John Hay Library, you have all of Lovecraft’s archives. And messing around in there, I noticed, I said, what are these paintings? And the librarian told me, “Well, those are Pickman’s paintings.” I said, “I thought this was like something he made up, like The Necronomicon, that kind of stuff.” And he said no, that the guy actually existed. He was a mediocre painter, living in Boston at that time, painting for the Boston Art Club, and places like that. We’re not talking avant garde galleries here. But Boston is not an avant garde place. It stays literally 15 to 20 years behind New York at all times. I mean, even New York isn’t in any great shape anymore in relation to the rest of the world. But at a certain point Pickman got this studio in the north end of Boston, which at that time was the first area where people lived when they first came to Boston. And the reason they did that, they were defending their position, and in order to really defend it, by 1700 they had dug underground tunnels all through that area so people could go up in a house and then not be seen by the enemy attacking them.
RG: I remember that from the story.
PL: The tunnels were used first in the Revolutionary War. The next time they were used is during the time of moving slaves from the south on big ships, and when they would land they’d instantly go down into those tunnels, until the slave ships that were trying to catch them, coming up from Chesapeake Bay or West Virginia, got tired and went away. And the story is… You’ve read the whole story?
PL: Eliot, the narrator, goes down into these tunnels with Thurber…
RG: Wait. Thurber’s the narrator, who’s talking to Eliot.
PL: Right, you’re right. So Eliot brings him down and Thurber starts hearing rustlings and stuff down there. He’s looking at these God-awful paintings, very realistic renderings of demons, as they’re going deeper and deeper into the inner sanctum. And then suddenly Eliot disappears and Thurber grabs something that he thinks is a background shot of a photograph. When he gets home he realizes that this was actually the demon that Pickman had taken a snapshot of, and that he was using it to help him paint the thing from real life. And so I’ve always wanted to do a painting on this, but this has nothing to do with the fact that it’s going to be in the Satan show. It’s just that it’s been on my mind for years, and this is a perfect time to do it.
Okay. Now, the thing is, once I discover that these paintings are actually in the John Hay Library, I ask them, “Can I come back and take pictures of them?” The guy says, “Absolutely not. This is like a museum. The only thing you can do is, you or a sketch artist can sketch these things, otherwise it’d be like going into a museum and borrowing stuff. You can’t do that. The things would be ruined, taking them out of the case and all that kind of stuff.” So I said okay. I got a friend of mine and said, “Let’s go down and do some visualization of that stuff. That’s how I got the things that’re there [referring to a series of four sketches hanging on the wall of his upstairs studio]. Arnie Clapman, that’s my friend’s name, I hope he’s going to come to the show, he decided to do the first sketch. So I’d say stuff like, “No, no, that’s wrong, look at this here.” So we were working these things out together to get a pretty good rendition of what they actually look like. There’s quite a number of paintings that Pickman did. So I picked basically the four juiciest ones. They’re not really the way they’re described in the story, because Lovecraft’s talking about something that almost sounded like Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, you know, the dogs playing poker and this kind of stuff. In other words, that isn’t what Pickman was all about. He was depicting the suffering of Satan, you see, through these demons. Because the whole theory of what Satan is, it’s Lucifer, the highest of the seraphim, the bearer of God’s light, who at a certain point comes to believe he is what is being revealed to him.
So, I began to realize that Lucifer is this creature who, having received an infinite revelation, believed he was God. So that’s the first sin of pride. It’s also a moment at which the first transsubstantiation occurs. And he becomes Satan, which is like… This was a flash, an instant. He becomes a humanoid, but he has an infinite number of physical senses, each of which are as different as eyes are from your ears. If you can imagine, we only have five or six senses, and we have trouble even distinguishing those when people are in synaesthesia. So he goes through all the seven deadly sins, right down the list, finally to wrath. He’s lusting after knowledge in this way, and so he sees the universe as a non-supernatural example of cosmic art. Now, we know this is what Lovecraft was into. Because he kept talking about how he wasn’t interested in religion. In a heaven state there is no religion, meaning that you’re seeing the whole thing … I mean, to worship something means that it’s something beyond you, right? In other words, it’s not being revealed to you.
So here was the situation. For years Lovecraft was defined as an atheist. Well, he wasn’t saying anything about what he really was at all. He wasn’t even an agnostic. That’s exactly what the situation is, in other words, when you enter an eternal realm. You’ve got to know there is no religion. So it’s literally a non-supernatural state of cosmic art. This is what this creature experiences, who then becomes Satan, and the moment he becomes Satan he’s pulled back into eternity. He loses instantly, loses all these senses. And as it’s happening he’s going right down to wrath. And so what he’s doing is, he’s putting on a show that he isn’t suffering.
Look at all the stuff the Existentialists did. You can start with Picasso, you know, and then Francis Bacon and other guys like that. What they were doing is depicting suffering. And that’s exactly what a demon is, he’s pretending that he isn’t. So he can get more people down there. You know, misery loves company, that’s the whole thing. So that’s basically the pitch that I’m working on.
RG: S.T. Joshi once said that Lovecraft was creating an anti-mythology, in the sense that he was turning basic theological concepts upside down and placing hell outside, in space…
PL: Yes, in an extraterrestrial realm. The thing is, where you gonna place it? From the time of Dante, when you have the Ptolemaic universe, you had God on the outside like a hypersphere, and then in the center you have the Earth, all the seven heavens and layers, and then you have the Mount of Purgatory and Hell right in the center, and here’s Satan flapping his wings and he keeps making the lake of Cocytus ice so you can’t get out. So, again, where Heaven and Hell are, who the hell knows that now? Because we’ve got so many dimensions going. I don’t think one person could ever make a total theological statement about that. That, I think, is impossible, because then… The whole thing that Dante did was summed up in the medieval world. It’s like St. Thomas Aquinas, the Summa Theologica. He didn’t invent it, he just put it all in one package. You get twelve fat books there sitting in any library. Whereas… I think if Joshi thinks Lovecraft was doing anything like that, just throwing together all this stuff to form a kind of anti-mythology, that’s where I would disagree with him.
RG: Do you think Lovecraft was actually an atheist or…?
PL: No no, no no no. I think he recognized what he was dealing with, he was dealing with demons. And he was dealing with creatures that’re suffering. There’s no way out of this suffering. I think… You know, Mick Jagger’s “Sympathy for the Devil.” I think it was inspired by that. You don’t know who’s reading what, you know. It just comes out once in a while in the pop culture. And so, I would say that it’s probably impossible for a lot of people to even think what Lovecraft’s theological state was. He could’ve been trying to do a Marx to Hegel, that kind of thing, in other words, turn the thing upside down and crawl around inside it. But, look, the guy was eating poorly, he had like a quart of ice cream a day. He was suffering constantly near the end. He wasn’t concerned with his body at all, not the way we’re concerned with our bodies nowadays.
I think that the phrase “a non-supernatural cosmic work of art” is what he would say that the devil had seen, or Satan had seen, in that instant. Like this orgasm of knowledge, where he sees the universe in a way that we can never see. But then that gets taken away. Of course, revelation is always taken away. So then he is thrust into some kind of outer space realm, like here [pointing toward the painting in progress]. In other words, he’s recognized he’s gone through R’lyeh, the Sunken City of R’lyeh, and then Cthulhu, the extraterrestrial, calls his band of worshippers home to recognize him as the anti-christ. This is all in The Necronomicon, something Lovecraft actually did make up.
RG: Well, you know, Colin Wilson claimed that Winfield Lovecraft, Lovecraft’s father, was a Freemason, part of the Boston Freemasons, and speculated that The Necronomicon might have been real, something Winfield saw in the local Masonic Lodge and perhaps brought home with him one night. Young Lovecraft tiptoes downstairs and flips through a couple of pages late one night….
PL: Yeah, okay. I like Colin Wilson, mainly because he never went to school. When you don’t go to school you can say anything you want like that and not have to worry. [Laughs] And I would bet that some of the things he’s saying are correct. But how much, who knows?
Laffoley, Paul. “Disco Volante.” The UFO Show. Ed. Barry Blinderman. Normal: University Galleries, 2000. 24-37.
Paul Laffoley was born on August 14, 1940. In 1962 he graduated from Brown University with honors in Classics, Philosophy and Art History. In 1963-64 he lived in New York where he worked with visionary architect Frederick J. Kiesler. At this time he was also hired to work on the design team for the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But he was fired at the behest of the chief architect, Mihoru Yamasaki, after having the audacity to suggest that bridges or walkways be placed between the towers to reinforce what he felt was a fragile structure. In 1964 Laffoley returned to Boston where he settled down in a small studio space now dubbed the Boston Visionary Cell. While living in this studio Laffoley has produced the vast majority of his paintings. His most celebrated work can be found in two books: Paul Laffoley: The Phenomenology of Revelation (Kent Fine Art, 1989) and Architectonic Thought Forms: a Survey of the Art of Paul Laffoley 1967-1999 (Austin Museum of Art, 1999). If you have any inquiries regarding Laffoley’s work, please visit <www.kentgallery.com>.
Robert Guffey is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program at California State University at Long Beach. His short stories, articles and interviews appear in such magazines and anthologies as After Shocks, Modern Magic, New Dawn, Paranoia, The Pedestal, Riprap, Steamshovel Press, The Third Alternative, and the 2004 compendium The New Conspiracy Reader. He is currently teaching English at CSU Long Beach. He can be contacted at [email protected].