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  • Petroleum Prophecies
  • Janet Stewart (bio)
Petroleum, Petroleum, in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader. Gustav Meyrink. Ed. and Trans. Mike Mitchell. Dedalus Books. 317 pages; paper, $12.47.

How are we to understand our abiding fascination with oil? That is the question implicit in a series of "digital oil paintings" that the artist duo UEBERMORGEN.COM (Hans Bernhard and lizvlx) produced in response to the 2010 oil spill from BP's Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The pair describe the resulting oil slick as a work of art in its own right—an "oil painting on an 80,000 square miles ocean canvas with 32 million liters of oil" that is testament to the awe-inspiring destructive force of nature. As controversial as this take on the catastrophe undoubtedly is, UEBERMORGEN.COM were not the first artists to draw attention to the "beauty of excess" in the shape of a major oil spill at sea. Petroleum, Petroleum, a novella first published in 1913 by Gustav Meyrink, the Austrian fantasy writer and sometime banker, went viral on the Internet in the wake of Deepwater Horizon. In this highly lyrical work, heralded for its apparently prophetic vision of the contamination of the Gulf of Mexico, Meyrink depicts a fictional oil slick, the imagined magnitude of which was infinitely greater than the 2010 disaster: "And the sea took on a fearfully beautiful quality: a smooth surface, extending into infinity, glinting and shimmering in all sorts of colours, red, green and violet, and then again a deep, deep black, like images from a fantastic starscape." This description of a fictional catastrophe as an uncanny spectacle doubtless speaks to a contemporary fascination with visuals documenting the natural force of oil, such as the Lumière brothers' 1896 film, The Burning Oil Wells of Baku, which toured Europe later that year, the instantly recognizable photographs of the Spindeltop gusher in Texas which date to 1901, or similar images emanating from the Galician oil fields in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the world's third-largest oil producing country.

Unlike these early visual examples of "petroculture," however, Petroleum, Petroleum has no pretense to documentary status but is a satirical fantasy typical of the bizarre fictional world so often conjured up in Meyrink's writing. Although no longer as well known as that of his Prague contemporary, this world clearly has more than a little of Franz Kafka about it. And yet in Meyrink's stories and novels, the Kafka-esque joins forces with the socio-political satire of Karl Kraus or Jonathan Swift while being lent a darker twist through his well-documented interest in the occult—yoga, freemasonry, alchemy, and the "profane illumination" offered by drugs such as mescaline.

It is mescaline that provides Dr. Kunibald Jessegrim, Meyrink's anti-hero in Petroleum, Petroleum, with the means to exact revenge from a world that has refused him recognition. Jessegrim, whose evocative name combines medieval legend, the messianic (in its nod to the informal exclamation, "Jesses" or "Jesus"), and "grimm" (meaning wrath or fury), is consumed by an inner anger that draws him to avenging figures such as Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, or the Vandal Kings, "creatures," as he notes, created by the power of the Hindu God Shiva. In short, Jessegrim is a man through whose veins the "dark powers of nature" course. His very body is a metonym for Mexico itself, large swathes of which he has acquired through the proceeds of his lucrative trade in self-manufactured illegal drugs. The motivation for his acquisitive behavior stems from his own careful scientific study of the country, enabling him to establish that Mexico sits atop huge underground reservoirs of oil. According to his calculations, the oil reserves stretched "as far as Omaha, perhaps even further to the north" and were 'bigger even than Hudson Bay." Patiently enacting a dastardly plan for vengeance on an unsuspecting world, he has spent years covertly destroying natural barriers between individual reservoirs to construct one vast lake of oil. Petroleum, Petroleum recounts the moment, set far in the narrative future on New Year's Eve 1951, on which, at Jessegrim's behest, a "frightful explosion...


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