shards of a figurine which cannot be put together.

Adolf Bohm, Landscape.

Adolf Bohm, Landscape.

In S_____, California, an unincorporated town on the outskirts of M_____ County, my friend’s granddad owns a ranch extending several thousand acres. Back in the 70’s, this man used to be the biggest coke dealer in M_____, but by now has been settled for decades into a quiet life of renting his land out for others to use and maintain, and drinking cans of Budweiser, and smoking Marlboros. In his old age his face has wrinkled and pinched itself into a likeness of Robert Mitchum when he had already gone to seed, stayed in seed, and gotten comfortable with seed, his face a catacomb of half remembered pasts.

We drove up the hill to his property in my friend’s 1989 Volvo and were immediately investigated by a pack of rowdy ranch dogs, their paws covered in winter mud and their fur tangled with weeds and brambles. Two tanks of diesel stood next to where we parked, with the white stucco house in front and a garage/shed on the far left beside the fence leading into the massive cattle property.

The house was filled with smoke, the interior neither messy nor clean, a college football game on the big screen television. He walked tall and lanky through the house, gathering worn old jackets for us to wear while we drove the ATVs parked in his garage. “It’s fuckin’ cold out there, wear these and gloves, and you still might freeze your dicks off.” He gave us beer even though we were underage, and we drove on through the property, me holding onto the sides of the ATV while my friend steered in front of me, our other buddy manning his behind us.

The air was cold and bone-sharp, the frost-coated grass a dark blue in the late afternoon, passing cattle, passing bulls, we winded up the trail faster than we should have, up to a hill where the whole property could be seen. We opened our beers at the top and looked out on the land as if it were more than land, as if we were looking at a chapel or a golden mosque, or seeing through a fissure into a grotesquely beautiful heaven; the pine tops angels, the wet grass a blinding vision, the sun a benediction, each of us saints broken from the day we were born. I remember it well. It was a time that added up to swollen hearts, a moment imprisoned in memory’s distorting amber.

* * *

Music is the memory of what never happened.

Jack Gilbert wrote this in his poem collection Great Fires. It seems like an innocent, well oiled and absolutist epigram at first, something cute and coy. Epigrams are really little totalitarian states. And like all epigrams it cuts violently through reality and presents us with a severed fragment of it, asking that we take it, at least for the moment, as a whole. Epigram are, in this sense, pornographic.

But this statement struck me as more or less innocent of real meaning at first, one of those epigrams that shimmers with nothing but surface and disappears on examination. But I think what Gilbert means to say is that music puts the stopper on reality’s bottle; it’s not so much that music is the memory of what never happened, but what can never happen, what will never happen.

It makes sure that we pay no attention to the ‘man behind the curtain’, and all of the familiars and attendants swirling about him: awkward pauses in events later stored away, bad breath, deadening boredom, physical pain, the knowledge of eventual death (probably by cancer), the slow unwinding of the mind’s wool in a stuffy room. We take the raw, unarticulated skeletons of our experience and lay them on music’s altar, and it drapes them in a skin and straightens them out for us. Then it hands them back, and we marvel at them, forgetting that there was ever anything underneath which forced an instinctual shudder.

* * *

The first day I got into the town of C_____ I had a dream in the last, thin hours of the night. I was in a room, maybe octagonal, maybe spherical, maybe with no shape at all – where a party was taking place. Everyone stood around with little plastic strips on their foreheads as if they were electronic merchandise marked for purchase. The colors were either green or red. I milled around in the room, then looked in a mirror and saw that the strip across my head was black. I realized then, that I had come to the wrong party.

As I stood around regretting my decision or fate to come to that place, a woman I could swear I knew from college stepped out of the crowd of people and approached me from the far other side of the room. I saw that her color-strip was black too. I was going to say something in greeting, but she walked straight up to me, put her arms around me, and held me. I held her back.

At this point she began saying things into my ear, a long speech that was apparently filled with revelations and promises of some kind. I have no recollection of what they were. My immediate suspicion regarding this dream was that it was a purely narcissistic projection of romantic desires, that there is someone somewhere who is “meant for you,” somehow independent of any context.

This dream came after an evening where I felt homesickness for the first time I can remember. It also seems to have absorbed the language of advertising, as if it were shilling diamonds or wristwatches for that “special someone” who “deserves a little luxury,” because “we can’t all do things the standard way, but we can all buy products from Company YX.” It pivots on the arrogant depiction of oneself as different from others, in the typical way that advertising convinces us that in order to maximize our uniqueness we must barter part of it away. You can picture it cinematically, some blithely handsome man standing bewildered at a party until he sees his beloved across the room wearing the same designer brand.

Like memories, and the cold, advertising seeps into things. It might be the best verb for it. Rain pours, thunder crashes, rivers run, advertising seeps. What was this, then? The memory of a dream, which itself was the memory of a commercial, one that may have once been a dream of the person who wrote it?

Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. – Walter Benjamin.

A further similarity: memory colonizes the past, where advertising colonizes our desires.

“you can sell diamonds on mars”: cormac mccarthy and ‘the counselor.’

In case you were unsure that Cormac McCarthy was involved, Javier Bardem has terrible hair again.

Let’s get this straight out of the way: Cormac McCarthy doesn’t really know how to write a screenplay. The McCarthyisms are all present, the themes and fixtures are there, but the coherence is lacking and much of the chaff remains unseparated from the wheat. You’ve probably heard about the car-fucking scene, right? There is a car-fucking scene. Somehow this made it into the final draft. Cormac McCarthy presumably wrote several drafts of this screenplay, his bony, churchyard-gray knuckles pounding out the tarnished keys on his vintage 1913 typewriter, dust pluming upwards, the typewriter’s Ford V8 engine hacking out bits of itself on the floor – and a scene that made it to the final draft is one where the character of Malkina fucks a car.

If it’s not apparent already, this film is a tire fire. It does not know if we should take it seriously, if it’s pure camp, if it’s just pulpy, if we should feel emotion for its protagonists, etc. Nonetheless it marshals some reasonably engaging symbolism and metaphor and has a particular message which however well known, bears repeating, and wriggles out, slimy and embarrassing, of the plot-shell of “drug deal gone wrong.” Then, having repeated this particular message, the film fails once more. It is a bad movie I will give some points for at least being bad in an interesting manner.

To fore-go a slow reveal of the intricacies of a preposterous film, the main characters of “The Counselor” can be broken down like this: Michael Fassbender, as a criminal lawyer, is the Just One Big Deal and I’m Out guy; Brad Pitt is the Knowing Insider; Javier Bardem is the Playboy Gangster; Cameron Diaz is Greed, or Capitalism itself, a lover of Bardem and a double-agent who rots the drug deal from the inside out. More or less. Possibly less.  Is it ridiculous to say that a character in this film stands in for unfettered capitalism? Yes, almost certainly. Yet it seems to be the case. Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina, a White Barbadian, takes on a version of the Judge Holden/Anton Chigurh archetype, the force of evil which can’t be resisted.

You may have noticed that I did not mention Penelope Cruz. That is because although she receives top billing she does not really have a character. She is just The Wife of One of the Characters in This Film. Like all of the characters, her personality is mainly driven by gestures and expressions, but with the difference that she gets less screen time and has no agency. There is even more nothing there than the nothing there of other characters. Her scenes with Fassbender, her husband, remind me of what Subashini acidly called “the heterosexual neo-liberal couple”; the well-off couple for whom reality is either a swirling, intruding cloud bank ruining their perpetual sunny day, or a waiter that exists to serve their self-absorbed inward exploration. But the fundamental distinguishing component here is not just clueless hedonism, but privileged contempt for anyone who is not the four-legged Neo-liberal couple. Fuck you, I’m in love. The structure of the film enhances this. Why are we being shown this romantic dinner/love scene when it is clear it has no point? Fuck you, I’m in love.

Michael Fassbender’s affluent criminal lawyer has no actual reasons for wanting to get involved in the sale of heroin. His lifestyle is one encased in comfort, filled with plush couches, the free pursuit of orgasms with “exotic women”, and organic, grass-fed steaks. But there is that emptiness in the center of his comfort, a kernel of corruption, and the tie that binds all of the characters together: greed.

The way Fassbender’s character is presented, it is as if he is literally all surface. As if he could be viewed under glass like the diamond he buys for his fiancee, and refract nothing but what the light gives him. We know nothing of his history. We see him enmeshed and cozy in various wealthy ecosystems, but we do not see how he got himself there, if he was born into those circles or if he dragged himself into them. His character, like all the others, is a hollowed out type, and the series of extraneous and purposeless character-building scenes that litter the screenplay do not edify. It might be difficult, one could say, to represent the constitutive the biographical details of a being purely constituted of image. As William Gass noted, in a review of Susan Sontag’s book on photography: “…the image has done more than smother or mask or multiply its object. My face is only photography, and people inspect me to see if I resemble it.” Exchange “being” for “face” and “wealth” for “photography,” and you have a basic formulation of this situation. My being is only wealth, and people inspect me to see if I resemble it.

Things end poorly, of course. Cormac McCarthy was involved. This should not come as a surprise. In fact, the exact circumstance of everyone’s demise is predicted by Pitt’s Knowing Insider, in a way that, rather than meticulously tying the pretty bow of the plot, dishevels things once more as if to ensure that you had no illusions of how unprofessional the proceedings had been. Rather than delving into this tired, whining machinery of plot, I’d rather get to Cormac’s ham-fisted themes. And they are ham-fisted, alright. He is holding two giant hocks of ham for hands and waving them around in front of our faces.

The biggest theme cutting through the bullshit of the film is that of white, upper middle-class emptiness and corruption, and the invisibility of the origins of first-world comfort. In this film, luxury is a maelstrom or vortex that drags one downwards into its orbit. A serious thought that went through my head while watching the sheik parade of designer-clothing clad fauna amidst their natural, blue blood habitats – croquet matches (do you call them matches?), poolside sun-basking, quietly murmuring five-star restaurants – was, “Rich people are disgusting.”

Yet American affluent emptiness is secondary in theme to the invisibility of the origins of comfort. At the end of the film, Malkina pays an American woman to extract personal information from Brad Pitt’s insider. When that American realizes that her envelope of bills comes at the price of Pitt’s life, she returns it, to which Malkina responds, “Americans are so dependable.” This is a textbook example of consumer alienation from the product consumed. Likewise, Fassbender’s counselor naively believes he can pitch in money for a heroin deal and receive a nice bank transfer at the end without getting his manicured hands dirty. And this is the primary failing of American first-world comfort, according to this film: it wants the steak, but not the slaughterhouse. In this film, Americans are the citizens of Omelas.

Unfortunately for the stylish, gym-toned hologram of the counselor, his heroin deal is preyed upon by a business founded on robbing heroin deals. This depiction of layered capital (business growing on other businesses like barnacles) brought to my mind the S.A.T. prep industry attaching itself to the higher education system, even though it is more of a tamed remora operation, whereas the heroin-thieves are parasitic of their parent-industry, and well, kill people. Yet these kinds of comparisons, however strained, are implied by the film, and there is a distinct, although implicit, comparison between the brutality practiced by U.S. capital and the brutality of the cartel’s capital.* One is made glossy by public relations and airbrushed by alienation; the other remains unvarnished and naked. Distinction beyond that, this film suggests, is academic.

The brutality of the cartel in this film, although ostensibly indifferent to image, is just as tied to image as legal U.S. capital. The cutting off of heads and the filming of snuff movies, Brad Pitt’s character says, is not based in hatred or anger; it is, conversely, all about “keeping up appearances.” The cartel is just as invested in the maintenance of image as the cardigan wearing financiers who fill the stands of croquet matches. The grandiloquent speeches given by mysterious cartel figures to Fassbender at the film’s close make something clear – one must keep up one’s image, but be aware that this image is just a hologram, and that in the end one is merely trash waiting to be taken out (a point made clear by Cruz’s body literally getting dumped onto a waste pile).

The problem with first-world image then, is perhaps that it is allowed to entirely swallow one’s being, and to forget that in this economic game everyone is expendable. Not everyone is a pawn, but everyone is a piece on the board, and the cloistering tendency of first-world comfort is to forget that you cannot take yourself off the board. In a sense, the film problematically constructs the periphery as a place more organic and “true,” as not allowing its being to be constituted entirely by image, where cartel gangsters quote Latin-American poets in their luxurious rooms.

Malkina says in the final scene that “you can sell diamonds on Mars.” This is a statement that echoes something said by Judge Holden in Blood Meridian: “Before man was, war waited for him.” It also echoes a quote of Cecil Rhodes, the British mining magnate and colonialist. I’ll quote Hannah Arendt in full here, from The Burden of our Time, courtesy of Edmund Siderius:

‘Expansion is everything,’ said Cecil Rhodes, and fell into despair, for each night overhead he saw, ‘these stars…these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.’ He had discovered the moving principle of the new imperialist era…and yet in a flash of wisdom Rhodes recognized at the same moment its inherent insanity and its contradiction to the human condition.

Capital that conquers the stars, that sweeps out the dark corners of the universe and sets up shop. This is what Malkina stands for, what she is an agent of. I rather dislike McCarthy’s conflation of feminine sexuality with unfettered capitalist greed (see the car-sex scene, among others) and combined with frequent chauvinist statements throughout the script, it seems kinda gross. Like Holden and Chigurh, she is a ruthless, almost supernatural force, but not nearly as compelling – perhaps because she receives less screen time than either, perhaps because McCarthy has not allowed her to directly engage in violence. Nonetheless, she receives the final line honors, the privilege of which she uses to repeat a pet phrase of hers: “I’m famished.” Growth. Amalgamation. Growth. Amalgamation. Etc.

By imbuing a form of economic organization with the same supernatural, eternal qualities he does with evil (i.e. Holden and Chigurh) McCarthy has committed the error of assuming such a form to be as eternal as evil. A contingent economic form becomes as universal as the greed which sometimes propels it. This perhaps smacks of applying a pet narrative unilaterally to places it does not belong, but this strikes me as being ‘capitalist realism’ in the sense Mark Fisher writes of. An economic system is portrayed as a metaphysical force, such that it cannot be altered or fought anymore than one could get into a tank and fight metaphysics. The predominant mood of McCarthy is resignation. The philosophizing cartel gangster says to Fassbender all he can do, all anyone can do, is accept.** Lay down and accept, ye wastrel. The sky is choked black, chimney black, and the land grants no movement. Go down, ye and….wait, sorry, I got lost in McCarthy-ese there. It’s infectious.

Anyway, the point is that this is a Hollywood production, and anytime Hollywood gets on its “Capitalism is bad” soapbox, the only critiques it can make are fangless, and moreover, actually supportive of the state of things. This film is in some ways a piece of capitalist-realism, and the mistake of capitalist-realism is to make that which is artificial natural, and that which is contingent inherent. It utilizes and relies upon a flexible formlessness that pretends to idolize mavericks and non-conformists, and admits critique of itself only as inoculation. It is, in the sense that Bruce Lee meant it, like water. It should be noted that while water can take any shape necessitated by the container it finds itself in, it cannot change the container. In this case, it cannot even turn a bad script into a good movie.

* This is to say nothing of the symbiotic relation between illegal drug cartels and the American war on drugs, which is another theme in the film  I did not get to. This was already very loooong.

** I wonder if such a resignation is at the heart of the following statement of McCarthy’s: “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” This is a provocative statement, and one I might unpack at a later time. Viewed in light of this film, it hints that this utopian improvement might reside for Cormac in the economic realm as well, and not just something in human nature.

a reliquary of links.

Remedios Varo, Les Feuilles Mortes.

Remedios Varo, Les Feuilles Mortes.

These are not fresh links. These are links that have been warming under a heat-lamp for many hours. They are worth reading nonetheless, but it makes me wonder what the shelf life is for the average link. Is five years the upper end, before the original address crumbles in on itself? Some of these are positively ancient then, untouched by comments for many a season, wrinkling away in a recessed corner like the cigar-brown toe of a saint or the aged-cheddar, greenish-yellow fingernails of Christ in some reliquary. Bring some votive candles then, it’s a bit dim around here.

The Devil and Henry Dumas:

I’ve only read “Ark of Bones” from Sheree R. Thomas’ Dark Matter anthology (which I highly recommend) but look forward to reading his collected short fiction. A writer and poet from the Black Arts or Black Aesthetic Movement, one of those “writer’s writers” who was more influential than famous. He produced fictions which were strange, inexplicable, and politically engaged, and I can’t wait to see how he merged these creative impulses and ethical forces. He was, of course, in a convergence of the tragic and the tragically banal – so typical of police violence against black men in America – shot to death by a Transit Authority policeman while waiting for a train in a Harlem subway station.

The great dividing line in Dumas’s work may be between those fictions that admit the supernatural and those that do not. Dumas considered himself one of Sun Ra’s coreligionists, and the supernatural side of his work can be seen as the literary equivalent of Sun Ra’s music, motivated as it is by the desire to re-enchant the world by offering up an alternative cosmology…Likewise, in Dumas’s tales of the supernatural, the magic is meant to be believed; we get little of the narrative undecidability of the modernist ghost story, in which the reader is torn between rational and supernatural explanations for the trembling of the floorboards and the whistling of the wind. In fact, we are led to believe that we doubt this magic at our own risk. In “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” three white fans of the jazz saxophonist Probe think they can withstand the higher vibrations of his enchanted saxophone but find themselves lulled into the sleep of death when he lets loose with his music. And in “Echo Tree” a boy who refuses to believe that his dead brother Leo still has a spirit life is threatened with being turned into a “bino”—a fate so horrible that it can only be named, not described.

Accelerate Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics:

I have some significant qualms with this manifesto, but it is thought provoking and even exciting in its way. Some left thinkers are taking Nick Land’s notion of accelerationism and turning it on its head; what before had been a nihilistic riding of capital’s exctinction-machine to its final conclusion now becomes hijacking the machine to accelerate in a different direction. As another blogger said, the writers of this manifesto believe that Land mistook mere speed for acceleration, and that capitalism at this point is retarding technological acceleration rather than pushing it forward. The manifesto begins with a list of potential crises looming, and then gives its basic thesis:

In con­trast to these ever-​accelerating cata­strophes, today’s polit­ics is beset by an inab­il­ity to gen­er­ate the new ideas and modes of organ­isa­tion neces­sary to trans­form our soci­et­ies to con­front and resolve the com­ing anni­hil­a­tions. While crisis gath­ers force and speed, polit­ics with­ers and retreats. In this para­lysis of the polit­ical ima­gin­ary, the future has been cancelled.

Orchideengarten Illustrations:

Old news here, but 50Watts scanned quite a few illustrations from early 20th century German fantasy magazine Der Orchideengarten. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Decay is the Way Dead Things Live:

Jacob Mikanowski writes a truly beautiful overview and analysis of the fictional works of Bruno Schulz.

But perhaps the most important way in which Schulz’s cosmos differs from our own is that dead things are never simply dead. Matter is never inert. Beneath its inertia and clumsiness, matter trembles with a life of its own. It pulsates and shivers, grows, ferments and germinates. Its curious respiration can be felt passing over moldering, water-stained walls and in the pullulating jungles of wallpaper. In certain environments — in forgotten rooms overgrown with bricks and above rubbish heaps, abounding in the hummus of memories, nostalgia, and sterile boredom — matter sprouts and flowers in a parody of vegetable life. Trapped in wax figures and tailors’ dummies or crucified in chests and tables, it rebels against the cruel prison of its form.

Creatures of the Dark:

Jeanette Winterson’s essay on Djuna Barnes and her novel Nightwood is still tremendous. A seedy, febrile, cramped and Gothic work, short but dense as a Neutron star, Nightwood is a must-read. It is essentially a realistic novel, but the language that permeates its pages is fantastic, marvelous, and macabre. Barnes has a gift for the darkly glowing aphorism, and she litters them throughout the novel. One of my favorites:

‘The way of a man in a fog!’ he said. He hung his umbrella on the bar ledge. ‘To think is to be sick,’ he said to the barman. The barman nodded.

And okay, this is funny too (and less old).

the tyranny of the self-help apocalypse.

Henri Camille Danger (1857-1939), Fléau!, 1901.

Henri Camille Danger (1857-1939),”Fléau!, (Scourge!)” 1901.

For an event awash in flames, horizon-thumping explosions, and streets flooded with human tissue, the apocalypse has become increasingly tedious to witness. With every additional spectacular flourish, with every additional grim-dark and dystopic portrait, the mind only becomes more and more deadened by the machinic deployment of stiffened, ossified tropes. The mountain of sensation cannot hide the molehill of thought.

Really, this is not surprising at all.

I am, like many, extremely skeptical of the apocalypse and the end-times as they stand in the current popular imaginary. Trends in speculative fictions ebb and flow for a number of different reasons, and if end-time speculations are not quite at their height now, they are still in vogue and still worth examining for all of their failures in imagination. And these failures are endemic.

Walter Benjamin famously observed that in the time of Homer, the human was an object of apprehension for the gods, but that in modern times, the human had become an object of apprehension for itself. This allowed the human species to “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order.” But in a sense, we have been objects in this way for a long time now, turning our collective miseries and fiercely fought battles into orally told stories, written chronicles, popular literature, and now, film and video games. This is not to repudiate the existence of differences in these forms, and in the qualities of objectification, but rather to affirm similarities.

So instead of discussing the fallen nature of the fictional apocalypse as some unfamiliar symptom – even our jeremiads about stagnancy and repetition tend to grasp for a sheen of redeeming newness – I would rather talk about it in the sense of a periodic collapse in imagination, an illness which is cyclical and recurring. There are periodic times when renewal is needed for particular modes that are in shambles, nothing more than rotting archways of a once great discourse. And see, in “rotting archways,” that the tendency of this illness is to aestheticize everything. Our imaginary apocalypses are old and dead, but the apocalypse of the apocalyptic is new! The lack of originality is original! This problem of making everything consumable and spectacular is part of a larger issue, but remains an integral vector of these fallow periods.

There is, however, a disjuncture between my skepticism of cataclysm in popular representations and the actual, real possibility of cataclysm, which is not obviated in any way by false or stupefying conceptions of “the end.” In fact, I would strongly interrogate the notion of cataclysm leading to something as neat and tidy as an end, something so discontinuous with the way things were before. This notion strikes me as wistful and self-serving, a childish fantasy that if structures collapse, a new and better world can be built like the hackneyed phoenix out of stale ashes. It should be clear that whatever is born in staleness is likely to remain stale, and that our organizational apparatuses (of economics, of control) tend to stick around and mutate after they are fobbed off, reappearing in the most unexpected situations.

Wistful fantasy is one aspect of this speculative decline. It is the bad-faith employment of apocalyptic events as pre-texts to engage in a fantasy wherein we transcend our institutions and economic structures and personal subjectivities. By no coincidence, this wistful fantasy is concomitant with a reflexive cynicism highly beneficial to the ostensibly despised status quo: “why do anything?” This attitude says, on one slightly more socially conscious hand: “Things may be shit now, but soon enough everything will collapse and out of the dust we can begin again and build a new world.” On the other, more hedonistic hand, it says: “I may be a timid government employee or an awkward clerk at a gaming store, but if the world goes sour like a rancid piece of processed pork in my fridge, I will slather myself in camo and ammunition belts and seriously fuck things up, man.” Cue the ominous post-rock music.

This last bit is apocalypse as self-help, as crass self-actualizing. “We can all be Rick Grimes!” It is the childish, unimaginative fantasy at its most masturbatory, and most politically reactionary. The phoenix built of stale ashes is a reader of Ayn Rand. This is often the use of the apocalyptic as an excuse to indulge in a pornography of masculinist, fascist impulses, what has been called, “sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.” The apocalyptic event gives way to the dystopic, and the dystopic regresses into pure ideology. The dystopic is blunted as an artistic weapon, and degraded into a Hollywood backdrop, with the limitless and uninteresting permutations of visual theme (cyberpunk! steampunk!) cycling back and forth as the only excuse for variety.

This is the transformation of the apocalypse as opportunity for salvation (originally in the religious, now in the secular sense) to mere repetition. Why expect the unexpected from a mode that in its current form, assumes that world-shattering events lead only to more of the same? But in a way these representations, featuring identical Rick Grimes figures exerting totalitarian authority, are more realistic than the wistful fantasy of change. They recognize that modes of behavior and organization, that apparatuses of control, do not disappear when the overt, official structures supporting them are destroyed. The problem is that they wallow in this rather than condemn it, or they do both, and do justice to neither.

Again, the murder of the apocalyptic in the popular imaginary, and the resulting skepticism, does not mean catastrophe cannot happen. At a time when catastrophe looms as near as ever, unimaginative fictional representations do not help us to think about catastrophe, but merely provide hedonistic exercises that blunt our imaginations at a time when we need them. As consumers of these kinds of fictions, we are libertines of decay.

Looking back through scribblings I made two years ago, when I still bought into the “newness of the lack of the new,” here is how I diagnosed the contemporary role of the apocalyptic and dystopic:

“The ugly, spiraling cityscapes and zombie wastelands sprouting up from nuclear civilizations were originally envisioned, intended, and functioned as some variation of protest or political deterrent, or at the very least as ambiguous premonitory fables. Even if it was a politics of resignation, of apathy, or even of hope, like Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, it still held a political function. But now it has become so aestheticized that it is nothing more than aesthetic, is only fashion, a Hallmark card. There are no meanings, no politics in the post-apocalyptic discourse anymore. It has been emptied, sucked dry, and filled with dollars. It is a frontier marketing has already colonized, a territory that exists only for the division of its demographics, and the currency that lies hidden under its ground like black oil.”

Against such absolute statements, I would argue simply that this is a period of stagnation, one that happens to be exaggerated by the culture industry’s thirst for milking cows long after they have departed from the living. The only treatment for the illness is to focus instead on other worlds, rather than after worlds, and means of averting cataclysm rather than masturbating to it.

book finds of the past year.

“…but books make good burrows in which to hide, and few places are as redolent of the little escape as a library; the shelves of fiction, history, geography, each book a pretext for derealization, patiently awaiting the moment when it will be coupled to some vague reverie.” – Nick Land.

IMG_20120802_105822_915 IMG_20120827_115721_013 IMG_20121023_223157_121 IMG_20121103_012514_499 IMG_20121113_012443_509IMG_20130109_111537_060 IMG_20130129_222335_169 IMG_20130303_185023_925 IMG_20130722_122439_338IMG_20130819_125608_870 IMG_20130901_124250_124 IMG_20130903_134425_032

So many little escapes. These are only some of the books I’ve gotten over the past year or so. Some novels are missing, quite a few anthologies, as well as some philosophy and cultural criticism. I haven’t quite read everything, but this should be a representative sample of the kind of literature I’ll engage with in this blog, if that wasn’t clear enough already.

Captioning all of these messes up the format, so I’ll just clarify: the illustration, third from the top left, is by Hugo Steiner Prag from an unbelievably cheap ($2) edition of the stories of Hoffman I picked up awhile back. I almost exclusively buy used in support of my book problem, and that’s really the only way to go. I’ve only recently moved to an area that has a decent public library, so my accumulation should decrease – but still, who can resist an old paperback antho for a dollar fifty?

I’ll wrap this post up with a close-up of a beautiful logo or heraldic symbol from the Wagenknecht “Fireside Book of Ghost Stories” collection:


“the magnetic under-mind” of robert aickman, part two.

Xavier Mellery, La Escalera. 1889. The painter quoted in the story as saying he paints "'silence' and 'the soul of things.'"

Xavier Mellery, La Escalera. 1889. The painter quoted in “Ravissante” as saying he paints “‘silence’ and ‘the soul of things.'”

Just yesterday, I re-read an Aickman story I first encountered in a Ramsey Campbell anthology called Uncanny Banquet. That story is “Ravissante,” first published in 1968 in his collection Sub Rosa. What follows will deal in spoilers, so for those that have not read “Ravissante” and plan to read it at some point, you should probably not read further. It is a story worth reading, particularly to those who have an interest in symbolist and decadent painters from the fin de siècle period. Xavier Mellery, William Degouve de Nunques, and James Ensor are all mentioned, among others. An antique Art-Nouveau house in Brussels features prominently in its setting, for what it’s worth. And besides all that, it is a beautiful and mysterious story, and who doesn’t want to read one of those?

“Ravissante” (French for ‘charming,’ by the way) falls in line with my feeling that most Aickman stories are more enjoyable when you re-read them, but it also differs in another respect. I do not find this story unsettling or frightening in the way his best fiction is. I did not the first time, and did not the second. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating story, and one of his most perverse and unusual (second only perhaps, to “The Swords”).

“Ravissante” is a story within a story, of the “manuscript found in a drainpipe/toaster oven/bottle of laxative/etc.” variety. The typical Aickman introvert cipher narrator strikes up an acquaintance with a painter at a forgettable cocktail party. He is a dry and forgettable man, “faintly disappointing,” but a painter of some power. His wife is even drier and more forgettable, a taciturn matchstick of a woman who says almost nothing at all and whose character never moves beyond the enigmatic. The painter dies, and bequeaths his entire artistic output to the narrator – as well as a hundred pounds, for some reason. The narrator meets with the painter’s wife, who indifferently says she will burn everything he does not take. He takes one painting and a stack of papers that consist of the man’s letters and writings. The narrative proper begins when the narrator reads one of these papers, a tale chronicling the painter’s stay in Belgium, visiting the elderly wife of an unnamed symbolist painter.

This is, of course, the point at which the story splits itself in two, where the main narrative shrugs off the old skin that held it and slouches off somewhere else. The common problem of how to connect these two parts is present here in “Ravissante,” and it is worth noting that Aickman does not even try to resolve it. He simply allows the manuscript to complete itself, and then fucks off without another word.

The painter – who remains anonymous throughout the story on the basis of that rusty old verisimilitude-contraption that in the Victorian and Edwardian periods expressed itself like “Monsieur M____ gave me a snot filled handkerchief at the Hotel rue de _____”- spends much of the narrative within the stately home of Madame A. It is apparent that this house exists on a different plane of reality than we find in the earlier section of the story. Madame A herself is imperious, the house is dimly lit, and reality seems to take on a discomfiting, liquid aspect.

Alberto Martini, Follia. 1914.

Alberto Martini, Follia. 1914.

The main room of the house is a long living room replete with symbolist sculpture, erotic works by Felicien Rops, smoked-glass Art-Nouveau lamps, and an enormous fireplace sonorously belching with flame. The painter notes, “Almost as soon as I entered, it struck me that the general coloration had something in common with that of my own works” (p.14). This is a theme Aickman goes on to elaborate at (subtle) length.

Madame A regales the painter with lurid, salacious tales of the personal lives of many artists she knew, saying of one, “I wouldn’t have used him as a pocket handkerchief when I had the grippe” (see how this story has burrowed into me, with the re-appearance already of a mucus-soaked handkerchief). She rants and gripes and berates and belittles, and you can smell the stale hovels, stinking feet, furtively spilled seed, soured wine, and odd fetish acts implied in her harangue. The painter is mortified, feeling that she is spoiling the dignity of the artists he adores. But he says nothing, knowing that only command “interested her in the context of human discourse” (p.13).

While she fumigates her own memories of the repulsive, insect-like artists she knew, something very odd happens. A small dog, looking like a black poodle, appears out of a shadowy corner behind a door and pokes around the sitting area by the fire, and then trots away back into the darkness, entirely unnoticed by Madame A. The painter says that it has “very big eyes and very long legs, perhaps more like a spider than a poodle” (p.19). He relates this to Madame, suggesting it “must have got in from the darkness outside,” but she shrugs and replies that animals are always making appearances in the room, including “less commonplace species” (p.20).

The strangest part of the story occurs when Madame A invites the painter into the room of Chrysothème, her currently-abroad, adopted daughter. She makes a number of curious statements about her, saying that she “is the most beautiful girl in Europe” and that, “If you could see her naked, you would understand everything” (p.20). The most important parts of Aickman’s description of the room follow: “In the center of the far wall stood a red brocaded dressing table, looking very much like an altar…the only picture hung over the head of the bed in the corner behind the door” (p.21).

At this point we have entered an inner chamber of the house’s reality. If the main room with its possible doors and artifacts of memory is an in-between zone, the room of Chrysothème is closer to the heart of it, maybe to the “silence” and “soul of things” as Mellery is quoted earlier.

The painter dully exclaims that it is a “beautiful room” and receives the reply from Madame A, “That is because people have died in it…the two beautiful things are love and death.”* He goes on to observe to himself, locked in this bizarre, quiet room, “It looked more like a chapel than a bedroom. More like a mortuary chapel, it suddenly struck me; with a sequence of corpses at rest and beflowered on the bierlike bed behind the door” (p.22).

This bizzarerie worsens when the madame invites him to touch and examine the clothes of Chrysothème, giving commands such as, “Lift the dress to your face,” “Kneel on it. Tread on it,” and “Why don’t you kiss it?” The painter obeys every one, and the madame notes, “You could almost wear it yourself…you like wearing blue and you are thin enough” (p.23).

This psycho-sexual, fetishistic examination of Chrysothème’s apparel culminates when Madame A invites him to open a chest full of  her lingerie and underwear. Again, compelled both by the madame and by his own urges, he obeys, saying that “the scent was intoxicating in itself” (p.24). Lost in this reverie, he is unaware of the passing of time until he realizes he is cold and has lost his sense of smell. Then:

“And at that moment, for the first time, I really apprehended the one picture, which hung above the wide bed in the corner. Despite the bad light, it seemed familiar. I went over to it and, putting one knee on the bed, leaned toward it. Now I was certain. The picture was by me” (p.25).

At this point the unfortunate painter has had enough, and after the madame vituperates whoever it was that painted such dreck, he flees. Out in the hall he finds, “squatted on the single golden light that hung by a golden chain from the golden ceiling of the landing, was a tiny, fluffy animal, so very small that it might almost have been a dark furry insect with unusually distinct pale eyes” (p.25).

This provides further motivation to hightail it out of the house. On his way out, the madame follows him with a pair of scissors, imploring him to give her a lock of hair as a souvenir. He dodges her, saying good night, and steps out into the Belgium night towards the Chausee d’Ixelles.

Santiago Caruso, The Peacock Escritoire.

Santiago Caruso, The Peacock Escritoire.

As if this were not an odd enough capper, Aickman finishes the story in this way:

“Within twenty-four hours I perceived clearly enough that there could have been no dog, no little animal squatted on the lantern, no picture over the bed, and probably no adopted daughter. That hardly needed saying. The trouble was, and is, that this obvious truth only makes things worse. Indeed, it is precisely where the real trouble begins. What is to become of me? What will happen to me next? What can I do? What am I?” (p.26).

Well, alright, Robert. Not only does he detail the anonymous painter’s erosion of faith in material reality, par for the course, but he also lists the diffuse symbols and manifestations employed throughout the tale! Of course, when the painter says himself in such a plain manner that the dog and animal and so on could not have existed, the reader should be skeptical.

Nonetheless, I suspect he is right. And this is, by the way, an interesting variation on the venerable “supernatural explained materialistically by improbable crap” ending. Rather than stating via authorial dogma that what happened is not real, Aickman delegates the messy coercion to a plebeian narrator (and not even the only cheek on the narrative throne!), thus implicitly undermining such a position. And not to mention that the “explanation” part is left out as well.

The most ready explanation for all of this is that when the painter enters the house of Madame A, he is more or less penetrating into the substance of his own consciousness, whether literally or figuratively**. I am tempted to suggest, perhaps both crassly and traditionally, that the house and its inhabitants can be broken up into the classic Freudian trinity of Ego, Super-Ego, and Id. This is a literalization of Aickman’s belief that the proper ghost story should “draw upon the unconscious mind in the manner of poetry.”

If we take this rather basic line, Madame A, with her sexual and salacious injunctions, must stand in for the Id. The long living room, as the mediator between various spaces in the house, would be the Ego, troubled by fleeting visitants from other parts. The dog and insect-animal would be errant strands of thought from the unconscious, from “the darkness outside.” What then, is the room of Chrysothème, and where does this leave the Super-ego in the traditional topographical model?

Contra to the psychoanalytic interpretation, the easiest explanation is that she is the classical, gendered artistic muse, with her clothing as the material of the sought-for, “intoxicating” ineffable. It is worth noting that the muse is still untouchable, still mediated by barriers. But what does it mean that the painter grows cold after handling the ineffable, after coming so close to touching the flesh of the muse? Does this suggest an emptiness at the heart of materialism and material reality? That it is better not to ‘know,’ the carnal sense included? In a way, Chrysothème is the meaning of the story itself. Distant, untouchable, and intoxicating, and all the more so because we know that we can never ‘see her naked.’***

So this tawdry Freudian model has collapsed, unless I make the claim that the symbolist art-pieces hold the Super-ego function of providing an authoritative model for how to “properly” engage and behave in an artistic tradition. They would stand then, in contradistinction to the unadulterated substance of inspiration, the mainlining of muse, provided by Chrysothème’s wardrobe. This would be a stretch.

So even if the ol’ Freudian interpretation doesn’t quite work, I’m still not ready to reject the interpretation that our unnamed and faintly disappointing painter has permeated the slimy membrane over his own brain-bulb. Yet as a version of the “it was all a dream” trope, this too, is faintly disappointing, isn’t it? Surely it must be grounded in some kind of reality, if for nothing else than the sake of being something more than a man walking through the “lacunous vastitude” of his own psyche.****

Let’s posit an alternative.

A theme that runs through “Ravissante” is the artist that feels alienated from her own creative processes. The painter in question feels that his work comes from “someone else.” This is the “inspiration as possession” theme, given more erotic flavoring. If this line is taken, the tale becomes somewhat meta-fictional. Our painter comes to a house that is a shadowed and fleshy ontological tunnel into his own mind. He is introduced to the source of his own inspiration (the muse, like Big Brother, can never be met directly), at which point he is possessed by this source in a rather creepy, onanistic way. But despite being a possession mediated through second-hand objects – with clothing used as prophylactics in the weirdest way ever, possibly – it is still a fertile possession. Chrysothème is not so much a succubus, drawing out energy, but rather a female incubus, supplying energy. She is an absentee incubus, but an incubus nonetheless.

So what this possession provides is artistic energy which the painter later uses to describe the possession in the narrative called “Ravissante.” Perhaps he wakes up into a “little death” because Chrysothème ran out of juice, and was finished having her way with him. Charming, indeed.

At this point I’ve run out of steam a bit, and might come back to expand on this later. I am unfamiliar with Philip Challinor’s interpretation of this story, but would love to hear his or anyone else’s thoughts, as I understand any singular take on his work is inadequate, and rightly so. As Aickman quotes Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end it is the mystery which lasts and not the explanation.”

Meanwhile, it is October. The trees are tuberculitic, and will soon enough spit out their veined leaves like orbs of blood onto the ground, onto the wet streets and lawns. As splendid a time to read Robert Aickman as any. I recommend everyone do so.

*Robert Aickman had a collection published in 1977 titled ‘Tales of Love and Death.’

** If so, it has a strong, structural similarity to Fredric Brown’s 1960 tale, “The House,” an even more abstruse weird tale that, like “Ravissante,” is more mysterious than it is unsettling. And it is unsettling.

*** I am also not averse to the hilarious idea that Madame A is simply a dirty old lady who likes to make young men smell her underwear.

**** Phrase courtesy of Hilda Hilst.

“the magnetic under-mind” of robert aickman.

For those who don’t know, Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) was a British writer and conservationist widely regarded as one of the finest craftsmen of ghost stories in the 20th century. His writing did not really conform to the traditional contours of the supernatural ghost story, however; often times, his ghosts are interior, psychological, environmental. Their manifestations are curiously unresponsive to logic, they are more like fragments of former beings rather than specters. Their broken and dispersed nature brings to mind Fernando Pessoa’s use of heteronyms, which he said were mutilated versions of himself. The supernatural or ghostly in Aickman’s work is often a mutilated version of something, and reading him can feel like being tasked with reconstituting the mutilated body with all its constituent pieces, knowing that you are doomed to end up with three arms and one leg, and four lips with no nose.

And yet the task is exciting. Sometimes reading him is like reading a mystery tale which you suspect, even dread, consists of literally nothing but red herrings. Other times he cowers you into an oleaginous puddle slopping into the corner in fear, bewildered and scared with no idea of what it is that’s frightening to begin with, let alone why.

An overview of the margins, signposts, and boundaries of Robert Aickman’s world: the starched, firm collars of the business introvert; the vanishing British countryside, devoured by real estate interests and exhaled as middle-class suburbs; slate-gray train stations; emptied sea-side towns, damp as handshakes; the innards of bureaucratic institutions, scrubbed and inscrutable, reeking of cleaning chemicals and power; second-class, provincial theaters beaming with dull, tarnished glamor.

I would say that his work could be compared to the American Henry James, with the tremendous caveat that I find James’ work indescribably boring the majority of the time, and that Aickman is the more sensual, poetic, perverse, and technically skilled writer.

To bring this comparison out, a quote from Italo Calvino’s introduction to his own Fantastic Tales seems called for: “With James…the fantastic genre of the nineteenth century has its final incarnation. Better put, its disincarnation, since it becomes more invisible and impalpable than ever: a psychological emanation or vibration….The ghosts in Henry James’ ghost stories are very evasive.”

This is a point worth drawing out. I think we can indeed consider Aickman to be in a 20th century branch of Henry James’ lineage, with British predecessors such as Walter de la Mare coming before him and working in a similar, familial idiom. Like James, Aickman’s stories are psychologically centered, with the supernatural at times seeming to be the exteriorization of mental distress and neurosis – although a fundamental aspect of Aickman is that his work can never be reduced so totally. His work rarely performs tropes, and hardly ever hums the standard bars of tradition. Like the Symbolist painters he sometimes mentions in his fictions, his symbols are diffuse in their meaning; they are multiple, open. Nonetheless, I believe that at least some of them can be pinned down.

If we consider Aickman’s supernatural to be a disincarnation of the fantastic, it is a disincarnation that remains more bodily focused than James’, more sexual in its concerns and manifestations, and never wholly impalpable. These disincarnations, rather than making the fantastic less strange or more normalized and domestic (as arguably you could say about James), instead seem to make it more alien, more incomprehensible and other than ever. The famous quote of Aickman’s that “the ghost story draws upon the unconscious mind in the manner of poetry” is apt here. Aickman’s own brilliant phrase for the unconscious was “the magnetic under-mind,” which is both stylish and punning.

In Aickman’s stories, the under-mind undermines, and what it undermines is often the narrator’s own conscious self-image, sense of bourgeois comfort, or belief in materialism. It undermines the trail of mythologies we make about ourselves and the places we live in and the people we say that we love. Most particularly, it undermines the reader’s expectation for a neat, closed, and readily explicable ending. But again, this under-mind is not the totality of the supernatural for Aickman; it is just one valence of it, one agent. Along this line, it is important to note how the “manner of poetry” statement above finishes: “[the ghost story] need provide neither logic nor morals.”

This rejection of logic is one reason why horror scholar S.T. Joshi believes Aickman to have a basically surrealist conception of the supernatural. Whereas I, as I have hinted above, would argue it is actually more symbolist.

(To be continued in a second post).

Lorenzo Mattoti, 'The Raven.'

Lorenzo Mattoti, ‘The Raven.’