Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 30 (view annotations)

On February 5, 1887, an unsigned editorial in The Ranter (the
usually so sarcastic and captious Chose weekly) described
Mascodagama's performance as "the most imaginative and
singular stunt ever offered to a jaded music-hall public." It was
181.05 repeated at the Rantariver Club several times, but nothing in
the programme or in publicity notices beyond the definition
"Foreign eccentric" gave any indication either of the exact
nature of the "stunt" or of the performer's identity. Rumors,
carefully and cleverly circulated by Mascodagama's friends,
181.10 diverted speculations toward his being a mysterious visitor
from beyond the Golden Curtain, particularly since at least
half-a-dozen members of a large Good-will Circus Company
that had come from Tartary just then (i.e., on the eve of the
Crimean War)—three dancing girls, a sick old clown with his
181.15 old speaking goat, and one of the dancers' husbands, a make-up
man (no doubt, a multiple agent)—had already defected be-
tween France and England, somewhere in the newly con-
structed "Chunnel." Mascodagama's spectacular success in a
theatrical club that habitually limited itself to Elizabethan plays,
181.20 with queens and fairies played by pretty boys, made first of all

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a great impact on cartoonists. Deans, local politicians, national
statesmen, and of course the current ruler of the Golden Horde
were pictured as mascodagamas by topical humorists. A gro-
tesque imitator (who was really Mascodagama himself in an
182.05 oversophisticated parody of his own act!) was booed at Ox-
ford (a women's college nearby) by local rowdies. A shrewd
reporter, who had heard him curse a crease in the stage carpet,
commented in print on his "Yankee twang." Dear Mr. "Vas-
codagama" received an invitation to Windsor Castle from its
182.10 owner, a bilateral descendant of Van's own ancestors, but he
declined it, suspecting (incorrectly, as it later transpired) the
misprint to suggest that his incognito had been divulged by one
of the special detectives at Chose—the same, perhaps, who had
recently saved the psychiatrist P.O. Tyomkin from the dagger
182.15 of Prince Potyomkin, a mixed-up kid from Sebastopol, Id.
During his first summer vacation, Van worked under Tyom-
kin, at the Chose famous clinic, on an ambitious dissertation he
never completed, "Terra: Eremitic Reality or Collective
Dream?" He interviewed numerous neurotics, among whom
182.20 there were variety artists, and literary men, and at least three
intellectually lucid, but spiritually "lost," cosmologists who
either were in telepathic collusion (they had never met and
did not even know of one another's existence) or had dis-
covered, none knew how or where, by means, maybe, of for-
182.25 bidden "ondulas" of some kind, a green world rotating in space
and spiraling in time, which in terms of matter-and-mind was
like ours and which they described in the same specific details
as three people watching from three separate windows would
a carnival show in the same street.
182.30 He spent his free time in gross dissipation.
Sometime in August he was offered a contract for a series
of matinées and nights in a famous London theater during the
Christmas vacation and on weekends throughout the winter
season. He accepted gladly, being badly in need of a strict

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distraction from his perilous studies: the special sort of obsession
under which Tyomkin's patients labored had something about
it that made it liable to infect its younger investigators.
Mascodagama's fame reached inevitably the backwoods of
183.05 America: a photograph of him, masked, it is true, but unable to
mislead a fond relative or faithful retainer, was reproduced by
the Ladore, Ladoga, Laguna, Lugano and Luga papers in the
first week of 1888; but the accompanying reportage was not.
The work of a poet, and only a poet ("especially of the Black
183.10 Belfry group," as some wit said), could have adequately de-
scribed a certain macabre quiver that marked Van's extraordi-
nary act.
The stage would be empty when the curtain went up; then,
after five heartbeats of theatrical suspense, something swept out
183.15 of the wings, enormous and black, to the accompaniment of
dervish drums. The shock of his powerful and precipitous entry
affected so deeply the children in the audience that for a long
time later, in the dark of sobbing insomnias, in the glare of
violent nightmares, nervous little boys and girls relived, with
183.20 private accretions, something similar to the "primordial qualm,"
a shapeless nastiness, the swoosh of nameless wings, the unen-
durable dilation of fever which came in a cavern draft from
the uncanny stage. Into the harsh light of its gaudily carpeted
space a masked giant, fully eight feet tall, erupted, running
183.25 strongly in the kind of soft boots worn by Cossack dancers.
A voluminous, black shaggy cloak of the burka type enveloped
his silhouette inquiétante (according to a female Sorbonne cor-
respondent—we've kept all those cuttings) from neck to knee
or what appeared to be those sections of his body. A Karakul
183.30 cap surmounted his top. A black mask covered the upper part
of his heavily bearded face. The unpleasant colossus kept strut-
ting up and down the stage for a while, then the strut changed
to the restless walk of a caged madman, then he whirled, and
to a clash of cymbals in the orchestra and a cry of terror (per-

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haps faked) in the gallery, Mascodagama turned over in the
air and stood on his head.
In this weird position, with his cap acting as a pseudopodal
pad, he jumped up and down, pogo-stick fashion—and sud-
184.05 denly came apart. Van's face, shining with sweat, grinned be-
tween the legs of the boots that still shod his rigidly raised arms.
Simultaneously his real feet kicked off and away the false head
with its crumpled cap and bearded mask. The magical reversal
"made the house gasp." Frantic ("deafening," "delirious," "a
184.10 veritable tempest of") applause followed the gasp. He bounded
offstage—and next moment was back, now sheathed in black
tights, dancing a jig on his hands.
We devote so much space to the description of his act not
only because variety artists of the "eccentric" race are apt to
184.15 be forgotten especially soon, but also because one wishes to
analyze its thrill. Neither a miraculous catch on the cricket
field, nor a glorious goal slammed in at soccer (he was a College
Blue in both those splendid games), nor earlier physical suc-
cesses, such as his knocking out the biggest bully on his first
184.20 day at Riverlane School, had ever given Van the satisfaction
Mascodagama experienced. It was not directly related to the
warm breath of fulfilled ambition, although as a very old man,
looking back at a life of unrecognized endeavor, Van did wel-
come with amused delight—more delight than he had actually
184.25 felt at the time—the banal acclaim and the vulgar envy that
swirled around him for a short while in his youth. The essence
of the satisfaction belonged rather to the same order as the
one he later derived from self-imposed, extravagantly difficult,
seemingly absurd tasks when V.V. sought to express something,
184.30 which until expressed had only a twilight being (or even none
at all—nothing but the illusion of the backward shadow of its
imminent expression). It was Ada's castle of cards. It was the
standing of a metaphor on its head not for the sake of the trick's
difficulty, but in order to perceive an ascending waterfall or a

[ 184 ]

sunrise in reverse: a triumph, in a sense, over the ardis of time.
Thus the rapture young Mascodagama derived from overcom-
ing gravity was akin to that of artistic revelation in the sense
utterly and naturally unknown to the innocents of critical ap-
185.05 praisal, the social-scene commentators, the moralists, the idea-
mongers and so forth. Van on the stage was performing organ-
ically what his figures of speech were to perform later in life—
acrobatic wonders that had never been expected from them and
which frightened children.
185.10 Neither was the sheer physical pleasure of maniambulation a
negligible factor, and the peacock blotches with which the car-
pet stained the palms of his hands during his gloveless dance
routine seemed to be the reflections of a richly colored nether
world that he had been the first to discover. For the tango,
185.15 which completed his number on his last tour, he was given
a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating
frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in
Pod znóynïm nébom Argentínï,
185.20 Pod strástnïy góvor mandolínï
'Neath sultry sky of Argentina,
To the hot hum of mandolina
Fragile, red-haired "Rita" (he never learned her real name),
a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically
185.25 said, the Crimean cornel, kizil', bloomed yellow among the arid
rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look
ten years later. During their dance, all Van saw of her were her
silver slippers turning and marching nimbly in rhythm with the
soles of his hands. He recouped himself at rehearsals, and one
185.30 night asked her for an assignation. She indignantly refused,
saying she adored her husband (the make-up fellow) and
loathed England.
Chose had long been as famous for the dignity of its regula-

[ 185 ]

tions, as for the brilliancy of its pranksters. Mascodagama's
identity could not escape the interest and then the knowledge
of the authorities. His college tutor, a decrepit and dour homo-
sexual, with no sense of humor whatever and an innate respect
186.05 for all the conventions of academic life, pointed out to a highly
irritated and barely polite Van that in his second year at Chose
he was not supposed to combine his university studies with the
circus, and that if he insisted on becoming a variety artist he
would be sent down. The old gentleman also wrote a letter to
186.10 Demon asking him to make his son forget Physical Stunts for
the sake of Philosophy and Psychiatry, especially since Van
was the first American to have won (at seventeen!) the Dudley
Prize (for an essay on Insanity and Eternal Life). Van was not
quite sure yet what compromise pride and prudence might
186.15 arrive at, when he left for America early in June, 1888.

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