Saturday, October 1, 2011

In your dreams, Leonora!

Leonora Carrington passed away on May 25 this year. On June 3, 2008, I described on this blog how I had the privilege of visiting her at her home in Mexico City, spending several hours chatting at the kitchen table with a living legend of surrealism.
It appears that strange synchronicities happened around Leonora all the time. In the spring of 2010 I was walking down a busy road in London and spotted a rare exhibition catalogue of her works in a second-hand shop window. I went inside and bought it right away. While I was talking with the person behind the counter, a young woman who just happened to walk by me overheard me mention the name of Leonora Carrington. She turned out to be an artist, and an admirer of Leonora's work like myself. We chatted for a few minutes and noted down each other's email addresses. Nothing more came of that, but end of last year she suddenly sent me an email to remind me of a rare exhibition of Leonora Carrington and her friend Remedios Varo, in Norwich, England. It was going into its last week, and on the spur of the moment I decided to buy a plane ticket and go see it. Marta Rocamora - that's her name - came to the exhibition too, and we had coffee - far too briefly, unfortunately, for I had to leave to catch my plane back home. The exhibition was impressive. One thing that has stuck in my mind is a scene from a video of an interview with the artist. The interviewer wanted her to explain the meaning of some of her imagery, and Leonora got really upset: "Don't rationalize it! It's a visual world. Do you get it? It's a visual world!"
And so it is. This week, I received another email from Marta, who appeared to have missed the news of Leonora's death earlier this year. It had inspired her to make this drawing, which I copy here with her permission. It's called "What are you up to today miss?", and it really catches the spirit of Leonora Carrington (if that spirit is catcheable at all). I won't give any comments or interpretations: it's a visual world. But I'm sure that whatever she is up to these days, miss Carrington must be doing it with both her eyes wide open.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Liminal Literature: Lindsay Clarke and Haruki Murakami

I've been neglecting this blog far too long, because all my attention went to a book that I was writing. Complete and prolonged concentration on such a task does strange things to one's mind: it gives you more sharpness and precision than normal, so that you can do things that you wouldn't normally be capable of, but it also tends to block you from slipping into the less focused and more dreamlike states of consciousness that happen to be more naturally suited to twilight travelers...

Anyway, the book is finished, and now it's time for this owl to start flying again. Recently I read a novel that left me deeply impressed. It's written by a British writer, Lindsay Clarke, and is called The Chymical Wedding. Clarke has an extraordinary gift for writing, and his beautiful english alone makes the book a pleasure to read. But there is much more. Clarke's books are deeply informed by alchemical and other kinds of esoteric literature - the very title of the novel refers to a famous Rosicrucian allegorical novel published in 1616 - and does so in a particularly profound manner that never, even for a moment, risks becoming stereotypical or kitchy. I won't give away the plot, but it cannot harm (especially since one can read it all on the back cover) to mention that the novel tells two parallel stories, each with one female and two male protagonists. In the 1980s, a young man who has just gotten divorced meets an unusual couple, an old man and a young woman who are busy researching a forgotten history that happened in the mid-nineteenth century: at that time, a young woman and her father during the Victorian era were involved in deep studies of the Hermetic philosophy, and got acquainted with the newly arrived vicar of their village. Two triangles; two couples of an older man and a younger woman; and twice an additional male factor who turns out to be essential to the complex process that is going on underneath the surface. As could be expected in a book with such a title, the alchemical "coniunctio" or union of opposites will prove to be essential to everything that is going on.
One of the two narratives is loosely based on a real model: the story of Mary Ann Atwood (née South) and her father. The latter was planning to write a large poem on the Hermetic mystery, but never managed to finish it. His daughter did publish its equivalent in prose (A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, 1850), but after it had come out, she and her father were overcome by panic at the idea of having "revealed too much". So they tried to buy back all the copies and burned them! Some did survive,  however, and the book remains in print.
Why did the novel impress me so much? Most of all because Clarke's uncanny ability to convey powerful but subtle shifts or alterations of consciousness. As you will find out for yourself when you read it, precisely those shifts or alterations are essential to everything that the novel is about, but few things are so difficult to evoke in prose without the result becoming artificial or shallow. Lindsay Clarke succeeds in making the reader experience events which take place in a liminal twilight reality that is "neither here nor there": not just dreams or fantasies, not just ordinary prosaic reality, but some third realm that refuses to accept such an either/or choice.

And as if that weren't impressive enough, almost at the same moment I came across the same kind of thing in a very different kind of novel. This time it's the work of a Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. He seems to be quite well known but I confess that I had never heard of him. Anyway, his three-volume opus 1q84 was warmly recommended to me, so I read it. At first I was quite puzzled by the strange language, which often made a somewhat naïve or childish impression on me (perhaps partly because of the translation?); but after some time I got used to it, and began to experience it as part of his particular charm. Only halfway through the first volume did the book really "grab" me, and then I had no rest until I had finished it. Of course, I won't give the plot away here either. But again, what makes the novel fascinating is the presence of a liminal "other reality" that can neither be dismissed as dream or fantasy, nor accepted as straight reality. Murakami's world violates our most basic assumptions about reality (implying, of course, that in fact it is those assumptions that do violence to the world as it really is). Again, as in Lindsay Clarke's novel, all the most important things that happen in the novel involve powerful but very subtle shifts to another level of consciousness and/or reality. Murakami, too, has an uncanny ability to make his reader experience them without a hint of artificiality. His language is much simpler than Clarke's, but the effect is the same.

One final point that both novels have in common is that, at some level, these liminal events or altered states are always charged with erotic energy. Some kind of erotic tension involving male and female polarities seems to be required in order for the protagonists to be pushed through the barrier that separates normal prosaic reality from that other state. I don't think that Clarke and Murakami know anything about each other, and their novels could not be more different, but somehow they are parallel and arrive at similar conclusions. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Avatar and Paganism

This evening I just felt a bit bored and decided to see a movie. Nothing on offer looked particularly attractive at first sight, so I finally decided to buy a ticket for a new film called Avatar. At the door I realized that this one might be a bit different, because we received 3D glasses. But still, I didn't expect very much of the whole thing, to be quite honest.
Well, I was mistaken. Three hours later I came out of the cinema utterly thrilled and amazed by the total experience I had just gone through. Visually, I honestly don't think I've ever seen anything in my life that compares with this: it's an altogether new way of experiencing a movie. Sitting there with your 3D glasses, you are literally sucked, body and mind, into an incredibly exciting world which feels impossibly real. You're not outside: you're inside, and you just don't want to leave once it's over. Avatar is already marketed as a landmark event that heralds "the future of cinema", and it's hard to disagree. For example, I am certain that Peter Jackson is grinding his teeth right now, wondering "why didn't I wait just a few more years before making Lord of the Rings": rather than "just" seeing Arwen outrunning the Nazgul, in 3D we'd be flying right next to her, feeling that the iron-clad hand might reach out to us any moment, the Balrog's whip would be swinging right into our face, and the magic of Lothlorien would be, well, more than three-dimensional. Admittedly the 3D technology seems made for showing fantasy worlds more than modern urban architecture: in Avatar, too, the spaceship scenes with which the film begins look interesting but slightly strange, and it's only once we enter the forest that the magic really begins.
Apart from the obvious joys of watching such a spectacular movie, I was also struck by something quite different. Avatar, it seems to me, tells us something about how Western culture and society has been evolving over the last half-century. A convenient term of comparison is a famous blockbuster released exactly fifty years ago now, in 1959. Ben Hur won no less than eleven oscars at the time and remains an all-time favorite repeated on TV every Christmas season.
It is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and although most viewers will remember it mostly for the dramatic human conflict culminating the circus of Rome, the story plot is really about how the Jewish/Roman hero is converted to the Christian faith. The interesting thing is that this was a big budget movie, designed to appeal to the largest audience possible; and as such, it shows that an evangelical morality tale about the superiority of the gospel over Judaism and Roman paganism was still unproblematically convincing to audiences on the eve of the 1960s.
And now what do we find fifty years later? Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made, and like Ben Hur, it must be designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. But the message could not be more different. The heroes of this story are the Na'vi: a blue-skinned tribe living in "Pandora", a wild natural world of spectacular beauty. Their way of life is based on a deep respect for nature, and their spirituality is a kind of generic shamanism centred around the supreme divine power, a universal feminine presence that permeates all living things, and is named Eywa: a transparent inversion of the male monotheistic deity, Yahweh. It will be remembered that the missionaries who "christianized" Europe in the middle ages were in the habit of cutting down the sacred trees of the native population to demonstrate the power of their god over the pagan deities. In Avatar, barbarian hordes of businessmen and mercenaries launch a savage attack on Pandora because of its mineral treasures, and they go right for the huge tree at the center of its culture. When it is destroyed by firebombs, the Na'vi gather around another tree, the most sacred of all. It is called the Tree of Souls, and in its branches one can hear the voices of the ancestors. It represents the very heart and essence of the Na'vi's culture, and the invaders understand that if they succeed in destroying it too, their victory will be complete and final. The night before the final battle - which you will have to go and see for yourself - a healing ritual is performed under the tree, to save the life of a mortally wounded victim. Sitting in large circles and holding hands, the Na'vi are chanting and swaying back and forth in a collective trance, while the female shaman invokes the power of Eywa.
Looking at that impressive scene, I realized how deeply our culture and our religious instincts have changed in no more than half a century. For at the time of the Ben Hur movie, audiences would undoubtedly have recognized all this instantaneously as pure paganism and idolatrous worship. Fifty years later, we see it differently: the very same beliefs and ritual practices that used to be the very antithesis of Christian morality are now recognized by us as reflecting a deep respect for the sanctity of life. And more than that, the fact that this movie is designed to appeal to the largest audience possible suggests that those who created it understand something even more remarkable: that even convinced evangelical Christians, for example in the United States, will probably not recognize something as pagan if they are looking right at it!
In short, Avatar proves a very important point about contemporary Western culture, but one that is seldom recognized. From the devil's own ritual, paganism has now become the religion of our dreams.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Yes, I've neglected this blog for far too long... Surfing around on the net, I came across a blast from the past: Van der Graaf Generator, a band of the early seventies that used to appeal greatly to a very young Twilight Traveler. For starters, here's a very beautiful ballad, Refugees, from their early album The least we can do is wave to each other. If you like it, you might perhaps be ready for the more difficult metaphysical/existential stuff, such the albums Godbluff or Still Life, or (who knows?) for the absolutely weird extremes of The quiet zone / The pleasure dome. But if you start with Refugees, here are the lyrics for you:

N. was somewhere years ago and cold:
ice locked the people's hearts and made them old.
S. was birth to pleasant lands, but dry:
I walked the waters' depths and played my mind.
E. was dawn, coming alive in the golden sun:
the winds came gently, several
heads became one
in the summertime, though august people sneered...
we were at peace, and we cheered
We walked along, sometimes hand in hand,
between the thin lines marking sea and sand;
smiling very peacefully,
we began to notice that we could be free,
and we moved together to the West.
W. is where all days shall someday end;
where the colours turn from grey to gold,
and you can be with the friends.
And light flakes the golden clouds above:
West is Mike and Susie,
West is where I love.
There we shall spend the final days of our lives...
tell the same old stories: well, at least we tried.
So into the West, smiles on our faces, we'll go;
oh! yes, and our apologies to those
who'll never really know the Way....
We're refugees, walking away from the life we've known and loved...
nothing to do nor say, nowhere to stay; now we are alone.
We're refugees, carrying all we own in brown bags, tied up with string...
nothing to think, it doesn't mean a thing, but we'll be happy on our own.
West is Mike and Susie;
West is Mike and Susie;
West is where I love,
West is refugees' home.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

He's not there

I had heard of the movie I'm not there about Bob Dylan, but had no idea how brilliant it was. Today I watched it, and although I couldn't make head or tails of it at the beginning, I was gradually drawn into it, and halfway through I realized that I was watching a masterpiece. Bob Dylan himself does not appear anywhere in the movie, except in the final shot. What we see is fragments about other people, sometimes with well-known names (Woodie Guthrie, Billy the Kid), but they are not those persons either. It's the movie itself that is Bob Dylan, and he is present everywhere precisely because he keeps eluding the viewer. Still, once that elusiveness itself begins to look like a stable identity, it is deconstructed as well (never more painfully than with Dylan the gospel singer). Again and again, Dylan appears by being absent, for example in a scene where a singer with a painted face in a village roadshow sings "Going to Acapulco", and we realize that although it looks nothing like Bob Dylan and The Band, it is they who are present on the podium. Central to the film is the stunning impersonation of Dylan by Cate Blanchett (see photo), in black-and-white. His conversations with "Mr Jones" have the effect of a continuous series of démasqués where the joke is always on the viewer, who will find that not Dylan's but his own identity is on the line. Perhaps the whole movie is summed up in the 7th "simple rule for a life in hiding", recited by Dylan's impersonation as Arthur Rimbaud: "Never create anything, it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you the rest of your life, it will never change".

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Yes we can

I hadn't expected I would ever be talking about politics on this blog, much less American politics. But then again, there are many things I hadn't expected. About two years ago I read Morris Berman's Dark Ages America, and just couldn't help agreeing with his chilling analysis of the decline of even the USA's most fundamental values under the Bush administration, and his dark predictions about the future. As Berman argued, the Roman empire fell ultimately not because of contingent external factors: its fall became inevitable, because the Romans had forgotten what Rome was supposed to be all about. Likewise, the USA seemed to have forgotten what America was supposed to be all about. Berman saw no light at the end of the tunnel of paranoia, fear, arrogance and cynicism that the USA and much of the Western world seem to have entered after 9/11, and neither did I. Every time I went to the USA during the last years I came home more depressed by the mentality of blind chauvinism and egocentrism - my country, right or wrong - that I saw and felt everywhere around me. How could one do anything but give up faith in a country that had (re-)elected a president of such monumental incompetence surrounded by a bunch of obvious crooks, a people that seemed capable of confusing democracy and freedom with the "smart totalitarianism" of neocon-plus-fundamentalist ideologies, gave new legitimacy to torture, felt free to ignore international law and basic human values, or seriously considered the option of "preventive" nuclear strikes?
What made it all even much worse was the fact that - again, as rightly emphasize by Berman - the USA had no excuse, because its population should know better. A memory I will never forget is that of october 8 to 9, one day after the invasion of Afghanistan, when I was on my way back from Los Angeles to Europe, but got stuck in Washington. An official at the airport warned me not to go downtown (she seemed to think there were terrorists everywhere), and when I did anyway, I found that one could stay in the most expensive hotels for 1/3 of the price. I got one a few blocks from the white house, and made a long walk the next day. The weather was beautiful, and although I'm told it's usually crowded, that extraordinary day I seemed to have the Mall all for myself. I began at the Lincoln Memorial and spent a long time there, reading the fragments of his speeches on the walls. I've been told that every American schoolkid is raised with this heritage, but I hadn't been, and I was deeply impressed by the profound ideals, the wisdom, the hope, and the humanity expressed in those texts.
During the years that followed, as the USA and much of the rest of the Western world (including my own country) entered their steep descent into blind irrationality, fear and hatred, I was often reminded of that visit. Thinking about the tragic distance between America's core values and its actual behaviour, in my head I used to hear those enigmatic lines from American Pie (in my case, as sung by Madonna):

I met a girl who sang the blues
and I asked her for some happy news.
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
where I'd heard the music years before,
but the man there said the music wouldn't play.

That was the mood, and it lasted eight years.

And now, this evening the music was playing again. I was watching the concert organized, at the steps of that very same Lincoln Memorial, in celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration this tuesday. I saw Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé and many others singing about hope and optimism, and I saw so many expressions of deep, genuine emotion and sheer excitement at the very thought that this open and intelligent, young and dynamic african-american president has been elected as President of the USA. And I realized, not without a feeling of shame, that I had allowed myself (along with Morris Berman and many others) to give up hope: "no we can't, forget it, this country and its mentality is beyond cure or recovery". It had simply been beyond my imagination that the same people that elected Bush in 2004 would be capable of electing a black man four years later.
What I should have realized, or rather, should not have forgotten, is the real power that resides in the ideals written on the walls of the Lincoln memorial, or in similar ones as expressed by Martin Luther King on its steps: a power that is in no way inferior to those of hatred, despair and negativity, and does not grow any less because its opposite grows stronger. And I should have remembered how many people, during these past eight years, must have felt like me, and must have been thirsting for an opportunity to believe in the future again.
Of course I know that the concert was a perfectly staged event, designed to manipulate my emotions; of course I know that the myth of Obama will soon enough catch up with reality; of course I know how difficult it is for ideals to survive in the presence of power and political realities; of course I understand that no human being can live up to these expectations, and I realize that Obama was not born on Krypton.
But for now, for the first time after eight years, I'm going to allow myself to be hopeful and optimistic, not cynical and "realistic". And whatever disappointments Obama's presidency might have in store for me, I'm grateful to him for having reminded me that, yes, we can.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Just like happened with The Secret Life of Puppets, several friends and acquaintances began mentioning to me a novel by a contemporary writer, John Crowley (see photo). Or rather, a series of four novels called the Aegypt cycle. I just finished the first of them, The Solitudes, amazed not only at how Giordano Bruno keeps turning up (we've seen him before in this blog), but mostly at the depth, beauty and subtlety with which Crowley speaks about history.
His main character is a historian, Pierce Moffett, who begins to suspect that perhaps "there is more than one history of the world":

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there.

Contrary to common assumptions, it is not rationality and science that have caused the "disenchantment of the world", but historical consciousness. But history is a strange thing, with a double face. On the one hand, in the wake of 19th century historicism
it seeks to describe "what really happened": "one damn thing after the other", as Moffett observes elswhere in the novel, all of which is as true as it is meaningless. But on the other hand, the mark of a good historian is his ability to imagine the past: to enter it imaginatively, like a story, and somehow imbue it with meaning and significance. There is a deep paradoxality here: although historiograpy leads to demythologization, good historiography requires the powers of the imagination.
I do not yet know how Crowley is going to resolve the paradox (if he is going to resolve it at all), but I'm reminded of a famous quotation from Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism:

For the mountain, the body of things, needs no key; it is only the nebulous wall of history, which hangs around it, that must be traversed.
... True, history may at bottom be an illusion, but an illusion without which no perception of the essence is possible in time. The wondrous concave mirror of philological criticism makes it possible for the people of today first and most purely to receive a glimpse, in the legitimate orders of commentary, of that mystical totality of the system, whose existence, however, vanishes in the very act of being projected onto historical time.

In a very different way, John Crowley's novel seems to be about the same problem, which is ultimately that of nihilism.
One of Scholem's close colleagues, Mircea Eliade, juxtaposed myth and history as the domains of the sacred and the profane, and hoped that a revival of archaic mythological consciousness could be an antidote to a meaningless world ruled by the "terror of history". Scholem was grappling with the same problem, but his answer is much more subtle: it is not by escaping from history but by confronting its challenge that, like Moses, we might receive a "revelation from the mountain". Is the illusion of history the only reality by means of which we can glimpse a mystery to which our emotions assent intuitively, even though (or perhaps: precisely because) our reason denies it?
I'm very curious how Crowley's answer will be. In The Solitudes he sets the stage, brilliantly and in powerful prose. But there are three more volumes to follow: Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things. I can't wait...