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Art, Books, Finnegans Wake

‘A Knot of Coherent Nonsense’: Reading Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’…Again

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This week I decided to have another go at reading James Joyce’s massive book Finnegans Wake, and bought an old second-hand copy from a beautiful antiquarian bookshop here in Wellington, NZ. Since I’ve been away traveling in the past few months and living minimally out of a rucksack, this will pretty much be the only real book I’ll be carrying around with me (the rest of my books are on my Ipad!). I’ve tried to read Finnegans Wake a number of times before and I’ve always failed to get much beyond the first handful of pages. I really have tried. The book itself is notoriously and willfully obscure, consisting of dense pages of seemingly senseless neologisms, streams of total nonsense, puns, and mysterious geographical, historical, and literary allusions. And this is absolutely unrelenting for each and every one of its 628 pages.

I first read Joyce’s Ulysses back in college after being partially inspired by reading and enjoying Malcolm Lowry’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Under the Volcano, Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel To the Lighthouse, and Samuel Beckett’s Absurdist play Waiting for Godot. I had also been intrigued by the figure of Joyce himself in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, where he is a cypher for genuine artistic creativity and integrity in the face of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s nihilistic iconoclasm. In fact, I think Stoppard’s characterisation of Joyce made a deep and lasting impression on me, as I’ve always subsequently held Joyce in the highest regard. At the age of seventeen, in the midst  of devouring pretty much any difficult and challenging Continue reading

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Dreams, Uncategorized

A Dream of Alien Hands

Last night I had a dream in which I assisted in the deliberate and consensual mutilation of a man’s hands. We were sitting together at a workbench in a dimly lit workshop. This resembled my father’s shed from when I was a child. There was a smell of gasoline and dust. The man handed me a cleaver and asked me to hack off both his hands at the wrist. He is a large faceless man in a brown suit who sits in the semi-shadows beside me. It is ambiguous as to whether he is wearing some kind of a mask. I don’t know him, but yet somehow in the dream I do know him. I acquiesce to his demands, willingly. I cannot seem to say ‘no’. This acquiescence is out of weakness and I am ashamed. The removal of his hands is part of a much larger and diabolical story in which I have long been complicit. I am involved and enmeshed in something with him much more vile than just the removal of his hands. He explains that I am to replace his hands with metal ones. Together we have manufactured two indestructible metal hands from a mixture of flour, eggs, milk and maple syrup. These ingredients for American pancakes are part of a wholly subjective reference system, the associations known only to me. But I know what they are and what they signify. This pancake mixture is poured into molds of hands, and then immediately solidifies. I remove them from the molds and now they are a hard silver metal and cool to the touch. I take a large hammer from the workbench and maniacally hit them in order to demonstrate to the man how indestructible they are. I am keen to impress and please him. And then we laugh at how powerful and strong the hands are. This laughter is one born of a complicity in a secret pact. Somehow I fix the metal hands to his arms and he holds them directly in front of my face and begins to slowly move the fingers. I smile. The feeling of horror, anxiety and fear behind my smile is indescribable. And then I woke up, feeling sick, repulsive and diminished.

This dream evokes a revolting and putrid feeling of corruption, a feeling of being totally compromised, becoming complicit in something disgusting, and assuming a terrible guilt and shame. Real hands represent real responsibility. His hands are his own responsibility and I remove them. His new alien metal hands, manufactured by me from substances with powerful personal associations, become my responsibility. Then there is my inability to say ‘No’. Somehow ‘No’ is being transfigured in this dream. The dream stands at the end of a long process in the workshop where I have been undone and re-made with an inability to say ‘No’ – here I have acquiesced in my own undoing. By removing these hands I finally completely disappear in a moral drain hole, and all that I am is what is left.

In Fleming’s Bond novel Dr No steals a vast fortune of gold from the Tongs, and when he is tracked down he refuses to tell them where he has hidden it. In retaliation they chop off his hands and shoot him through the chest where his heart should have been. But his heart is on the left and he survives. He manufactures some metal hands, which are incredibly strong although lacking in dexterity, and now he becomes transformed into a feared and monstrous figure. The hands become the cause of his eventual downfall as he is unable, like Bond, to get a grip and climb out of the boiling coolant in the nuclear reactor.

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My dream’s own Dr No forces me to become complicit in the removal of his hands, the hands which have and will continue to do terrible things. He makes me remove them and then replace them with metal hands that I have made. Now his alien hands, which will do terrible things, are hands that I have made. They are alien because they are mine. I am being forced to assume a responsibility for his (my) hands. I will become complicit with the actions of these hands. Dr No has stolen my will, like a black hole he swallows even my ‘no’. Without a ‘no’ I am less than nothing. There is now a hole where my heart used to be.

What is proving to be so difficult today is that I know what this dream means.

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 2)

I was queuing for tickets to visit the cave of Les Combarelles when I overheard a conversation between two American prehistorians attending a conference at the International Centre of Prehistory in nearby Les Eyzies. Both were animatedly conversing about their recent visits to other cave paintings and relief carvings in the local area, and were severely criticizing people who visit the caves and thoughtlessly produce speculative interpretations of the prehistoric images ‘on the spot’, as opposed to giving more careful and sober consideration to published archaeological and anthropological scholarship. One of them was bemoaning the sheer interpretative naivety of many who visit the caves, evident in their desire to quickly impose uninformed and determinately biased ideas upon them (often without any proper grasp of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ milieu or mindset). All that results from such immediate speculations about their status as art, they argued, were biased projections and analogies that were more telling of the cultural prejudices, expectations and sentiments of non-specialist twenty-first century spectators. Their conversation reminded me of a vivid observation made by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that fetishization of recently derived historical categories is a particularly serious flaw in much art history, which ‘never having really broken with the tradition of the amateur, gives free rein to celebratory contemplation and finds in the sacred character of its object every pretext for a hagiographic hermeneutics superbly indifferent to the question of the social conditions in which works are produced and circulate.’ (Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 1)

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As I listened to the prehistorians talk I felt a certain degree of sympathy with their views. It is undoubtedly the case that non-specialists visiting the caves do speculate somewhat haphazardly as to the work’s meaning, intention and purpose, sometimes producing very little in the way of insight. However, for all of their interpretative naivety, I was not at all comfortable with the implication that the only true response to the affectivity of prehistoric art be restricted to historical ‘experts’ or archaeological scholars. Their conversation implied fixed truths associated with the imagery in the caves, the meaning of which was only accessible to the detached and dispassionate eyes of informed experts. Yet, I knew that this view had been challenged in recent years by archaeologists such as Ian Hodder. Hodder’s work emphasizes the irreducible subjectivity of archaeological interpretation and advocates a much more pluralistic Continue reading

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 1)

In the flickering lamplight, deep in a cave at Bedeilhac in Southwestern France, a creature’s eye stares out from the rock, a perfectly placed natural circular hole in the rock. Around it, described by the addition of a few graceful curving lines 14, 000 years ago, is carved the outline of a reindeer. Its head is almost entirely composed of a natural shape on the cave wall, and the engraving continues to use the natural relief of the cave wall for the animal’s back and the undulating shape of its body. It look as if the reindeer is advancing, turning slightly and looking directly at us. It is caught and held in a moment of alert stillness, and seems to be about to run away. This creature expresses an audacious sense of life and possesses an odd ‘in-between’ quality. Its hesitant pause at a point of imminent retreat extenuates its spiritual status as something existing between two different worlds. It stands at a point of organic emergence, coming out of oblivion to meet our look, yet about to flee and disappear back to its hidden realm.

This reindeer is a consummate example of prehistoric art’s ability to summon life from inorganic material. It is one of the earliest examples of prehistoric art’s capacity to draw out animals (perhaps understood as a spirits, ancestors or representations of some higher power) out from base material, to bring them to life and hold them into view – caught in the magical instant of their emergence – an ancient hypostasis. One can only imagine the wonder evoked by those who were originally privileged to witness a glimpse of this subtle yet breathtakingly art. In the moment of wonder and astonishment a delicate affective thread is spun between then and now. I do not think this is an entirely fanciful notion. The affectivity of this instant, this moment, this glimpsing, seems, at its most basic and fundamental foundation, to be similar. Wonder and astonishment. Because of our different way of life from that of the Magdalenian era, their myths, beliefs, knowledge, thought and way of being, the degree of intensity associated with this affectivity will almost certainly have differed from our own. Yet, at its most radical, primary and originary, the affective moment associated with this ancient reindeer persists through time. Its affective moment is intrinsically tied to a display of fusion between the organic and the inorganic, a birth and transfiguration. The evident ancient affective alchemy of the art is still full of transformative potential.

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The archaeologist Paul Bahn, in his popular guide to the decorated prehistoric caves of Southwestern France and Northern Spain, insists that the only difference between viewing the original paintings and relief carvings in the few remaining sites still open to the public, and the modern facsimiles at Lascaux and Altamira, is a ‘psychological’ one. Any aesthetic differences between experiencing the originals and reproductions are negligible. For him the knowledge that what you are seeing is actually original is merely psychological and largely irrelevant to the appreciation of the ancient images. But surely this apparently Continue reading

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Art, Books, Philosophy

The Affective Moment – A Draft Introduction

‘Art and nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction of life, the great stimulant to life.’ (Nietzsche, ‘The Will to Power’)

A former teacher of mine at university, whose wife of nearly thirty years had been killed in a road accident, once told me of how he had subsequently developed an obsession with Faure’s ‘Requiem’. He told me of his regular compulsion to listen to this particular piece of music as he sat alone late into the night. I remember saying something to the effect that it must be a great comfort to be able to listen to a piece of music that so reminded him of his wife. No, he replied, it wasn’t a reminder of her or any kind of comfort, I have other things for that, other pieces of music, photographs, memories of being together, and our children. Why then do you listen to it at night, I asked. His answer changed how I thought about art and the world, and has stayed with me in the years since our conversation. His grief at his wife’s death was, he said, like an hourglass filled with sand. At first he had been filled with an almost incalculable amount of grief, but over time that grief had, like the grains of sand in an hourglass, simply begun to drain away. As the habitual routine of his everyday life inevitably returned, little by little, any remaining sensation of grief had subsided. As it began to fade he was able to return to living his life, but he also began to feel increasingly numb, empty and less alive. Less alive to the memory of his wife and her loss, and less alive to the fact that he continued to live. Listening to Faure’s ‘Requiem’ had the effect of inverting the hourglass of grief, and helped him to recover an almost overwhelming sensation of intense sorrow and, by virtue of such a sensation, return him to a sense of life. The momentary restoration Continue reading

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Film

I Serve at the Pleasure of the President – The Alternative Liberal Reality of The West Wing

During the Christmas period, whilst staying at a remote retreat in Northern Thailand, my wife and I have spent our quiet evenings watching the first season of The West Wing. This is a series that I chose not to watch when it was initially aired in the UK during the early 2000′s. Looking back now, I think my reluctance to watch the series was largely built on a misunderstanding of what The West Wing was. I think at the time I had imagined that it was either an attempt at an accurate portrayal of what was happening in US politics at the time, both in the immediate time prior to 9/11 and its aftermath, or as a kind of sharp satire on the goings on in Capitol Hill. However, it is neither of these things. Both possibilities were unappealing to me at the time, either Continue reading

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