Monday, February 14, 2011

the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event: Ballard vs. Roxy Music.

The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for the concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built not for man, but for man’s absence.

Laing leaned against the parapet, shivering pleasantly in his sports clothes. He shielded his eyes from the strong air currents that rose off the face of the high-rise. The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway embankments, and rectilinear curtain walling, formed an intriguing medley of geometries – less an architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event.

During the day, as Laing took his supervision and lunched with his colleagues in the refectory, he thought continually about the apartment building, a Pandora’s box whose thousand lids were one by one inwardly opening. The dominant tenants of the high-rise, Laing reflected, those who had adapted more successfully to life there, were not the unruly airline pilots and film technicians on the lower floors, not the bad tempered and aggressive wives of the well-to-do tax specialists on the upper floors. Although at first sight, these people appeared to provoke all the tensions and hostilities, those really responsible were the quiet and self-contained residents, like the dental surgeon Stele and his wife. A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake.

Perhaps the recent events represented a last attempt by Wilder and the airline pilots to rebel against this unfolding logic? Sadly, they had little chance of success, precisely because their opponents were people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure in the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, to explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly “free” psychopathology.

from High-Rise, 1975, by JG Ballard.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kenneth Grant Part 2: Nuclear Art and the New Gnosis.

Reading Kenneth Grant

There is a certain variety of ostensibly non-fiction writing which operates in something of a grey area between true reportage and fantasy, and hence forges an uneasy, constantly shifting relationship with its reader. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan narratives were an important touchstone in the development of Grant’s magical aesthetic, and provide an obvious example of this kind of ambiguous text. They can be read either as genuine autobiography, literary fraud, philosophical allegory, or all of the above, to varying degrees. The more successful of Whitley Strieber’s Visitor narratives exhibit a similar quality. Part of what makes Communion an undeniably compulsive read is the fact the reader is constantly trying to get a grip on precisely what type of book he is reading, and how he stands in relation to its author. Communion could be an opportunistic fraud, or an unsettlingly frank and interior depiction of mental illness; or it could be an attempt to unravel a genuinely anomalous series of experiences.

To the type of text that typifies the close proximity of gnosis to paranoiac implosion, we would have to add two classics of roughly 70s vintage: Dick’sVALIS and Keel’s Mothman Prophecies. VALIS begins as a science fiction novel which gradually and poignantly has to acknowledge that it is in fact an autobiography. About three quarters through, the novel’s protagonist Horselover Fat is forced to except that his bizarre VALIS experiences are actually those of the author Philip K. Dick, and the relative comfort of regarding them as fictional must be abandoned. (VALIS is part of the synchronistic web of texts including Cosmic Trigger and The Sirius Mystery which weave together the fascinating counterculture lore of Contact with Sirius, also a major component of Grant’s cosmic mythos.) The Mothman Prophecies, meanwhile, is yet another oneiric text with a Protean and unreliable narrator, Keel’s Fortean gumshoe appearing one moment a canny PT Barnum of tall tales, and the next an increasingly paranoid seer venturing perilously close to the edge of schizophrenia. All of these texts involve the reader in unravelling the same mysteries that face the author/protagonist; but the reader must also be suspicious of the author, of his intentions and mental state, and the general provenance of his tale.

All of these characteristics are evident to an even more extreme degree in Kenneth Grant’s writing, and the difficulty of his work is compounded by a willful lack of structure. Pursuing a distinct line of argument, or a clearly delineated rhetorical intention, in a Grant treatise is often as elusive as chasing a chimera in an imaginary haystack. His work vacillated between moments of relative lucidity, and much longer passages of what Alan Moore aptly labelled “an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetizing (and as structured) as a dish of gumbo.”

Yet in his moments of lucidity, Grant was a very fine writer, and nowhere does he write so well as when expounding his theories of art as a form of magical manifestation. Grant’s artistic interests converged around Decadent poetry, surrealist art, and weird fiction. These he envisioned as the most shamanic of contemporary art movements. The single defining characteristic of Grant’s universe, as in the fictional one of HP Lovecraft, was the notion that this world is subject to the constant ingress of forces and entities from Outside our temporal and spatial dimensions. While the magician consciously seeks to traffic with these entities, certain individuals of an artistic or insane disposition serve, by virtue of their heightened sensitivities, as unconscious conduits to the forces from Outside the circles of time. Thus between the words of the decadent poem and the tale of cosmic horror, and across the canvass of the surrealist, emerge dimly the forms of preterhuman intelligences, and the shapes of eons long past and far into the distant future. Many of Grant’s works evoke a particular pantheon of culture heroes – Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Rimbaud, Dali, and his good friend Austin Osman Spare – who have been subject to these visions. Articulating a magical/critical theory of art, or alternatively, an artistic/critical theory of magic, constituted the crux of Grant's idiosyncratic project.

Nuclear Art and the New Gnosis :


Arthur Machen


Austin Osman Spare

It is a miracle that the idiosyncrasies didn’t topple the whole edifice. One of the great puzzles of Grant is the enduring appeal and mystique that surrounds his work, despite the fact that it should be so easy to dismiss. With its often tedious and impenetrable swathes of gematria, its bafflingly poker-faced flights of fancy and high camp, Grant’s books should serve little more than curiosity and comedy value. And yet there is a quality about them which is magical, and no other adjective will quite suffice. Something of this appeal lies, I suspect, in the fact that Grant appears not only aware of the apparent deficiencies of his writing, but to actually cultivate them deliberately in order to attain a very specific effect. In the Introduction to Outside the Circles of Time, Grant writes:

“One final point is here relevant, and I state it without apology. It is not my purpose to prove anything; my aim is to construct a magical mirror capable of reflecting some of the less elusive images seen as shadows of a future aeon. This I do by means of suggestion, evocation, and by those oblique and “inbetweenness concepts” that Austin Spare defined as “Neither-Neither.” When this is understood, the reader’s mind becomes receptive to the influx of certain concepts which can, if received undistortedly, fertilize the unknown dimensions of his consciousness. In order to achieve this aim a new manner of communication must be evolved; language itself has to be reborn, revivified, and given a new direction and a new momentum. The truly creative image is born of creative imagining, and this is – ultimately – an irrational process that transcends the grasp of human logic.”

“It is well known that scientists and mathematicians have evolved a cryptic language, a language so elusive, so fugitive, and yet so essentially cosmic that it forms an almost qabalistic mode of communication, often misinterpreted by its own initiates! Our position is not quite as desperate for we are dealing primarily with the body-mind complex in its relation to the universe, and the body-aspect is deeply rooted in the soil of sentiency. Our minds may not understand, but in the deeper layers of the subconscious where humanity shares a common bed, there is instant recognition. Similarly, a magician devises his ceremony in harmony with the forces he wills to invoke, so an author must pay considerable attention to the creation of an atmosphere that is suitable for his operations. Words are his magical instruments, and their vibrations must not produce a merely arbitrary noise but an elaborate symphony of tonal reverberations that trigger a series of increasingly profound echoes in the consciousness of his readers. One cannot over-estimate the importance of this subtle form of alchemy, for it is in the nuances and not necessarily in the rational meanings of the words and numbers that the magick resides. Furthermore, it very often in the suggestion of certain words not used, yet indicated or implied by other words having no relation to them, that produce the most precise definitions. The edifice of a reality-construct may sometimes be reared only by an architecture of absence, whereby the real building is at one and the same time revealed ad concealed by an alien structure haunted by possibilities. These are legion, and it is the creative faculty of the reader – awake and active – than can people the house with souls. So then, this book may mean many things to many readers and different things to all, but to none can it mean nothing at all, for the house is constructed in a manner that no echo can be lost.”

In this remarkable passage, Grant evokes the rich polyphonic qualities of literature in order to suggest something greater still – a potent grimoire capable of subliminally altering its readers consciousness, and hence their reality; a grimoire whose juxtapositions and absent, in-between spaces can fertilise the brain of the reader with an idea, like the organic video cassettes of Videodrome and the sleek dream-invaders of Inception. Perhaps impishly, Grant suggests that his books are a painstakingly constructed autostereogram – as Against the Light frequently reiterates: “If you hold it against the light, an entirely different picture will emerge.” And this, I think, is where the truly original quality of Grant’s writing lies. Stripped of the normal, linear intentionality of most prose, its raison d’etre becomes instead a matter of mood and ambience, of evocation, suggestion, and sonority – becoming in this respect more like poetry or music in its overall effect.

Continued shortly.