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…

 

 

 

A hatchet for Jung

Fantasy, Landscape, Memory, Narrative, Psychology

Much excitement at allumination this week, as my last big post – the Olson / Lovecraft one – has been picked up on by the international poetry world. Greetings, new readers from just about everywhere! I hope you’re enjoying the unholy poetry / weirdness blend that goes on here.

Some personal poetic excitement as well, as – while attending the most excellent Avantgarde Festival – I’ve been deep in the most excellent ‘Late Modernist Poetics from Pound to Prynne’. Well, it seemed like the right place to read something like that…

Anyway, it’s a ferociously enjoyable book, and a really valuable combination of deep reading of Pound, Olson and Prynne and debunking of their windier / ethically dubious / just plain incoherent moments. It also casts fascinating light on (amongst other things) Jung’s contribution to mid / late 20th century avant garde thinking.

More on the details of that contribution another time; what intrigued me was how interesting it is to look at Jung through the lens of Farah Mendlesohn’s superb recent book, ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’.

In RoF, Farah develops a really interesting (and very constructive) taxonomy of fantasy. She defines the portal-quest fantasy, the immersive fantasy, the intrusion fantasy, the liminal fantasy and then various irregulars. The book has been discussed in detail elsewhere – for example, here by John Clute – so I’m not going to summarise it again, but rather home in on one of Farah’s categories – the portal quest. And, instead of using it to think about fantastic fiction, I’m going to use it ponder Jung.

Understanding Jung’s work as a component of a portal quest world view leads to some really interesting insights about the deeper implications of his project. But what’s a portal quest fantasy? For Farah, at the most basic level,

‘a portal fantasy is simply a fantastic world entered through a portal. The classic portal fantasy is of course The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… They are almost always quest novels and they almost always proceed in a linear fashion with a goal that must be met.’

Paraphrasing, they demand reader identification with a naïve protagonist who’s learning the ways of a strange new world – ‘the portal fantasy must be navigated’, and we share, empathise with, and learn the world through that navigation – a process of ‘entry, transition and negotiation’. The end of navigation is – as a rule – some kind of fated or predestined world changing event:

‘portal fantasies lead us gradually to the point where the protagonist knows his or her world enough to change it and enter into that world’s destiny.’

Farah gives various examples of the pq fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story, the various Oz books, and reaching all the way back to The Pilgrim’s Process. And – of course – Jung’s oeuvre can be read as a portal quest, or rather supporting a portal quest world view.

He posits a strange new world – the various levels of the subconscious – that we can all step into, populated by strange and interesting new characters – the archetypes – and structured at a deeper level around various mysterious but immutable image- and narrative-sets derived from the Euro / global alchemical tradition, plus various related forms of mysticism.

He sets himself up as guide to these strange new realms, and through his work aspires to help us develop, sustain and resolve our own quest within them; that is, to navigate them, achieve understanding of them and of our pre-destined role within them, and through that to reconcile oppositions and achieve a kind of personal transcendence.

He defined that personal transcendence as ‘individuation’, the resolution of conflicting opposites within the personality, and saw that it would lead to a radical alteration of our selves, our understanding of the deeper worlds of our personal subconsciouses, and through that those worlds themselves.

As in a classic pq fantasy, we begin as naïve protagonists, we achieve ‘entry, transition and negotiation’, moving ‘in a linear fashion with a goal that must be met’, and finally we come to ‘know [our subconscious] enough to change it and enter into that world’s destiny’; that is, to reconcile opposites, uncover the true external, personal destiny implied by the totality of an individuated consciousness, and achieve that destiny with the support of a fully resolved subconscious world / personality in general.

So, Jungian thinking about the self can be read as creating a portal quest fantasy for the self to move through, in search of a very real, very beneficial goal. But that’s not an unmixed good; and Farah is fascinating on exactly why that is.

The process of de-familiarisation and re-familiarisation that she describes is, as noted above, built around a sequence of exploratory actions in pursuit of a certain, clearly defined goal. And, as a rule, that goal is usually externally defined, and the terms of that goal condition and define the protagonist’s engagement with everyone that he or she meets along the way. They’re either helpful (good) or unhelpful (bad); that’s it for moral judgement, while more nuanced understandings of the personalities of those encountered are rendered impossibly by the need to relate with them exclusively in terms of the level of support / not-support they’re giving.

Mapped onto Jung, that gives us an interesting way of understanding archetype theory. Seen as portal quest components, archetypal definitions of others represent a shorthand for understanding them entirely in terms of their relationship to the Jung-defined quest. Rather than supporting a closer engagement with the root structures of reality (as Jung and his cohorts would no doubt claim), they in fact alienate the Jungian subject from anything more than a deeply superficial engagement with the entities surrounding him or her.

In portal quests, that kind of reductiveness also applies to the world travelled through; as a stranger in a strange land, the protagonist is by definition entirely dependent on the world-definitions of their guide. Those definitions tend to be pretty absolute (think of Gandalf’s sense of the evil of Sauron, or the way that the Wicked Witch of the East is presented in ‘The Wizard of Oz’), and pretty non-negotiable; as Farah puts it, discussing portal quest subsets:

‘The epic and the traveler’s tale are closed narratives. Each demands that we accept the interpretation of the narrator, and the interpretative position of the hero.’

Jung seeks to involve us in a single fixed narrative of which he is the narrator; as the hero of that narrative, we have a radically limited set of possible positive actions available to us. The goodness or badness of those actions is non-negotiable. Moving through Jung’s understanding of the subconscious, towards individuation, involved us in a narrative just as closed as that of any generic fantasy quest.

Implicit in the creation of a closed narrative is an absolute need for the narrator to be right, for their understanding of the world (as expressed in the narrative) to be uncontestable. Farah notes what this leads to:

‘in order to convince, to avoid too close analysis, the portal and quest fantasies attempt to convince through the accumulation of detail.’

That is, the closed narrative structures of a pq fantasy are covered over / held up by a mass of supporting detail, all deployed to convince us of the depth of knowledge and therefore the infallibility of the narrator. And that’s a game Jung plays, too, whether he’s deploying case studies or (in his later books) huge chunks of alchemical and related information.

The detail isn’t there to support the argument he’s making; rather, it exists to make it seem incontestable, an output of a world where every accessible point of information demonstrates the truth of the Jung hypothesis, and where that hypothesis itself is seen not as one more argument in a broader, polysemic set of discourses, but rather as a final, irrefutable outcome of an incontestable, almost omniscient seeing of all the detail of the world. Apparently rational, it in fact defeats rationality by burying logic beneath a flood of impressive, apparently global and disinterested but in fact carefully selected and very partial data.

There’s much more that can be teased out of this; I’ve only touched the surface of Farah’s sense of what a portal quest is, and how that can be used to tease out the more hidden, controlling components of Jung’s project (and by extension, any other vatic guru who builds his thought around a similarly omni-applicable worldview). Returning to the Mellors book I mentioned earlier, I think it’s going to be very interesting to feed Olson, Pound and Prynne, and their respective poetic cults through all of this. There’s some fascinating pondering to be done about political narratives, too; the portal quest narrative is a classic colonial narrative, as the other is encountered and engaged with from a purely self-centred perspective. And of course, there’s the whole of the rest of the book to be talking about, too.

But for now, it’s Friday night, and I’ve got a curry on the stove and H has just come over, and we’re going to sit down and watch Kolchak DVDs and chill out. So, bon weekend a tous!

Lovecraft, Olson and ‘The Mayan Letters’

Fantasy, Horror, Humanism, Landscape, Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

Well, it’s been a fascinating morning of pondering Lovecraft’s roots in Ovid. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to go into detail here – still working out exactly what I think – but in brief I think the link builds on Ovid’s status as the great poet of transformation in ‘Metamorphosis’, and the chronicler of the numinous’ daily interaction with man in ‘Fasti’.

Lovecraft, of course, has a horror of metamorphosis, although many of his characters don’t; and his work tracks the divine breaking into the quotidian in random, terrifying ways. But more on that another time.

Because today’s weird pondering continues my ongoing death of Humanism rant by thinking about how exactly and interestingly mid-20th Century poet and educator (and inventor of the term ‘postmodern’) Charles Olson tallies with your generic Lovecraftian academic villain.

In Lovecraft, the academic villain is a very identifiable type; someone deeply engaged with lost, historic lore, working either alone or in concert.

As a rule, they’re obsessed with secret lore, are very aware that what they’re up to goes against / is threatening to the cultural mainstream, and yet are driven on by both personal rewards and by a sense that what they’re uncovering is real truth, that will lead to a mass transformation in their particular cultural consciousness and affairs.

For example, the Joseph Curwen circle in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ look forward to the moment when ‘it will be ripe… to have upp ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shall be oures…’, while in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ Great Race society seems to have been profoundly effected by news of its impending doom.

And these researchers have an interesting relationship with time; it’s a very malleable thing to them, allowing them to bring the past directly into the present, and vice versa. The Joseph Curwen circle talk with the dead of all centuries, while the time traveling delvings of the Great Race of Yith are presented very directly indeed:

‘I learned… that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and sent exploring minds into every age… I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D.; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in 50,000 BC; with that of a twelfth Century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi…’

Other examples abound; many Lovecraftian villains (and most of his heroes, come to that) can be seen as researchers of one kind or another. The Fungi from Yuggoth take humanity to the stars, and beyond; the crazed cultists of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ use forbidden knowledge to excavate Cthulhu; the protagonist of ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ is a kind of archaeologist of local horror; and so on.

So what? Well, the preponderance of researchers / historians / revivifiers in Lovecraft is a logical outcome of his central myth; that of a past that can be recast in ways that radically transform understandings of humanity and of modernity in general. And that’s what links him so interestingly with Olson.

I’d been kind of vaguely aware of this link, but it hadn’t really grabbed me until I sat down to read Olson’s ‘The Mayan Letters’. Edited by Olson’s friend and poetic ally Robert Creeley, aka the Figure of Outward, ‘The Mayan Letters’ record Olson’s researches into Mayan culture over a six month period in the early 50s, carried out from a small village on the Mexican coast.

‘The Mayan Letters’ are a key document in Olson’s ongoing struggle to get past the limitations of Western European thinking and perception, as rooted in (what Olson perceives to be) alienating ancient Greek philosophy. For him (and paraphrasing hugely!) the Greeks separated the object from the discourse, creating an artificial gap between thinking and existing that’s in turn alienated Western consciousness from the world that surrounds it.

As he put it in his essay ‘The Human Universe’, ‘the distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. One way – he thought – of reclaiming language as ‘the act of the instant’ is to pitch it in terms of hieroglyphs or ideograms, reclaiming the word as object rather than description. And that attitude in part led him to the Mayans, who built their language on ideograms.

Of course his interest was in Mayan culture was far broader than the purely linguistic – as a researcher, he hoped to uncover the frame of mind that an ideogrammatic language supported, find a way of describing and reintroducing it into contemporary culture, and thus bring about a constructive change in Western mass consciousness (‘the shift is SUBSTANTIVE’, as he notes of the past, and will be again).

And that’s what makes him – and ‘The Mayan Letters’, and his broader work, so resonantly Lovecraftian. Whether acting as archaeologist, linguist, historical researcher or just plain explorer, his language rings with the expository excitement of the classic Lovecraftian researcher (‘I tried, for a while, to scratch away at the walls of the graves…’), whether hero or villain:

‘Craziest damn thing ever, this place: nothing on it otherwise but two sets of double small ‘pyramids’ at either end of the island… a damned attractive place… was it the reason the Maya… did so come here, choose, this place [to bury their dead]?… Must find out more.’

Olson then resolves – in a classically Lovecraftian set up – to go and look up MSSs of previous expeditions to the island. Or there’s this:

‘Have been digging up the old Maya chronicles, the last couple of days, and ome up with interesting stuff on Quetz-Kukul – and the question of, sea origins.’

Or this:

‘God, give me a little more of [watching stars in the Mexican sky while talking about them] and I shall excuse what you say abt me, another time, my friend. For you have said something so beautifully tonight, in this business of force:… that force STAYS, IS & THEREFORE STAYS, whenever, whatever:

that is what
we are concerned with
it breaks all time and space’

Where Lovecraft found horror in the breakage of time and space, Olson found wonder. And all of this is in service of an explicitly (perhaps even physically as well as culturally) transformative project:

‘BUT the way the bulk of them still (“the unimproved”) wear their flesh… the flesh is worn as a daily thing, like the sun… carried like the other things are, for use… the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself, is, a curious wandering animal (it is so very beautiful, how animal the eyes are, when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out)’

And that wearing is for Olson a ‘real, live clue to the results of what I keep on gabbing on about, another humanism’. For Olson as for Lovecraft, the return to the animal is transformative, but for Olson it’s a positive, allowing a step out of Western humanism into something far more spontaneous and positive, something that (using Jung’s term) leads very directly to the profoundly positive end of individuation, of becoming a true and integrated self.

And that’s the source of both similarity and the difference between the two writers. Both either track or drive a step away from a Humanism that began with the ancient Greeks and that has defined Western culture for the last couple of thousand years. For Lovecraft, that’s a profoundly destructive step, but one that (visionary that he was, often despite himself) one he can’t deny; for Olson, it’s an entirely positive step, one that should be encouraged.

In the end, Olson can be read as a Lovecraftian villain; but being a villain in Lovecraft means breaking an old consensus and replacing it with something unimaginably, transcendentally new – and, in this decaying modern world, that can only be a good thing to do.

Sensawunda removal machine

Landscape, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, War

The original ‘Star Trek’ remains a fascinating show, not least because of the wondrously strange vistas of the imagination it opens up. You want to meet Apollo? He’s there. You want to visit an earth where the Nazis will win World War II? Check. You want to find out how dead satellites become galaxy spanning AIs? They’ve got it. You want to see Spock turn on, tune in and drop out – and then SMILE, blissfully and self-consciously? It’s all there.

‘Star Trek’ has sensawunda, in spades, even if it does wander at times into the ludicrous. Even my jaw dropped when *echo effect* THEY STOLE SPOCK’S BRAIN… an episode only matched for inadvertent comedy by the utterly ludicrous *echo effect* THEY STOLE NYLIX’S LUNGS… episode of ‘Star Trek – Voyager’, or possibly by the enjoyably nutty ‘Riker at the pandimensional alien barbers’ incidents of ‘The Next Generation’.

But the crew of the Enterprise have a more complex relationship with sensawunda than would first appear. In episode after episode they encounter an external threat, feel overwhelmed by its inexplicable (if wondrous) threateningness, develop a rational understanding of it as a problem, in doing so reduce it to a human scale, and then go on to solve the problem and thus neutralise the wonder.

They rarely – if ever – stand back in amaze at the wonder itself; rather, they perceive it as a threat, and stop it dead. Seen from this point of view, the Enterprise is best described as a sensawunda removal machine; something that exists to support a particular kind of reductive impulse as it seeks to re-frame the cosmic in entirely human, profoundly limiting terms, imposing a simple, binary threat / no threat set of judgements on the vast, endless richnesses of alien space, and wiping out its complex wondrousness accordingly.

I was a poltergeist once, you know…

Ghosts, Gigs, Heaviosity, Landscape

Well, it’s mid-August, and my brain is winding down. Holidays are beginning; I’ve got Monday off next week to recover from a Stellas recording session (we’re going from midday Sunday to 4am Monday), Friday to head to the Green Man Festival with H, Raagnagrok and co (where we shall in particular be enjoying Strange Attractor Saturday), and the week after to work on the book.

So no heavy posting today. Instead, as a preparation for Sunday’s recording session, a visual record of one of the more unusual Stella sessions, helping the mighty Disinformation create strange atmospherics in a pitch black abandoned bank vault just round the corner from Old Street.

I spent most of the evening throwing an iron bar around; it clanged and sparked in a very satisfying way when it hit the floor. Various other folk were doing various other things, while audience members wandered round and felt generally spooked. I ended up feeling like a particularly satisfied poltergeist; the closest to becoming a haunting that I’ve ever been.

The diamond cutter

Landscape, Literary, Poets

Much reading and writing over the last few weeks, and in amongst it all I’ve been particularly enjoying (and enthusing about) R.F. Langley’s ‘Journals’. He’s a poet, a (far more bucolic and less intense) disciple of Jeremy Prynne’s, bending language in strange and interesting new ways.

What’s valuable about his journals is the precision of observation therein. Langley’s obsessions – the natural world, small rural churches, tiny private moments – emerge again and again through absolutely committed, jewel sharp prose.

The book is a masterclass in concise, exact evocation, and also in the deep sensual engagement that supports that kind of evocation. More broadly, it’s one more demonstration of the writerly skill of just looking at the world that goes all the way back to Homer, and no doubt beyond.

It gives the lie to an often-made criticism of the kind of poetry that Langley, Prynne and others write. They’re accused of not engaging with the world, of purposely obfuscating it. The depth and quality of Langley’s journals easily and absolutely refute that.

Prose of this quality is documentary proof of a deep concern with the floating world, a concern that cannot but suffuse and animate every single line of his poetry. If we miss that deep engagement, then it’s our fault as readers, not his weakness as a writer.

If you want to check out the Journals, there’s a sampler here – well worth taking a look at. And here’s a little poetry – some Langley, and some Prynne. More to be said on these two as poets, I think – but not today!

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.

Narcissus in space

Aliens, Landscape, Novelists, Science Fiction

A character in Stanislaw Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ comments:

‘We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of the earth to the frontiers of the cosmos… we have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.’

‘Solaris’ is about an encounter with the truly alien;  a planet sized ocean that is apparently alive, but that is authentically incomprehensible. The human characters in the book experience the alien either through baffling, oceanic activities, or through human-like emanations; key figures in their past, created by the ocean to engage with them.

These emanations are fascinating, a very direct image for our quest for a cosmic mirror. Talking to the alien, we meet either the incomprehensible or our own, most deeply ingrained obsessions. We can see nothing else. Lem’s pessimism about humanity’s inability to step out of the confines of the self is a key driver for the book.

And that pessimism is reflected in a key plot point. Humanity notices that the Solaris ocean *lives* because the Solaris planet has an irregular orbit, designed to help it maintain an even climate as it orbits two binary stars. Such an orbit has to be a sign of a designing, controlling intelligence; and thus the quest to understand the Solaris ocean begins.

But such a drive to control is a very human trait. From the start, the Solaris ocean is tagged as something motivated by a very basic human driver – the need to thrive through environmental manipulation. At a base level, its actions can be read in entirely human terms.

But without that basic human behaviour there would be no book; the Solaris ocean would have gone unnoticed. In Lem’s terms, any attempt to show the fully alien is a contradiction in terms. Cosmic Narcissi, we’d never look up from the pool and see it.

Sands of presentation

Landscape, Memory

Off to do a presentation skills course for work today; so I’m now going to sit down and write a five minute speech for it, to be used as a base for feedback etc. Not quite sure what this will do for the blog – perhaps I will suddenly become infinitely more persuasive? We shall see.

Oh, and lovely weekend in Devon – felt very sad washing the last of the Bantham Beach sand out of the bath tub last night…

Dead cities

Cycling, Landscape, London, Zombies

Reading about a disturbance at Brookwood on the news. Then, I went to get lunch. The building over the road has been completely gutted, ready for development. Dead buildings rise again very quickly; in a couple of months it’ll be something completely new. People are more difficult to bring back.

But then again, London is built on dead architecture – layers of the stuff, running all the way back to the Romans and beyond. There’s a layer of ash half an inch deep that Boudicca left behind, when the city first burned; the remains of a temple to Mithras half exposed at Temple Court; street names in Fulham referencing a spring where Belenos was worshipped, 2,500 years ago.

Roman London, Celtic London, Medieval London; all buried, unreclaimable. Maybe it’s the redeveloped buildings that are anomalous, awkwardly reborn where all the rest have fallen away?

Glad I’m cycling home tonight, it’s a hot, sticky day. Just saw Chris Billett, he’s getting even twitchier about his sirens.