Saturday, May 30, 2020

Dissonant Intervals

Dissonant IntervalsDissonant Intervals by Louis Marvick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had seen the numbers: high ratings on Marvick’s fiction by my highest-tier of respected reader friends. I had heard rumors, but only in the genericized “he’s an amazing writer” and, of course, the inevitable “you’ll love his work!” Like anything of great worth, though, I had to experience it myself, to know for myself. Call me a readerly hedonist – it’s true! I took a chance, visiting the (very excellent) Sidereal Press website (through which I had ordered Hanns-Heinz Ewers’ The Hearts of Kings), owned by the exceedingly interesting and erudite John Hirschhorn-Smith. Given Sidereal’s reputation, I expected and received a beautiful book-as-artifact. With a nearly-clear dust jacket (save for the title and author’s name) that let the beautiful cover (the painting for which was created by the author’s brother, I believe) breathe its colorful miasma. As I read, I came to understand that this breath was infused throughout the stories in the book.

Straight from the beginning, I was struck by the writing. The first two sentences of the first story are perfect, from a writerly perspective. Perfect.

The first story, "Pockets of Emptiness" may be one of the most effective ghost stories I have read because it explicitly ignores any attempt at scaring the reader but instead slowly scoops hope out of the reader and fills the gap with a grey, drizzling depression. It is not scary, but absolutely dreadful. The writing is exquisite, carefully-crafted to draw the reader into a hazy mist of hopelessness. It powerfully robs the reader of power, pick-pocketing essence.

"Devil's Music" is the work of a literary craftsman who has done his (horrific) homework. I love a well-researched story and here Marvick shows that he has a firm grasp of musicology and liturgy (or at least he convinced me of such), as well as a touch of early modern history. Combine this with a good sense of moral repulsion for things that ought not to be, and this makes for a powerful, yet carefully restrained tale that disturbs deeply.

Forgive an author for his ever-so-slight over-reach. "The Mirror of Don Ferrante" strains just a tick too hard to be horrific, but does not stumble into ludicrous territory. The understated ending reins in earlier hints of melodrama and saves the story, keeping it disturbing, but not gratuitous. You will be wary of your reflection, going forward. Note the changes.

Marvick gets into territory that touches on some very personal experiences of my own, feelings I am deeply familiar with, musings that I've had myself, in "The Madman of Tosterglope". It's inspiring to me as a writer, causing me to dig deeper into my own sometimes painful experiences for inspiration. It has been a while since a work of fiction has pushed me in this way. Terrifying and refreshing, "The Madman of Tosterglope" is a drab revelation, the uncovering of an occulted soul, the scrying of a haunting brought on by heartache and brought to light (or darkness) through further heartbreak. It is a stunning piece of not-quite-doppelganger-horror. The balance is set and, within it, an imbalance is created, setting up the final resonance that restores balance, but in a malformed sense, full of remorse.

I admit it: halfway through "A Connoisseur of Grief," I thought "this is one of those stories that the author or editor plugged in here because it wasn't good enough to be published elsewhere. Then, things took a turn. The abrupt switch from flowing narrative to journal entries snapped the story into place. Into a very grim place. But a place that satisfied my grim sense of humor and scratched my dark itch. I found that many of Marvick’s stories in this collection start slowly, sometimes so slowly that one begins to lose interest. Then, at a certain point, the author turns on the lights, and one realizes that this entire long, slow-burn was a fuse leading to a powderkeg. It’s a difficult way to write, but powerful when it’s handled right, and Marvick knows how to handle it right.

How to classify "The Red Seed"? It's a historical mystery (by "historical," I mean having to deal with history - the story itself is a-historical), complete with a pulpish feel, but of a highbrow nature. Combine Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, and M.R. James, and you start to get an inkling of the idea, but just an inkling, the merest hint of a segue. This story is very much Marvick’s own. The adventure lies in uncovering secret connections and bringing to light mistaken interpretations. But at its heart it is an adventure, of sorts. An academic adventure of discovery and, ultimately, horror.

"Is for Ilinx" is a precarious story, set on the edge of a blade, both structurally and thematically. Thankfully, like so many of the stories in Dissonant Intervals, it balances there just so (as Nick Cave might say), where such a tale could lose balance and falter, with fatal results for everyone involved.

"Maculate Vision" is a weird tale where the denouement comes before the climax, a difficult and brilliant literary trick for such a strange tale. Supporting characters come to the forefront and the plot of the arc is not what the reader would expect at all. It is a lesson in the art of deception and the deceptin of art. Of course, the writing is beautiful, which sustains interest through the meanderings of the plot, especially as one approaches the striking end.

Marvick tricks us with a little sleight-of-hand by entitling the next story "Of Interactive Surveillance and the Circular Firing Squad" when this story of music, suffering, summoning, an innocence has nothing obvious to do with the title. But there are hidden symbols in the title, which I will not reveal. The story feels "loose" and "rambly," until the final scene, where it ties off in a spectacular frisson.

"The Purloined bibelot" is, well, a bibelot. At three and a quarter pages, it is a wisp, compared to the other work herein, but carries a powerful, if predictable punch, about the human need to damn another based on no evidence at all. This story punctuates the collection with another glimpse into the just plain rotten. I might also add that this last story is contradictory to all the other stories in being so succinct. Most of these tales are long, slow burns with a wicked twist at the end. This one gets to the point and drives it home like a nail to humanity's forehead. The contrast is stunning.

Throughout this collection, Marvick proves that he is a writer’s writer. Not a showman, but an artist, a crafter, with a high degree of skill – so high, in fact, that you won’t even notice what’s happening until you look back on the story you just consumed and dissect it in order to understand its full anatomy, the sinews and systems that give it literary life. It’s a fascinating study. One of the most compelling I’ve taken recently. Enroll yourself, but keep in mind: slots are limited. Mine is 175 of 300 numbered editions. It’s worth the tuition and worth giving your fullest attention.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Spectacle of the Void

The Spectacle of the VoidThe Spectacle of the Void by David Peak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is philosophy the way I like it: succinct, less jargon-ridden than many philosophical treatises I’ve read, and the referent examples are things I am either familiar with, can easily find online, or contextualized in such a way that I can fill in gaps in my own knowledge/experience.

The Spectacle of the Void is a short work, with only 96 pages of actual text. Its vocabulary is only as complex as it has to be, yet Peak gets his points across with exactitude. You don’t need a PhD to understand it, but a Bachelor’s degree helps. And I love that the examples used are from such things as the work of Brian Evenson, John Carpenter movies, and Junji Ito manga. Laymen’s sources? Sure. Well, except Evenson, who is a thinking man’s writer. But you’ll occasionally need to dip into the dictionary, as Peak doesn’t water down his thoughts, either.

I’d like to ask the question “what is the gist of the book?”, but there are several sub-theses going on here. Peak poses, as his primary thesis, that horror, at its heart, is about communication, or lack thereof. Whether it is our inability to communicate what we know, see, and feel properly or the fact that language simply cannot encompass the breadths of what we experience, particularly in those numinous moments when we sense something “beyond” what is communicable, we all suffer when communication is cut off, whether by us, by another, or by our circumstances. It’s an interesting take that plays out quite well through Peak’s facile use of examples that we either all know or can easily access with a little effort.

The examination of the thesis and corollary sub-theses was great. But what I drew the most from this was a number of notes in my writer’s notebook that got me thinking about how I construct stories and the thematic elements that make them ring or make them fail. I believe that, as a result of reading and understanding this work, I can be more engaging to potential readers. I can now more deliberately examine what aspect(s) of horror (internal or external, for example) affect my characters and determine, much more clearly, why they are affected by them. This is one of the best books about writing (that is not about writing) that I’ve ever read.

The section on extra-dimensionality is outstanding and makes clear something that has been in the back of my mind (in a pocket dimension?) for some time, but Peak makes it explicit. I'm surprised, though, that he did not reference House of Leaves as an example.

I love the idea, briefly touched on in relation to the movie Blowup, that the closer we try to examine something from a distance, the blurrier it gets. That is good insight that one must keep in mind when constructing horror.

The section on "Transformers" (no, not those Transformers) draws upon my favorite Junji Ito story "The Enigma of Amigara Fault" to demonstrate how this content hole can be extrapolated into the general frisson of one's experience of time's passage, where we are constricted and reshaped in our inevitable journey toward death. Peak’s examples are extremely helpful, in that they are scalable – one can extrapolate a larger meaning from the specifics of a story, and Peak is very good at showing the reader the way.

I will have to revisit this book again and again and set it near my dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference books I use for writing. Like any good philosophical text, it has caused me to think deeper about the subject. While the existential (and sometimes nihilistic) focus of the book can sometimes be draining, overall, I have been energized by the read and return to this one again and again.

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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hellebore #1: The Sacrifice Issue

Hellebore #1: The Sacrifice Issue (Samhain 2019)Hellebore #1: The Sacrifice Issue by Maria J. Pérez Cuervo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The inaugural issue of Hellebore shows great promise for the folk-horror afficionado and the acolyte alike. You won’t find any jargon-filled occult ramblings or rehashings of horror movie fandom. No, Hellebore is much more approachable and, one must use the word “staid” than all that. Adventurous? Yes. Fun? Of a sort. But not “twee”. The articles in this first issue are eclectic in their subject matter and approach, but a steady editorial hand is evident here. Each essay is of an academic bent, but without the egotistical esotericism one often finds in related literature.

Katy Soar's essay "The Bones of the Land" outlines the historical emergence of ideas that tie stone circles to ritual sacrifice. The connections are tenuous, mostly fiction spurred to life by Romantic writers, rather than based on unbiased historical fact. But there is some connection between these places and death, as evidenced by remains (sometimes cremated) at several of these sights. That connection may not involve human sacrifice, but there is a connection. I recall on my last visit to England, when my wife and I stopped at Devils Quoites, Oxfordshire, that there was an explanatory plaque there indicating that both human and animal bones had been found by archaeologists on-site. But in looking at the actual archaeological paper written on the excavations there, it is noted that only 1 of the 200-odd bone fragments found there is human. Evidence for human sacrifice at this megalithic site? Not likely. And Soar doesn’t take the bait here that might lead into sensationalism. Her analysis is restrained, well-reasoned, and well-written, yet entertaining and engaging.

"Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog," written by Deedee Chainey, explores the . . . complicated relationships between witches, cunning folk, and animals. A great overview by one of the creators of Folklore Thursday.

Maria J. Perez Cuervo traces the emergence of the ties between fertility rites and folk horror in "From His Blood the Crops Would Spring" (name that TV show!). They are much more modern than you might think!

Ronald Hutton, historian of witchcraft, etc., is interviewed in an enlightening Q&A regarding witches, witchcraft, and their place in modern social discourse.

John Reppion's analysis of "The Bodies in the Bog" is a carefully-reasoned essay regarding so-called Bog People, ancients whose remains are found well-preserved in peat moss deposits. I am impressed by the restraint and balance present here (and in the other essays). Sensationalism is minimized, logic emphasized. This isn't fan fiction disguised as academic work. This is good, scholarly effort.

"The Ritual of the Hearts," by Mercedes Miller, gives some context to M.R. Jame's story "Lost Hearts" with a bit of speculation on whom the villain Mr. Abney may have been modeled after.

Verity Holloway pens an art history/archaeology/anthropology crossover essay about the St. Peter & St. Paul medieval church located in Bardwell UK in her essay "The King of Terrors". An excellent piece of local history, but much more than that, this is the sort of cross-disciplinary work the intellectual world needs more of.

David Southwell (of Hookland renown) gives a 30,000 foot-view of "Landscape Punk" and calls on us to become the cunning people in his inspiring essay "Re-enchantment is Resistance".

This first issue of Hellebore is packed with information, but does not read like a dense academic text. It owes much of its aesthetic to the zines of the ‘70s, but with better, more consistent production values. There’s an underlying folk-punk vibe here, the movement of a nascent community. I also love that each of these articles is short enough to read in a brief amount of time, but "full" enough to keep the mind going long afterwards. And I hope that Hellebore and its emerging community goes on for some time to come.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures

Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost FuturesGhosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t prove it, but I believe there’s a bit of a cult of personality surrounding thinker/critic/philosopher Mark Fisher. It’s easy to see why. His work The Weird and the Eerie, for example, is must-read material for readers of dark fiction and horror, as clear an explication of the distinction between the weird and the eerie in several media as you will ever read. I also strongly recommend watching his lecture on The Slow Cancellation of the Future, wherein Fisher elaborates on the book currently under review – specifically the first essay in the book.

“The Slow Cancellation of the future” diverges from the lecture, as you would expect. One difference is his concentration on the British TV show Sapphire & Steel . I was in the UK just a bit too late to see that show, so I you-tubed (is that a verb now?) the last episode. Frankly, it was a bit shocking, and I see why he examines it so closely. It is a symbol of being trapped in time, which is the central focus of the essay: We are trapped in time – the future has been cancelled.

I hit chronological adulthood in 1987. This is just when Fisher argues the future was in the middle of being cancelled. I can actually see what he means. I was a first-hand witness to exactly what he was talking about. In short: Take any music from the current decade and project it into the past, say, into the early 2000s. People in the early 2000s hearing todays music would not bat an eye at it. It’s no different, really. Whereas, if one took music from the early 2000s and pushed it back to the ‘80s, there would be many eyebrows raised. Amortize this dynamic over movies and television, and you can see where this is leading – innovation stalled, and this stall began during my childhood. This theme carries on through several of the other essays in the first third of Ghosts of My Life.

Unfortunately, few of the other essays in this first section even approach the tightness of Fisher’s initial manifesto. At times, the impetus of his argument is stretched to near breaking, as when he claims that society has lost confidence that there can be any kind of future at all, in his essay “The Past is an Alien Planet”.

If you’re into really obscure music, this book is for you, as well. I was introduced to a few new musicians that I was not familiar with, but one of my favorite pairs of essays was about The Caretaker, who I know well.

"Sleevenotes for the Caretaker's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia" was exactly the sort of essay I was hoping for from this volume. It helps that I own two Caretaker albums. This playful essay declares in perfect terms the displacement, both in location and time, encountered when one listens to the album. This is a key hauntological essay that, along with the interview with The Caretaker, which follows, strikes at the heart of the matter:

. . . the kind of nostalgia that is now so pervasive may best be characterised not as a longing for the past so much as an inability to make new memories. Fredric Jameson described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability 'to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.

"Home is Where the Haunt is: The Shining's Hauntology" is a fabulous essay that jabs and pokes, but never fully lays out the hauntological corners of The Shining (both the novel and the film). It reaches out from around corners and taps the shoulder, then disappears. It is heard as distant moans and seen only in flashes of white. It's a fabulous essay, haunting in and of itself. Fisher in top form!

Unfortunately, not all of the essays are of this quality. “Hauntological Blues: Little Axe” felt like Fisher reaching for straws in asserting that Little Axe was something much more than a (admittedly fantastic) blues outfit. It’s a hollow attempt to assert meaning where there is none, of laying a hauntological template over the band's music simply because Fisher likes it. Truth be told, I like it, too. But it's not hauntological. It's the blues, plain and simple. This imposition of symbolism, meaning, and the theme of hauntology where it doesn’t seem to belong is also evident in "Old Sunlight from Other Times and Other Lives: John Foxx's Tiny Colour Movies," though the interview with Foxx that follows is excellent because Fisher lets Foxx carry the microphone to speak for himself and his work with his own voice.

At other times, the artist is self-aware of the hauntological nature of their work. It is intentional and insightful. Such is the case in "Nostalgia for Modernism: The Focus Group and Belbury Poly’" an insightful analysis into the Ghost Box record label, one of my personal favorites. Of interest, among other things, is the idea that much of this music points us not toward pop culture of the past, but to hints of incidental TV music or library slideshow presentations. The sort of thing that is woven into the background weft of life. It is the trivial that evokes the feeling of an era, in these cases. Or, more specifically, it is the promise for the future (that never came) which speaks in the voice of the Zeitgeist of the past-looking-forward to the future.

It's those things lurking at the background of attention, things that we took for granted at the time, which now evoke the past most powerfully.

The last section of the book, “The Stain of Place,” seemed the “loosest” of the three sections. I found myself yearning, throughout, for past places. As a child, I lived over half of my life overseas. I’ve seen a lot of the world, not as a tourist, but as a person living in foreign lands. And, as a curious child, I found myself often in those oddball nooks and crannies that are never seen by the casual tourist – back-alleys, abandoned lots, unkempt ruins, wastewater gullies, abandoned factories, and half-finished construction zones. I had a knack for finding that sort of place as a kid. I never went to the Tower of London or Madame Tussauds when I lived north of London, but I watched bums roll each other in dirty alleys near Carnaby Street (now, sadly, gentrified) and was propositioned by hookers off urine-drenched back doors in Soho.

So reading Fisher’s essay on Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, with its references to liminal spaces, was highly intriguing to me. And while the essay “Nomadalgia: The Junior Boys’ So This is Goodbye” took fully 2/3rds of the essay to get started, the last 1/3, about the nostalgia felt specifically by frequent travelers, was relatable.

I really liked how the essay "Grey Area: Chris Petit's Content" celebrates the banal in the English landscape. I love the beauty of the Cotswolds, but there is some blase beauty in the flats of East Anglia (I lived on the western edge of this area when I lived in England). I am reminded of the wonderful collection Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, and that is a thoroughly good thing.

Speaking of books about place, I have The Rings of Saturn on my bookshelf, waiting to be read when my yearning to get back to England will inevitably crash into my inability to get back there. I worry that Fisher's self-avowed skepticism of Sebald's work might subconsciously cause me to put my guard up, rather than taking in the book as it is. This is the danger of reading critical essays, I suppose.

In a change of p(l)ace, Fisher, in "The Lost Consciousness: Christopher Nolan's Inception" points out what the movie Inception might have been. I found it interesting that one of Nolan's main themes is "the lies that we tell ourselves to stay happy". After just watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I am really struck by this theme and its utility as a way to critique film, literature, and art. But, honestly, what’s this essay doing in a section about place?

At first, I was a bit taken aback by Fisher's assessment of Inception as a fairly banal film, but after watching him break it down and thinking about it myself, I'm convinced that he's right. The film could have been so much more . . . dreamlike, but it wasn't. It's like a "Starbucks" idea of dream, more shoot-em-up than oneiric and, therefore, quite disappointing when analyzed closely.

I can’t end this essay without mentioning the elephant in the room: Mark Fisher’s suicide in 2017. There are threads of depression throughout the work – it’s right there in the subtitle. One can see hints, perhaps warning signs, that Fisher’s depression was intractable. But the final essay, while openly acknowledging the damage done by privatization, the abandonment of public assistance, etc., is, in the end, downright hopeful. I never thought I'd say this, but Fisher's “”Tremors of an Imperceptible Future” is far too optimistic in its hope that the 2008 financial crisis might have turned our attitudes toward capital and climate change around. Not. A. Chance. I wonder if the loss of this hope was part of what drove him to suicide. It has to be more complicated than that, but I wonder if it was a contributing factor. We will never know.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

French Decadent Tales

French Decadent TalesFrench Decadent Tales by Stephen Romer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve dabbled in decadence, read some stories here and there and a novel or two by those writers known as “Decadent” writers. By today’s standards, many of these works have been, if not dry, so restrained as to make one wonder what makes the work decadent at all? This presupposes, of course, a certain notion of what decadence should be. Given our upbringing with cinema, our having been inured to violence and transgressive acts from our very birth, I don’t know that we of the current generation have a particular sensitivity to what was and was not historically considered decadent. You might be surprised, for example, at the many references to Greek and Roman classic literature and history found in these works, until you realize that many of the stylistic flourishes of these decadent tales were inspired by later Roman literature, when Roman civilization had passed its zenith and was, well, decaying. Decadence oftentimes does not equate with depravity, though there is plenty of that to be found throughout these tales. Nor is it always synonymous with indulgence and hedonism. In fact, some of these tales portray the very act of strict self-denial, a sort of spartan asceticism, as the ultimate expression of decadence itself! Decadence does not fit neatly into any particular box, except that of writers, generally of the late 19th-century, who held to a certain poetic style (not a strictly-metered style, but works that seethe wish poesis, generally). Many of these were French writers, hence the current volume. The introduction to this volume, which is quite good, lays out the different “flavors” of Decadence, along with some of the commonalities among decadent authors. But I will leave that for your reading.

I will also leave for your own reading and assessment, several of the stories throughout, particularly those that didn’t strike my fancy as well as the others. All of the stories were good at least, most were excellent, and a surprisingly large number were absolutely fantastic. Rather than waste your (okay, my) time on the more hackneyed pieces – which may have not appeared so hackneyed at the time, but which have not held up as well – I would like to concentrate on the best stories in the volume. And there are many!

Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's "The Presentiment" is fabulous and fabulist. A nicely chilling tale of death and the sacred where the line between occult and the veneration of holy artifacts is blurred like stitched-on patches on an old coat. A very old coat, indeed. Five dark stars!

"The Desire to be a Man," the second story by Villiers de l'isle-Adam should have been an episode of the Twilight Zone. I would not be surprised to learn that Rod Serling, at some point, read this tale while camping in the woods of the Finger Lakes region of New York and took furious notes. In my own imaginary world, that is exactly what happened. Thematically, Adams examines the emptiness of a man's soul and how his wish to fill his soul with meaning(?) have exactly the opposite effect. Artificiality is a hell that leads one to hell. An insightful, disturbing story that leads one to a lot of self-examination of person vs persona. Just the sort of thing Serling would have tackled!

Villiers’ "Sentimentalism" might as well be a primer for dandies, and not for the veneer of fine clothes and expensive tastes, but for the inner dandy, the emotional landscape and mind of the devotee. It is a strange sort of machismo, feeling deeply, yet not expressing reaction save through poetics. A sad story, both for the antagonist and his lover. Five stars. And I must say, Villier's work is powerful.

The stylistic accents and pacing make Mirbeau's "On a Cure" a very solid story. Existentialism, and the rejection of stark nihilism, is the philosophical current that runs throughout. This is a brooding little tale worth five stars, if you can see them for the height of the black mountains surrounding it.
Mirbeau’s "The First Emotion" is a story of desire, desire so intense it kills. A morbid, but wonderfully quaint story about the awakening of an inner life that leads to . . . Five stars.

The seemingly innocuous title of "The Little Summer-House," Mirbeau’s last story in this collection, is disarming. This is decadence in all its horror and brutality. Not a dainty story, but the narrator proves so, in a most cowardly and practical way. Though it's a story about "rich people problems," it is highly unsettling. An emotionally complex tale, once one gives a little thought to it.

If you ever enjoyed "Spy vs Spy" in mad magazine, you will love Jean Richepin’s "Constant Guignard".

Richepin’s sense of humor (and self-deprecation?) shines brightly in "Deshoulières,” which is simultaneously an outright mockery and perfect summation of dandyism.

Half of Guy de Maupassant’s stories in this collection were amazing. The other half were definitely lesser works. "The Tresses," one of the better ones, is woven through with themes of obsession, longing, unattainable desires, and . . .necrophilia sans corpus? This is a truly decadent tale: hedonistic, possessive, and without shame.

I very much liked Maupassant’s story "Night," but I can already hear the naysayers questioning the validity of the narrator. Some works don't need justification as their cold beauty over-rides the jaded modern desire for pure logic. Screw your logic. Five stars, impossible narrator and all!
Geffroy's "The Statue" is a cautionary tale about getting exactly, precisely what you want when self-centeredness and vanity are at the root of your desires. It is an intriguing bit of fiction, so rooted in realism that it's denouement must, of course, be rooted in poetic fantasy. Five stars for this very clever, but never "cutesy" story.

Lorrain's "An Unsolved Crime" lies, as might be imagined by the title, somewhere on a line between decadence and noir. There's a sort of de-sexualized "Eyes Wide Shut" conspiracy vibe here, replete with masked, robed figures, but this one featuring ether, rather than sex, as the lure. But then, it's not quite so straightforward as all that. Much of the mystery remains obscured. The way I like it!

Lorrain follows with "The Man with the Bracelet". It is truly what most people would call "decadent," forbidden pleasures in a sea of decay, squalor, whores, and cut-throats and the people who try to exploit them, all mixed together in a stew of self-loathing. This story puts the "decay" in decadence.

Both timely and "too soon," in "The Man Who Loved Consumptives" Lorrain’s characters debate whether the subject in question is a near-necrophiliac or a tender elegiac. Of course, given the Decadent's penchant for objectifying women, he is viewed as wise, a person who feels more deeply than the rest of humanity, and is lauded for his cleverness. Though I disagree heartily with the sentiment, this is a convincing story.

Rodenbach's "The Time" is a bit of chaos magic, but rather than sigils and ecstacy, it is time and death that cast the spell for the hapless narrator. Only after he has forgotten the weaving of synchronicities that would realize one desire, but only in the absence of another. Five stars.
"Danaette" is exactly what I signed up for when I picked up this volume. I should have known Remy de Gourmont would deliver such a work of exquisite beauty. After all, I included one of his stories in the Leviathan 3 anthology, so, I suppose I wear my love of de Gourmont on my sleeve. The prose is absolutely stunning. The imagery is jaw-dropping. The co-mingling of sin and innocence is a precise hallmark of decadence, in my mind, at least. This is the gold-standard. Five stars like white snowflakes, if you catch my drift.

Never have I seen Eros and Thanatos so intertwined as in Gourmont's story "Don Juan's Secret". In that little sub-sub-sub-genre of stories about death and sex, this has to top them all. My goodness, what a writer! I already knew that, but this clinches it: Remy de Gourmont has ascended to stand side by side with Marcel Schwob as the decadents' Decadent.

Given my previous experience with Marcel Schwob, I had high expectations going into this section. "The Brothel," a transgressive ghost story, if I ever read one, met those expectations. Five stars.
Schwob delivers the grue in "The Sans-Gueule," a story about two soldiers that have had their faces blown completely off and the woman who takes them home to try to determine which is her husband. This story was disturbing even for Schwob, which is saying something. I felt like I was watching a Tool music-video in my head while reading this. Really off-kilter stuff here. Five stars worth, in fact.

I would swear that the literary seeds that sprouted Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges were planted firmly in Schwob’s story, "Paolo Uccello, Painter". This is a precognizant proto-echo to those two great writers' work, combining the best of both before either was even born. It is an anachronistic miracle. Five transcendental stars.

The strengths of these stories more than make up for the weakest of tales in the book (and, to be fair, they are few). They elevate into something nearing the sublime, especially the works of Lorrain, de Gourmont, Schwob, and my newfound decadent crush, Villiers. Can decadence elevate? Absolutely. But, like the fable hero’s journey, one must pass through the underworld to attain heaven, comprehending existence in all its beauty and ugliness, thrilling and banal. The Decadents open a portal onto the path of this journey. Take a step . . .

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Hermetic Deleuze

The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual OrdealThe Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal by Joshua Ramey

Halfway through my sophomore year of college, I made a change. I was a physics major and hating life. I was waking up literally having nightmares about partial differentials and in a constant state of high-anxiety about my schoolwork and grades. I was already married with a daughter (I married young - and, yes, we are still happily married nearly 30 years later), poor as the day is long, and about to have a series of mental breakdowns if something didn't change. I was tutoring a young lady in math who told me about her major in Humanities. I asked a little bit about it and, after talking with her, my wife said to me "that sounds right up your alley". And she was right. So I changed and, eventually graduated with a BA in Humanities with a History emphasis and an Anthropology minor. One of the best moves I've made in my life.

The Humanities major was intentionally broad and covered a number of different topics, one of which was philosophy. The luxury of my degree's requirements was that much of it could be taken in any order - it was broad and deep, but not as sequentially-arranged as most majors. I waited until my senior year to take the required Philosophy 101 class. Of course, by that time, I had already been steeped in philosophy through my general humanities classes, which gave a gloss on many movements in philosophy as reflected in art, literature, theater, cinema, music, dance, architecture, etc. I also had a few key classes that dove deeper into philosophy - classics, medieval and renaissance history, for example - so I didn't come to that freshman class as a senior without a decent amount of philosophical study behind me.

Early on in my college studies, before that change in major, I was in an astronomy class that was boring me to tears. I love astronomy, but my professor was drop-dead dull. I expressed my boredom to a math professor who I respected a great deal. He told me "you pay for college, get what you paid for! If it's boring, make it entertaining. Make the craziest claim you can and see what unfolds. In your astronomy class you could say 'the whole Hubble space telescope project is a waste of money' or something like that. Other students will jump in with their opinions and, voila, non-boring discussion."

He was right. I tried it and got my money's worth out of that class. I had several students come up to me at the end of the semester saying "I'm so glad you threw out that comment about [whatever it was I actually said - I don't even remember now]. That opened the class up for me!"

Fast forward to my Philosophy 101 class, with me as the only senior in a freshman-level class. I was bored. I threw out a comment that I still think is true: "Socrates didn't even use the so-called Socratic Method. He used leading questions to pull the answers that he wanted from the crowd. They weren't discovering together, they were following his subtle lead." My, oh my, did that philosophy professor not like that. He was an old school (pun intended) academic and did not like me questioning Socrates. After a couple more comments like this, he pulled me into his office and basically told me that I needed to stop being so creative with my critique and just learn the material. I was a little cocky and a lot upset, so I said "basically, you want me to barf back what you feed me". And he answered that, yes, basically, that was it. I was applying to grad schools and wanted the best grades possible, so I did what he asked . . . on tests and papers . . . but not in the classroom. I still spoke my mind and disagreed heartily with the professor many times. He always gave me good grades on my tests and papers because I regurgitated the material, just as he had asked, and, to his credit, he never let our disagreements in the classroom spill over into his grading. I got an "A" in the class and a really sour taste in my mouth for the academic study of philosophy.

Then came grad school. That was a different milieu entirely. We were encouraged to argue our points vehemently, so long as we backed our bravado with solid rhetoric and documentary evidence (my MA is in African History). There was plenty of philosophical meat to our discussions. I learned about Foucault, Chomsky, Derridas, Sartre, and many others, and became more facile in my use of philosophy as a tool to dig for knowledge.

Deleuze was still on the cutting edge of philosophy. He died the year before I got into grad school, so his posthumous popularity hadn't quite blossomed yet. At least his ideas hadn't penetrated far enough into the historical domain to have much relevance to my work at that time. But I heard of him. And I kept hearing of him, in little snippets, bizarre congeries of references spoken in almost spiritual tones. Some people who are a lot smarter than I am really, really were digging this dead dude.

Life intervened and I lost track of Deleuze. Only recently, while listening to the Weird Studies podcast (the single best podcast on the interwebs, if you ask me) did I pick up the thread again. Deleuze (and his compatriot, Felix Guattari) kept getting mentioned again and again and again. Finally, I had to do something about it. But I wasn't going to jump straight in. I had learned enough to know that Deleuzian territory is dangerous, complicated, like the philosophical equivalent of Visitation Zones in Roadside Picnic. I thought about foolishly rushing headlong into Deleuze's work, then thought better of it. I couldn't just brazenly bluster my way out of his woods. I needed to explore. Slowly. Carefully.

When I saw the title The Hermetic Deleuze, I thought "Aha! I can approach Deleuze through my knowledge of hermeticism!" After all, I had done a paper on Pico della Mirandola in my junior year of college that was lauded by the renaissance history professor from whom I was taking the class at the time. My intent was to go "sideways" into Deleuze.

The question is: was it successful?

Yes and no. I was not a philosophy major. I had learned enough in my college years to be dangerous, but not savvy. I was never steeped in the language of philosophy like those friends of mine who were philosophy majors. I stumbled through the vocabulary, more fully learning what words like "heuristic" and "theandric" meant. It was a slow plod because my vocabulary had to be extended with every page for the first third of the book or so. I recalled enough from hermeticism to keep me afloat, just barely. But I had to intellectually float and dog paddle, to get used to the feeling of my philosophical body being in water, so to speak.

Then I started hitting the truly Deleuzian rapids. The latter two thirds of the book I scraped on rocks a few times, got caught in a whirlpool or two, got myself completely turned around and crawled onto the shore only partially aware of what I had just been through. But I made it through. Once. And I'm willing to do it again. Some sections were very clear, others are going to require more serious study and some more grounding in Deleuze's work, unfiltered. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account, I will leave you here with the notes I took throughout the book, with page numbers. I think this reflects the feeling I have looking back on the experience as a sort of stained-glass mosaic, with some panes being crystalline and other panes being so clouded as to be a blind spot.

And though I'm not confident that I understood more than a third of what was going on, I am absolutely sure that I learned many things and that my intellectual horizons have been expanded, and that is what philosophy can do. I will dive into Deleuze's waters once again with one of his own works, then revisit this one at a future date. I have so many questions and potential paths to explore (some listed in my notes below). Philosophy has done its job and Deleuze has got me thinking in ways that I have not thought before. Mission accomplished.

(4) Ready to sink my brain into this. The introduction has definitely whetted my appetite. And I've only had to look up two words: "heuristic" and "theandric"!
(10) A marvelous introductory essay. I'm hoping the book holds up to its promise.
(18) I understood about half the sentences I just read. Now to reread them again and again and again. My vocabulary is being extended with every page. This is slow going!
(24) Having a good background of knowledge in the Hermetic traditions is helping quite a bit. Deleuze is . . . I don't even know the word: oblique? Sidelong? Askew? It's going to take a lot of immersion in his work to really begin to understand his work at a meaningful level. I get hints and allegations, thin wisps of something just beyond my perception. Philosophical ghosts. I'm being willingly haunted,
(29) Just when you wrap your head around Theandry and begin to sense the whiff of Immanence on the air, Deleuze throws three more concepts your way. My brain is bending in new and interesting ways, some remarkably pleasant, some tortuous. I'm just glad I'm familiar with Pico della Mirandola and Ficino, or I would be utterly lost. That senior paper I wrote on Pico is saving me!
(32) This may be a brain-wringer as intense as Gödel, Escher, Bach was. Thankfully, it's about half as long, maybe less. Curious to see if it also has homework exercises!
(44) I was not expecting a deep dive into early Christian theological debates. Dazzling and utterly confusing.
(52) The contradictory notions of Bruno and Pico outlined on page 51 are worthy of exploration. I can feel a short story coming on . . .
(56) Ah, more Pico. This is something I can sink my brain into. I remember finding Pico's writings quite intuitive as an undergraduate. Hopefully, I can slip back into the magic Christian frame of mind easily enough again.
(58) Interesting that Pico considers true Magic not a work in itself - it doesn't cause miracles, it reveals miracles already inherent in, but hidden by nature. Goeteia, on the other hand, calls on the "operations and power of demons". Magic, in his estimation, is noble and complimentary with Christianity, while the dark arts are contradictory. I wonder where he drew the line between the two?
(73) Never use the word "obvious" in a philosophical text. Just don't. Still, I'm starting to see the tip of the iceberg regarding the relationship between Bruno's conception of nature and matter and Deleuze's immanence. It's like it's on the tip of my brain - I can sense a . . . presence about the intersection of the concepts, but can't articulate it.
(82) Bruno views art as potentially generative of magic if the image is less concerned with verisimilitude and more concerned with what may be. "The artist who wishes to move himself must be moved". Art, then, generates resonance with that which is beyond the art itself, so the art is representative, but more importantly, a sort of portal to access that which is beyond mere form.
(92) Biography helps. Deleuze was a member of a Salon during the French Resistance where he was exposed to Hermetic ideas, particularly Mathesis at a young age. He wrote the forward to Malfatti's Mathesis: or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge in 1946, when he was 21. He later renounced this work.
(103) My hypothesis is that we should continue to see, on the horizon of Deleuze's work, the persistence of his adolescent vision of an ecstatic, erotic, and unfinished project of mathesis universalis as that "prephilosophical" or "nonphilosophical" apprehension of immanence alluded to on the final pages of What is Philosophy?
(108) Deleuze, here, seems to be most concerned with symbols as indicating the search for knowledge and wisdom, rather than the categorization of knowledge into discrete containers.

It is rotative thought, in which a group of images turn ever more quickly around a mysterious point, as oppossed to the linear allegorical chain.

I might be starting to "get" Deleuze. Starting . . .
(111) . . . Deleuze continues to be haunted by the connection of philosophy to symbolic iterations - artistic, scientific, and esoteric - that would be adequate for the expression of immanence and indispensable for philosophy as an act of creation.
(125) So, in sum, as I understand it, Deleuze is more concerned with "becoming" as an action than with the platonic "idea," which is a static state of being? I guess? It seems that Deleuze delights in multiplicities, rather than The One. I would love someone to confirm or repudiate my understanding, please!
(126) Aha! The notion of "intensity" in Deleuze provides me a nice window to peer into his philosophy. Now, I just need a glass house made of those windows.
(138) Deleuze's concept of "difference" escapes me at the moment. It is not as simple as one might think. Honestly, I don't even think I have a mental direction to face in order to begin to understand it. Guess I'll just intellectually wallow until I find some piece of driftwood to hang on to.
(148) About two years and three rereads, that's what I'm going to need to crack the code on that last chapter. Phew!
(154) . . . the flesh is pulled or pushed out from the outside by the planes that frame it (in musical terms melody and rhythm push sound towards its pulsing vitality . . . harmony represents the planes that intersect and frame sound in a cosmos, a universe of vectors and dimensions.

This cryptic passage is actually helping me to understand Deleuze's approach/view on art more clearly.
(171) For Deleuze, all genuine artistic experimentation must be understood as a local activation of otherwise imperceptible cosmic forces that move through natures, cultures, and psyches. When it is successful, the work of art suggest new modes of sensible and affective engagement within the world . . .
(173) . . . when a person dies, the event is the result of physical causes, but the meanings of a death are multiple and thus both precede and exceed the physics of the event itself. Teh mental or ideal time in which the meanings of a death are played and replayed is not linear and sequential, but aberrant and discontinuou . . .

Cue: differentiation between Aion and Chronos.
(200) Understanding less and less as I approach the finish! And this after listening to several podcasts about Deleuze.
(208) I will definitely need to give this a reread after having listened to a series of podcasts which are basically "Deleuze for Dummies". I'm definitely able to follow the threads here in a much more informed manner.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

The Justice of the Night

The Justice Of The NightThe Justice Of The Night by Glen Cavaliero
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The First Lesson

God has a great round face
like the sun, a dial like the sun,
a sun-dial.

His grin is the daylight.
He tosses the earth in his arms
on a taut line

far up into the night
then over and down to the day
from holly to rose.

We are hurled about,
his sport, his delight, his toy,
sun-up, sun-down:

he never misses a catch,
that good giant God,
tough and sure.

Cling to the ball
as it spins, enjoy the game
if you can, breathless,

bruised; endure the round
of grief and glamour, the theme
all laws obey

safe in the everlasting
thrust and clasp of his arms
at work, in boundless play.

Thus opens Glen Cavaliero's marvelous collection, The Justice of the Night. There is, beginning with this poem and shot throughout the rest, a sense of playfulness and despair, a lining of humor and hope to a dark cloud of existentialism raining down fleeting moments of opportunity, some caught, most lost, slipping through the fingers, but enough drops of Kairos sticking to the skin to impart the feeling of meaning to it all.

Perhaps I am too stuck on my formative time living in England in the mid-80's. Or maybe my recent trip back there made me overly nostalgic again. But Cavaliero seems to capture the very essence of the isle.

For instance, "Hellingley" is a reverse-hauntology, the ghosts of what might have used to be, but were only a distorted reflection of the present, until now. It is a yearning, an anachronistic aching. I feel it when I dream of England. I do. I do.

I thought that "On the March" had a familiar feel to it, despite the strange place names. Then, when I read that it was about eastern Wales, it suddenly made sense: Cavaliero had invoked Hay-on-Wye from within me, drawn Wales out from my memory and impressions. It's summoning magic, raising ghosts in my mind. Necromancy of psychogeography.

Lastly, in my mind, but not in the book, I am entranced by "The Auditors," which is everything i would ever to aspire to write in a poem. It sums Cavaliero's oeuvre up nicely, a bookend (if not chronologically, forgive the timeslip) to the opening poem:

The Auditors

Those clarion mornings on the hill,
the auburn stone of balustrades, celestial
intervals of bells - such stainless recollections
are precarious: very soon

the holy landscape of the visionary
poets, lovers, priests, affording miracles
of stupefying grace too beautiful for sight,
reveals obscenities

to blighted carrion plots
you come across by chance. Uneasiness infests you
as it crawls in hair and skin. Some shed or nettle-patch,
that crumbling privy . . .

Always and everywhere
the grey judicious unimpassioned angels
taking stock will register each violation
of an urge to live

despite all discord,
and they let things be. A coachload on the motorway
goes roaring through the dangerous rain, the tarmac glares,
no intersection

interrupts. The auditors
are not concerned: familiar with fatalities
in underpasses, swamps or lonely woodland,
they administer

oblivion, their heartless love
dispensing coal-black wine to obviate
the plight of every grid-locked suppliant
and to underwrite each debt.

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