Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Hourglass of Aeons (Part 3)

Part 1, Part 2.


Kadmon explored the lower floors of the apartment tower before commencing his climb.  The foyer of the building was designed after an architectural style many centuries old, and common to various districts of Ah-Pook Nar.  In the visionary literatures of the city’s mystery cults, the most common characteristics ascribed to the otherworld were those of temperance and fecundity.  So many holy men and anchorites had been vouchsafed glimpses of this green and riotously fecund world, and so consistent were their descriptions, that many believed that it was to such a garden that the righteous soul wended after death, so as to enjoy eternally all that bliss only rumoured to the poet’s fancy in this life.  So as our world must be ever senescent and arid, so that fecund world was always in the full bloom of its youth, possessed of a miraculous soil from whence exotic foliage and fauna rushed as from the awestruck imagination of a young god.  Architects and artisans became much preoccupied with this vision of vegetative and arboreal exuberance, designing their artefacts and buildings after the manner of plant-life as it was observed in the tropical pockets, and imagined in the flights of the anchorites and fantastic painters.  Thus, the foyer of the tower was conceived as a garden: the concierge’s office and domicile was an oval shape that evoked a hillock, and a black, wrought-iron stairwell curved around its sides like a draping foliage, with a balustrade fashioned after a network of roots and a handrail which affected a curling, inquisitive vine.  In every detail, the architect had eschewed straight-lines and idealized simplicity, emphasizing an almost mystical notion of dense, organic growth and vitality.  On the wall behind the stairwell, a frieze depicted the exuberant forms and alien hues of a fantastic shrubbery which the climber surmounted like a butterfly as he ascended. 

 Yet, Kadmon reflected sadly, only now in its cloistered and malodourous decay had it attained the status of a living garden.  The thief’s arrival in the foyer sent startled rats scurrying away to darker nooks and crannies, and spiders to the hazy centre of their dense canopies.  There were people, too, in the gloom: addicts of scorpion venom lay writhing in small groups on the floor, having been transported in mind back to the predatory stillness of vastly ante-human geologic epochs, to silent, unseen worlds of crawling arthropods, reptiles, and tentative amphibious mutations.  (Certain scurrilous apothecaries treated the venom of scorpions and snakes so as to produce a potent and highly addictive narcotic.  During the peak of such venom trances, the users frequently experienced visions of the nascent earth, wherein they saw grotesque organisms and unimaginable vagaries of natural form whose existence went unrecorded in the fossil collections and taxonomies of the most learned naturalists; whether these were true intimations of the primeval earth, or journeys to atavistic regions of the brain alone, no man knows.)  An old woman sat at the foot of the stairwell, whispering some litany of prayer, malediction, or autobiography to herself.  Kadmon was some measure piteous of these poor, blasted souls, but he recalled the old wisdom of the streets which held that he who interrupts bad fortune invariably incurs it upon himself; and so he left them as they were, and began to explore the lower floors of the tower.

Here the thief found no means of egress to the main stairwell, but much to trouble his soul besides.  In an apartment on the third floor, he discovered a skeleton sprawled causally on a couch.  The forgotten remains were almost invisible at first, having been so thoroughly coated with dust and mold and the industry of spiders and cockroaches as to fade beneath the gauze of the room's gloomy ambience, like those hidden and troubling presences that certain artists have woven into the borders of their scenery, so as to startle the viewer after a long perusal.  In such a manner did Kadmon long ponder the couch and its elaborate tracery of dereliction, until all at once the underlying form became apparent, and thus frozen where he stood, his eyes became fixed on those points of deeper gloom that once had gazed upon this earth.

Kadmon was deeply shaken by the sad condition of the remains, for though he had seen fresh corpses many in the course of his adventures, never before had he encountered the human form in its final and unindividuated state, and fresh corpses trouble the soul only so much as a living body in deep repose, but no man, however robust, has looked for the first time upon the face of a skeleton without experiencing some woeful presentiment of the universality of all human destiny.  Being well-traveled in the city of all cities, Kadmon had heard many diverse views as regarding mortality and the existence of the soul.  Some wise men avowed that the body were like a strange district in a vast city, and the soul a migrant who comes a passing through it, so that upon his arrival the migrant cannot speak, for he knows not the native tongue, and cannot act, for he knows not the proper custom and manner of that place, and hence must pass a long spell wherein all things appear threatening and inexplicable to him, until he become familiar with the ways of the district, and by that time he will be ready to take to the road again, and it might occur to him as he departs that everything in that district were as passing strange as ever when he first arrived; or so as that metaphor went.

And as to the soul's destination upon leaving the body, some said it went to supernal worlds beyond the vast heavens, others to abysmal caverns in the fiery depths of the earth, and others yet that it returned to the earth to live a new life in a different body, and so has lived so many lives as ever men lived upon the earth, but at the passing away of each individual incarnation, the soul then found itself in a pitiless, parched desert called the Valley of Forgetfulness, wherein all the company of souls were herded along by a troop of masked Heirarchs who followed after them on camels, and those Heirarchs would never stint in goading the souls onwards, until gradually they became forgetful of all their prior incarnations, and so until they remembered nothing at all but that weary existence of trudging through the Valley; and this treatment persisted until the soul collapsed from utter exhaustion, and therewith sank deeper and deeper into the sand, and thus falling as through the funnel of an hourglass, was channeled into its new incarnation in this world, and wherever two people experience a powerful attraction upon first meeting, it was reasoned that they had walked alongside one another in the Valley of Forgetfulness, and forged some silent bond therein, and when the soul had lived so many lives that it was never made forgetful in the Valley, and acquired such strength that it could walk without stint through the desert, then that soul became one of the masked Heirarchs who goad the others on, and if it became anything further after that, no man knows.

Yet there were others in worldly districts of Ah-Pook Nar who regarded all these as foolish tales, reasoning instead that the soul were a thing which existed only by virtue of the body's vitality, and no airy traveller who merely tarried there in the midst of its journeying from hence and to whence no man knew.  These worldly sages thus regarded all life as a species of transitory good fortune, that man could but enjoy to the best of his faculties, knowing all the while that the strumpet at the wheel might withdraw her indulgence as whimsically as ever it were first granted.  And yet there were worldly sages of an even more extreme cast of mind, who held to the very ancient doctrine that soul never existed in the first place, but rather were a kind of delusion or prolonged dream experienced by inanimate matter, and this theory held that just as an ugly young maid or gallant might, under the distempering influence of wine, conceive themselves to be handsome and utterly ravishing, so did certain types of inanimate matter become inebriated by the chemical reactions which determined their unique composition, and hence conceive the transitory illusion of having a vitalized, individual, and willing existence; but, just as the unfortunate young maid must awake from her distemper to find her amorous designs unfulfilled and her appearance as imperfect as ever nature designed it, so must all matter eventually awake from its dream of individual existence, and realize its true nature as being blind, undifferentiated, and inanimate.  (Some philosophers had refuted this position by reasoning that if soul were a drunkenness of matter, then it would follow that the drunker matter became, the more it would become ensouled and self-aware, but since the opposite were observed to be true, and soul became more like to inanimate matter the more alcohol it imbibes, hence it must be that soul were rather a sobriety of matter than the loss of its faculties.)

Now Kadmon, having heard such diverse positions advanced one with an equal conviction to the other, had never before feared his own death, nor given much consideration to the subject in general.  It was in the nature of migrants to regard all beliefs as merely a kind of local colour and custom, a whim both of the city's sprawling geography and the dying earth's vast and scattered inheritance of old ideas and poetics of mental exertion.  But now, face to face with that piteous and forgotten skeleton, Kadmon found it difficult to shake the conviction that this life must after all be everything that he would ever know or experience, and this idea, once so viscerally suggested, had left him altogether frozen and unable to act, shocked rigid by the sense that if each passing second were a lessening of all that time in which he could ever exist, then no action seemed exalted and meaningful enough to pass each precious and irretrievable instant.  And in this condition he remained for some time, until another speculation of the sages passed fortuitously into his mind, and acted as a curative.  Just as they endlessly debated the nature of mortality and soul, so also the sages advanced various theories regarding the identity of those tiny points of light in the night sky which people called stars by dint of long habit, and which exert such a peculiar fascination to people in all parts of the city.  And Kadmon had heard one speculation as to the identity of the stars which he found peculiarly appealing, and it was that each of those tiny points of light was in fact a sun just like our one, only at such a great remove in space as to appear like a grain of sand, and about all those other suns circled worlds just like ours, and thereupon lived men and women lives just like ours, and they too looked upon the tiny points of light in the sky and wondered at them, for though every story on this world were being told an infinity of times throughout the heavens, yet all were separated one from another by such vast gulfs of space that only by tiny, flickering beacons of light in the night sky could they know of the other's being, and hence each world must become preoccupied only by its own immediate stories; and though it offered no rational solution to Kadmon's dilemma, yet he derived on odd kind of comfort from the notion that somewhere else in the heavens, a thief looked upon a skeleton and mused just as he did, and in some of those other worlds he were the man who had passed away forgotten and the forgotten man were the thief, and though the thief's questions were never answered yet somewhere they would always be asked, and somewhere, always, Kadmon the thief were interrupted in the midst of his adventure by melancholy ruminations upon discovering the forgotten man.  With this thought, he stole briskly out onto the balcony, and commenced his climb to the wizard's apartment.

The bulk of the climb merely required that he hoist himself from one balcony to the next immediately above it.  There were, however, stretches where the apartments had no balconies, and here Kadmon was forced to shimmy along a narrow decorative ledge to climb up the tower's dense network of arid vines instead.  Down below in the square, the elders watched the thief's skillful climb in silent appreciation, the people of Ah-Pook Nar being inclined to admire any skill for its own sake, excepting that of sorcery.  Finally, one of the men spoke.  "The thief climbs well enough", he said, "but should he fall, I will show him only so much sympathy as the ground does."  The others laughed, happy that a sense of infallible dignity had once more been restored to their preferred course of inactivity.

Continued shortly.

Images by Sidney Sime, from monster brains


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Memories of a Free Festival: BBC 4 time shift documenary about New Age Travellers.

A very enjoyable gallop through British counterculture history, tracing the emergence of New Age travelers through the Windsor and Stonehenge free festivals of the 70s and 80s, into the rave boom of the 90s, and a gradual decline in the face of an increasingly Draconian and stratified Britain in the wake of Thatcher:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Incantations: Mike Oldfield, an Alternative Therapy Cult, a New Romantic Burlesque Group, and the Blairs.

This is no more than an interesting aside, linking the unlikely bedfellows of prog rock/New Age music, the burgeoning alternative therapy scene of the 70s, New Romantic synth-pop, and 10 Downing Street during the Blair era.

I've been listening quite a lot to an excellent italo cover of a Mike Oldfield piece called Incantations - a really hypnotic slow-burner that wouldn't be out of place on the score for Nicholas Refn's Drive:

Incantations was a minimalist piece of several movements released by Oldfield as a double album in 1978.  (Here's the part covered by G.A.N.G. as performed orchestrally by Oldfield in 1979.  I love the first minutes or so and the rest not so much.)  During the recording of Incantations, Oldfield became involved with a little-known alternative therapy programme called the Exegesis Group.  Exegesis, the brainchild of a former actor called Robert D'Aubigny, was established in 1976 as Infinity Training and designed to lead the participant into taking total responsibility for every aspect of their lives.  The 70s of course was a golden age and melting pot of radicalized psychiatry and alternative therapies, as the 60s counterculture masticated itself into the Me Generation and the New Age exploded into a myriad of quests and cons.  Naturally these new mental technologies and brisk fads of self-discovery were eagerly explored by the stars of music and film, who will always serve the sometimes enviable and sometimes tragic function of being our exalted guinea pigs in the vagaries of experience.  Earlier in the decade, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had become vocal proponents of Arthur Janov's controversial Primal Scream therapy; in 1964 Sean Connery apparently took LSD at the behest of anti-psychiatry icon RD Laing, resulting in a bad trip that consigned the otherwise robust Bond actor to his bed for a couple of days.

Exegesis therapy usually took the form of three-day seminars/workshops, in which participants were encouraged to strip in front of the group, and often subjected to humiliation and verbal abuse ("raising the confront") in order to shatter their defenses.  (Think of some of the exercises Joaquin Phoenix undergoes in in PT Anderson's surprisingly good cult drama/fable The Master).  The centerpiece of the programme was a "re-birthing" experience designed to uncover the birth traumas which had hitherto determined the nature of the participant's life.  The experience had a profound, transformative effect on Oldfield; the musician was said to have changed virtually overnight from "a painfully diffident recluse into a garrulous, overbearing extrovert."  He took flying lessons and briefly married D'Aubigny's sister.  But Exegesis's success with Oldfield was largely the source of its own downfall.  Due to the musician's ardent proselyting, the Group acquired a higher profile and immediately became mired in controversy.  The Exegesis Group became the subject of a television play and Scotland Yard investigation; Conservative Home Minister David Mellor blasted it as "puerile, dangerous, and profoundly wrong."  It faded quickly into obscurity, a last echo and artifact of the swinging postwar boom whose memory was vanishing in the total gloom of the Thatcher era.

Another former adherent of the Exegesis Group was Carole Caplin.  Caplin had appeared as a child actor in the Harold Pinter-scripted drama Accident in 1967.  In the early eighties she became a member of a trail-blazing New Romantic burlesque pop group called Shock.  Their video for Dynamo Beat is very comical, and somewhat reminiscent of the Mighty Boosh's much later parodies of the genre:

Bizarrely, Caplin re-emerged in the 90s as a lifestyle guru to Cherie Blair and fitness adviser to her insufferable husband, a relationship that later crashed and burned amid rumors of New Age crystal-gazing, accusations of "Svengali or Rasputin"-like power over the couple, and the eventual 'Cheriegate' scandal deriving from her association with Australian felon Peter Foster.  

Well, that's the yarn, or aside.  I'm sure the great Adam Curtis could probably weave these clips and associations into an epic story of idealistic intentions and paradoxical consequences that reveals the maudlin poverty of the New Labour era, but that's about all I can do with it.  I'm going to finish up with a clip of a post-Exegesis Mike Oldfield preforming one of the earliest songs he wrote after his '"re-birthing" transformation.  He's not transformed into Keith Richards or anything, but it's interesting to see the newly energized Oldfield playing in a funky, almost Talking Heads-like guitar style.  That is to say the clip is funky, but with a kind of antiseptic and unsexy undertow; its like The Good Life meets Stop Making Sense.  Like New Labour, in a way.

 A Very British Cult teaser trailer here

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Outer Space Connection (1975)

Speaking of the ambience of the 70s, surely nobody was as perfectly endowed to narrate an Ancient Astronaut documentary as the late, great Rod Sterling, who sadly died the same year that The Space Connection was released.  It was the precursor to the In Search Of...series, in which television astronaut and Tolkien scholar Leonard Nimoy took over as narrator from Sterling.  They don't make these things like they used to - the more recent Ancient Aliens series on the History Channel rehashed much of the same material with all the otherworldly atmosphere of a late night infomercial for exercise equipment.

Rene Magritte: The voice of space

I've always been fascinated by images that appear weirdly prescient or out of time.  If I encountered the following painting by Rene Magritte without context, I'd swear blind it was a prog rock album cover from the early 70s, or some obscure illustration from a UFO book from the same period.  Definitely early 70s - it has that very British pastoral psychedelic feel to it.  In reality, however, the image was completed in Paris in 1928.  This would add to the contention I was beginning to voice in a previous post that "surrealism, weird fiction, and the later psychedelic movement are the separate strands of a single cultural history which all emerged out of the same basic appetites, and which all converged, by their separate routes, on the same essential mental terrains and vistas."

Which is as good a time as any to post an excerpt from Mike Oldfield's 1973 performance of Tubular Bells for the BBC.  Not a huge Oldfield fan admittedly, but this footage rocks and just oozes the ambience of the period:

Magritte image from wikipaintings

full Mike Oldfield performance here

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Boards of Canada - Reach for the Dead.

Haven't listened to Tomorrow's Harvest as yet, but this video is quite cool:

Sunday, June 2, 2013

David Palladini's Aquarian Tarot

David Palladini's lovely Nouveau-influenced tarot deck first appeared in 1970 (via John Coulthart)

A couple more from a great selection at Golden Haze; THE STAR is one of my favorites.