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!

Swamp moralities

Fantasy, Horror, Psychology, Superheroes

Well, it’s been a wonderful period of battery refreshing and book rewriting. The book’s in good shape now – 20,000 words shorter, more emotionally coherent and much, much more focussed. So that will be going out to various people over the next few weeks. Very exciting!

And of course I’ve been doing much re-reading. In particular, inspired by the magnificent Byron Orpheus, I’ve been grooving to Marvel’s bonkers-but-wonderful master of magic Doctor Strange. Supported by his master, teacher and friend, The Ancient One, Strange battles various different kinds of cosmic evil while occasionally worrying about paying pharmacy bills, remodelling his Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum to fit in with local property law, etc.

It’s highly recommended; the artwork is both profoundly psychedelic and utterly precise, and the writing gives the stories a propulsive, addictive momentum that makes Doctor Strange’s adventures a pleasure to read. What’s really interesting, however, is the way that the comic treats evil – and the way that that sets up Alan Moore’s groundbreaking work on ‘Swamp Thing’ in the 80s.

In Doctor Strange, evil is very objectified. Just as Strange is aware that he both is and represents good, so his opponents very self consciously both are and represent evil. This is something they’re very proud of, monologuing from time to time to time about their glorious wickedness, etc.

For me, this is a very limiting moral stance. Evil is complex; it’s far more than just an external person-to-be-zapped. Having been deep in Jung also while away, I’d read it as much as a reflection of aspects of ourselves we’re uncomfortable with as an external destructive force. Over and above this, there’s the problem that most people read themselves as good. Baron Mordo’s and Dormammu’s (two key villains) ‘my glorious wickedness’ speeches don’t ring true to me, for this reason.

I haven’t read much of the rest of the Marvel corpus, so I’m not quite sure to what extent this kind of binary, artificial treatment of evil occurs elsewhere, but there are indications in Doctor Strange that even Ditko / Lee (the creative time behind the early strip) were uncomfortable with it. There’s a very interesting moment when Dormammu is pointed up as being a hero in his own culture; Strange realises that his conception of evil is particular, not universal. But that perception isn’t followed through in any real depth.

Or at least, it’s not followed through in early ‘Doctor Strange’. But it’s fundamental to Alan Moore’s legendary 80s run on DC’s ‘Swamp Thing’. So, once again, it’s time to stop and consider just why Alan Moore is god…

‘Swamp Thing’ is ostensibly about a shambling pile of mud, leaves and psychedelic mushrooms coming to terms with the fact that it’s not – as it had believed – a mutated human, but rather an almost entirely supernatural earth elemental.

It’s utterly magnificent, for a variety of different reasons. It combines horror with fantasy, satire with action, cosmic psychedelic adventures with down-home spookiness. It invents John Constantine, of Hellblazer fame. It has Superman scratching his head and admitting he’s powerless before ecology. And it’s a complex meditation on the nature and meaning of evil.

Guided by Constantine and the Parliament of Trees, the Swamp Thing goes through a series of adventures that both help it understand its true nature and powers and force it to confront the limitations of binary good / evil conceptions.

It fights a werewolf; but the werewolf has been triggered by one woman’s frustration at centuries of patriarchal oppression. It wipes out a nest of vampires; but the vampires are motivated by the need to raise and protect their young. It protects some lost aliens; but the aliens are being attacked by our own innately carnivorous ecology – and so on.

Every adventure is a step on the road to initiation, that is to a development of a sophisticated understanding of the limitations of moral judgement in the face of the depth and complexity of natural living. The quest is exemplified in a question that the Parliament of Trees puts to the Swamp Thing – ‘where is evil in all of the wood?’

The answer comes when the Swamp Thing reaches the narrative’s climax. He’s been trained to confront an existential threat, a dark *thing* that is rising from the depths of the cosmos to threaten all before it. Other heroes attack the thing and are swatted away with no effort at all. The Swamp Thing steps into it and engages with it.

I’m not going to describe the story’s climax – you should go and read it! Suffice to say that the Swamp Thing answers his question, stepping beyond good and evil and taking part in an almost alchemical marriage of opposites. The simplistic moralities that animate the Doctor Strange stories are simultaneously neutralised and transcended.

This cosmic narrative is echoed in the Swamp Thing’s own development, after the event. The warring sides of his personality – human and non-human – are reconciled, and he finds a new peace as a fully individuated post-human, settling down with his anima and (at least for a while) retiring. There’s a deep metaphor for character development going on there as well, built at least in part (I suspect) on Jung’s thinking on personality development and fulfilment. But more on that another time….

In the meantime, suffice to say that Alan Moore’s rethinking of Marvel morality in ‘Swamp Thing’ is a fascinating part of his broader 80s project – the further development of superhero comics as a complex set of metaphors for the way we live and feel and develop, now.

A mirror and a window both

Fantasy, Literary, Narrative, Psychology

In ‘S/Z’, his wonderful, word by word dissection of a Balzac short story, Barthes notes that ‘in the text, only the reader speaks.’

There’s a fascinating point about the process of reading to be drawn out of that. When we read a book, he’s saying, we read it in our voice, hearing the words in our head as if it’s us speaking.

That’s an index of a broader readerly solipsism. Any book only has meaning for us inasmuch as it taps into experiences we’ve already had. Once it steps beyond our emotional experiences – whether actual or fantasised – it leaves us with nothing to engage with. Without engagement, we’re unlikely to keep reading.

We tend to regard books as externalised artefacts, bringing intellectual and emotional novelty into our lives. In fact, in many ways they can only ever present our selves back to ourselves, connecting with us through our own voices and experiences that we’ve already had. A book isn’t a window; it’s a mirror.

But perhaps that’s not quite true. Books do introduce novelty into our lives – new information, new understanding, new ways of seeing. Our ability to grasp novelty may be limited, but nonetheless it is real. The voice may be ours, but the words we are reading aren’t. A book is neither mirror nor window, but a complex set of tensions between the two.

That’s a complexity that M. John Harrison picks up on, in his magnificent short story ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ (latterly re-titled / re-edited as ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’). It’s the concluding story of his 70s Viriconium sequence, and it very literally enacts the window / mirror tension.

A small group of characters discover a portal to the ‘magical’ world of Viriconium in the toilet of a café in the provincial English town of Huddersfield. It’s a mirror that they can climb through, and so they do.

They find themselves in a seedy and blasted semi-urban landscape. They scratch together a living for a while, before being forced to return to our world by a combination of sickness and lassitude.

The world they find themselves is authentically magical; but it’s also authentic to their situation in our world. Taking themselves through the portal isn’t a magical solution – rather, it does little more than give them a different context within which to confront the same issues that they have to deal with here.

For M. John Harrison, there’s no such thing as escape; only reframing. And perhaps that’s the best way to understand where novelty in fiction comes from. Fiction helps the self see itself in a new light by giving it a means of reframing itself. Simultaneously mirror and window, it creates new worlds for us to step into by forcing us back on what’s already there.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you – literally.



What’s a person anyway?

Fiction, Metafiction, Philosophy, Psychology

So much narrative removes the possibility of change. Although faced by risk, the hero always win out, the quality and correctness of his or her original vision unchallenged.

They’re superficially about progress, but in fact such narratives privilege stasis. The hero might develop new skills (whether practical or emotional) to allow them to achieve their goal, but the fundamental identity that makes that goal worthwhile remains the same.

I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing. It comes back to the question of what we are. How static are our identities? At what points in our lives do the deep structures of the self change? Should fiction be exclusively concerned with those changes?

The last question isn’t too difficult to answer. Fictions that deal with static characters can still be wildly enjoyable (take the Solomon Kane stories, for example). The important thing here is not to confuse them with any kind of real life – to do so makes a virtue of personal rigidity.

But what of deeper progressions of the self? That, I think, throws you back onto questions that all honest fiction writers face, sooner or later. What are we? How do we work? What is this *person* thing that I as a writer am trying to model?

Any answers I have are deeply provisional.. and in fact I want to ponder them a bit, so more tomorrow. In the meantime, what do you think you are?

Processing the world

Gigs, Music, Psychology

Well, last weekend was very rock’n’roll – Djinn’s fractured Arab rave beats blending with Indokrautprog mayhem from Grok on Saturday, and word / sound crossover on Sunday as M. John Harrison and Erik Davis read with Grok. Here’s the Sunday line up, waiting to groove:


Grok came out of Stoke Newington’s leading boy band, the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra, with whom I play bass. We’re a bit dormant just now, tho’ we’ve got some studio time booked in a couple of weeks and a possible gig in September, so I suspect some interesting times coming up.

We make entirely improvised drone music, more or less chilled depending on our mood. Someone staggered out of one of our gigs once – the 4am ant mating footage abandoned Freemason’s Hall one – and told a friend that we sounded like ‘a jet engine taking off for forty five minutes’, which is as good a description as any of the kind of sound we can make.

I hadn’t really realised how much I’d learned from playing with the Stellas until I read this post on Mark McGuinness’ ‘Wishful Thinking’ blog. He talks about the movie ‘Amadeus’ and creativity, comparing the approaches of Mozart and Salieri in the film:

‘I think we can identify two different approaches to creativity in Salieri and Mozart.… For Salieri, [the temptations of real world success, praise, etc] intrude on the creative process, distracting him from his real work so that he deteriorates into obsession and mediocrity. For Mozart, they are kept at bay – at least during ‘work time’ – by a kind of magic circle, within which the artist is entranced by the art itself, immersed in creative flow.’

He’s very interesting, both on the film itself and on the research that looks at these two different approaches to creativity. In essence, he says that the most productive way to approach creative work is to see the work as an end in itself; a process worth engaging with entirely for the pleasure of that engagement.

That’s what I’ve got from the Stellas. What I loved about being a Stella was the process of playing together – ‘there’s nothing better than making strange noises with your friends’, as vocalist Tim once put it.

Some of my favourite Stella moments were entirely private – all of us, in the studio, making music. At times, it felt like a complex, layered conversation, carried out with instruments rather than voices. Gigs were great fun, but they were very much a by-product of that process of mutual engagement.

That’s fed back into the writing, and into life in general. It’s helped me realise that 99% of what we do is process; end points, moments of achievement, are at best transient little offshoots of those processes.

So now I try to enjoy the process as much as I can, and look at each one’s end point not as a great and glorious conclusion, but as a little marker of the moment where one way of engaging productively with the world ends, and another one begins.

Stasis, dynamism

Fiction, Genre, Literary, Psychology

Well, I drafted an astonishingly perceptive and witty blog entry at home last night, which would have thrilled and amazed everyone as well as instantly doubling my on-site traffic, but I’ve left it on my hard drive at home, so instead of that I’m just going to blast slightly randomly about Cervantes and stasis.

There’s a great moment about halfway through ‘Don Quixote’ where Cervantes takes on other writers who’ve been writing their own knock-off Don Quixote stories. He blasts their legitimacy in no uncertain terms, pointing out that he and he only is the writer of the real Don Quixote.

In modern terms, he’s pointing out that Don Quixote isn’t open source – and for me, that’s a key point in the definition of what the modern literary novelist is. Literary novelists don’t write open source material; they create self contained worlds that exist purely to support the narrative / thematic points that their novels are making. Their books, like Cervantes’, are entirely personal and entirely self-contained.

But – as pointed out yesterday – substantial portions of genre writing are very comfortable with open source worlds and characters. And there’s an interesting structural point to be made off the back of that.

That kind of world relies on characters with relatively static, clearly defined characteristics being thrown into a variety of different plot situations. The interest doesn’t come from watching the characters develop and change – rather, it comes from seeing their familiar strengths and weaknesses tested in new situations.

Hence in part literary critics’ often rabid criticism of genre writing. This kind of stasis is antithetic to one of literary fiction’s core concerns; the tracing of emotional change through a clearly defined, highly significant segment of a character’s life. A set of fictional structures which make a virtue of stasis, such an opposed value, can only seem deeply problematic to a literary writer.

So perhaps that’s one way of understanding the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? In literary fiction, change is internalised, understood as tectonic shifts in character emotional definition. In genre fiction, change is often externalised, understood to be a new environment or other challenge for a clearly defined set of characters to explore.

And how does that relate back to Cervantes? He wasn’t happy to see his characters, his fictional world, changed by other people. But genre writers who create open source characters and worlds know that – in their essentials – their creations won’t change. Rather, new writers will introduce new situations to challenge them and excite readers. They’re not taking control from the original writer; rather, they’re testing his creation in new ways, which is a very different thing indeed.

A mirror to shine in

Novelists, Philosophy, Psychology, Supernatural

Seeing a ghost is like experiencing a fragment of someone else’s memory; an insistent, present, repeated moment broken out of all context. Fiction takes such fragments and sets them in a reasoned and coherent narrative and emotional context.

For example, there’s Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel ‘The Shining’. He’s trapped in the Overlook Hotel, surrounded by ghosts. The book presents him as being possessed by the hotel – but in fact, the hotel is possessed by him.

Torrance gives the disparate iconography sets of the hotel – the topiary animals, the boiler in the basement, the various phantoms of 20s gangsters and their hangers-on, the lift, the Indian graveyard – a nexus, a narrative reason-to-be.

He’s a locus of meaning that both justifies their presence and defines how they should act. ‘The Shining’ is a great Gothic masterpiece, using the apparatus of the supernatural to amplify the impact of and comment on the nature of one man’s profoundly flawed and destructive emotional makeup.

In real life, ghosts don’t do that; but then again, in real life very little does that. Fiction creates entire, self-absorbed imitations of worlds; these worlds serve to very precisely focus the reader’s attention onto a very small set of characters, providing the imagery and event structures that support and intensify interpretation of their actions and intents.

If ‘Gothic’ describes stories where externalised and highly artificial events and locations respond to and are inspired by internal emotional turmoil, then – read on one level – all fiction can be said to be Gothic. None of it’s real; and it’s all driven by the author’s need to express and amplify what (s)he understands his or her characters to be, and what (s)he wants the reader to find out about them.

Seeing the world

Fantasy, Ghosts, Novelists, Psychology, Religion, Supernatural

At Arvon last week I was ranting – as you do – about John Burdett’s ‘Bangkok 8’, the only psychedelic transvestite Thai reincarnation police procedural you’ll ever need to read (apart, of course, from its sequel ‘Bangkok Tattoo’).

And, if that whets your appetite for Thai mythology, there’s much else out there – S.P. Somtow’s short stories and in particular his rather lovely coming of age novel ‘Jasmine Nights’ deal very directly with Thailand’s unreal realms, while Graham Joyce’s ‘Smoking Poppy’ is a much more oblique and restrained take on intersections between fantasy and reality. And that’s just for starters…

What’s interesting is how many of the characters in these novels perceive the fantastic. They take visions of past lives, strange ghosts, practising magicians, exotic curses, and so on, completely in their stride. Reading about such things may be a form of escape for us, but for them it’s the everyday world.

Ostensibly, that takes these books into the realms of fantasy, where Frodo is completely unsurprised by Gandalf’s existence and behaviour because he knows that wizards are real. But there are no hobbits in these books. They deal with authentic worldviews, rooted in direct experience, held by entirely non-fictional people who – if you step on a plane – you can go and meet and chat to.

Commonly, fantasy writing is seen as a form of escapism, but this kind of work points to an opposite function. It understands fantasy to include ‘things unexperienced’ as well as ‘things impossible’, reminding us again and again that there are many more ways of interpreting and engaging with this world than the overly reductive, rationalising modes we so easily fall back on.

Dystopia IS utopia

Novelists, Psychology, Science Fiction, Surrealism

Flicking through the Ballard entry on Wikipedia just now, and I was interested to see that they describe him as a dystopian writer. On the surface, a not unreasonable judgement, but for me there’s something a little more complex going on there.

Ballard’s always explored – in a very engaged and fertile way – the destructive forces that make us who we are; our reckless engagements with technology, our roots in profoundly irrational drives that consistently overwhelm and make obsolete our more considered selves.

For Ballard, rationality is a convenient fiction, easily discarded. We love destruction, chaos, mayhem; otherwise we wouldn’t produce so much of them. Ultimately, our most creative response to partial, rationally driven structures – like, for example, classic utopias – can only be to break them. Being human means that dystopia IS utopia.