Reading Response: Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
“It is what it is. You are what you it. There are no mistakes.”
Villa Incognito (2003) is Tom Robbins’ most recent novel. Though Robbins is a well known and well respected author, this is my first time reading one of his works. The purpose of this response is not to summarize the plot, but to bring to light interesting themes and information gleaned from the novel.
In a few words, Villa Incognito is an exciting, philosophical, rushed mess. Its weakness in form results from the collision of its complex plot with its short length. This collision results in a lot of cool ideas but not much character development. In spite of this, Robbins is an excellent writer and this comes through most often in his narrative prose. My favorite example of his prose might be this paean for mayonnaise:
“All Carolina folk are crazy for mayonnaise, mayonnaise is as ambrosia to them, the food of their tarheeled gods. Mayonnaise comforts them, causes the vowels to slide more musically along their slow tongues, appeasing their grease-conditioned taste buds while transporting those buds to a plane higher than lard could ever hope to fly. Yellow as a summer sunlight, soft as young thighs, smooth as a Baptist preacher’s rant, falsely innocent as a magician’s handkerchief, mayonnaise will cloak a lettuce leaf, some shreds of cabbage, a few hunks of cold potato in the simplest splendor, restyling their dull character, making them lively and attractive again, granting them the capacity to delight the gullet if not the heart. Fried oysters, leftover roast, peanut butter: rare are the rations that fail to become instantly more scintillating from contact with this inanimate seductress, this goopy glory-monger, this alchemist in a jar…Who but the French could have wrought this gastronomic miracle? Mayonnaise is France’s gift to the New World’s muddled palate, a boon that combines humanity’s ancient instinctive craving for the cellular warmth of pure fat with the modern, romantic fondness for complex flavors…Cholesterol aside, it projects the luster that we astro-orphans have identified with well-being ever since we fell from the stars.” (97–98)
Such colorful descriptions and musings abound in Villa Incognito. Though the plot isn’t as tight as it could be, Robbins’ metaphysical musings on the mundane and the fantastic maintained my interest throughout. Villa Incognito is somehow able to incorporate Japanese folklore, MIAs turned opium lords, and Eastern-tinged philosophy all into one rollercoaster of a story.
The novel starts off strong and strange with the sentence:
“It has been reported that Tanuki fell from the sky using his scrotum as a parachute.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese mythology or Japanese canids, a Tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is a raccoon-like species of wild dog indigenous to East Asia. Though their scrotums are sizable, it is safe to say that the average Tanuki is not capable of such a feat. No, scrotums of this caliber are reserved solely for the Ancient Animal demigod Tanuki.
At some point during the 7th century, this animal of slightly-above-average scrotum captured the Japanese imagination. Borrowing from ancient Chinese folklore, the Japanese deified the Tanuki as a representative of mischief, shapeshifting, and playful trickery. Over time, the Tanuki also became known for stealing sake, thumping its gorged belly, and, as previously mentioned, an exceptional scrotum.
The Ancient Animal demigod, Tanuki, is the protagonist of the first part of the novel. In it, and throughout, he and another demigod, Kitsune, muse about human nature, particularly our ability to be deceived.
On the whole, Robbins (as a narrator and through characters) argues that humans are slaves to Maya, the illusory nature of the material world. The concept of Maya comes from the Hindu religious tradition. Robbins and the Hindus agree that if humans are exceptional at anything it is our ability to deceive and be deceived.
“‘How could you be so naive as to tell a human being the truth? Men live by embedding themselves in ongoing systems of illusion. Religion. Patriotism. Economics. Fashion. That sort of thing. If you wish to gain the favor of the two-legged ilk, you must learn to fabricate as wholeheartedly as they do.’” (7)
When researching the concept of Maya, I found a useful comparison. The sun is to reality as Maya is to an overcast day. Maya is the thin veil of deception over the true nature of reality. These metaphorical clouds of Maya are composed of egotism, hatred, greed, and many other impurities of the human heart. I think that Robbins would argue that religion, patriotism, economics, and fashion are just as cloudy.
Indeed, the entire world is illusory, down to the “vine ripe” tomatoes:
“‘Vine ripe tomatoes…You’ll see that sign — which, grammatically, ought to say ‘vine-ripened’ — in every produce department in every supermarket in America. You’ll see it in the winter when the vines are under a foot of snow. Yet even in July and August, the tomatoes in the bin aren’t really ripe. They’re pinkish and hard and bereft of flavor. Not only did they not ripen on the vine, they haven’t ripened at all. But does anybody object? Does anybody shout, ‘Who are you kidding — these fucking tasteless tomatoes were picked when they were green!’? Or do they rip their menu in half when it says ‘farm fresh eggs,’ knowing, as even the dimmest ignoramus must, that the eggs in that restaurant have been in cold storage for weeks and that they’ve never been anywhere near an actual farm? A country that practices and condones such blatant systematic fakery is capable of anything — even of nominating Henry Kissinger for the Nobel Peace Prize… Those who willingly accept being conned are as corrupt as those who con them…Just as my wife was as culpable as I when I mouthed my counterfeit vows. She was my accomplice.’” (141)
The willingly deceived are just as culpable as the deceiver. One party particularly guilty of this, thinks Robbins, is the West and the United States in particular. Specifically, Robbins focuses on our discomfort with the impermanence of the material world. Unlike many Eastern cultures, where the transience of life is emphasized, Western cultures tend to cling to the impermanent. Through a monologue by Stubblefield, Robbins addresses the delusion that, unlike the Egyptians, the Romans, the British, or the Persians, the United States is an empire built to last. It should be noted that Villa Incognito is set in the days leading up to 9/11/2001.
“‘In their secretly nervous hearts, they’ve convinced themselves, poor little delusional narcissists, that their nation is the most powerful that ever was or ever will be, ignoring the still vaster empires that have crumbled in the past, conveniently forgetting that the U.S. has only existed for a mere two hundred twenty-five years, and refusing to consider for a nanosecond that in another two hundred twenty-five years it very well might be gone. Those towering skyscrapers that to everyone in this room constitute such vivid symbols of America, its wealth and its strength, can — buy acts of nature of acts of men — literally topple overnight.” (209)
Hand in hand with our susceptibility to deception is our propensity for generating bullshit. According to Robbins, nowhere are these talents better exemplified than in our religious dogmas. These rules, hierarchies, and complex patterns of sitting, kneeling and standing is a spiritually bankrupt practice. Nonetheless, our bullshit is appreciated by God(s). When asked who is the god of bullshit, Stubblefield replies:
“No particular god gets to preside over bullshit, or else they’d fight among themselves for the privilege. The gods tolerate the human race for no other reason than our talent for bullshit. It’s the only thing about us that doesn’t bore them to tears.”
Though it may be entertaining to the Gods, Robbins argues that this bullshit, these dogmas, and the religions that accompany them, are antithetical to having a meaningful spiritual life. The practices and “thou shalts” of organized religion only serve to rob the “true believer” of a rich life and a chance at spiritual development.
“…the true believer cannot truly believe in life… a true believer may slavishly adhere to a dogma designed theoretically to improve life; yet for life itself — its pleasures, wonders, and delights — he or she holds minimal regard… Music chess, wine, card games, attractive clothing, dancing, meditation, kites, perfume, marijuana, flirting, soccer, cheeseburgers, any expression of beauty, and any recognition of genius or individual excellence: each of those things has been severely condemned and even outlawed by one cadre of true believers or another in modern times.” (151)
So how do you develop the soul? For Stubblefield it can be accomplished through annihilation of time and ego. This can be achieved in a number of ways:
“Stubblefield contended that as long as methods were available that allowed people to dissolve the ego and kill time — not while away the time, not pass it, but annihilate it — they would seek out those methods regardless of the risks involved. The ecstasy of living completely in the present moment, which almost everyone experiences briefly in sexual orgasm, mystics access during deep meditation, shamans savor as a reward for their psychedelic ordeals, and some artists stumble upon gratuitously when they lose themselves in their work, that egoless euphoria was … at the core of transcendence, the liberated state of elevated innocence for which every human animal unwittingly hungers.” (164)
Dern, a student of more the more traditional religions of Buddhism and Christianity, counters:
“…the barriers that blocked our entrance into earthly paradise were not time and ego but, rather, fear and desire. The only problem with man’s notion of time, Dern argued, was that it called constant attention to his mortality, as well as to the always uncertain future, thereby accentuating his fear of death and the unknown…” (164)
Though the matter is left unresolved, Dern and Stubblefield agree that living deeply in the moment is the way to achieve spiritual growth. For the more hedonistic Stubblefield, living in the moment means experiencing the pleasures of music, the delights of perfume, and the wonders of a cheeseburger, all crucial and necessary for cultivating the soul and knowing God(s).
Now you might be wondering: “Wait, didn’t Robbins just align himself with the Hindus, who specifically do not eat cheeseburgers, and proclaim that the sensual world is delusion? Why should I waste my time with deceptive tomatoes on top of an illusory cheeseburger?” Slow down there, mister, because more important to your spiritual life than following a strict set of rules, according to Robbins, is your ability to be okay with an absence of a rule book.
This idea is epitomized in the character of Dern Foley. Before joining the army, Dern was a seminary school student and knew the Bible like the back of his hand.
“Ambiguities and contradictions, that’s what biblical guidance is made of…Well, in one place, we’re commanded to seek revenge: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In another, Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies. That’s an easy one to reconcile, of course. Given an equally pious choice between altruistic loving and wrathful maiming, what’s a real man going to do?’” (198)
In any given holy book there are contradictions, grey areas, and penumbra clauses aplenty. Throughout the novel we see Dern ditch Christian theology for a vague understanding of Lao animism in the hopes it might bring him a more fruitful religious experience. Dern:
“Having carefully examined with an open mind every single one of its verses innumerable times but finding in none of them any rational justification for the popular belief that they constituted ‘the word of God,’ Foley now tossed his Bible aside and turned full attention to the surrounding flora and fauna. And should the invocation of ‘nature spirits’ prove in the end to be yet another dance around the suck of a spiritual black hole, just one more bloodless squeezing of the cosmic turnip — well, there was always the wine cellar and the chandoo.” (233)
There’s something both funny and existentially terrifying about that final line. Dern seems to be fully aware that his jump into animism could prove just as fruitless as his pursuit of truth through Christianity. Though rather than become paralyzed with existential nihilism, Dern seems comfortable. He’s walking a tightrope without any nets to catch him — except for maybe the wine and chandoo. According to Dern, this comfort with absolute uncertainty is a virtue.
“The person who cannot welcome ambiguity cannot welcome God.” (208)
Living with ambiguity, and perhaps even a healthy dose of bullshit, is necessary for spiritual development.
When I finally got around to reading this, my first Robbins novel, I told my friend Brittney. Brittney only really likes a few things and Tom Robbins is very high on that list. Naturally, I was excited to share with her what I learned from reading it and writing this little review/reflection/whatever. She responded:
In all honesty, I was a little offended. I spent a considerable amount of time thoroughly reading Villa Incognito, highlighting quotes, and trying to make sense of it all. I thought Britt would be excited to hear about how seriously I took this work by her favorite author. I was confused.
She sent me this:
Brittney went on to say, though she hadn’t read Villa Incognito, the overriding theme behind virtually all of Robbins’ work is to stop taking things so seriously.
“He returned to his Bible, meditating on that verse about how the lilies of the field don’t bother to flip burgers or climb the corporate ladder.” (200)
In the end:
“It is what it is, you are what you it, there are no mistakes.”
Other favorite passages/quotes:
“When we sleep on someone else’s pillow, we sometimes find ourselves having that person’s dreams…Is the connection to the bedding place or to the space below it? Perhaps we draw up transneurological info-bits from the underworld to form dreams the way that exposed metal draws down oxygen molecules from the air to form rust. Dreams, then, may be a form of psychic oxidation. Each morning, the greasy rag of wakefulness wipes us clean. Sooner or later, however, we rust completely through, at which point we lose tensility, conductivity, and clear definition; turn senile or go bonkers; fade away.” (27–28)
“‘Think of [the soul] as a kind of train. Yes, a long, lonesome freight train rumbling from generation to generation on an eternally rainy morning: its boxcars are loaded with sighs and laughter, its hobos are angels, its engineer is the queen of spades — and the queen of spades is wild. Whooo-whoo! Hear that epiphanic whistle blow… The train’s destination is the godhead, but it stops at the Big Bang, at the orgasm, and at the hole in the fence that the red fox sneaks through down behind the barn. It’s simultaneously a local and an express, but it doesn’t transport weaponry and it certainly ain’t no milk run… ‘How then does soul differ from spirit?… ‘Well, soul is darker of color, denser of volume, saltier of flavor, rougher of texture, and tends to be more maternalistic than paternalistic: soul is connected to Mother Earth just as spirit is connected to Father Sky…Generally, if spirit is the fresh air vent and ambient lighting in the house of consciousness, if spirit is the electrical system that illuminates that house then soul is the smoky fireplace, the fragrant oven, the dusty wine cellar, the strange creaks we hear in the floorboards late at night… Anything superficial is not soulful. Anything artificial, imitative, or overly refined is not soulful.” (78–79)
“She merely learned once and for all that while sex without love could have its thrills and satisfactions, sex without soul was like salad without dressing — a bowl of roughage fit for cattle and goats” (192)
“‘The world lord didn’t exist in biblical times. It’s a British political term forced into the scriptures by King James’s chauvinistic translators…Interestingly enough, in Old English, lord meant ‘loaf ward.’ That is, ‘guardian of the loaf.’” (107–108)
“‘We only rise above mediocrity when there’s something at stake, and I mean something more consequential than money or reputation. The great value of a high-wire act is that it has no practical value. The fact that so much skill and effort and courage can be directed into something so ostensibly useless is what makes it useful. That’s what affords it the power to lift us out of context and carry us — elsewhere.” (176)