Books, Reviews

Tariq Goddard’s ‘Nature and Necessity’ : A Palace of Swords Reversed

Tariq Goddard’s monolithic new novel Nature and Necessity (Repeater Books, 2017) is an unremittingly dark horror story. It offers us a particular kind of baroque and mannerist dread that recounts the inescapable dark sewers of the soul inhabited by an English upper middle-class family at the end of the twentieth century. It is a book divided into four parts where the generational flow and exchange of family is imagined as the different rivers of Thanatos flowing inexorably into the underworld – Acheron, the river of pain; Cocytus, the river of wailing; Styx, the river of hatred; and Phlegethon, the river of fire. The inexorable decline and disintegration of familial and social delusion is tightly constrained by the inevitability and necessity of the waters descending into the land of the dead.

The story is largely confined to a remote Yorkshire farmhouse (and its adjoining cottages) belonging to Noah Montague known as ‘The Heights’. Noah has separated from his wife and retreated abroad, leaving the property in the hands of his wife Petula and his daughter Regan, and two other children from Petula’s first marriage, Jasper and Evita. This is a palace of swords reversed at the ends of the earth, where values, morals, and ideas have become inverted by Petula into the opposite of life. As becomes abundantly clear, the real nature of ‘The Heights’ is revealed as ‘The Depths’ of the underworld. It is a house of the dead surrounded by the asphodel meadows where its inhabitants constantly delude themselves into believing that they are destined for the elysium fields. But this is a story where the horror resides in that ongoing delusion. Petula lives in the thrall of an almost hallucinogenic belief in her own unique brilliance and social superiority, and presides over her life and that of her brood like a solipsistic magus. Her social aspiration, small-minded self- belief and egoism is matched only by her entropic mediocrity. Petula is a monstrously grotesque matriarch, wrong about almost everything, and whose fate is the necessary consequence of selfish atomisation and groundless superiority. As I read I began to see that the real horror of this family story lies in the social history of an England of the last thirty years, where Post-Thatcherist individuality has become buoyed by fantasies of excess yet damned to oblivion. This England flows on around the events of this novel like Oceanus yet weirdly never really touches them. This atomised and self-regarding family exist on the other side of life, sustained by the lies of England’s faded glory and supported by another’s money. But they are going nowhere. There is a suffocating hermeticism with this family as the consequences of Petula’s monstrous indifference towards her two older children, Jasper and Evita, and her malevolent sculpting of her youngest daughter Regan in her own image, unfolds across thirty years.

This is a novel of reversal where much of what passes for the flourishing of family life is really its ghosted mirror image. Ambitious social climbing, desperate striving for social superiority, vulgar snobbery, conceited mediocrity, parasitic arrogance and species isolation. Down here in the underworld where all the rivers end, it is deeply unpleasant and malevolent. Love is distinctly absent. Petula obsessively draws the other living dead around her in the form of local dignitaries, minor political figures, c-list celebrities, singers and actors – all in all an horrific and grotesque coterie of the underworld. In one extraordinary chapter they are all brought together for one catastrophic evening which ends in a Dionysian frenzy and a death. Substantive social collectivity is absent in their lives, and real friendships are rare. As the years pass Petula and the increasingly embittered Jasper carry out an isolated living death worthy of Miss Havisham and Estella ossified in their dark and decaying mansion. Regan, who is a creature trapped within the sculpted confines designed by her mother, appears to establish an independent life and escape from ‘The Heights’, but she is repeatedly drawn back into Petula’s necrotic web. The only one of the children to really move beyond ‘The Heights’ is Evita, but this is the result of madness and her addictions. Petula, this novel’s ‘witch of the place’, displays a pathological inability to see that everything has become touched by Thanatos – that the exuberant vitality of eros, of which she believes herself to be an exemplary avatar, has disintegrated and degenerated into the toxic drains of death and decay. In the horror of the underworld the dead go on yet are insubstantial and without purpose. They exist in a static and empty form of self-deception lacking the ability to be able to perceive what is really going on around them. There is just the transmission of death and dead ideas through children, where the eroticism of procreation has bred monstrous solipsists who will, at the end of this hugely ambitious novel, risk the punishment of the furies in order to try, and fail, to kill their mother and escape the inevitability of their own deathly fate.

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Claire Morgan

Claire Morgan: The Slow Fire

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“That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are…” ( David Foster Wallace, The Pale King)

The catalogue for Claire Morgan’s new exhibition in Cologne, The Slow Fire, is being published next week. This beautiful catalogue contains some stunning images of Claire’s most recent sculptures and drawings, together with my latest essay on her work entitled “A Vibrant Silence”. This essay has also been translated into French, German and Italian for the catalogue.

“The ceaseless flow of time and place that marks the life of all living beings is halted with an acute poetic minimalism. The stillness produces an almost impenetrable sense of mystery. Each sculpture choreographs a strange imaginary confrontation between animality and the artifice of culture. These weird meetings bring the wounding severance of humankind from nature back to the surface. The disastrous consequences of our ongoing sublimation and degradation of nature through religious dogma, ideological obsessions, and technological possession are repeatedly enacted through acts of collision.” (Darren Ambrose, “A Vibrant Silence”)

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‘If you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.’ (John Gray, The Silence of Animals)

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‘My work is related to my own processes of coming to terms with understanding our relations with animals and with my own feelings of discomfort at everything in life being impermanent. All of my work eventually leads back to ideas about life, death, and the human condition. We are never really secure in any way, yet we yearn for the security of permanence in our lives.’ (Claire Morgan)

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Film, Reviews

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

Some of the great works of literary impressionism – Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Zola’s Germinal, Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lowry’s Under the Volcano – harness the individual as a confluence of disparate sensations driven by a powerful and often only vaguely expressed desire. Often these kernels of desire are associated with feelings of love, regret, nostalgia, loss, disappointment, and death. All of these writers opposed the old literary fiction where the novel voiced by an omniscient spectator of the human scene is resisted in favour of the emergent unreliable spectator who is as confused by the whirlwind of events in life as everybody else. This is an individual who isn’t even certain anymore of what they are or if they are even an individual, who scrabbles around and searches for meaning in the flurry of disparate sensations, the ruins of time’s passing and death’s ever-present face. Here all ‘real’ experience is presented as elusive, fragmentary and irreducibly sensorial in nature. The world is suddenly no longer made up of stable things, including stable point of view, constructed upon a steady and linear flow of time. The extent to which it ever did being only the illusory effect of literature. With these writers time is fragmented and broken, qualitatively differentiated and non-homogenous, composed of different perspectives, orders of speed, folds, repetitions and echoes, echoes and silences. For them, quite simply, this hallucinogenic fragmentation and kaleidoscopic condensation of sensation is the ‘true’ nature of reality, as it was for impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Renoir. The fragmentary yet vividly coloured impressions through which we pass the fragmented temporality of our lives are more ‘real’ than any of the fabulated linear narratives and coherent sense we might wish to impose. Yet, is it possible that the literary assemblages composed by any one of these writers be any less fictional than any of literature’s previous forms? According to Celine, in a passage cited at the very beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty, it cannot, simply because the life that we experience Continue reading

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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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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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Books, Film, Philosophy

The Eye and the Razor

Today sees the publication of my first book, Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, which is available through Zero Books.

Here’s a brief extract from it, in fact it is the conclusion. anybody who knows me well knows that I do like to give away endings…

The Eye and the Razor

“I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution. What have we done to our images? We need images in accordance with our civilization and our innermost conditioning, and this is the reason why I like any film that searches for new images no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. One must dig like an archaeol- ogist and search our violated landscape to find anything new. It can sometimes be a struggle to find unprocessed and fresh images.” (Werner Herzog)

In the opening scenes of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 silent surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou a middle-aged man sharpens his razor at his balcony door before testing its sharpness on his thumb. He then opens the door, plays with the razor while gazing up at the moon, which is about to be engulfed by a thin white cloud. There is a cut to a close-up of a young woman being held from behind by the man as she stares, calm, straight ahead. Another cut occurs to the moon being overcome by a cloud; the man slits the woman’s eye with the razor, the vitreous humour spills out.

Cinema, like poetry, is capable of revealing dimensions of meaning that are deeper than the level of truth on the surface of things. Cinema has the capacity to disturb our perceptual Continue reading

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Books

Haunted Air

Haunted Air is a beautiful and haunting new book of found photographs of the festival of Samhain and Hallowe’en collated by the artist, musician and composer Ossian Brown, who was a member of Coil and is a co-founding member of Cyclobe. The book features an introduction by David Lynch and an afterword by Geoff Cox, and is published by Jonathan Cape. Continue reading

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