Arnold Gembuccio, the Flagrant Esoteric

A portrait of the late Gembuccio. The beard has been exaggerated, at the request of the sitter.

A portrait of the late Gembuccio. The beard has been exaggerated, at the request of the sitter.

Few can be blamed for failing to recognise the name of Arnold Gembuccio, who died in October last year at the age of 91 at his home in Bredgar, Kent. An amateur clockmaker, sculptor, writer and sometime postal clerk, Gembuccio spent the last thirty years of his life writing a 1,000 page treatise entitled Compendium Metaphysica, composed mostly on the back of Chinese takeaway menus. Scholars have now published the first part of it for the Bucksley Press, albeit contrary to the author’s intentions. In a letter to his friend Henry S. Stewart, Gembuccio writes: ‘My metaphysica is exactly unpublishable, in essence unpublishable, and because of this, I DO NOT WANT it published. Like the sweetest lyric strain, it must remain unheard.’ Editor Peter Qomp counters this in the introduction with the following: ‘No-one stands to gain as much from the Metaphysica‘s publication as Gembuccio. In life, if not reviled, he was extremely misunderstood. This is a chance for us to right the wrongs.’

Gembuccio at Once

The Metaphysica is divided into seventeen sections, eleven in English and six in Sanskrit. The text is a dense, unpunctuated and asymmetrical stream of consciousness, and alongside various philosophical musings, contains fragments of shopping lists (‘custard—three tins—an egg—coffee’) diagrams of Gembuccio’s shed (which until the time of his death he had intended to renovate)—and sections from Eric Cantona’s autobiography with the nouns strategically changed. The editors have tried to be sparing in their annotations, but the footnotes are three times as long as the work itself and include a breakdown of Cantona’s goalscoring stats with Marseille.

The message of Gembuccio’s philosophy, broadly speaking, is difficult to surmise. The overarching theme seems to be a belief in the animating principle of Thuos. In our existence we move between two mental states, adduction and supination. Adduction, he claims, is achieved by ‘confirmation of the flux,’ but this confirmation is dependent on ‘the amalgam of Spirits and their local imbalance.’ He stresses the importance of the word ‘Spirits’ which he maintains is conceptually equidistant between Spinoza’s ‘substance’ and Hegel’s Geist. He was accused by A. J. Ayer, among others, of total incomprehensibility, leading to his famous rejoinders in Book 3 that ‘nothing is more coherent than contradiction, nothing more incoherent than Ayer,’ along with ‘contradiction is the manifestation of Thuos,’ both of which have been interpreted as foundational statements of Dialetheism.

There are darker moments, too, written at a time when the author was recovering from a bout with an errant rooster after he incorrectly deciphered a clue in Kit William’s Masquerade as ‘BOUT ROOSTER IN YORK.’ Here the figure of the rooster becomes a momento mori, and the call of this plump, territorial creature incessantly haunts the narrative from this point on. We see less of the happy-go-lucky Gembuccio of the earlier chapters, and a growing preoccupation with the rooster as a symbol of spiritual transgression. Even three months before his death, he writes to Stewart ‘I cannot shake the feeling it has all been about the rooster, and that all else has been vanity.’

Qomp’s accompanying commentary to the Metaphyisca, as well as his learned introduction, lets us learn a little more about the mysterious author. Aside from his magnum opus, Gembuccio wrote 17 unstageable operas, all autobiographical in content, including The Saucy Adventures of Gembuccio and Gembuccio in Swindon: Sins of a Philandering Genius, both of which were to begin with the title character descending from the top of the stage in a dimity smock to twelve minutes of E flat major. Critic Harold Rutherford writes ‘This represents the most significant operatic revolution since the time of Wagner’ and argues that the Metaphysica and the operas must be considered as a single statement of his aesthetic. Others, such as Udo Grott, argue that the Mytho-spatial landscape of the Metaphysica is fundamentally in conflict with the operas, which are dominated by a mood of sensual frippery and extended recitatives mostly concerning the composer’s hatred for Belgium.

In 1971, the Shrewsbury Amateur Operatic Society decided to stage Gembuccio’s Saucy Adventures but encountered difficulties when the author specified that one thousand nude women were needed for the Apotheosis scene, in which ‘the hero was to appear before the assembled in the garb of a sultan.’ The Director of the production wrote to Gembuccio if it would be acceptable for 100 women to wear skin coloured leotards, but the author categorically rejected this compromise as mere prudery. Eventually the production was cancelled due to ‘unrealistic levels of nudity.’ The controversy was one of the reasons Gembuccio turned his back on public performances of his work, describing theatre directors as ‘feculent narrow-minded bollock jockeys’ and the theatre going public as ‘feculent and appallingly ugly.’ There has only ever been one work produced in his lifetime—)the Divertmento for Theatre, which was to end with a clarinettist urinating on the audience whilst crying ‘USURPERS!’ It was met by mixed reviews. Any enthusiasm for reviving his work onstage has usually been tempered by the frequently demanding musical instructions of his scores which call for members of the orchestra to perform certain passages ‘silently,’ ‘without instrument,’ and the infamous ‘unhurried but frantic.’

Gembuccio was largely dismissive of historical tradition and had little if nothing to say at all about the history of Western philosophy. Nevertheless, he singled out three figures for praise: ‘I have read many histories and accounts of supposedly great men and women, but none can compare to the holy trinity of Parmenides, Demosthenes and Eric Cantona.’ He described Shakespeare as a ‘degenerate’ who was ‘incapable of writing a word of sense’ and claimed to hate no-one alive or dead with the exception of crooner Andy Williams whom, as he explains in book 4 of the Metaphysica, was responsible for the Chernobyl disaster.

The Metaphysica ends with a chess problem captioned ‘La challenge (to be rhymed with melange).’ He says that the geometrical properties of La challenge (which took him 28 years to complete) express the philosophy of the Metaphysica better than the text of the preceding 999 pages. The most powerful computers in the world are currently unable to crack ‘La challenge’ with best play resulting in a draw, leading some to claim it has no solution, although its creator vehemently insisted in writings up to the time of his death that a solution was possible and that he had hidden the answer in a tupperware container somewhere in Bingley.

One can only hope that the reputation of this intellectual maverick is recovering after the debacle of his Fettschrift, where he attacked his friends as ‘communist sympathisers’ and ended up in a ‘beard-off’ with Daniel Dennett. The publication of this book is a sign that Gembuccio’s reputation has recovered somewhat, and that his small but loyal fan base is alive and well. He has been accused of megalomania—indeed, of embezzlement and polygamy—but always had the quality of rising above his foes and legal problems with a characteristic joie de vivre. A regular reader of these humble pages will see no other option than to purchase the Metaphysica at once, in order to sample its multifaceted delights. A biography is being planned in the near future, to shed light on this fascinating but little known individual who continues to challenge us with his flagrant esotericism.