My heart is full of the pain of disco

Essayists, Gnosis, Groove, Modernity, Multimedia, Travel writers

It’s the way of great writing to bend the world to its own shape. And so, having spent yesterday lunchtime sketching out thoughts for a review of Erik Davis‘Nomad Codes’, I found myself last night at the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall, watching a combined Bollywood lecture / series of clips / song and dance extravaganza. I can’t think of anything that could have more convincingly brought some of his key themes to life.

First of all, a little background. ‘Nomad Codes’ collects essays and articles written over the last twenty years or so. And the Tallow Chandlers is one of the oldest social networks around. It’s one of the Livery Guilds of the City of London, originally formed to regulate the city’s tallow candle trade.

Founded in about 1300, it received its grant of arms in 1456. The hall we were sat in last night was built in 1672, after the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Alas, tallow chandlery is no longer the profitable business it once was; the Tallow Chandlers are now mostly a charitable and social organisation, though some trade links remain.

The Tallow Chandlers Guild is a deep, ancient structure that remains vividly present and dynamic in modernity; an effective metaphor for much of the religious thinking that Davis excavates in ‘Nomad Codes’. His easy, confident familiarity with Gnosticism, Manicheism, Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, and many other more or less occult religious traditions rings through the book, bringing each to life in a way that both respects their deep roots and acknowledges their modern relevance and (in many cases) vitality.

But that sense of separate religious structures isn’t what’s at the heart of the book. Davis is animated not by separate histories, but by colliding narratives. In one of the book’s central perceptions, he confronts our current problem of multiplicity and steps beyond it, defining a ‘networked spirituality’ as an emergent property of the multicultural barrage that is modernity. He describes how:

‘the mix-and-match spirituality derided by traditionalists is only the surface of a far more supple and dynamic synthesis in the making, one that demands a form of being we have only begun to intuit: open-ended and integral, embodied and viridian-green. This path is a matrix of paths, with no map provided at the onset, and no collective goal beyond the tenacity and grace of our step.’
(from ‘Meditating in Sensurround’, Nomad Codes p.187)

The solution to multiplicity is a kind of dynamic synthesis; the following of an interstitial path that acknowledges and respects all spiritual achievement, without finding itself locked into single mode of engagement with the eternal. Eternity, after all, is infinite; it seems entirely reasonable to look for it by stepping beyond the finite.

That sense of dynamic synthesis struck me forcefully as I listened to last night’s music, and watched last night’s dance. Each was a series of collisions that again and again locked themselves into ferocious, miraculous grooves.

Synthesisers, electric bass and electric guitars throbbed over sitars and tablas; Western and Eastern musics combined, with no critical judgement of either being made beyond one immensely practical question. ‘Will this work?’ you could hear musicians asking, again and again – and then, joyously, again and again the music roared back ‘YES!’.

The night’s three dancers had a similar, resplendent spontaneity to them. Chatting with two of them, Ash Mukherjee and Showmi Das, at the end of the evening (the third, Khavita Kaur Rendhawa, had alas left) I discovered that they’d only met for the first time that afternoon, and had improvised much of the evening’s dance in response to the unusually long, narrow space they had to work in.

That sense of surprise explained the immense exploratory freshness that animated their performances. It’s also at the heart of the spirituality that Davis advocates in his book. I know it works, because I saw it danced last night, and I’ve lived it myself, improvising music out of terrified on-stage ecstasies with the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra. It’s alive in ‘Nomad Codes’, too, leaping joyfully out of each new essay, each new perception.

Then, there’s Davis’ sense of technology. That’s fundamental to his understanding of religion; in fact, ‘Techgnosis’, his first book, dealt at length with the collision between the two. I’m not sure if he’d agree that the medium is the message; but he’s certainly very aware that the medium contains the message, and thus plays a fundamental role in defining both what’s transported, and how it transports.

And one final point worth noting; Davis’ awareness of the way that (as he quotes Philip K. Dick) ‘the symbols of the divine show up in the trash stratum’. Davis brings this out in his discussions of Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and other driven pulp visionaries. It’s a great description of Bollywood action, too; melodramatic pulp madness that contains and creates great, deep and very genuine emotion, wonder and awe.

So, in summary – I’m going to spend the next few months exploring Bollywood movies. Last night’s talk was given by Rachel Dwyer – her ‘100 Bollywood Films’ should be an invaluable guide. I’m going to try and see some Indian dance on-stage. And it goes without saying that I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of ‘Nomad Codes’ – a rich, fascinating and hugely rewarding read.

Dispatches from a moving time

Essayists, Fiction, Landscape, London, Modernity, Novelists, Poets

Well, the process of moving continues – silence for the last week or so as I’ve been deep in final moving and decorations (with hugely invaluable help and support from H) before the new carpets go in at Allumination Central. More busy-ness continues – furniture ordering, sorting estate agents, etc, before the upcoming move to Stoke Newington. Yup, the Allumination Central mothership is relocating! More news on this as happens.

So, a quick post today, because there really hasn’t been too much pondering time of late. And, in salute of my upcoming new neighbourhood, let’s hear from Iain Sinclair as he wanders Abney Park Cemetery, our soon-to-be-local nuttily gothic burial ground, and discurses fascinatingly on the literary and general history of Stoke Newington, Hackney and London in general.

And I’m off to walk round the flat barefoot again – why didn’t I get new carpets years ago? Hey ho…




Flesh eggs, scarlet tracings

Essayists, Landscape, Literary, London, Novelists, Poets

Bringing Iain Sinclair’s book of poems, ‘Buried at Sea’, into work this morning made me think about the impact his selected poems ‘Flesh Eggs and Scalp Metal’, and his novel ‘White Chappell Scarlet Tracings’, made on me when I first read them.

I was at a very conservative boarding school in Dorset; every so often Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ would get dusted off by some corduroy jacketed English teacher as an example of the finest, most dangerous poetry that modern Britain had to offer; appreciation of the contemporary novel stopped at Ford Madox Ford.

After Hughes’ tepid, self regarding, bankrupt Romanticism – a poetry that had and still has all the allure of a fly-blown egg salad sandwich rotting in an over warm chiller unit in a barely used Little Chef just off the A303 – and FMF’s (admittedly excellent, but simultaneously) seventy years gone Modernist novelising, Iain Sinclair was a revelation.

I’ve come to read his work as a driven Cockney response to writers like Ezra Pound and Charles Olson; people obsessed with the way history and geography combine to create an environment that the self cannot but rely on for definition.

He built on their methodologies, marrying berserk pulp mythologies with the seedier scrag ends of the Matter of London to look at how popular culture and mythology shape us.

London becomes a dense palimpsest of experience, a place where figures as diverse as Jack the Ripper, Stephen Hawking, Mithras and Nicholas Hawksmoor create intertwining narratives that echo in an absolutely contemporary way through the lives of all Londoners.

Within it we are are perpetual slaves to our environment, unknowing flaneurs being perpetually remoulded by the city that we are always strolling through, always observing, always being observed by.

There’s an obvious political edge to this, as well; those with the power to shape the environment have the power to shape us. Picking up where the Situationalists left off, riffing off the pulp innocence of H. P. Lovecraft and Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, Sinclair forces us to beware of such designs.

Iain Sinclair was using fictions I was deeply engaged with to build an argument about the nature of place, memory (both personal and cultural) that I found very exciting and relevant. Set against Ted Hughes and his dustily savage nature poetry – what took him a career to achieve was done better by Tennyson in four lines in 1849 – there was no real competition.

Myths to a flame

Essayists, Genre, Literary, Metafiction, Philosophy

In ‘Mythologies’, Barthes notes – ‘it is well known how often our ‘realistic’ literature is mythical (if only as a crude myth of realism) and how our ‘literature of the unreal’ has at least the merit of being only slightly so’.

Elsewhere, M. John Harrison has pointed out that, as soon as you’ve got a spaceship or a dragon, you’re writing metafiction – fiction that’s very aware it’s unreal. That awareness effects the reader’s engagement with the whole, drawing attention again and again to the fact that they’re dealing with nothing more than some ink and some paper.

That would seem to run counter to Barthes’ defense of the unreal as the more real. But he’s getting at something deeper.

All fiction contains ideology. For example, the writer uses words to mimic people, has them behave in a certain way, and then punishes or rewards them – or at the very least, judges them – accordingly. The ideology of a given narrative lies in part in that authorial response to character, and by extension character action.

The metafictional status of the ‘literature of the unreal’ constantly reminds the reader that what he or she is reading is entirely constructed. It’s not a real world; it’s a rhetorical world, created (whether consciously or unconsciously) to articulate a given world view.

Contrasting the ‘literature of the unreal’ with ‘realistic’ literature reveals the flawed nature of the latter. It pretends to be an accurate recreation of reality but in reality – filtered in the same way through a set of authorial values – it’s as mythological as the fantastic. It exerts the same ideological pressure on the reader.

But it pretends not to; it pretends to be a world, rather than an interested representation of a world. It hides the subjective values it embodies, presenting them instead as objective truths. Opinion becomes an artefact – in Barthes’ terms, a myth.

Hence Barthes’ criticism of the ‘realistic’ as being more mythical than the fantastic. Unlike non-realist fiction, it pretends to be something it’s not; a real, objective world, rather than just ink on paper building subjectivity.

Scott of the Rantarctic

America, Essayists, Novelists, Rants

Well, despite a bacon, mushroom and brown sauce sandwich, and a rather nice cappuccino, I’m still hungover, so I’m just going to rant a bit, releasing my inner literary Richard Littlejohn (for non-UK readers, a noted right wing ranting journalist / loon) on the world.

We’re going to hell in a handcart!

If there’s one thing that winds me up, it’s the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that ‘there are no second acts in American lives’ is taken to mean that there are no second chances in American lives. You see it quoted all over the place – such-and-such has returned triumphantly from failure, ‘disproving FSF’s famous dictum’, somebody else falls into obscurity, ‘proving FSF right’.

You couldn’t make it up!!

But – if you think about what the term ‘second act’ actually means in a narrative structure context – you realise that’s not what he meant at all! Classically, in the First Act you establish a goal for your protagonist, in the Second Act you create obstacles to the achievement of those goals, and in the Third Act you show what happens when those goals are finally achieved.

It’s Political Correctness GONE MAD!!!

So, when FSF said that there are no second acts in American lives, what I think he really meant was that there’s an expectation that there should be no barriers between the desire and the fulfilment of the desire. And that’s a very intriguing comment, perfectly describing the promises that much of modern consumer culture makes to us all. You want it? You got it. No effort needed, because there’s no longer a second act.

Now that’s much more interesting than no second chances.


Loving the Gerard

Essayists, Fantasy, Memory, Short stories, Travel writers

Returning to Gerard de Nerval briefly. I was obsessed by him while I was writing my book, and I think he’s someone that – if you’re fascinated by the fantastic – is well worth checking out.

His work covers a very broad range, from vividly evocative reportage of nineteenth century Paris to (quite genuinely) unhinged visions and fantasies, drawn directly from his experiences of mental illness. He was a travel writer, combining the utterly unreliable with the completely truthful into a bonkers, frequently plagiarised, but always wildly entertaining whole. His short stories are fascinating – simultaneously very directly autobiographical and very self consciously fictionalised, as all our memories can be.

It’s that combination of the directly experienced, the (more or less deliberately) misperceived and the entirely fantasised that I love about him. He was very aware of the ways we use fictions to create acceptable versions of the self. He realised that, if you want to be a Realist, you have to engage with fantasy; because fantasy is a part of every one of our worldviews.

And quite apart from that, he’s a great person to spend time with. What’s not to like about someone who gets all the way to Cairo and then bitches about how the real thing isn’t up to much compared to the version you get at the Paris Opera? Or who, visiting Switzerland, can’t be bothered to go and check out Mont Blanc so admires its shape in a passing mountain-like cloud instead? And then wanders off into reveries combining Masonic rituals with the Great Pyramid at Giza, topped and tailed with evocations of Egyptian street life so vividly observed that you’ll need a passport just to read them…