A Feast Unknown: 52 years later – Part 2 of 3

Chute Libre French Edition of A Feast Unknown

The French title for A Feast Unknown is La Jungle Nue, “The Naked Jungle”…in Italy it is Festa di Morte, “The Feast of Dead Men”. But it seemed they missed the subtlety in Farmer’s title. Not all editions have it, but most show this stanza from the poem Evolution before the story begins.

Stanza that introduces A Feast Unknown

The poet, May Swenson, though not widely known today, was in fact a very influential creator in her day. The eminent critic Harold Bloom considered her one of the most important and original poets of the 20th century. Born in 1913, she was a contemporary of Farmer – he might well have witnessed the whole of her literary career.

Here is the full text of the poem:

Evolution

by May Swenson

the stone
would like to be
Alive like me

the rooted tree
longs to be Free

the mute beast
envies my fate
Articulate

on this ball
half dark
half light
i walk Upright
i lie Prone
within the night

beautiful each Shape
to see
wonderful each Thing
to name
here a stone
there a tree
here a river
there a Flame

marvelous to Stroke
the patient beasts
within their yoke

how i Yearn
for the lion
in his den
though he spurn
the touch of men

the longing
that i know
is the Stone also
it must be

the same that rises
in the Tree
the longing
in the Lion’s call
speaks for all

o to Endure
like the stone
sufficient
to itself alone

or Reincarnate
like the tree
be born each spring
to greenery

or like the lion
without law
to roam the Wild
on velvet paw

but if walking i meet
a Creature like me
on the street
two-legged
with human face
to recognize
is to embrace

wonders pale
beauties dim
during my delight
with Him

an Evolution
strange
two tongues Touch
exchange
a Feast unknown
to stone
or tree or beast

Fascinating to consider the poem’s themes of all things, even the inanimate, yearning for life. Its metaphors include the lion (and Grandrith would, notably, wrestle and kill a lion in the narrative), and stones hungering to speak (bringing to mind intense images from the final Doc Savage novel, Up From Earth’s Center). The question of what any creature might be willing to do in order to achieve life (or extended life, in the narrative of A Feast Unknown), also echoes strongly through the book.

All in all, a more subtle title-choice from Farmer than when taken at first glance.

The cover art above gives a strong impression of the story that is to follow. The violence is intense and unrelenting in A Feast Unknown. Upping the stakes even further, the two main characters, Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith, are in the grip of a condition which makes them impotent unless strongly contemplating or initiating violence themselves. They have become living engines of sex and violence, and the theme is literally “full-frontal” in the story, with every act graphically depicted and described.

Certainly a compelling concept to explore in our time, where the linking of those two words in fiction and entertainment has been ubiquitous, but rarely with a goal that includes understanding violent and erotic human drives. Farmer himself, a vigorous explorer of sexual themes throughout his career, framed the eros/thanatos equation in the context of it being a byproduct of an elixir the Nine and their followers (the antagonists of the story) take in order to extend their lives. They do so willingly, but at a great price to their humanity. The spiritual puzzle being one that Grandrith himself ponders on: I was forced to dwell a little on that which I had pushed away because it was too painful. Had I, by becoming a god, become less of a man?

Interesting conjecture, when you apply it to the extremes human beings will go to in order to perpetuate personal power and life.

By layering deep seams of philosophical content under the action narrative, Farmer invests the story with a powerful, primal heartbeat.

Farmer, in interviews about the book, also stressed its black humor and elements of satire. Here is a excerpt from his interview about Feast presented in Bakka magazine. He recalls his thoughts when Brian Kirby of Essex House asked him to write some novels of science fiction erotica.

Farmer: “Well, I had never read a pornographic book up to that time. So I became kinda interested. I thought…well now, here’s a chance to write a satire on my heroes Doc Savage and Tarzan, because Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent totally ignored the sexual content. I had done some thinking, extrapolating, if there was a real Tarzan, what would he actually be like? Well, all right, I wanted to write an erotic satire of these two gentlemen, also at the same time I was satirizing pornography. I had my tongue in my cheek, and I had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”

Pornography is a strange thing…by definition, something that is created expressly for the purpose of stimulating sexual arousal (this is a bad thing?). By society’s usage, the word is generally utilized to describe something erotic that the criticizer of that particular form of eros doesn’t like. So porn is cheap, exploitative, degrading. Why should that be so? It’s rather like trashing a chef for succeeding in making something that stimulates an anticipatory, excited desire to eat, and to have that eating become a feast for all the senses.

One interesting point to consider is that very little of the sex in Feast is presented as pleasurable. Mostly it seems a form of agony. This perhaps, reflects the deep and diverse fear and discomfort many people feel about sexuality.

The cover art of the French edition above, in the light of these thoughts, becomes more than a slasher-scene. The knife Farmer wields to cut into intense, often shunned human themes causes splatters of hot blood to go everywhere. Through the experiences of heroes like Caliban and Grandrith — who are so often equated with a nobility of action and spirit — we can viscerally feel our own blood pumping with primal power.

Artwork by Peter Elston

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “A Feast Unknown: 52 years later – Part 2 of 3

  1. I find interesting that only the 2003 cover of la jungle nue focused on the pornographic aspect of the novel the cover is striking with the picture of a homoerotic muscular man. The photographer who took the picture is a japanese man named Shuji Kobayashi. Also this editions contains a partial french translation of the poem.

    Évolution Étrange
    Deux langues se touchant échangent
    Un plaisir inconnu
    Des bêtes
    Arbres
    et pierre

    May Swenson (Évolution)

    A feast unknown became “un Plaisir inconnu” (an unknown pleasure) which ties well with the book. Both Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith feeling for the first time an unknown pleasure that was dormant within their psyche.

    Can’t wait for the next part.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “An unknown pleasure” is indeed splendidly compatible with the book. I wonder what prompted the re-titling of French editions to “The Naked Jungle”? I find the Shuji Kobayashi image on the cover of that edition to be very powerful indeed.

    The intense passions of the book are, I believe, what elevated it into what still feels to me, after almost fifty years of reading and re-reading it, a powerful, primal experience. Farmer stepped back from that experience with the next books on the series (which I will discuss in the final part), but there was no doubt in our minds when Iason and I came back to these themes in new stories…that primal passion had to be at the core of everything I wrote and everything he drew.

    Like

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