The Journal of Albion Moonlight

In Kenneth Patchen‘s novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, the title character leads a group of people who are fleeing across the country. We’re never told from whom they are running away or why they are running. A pack of vicious dogs is pursuing them. They are looking for a town named Galen, where they are supposed to meet someone named Roivas. At least, this is what we are told in the beginning. The details keep changing, much as they do in a dream. The point-of-view changes from the first person to the second person and back again. However, certain events keep recurring, often in altered forms. Certain ideas and characters keep reappearing. These things create a thread that give the novel a sense of continuity.

Patchen wrote this book right after the Second World War had broken out, and the war’s presence is felt throughout the novel. The dogs clearly represent the war, which threatens to destroy humanity, represented by Albion and his comrades. Patchen was a pacifist; his hatred for war and what it does to people is palpable. What also comes through is his hatred for capitalism, which he clearly sees as being at the root of the conflict. For example, he writes:

    There is only one way to end war: that is by bringing Capitalism to an end.
    There is only one way to end Capitalism: that is by Revolution.
    There is only one way for Revolution to succeed: that is by establishing a world-wide Socialism.
    This is the task of mankind. This will be done.
    Capitalism and Fascism are one under the iron mask.
    Capitalist economy leads inevitably to War;

    To fight against War is to fight against the Capitalist State.

Later, Patchen writes about an encounter between Albion and a recruiting officer:

    Recruiting Officer: Sign here.
    Moonlight: I will not.
    Recruiting Officer:Oh, you won’t, eh? Why not?
    Moonlight: I refuse to fight your war.
    Recruiting Officer: My war! What the hell… won’t you fight for your country?
    Moonlight: Yes, I will fight for my country.
    Recruiting Officer: O.K. That’s better. Here… on this line.
    Moonlight: But I told you I wouldn’t sign it.
    Recruiting Officer: Look, guy, I ain’t got all day. I thought you said you’d fight for your country
    Moonlight: I did; but you’re not my country.
    Recruiting Officer: What the hell have I got to do with it?
    Moonlight: Everything. You’re the only face of government I’ve ever seen – the mill cops, the dicks on the railroad…

Later, Albion argues with another officer:

    Number Seven: Look fellah, maybe you don’t know what you’re up against. Do you know what happens to conscientious objectors?
    Moonlight: I know what happens to soldiers when they get a bayonet in the gut.
    Number Seven: Oh, that’s it? So, you’re just plain afraid, eh?
    Moonlight: Yes, I”m plain afraid and fancy afraid, but that isn’t my reason for refusing to fight in an Imperialist war.
    Number Seven: Ahha, so that’s it – a Red.
    Moonlight: Yes, I’m a Red and a Black and a Brown and a Yellow and a White; I’m a Negro, a Chinaman, a German, a Spaniard, a Swiss.
    Number Seven: Don’t get cute…
    Moonlight: I’m the grandson of a man who was killed in a coal mine because the owners saved a few dollars on timber; I’m the son of a man who worked thirty years on a farm and was buried in a pauper’s grave; I’m the friend of a man who was lynched because he had a black skin…
    Number Seven: You dirty son-of-a-bitch…
    Moonlight: And you sit there on your flabby ass and ask me to sign a paper saying that I’ll take a rifle and shoot down my own people.
    Number Seven: We’ll take care of you.
    Moonlight: I said my own people… I refuse to kill in your defense – so long as there is war between nations, the working classes of the world will be blinded to one simple fact: that they have only one enemy – the German people, the English, the Dutch, the Japanese, the Mexican – one common enemy; and that is Capitalism.

For all that, Patchen didn’t approve of the organized Left. He ridicules the Communist Party, and he is dismissive of the Trotskyists. Patchen doesn’t try to put forward any kind of political program. He leaves it to the reader to try to find a way forward.

Another theme is Patchen’s deeply conflicted attitude towards religion. He apparently detested organized religion, yet he was obsessed with the figure of Christ, who appears as a character in the novel. There are numerous references to the crucifixion and the virgin birth. Patchen seemed to regard Christ as representing a spiritual and moral perfection that humans are not able – or are perhaps unwilling – to attain. At other times, Patchen seems to be struggling with the whole concept of God. (Not surprisingly, Patchen admired Melville.)

The novel is filled with acts of violence, some of them committed by the eponymous hero. We’re shown a world in which no one is innocent, a world where people readily betray one another. Yet there are humorous moments and even some deliberate silliness. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is not always an easy book to read. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness writing, and in some places there are two parallel texts on the same page. Yet for all that, it is the richest and most rewarding book I have read in a long time.

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