Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rome, America, Philip K. Dick & the Lizard King

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.

This is a lyric from Jim Morrison’s LSD induced epic The End, sung as if in a trance like state, as if tapping into some collective thing of humanity or of the earth - who''s to say of what. Here he makes reference to Rome, but the rest of the song is very much about America. Dark highways and fragmentary visions of Oedipus realised underpin the ritualistic feel to the music as it crescendos towards a shocking finale.

And all the children are insane.

This got me thinking, about the connection between America and Rome. The founding myth of Rome is of Romulus and Remus, the twins that suckled a she-wolf. Right away, we see a connection to the natural, that which lies beyond the human world, towards the spirit world even. They suckle from the fierce and noble wolf, just and right, dangerous and cunning.

The two pillars of America’s justification for certain things that have been done in its name rest on the the might and right, justice and war, the noble eagle.

It is not simply that, though. You see there are two of Romulus and Remus. It took a duplication, or as close to it as possible in the natural world, to produce the city of Rome. And once they set up their city they invited political exiles, asylum seekers, or basically anyone who wanted to settle in the fledgeling city to do just that.

This is in some ways correlative to the way ancient Rome actually functioned. Constantly slaves were set free, and incentives were given to slave owners to do so. Within a generation, the children of the freed slaves would call themselves Roman and rarely anything else. Indeed, some historians reckon that Rome could not have functioned without such a high rate of individual slave emancipation.

This echoes America’s own beginnings as a continent of outcasts, adventurers and religious utopians. It creates places of flux and innovation, harsh places sometimes too. Pragmatism seems to be the guiding virtue, and a sense of a place without a centre, a home without a heart, is created in a certain way. What is Rome, what is America? It will be revealed, or it is to come, as Derrida would say. They both hold flux at their centre.

Two twins, in the wilderness they would come to call Rome. Two towers, Baudrillard said after 9/11, that stood for the ceaseless march of duplication, assimilation of everything unique into just another commodity. Baudrillard thought that the twin towers represented the faceless march of capitalism in our modern era, or more precisely, the march of the universal and the ceaseless will to acquire and conquer everything unique and with its own substance, however ephemeral that may be. The American empire, a soft kind of empire, not like the Romulus/Remus empire which conquered many a land with the tip of a sword. No, the American empire conquered through profit and saturation. It had little to do with government or armies: business models, computer systems, game theory and the virtue of greed paved the way. 

But still, what Rome offered was a Pax Romanus. The price you paid for being an occupied territory within the Empire was that with empire came peace and stability. In some cases this was preferable. All that was at stake was your cultural uniqueness, your ephemeral identity which gave you your names, your speech, your gods. That’s all.

Democracy, that was the goal in Iraq. Democracy and Starbucks.

Waiting for the summer rain, yeeeaaaahhh.

I remember reading once that Philip K. Dick saw a vision of a Roman-style city, with all its statues, pillars and arches. He had been looking at a far-off city that rose up from that American soil. Transposed on top of this was an image of the eternal city, Rome.

Dick had been suffering from anxiety and illness towards the end of his life until one day a disembodied voice began speaking to the sci-fi writer. It soothed him. Dick was never known to be a pillar of sanity, exactly, but it is interesting all the same, and I think it is worth recounting this strange tale here. Give it as much weight as you want. Toss it to the hounds trained to weed out the lunatics if you wish. Or believe it to be the literal word, like a creationist setting up a science academy to convince you that the world is only 10,000 years old and that dinosaur bones are a test from God. But are things simply of one substance, of themselves, or is it more likely that things exist in those in-between places, in the twilight of our vision, in the purple of the evening?

The voices comforted Dick to the extent that his wife at the time noticed a marked improvement in him. His last few months were happy ones, she said, a period which coincided with the voices. Now, throughout his life, Dick had taken drugs. A lot of drugs. This certainly affected him deeply, mentally and physically. There is no doubt that Jim Morrison took a similar path, ODing in a bath in Paris ultimately. Both saw America as Rome. But both dived into the excess. And this must also be part of America. I want more, they screamed. Empire, expanding, always expanding. All roads lead to Rome, or snake away from it, paving all the land (were it only possible) towards ... towards ... towards its final end.

Philip K. Dick's  voices were accompanied by visions of strange creatures which were human but not quite human, who existed outside of time, rearranging timelines to avert some disaster or some such - possibly to make the best of all possible worlds. And in this nether-realm of the angels, Dick saw Rome transposed upon America, both strange melting pots full of shiny wonders and oddities but with a hole in their hearts and an insatiable desire to meet their maker.

To know the face of God, to see the fire inside the smallest things.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Famine, What Of It?

Having recently written a script, a sort-of coming of age story set in rural Ireland sixty years ago, I ended it with a scene from the famine. Without spoiling things too much, a father tells his son a story about his grandfather's experience of the Great Hunger. His story is laced with idealisms and mythology. The horror of the truth can be seen on the screen (or will be), as the father waxes lyrically above images of bodies being piled into pits, or the living dead wandering the barren fields of those forgotten years.

I say forgotten, because I had this hunch that that is how the famine comes down to us. Forgotten.

Before I wrote the scene fully I went to my friend whose girlfriend is involved in the recording of old folk songs and poetry to see if she had anything of interest relating to those desperate years. Seen as my friend didn't get back to me, I went ahead and wrote it.


I remember being in a history tutorial with that same friend in my half-remembered college days (or the famine years, as I call them, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek). We were discussing the famine and its impact on Irish society. There was a mature student there who used to always say things that I always disagreed with. He said that he didn't understand why the Irish hadn't rebelled after the famine, as it was was "the perfect time", as he put it. 

I countered his surface level argument with a genuine piece of Freudian insight - "Everyone was too depressed." And everyone in the class laughed. But I kind of meant it. There was no will left in the country to stage anything like a revolution. The people were exhausted. Worst than that, they were scarred for life. To say that this was a time ripe for revolution was to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Great Irish Famine, Great in the sense that it was terrible, Irish in the sense that it happened here, and a Famine in the sense that it was just that. 

Jesus man, I felt like saying to him, it was all there in the name. Nobody could muster up much of anything after those few years.


Next time I saw my friend, I asked him if his girlfriend had found anything. He apologized for his forgetfulness, and told me she had an article about how the famine was remembered in some communities in Ireland. The stories that people would tell would begin something like this, "Well, the famine never happened in this town, but there is this story I heard from the town just over the way ..." History though works as the psychoanalyst of mythology when it is at its most brilliant, and in fact the famine did happen in these places. 

It happened pretty much everywhere, and it truly must have seemed like the world was caving in on top of those poor wretches, our ancestors. By the end of it all, they mightn't have been sure if Ireland even existed anymore. Truly, perhaps, there was an Ireland before the famine and an Ireland after it, in the same way there was a Russia before the October revolution and a Russia after it, Jewish people before the holocaust and Jewish people after it ...

I know here I am veering into dodgy territory, making the allusion between the holocaust and the famine. The English weren't the Nazis. But neither was the government of Westminster at the time, the government of the UNION of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, entirely blameless. 

Not. By. A. Long. Shot.

Wanting to know even more on the subject, I borrowed a book on it from my housemate called "The Graves Are Walking." I am more than half the way through, and have recently had to put the book down a few times, because I couldn't read anymore. Currently in the depths of the famine, there are horrors on every page.

Imagine, if you will, death and disease EVERYWHERE, people dying in of hunger or disease whilst lying in there own blood, vomit and feces; people walking aimlessly along a road, nothing but skin and bones, because there was no such place as could be given the name "home" anymore; clambering aboard coffin ships in the hope that the apocalypse hadn't happened in any other part of the world.

This happened, in this country.

Like I said, there was an Ireland before the famine and one after it. And it was only after that some uneducated peasant, uncomfortable with politics and books and revolution, seen that something wasn't quite right here. For something like this to happen. It happened. Here.

I am going to end this rambling with a few points that I garnered from the book, some which resonate today.

1. Underlying the racist attitude towards the Irish by the British was a general ignorance as to what Ireland actually was. The racism masked the fact that they knew nothing about us. All measures enacted in the early days of the famine were based on English models. If you say that England and Ireland are in a UNION together, then you should act in accordance.

2. Experiments in free-market ideology, dubious at the best of times (except for if you're rich), have absolutely no place during a time of famine. That's right. The famine is an example of the clear failure of free-market ideology to address the problem at hand. Take note any Irish-American Republicans!

3. It happened, I mean actually happened, here.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Spider and the Butterfly

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than is dreamt of in your philosophy.
- William Shakespeare

Did you ever do something that you thought was Good, but it left you with none of the pulp and juice as the fruity reward you expected for your moral victory? Did you ever bite into a juicy orange, for the first time, maybe the first after a succession of first times, only to find that it was not the same as fizzy fanta foaming over the rim, or sugary orange juice, sweet, light and refreshing, or even like plain old freshly squeezed orange juice?

You’d bite into that segment of orange, and its white exterior veins would tell you something primal about the world which you might mistake to be some sort of fuzzy thing about nature, how we’re all one, how we should all go dancing in the field, and how God is alive within us so we should rejoice. Or you might divine from the oranges exterior entrails that God the oppressor is dead so we should rejoice in our freedom. Or something boring like that.

That day, that day I was in the sitting room of my family’s home. It was an ordinary enough day and unbeknownst to myself I was feeling particularly heroic, or I would be a few moments later when I noticed, in the corner of the room underneath a desk, a cobweb.

On its edges stood a spider, silent, obedient and watching, waiting for something to die. In the centre was quite possibly the biggest meal the spider could ever hope to have - a butterfly. Beauty had met the beast in my eye. The beast was winning.

My brother has always been scared of butterflies for some reason. When one would get trapped in the house, flying around gallantly, bumping off turned-on light bulbs as if it were on a Kamikaze mission to the sun, making all the ruckus of a large animal in a zoo, my brother would insist that they be gotten rid of. From his bedroom, at the very least. And this job usually came to me. 

I have always had an odd sense of morality when it came to animals that reminds me, thinking back on my meetings with our ancestral kinsfolk, of tales of Buddhist monks afraid to hurt a fly out of respect for the great wheel of life. However, my morality was not a religious one, nor was it so sturdy a structure as to send me on a guilt trip when I did end up, accidentally or otherwise, killing a small insect or what not. I was never even particularly squeamish around dead things. I had seen my father white like marble in a coffin when I was six. I had seen worse than a dead creeping thing. Much worse. 

So the job usually came to me. I was the natural choice to clear the mousetraps in the morning. I would go down in the morning before my mother got up (she insisted) and check the traps and dispose of the evidence before anyone saw.

One time I went down and the scene was particularly gruesome. A small mouse had mousetrap''''s metal bar spring down on him, catching him not on the neck but on the head. It was probably a quicker, less painful death than if it had come down on his neck as the mousetrap was designed to do. Still, it made me wince all the same, with its little mouth open and a pile of gloomy crimson in front of it, sprayed out across the floor.

Messy business, that.

In general then, despite a history of traumatic experiences with the dead, I wasn’t one to kill a living thing really unless it was of a clear and distinct threat in some some way, shape or form. I can’t really recall when that was ever the case really. 

I do remember a time when I may have, but probably didn't, kill the biggest spider I have ever seen. It had a leg span that could reach the edges of my fist. I know this because it fell on it as I opened the door to my shed that my brother and I once dubbed as “spider haven”. It was a neglected place, a creeping cobwebbed place.

I opened the door and it fell on my hand. In the split second that it stayed there, I looked down at it, and saw its gigantic bulbous body and its long long legs. I screamed and flung my arm to one side sending the spider flying across the garden. 

I doubt I killed him, but I may have.I didn't feel guilty. Still, there was a pang of something there, the ghost of a memory haunting me.

I think it came from my mother. I was never particularly fond of spiders, but I remember something primal that lies in the fog of early memory. She said something to me that has lost its context but has some sort of tongue-in-cheek truth to it. These are things that you remember where the when and the what, or even why, are all in question. Well, "in question' is the wrong phrase. Instead, they don't even matter. 

She said to me that you should never kill a spider and that it couldn’t kill you if you wanted it to and it didn’t hurt us in any way to have one of the creeping things lying dormant on a cobweb in some darkened corner of the house.

Our objection to spiders is in most cases an aesthetic one; they are scary things, as if they were something from some forgotten past, deadly; black, silent, dedicated, remorseless. It was all of those things, rolled into a package that was most alien to us, like a bad piece of modernist art, or a primordial stain of some trace trauma lost in the deep deep past. Nasty little things, as my friend would say. He who would not sleep in the same room as one of those little buggers in their webs.

My mother’s direction, I suppose now, was guided by some sort of vision towards tolerance and acceptance of that which sends your guts shaking at first. It was a challenge, then, of the will over the unconscious, the mind over instinct, the decision over the action, the vision over the reality, the abstraction over the concrete, the natural over the unnatural.

The key to this little teaching was hidden, perhaps, behind the binary logic which encourages us to do a moral act, to show mercy and tolerance. The key, hidden and unknown by teacher, only revealed in a residue after the lesson had been thought, was to acknowledge our minds as an opposite-machine, a moral filter, and then to err on the side of good. 

Yet we think like this simply because we do. It is a weird mix of biology, social conditioning and instinct or even something approaching divine providence (if you’re really that confident) that gives us our role as moral arbiter standing over the entire Cosmos. This is a sort of heady cocktail which in the real politick of the universe is transformed  into some sort of whole, if we can even say that much.

So there I was, at my most human, watching a little spider spinning web around that gargantuan butterfly, and feeling that I had a duty to save it somehow. I found a compass and I tore him away from his would-be sticky white tomb. I wonder, now, did he have any memory from before he went into the chrysalis and transformed from a little green crawling thing into that eagle of the insect world? Come to think of it, he would have gone out very much the way he had come in if the spider had its way. 

The chrysalis, the sticky white spider cocoon, its birth, its death. 

If it did remember the time before, when it was a completely different creature, then perhaps it held out a hope that it would be reborn after its death as some sort of simpler life form. Perhaps it was a Buddhist or a hindu in its own way. Or maybe the cocoon had become for it a warm place reminding it of its initial becoming.

I remember looking at the spider when I cut its web and tried to free my beautiful butterfly. I imagined that it would for me feel like a victory, like I had defeated the evil ogre and won the heart of the princess. I was very idealistic in my day, you see. But the spider simply retreated, waiting at the edge of its shattered web, possibly looking on in disbelief. I remember thinking something very strange right then, something that put this whole Good project in doubt. 

I had no doubt, right up until that moment, that I was following some natural order. A natural order, naturally connected to nature as a whole thing, a divine law or a moral order that comes from the silent GOD of our modern age. Right up until that moment. I was doing the work of Good, GOD's work.

I used the compass to pry away the web as best I could from the butterfly. It knew nothing of what I did for it. The spider waited silently on his web. And that butterfly staggered away, and died a few days later. I had done the right thing. But it was a hollow victory.

It is as if we can’t know anything, but not really. We can know things, lots of things, we can see deep into the mechanics of the world and of life. But some things lie beyond us. In a mystical sense, yes, even though here I was going to assure you that it is not a mystical sense. But only the mystical can give credit to where its due in this case.

There is a certain level, a point beyond which we can’t understand. It is the place where the Question meets its final end; but also the place from which it commences. It is constituent in our existence as finite beings, as human beings, but it terrifies us. But it exists. You cannot say that it lies beyond the senses. It can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, quantified, analised, fucked, made love to, injected, snorted, smoked, toked, experienced or mulled over. But it is part of all of those things. You cannot wish to see it, for it will slip away. But you will know when you do. I seen it in the spider and the butterfly.

Truly, there is a world beyond what we can know and see. It lies everywhere.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Strange Symmetries: the Art of Mark Weaver

Mark Weaver, the machine, the artist, the human flesh bag, the gathering together of bits and pieces through some strange coincidence, a being of pure light, surfing on a star beam towards its final end, an immortal in the woods, scared and alone, a tasty treat for some poor soul, an enigma for another, an echo across a forgotten corner of the Cosmos, a chance finding itself forsaken to certainty, a chimera, an inmate in an insane asylum, a cross breed, something new, something old and decrepit, something natural, something not, something unnatural, something neither. 

Transmission interrupted. 

Transmission never sent. 

What is the sky, that it burns so blue with the white hot fire of a dying father?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tomorrow's Canvas: Sci-Fi Artists

When I was a kid I got a book on the making of Ridley Scott's Alien. Though I had a jumpy recorded VHS version of the James Cameron sequel which I watched ritualistically every few months or so, the original eluded me for ages.

To be honest, it took me a while to warm to the first film once I did see it. I think that this is a testament to the fact that it was the more adult film of the two. I have come to recognize the genius of the original. But, as someone somewhere no doubt once said, I love them both, just in VERY different ways ...

Even though I had not seen the film yet, I poured over that "making of" book with reverence and awe. The amount of work that went into that film, the time effort talent and devotion that made it all gel into a wonderfully crafted whole is nothing short of inspiring.

Anyway, thinking back on that book, featuring seminal sci-fi artists of the day Ron Cobb, Mobius and H.R. Giger inspired me to do a google images search for other sci-fi artists.

Here are some of the results:

The Island that Lay Before the Great Flood

Atlantis was lost beneath the sea, the king of philosophy wrote millennia ago. The people there fell into vice and paid the ultimate price for upsetting the natural order, whatever that may be.

Enda went to Brussels or Frankfurt or one of those other European places on the news where you see politicians trying their hardest to look oh so serious in front of their own reflections. Enda told 'em a tale of modern Atlantis, once again lost beneath the waves of the sea, repeating that old ballad sung by CJ all those years ago - "We lived beyond our means."

"It was an island that lay before the great flood in an area we now call the Atlantic ocean," the Donovan song goes; Donovan, who now lives in "fair Atlantis", with not a shred of irony.

The secret is that Atlantis lives on, that the waves of finance and wealth and cheap loans and mortgages and fancy restaurants and summer houses in Spain and bags of coke and living like a rockstar version of Narcissus crashed upon the land like a great tsunami that only the god Neptune could have conjured in the insane madness of the stormy sea.

We must have done something wrong, like believe in a utopia packaged by a few rich white guys far across the sea. The small poor catholic country where the craic was to be had became a golden empire reaching for the stars for a while, and a giant silver spike pointing the way to Nirvana.

That needle, make sure to catch the vein ...

Atlantis was swallowed up, but it still lives.

And I'm sure if you were to ask the king of the philosophers if he actually asked anyone other than a king or a priest in Atlantis if they actually deserved their fate they would probably say, "No, before my time that."

And I'm sure if you were to ask an ordinary person living in Atlantis if they actually deserved their fate they would probably just shrug. "Twas a messy thing, that," I suppose they would say.

Then I remember. Atlantis is just a story. There's no evidence for the existence of that grand island. It was a virtual place, a myth, a lick of gold paint on something tainted with the lifeblood of a living breathing organism.

Atlantis never existed, the Celtic Tiger never existed, and fuck off Enda Kenny.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dublin Noir

Here are some pictures I took the other day.

Anyone else think that Dublin would be a great setting for a modern take on a film noir?