Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Closing in on death

Goodbye then, Lewis Reed. It’s been a long walk on the wild side. First recording with the Jades, ex-Shades, in September 1958. First solo recordings in 1962: “Our Love” and “Merry Go ‘Round”, preceding even the Pickwick period – check the top name here:

shad

lou 1959

 

 

 

 

 

 

We owe the late Lou a lot. Though as the blogosphere clogs with tear-choked tributes, we might want to bear in mind the conceit, the petulance, the paranoia. Victor Bockris’s 1994 biography helps put the man in a balanced perspective. Meanwhile, for a tribute, let’s try something different …

 

Advertisements

Nico’s stare

An arrangement of poets: Nico and Clarke

An arrangement of poets: Nico and Clarke

The recent media re-emergence of the worthy John Cooper Clarke (website here) reminds me of his ‘eighties “domestic arrangement” with the late lamented and incomparable Nico (Christa Päffgen – encyclopaedic website here), she of the harmonium and the frozen angst. Though by all accounts it was an arrangement arranged entirely around heroin, which must have left little room to share much else, least of all writing. Song lyrics don’t often survive as poetry on the bare page, stripped of their music (Lou Reed is not Delmore Schwartz, nor even Edgar Allen Poe), but some of Nico’s do. Agreed, her efforts in the years preceding her death are understandably slighter (though musically the later years are by no means a decline). But much else stands. It’s hard to account for the compelling feel of, say:

Friar hermit stumbles over the cloudy borderline

– but it does compel, at least for me.

Friar hermit stumbles over
The cloudy borderline
Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline
Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline

Over railroad station tracks
Faintly flickers a modest cry
From without a thousand cycles
A thousand cycles to come
A thousand times to win
A thousand ways to run the world
In a similar reply

An interesting question is: where did all this spring from in the first place? In the very readable chronicle of his Nico years, Songs they never play on the radio, James Young, her keyboard player and arranger in the ‘eighties, wrote that, with her own material, the pop princess and model had “revert[ed] to her real singing style – dark, European and deeply melancholic”. But what had there been to revert to? Elsewhere, certain tags are far too easy and sniffy, and obscure rather than explain, e.g. “girlish Gothic … spacey romanticism” (John Rockwell, New York Times). Nothing like The Marble Index had yet been heard in 1969, though lieder is at least a point of comparison. All admit that Nico’s art was “unsuspected”, to put it mildly; it’s as if it landed from somewhere else. But from where?

The rump of Throbbing Gristle, as X-TG, has recently “reimagined” Nico’s Desertshore, their guest vocalists struggling against the relentless industrial loops. (Marc Almond, sounding oddly like Anthony Newley, being the best of the bunch.) Their album’s Amazon blurb speaks of “a repurposing of Nico’s maudlin, scraping sorrow”. Sorrow, yes. Scraping, possibly. Maudlin? Meaning foolishly sentimental? Don’t think so. TG were developing their “industrial” aesthetic at precisely the point where Thatcher was about to abolish British industry. Their own work is certainly nostalgic, romantic, Wagnerian – sentimental, even. Nico’s songs (with one or two exceptions, such as the much covered “Afraid”) are not sentimental. Neither do they call for any “repurposing”.

If her trappings were sometimes romantic-symbolist (watching her in Philippe Garrel’s La Cicatrice Interieure is like watching animated Puvis de Chavannes), it was at least a Symbolism without referents. But the words and the music are never soft. It is a Northern aesthetic, hard, cold, isolated, speaking of a genuine emptiness.

Much written on Nico (though I’m no completist) seems self-indulgent rock “journalism” (e.g. Lester Bangs), or is clearly not to be trusted. (For instance, Peter Hogan’s Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground judges the cover for her last album Camera Obscura to be “possibly Nico’s most enigmatic … redolent of angst and unseen threat”; unfortunately, neither image nor angst here are Nico’s, the album illustrated being by indie pop duo Camera Obscura.) In his account, James Young bigs up the sordid side waspishly. But one feels that he must have Nico about right – a selfish monster whose rare gratitude “was so transparently insincere that it was almost endearing”.

Discographia Obscura

Discographia Obscura

There is nothing good about heroin. At all. As anyone who has witnessed its impact on users and their families knows. But there is something extraordinary, heroic in some sense of the word, about Nico’s demolition and reinvention of herself, her loathing and repudiation of her own beauty. Young again:

“In photographs the light seemed to carve and recreate her … Close up it was a different picture. The long blonde hair of the Chelsea Girl was now a greying brown, her facial skin puffed and slack, her hands and arms scabbed and scarred by needletracks, and her eyes like a broken mirror. It wasn’t necessarily the years that had been unkind to her … but the woman herself. She had simply traded in her previous glamorous image for something altogether more unappealing. Yet she didn’t seem to care …”

In the 1995 Nico Icon documentary, Young goes a step further:

“She was almost proud of the fact that her teeth were rotten, that her hair was grey, that her skin was bad, that she had needletracks all over …”

Suffering in itself doesn’t guarantee authenticity. But bloody hell, it must go some way towards it. We should take Nico’s writing seriously. The thousand yard stare from behind the microphone requires us to.

nicoAcross from behind my window screen
Demon is dancing down the scene
In a crucial parody
Demon is dancing down the scene
He is calling and throwing
His arms up in the air
And no one is there

All of them are missing as the game
Comes to a start
No one is there

Me and my moustache

The unexpected invitation to grow a moustache is an annunciation that should not be ignored. A moustache is a calling. There is something profoundly atavistic and mystical about the sudden and unvoiced conviction that it would be a proper and spiritual thing to allow wiry hairs to sprout like barbed wire in the no man’s land between nostril and upper lip. Though beardless since before the dawn of memory, I now feel that my sense of maleness and fullness of being require this addition, and I lay aside my shaver.

moustacheA few days’ growth, little more than extruded stubble, but already I am impressed to see that a new personality is layered onto the morning mirror. I turn my head, inclined a little, from side to side and allow my modified features to catch variously the daylight that filters through the bathroom blind. Reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite place him. His first appearance is somewhere between Captain Mainwaring (benevolent buffoon) and Alf Garnett (malevolent ditto), and on the whole, as I purse my lips and test out a range of facial expressions, I am quite taken with him. But as morning piles on morning, and as the growth begins to hint at a likely permanence, I notice that he proceeds to take on a less welcome aspect. He sneers at me when he thinks I’m not looking as I enter the bathroom. In fact, he seems positively antagonistic. There is something unpleasantly military about this stranger in my house. Where have I met him before? Who is he, and how can I have offended him?

Ah! Now I know him! I peg him in a uniform of Teutonic grey serge, circa 1920. Yes, he is an ageing oberstleutnant in a Freikorps unit of embittered veterans. Unable to adapt to the unaccustomed peace and to the national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, he has enlisted under General Avalov-Bermondt, and looks towards revenge. Soon he will make preparations for the invasion of Latvia. He is also a vain and insistent rascal, and already he gesticulates from the bathroom mirror, demanding to be given a monocle.

In a few years, I suspect, he will move to Munich, write hollow earth pamphlets, and spit at Jews and gypsies in the street.

It’s no good. Tomorrow I must shave off my moustache and put him away forever.

The time-flats of Trianon: temporal paradox in ‘The Childermass’

In Wyndham Lewis’s extraordinary 1928 satire The Childermass, recently deceased odd couple Pullman and Satterthwaite (a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza pairing, or aspects of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein if you prefer) wander the “Time-flats”, the unstable purgatorial landscapes of the hereafter, as they seek admission to the heavenly Magnetic City.

The Punch-like Bailiff surveys the Time-flats, in Michael Ayrton's cover for the 1956 edition

The Punch-like Bailiff surveys the Time-flats, in Michael Ayrton’s cover for the 1956 edition

In one more than averagely baffling episode Pulley and Satters find that they have meandered into a “Time-scene” where all becomes smaller in an artificially diminishing perspective, and – as in H G Wells’s 1901 story The New Accelerator – people and animals are frozen in immobility. Arriving at a living tableau straight out of Rowlandson, they identify the time as the late eighteenth century, and the place as Islington – specifically, the Old Red Lion Tavern where, as Pullman recalls, Tom Paine wrote his Rights of Man.

As childish Satters peeps into the garden of the tavern, he sees three men around a table, on which is placed “an object the size of a large hen’s egg, of bright ultramarine …” Fascinated, Satters tweaks the pigtail of one of the miniature figures, which, coming to life, upbraids him “with a slight American accent,” proving itself to be Paine. (The identity of the other two figures sat before the egg is not suggested, though the Williams Blake and Godwin might be a fair bet.)

Satters and Pulley, by Ayrton

Satters and Pulley, by Ayrton

Pullman, perhaps aware of the terrible dangers, familiar to all science fiction readers, that might result from interference with the past, is horrified. But he is powerless to restrain his companion, who, in a fit of spite, snatches up the miniature Paine and runs off with him. The mannikin sinks his teeth into Satters’s hand, who retaliates by trampling him “in an ecstasy of cruelty … into an inert flattened mass.” Having gratuitously killed off the Enlightenment and human rights, the pair are abruptly flung back into the present, or at least, what passes for time present in their shifting afterlife.

The episode is touched on by several commentators, but I’m not aware of much analysis of the details. In the novel as in his wider work, Lewis is concerned with what he sees as the deleterious cultural and political effects of “time philosophies”, and in particular the subjectivised model of time as creative flux promoted so influentially by the philosopher Henri Bergson. Alan Munton has noted how the instability of the landscape, much of it apparently invented by the grotesque Bailiff who presides over the entrance to the City, suggests the untrustworthy and contingent nature both of fiction itself and of the political structures embodied by the Bailiff. More recently Jonathan Goodwin has also highlighted the relevance of the novel to the political climate of the late ‘twenties.

But why the eighteenth century? And why Tom Paine? And what is the mysterious blue egg that so attracts Satterthwaite? Maybe this episode comes a bit more into focus when set alongside a possible source for Lewis, the bestselling An Adventure of 1911 and 1913 – the first hand accounts of the “Moberly-Jourdain incident,” sometimes tagged as “the ghosts of Versailles”. The incident is well covered in a Wikipedia entry, and the texts of both editions are available here and here, but the main points can be quickly outlined.

In August 1901 two English women, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both teachers and daughters of clergy, visited Versailles. Losing their way on a walk to the Petit Trianon, they experienced, according to their own accounts, a sense of oppressive unreality. They encountered a number of people in more or less old fashioned clothing, but each also noticed, at a distance, figures that the other did not, including a woman sitting sketching whom Moberly later identified as Marie Antoinette.

an adventureComparing notes later, they agreed that the location had been in some sense haunted, and embarked on a decade of detailed research into the historical background. On return visits to Versailles they failed to recognise many features of the landscape they had walked through, but later claimed, on the basis of their research, that these had existed in the late eighteenth century. In 1911, as “Elizabeth Morison” and “Frances Lamont”, they first published their accounts and the exhaustive results of their research.

The affair hardly deserves a place in the museum of hoaxes alongside the Cottingley Fairies and so forth, if only because, barring outright fabrication, which appears unlikely, the precise nature of the matter eludes satisfactory definition. The two most respectable “solutions” later offered – (1) a folie à deux triggered by repressed lesbian desires, and (2) that the pair wandered unwittingly into a fancy dress charade organised by neighbouring decadent Robert de Montesquiou – are both so fantastical as to make the suggestion of time travel seem entirely moderate.

Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain

Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain

Both women owned “the faith of our fathers”, found ghosts “unconvincing”, and “studiously avoid[ed]” spiritualism as “utterly lowering”. However, Moberly did confess to “powers of second sight” and to other, less substantial, psychic moments. In 1902, the year after the event, they submitted their accounts to the Society for Psychical Research, though a later review of their book in the Proceedings of the Society was sceptical, suggesting a misinterpretation of actual events. But Moberly and Jourdain concluded that in some way “we had entered into the working of the Queen’s memory while she was still alive.” Their experience had not been of time travel pure and simple, nor of a haunting, but of some sort of historical-psychological slippage.

An Adventure became, briefly, a best seller, and lodged itself for some time in the popular consciousness as a psychic cause célèbre. (I remember being told about it by a teacher on a visit to Versailles in the ‘sixties.) Lewis would almost certainly have known of the book, and its relevance for his vision of Bergsonian time in The Childermass is clear. There are several similarities.

In both cases the landscape is unrecognisable and landmarks altered. Moberly and Jourdain recall passing over a small rustic bridge over a waterfall leading to a small pool. On subsequent visits they could find no evidence of these features. Conversely, Pullman and Satters can see no sign of an expected river, the one “real” landmark by which they hope to find their way.

Both landscapes feel artificial. Moberly: “In front of us was a wood … Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees behind the building seemed to have become flat and lifeless, like a wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees. It was all intensely still.” Lewis: “‘It’s like a picture,’ Satters suggests … Nothing seems to be moving on its surface … It is a little faded like a very much enlarged rustic colour-print.” And: “’It’s a panorama! Look at that hedge. Do you see its perspective? It’s built in a diminishing perspective.’”

While Moberly and Jourdain converse freely with some of those they meet, Jourdain also carefully notes the near immobility of others seen at a distance: “The woman was standing on the steps, bending slightly forward, holding a jug in her hand. The girl was looking up at her from below with her hands raised, but nothing in them … I remember that both seemed to pause for an instant, as in a tableau vivant; but we passed on, and I did not see the end.” Compare with Lewis: “A group of posturing figures, with the silhouettes of ancient fashion-plates, pivot and point to all quarters of the compass, occupied with the view. Their arms stand outstretched, as stiff as cannons, or travel slowly across what they are surveying.”

In each case disconnected or disembodied sounds are experienced. Moberly and Jourdain hear the sound of a running man some time before his “sudden” appearance. On a second, solo visit the following year Jourdain heard the rustling of silk dresses and voices speaking in French: “I turned round sharply to see who they were, but saw no one … Faint music, as of a band, not far off, was audible … Both voices and music were diminished in tone, as in a phonograph, unnaturally. The pitch of the band was lower than usual. The sounds were intermittent …” Pullman and Satters hear an “ominous hollow thumping”, which “sounds rather near” but fluctuates. Pullman points out that here “near and far are very relative”, and interprets the sound as the hammering of a sculptor, which perhaps suggests the fabrication of the landscape.

Moberly and Jourdain eventually concluded that “… if we have entered into an act of memory, it may well have been first made on the terrible 10th of August, 1792, though the memory itself was occupied … with the events of October 5th, 1789 … There is an incoherence … which seems to require combination within a single mind, and the only mind to which they could all have been present would have been that of the Queen … she may … have seen the trees, as one sees trees in recollection, like a picture without life, depth or movement.” Their narrative may have struck Lewis as a text-book case of time experienced in the Bergsonian mode. As already mentioned, the women submitted their accounts to the Society for Psychical Research; in 1913, the year of the second edition of An Adventure, Bergson accepted the presidency of that Society.

On October 5 1789 the royal couple were expelled from Versailles; August 10 1792 was the day of the insurrectionary occupation of the Tuileries that effectively ended the monarchy. In March 1791, about halfway between these two events, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was published, in part a defence of the French Revolution. Lewis has Pullman and Satters slip through time to a point of influence symmetrical with the events across the Channel re-remembered by Moberly and Jourdain.

Later in The Childermass, Pullman and Satterthwaite listen to the lengthy, ranting pronouncements of the Bailiff before his audience of appellants, clamouring to enter Heaven. At one point the Bailiff explains that “… you are entirely without rights. For your share you shall have the right of petitioning! That my poor friends is your Bill of Rights – so it has been, so it shall always be – in that I can alter nothing. Call it a Bill of Wrongs, I cannot help you! I am not the Legislator.” Pullman, whose sympathies are with the Bailiff, responds by shouting out impulsively: “Well come that’s something!”

Lewis’s italics are a direct quote from Paine, whose original irony is compounded by our realisation that, as the Bailiff puts it, “so it has been, so it shall always be.” The world of despotism figureheaded by the Bailiff is a world where the constitutional rights advocated by Paine have never been won, because Paine, thanks to Satters’s moment of puerile anger, has ceased to exist.

I have not been able to find a reference to such a “temporal paradox” theme in any science fiction before the 1940’s. If this is the case, Lewis appears to have been the first writer to use the idea.

great mogulBut what of the ultramarine egg on Paine’s table that stirs up the “kindergarten intensity” of Satters’s inquisitiveness? Lewis tells us: “It is the egg stolen from the Great Mogul the Virgin egg.” The missing punctuation (so effective when Lewis reproduces the rhythms of vernacular speech) is not helpful here, and the two terms require separation. The fabulous Great Mogul diamond, cut in the shape of an egg and of a bluish tinge, disappeared in 1747, believed stolen on the assassination of its possessor, Nadir Shah of Persia. The Mogul is the diamond, not the owner, though the confusion here may be on the part of Satters rather than of Lewis. Satters at first assumes that the object must be a large jewel, but in reality it is the “Virgin egg” whose effluence both attracts and repels him, for “to touch it spells discovery”.

The term “Virgin egg” is Theosophical jargon. In Blavatsky’s tediously convoluted symbolic cosmology, it is the egg of pre-cosmic, undifferentiated matter, now penetrated by the ray from the Logos and descending to the plane of manifestation. It contains in itself the promise of the entire universe, and so can be identified with the Akashic (aetheric) egg, sometimes shown as blue or purple. In Theosophy the “Akashic Records” are the energetic imprint on the Akasha of all experiences of all lifetimes in all realities, an accessible holographic repository of past occurrences and future potentials. Essentially, the Egg is an image of the Bergsonian time-flux, condensed.

What business has it in the hands of the rationalist Paine? As Lewis must have been aware, and as an online search will speedily confirm, Theosophists have long claimed Paine as an adept, if only for his universalist deism and his interest in freemasonry. In the moments immediately preceding his premature demise beneath the football boots of the “psychic clown” Satters, Lewis has Paine in adoration of the essence of the very time-philosophy that enables the two interlopers to cancel out his existence. It is a fine Lewisian irony.

The eighteenth century misadventure of Pulley and Satters is less science fiction than parable. For Lewis, subjectivist time philosophies of the Bergsonian and Theosophist kind, becoming dominant in the twentieth century, are far from progressive. They are sympathetic to a fiction-making that redefines the past, and the present and future in terms of that past, setting cultural forces at the service of ideological control. As the Bailiff’s antagonist Hyperides puts it: “That Time-factor … that you have put back to obsess, with its movement, everything – … what is that accomplishing except the breaking-down of all our concrete world into a dynamical flux, whose inhuman behests we must follow, instead of it waiting on us?”