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Friday, 14 September 2018

“LOST IN A CROWD”: JEAN-PAUL SARTRE’S ‘THE REPRIEVE’

(If the concept applies to Existentialist novels first published in 1945, then PLOT SPOILERS)



”Let it come! Let war come at last, let it batter at my eyes and fill them with visions of tainted, wrecked, and bleeding bodies, save me from the eternal round, from those endless weak desires, from smiles, and greenery, from buzzing flies… a fiery geyser leaps into the sky. A flame that burns the face and eyes, and seems to tear the cheeks away: let it come at last.”

“They are being taken to the slaughterhouse and they don’t realise it. They regard war as an illness. War is not an illness. It’s an abomination because it is caused by men.”

”Through these murdered streets...”

Jean-Paul Sartre set this sequel a mere two years after ’The Age of Reason’.
(Which is, ironically, about the length of time it took me to get round to reading it.) As you might expect, many of the characters from the previous novel recur. And it works within the same dramatic unities. In fact, this time they’re even tighter – the whole novel takes place within the eight days of the ill-fated Munich conference, with chapters named diary-style after the successive dates.

But the cast list of ’Age of Reason’ was relatively narrow, with few secondary characters, and with everything taking place inside Paris. Here it ventures across the map of Europe, even extending to Morocco. And in so doing introduces a whole host of new faces. Some of these only show up once, others reappear throughout. New characters are still appearing, and old ones reappearing, in the penultimate chapters. Their presence essentially usurps the tight organising principles of the predecessor book. Matthieu, last time, was clearly the protagonist – the novel started and finished with him. This time, to quote Sartre himself, “we’ll find again all the characters of ‘The Age of Reason,’but now they are lost in a crowd.”

And this changes the structure. Previously (as said last time) Sartre had been “a serial monogamist of narrative perspective, switching from the viewpoint of one character in one chapter to their being framed by the viewpoint of another in the next… [it was] impossible to be in two places at once, any more than it's possible to be in two heads at once.”

Structured as a succession of duologues, you could relatively easily reformat ‘Age of Reason’as a play. (Pointlessly, it’s true. But formally, you could do it.) This time Sartre intercuts between those many characters without warning, from one paragraph to the next,within the same paragraph or even withinthe clauses of the same sentence.

True, the accumulation of all this can present what might charitably be called a challenge to the reader. Expect to have to pay attention. Expect to scratch your head somewhat even though you are paying attention. Expect to know when to read significance into semi-colons.

It helps that Sartre’s actual writing is sharp and clear. He’s evocative and yet precise, as if he’s always able to find just the right metaphor to convey the inner workings of each character. (For example “Mother Boningue would look at him with velvety eyes and talk to him about ‘the horror of shedding blood’, waving idealist hands.”)

But also, and more importantly, there’s purpose to this. Let’s sneak up on that one slowly…

If, structurally (albeit reductively)speaking,‘Age of Reason’could be compared to a play, the temptation is to describe ‘The Reprieve’as cinematic. But the main problem with this notion is that it leadsus to think of the rapid-fire editing and cross-cutting style of our time. Whereas it’s more similar to cinematic devices of it’s day, the cross-fade and montage. In both, objects from separate spaces overlap, share the screen -one scene blurring into another. The novel itself uses a similar metaphor, through from another media, of the dial turning on a radio:

“The war – ah yes! the war. No, said Zezette, not the radio, I don’t want it, I won’t think of the war. Well, let’s have a bit of music, said Maurice. Chersau, good-b – b-r-r-r – my star – here is the news – sombreroes and mantillas – I Will Wait, at the request of Huguette Arnal, Pierre Ducroc, his wife and two daughters, Roche Danillax, Mlle Eliane of Calvi and Jean-Francois Rouquette, for his little Marie-Medeleine, and a group of typists at Tulle for their soldier sweethearts, I Will Wait, day and night, have some more bouillabaisse, no thanks, said Mathieu, something can surely be arranged, the radio crackled, sped over the white, dead squares. Smashed the windows and penetrated into the dim, humid interiors of the houses.”

(And we should remember that radio, if seen by us as old-fashioned, perhaps even antiquated, was in 1945 a relatively modern medium.)

Though at the same time, it should be emphasised how much this work remains ‘literary’. There may be a temptation to compare it to Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’, as both are post-war works, albeit different wars. But Elliot is not only more fragmentary, that fragmentary nature – the way it’s only a series of parts – is central. The inchoateness is its point. This is more like a series of short stories shuffled together. While there are ellipses, they’re no greater gaps than you’d come across in a standard novel, and they’re easy enough for the reader to step over.

And the reason for this structural change is the change in circumstances. In fact it’s given away in the quote above – war is imminent .Events are suddenly bigger than Paris, so distances correspondingly shrink. War in Czechoslovakia means war in France. The bright white mobilisation posters going up across the countryact as an objective correlative of this.

As pointed out last time that, despite it’s title ‘Age of Reason’is not about a time period. This time, semi-suggested by the title, it very much is. ’The Reprieve’ is set within the brief period when the prospect of war is raised then seems averted by handing Hitler the Sudetenland. With the absurdity of mobilising for an event which doesn’t happen, married to the absurdity of preventing a war which merely comes a little later, plans go so hopelessly awry at points it almost becomes capital-A Absurdist. (This may not be a novel for those who like a story to go somewhere.)

And with this Sartre hands us back our hindsight.There’s nothing within ‘Age of Reason’,for those who didn’t already know, to tell you which way the war went in Spain. Here prominence is given to a Hitler speech where he promises the Sudetenland marks the limit of his ambitions. Previously,as he fought for the Republicans in Spain, Gomez had been kept offstage. Here he appears, just as a character who struggled for peace dies at the moment of being introduced. Peace, of course, dies alongside him.

True, some claim the thing’s avoidable. But while Sartre pointedly neither judges nor asks for sympathy with his characters, they’re clearly presented as clueless fools. Jacques was previously a minor figurewhose main function was to truth-tell his brother Matthias. Here he has more of a role, and makes a set-piece argument against Matthias’ “prejudices” about Hitler, a classic case of the main who mistakes pontificating for wisdom. Philippe the pacifist is a privileged idealist, keen to meet ‘real’ proletarians to whom he can impart his vital message. (His plans, above all, do not reach fruition.) Only Sarah, who sees with bitter eyes her young son playing at war, has integrity.

Instead, characters frequently picture the war as if they can already see it. War ismore than imminent, it’s immanent -there in things already present. War hasn’t cast its shadow over everything so much as saturated it, a stain that even now starts to show through. Nothing can resist it, remain the same or even hope to resume it’s earlier form:

“War had come: it was there, in the depths of that luminous haze, inscribed for all to see on the walls of that frail city: it was an arrested explosion that had split the rue Royale: people passed and did not see it: but Brunet saw it. It had always been there, but people were not yet aware of it. Brunet had thought: ’The sky will fall upon our heads’. The city was in the act of falling, he had seen the houses as they really were; petrified collapse. Above that elegant shop were tons of stone, and each stone, interlocking with the rest, had been falling steadily for fifty years past; a heavier thrust and the plate-glass windows would be smashed; cartloads of stone would hurtle into the cellar, and overwhelm the stores of merchandise. They have ten-thousand-pounder bombs.”

Given this, you might be tempted to think that War brings everyone out of their insularworlds of self-examined gestures and they finally set their eyes on the bigger picture. Of course that’s become the dominant narrative of the Second World War, that it was the war which had to be fought, which united everyone, the Nazis being so uniquely evil.

And characters do sometimes run into one another, or occupy the same space. But War, crucially, brings together but doesn’tunify. These narrative strands don’t tie into one. When their paths cross, rather than threading together characters either unknowingly overlap or collide and throw up friction. But more often they juxtapose. Perhaps my favourite moment is when the Munich negotiations segue into an invalid who needs to shit.

As ever with Sartre, the frequent crowd scenes just emphasise how the responses to War are unique and internalised.War doesn’t surmount subjective responses, it precipitates them. This is summed up by the response to that two-faced Hitler speech, and again it uses the radio as a metaphor. Ella, herself Jewish, does not receive it well:

”The voice was there, enormous, the very voice of hatred: this one man versus Ella. The great plain of Germany, the mountains of France, had dissolved, he confronted her as an absolute enemy, outside space, he was threshing about in that box of his – he’s looking at me, he sees me. She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had suddenly receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between people and things were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice… He was addressing her as though they two were alone, his eyes glaring into hers.”

To listen to the radio, your mind tunes into it and consequently tunes out of the room you’re in. The room’s still there but dissociated from the sound you hear, you regard it as peripheral. Other people may be there, but we listen as if we were alone. Form and content fuse. Radio is as isolating as Hitler’s murderous intent is for Ella.

And those subjective responses vary greatly between those separatingsemi-colons.Gomez, who can no longer see outside of war, not only sees its extension to France as inevitable but welcomes it. (“He needed shouts, shrill songs, swift and violent pains, he loathed the soft atmosphere in which he lived.”) Boris, made aware of his own mortality, picks a date for his death and starts to count down to it. Maurice, loyal Communist party member, looks forward to getting – and then keeping - his gun. Daniel reassures his new wife with pacific platitudes, while inside longing for the war to arrive, a conflagration to burn away “the eternal round” of his domestic bourgeois life. (See the opening quote.)

But most significant is Matthieu. Jacques mistakenly sees in him the opposite perspective to himself, a keenness to fight. Previously, he was acutely aware he had a life but was equally aware he had no notion of how to spend it, his considerations became self-perpetuating and ultimately paralysing. So the prospect of volunteering for Spain produced in him nothing but a(nother) existential crisis. Now,he feels lifeless, devoid of agency. Significantly, he no longer lives alone but as a house guest of his brother. So he phlegmatically accepts the call-up, one decision he won’t need to make himself. And, while he’s given personalised reasons for this resigned response, his being what passes for our protagonist gives it a greater weight.

Which is quite a bizarre twist. Normally, Existentialism presupposes that consciousness compels us to make choices, hence (in the infamous phrase) we’re condemned to be free. Fighting in Spain really just provides an instance for this. But here War overrides any such compulsion. Conscription makes us history’s passengers, obediently boarding conscript trains bearing correct papers, and so offers a kind of surrender that can be easeful.

This is made most clear not by Matthieu but when French negotiator Daladier succumbs to the inevitable like a warm bath:

”He thought: ‘Things are slipping out of my grasp’. It was a kind of relief. ‘I have done everything,’ he thought, ‘to avoid war: and now war and peace are out of my hands. There was no further decision to take, nothing to do but wait; like everybody else, like the loafer at a street-corner.’ He smiled, he was that loafer, he had been stripped of his responsibilities: the position of France is clearly defined… A relief.”

”There are eyes upon me”

Novels normally divide between external and internal perspectives. Some work as reportage, delineating what happens like a diligent eyewitness, while others are psychological. We see their world from inside a character’s head, filtered through their eyes. We even ‘see’ their thoughts and impulses, as if they’re somehow projected in front of us, like at a planetarium.

Traditionally novels stick to one or the other of these modes, not normally shifting the audience’s seats mid-show. Moreover, Sartre - and Existentialist writers in general - are considered psychological – less concerned with what happens than with their characters’ motivations. And indeed, page after page can go by where characters do nothing except think.

Yet, not content with just his sudden narrative leaps, Sartre shifts between these perspectives without warning. When Hannequin is called up, the novel faithfully reports his planning with his wife the minutiae of what he needs to take and what to carry it in. Yet after his wife leaves him alone in the train carriage, he becomes contemplative and the mode shifts...

“The young man and the woman are still on the platform… he too has been called up. They have ceased to talk; they are looking at each other. And I look at their hands, good hands that wear no wedding-rings…. Doors are slammed, they do not hear: they no longer look at each other, they no longer need to, in their inmost selves they are together.”

The empty fraudulence of his relationship is exposed by contrast to the truth of another. Only then can it be seen. And there’s a variant on this when Maurice and his girlfriend are talking to Party leader Brunet, and he catches sight of another group. Except this time it’s themselves he sees, reflected in glass:

“A dark window mirrored their reflections: Maurice saw a woman without a hat, and a tall strapping fellow with a cap on the back of his head, bursting out of his jacket, talking to a gentleman.”

In other words he becomes self-objectifying, he sees himself – and those he’s with – as though they were others. And the contemplated self inevitably becomes the split self, the contemplator detached from the contemplated. This is mostly developed in the returning character Daniel:

“He was sick of… looking at himself; especially as, when I look at myself, I am two people. I want to be: in the unseeing darkness.”

And this inevitably gets attached to notions of morality. We might be more loathe to, for example, push into a queue if we can picture ourselves as others would see us. And this in itself becomes bound up with the concept of an all-seeing God. And so, after no hint of this in the first book, we find he has taken to religion. (Notably when the day-derived chapters reach Sunday, he’s the only character to be found in Church.) He looks at another penitent:

“An eye sees him – sees his hard heart, as I see his hands, sees his greed, as I see his straggling hair, and the patch of pity that gleams through his avarice, as his skull gleams through his hair: all this he knows as he turns the thumbed pages of his missal, and says with a groan: ‘Lord, Lord, I am a miser.’ The Medusa’s petrifying gaze will fall upon him from above… Here am I as thou hast made me, a vile coward, irredeemable. Thou lookest at me, and all hope departs: I am weary of my efforts to escape myself. I shall enter, I shall stand along those kneeling women, like a monument of iniquity. I shall say: ‘I am Cain. Well? Thou hast made me, now sustain me.’ Marcelle’s look, Mathieu’s look, Bobby’s look, my cats’ look: they always stopped sort at my skin.”

Daniel’s philosophy distils into the Descartes-distorting “I am seen, therefore I am”: “I’ve always done everything for the benefit of an eye-witness. A man evaporates without an eye-witness.”

While Matthieu, very much an author surrogate, goes through a similar crisis but is specified as an atheist. There’s the same outside perspective, but no-one to inhabit it but himself:

“There lay his hands on the white parapet: bronze hands they seemed, as he looked at them. But, just because he could look at them, they were no longer his, they were the hands of another, they were outside, like the trees, like the reflection shimmering in the Seine: severed hands… ‘I am free for nothing,’ he reflected wearily. Not a sign in the sky, nor on the earth, the things of this world were too utterly immersed in the war that was theirs.”

Sartre wasn’t merely an atheist, he placed this at the heart of his philosophy. We are born not made, which means we do not come with any factory defaults. Whatever we do, it must come from our own choices. It’s from this basic, inescapable fact of life that the whole “condemned to be free” business stems. Deferring to God is not wrong because it feigns a presence out of an absence, but because it defers our responsibilities from ourselves out into the void.

And, particularly with ‘Age of Reason’ essentially being resolved by a conversation between Daniel and Matthieu, I wondered if this book would conclude with their finally meeting and engaging in some knock-out debate.

As it happens Daniel writes Matthieu a letter, which he doesn’t get round till reading till already aboard the conscript train. He reads  for a few pages about the gaze of God, before muttering “stale trash” and throwing the thing out the window.

I guess that settles that.

Coming in another two years! The third book of the trilogy...

Saturday, 8 September 2018

THE BRAIN DEAD ENSEMBLE/ GZA THE GENIUS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THE BRAIN DEAD ENSEMBLE
The Green Door Store, Brighton, Thurs 6th Sept




Comprised of two cellos and a double bass, the basis of the Brain Dead Ensemble is drone-like strumming. Never a bad thing in the book of Lucid Frenzy. But, while never really breaking from that basis, they could throw the strangest things into the mix. At the time I had assumed the chap on laptop was live-processing the sounds, but it seems the three players were doing this themselves. As they explain...

“Two feedback cellos a feedback bass and a Threnoscope are plugged together to form a multi-instrument, multi-channel system. The feedback cellos and bass are DIY electro-acoustic-digital resonator instruments. Each instrument has pickups under each of its strings and transducers built into the acoustic instrument body, inducing electromagnetically-controlled feedback which can be digitally processed.”

(I hope someone else followed that. Me, they could have just said “because of magic”.) It leads to a visual as well as a sonic beguiling, you naturally expect standard-looking instruments to come up with standard sounds, and when they don’t that adds to the overall eerie effect. It sounded simultaneously a force of nature which would never end, and an ever-evolving and absolutely unpredictable series of shifts and changes. 

You soon didn’t feel like you were in the room listening to the music but were inside the music, with the room not reappearing till the end. At one point the strings seemed accompanied by organ swells which were almost churchy.

The Threnoscope, from what I gather, was providing a visual infographic of the music in real time. As coloured segments shifted and floated around inside concentric circles, I wasn’t really sure how it mapped the music, but that might not matter. Not being any kind of timeline, but more capturing moment-to-moment transitions, it caught the immediate spirit of the music. As well as the Ensemble’s… well, ensemble nature. As they put it, “No one is in control, although everyone is playing.”

And that Brian Dead part of the name? Though they don’t dress up as George Romero extras, it’s perfectly fitting. People seem strangely convinced dance music is the last possible word in anti-cerebralism, in abandon. Yet it’s based on keeping in time, which in practice means maths. Whereas this is the sort of music which most allows you to, in the time-honoured phrase, turn off your mind, relax and flat downstream.

This from an earlier gig of theirs…



GZA THE GENIUS
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 5th Sept



With his brother RZA, GZA was for all intents and purposes the backbone of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan. And ‘Liquid Swords’, effectively a collaboration but released as his solo album, is often thought of the finest Wu-Tang releases, and even one of the finest albums of hip-hop.

It’s appeal may be in the combination of obsessiveness with crazy, an almost blistering intensity runs with a willingness to throw together different sonic elements which is recklessly cavalier.(Just as it lyrically shifts from street life scenes from Staten Island to metaphysical ruminations about God, literally without missing a beat.)

The only other Wu-Tang member I’ve seen was Ghostface Killah, 
whose performance was very. To this day I am not sure exactly how it was very, but I do know it was very. Possibly very very. GZA, conversely, was not very.

The counter to Ghostface Killah’s circus of guest stars, this was a stripped-down affair which focused on him. Yet he seemed an uninvolved figure, with even the talking to the audience business delegated to an MC. It as almost as if he’d become his own karaoke tribute.

It was very much a classic tracks set. (I’ve heard little from recent years, and still knew most of it.) Whether GZA no longer feels attached to those old numbers, or whether he’s simply not a live act is more than I can tell you.

Yet he seemed to go down a storm with everyone else. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if popular music has become heraldic. Seeing the main man from the Wu-Tang Clan has become like those holidaymakers who trek to Angkor Wat, take a quick selfie of themselves in front of it then head to the nearest bar. It’s bucket list living, not about enjoying the experience but being able to say you were there. Alternately, it may just be me who’s a grumpy old git. Either seems possible...

An engaged-seeming audience from Bristol…

Saturday, 1 September 2018

OZOMATLI/ QUJAKU/ PHILL NIBLOCK + TIM SHAW (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

OZOMATLI
Concorde 2, Brighton, Thurs 23rd Aug



So I finally catch up with Ozomatli live, even if it took their twentieth anniversary tour for Mr. Tardy here to do it. Describing the band’s actually easy for once, as they’ve done it themselves and it’s even placed upfront on their Wikipedia page. Locating their sound in their native Los Angeles, they say:

’You drive down Sunset Boulevard and turn off your stereo and roll down your windows and all the music that comes out of each and every different car, whether it's salsa, cumbia, merengue, or Hip Hop, funk or whatever, it's that crazy blend that's going on between that cacophony of sound is Ozomatli, y’know?”

As band members ceaselessly swap instruments the shifts and turns in musical style make for a gig that always feels like it’s being propelled forward, while always coming across as organic and arising from the players rather than being self-consciously eclectic.

They have a reputation as a political outfit, initially intending to form (I kid not) a workers’ union. This doesn’t much come over live, bar the occasional quick intro to a song. It does seem a little strange to find that a band best known for their live shows should omit what seems an integral element. But then there is something appealing about music that’s political and good-timey. Given the state of things, there’s plenty to be angry about and of course we have a right to that anger. But we’ve got the right to celebrate resistance as well.

Though it’s quite a different style of music, the gig echoes something I came across when seeing Goat, 
unrelenting energy levels; “The gig's pretty much at… fever pitch the whole way through. They're quite unrelentingly up.” In fact so irrepressible is the band’s spirit, that when a phantom hum invades the PA they decide what key it’s in, and instantly start jamming around it. Complete with a vocal which plaintively wonders “where could that hum be coming from?” It actually proves a highlight of their set, so maybe they should request hums more often.

For the closer, as I believe is a tradition of their shows, they pick up their gear and relocate to various points in the auditorium. As they moved they’d trail audience members behind then, snaking in a great conga.

A slightly random clip, but a good one of the band on home turf…



QUJAKU
Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Mon 27th Aug


Qujaku are self-described as “Japanese rock band [playing] psychedelic gothic dark shoe gaze [with] post rock vibes”, and are fronted (slightly inexplicably) by a lookalike for late Seventies Bowie.

They seem to wait before starting up, as if channelling something. They then go into a slow, soundscapey intro with a bowed… uh, bowed something and rung bells. Though the thumping riffs then drop, this intro kind of permeates the rest of the gig and gives proceedings a ritual feel.

Riffs are somewhat like houseguests. They’re going to stick around for a while, so you want to be sure not to pick the wrong one. Qujaku display a talent for finding mantra riffs, the sort of riff you want to hear over and over again. Their riff repository is also satisfyingly varied, from the slow and pounding to the agitated.

But they’re also adept at curveballing riffs, first getting them white-hot and then bending them into different shapes. At such points the second guitarist then turns back to the bowing or starts to pound a drum. It’s the upside of heavy riffing married to the upside of post-rock, giving a shot to your reptile and a stimulus to your Cro-Magnon brain.

The Bowie lookalike concludes the noise-fest by blowing a kiss to the assembled throng. Slightly inexplicably. In a good way.

The only real drawback of the set - and I know I always say this - is that there wasn’t enough of it. These aren’t short, snappy songs, the numbers are like potions you need to leave stewing in the cauldron awhile. But, with two support acts, they played for less than an hour. Bands have a natural set length determined by their music, which can’t be reduced to a meaningless mean. Sunn O))) played for two hours, 
which didn’t seem too long. Qujaku don’t necessarily need that sort of length, but they operate on timescales which take more than an hour.

This vid starts just as the intro section ends…



PHILL NIBLOCK + TIM SHAW
Cafe Oto, London, Fri 31st Aug


So next I was off to see a gig dominated by electronic hums and pulses. If Ozomatli had intruded with their Latino-tuned trumpets, the circle would have been completed. But they must have been busy elsewhere…

To try and explain Tim Shaw by a distinction, he’s quiet different to Cosmo Sheldrake, 
who assigned samples the respective roles of instruments. In fact Sahw's set did not, I don’t think, include any musical samples. But it did, I think, include organic sounds, albeit heavily treated. The effect become more like coloured shapes on various pieces of transparency paper, being shifted, shuffled and overlaid in different combinations. It produces new shapes and colours, until you’ve forgotten what you started off with.

Shaw’ set wasn’t divided into movements, as in classical music, but passed through distinct sections. While Phill Niblock performed five quite separate pieces, even if he ran them all together. Though there are those who claim this music to be samey, each piece was quite distinct in character. (Some more than others, as we’ll get onto.)

Despite each piece inevitably being shorter, they were much slower to evolve - at times feeling like their evolution was happening in Darwinian time. Duration became part of the experience.

His music’s comprised of murky drones and rumbles he refers to collectively as “tones”. Each one seems straightforward in itself, though blurry at the edges. It’s in the interchange between then at the magic happens, as subtle shifts come to have magnified effects. It all seems poised at the borderline between the liminal and subliminal, where you can’t quite perceive what he’s doing.

Where people go wrong, I think, is assume this is some sonic backdrop, an aural mulch out of which flowers will appear if you wait. But it’s in that ‘backdrop’ where it all happens. The metaphor of stepping into a darkened room, and the initial monotone revealing more and more shades and distinctions the longer you stay, I’ve used that many times by this point. But it’s the best metaphor I can think of, so it’s getting recycled again!

As often with drone-based music, what sounds rough and atonal can tip over into the serene. In fact in his second piece this was given centre stage, and the effect was quite tranquil. The music seemed to shimmer rather than move. Some of those tones may even have started life as notes - yes, actual notes!

But it was the fourth piece which was the densest, and perhaps the most rewarding. Broad rumbles provided perhaps not a backdrop but a surround for sharper sounds. It became like a sandpaper raga.

These four pieces already lasting over an hour, I figured we’d had our lot. Yet Niiblock started a fifth. It commenced with rumbles so low, so faint they could have been coming from the next room. Fifteen minutes later, with the room now mostly empty, I started to wonder whether this was going anywhere after all, and cut my losses. Are those that persevered still there now? We may never know.

Nibloch, who started as a film-maker, normally plays to a film show. Apart from the somewhat eccentric closer, this was the night’s only weak point. Reportage film of what looked like South Sea Islanders was too distinct, too of something to work with the more mysterious, suggestive music. (And yes, with Johanna Bramli I liked the visual but not the music - truly, there’s no fully pleasing me!) Before the show, a series of stills which looked to be from the same source were flashed up. With their merest hints of narrative connection, they may have worked better than a continuous film.

Precisely what makes this music appealing is precisely what makes it challenging to review. If you heard these pieces at different times, you’d not just react differently you’d quite likely actually hear them in a different way. The effect becomes individual and introspective.

Again, a fairly random clip. But again, worth watching…

Friday, 24 August 2018

‘HOKUSAI: BEYOND THE GREAT WAVE’

The British Museum, London
(The latest in a series of fashionably late art exhibition reviews)




”Creation is my master.”
-Hokusai’s seal

Culture Always Flows

Were I to start this review with a comparison of the great Japanese artist Hokusai to Akira Kurosawa you might be tempted to ask whether I was dragging Yoko Ono into it as well. Kurosawa was, after all, not an artist but a film director, and one even born until more than a century after Hokusai’s death. There are in fact two reasons for this. And indeed the first is to set things up as they’ll go on. I really don’t know much about Japanese art, even less than the little I normally muster, something which should be borne in mind for what follows.

The second is less to do with let-downs. Like almost everyone else in the West, when I first got into Kurosawa’s films I excitedly imagined I’d hit on some authentic expression of Japanese culture, without really wondering how Hollywood had found him so easy to borrow from. Only now, in what Laura Cumming calls “a revelation of the show”, do I discover that he was himself influenced by Western cinema, so of course I was readily taking to him.



And now here I am finding out the same thing about Hokusai. He lived under the policy of Sakoku, an imperially decreed policy of culturalisolation, where Westernmerchants could only visit outlying islands. Yet ‘Under The Wave Off Kanagwa’ (c. 1831,above), to give his well-known Great Wave it’s actualname,not only uses a bold composition, butWesterndevices such as perspective and a naturalistic light source. Further, it’s a captured moment, the titular wave poised to crash down.Even the dominant colour, often employed by Hokusai, is Prussian Blue – as the name might suggest, literally a Western export. (And Hokusai took to this shade so much some works employed it solely.)

But as with Kurosawa, and particularly given the straitened times in which we live where petty nationalism is painted as a refuge from the big bad world, rather than mourn the absenceof any supposed ‘authenticity’ we should try to see thingsthe other way up. It shows the creative spirit to be ever-restless and always heterogeneous, always seekingout new influences and inspirations,defiant ofof barriers or boundaries.

Let’s contrast Hokusai to one of the works from Victoria and Albert’s ‘ Masterpieces of Chinese Painting’ exhibition. (Which, to my shame, I never got round to blogging about – not even late.) Let’s not try to fill in the gaps between himand Gho Zongshu’s ‘Summer Palace of Emperor Ming Huang’( below) which was made over a thousand miles away and hundreds of years earlier, or even comment on one being a painting and the other a print. Instead, let’s focus on those contrasts.



There’s not just Zongshu’s characteristic disinterest in colour to focus on. Formally, without perspective being employed, it’s mist which getsstrategically displayed over the joins. Yet there’s aworldview behind this device, just as much as there was with perspective in theWest.The work’snot just undynamic but the very opposite of dynamic – serene, harmonious. Ostensibly secular subjects thereby come to conveya religious purpose. Itconveysrealms, separate and yet linked by that mist. 

It becomes like a kind of cosmic map in microcosm, to showhow ordered the world under heaven can be. In fact, withthe V&A show, when Western perspective arrived all that seemed vital and unique about the work seemed to spill over that vanishing point. (In‘The Story of Modern Art’, Gombrich suggestspainting was then seen as purely functional in purpose, a meditational aid rather than something aesthetic.)

And look again at the Great Wave. The human figures are dwarfed, reduced to ciphers, as they mightbe in a Western Romantic work. So much so viewers don’t always spot them. You might even see themas prostrating themselves before the mighty one. And the Wave (it seems to deserve the capital letter)looks almost poised about the boat, like a cat anticipating the moment it pounces upon the mouse. As they descend, the waves almost becomegrasping fingers.The show quotes Van Gogh: “the waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.

Influence is normally a two-way street, and 
(jus tlike Kurosawa) having been influenced by Western art Hokusaiin turn went on to influence it right back.In 1859, a decade after his death, Japanese isolationism was brought to an end and the British Museum had bought their first of his prints as early as the nextyear. He was particularly taken up by the Impressionists and pos-Impressionists. Jason Farago possibly oversells it when he says “Without Hokusai, there might have been no Impressionism”, forImpressionism’s rise was not soley down to outside influences. There had to be a domestic impetus to make people receptive to those outside influences. But he chronicles and details the influence well.


For example ‘Ejiri In Shunga Province’ (1831, above) has a proto-Impressionist sense of verite, a moment snatched from everyday life. You can almost imagine the classic ’Beano’ sound effect “sudden gust of wind”, as the hats and papers of the peasants are borne aloft. While under the seeming simplicity and spontaneity is an accomplished composition, the curving path echoed in the side of the mountain, the upwardly jutting trees providing a cross feature.



While ‘Poppies’ (1831/2, above) shows flowers not as a merely decorative feature but a microcosm of nature, bent against wind, their edging not prettily crinkled but jagged. And, as the Van Gogh quote above shows, this view of nature as raw and powerful, somewhere in the overlap between animist and anthropomorphised, was widely taken up in the West.

Perhaps significantly, Hokusai would often visit nature to depict scenes but lived in Edo (present day Tokyo), at the time the largest city in the world. Which does start to sound like the Impressionists, boarding newly installed trains to rural stops, a Romantic nature of the mind whose frame was always urbanism. Perhaps his seeming exoticism masked deeper similarities.

At the Heart of It All...

It’s a tribute to the Great Wave that it’s so iconic. But, as the show’s title suggests, this does mean we can abstract it from its context. Let’s look at another feature the casual viewer can miss. Poking up in the background is Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain here reduced to a stub caught between sea and wave. Add the similarity of it’s snow-covered cap to the foam-crested wave, and no wonder so many don’t see it. But it gives us a context in quite an immediate sense, for the work’s part of a series - ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’.

Hokusai himself regarded this series as pivotal. Financially, it rescued him from mounting family debts. But it’s significance was also artistic. Despite embarking upon it in his early Seventies, he essentially came to see all that had come before as mere juvenalia.



This series includes works such as ‘Sudden Rain Beneath the Summit’ (1831, above), where the emphasis is clearly on Fuji. But also ‘Fuji View Field in Owari Province’ (1831, below) Here Fuji is framed inside the workman’s barrel, but not centred, and the workman himself has his back to it. And these varying views of Fuji are very much the point.




Hokusai liked to tell the tale that, after praying to the Buddhist deity Myoken for artistic talent, he was struck by lightning.And Myoken wasassociated with the North Star, the fixed point in the sky and so the centre of the universe. Hokusai itself, the most famous of the manythe names he took,means ‘North Studio’.

And as above, so below. Fuji echoes the North Star on the earthly map. (Earlier, Hokusai had created‘Famous Places on the Tokaido Highway’, 1818, a panoramic view of Fuji dominating the locallandscape.)In mythology the Axis Mundi has a double purpose. It’s the centre of the earth, the point around which all else revolves. But that central place also makes it the connection between earthly and celestial realms.

So, in Japanese culture, was Fuji seen as the Axis Mundi? Tall mountains often are, such as the Kunluns in China. 
Signs point to yes. But don’t actually arrive there. Slightly bizarrely, the Wikipedia entry is illustrated by a photo of Fuji, but makes no mention if it in the text. The show claims Hokusai“identified with Mt Fuji as a source of long life, even immortality.” WhileSimon Schama, covering the artist in the recent ‘Civilisations’ series, described Fuji as “a talisman of immortality”, possibly meaning something closer to ‘eternal’.

Holy Men and Ghosts

But, even as we see Hokusai as someone both influenced by and influencing the West, we should also look at the ways he remains uniquely Eastern. Those outside influences must have seemed revelatory at the time, like the world had suddenly opened up. Yet their great wave never overturned his boat. Certainly, while he strove all his life to become a better and better artist (hoping to live to a hundred in order to “be without equal”) he doesn’t seem to have separated artistic endeavours from Buddhist enlightenment.

As such, his art doesn’t seem particularly concerned with self-expression. There are a few self-portraits, but the work isn’t one extended self-portrait the way it was with, say, Gauguin or Picasso. Nor does he seem keen to develop a personalised signature style, as if he’d rather be everywhere doing everything. And on the subject of signatures he changed his name over thirty times, something it’s hard to imagine a Western artist doing. They reflected changes in his art, and may even be suggestive of reincarnation – the idea that existence is at root a learning process.

And this variation gave him elbow room. As the show points out: “the boundary between this and the worlds he imagined was often porous. As old age advanced, Hokusai regularly painted holy men, protective deities and terrifying ghosts, invoking and releasing their power through the force of his art.”



’Ono Waterfall, Kiso Highway’ (c. 1833) is so accurate a depiction the show asserts he must have visited the scene, en plein air like the Impressionists. Yet the way the waterfall spans the depth of the work, and the way the mountains to the right disappear into some very traditional mist, suggests the idealised spiritual maps of Zongshu. The water is depicted through alternating white and blue lines, a device echoed in the stream on the lower right, suggesting what’s being depicted is the symbol of water rather than the runny stuff itself. Finally, the bridge over the stream is one of many bridges in Hokusai’s works, which may have stood for the connections between the different realms.



’Poet Li Bo’ (1833/4, above) is if anything more traditional, the waterfall less realist and more dominant. The poet is physically separated from the waterfall, yet the protrusions of both rocky outcrops work against this. In particular, his long dangling sleeve seems an echo of the craggy rock above him.


And if they’re the holy men here’s the ghost… Hokusai had begun is career effectively illustrating pulp adventures, and this spirit never quite left him. ’Kohada Koheiji’ (1833, above) is based on a traditional story of a murdered husband whose spirit returns to confront his wife. Perhaps assuming the viewer will know this story, Hokusai removes the wife to concentrate on the confronting ghost. (Though contemporary viewers may have recognised the thing he pulls down as as mosquito net.) It’s his grimacing expression that makes the work, as if he’s tauntingly calling “darling, I’m ho-o-ome!” With this image, I think you might agree, there’s no great overlap with Monet. However, it’s strangely prescient of the black humour of the later EC comics.

This is, it should be agreed an inadequate overview of Hokusai. Not least, while his medium was prints, it mentions this only in order to not mention it. It takes him too much at his own word in skating over his early years. It's references to 'Eastern' art are not exactly unpacked. And much else. But perhaps overviews are doomed to be inadequate, he was so prolific, so varied and so ceaselessly inventive there’s no real capturing him. Creation was his master.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

MARK FISHER’S ‘THE WEIRD & THE EERIE’

The latest in a series of not-a-proper-review-at-all


Beyond beyond

Some seven years after I last looked into a Mark Fisher book, 
and two years after he actually wrote ’The Weird and the Eerie’, I am yet again confirming my status as the internet's latecomer. But it’s okay because I am, I confess upfront, using Fisher’s book as a jumping-off point rather than offering a ‘proper’ review.

Fisher’s method is to explore the distinctions between the Weird and the Eerie through a series of examples. For convenience’s sake, let’s assume they’re both subsections (or, in Fisher’s terminology, ‘modes’) of the Uncanny.

If I were to reduce the Weird to a phrase it would the one used in the invocation of a genie in ’The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958) - “from the land beyond beyond”. Or if an image, there’s a Doctor Strange panel I remember as a child, where the dread Dormammu was literally tearing his way into our reality. It wasn’t the sky which he ripped apart, which wouldn’t be so different to an arriving alien fleet, it was everything - air, earth, matter, the entire scene. He had been outside of our reality, and now here he was stepping inside it.


Except there’s two problems here. First, I… sotto voice… completely failed to find that image anywhere. (There’s a vaguely similar one above.) Second, there’s a central element to the Weird it leaves implicit. If there’s always the rip, the threshold torn open between dimensions, it has a paradoxical purpose. It disrupts out reality, but it exposes us to a higher reality. It’s impossible but also inevitable.

Imagine a child at night, sensing some monstrous creature in his room and pulling the covers over his head. A sheet will be no protection from such a beast, but in that moment the gesture makes him feel better. Now imagine a bigger sheet, a shared one we have wrapped right round ourselves, one generation after generation have lived their lives under. We’ve even written reassuring-sounding explanations upon it that there can be no such thing as monsters, not in this world. And we have explored from one end of that sheet to the other. It’s worked quite well, we’ve become our own reassuring parent to our own troubled child, singing ourselves to sleep.

But it’s never really worked. When we encounter the Weird we’re struck by dread. But also resignation. Like the child, in our hearts we knew… we always knew that sheet was only there to make us temporarily feel better. As Fisher says: “The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.”

And it’s this combination that counts - the threshold, and the sense that the Weird however arresting or unexpected is not wrong. Fisher starts his book with Lovecraft, clearly the exemplifier of the Weird par excellence, but then moves onto something which looks and feels very different - the HG Wells story ’The Door in the Wall.’

This door leads to quite a different world to Lovecraft’s dark and destructive forces. This time there’s an idyllic garden making up an idealised world, where pictures in a book are not of things but the things themselves. (A language where, in Semiotic terms, the signifier is not separate from the signified, is often used as a metaphor for the absence of alienation. Language simply connects us to things, rather than abstracting them from us.) It’s the difference between the mundane and the experiential, between being alive and living.

But can these two really be filed together, Lovecraft’s malevolent nether worlds and Wells’ bucolic paradise? Or is Fisher simply shoving together anything outside the narrow norms of social realism? (The widespread assumption there’s Proper Writing and That Other Thing.) The short answer is yes they can, and Fisher is smartly using his first two examples to mark out the parameters of the Weird.

But for the story to have any impact we need to feel two things - that this strange world is the world, that it’s us who have somehow stumbled into the wrong place, and now our task is to get back. And readers must recognise the place, not just as a literary trope, but (perhaps in a less literal sense) in themselves. They must feel the protagonist’s sense (“this place is inexplicably strange to me, and yet I know I belong here”), while knowing from the outset they’re only ever going to get glimpses of that world.

In fact it’s quite similar to Van Morrison’s song ’Madame George’, the only significant difference being Morrison reflects on an Arcadian time rather than a place. If Wells’ tale is summed up by the door that sometimes opens, with Morrison it’s one that definitely closes. Morrison needs no Weird motifs because his song is about memory, his place is somewhere he can see but not access.

It’s We Who Are Outside


And if the Weird is dependent on a juxtaposition, with the Eerie it’s a disjunction. (Fisher describes it as “constituted by a failure of absence or a failure of presence”.) So with our default Eerie example, Paul Nash’s ‘The Shore’ (1923, above), this time its effect is drawn precisely from its depiction being so consistent. 

There’s nothing you could point out as unfamiliar. Yet this isn’t the charming English seaside we feel we could step into, warm sand between our toes. In fact, if there is a thing that doesn’t fit here, it’s us. There’s the sense that even if this wasn’t a painting, even if the scene was really there in front of us, we’d be just as distanced from it. If conveys a feeling of alienation close to exile.

Except, again, there’s a deficiency in using this as our identifying image. With the Weird’s insistence on an incongruous presence, there’s a natural tendency to focus on one half of the Eerie, to see it as all about haunting absence, the withholding of something. (Fisher uses the metaphor of the curtain you can’t pull back.) But that would be too limited. The Eerie’s not the opposite of the Weird, their relationship is more like siblings. Nash himself often painted Eerie presence he found in his home landscape. This is what I said after his recent Tate Britain retrospective:


“When you come across a megalith or longbarrow on the landscape it just calmly sits there, seeing no reason to explain itself. It can even seem as though it's you who is the interloper. And it's mystery seems magnified by it's misshapenness. Classical columns seem to manifest the universal rules of geometry, just as they're connected to a language we can decipher. And so their strangeness becomes in itself strange to us. This should be our home turf, the most recognisable thing, and yet it’s impervious to our understanding.

”Inevitably we come to see these things as outside ourselves, a puzzle to be solved with measuring tape and aerial photographs. Yet there's the nagging sense the answer is within us, one of those things we seem to know but cannot quite recall.”

"The Thing Overwhelms"

Fisher refers to dictionary definitions of both words but only in passing, seeing them as perfunctory and inadequate. His insistence on the term ‘modes’ may be because he’s keen on opening up broad categories, rather than proscribing rigid systems. (He specifically rejects ‘genres’.) And it would be strange in itself to build rigid parameters around such a term, when even the casual use of “weird” has connotations of inexplicability.

And his counsel is wise because this reductive reaction is retained in us, the fans of these genres. Even as we reach towards the Uncanny we’re predisposed to try and explain it away. Fisher is always cautioning us against rushing to explanations, but he’s at his most pointed over Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’:

“…we are compelled to treat it as a solvable enigma, to overlook its ‘wrongness’, its intractability, in the same way that, in Club Silencio, we are compelled to overlook the illusory nature of the performances.”

Or, as he says elsewhere over Lovecraft:

“The Thing overwhelms, it cannot be contained, but its fascinates.”

All those YouTube videos which glibly promise some film or other will be ‘explained’ in less than ten minutes… They’re presumably made by fans of the Uncanny, or at the very least by people who paid for their own cinema tickets. But ironically they become the equivalent to that stock film character who insists there must be a ”rational” (ie banal) explanation. The one whose killjoy insistence usually gets him killed.

We go to see a film like ‘Mulholland Drive’ precisely because we want to experience the Uncanny, but once that’s taste’s on our tongue we immediately try to counteract it with something more bland. We’re like the fool who goes looking for a fight, but as soon as it starts shies away. We don’t want to get what we want, we just want to want it. Worse, sometimes the work itself comes audience-ready, created just to be “explained”, in which case there was never anything Uncanny there to be begin with. (I’ve not seen the film Jack Graham reviews here, but his comments ring true in general.)

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with theorising from films. Fisher himself does this continually. And, for example, his reading of the ending of ‘Under The Skin’, with it’s reflection on varying notions of the self, is compelling. But theorising is a different creature to explaining, just as to explore is not to delineate. We have the phrase “explain away”. No-one has ever theorised anything away.

New Times, New Monsters

But the real problem with dictionary definitions is that they’re concerned with etymology. They don’t necessarily find the meaning of a word in it’s origins, but they assume there’s some core concept which has been retained over time, even if it’s outer form has changed.

The Weird’s original definition (usually, if inadequately, reduced to fate) implied not a thing outside our world but a thread that ran through all worlds. (Ironically, Alan Garner, who Fisher files with the Eerie, exemplifies this original conception of the term quite closely.) Whereas in the sense Fisher uses them, they’re not even recent concepts so much as modern, even if they appropriate old words. All his examples are Twentieth century or later.

All the time people believed in the literal existence of Heaven and Hell (themselves adaptations of the original Upperworld and Underworld visited by shamans) any conception of the Weird as we use it now was held at bay. Both places might be fantastical in nature but they were places, connected to our world. They could be visited, and they were, by Dante and others. (‘The Divine Comedy’ is not intended to be taken as a true account, but it is structured as a travelogue.)

In short, we need the explored world in order to have the beyond. It’s the sheet we hold up before us. The Weird is dependent upon the supposition that all is delineated, in order to violate it. The Eerie is dependent upon the supposition that all is known, in order to upend it. The “eerie cry” of the bird (a common dictionary example picked up by Fisher) works because we have ornithology, our studies should by now have given us an understanding of birds’ actions.

But space counts as much as time. In my examples above, the first my mind went to, the Weird is American and the Eerie British. And of Fisher’s seven weird examples, four are from America. Whereas of his twelve examples of the Eerie, nine are European. And he stresses how Daphne du Maurier’s original novel ‘The Birds’ differed from the later film. (“Instead of a sunlit Californian setting, we find ourselves in a grey and tempestuous Cornwall”.) And, anecdotal evidence only, but I think my own preference is for the Eerie.

(The tricky cases are the Canadian Margaret Atwood and the Australian Joan Lindsay. The latter’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ has Australian characters but what the story is about is displaced Europeans, clinging to old customs in the new and unfamiliar landscape.)

ST Joshi suggests that the greater dominance of Puritanism in American culture led to social realism becoming the primary literary mode. It’s not just that fantastical literature is seen as silly or juvenile, social realism is held to be morally instructive – the stuff that’s good for you. So in America fantastical fiction in general was most marginalised - into pulp magazines. But, at least in part, Weird fiction needs that repression and marginalisation. Fisher recounts how Lovecraft and Lindsay don’t reject social realism so much as utilise it in order to subvert it. But there’s a wider point. There’s no return of the repressed without the repression.

Fisher refers to the human-as-scale device: ”Lovecraft needs the human world, for much the same reason that a painter of a vast edifice might insert a standard human figure standing before it: to provide a sense of scale.” And of course that’s a common Romantic motif, used to convey the Sublime. And if the Uncanny is modern, then the art movement Modernism drew a surprising amount from Romanticism.

Formally, the distinction is clear cut. The Romantic concerns itself with the natural world, whereas the Weird is always about the outside and beyond. But in practice things are slipperier. In Romanticism nature very often is depicted as outside - the forest outside the village, the mountain beyond the town and so on. Moreover, its depiction of nature often borders on the animist, nature is seen as having a presence. More importantly, as mentioned earlier, the arrival of the Weird is seen as inexorable - we always knew it would end like this. And this is the real connection. Like Nature in the Sublime, it’s where we really belong, even if it destroys us.

Hence, while Nash was a Modernist artist, associating with Surrealism, he also had a post-Romantic fascination for the English landscape. And the animism of objects, in both Kneale and Garner, is clearly indebted to the Romantic.

And (to use another of Fisher’s examples) Tarkovsky’s ’Solaris’ is virtually pantheistic. The titular planet isn’t just sentient but inscrutable, as much so as any God. It’s there to tell humans things about themselves, even if they have trouble deciphering it’s mysterious ways. Perhaps, symbolically speaking, it is the Earth. The humans observe it from their satellite, through their instruments and devices, having (as one character puts it) “lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood it perfectly.”

So the Weird is in many ways an upping of the ante on the Sublime. But that upping is important. Fisher describes the Weird as “exorbitant,” which seems a stronger word than “more”. Sometimes a difference can becomes so quantitive that it tips over into qualitative. Turner’s sea storms look like they could smash you to pieces, even if you think you’re clever. But Cthulhu can obliterate your mind simply by showing up.

Are Alternative Facts Uncanny?

And if the Uncanny is associated with the modern, Fisher’s book may even be timely for its importance may be increasing. The dystopia of a film like ‘THX 1138’, - where everything is in order and that’s precisely the problem, all so right it’s wrong - now seems like yesterday’s problem.


And the face of the resurgent far right, somewhat less aesthetic than Dr. Strange or Paul Nash, is of course Donald Trump. Of course the Orange Aboherrence himself is not even a boorish Cthulhu, his bozo inarticulacy and tiny grasping hands are merely a synecdoche of the banality of evil. (And we should never forget his victory was brought about through the American political system, rather than the American electorate.) But he still spearheads something.

And that something isn’t dystopian, at least not in the strict sense of an anti-utopia. Trump and his “good people” seem to have no plan beyond sewing disorder that will hopefully hit their enemies harder than them. That’s why Mark Hamill reading Trump’s tweets in his Joker voice worked so well, he’s more devil clown than despot.


In my recent piece on the Tate’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary prints, 
to describe the first failed Revolution of 1905 I used Gramsci’s quote “now is the time of monsters”. And it often feels like we are living through another time of monsters. Though our times would better be described by Goya’s “the sleep of reason produces monsters”. The unnatural (zombie outbreaks and other apocalyptic events) seems the natural way for us to describe our era to ourselves. We distract ourselves from our impending destruction by watching big, spectacular movies which show us our destruction, and we even comment on it to ourselves as we do it.

That old internet quandary, of how to debate against weaponised stupidity, now seems all-prevalent. In fact reason can seem to be the wrong implement in analysing what’s going on in the world today, which is so manifestly devoid of reason. It would be like trying to analyse water by pinning it down. You literally can’t make sense of the far right because it doesn’t, it’s incoherent to it’s core. Whereas to see it through the prism of the Uncanny, that might prove more helpful.


Let’s try to find an example. In an earlier piece on the history of Science Fiction 
I focused on the image of the skeleton in the space suit, which in retrospect I interpreted too narrowly. I was thinking of some cross between Cronos devouring his own offspring and a parasite hollowing out its host from within - so what we end up with is a skeleton where there should be an adventurous astronaut.

And what we see may well be the Gothic wearing the skin of Science Fiction. But that skin is still important! Even in that image, the space suit is still integral. On the outside is not the same as marginal.

The far right, will often straight-out mock rationalism in it’s foes. Smart people, they’re not real people. (As in Michael Gove’s infamous phrase “people have had enough of experts.”) And the basis of its appeal of course lies in offering an ersatz sense of belonging, which is at the very least orthogonal to an appeal to reason. 

But, despite its frequent appeals to history (of course nothing more than hanging up fake heraldry), it’s a modern phenomenon. So, while always feeling free to contradict itself, it will often affect rationalism. It’s fundamentally irrational, but not formally anti-rational. Just as the far right venerates order while practising disorder, it venerates rationalism while speaking in gibberish.

This allows its adherents the luxury of succumbing to their basest instincts while maintaining a veneer of reason. You can indulge your heart (or perhaps more accurately your spleen), while pretending to keep your head. This is why we have ”alternative facts’”, which are in essence facts still clung to even after they’ve been proven false, because they only ever had to look like facts. (It’s not a coincidence that alt.right leaders are almost entirely very stupid people very convinced they’re very smart.)

And if I say there’s some parallel between the skeleton in a spacesuit and the alt.right’s pseudo-rationalism, I’m not claiming the image to be far right in itself, nor it to be a critique of the far right. It’s highly unlikely any of this entered the head of its creator. I’m just saying it’s zeitgeisty, a cultural barometer, and it had to be because it composed itself out of ingredients it found around itself. Consequently, it can be made into a way of framing something which might be useful to us.