beardogbears

Around here real and imaginary characters are shockingly always crossing paths.

Diane Williams – ‘How Much Did You Ever Think the World of Me? (2019)

 

The mammals of the Oligocene are often described as though they were halfway creatures, semi-formed prototypes: dog-bears (bear relatives that looked like dogs), bear-dogs (dog relatives that looked like bears), large cat-like sabre-toothed hunters that were not true cats, and the most charismatic members of the Oligocene bestiary, the entelodonts, or ‘hell pigs’: each as big as a cow and equipped with huge crocodile-like jaws, a sort of ‘gigantic, hyper-carnivorous warthog’. Not actually pigs at all, they were more closely related to whales.

Francis Gooding – ‘Hell Pigs’, a review of Tim Flannery – ‘Europe: the First One Hundred Million Years’, London Review of Books vol 42, #1. (2020)

Among the many inhibitions that beset my writing for performance there is, in addition to a number of quite severe constraints that I apply voluntarily, one that never relaxes its grip and must be regularly challenged. It has an almost irresistible force and settles on me like a slothful powdery moth coiling and uncoiling its proboscis, injecting a nectar that tames unruliness and blankets the mind with logic. Narrative has a uniquely sedative gravitational pull that, I find, scuppers the poetic pleasures of disconnection and incongruity. Write half a page and groan, even as you strike the keys, as beginnings sprout middles and middles taper to their ends.

Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds

It’s hardly a novel thought (it’s hardly a novel) but if you don’t want theatre to tell stories then there are countless alternatives to narrative structure. The first performance script I wrote was ‘Jack, the Flames!’ (1972) and it was significantly lacking in throughlines, coherent structure and character depth. Which is what I wanted. I was in the habit of writing down my dreams back then so I transcribed some of them then imitated them to generate more text. The script was all over the place but Hilary knocked it into shape. For the next few years, however, with subsequent shows, I was bothered by the feeling that maybe I should pay more attention to this structure thing. I tried to put endings on the scripts that felt like endings but they were the weakest part of these works. I was very taken with The People Show back then and they never had endings. Or proper beginnings really. But when I picked up my pen (there were no PCs then) I couldn’t stop drifting into narrative. I’d go for a few pages without it and the next thing I knew I was connecting up the scenes as if they were going somewhere. I just couldn’t stop it.

I found myself doing something I didn’t believe in but it would creep up on me. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a proper playwright, I’d never wanted that. I liked other people’s stories in films and books, no problem there, but I didn’t find their various structures appropriate for theatre. I didn’t actually find theatre’s own structures appropriate, come to that. But when I was about 18 I read Ulysses in my bedroom one summer and that did it. A little while later I read Naked Lunch. After those two books there was no going back. I mean, do you want to live forever in your home town? Between about 1962 and 1972 I was gratifyingly overwhelmed by a barrage of experimental films, novels, poetry and Happenings and moved in circles increasingly populated by adventurers presenting a variety of pathological behaviours. All this was both formative and obliterative. I had so decisively crossed the channel that I couldn’t have gone back if I’d wanted to. To aspire to narrative would have been a betrayal of all that magnificent reading and viewing and hanging out.

But although I felt I had placed myself beyond the allure of the conventional play form, I hadn’t reckoned with the after effects of the 18 years of exposure to narrative that had preceded the meltdown. My parents were not connoisseurs of the arts but in their bookshelves I had discovered and devoured Steinbeck, James Jones, Salinger and Huxley. Throughout my boyhood I had returned time and time again to my father’s collection of Richmal Crompton’s William books and loved every single page of the witty, eventful, stories and their variously naughty, irascible, pompous and vain characters. In all this pre-adult reading I was gripped by the expressive elements on display, including the construction of narratives. But a few years later, the early 60s tsunami kicked in, I read Artaud at university (as distinct from the Eng Lit for which I had enrolled) and thought that I was ready to dance my own steps.

I saw four or five films a week at Uni, in the local cinemas, the local art-house cinema and the Uni film societies. After Uni I went to film school. I had already seen Breathless (1960), Zazie dans le Metro (1960) and Jules et Jim (1962) in my home town and along with my fellow RCA students I then revelled in a three year binge during which it seemed that a new Nouvelle Vague film, or something European with a similar spirit, was being released every week.

It was the thing in my home town to shout out in the cinema. Wags of all classes would bellow witty, indignant, inspired, vocal graffiti at the screen, usually to roars of approval and, in the case of those cinemas with raked floors, the rolling of empty bottles downhill towards the screen. There are many such outgusts that I cherish to this day, among them ‘Shag’er while she’s still warm, mate!’ addressed to the monster hovering above the body of the scantily clad young woman he had just killed; also ‘What about the woodpeckers?’, a riposte to Rod Taylor, in ‘The Birds’ (1963), who has just frantically nailed boards across all the windows and doors in the house under attack by angry birds in order to save Tippi Hedren and himself and then mops his brow and says to Tippi ‘We should be all right now.’

Quite why Roger Dibbs undertook to come to a showing of Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961) I’ll never know. One of the artiest art-house films in the world at that time, it had done well at the Venice International Film festival but had, as they say, divided the critics. On one side of the critical chasm were those found it hopelessly obscure, painfully slow, devoid of meaning, little more than a form of torture. Others considered it to be a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece, ‘one of the most influential movies ever made (as well as one of the most reviled), Marienbad is both utterly lucid and provocatively opaque’ (J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 2008).

Roger Dibbs was a very cool dancer who was into jazz rather than The Beatles. He was well groomed in a tasteful European jacket and tie style, something of the lounge lizard about him, and his skills included the throwing of window boxes full of soil and flowers through the plate glass windows of the Lending Library, setting fire to a great pile of old newspapers in my friend’s mother’s hallway and tipping a huge ornamental urn from a pub balustrade onto a white Triumph TR4 sports car parked ten feet below. The police hurried to the last scene and captured half a dozen of us. Dibbs vanished but we resolved the issue by saying to the main policeman ‘Roger Dibbs did it and this is his address.’ He was a vandal, but so well dressed. I call his vandalisms skills because he practised them often, usually at the weekends, and they acquired greater and greater polish as he moved with charm and reserve through the leisure circles of that town in a flat area of the country.

Anyway, after about 25 minutes of vitalisingly melancholy monotone French voiceover as the camera tracked ‘once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors – silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls … ‘ there erupted across what, up to that point, had been a poised, unbreathing silence a stentorian interruption from the cheap seats. Dibbs – ‘It’s a load of bollocks, isn’t it, Dave?’

Delighted as I was with his uncouth observation, I didn’t actually agree with Dibbs. I felt his pain but also my own shocked enchantment. I have held Marienbad in my top three for some considerable time and while my own shows are considerably faster paced and regularly feature spasmic, homicidal and tourettish outblasts, the languid, plotless, frozen, dreamy world conjured by Resnais and his screenwriter Robbe-Grillet, with its barely mobile, stately and expressionless actors speaking without emotion or facial nuance is just what the doctor ordered insofar as I find it unfailingly restorative and just plain exciting. Lynch produces similar effects but they, like Fukunaga and Pizzolatto’s ‘True Detective’ (2014) and Refn’s ‘Too Old to Die Young’ (2019), are enhanced by explosive scenes of violence and episodes of manic pace. Refn actually out-slows Resnais – his 13 hour, 10 episode TV show glaciates exquisitely, pushing the envelope off the edge of the escritoire with the ‘Is there something wrong with my TV?’ majesty of the dialogue scenes – every single one of the dialogue scenes – in which characters routinely pause for between three and five seconds between exchanges – to call it a tic makes it sound screwball, it’s a cavernous tock – without ever acknowledging any situational reason for this extreme stylisation. The effect, in all three cases, is to bathe the most routine scenes in unremitting dread.

I took most of my cues from films. But in 1963 or so I was mightily impressed by Artaud’s short play ‘A Spurt of Blood’ (1925), whose preposterous, deranged, mythopsychoanalytical delirium I experienced as a soothing balm. I directed a version of it while at film school. The skies rained offal.

It helped that I didn’t like theatre itself very much. It was basically very strange but everyone behaved as though it were perfectly normal to carry on like that. The utter oddness of dressing up, learning lines, pretending to be someone else and inhabiting a space bounded by flats, drapes and lights was rarely acknowledged. This awkward other-worldliness was compounded by, in this country at least, the deployment of a range of hystericised (but not invigorating) speaking styles which, at their particular times, were held to be in some way reflective of the way people spoke and thought in the nearby everyday life.

Theatre was clearly stuck and it annoyed me. When I went to see it by accident it made me bad-tempered. But there was so much to be taken from films and books.

A few months ago, idly, from the top of a bus, gazing at nothing much, noticing a large municipal Christmas tree decked with white lights. A person with a dog is pushing at the tree making it undulate. Why would they do that? The picture clears: it’s not the person that is undulating the tree, it’s the wind blowing across it. The person’s arm is extended towards the tree, yes, but they are not touching it. I forgive the person. The event fades and becomes nothing. A slip of the eye. The essence of a disposable event. To call it the essence of anything is to grant it an undue importance. This kind of thing goes on all day long. It deserves to be edited out. Deleted. Surely even a human mind, which seems to be able to hold an infinite amount of information, need not process this kind of flotsam. Just let it pass. The alternative is to remember too much. To be cluttered as a matter of course.

Or just today, a bespectacled red-faced man walks past the window. He has a monstrous extra face beneath his chin. It ripples down to his top shirt button. Well, for a second perhaps. The kind of thing that happens when you’re wearing your reading glasses rather than your street glasses. It’s just a glasses thing. Gone with the wind. No big deal. But in that second what a show! A flesh riot in the high street!

Where do these snippettes come from? Do we make them up on the hoof, effortlessly, like nonchalant poets? Are our skills in this regard so fluent that at the least suggestion of an interruption to the flow we activate an elusive but super-efficient mechanism that seals all gaps? Which in turn suggests a certain urgency. What’s the rush? What could go wrong?

It would be a mechanism that works on an anything-is-better-than-nothing principle: if we didn’t fill those gaps, who knows what would press forth? But in the case of the extra face, monstrosity emerged anyway. And isn’t that something we’d rather not know about? So maybe ‘making them up on the hoof’ isn’t the way to look at it.

In fact it’s as if ‘we’ have very little to do with it. We just provide a platform. The images pop up in one piece, ready to go. A bit like an encounter with the Australian stonefish which delivers an incapacitating sting when accidentally stepped upon in shallow seas. We just do the treading – we didn’t ask for the fish.

It is unlikely that there is within us a repository in which resides, say, an image of a monstrous extra face suitable for insertion beneath a passerby’s chin. There is, however, the silent continent, the inland empire, the unconscious which is by its very nature restlessly protean. So utterly efficient is the messaging connectivity that, in terms of filling the gaps, it’s like lying in a tent in the rain – an incessant drumming against a membrane that keeps us dry but if you poke at it the water gets through. Is it conceivable that the rain is always raining? And the only reason we are not constantly drowned by intrusions is because we keep busy?

Were there such a repository then this is how its contents might be stored

The other weekend The Guardian had a story about Haribo suing some Spanish bar owners who were selling jelly bears containing alcohol. The Spaniards, the report said, ‘planned to carry on selling their products in Spain – and to their customers in France and the UK – to show that their bears would not be cowed.’ This raises the question of whether Haribo has a position on cows that will not be borne.

I realise this is not top notch wordplay but it had to be done. Ideally the past participle of ‘bear’ will not be ‘borne’, it will be ‘beared’. This would then deliver the much desired ‘cows that would not be beared’. This, in turn, suggests that the cow will resist transformation into a feared rather than domestic creature.

On the other hand, in the statement ‘Peter and Susan were cowed by dogs’, we will find, lightly concealed, the possibility that ‘Peter and Susan were dogged by cows.’ So much better. It suggests that, under certain conditions, the placid cow will be caninised.

So much better (The sausages carried by the cheeky dog have passed through the cow. They are hotdogs.)

 

It may seem odd, decadent even, to dwell on such fleeting flukes. To treat them as if they had something to say. It must be said, however, that, in their way, they do approach the Oligocene. (See quote at top of post.) In the Oligocene (I keep writing it ‘Oligoscene’ so I looked up ‘oligo’ just now and what do you know: just a few or scanty. From the Greek ‘oligos‘ (as in oligarchy but I was slow to make the connection) (palaeontologically speaking it must refer to an era of which little is known) (despite the profusion of creatures for which it is known) it is clear that things were coming and going, crossing paths, colliding, blending, unblending, indecisive, changeable, making up their minds, haven’t quite got this but we’re getting there, this will never work, it could go either way, yeah but give it a chance

I was driving along the M4 out of town one time and had to slow down because of a collision up ahead. As we crawled past the police cars a bizarre sight slowly came into view. On the other side of the buckled crash barrier two trucks had clipped each other with such force that their rear doors had burst and their contents were strewn across all six lanes of the motorway. The drivers were talking to the police on the hard shoulder. One truck had been full of furniture – sofas, armchairs and tables. These were lying randomly around on the tarmac. The other truck was a baker’s truck and had been full of loaves, buns, tarts, doughnuts, battenberg slices, cupcakes and bags of flour. The bags had exploded and created a Christmas scene across ground zero. A heavily powdered sofa bore several dainties in odd clusters and ragged stacks, as if impulsively abandoned by two untidy people. Slices of white bread festooned an inverted reclining chair. Jam doughnuts littered the scene like beached anemones. And so on.

As well as resembling a respectable site specific installation piece, the spectacle was a fine snapshot of the poetic process which went some way beyond ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’ to a higher hybridism wherein the battenberg on the scatter cushion was not on it but of it. A creature of a drained undersea world.

the possibility of recognising nature, even distorted nature, which is, after all, a kind of struggle between my interior life and the external world as it exists for most people

Picasso in ‘Life with Picasso’, Francoise Gilot (1964)

Freud, of course, gave us the Slip (in ‘The Psychopathologies of Everyday Life’ (1901)), something of an ur-text here insofar as it introduces the notion of the unbidden utterance – an involuntary speech event featuring the partial expression of unsettling memories and ideas in words which resemble and replace those that would have been spoken as part of an uncorrupted original remark. A similar but visually based principle animates what we could call the space-filler, wherein an often minor, often everyday, occurrence seems to elude comprehension yet is nevertheless, with the speed of thought, framed within an interpretation. The malfunctioning aspect of this operation – the absence of an initially acceptable understanding – features the barely conscious acknowledgement of a gap, a black hole, in the generally unstanchable stream of consciousness. Nature adores such a vacuum. Ever loaded, always cocked, it will spritz the narrative with alternatives drawn from what is probably a vast but uncatalogued collection of all that is inconvenient. A malcontent is undulating a tree. Public order is breaking down. A public good is being trashed.

(An earlier version of the paragraph above referred to ‘unnatural alternatives’ ( 2 lines from end of para) – this is careless. It suggests that the natural is limited to what we know. ) (Picasso saw it otherwise: “…I don’t want there to be three or four or a thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there to be only one and in that one, to some extent, the possiblity of recognising nature, even distorted nature, which is, after all, a kind of struggle between my interior life and the external world as it exists for most people….I don’t try to express nature; rather, as the Chinese put it, to work like nature.”)

Greta Gerwig on the set of ‘Little Women’ with cast members

Reading an article on ‘Little Women’ (2019) in Sight & Sound (January 2020) I glanced at one of the accompanying photos and was surprised to note that Emma Watson had folded her right leg across Greta Gerwig’s lap as she studied the script with the director and cast members Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh. Watson is slight of build yet her bent leg looks quite heavy. Her posture also looks quite uncomfortable.

But, of course, Watson is doing none of this. The ‘knee’ that is seen is formed by the lid of Gerwig’s laptop and her ‘calf’ is Gerwig’s lower leg. The photo is sufficiently dark to allow the casual glancer to fuse the two dark objects into one encircling limb. If the exposure and contrast are tweaked with photo editing tools the actuality of the arrangement becomes crystal clear:

In such a situation if one would be asked ‘Are you seeing things?’ then the answer must be ‘Yes, I am.’ And supposing it were then asked ‘These things that you see – are they worthy of remark?’ then the response should be frank: ‘They are largely useless. Most would be wise to ignore them. There may be those who have some use for them, however.’

It took several minutes to write the three preceding paragraphs and less than one half of one second to misread the seating arrangements in the photograph. Correction of that misreading took perhaps three or four seconds. The economics of this are sufficient to dispel any ideas of the value of the mistake that can never be made again. But I dwell on such phenomena in part because they are so hastily discharged.

These corrections and realignments probably happen throughout everyone’s day every day on the planet all the time. They probably start when everyone is very young, when a mixture of misreading and intermittent realignment is all we have. A little later realignment becomes a more conscious operation as our confidence feeds off a steadily expanding bank of successful adjustments. And of course, as we get older it is as if the need for realignments is greatly reduced, our skills in this field are consolidated and the incidents, if they are noticed at all, have no more importance than an itchy nose. It may be, however, that it’s not so much a matter of skill as we simply learn to ignore events that have no apparent meaning or value.

In order to resurrect then reinstate a capacity for misperception, Salvador Dali conceived the Paranoiac Critical Method, wherein a specialised personal effort was required to undo the habit of ascribing an essential, final reality to objects in the world. By incubating some of what he considered to be the crucial characteristics of a paranoid state of mind he sought to expose himself to the world equipped ‘to systematise confusion and thus to help to discredit the world of reality’ (1930). The world thus apprehended will be constructively contaminated, its objects will be surrealised. Dali would deploy ‘a delirium of interpretation’ informed by ‘irrational knowledge’.

The crucial achievement of one who has deliberately and perhaps ‘methodically’ developed a paranoid frame of mind is to find, with considerable rapidity, connections and associations between objects and ideas that have no association or affinity. This destabilised mode of seeing lends itself equally successfully to the production of the double image, defined by Dali as ‘a representation of an object that is also, without the slightest physical or anatomical change, the representation of another entirely different object, the second representation being equally devoid of any deformation or abnormality betraying arrangement.’

Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire – Salvador Dali (1940)

 

Ernst, in a lecture delivered in 1935, described the objectives of systematic derangement variously: / the exploitation of the fortuitous meeting of two distant realities on an inappropriate plane / (a) means of bewitching reason, taste, and conscious will / the cultivation of the effects of a systematic bewildering / based on nothing other than the intensification of the irritability of the faculties of the mind /

The paranoid state was held to have artistic value (in addition to its capacity for enabling misery and terror) insofar as it, apparently effortlessly, remodelled the exterior in the terms of some of the more volatile or inconstant currents of the unconscious.

When we did peripheral vision in A level Biology we learned some things that were useful. The usefulness of some of these things was immediately apparent and I have valued them ever since. There are various types of gaze. The dominant one is characterised by visual fixation and refers to the field of vision within the point of fixation – the centre of the gaze. Vision beyond the bounds of the point of fixation is deemed peripheral vision and takes up the larger part of the visual field.

One thing in the diagram that fixates attention is the unusual scope of far peripheral vision. You can see behind you. If you look at the side of someone’s head you’ll notice that the eye curves round the front of the head. Without actually turning the head at all you can exceed what might be assumed to be the outer limits of peripheral vision. There is a visible ground between 90° (approximately the mid-line of either shoulder) and 110° (beyond your shoulder), where straight ahead fixity is 0°. The far peripheral. Out of the corner of your eye.

They told us at school that the far peripheral enabled creatures to move around without turning their heads unduly, to avoid bumping into things and to become aware of threats before they get too close. It is inevitable that things seen out of the corner of one’s eye will often carry a certain weight of menace, usually mild to the point of becoming barely perceptible.

On the other hand, our tendency to misread peripheral information can be regarded as having a survival value comparable to the indisputable advantages of a built-in optical early warning system. It could almost be argued that if peripheral vision generally delivers insufficient detail this actually enhances the survival project insofar as one is compelled to double check just in case one has overlooked a ravening nearby bear, dog or highwayman.

We’re not talking ayahuasca here. This is the straight street, not even the high street. But if the structure of the eye is such that it facilitates both detection and misinterpretation then it is tempting to imagine the capacities of the corner of the eye being extended right across the visual field so that the peripheral eclipses the fixated.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘That’s all very well but how are you going to get to the shops/the cinema/the other side of the room?’ To which I would riposte ‘Yes but is it not conceivable in this case that what would then be seen would be not the consensual external but a marvellous mélange not dissimilar to the dogbear (or beardog)?’

It might be that you would then feel obliged to observe that ‘I am an airline pilot/driving instructor/ person. The only way that would work would be sitting down. And not in an aeroplane. Kindly remove your sewing-machine from the dissecting table.’

The information delivered by peripheral vision is, of course, invaluable but it is also imprecise. If it seems ominous, however, it is not always the case that one need be dogged or cowed by it. You have the option of immediately turning your head and instantly resolving the matter. If you choose not to turn your head then the misinterpretation may linger, which introduces the possibility of savouring the distorted elements connoisseurially: where you do not discard but retain, perhaps in the belief that while it might be distorted it can also be regarded as a free offer.

Saccades: A saccade (from Fr: jerk) is a quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes between two or more phases of fixation in the same direction. Humans and many animals do not look at a scene in fixed steadiness; instead, the eyes move around, locating interesting parts of the scene and building up a mental, three-dimensional ‘map’ corresponding to the scene. (Saccades: Wikipedia) In this example the viewer’s eyes will saccade as they track the movements of the saccading eye.

It’s misleading to conclude that visual distortions of this kind are damaged goods. Along with misheard speech and misread texts they constitute a constant but elusive source of inspiration for artists who are keen to examine the sources of inspiration. All that glimmers is not gold, needless to say. A lot of this stuff is off-cuts. But they who denied it supplied it and should not disdain authorship.

Authors are free to develop their material. Many of them would see such development as a seamless extension of techniques or anti-techniques that they employ as a matter of routine. When paying attention to the suburbs of attention is successful, the event may be called ‘a good idea’ or ‘a brainwave’, something that ‘popped up’ etc.

In the well-known but only moderately amusing joke about drunks: Is this Wembley? No, it’s Thursday. So am I. Let’s have a drink. the rewards of mishearing are made clear. The peripheral becomes the contaminant that enters the mainstream and determines its course.

The dominant contaminant is probably not misperceived so much as overlooked. Everyday thought teems with mental events and is accordingly filtered in order to maintain fixation. The thoughts that don’t fit fall away into the wings. We learned how to ignore them years ago. If we were to unlearn those lessons then the beardogbears could lollop out of the woods and display themselves and if we didn’t like them we could send them packing. It’s like going to the gym (I imagine) – the more you do an exercise the easier it gets.

You paint in those few moments when you can formulate something. But lying in wait for them, that’s very different from representing something and giving it shape.
Sigmar Polke

 

On the foreshore of the Oxfam Book Shop a mint copy of ‘London in Fragments – a Mudlark’s Treasures’ by Ted Sandling. It’s about the people who dig antique fragments out of the mud when the Thames is at low tide. On Sandling’s first ever visit to the shore he spots a fragment of an old clay pipe and initially dismisses it as being simply too ordinary, as mudfinds go. On closer inspection he is excited to find that the bowl of the pipe is moulded to resemble ‘a perfect horse’s hoof, complete with a fetlock and a fine coat of hair.’ The muddy old pipe stem had been misperceived, its distortion overlooked. A thing of the interior was rejected in favour of the mundane. An inverted surrealisation has taken place: the hunter has construed something as unworthy of remark but upon taking it in hand he sees the commonplace morph into a dream object before his eyes. pipehorsepipe.

No Respect

I was ugly, very ugly. When I was born, the doctor smacked my mother.

One night I came home. I figured, let my wife come on. I’ll play it cool. Let her make the first move. She went to Florida.

When my old man wanted sex, my mother would show him a picture of me.

I get no respect at all – When I was a kid, I lost my parents at the beach. I asked a lifeguard to help me find them. He said “I don’t know kid, there are so many places they could hide”.

I’ll tell ya, I don’t get no respect… The other day, I got back from a business trip. I got in a cab and said to the driver, “Hey! Take me to where the action is!” So ya know where he took me? He took me to my house!

A girl phoned me the other day and said… ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home.’ I went over. Nobody was home.

I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous – everyone hasn’t met me yet.

My mother never breast fed me, she told me she only liked me as a friend.

My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.

At first glance he’s neat and smart – usually a sharp blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie. The outfit rarely changes. Neither do the mannerisms that threaten to compromise the overall composure. The left hand straying to adjust the tie knot, a knot that does not require adjustment. Every few seconds the hand flies there, fidgets needlessly then drops to the side again. And then, after a short while, the sweating. It’s real. It shines under the lights. He’s obviously working hard but part of the attraction of what he does lies in the contrast between the smart outfit and the material that he’s producing. The sweat is therefore a little jarring, perhaps a product of that contrast. It’s not quite right. He will reach inside his jacket or into a back pocket, produce a handkerchief then mop his brow. Even when he’s finished and sitting next to the host at the desk, he continues to mop his brow. And that seems to suggest that he was tense and is still tense and while it helps the act perhaps in the beginning it wasn’t planned but it suited the act and has now become a part of it and, to some extent, is inseparable from it. Rodney has an urgency that reminds us that if you’re going to channel a stream of gags as if they’re just naturally popping into your head then it’s hard work – these things don’t come naturally. Is that what anybody is actually like? They walk in and these compact formulations are ejected twice a minute until time is up?

The gags are one or two-liners on the whole and must, obviously, be separated in some way if they are to make sense. Between each gag, then, comes this small fusillade of tics, the fiddling and dabbing bringing to mind the tugging of the shirt shoulder, the adjustment of the head band and the bounce after bounce after bounce of the ball before it is served by the tournament tennis player. While we don’t doubt that the tennis player wants very much to deliver, with Rodney we wonder if each new set of birth pangs will be the one that scuttles the enterprise.

So although he is superb his persona isn’t relaxed. It is shot through with tremors from the one who, from beneath its damp skin, animates the performance.  In this respect he’s subtler than Woody Allen. The physique  of the latter, his posture and his vocalisation are brought together harmoniously in the character of the whining weakling who will never experience a satisfying social transaction. But when Rodney pushes through the curtains the first impression is of one who is combative. He has a bullish demeanour, bulging eyes and he seems like a man in a hurry. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if he were packing a handgun. He’s wired.

Except that Rodney tells us, from time to time, ‘I don’t get no respect.’ This is his catchphrase. His act consists in his itemising the hundreds of instances in which he has been disrespected. It’s not observational comedy, the overrated genre which, in its disingenuous claim to derive from the clear and nonjudgmental eye of the portraitist, asks us rue our inability to see the funny side of life that’s beneath our noses. Instead it’s where Rodney, who may or may not suffer from low self-esteem when he’s at home, merely opens a vein of abjection then complains about it within earshot. He’s talking to us but you get the feeling that his internal monologue is not that different.

Oliver Stone clearly suspected that there was a thin line between love and hate when he was casting for Natural Born Killers (1994). The self-flagellation of Rodney’s humour could be turned outward, at which point he would become a psychopath rather than a stand-up. This proved  to be entirely the case. Ed Wilson, his character in the much underrated film, is Rodney to the max, unalleviated by nervous tics or the least indication that he may be domesticated to any degree. A masterclass in cartoonish, horrifying domestic sitcom parody, Rodney’s scenes as abusive, ogling, pawing, incestuous father to Juliette Lewis’s rebel girl Mallory are, despite the use of a sitcom laugh and applause track throughout, appalling yet exhilarating because somehow soon the slavering beast will be neutralised and his comeuppance will be as lurid as his fatherly behaviour is beyond the pale.

 

Towards the end of his amiable work in Cheers, Woody Harrelson was approached by Stone and took the role of Mickey, a natural born killer of a more suitable age for Mallory in the homicidal folie a deux rampage (52 victims) on which the couple embarks after Mickey has despatched Ed with a crowbar.

The first hour of the film is incongruously experimental for a Warner  Brothers product, both formally and in the nihilism of its moral instruction. It is pitched as a satire that will address the enthusiastic attention paid to celebrity killers but is so extravagant and poetic in its means that it becomes, in the same breath, an irresistible paean to unfettered recreational slaughter. The first 15 minutes do not so much test as erase the contours of sitcom convention, setting free an ordinarily muffled content that celebrates, within the frame of a passionate romance between two attractive and murderous young people with a lot in common, the amputation of  sociality that we are encouraged to believe is one of the great privileges of dedicated coupledom.

By presenting Ed/Rodney as the prime and incestuous transgressor Stone creates a space in which the abused and avenging Mickey and Mallory may outdo him as killers yet retain the charm of the natural born. Rodney Dangerfield’s stand-up comedy work is made palatable, furthermore, because it is presented as a species of self-harm but  in the menacing sitcom preamble to Stone’s movie this effect is redirected with the support of, amongst other things, the sound of manic laughter from the laugh track serving to remind us how uniquely thrilling are the pleasures of rupturing taboo.

17.08.2021

Vacant Possession

‘Sometimes a disappearance can be more haunting than an apparition.        Mark Fisher/k-punk – Nothing Happens. k-punk, 22/12/2006

http://kpunk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/008806.html

It is reputed that in the decades after the war, psychoanalysts began to report that there were fewer clients suffering from the classical Freudian disorders. The old Oedipus and Elektra complexes were thinning out, replaced by vague anxieties about not really being real, substantial or present at all.

Michael Newton – Lonely rangers: the dark side of westerns. The Guardian 06/05/16

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/06/dark-side-westerns-film-bfi-season-ride-lonesome

It had…no digestive tract, hence neither ate nor defecated, so required twelve-hourly infusions of a concentrated nutrient as well as regular hydration.                        William Gibson, 2020, Agency, Penguin Books UK Random House.  p.186

It wore black trainers with bright white soles, loose gray trousers cinched at the ankles, and a black kimono-cut jacket. And looked, in the confusing way of situations like, like Flynne. Not  that it actually bore anything more than a passing resemblance to her, but that he was so accustomed now to experiencing it as her physical avatar. ibid. p.187

…at any given moment consciousness includes only a small content, so that the greater part of what we call conscious knowledge must in any case be for very considerable periods of time in a state of latency, that is to say, of being psychically unconscious.

The Unconscious, S. Freud in The Unconscious (1915) ch.1 in Sigmund Freud – On Metapsychology vol II (1984) in The Theory of Psychoanalysis  series p.168. Penguin Books

“Have you seen Ash lately?”                     “We met her new partner,” Netherton said, “who Verity insists on calling a ‘woke’ peripheral. He’s entirely autonomous, not to mention very witty.” …                                        “Whatever makes her happy,” Lowbeer said, “in these times of ours.”               ibid. p.402 (the final page)

When Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? his key inspiration was not the dawning age of robotics but the real-life Nazi mass murderers whose diaries he had studied for his previous novel The Man in the High Castle. “For me android is a metaphor for people who are physiologically human but behaving in a non-human way” he told Paul M. Sammon, the author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, in 1981. “I use such terms as android and robot, but I’m really referring to a psychologically defective or malfunctioning or pathological human being.”

Steven Dalton, 2019. Blade Runner: anatomy of a classic, BFI.  www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/blade-runner

The human brain is the most complex entity in the universe. It has between fifty and one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, each branched to form thousands of possible connections with other nerve cells. It has been estimated that laid end to end, the nerve cables of a single human brain would extend into a line several hundred thousand miles long. The total number of connections, or synapses, is in the trillions. The parallel and simultaneous activity of innumerable brain circuits, and networks of circuits, produces millions of firing patterns each and every second of four lives. The brain has been described as a supersystem of systems.’

Gabor Maté, Scattered Minds. Vermilion. 1999. p.63.

Oh we’re so pretty
Oh so pretty
We’re vacant
Oh we’re so pretty
Oh so pretty
Vacant
Oh we’re so pretty
Oh so pretty
Ah but now
And we don’t care
Pretty Vacant (chorus). Sex Pistols (Paul Cook, Steve Jones, John Lydon, Glen Matlock). 1977

Some of the issues raised in the Strength Weekly essays Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish and Further to Outlandish, are complemented by futuristic fictional technologies that drive the narratives of the two most recent novels by William Gibson. The Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020) respectively introduce then develop the notion of a connected array of devices that enable time travel by means of quantum tunnelling and remote control of humanoid avatars.

It’s possible that not even Gibson himself could explain with unwavering precision the ingenious but mysterious apparatus he has envisioned but it transpires that a person from the 22nd century can socialise with another from the present (in this case a ‘present’ set in our own not-too-distant 21st century future)  by uploading themselves into a ‘peripheral’ that is operated in the future yet is materially apparent, in all but a fully identical body, in the present. The humanoid avatar is built in the present from plans transmitted from the future by ‘quantum tunnelling’ (this could be the point at which Gibson might be hard pressed to deliver any specifics; not  that we necessarily crave this in speculative fiction).

As if getting dressed for an appointment, the 22nd century human pilot of the  peripheral dons a headpiece which will transmit their speech and movements in real time to their humanoid avatar in the 21st century. In the Gibson novels, the attitude of those in the 21st century who encounter peripherals is watchful, mistrustful and apprehensive. A reflexive and irresistible othering is in play. Not because of any overt monstrosity but because of its absence.

It is probable that if we were actually confronted with an inhabited peripheral we would expect at the very least to be transfixed. The uncanny valley effect would be intensified by several orders of magnitude. If we did not know who or what was piloting the creature our sense of unease would be comparably heightened. If we knew that the avatar was piloted but nonhuman this would certainly be the case. If we only sensed that the avatar itself was nonhuman but had no means of confirming it our reluctant fascination would continue undimmed. In the latter case we might suspect that the person before us was ‘odd’ or ‘not quite right’ in some vague ‘mental health’ way. Vacillations between behaviour of any sort and its complete absence might even be construed as a terminal and virulent form of bi-polar disorder.

The nature of the peripheral when not being piloted is just as fascinating as its remotely animated state. It just sits there. It doesn’t know ‘sit’. It has no sense of ‘there’. Whereas in the real world sometimes ‘The lights are on but nobody’s home’, in this case not even the lights are on.

Given that all science fiction is ultimately about the present, the fictional technology of the peripheral can be seen to articulate certain contemporary psychological dysfunctions with great eloquence.

An abiding anxiety associated with being a conscious being relates to the difficulty of quantifying being conscious. For example, how full should consciousness feel? Should there be a lot going on or just a modest amount? What does that mean? How would you measure it? Might it relate to how much is going on in the world or does that have only a marginal bearing on feelings of fullness or emptiness? Much of the time one feels there is no choice – regardless of the impact of external events the mind fills up anyway and thoughts compete, jostle and erase each other. But when, for example, the Sex Pistols announced their (Pretty) Vacancy in 1977 it seemed to apply not just to truculent Punks but to legions of the disaffected evenly dispersed across the nation.

The lyrics to the anthem could be taken further inasmuch as not just the emptiness but the Prettiness of Vacancy was acknowledged, albeit ironically. The Vacancy/Vacantness may have been a condition that grew out of political disgust – a refusal to take up any position of resistance on the grounds that it is demeaning to do so. This was not necessarily a bankrupt response so much as a disdainful riposte to bankruptcy. The absence of articulation was eloquent and is widely found to be attractively enigmatic.

Nevertheless, disdain is one of cool’s several attractive cousins and perhaps its most appropriated, serving to suggest an articulation that is withheld but may not actually exist. Strength Weekly has often dwelt on the allure of the unexpressed interior and the rich possibilities of projection that it offers.

The possibility of being empty is chronic. It never goes away.  While it is certainly the case that trauma can suppress even disruptive thoughts and depression can leach away distinctions, it is unlikely that any of us will ever encounter an ’empty’ person. The designation is figurative and the muted subject is able non-verbally to demonstrate desolate or diminished capacities for thinking, feeling and articulation itself.

It seems unlikely that the mind ever truly rests. Those who meditate claim otherwise but practitioners of my acquaintance say that the much sought ‘stilling’ can take years to develop let alone reliably maintain. We are familiar with the kind of information delivered in Gabor Maté’s quote (see sidebar) and without pausing to consider ‘how much of the brain is used in thinking’, it is clear that this unimaginably complex organ would have no capacity selectively to deactivate the various functions that synergetically produce thought. Death or damage will do it, of course, and the irreversible state known as ‘brain death’ or ‘brain stem death’ is only another way of describing death – it’s a medical euphemism.

Notwithstanding all of the above both the figurative and the literal ‘cases’ of ’emptiness’ need an extreme illustration to conjure them in a way that is satisfying and dramatic. Gibson’s peripheral supplies this and in so doing outstrips in terms of thoroughness even the ‘Blade Runner’ (1984) replicants, whose uncanniness tends to  taper off as they persist in displaying human discontents. As far we can gather, a replicant or ‘skin-job’, from the Dick/Scott stable has blood and veins and is wholly organic, produced by genetic engineers. It is destined to be ‘retired’ after four years but given that it  does not run on batteries could probably maintain its own metabolism and, were it not destined for liquidation, enjoy a lifespan comparable to that of its masters,

A pilotless peripheral, on the other hand – the sort of thing kept in the mid-21st century garage, presumably – is stone dead. The confusing part, however, is that the ‘meat’ part of the creature has to be properly maintained, just as you would regularly water a pot plant. So while the ghost has most certainly left the machine, the machine itself must be regarded as the most uncanny locus of vacancy that one might ever brush up against.

If the peripheral’s owner went away for the weekend, the peripheral would be stacked emptily in the dark until they returned. If necessary a neighbour would be asked if they could keep an eye on its metabolism and tweak it if necessary. The owner would be looking forward to their great-grandaughter, as yet unborn, animating the creature from her apartment in 22nd century Madrid  next Friday.

Heroin intoxication, heroin chic, non-intoxicated heroin-like affect; being dead inside, the affectation of being dead inside (as a species of achievement), cool; hypnotised affect and affectation, robotism; catatonia, being blissed out, above it all, not all there, absent minded,  distant, reserved, somnolent; haunted.

If some of these states often appear to be performed rather more than they are felt this should not disqualify them from being regarded as instances or representations of the contemporary psychic equivalent of the fictional and futuristic peripheral. All arrayed against a backdrop of what Michael Newton calls (see sidebar) ‘vague anxieties about not really being real, substantial or present at all.’

Like charging points for electric cars, sources of vitalising power seem scarce even when we are assured that there is plenty with which to engage. When this elusive plenitude is found to be socially,  politically, economically or therapeutically inert then the experience of peripherality may feature an asphyxiation by vagrant, noisy cultural debris to the point that distinctions and differences can no longer be apprehended. It is as if a manic, atomised solution to the fear of emptiness had been found. But as the military veteran with the thousand yard stare might attest, in the unlikely event that they might speak, the road of excess leads to a place of great and discomforting quietness.

09.08.2021

 

 

Radio Gaga

You have a lot of time on your hands as an only child and one thing I used to do was pull faces in the mirror to see how unlike me I could look. Another thing was to experiment with noises, sometimes using my lips and fingers, more usually just vocalising without equipment. Again, the goal was to create sounds that didn’t sound human. I never thought of it like that, of course. Just trying out shapes and sizes and pushing air through cavities, sometimes trapping it and squeezing it along with tongue clicks and tongue rolls and various vibrations. You see kids do this sort of thing in the street or in the classroom – you can’t tell if they’re only children or not – why would they be? Maybe they had competitions with their siblings. Maybe they even tried unhuman choral effects.

It may dawn upon the young vocal experimentalist with time on their hands that although foreign languages feature noises that are simply not present in the English language, these noises can be imitated and may have a generative effect on the youngster’s private work to the extent of introducing not just variants but invasive species. (It should, of course, be acknowledged that the learning of foreign languages involves precisely such exercises. It is arguable that if only a few ‘foreign’ sounds can be competently imitated then other unfamiliar sounds within that language will be more readily reproduced. As in ‘Good – you can get your tongue round that, now try this…’)

I think I have a reasonably serviceable French accent and I attribute this to being made to intone, along with my classmates, a series of French vowel sounds over and over at school, at least three times a week. Several of these sounds were weird and on each occasion some rogue class members were lured away from the exercise at hand in order to push these novel sounds further than required by the French language as conventionally constituted. To our East Anglian ears the proximity of these sounds to those of the farmyard and field was a gap eagerly to be closed. The squealing pig was the most sought after candidate and our teacher, obliged to remonstrate in French, as was already the progressive foreign language teaching protocol in the 50s, would attempt to re-herd the room with exasperated demands for ‘Votre attention, les élèves!’

Schoolboys would have derived some encouragement for their abuse of the spoken word from postwar radio comedies that were richly populated by actors with distinctive voices or the ability to maintain distinctive voices that were not their own.  Sid James, for example, stuck with his lecherous Cockney growl throughout his career, despite having been born in South Africa, while Jimmy Edwards presented bombastic variations on a voice that drew on his experiences as a choral scholar who subsequently became an RAF flight lieutenant in WWII. June Whitfield was a versatile actor adept at comic voice work who ranged from Eth of The Glums in Take It From Here to the fuller sitcom role of Edina’s mother in Absolutely Fabulous. Irene Handl specialised in a remarkable, slightly frail, lightly grumbly yet cheery working class barmaid or charlady persona whose voice was so eccentric that it won her small parts in over 130 films and countless TV series.

Although very much a signed up member of the 50s funny radio voice community, Kenneth Williams stands out insofar as his vocalisations moved beyond the parameters of sketch and sitcom scripts and seemed to strike out for shores at that point undefined. Williams found some possibilities for the ventilation of his concealed gayness in pushing what was, in the 50s and 60s, a standard camp drawl way beyond the limits established by other intrepid comic actors who had been given ‘tolerable because amusing pansy’ roles.

Williams responded to his scripts as if merely to analyse them sentence by sentence was a dereliction of duty. His view appeared to be that every single word was worthy of assault and if that meant respecting the meaning of the lines within the context of their location in fictional situations then so be it – it was a price worth paying and he had the acting skills to deliver what was required.

These line readings could, however, if one so wished, be lifted out of their radio sketch setting, stripped of their function within these frameworks and regarded as remarkable and unhinged exercises in a proposal for the almost human, the humanoid or the post-human – the latter in the sense that if a person could speak but had no world in which to express this ability then his vocalisations would still command respect and inspire awe in all those who came upon them from deep and outer space.

Williams’ voice would swoop, purr, croak, elasticate, shudder, nasalise, whinge, slide, climb, yowl, thunder and groan as he saw fit. Were there proper criteria for such achievements then he would certainly have been honoured with the creation of an annual Award – the Kenneth, perhaps – for outstanding contributions to the development of non-musical vocalisation in the service of higher post-syllabic communication.

It was in the mid 50s that my schoolmates and I became aware of The Goon Show, a radio comedy series that had been broadcasting on the BBC Home Service since 1951. This was a show without peer. It seemed to have no precedent at all. Other radio comedy programmes were amiable, intermittently a bit risqué, delivering a continuity, comfort and relief that recuperating post-war audiences deserved. They were not, however, fevered, free-form, comprehensively illogical or scrambled to the point of unrelieved delirium. The Goon Show was all of these and evinced a programmatic indifference to the conventions of ‘the programme’. In its eruptiveness and disorder it was a frenetic barrage that had some of the texture of war. In this respect it marked an early departure from the measured caution of a traumatised public withdrawing from years of dread and, in many cases, injury and bereavement. Among that public were younger listeners – perhaps in their late teens and early twenties – who had not seen military service and were ready for less cosy entertainments.

All of which is to say that if comic actors of the time who were blessed with voices and vocal effects of distinction had been exposed, in the early 50s, to writers and producers responding to early indications that a ‘post postwar’ sensibility was emerging, then The Goon Show might not have been, for several years, the lone rider in popular radio absurdism. It launched three years before Hancock’s Half Hour, also on Radio 1, set out an alternative to manic excitability with its droll celebration of the melancholy of a failed actor who barely believes in his enduring delusions of grandeur. In 1969, nine years after The Goon Show concluded, Monty Python first aired on TV.

The baton passed from the Goons had not immediately been seized but for those born in the early 50s, to be 15 years old or more in the Python era was to be ushered into an exhilarating expression of demented sketchwork that appealed especially to drugged youth and those who had enjoyed the cultural fruits of the final release from the PTSD caution of their parents that had characterised the 60s.

Where Williams had paved the way for what The Goon Show had to offer as far as decomposed speech went, he had also demonstrated what a visionary voice artist could achieve within sitcom scripts. The writer of the Goon scripts, Spike Milligan, clearly felt that there was no pressing reason to establish a recognisable bedrock sitcom reality – as obtained in Hancock’s Half Hour, for example – for comic actors to pitch up against. In radio you cannot see the walls. The imagination is relieved of any debt to theatre or the novel.

In the bike sheds of the mid 50s animated discussions of and noisy quotations from The Goons almost eclipsed the usual thrilling and outrageously folkloric lectures and debates on questions arising from an overheated fixation on female anatomy. School was tight back then and while The Goons was intermittently saucy it was the utter abandonment of plausible narrative in the shows that was revelatory and, for many, life changing. The war was ten years over and had been profoundly traumatising for all concerned but it had also provoked in some the view that the centre had just about held but mere anarchy was well overdue.

There are countless examples of coherent comedic incoherence to be found that are indebted, whether knowingly or not, to the epoch-making collaboration between writer Spike Milligan’s at times clinically marked mania, Peter Sellers’ mastery of so many funny voices that he once confessed, in all seriousness, that he could no longer remember what his normal voice was like, and Harry Secombe’s booming, screeching parodies of the straight (as in not mad) man to whom preposterous things Will Always Happen.

One magnificent vocalisation not usually found in the standard funny voice genealogies is actor Edward Tudor-Pole’s (aka Tenpole Tudor) contribution to Julien Temple’s The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980). Tenpole has doubtless been accused of wantonly mangling the lyrics and delivery of ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ but this would have been the not inaccurate view of people who know nothing.

28.02.2021

Thoughtless

I do not have an inner voice. I found this out by reading about mind exercises designed to stop you thinking, I found I did not have a voice to stop. I checked and tested some people and found they do have a voice and I was different. I have a reputation for just blurting out answers to problems and memorising data from long ago. I am INTJ* and highly functional in the technical area I work in. I have all the classic INTJ traits. I won’t say I have no inner voice, I just try to keep it out of the way and let my brain work on any problem I have submitted it. Sometimes when I blurt out an answer even I am surprised (whoever I is). I never believed a small little voice in my head limited to words could ever be an efficient thinking machine so perhaps I suppressed it.

Quote from a graduate with a Masters inEngineering & Software Engineering (1982), University College Dublin. Submitted to Quora in 2017. https://www.quora.com/I-do-not-have-a-subconscious-voice-inside-my-head-Is-this-normal

* INTJ (Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment) is an abbreviation used in the publications of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to refer to one of the 16 psychological types. According to Myers–Briggs the INTJ represents “The Mastermind”. INTJs are one of the rarest of the 16 psychological types and account for 2%—3% of the population. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/INTJ

Mental illness, at the risk of stating the obvious, is evidence of mental life. Mental life, when functioning well or otherwise, is experienced in part through the medium of thought. And the greater part of thought is experienced, by most people (there are exceptions – see above), as a species of inner voice or inner speech. A combination of mental imagery and inner language, in elusive and changing proportions, characterises most thought. The treatment of mental illness is hampered by a focus on symptoms as they arise rather than a policy of prevention. It is the view of researchers that ‘while the revolution in personal fitness, diet and medicine over the past half-century has transformed physical health, there have been few similar efforts to keep people well mentally.’  (‘Global call to step up earlier mental illness prevention’ by Mark Rice-Oxley, The Guardian, 08/06/19)

A reductive view of thought might be that it is the carrier or importer of illness – it is the mold on an exposed cheese. Setting aside the myriad and complex actual causes of mental dysfunction, the penultimate element in a causal chain of mental disruption could be seen as the array of thoughts or messages that appear to impinge on the mind. If this is the case then the possibility of shooting the messenger can arise. Thought is upsetting – how could it be neutralised?

Such a response is typical of the cognitive behavioural therapy school which, while dependent upon classical Freudian assumptions, chooses to minimise the significance of the unconscious by regarding disturbing or habitual thought patterns as suppressible and replaceable.

What gets thought a bad name is its unreliability, variability and unpredictability. Just as you start to use it to solve a problem or clarify a position, say, it turns on you like the bear in the Werner Herzog documentary ‘Grizzly Man‘ that ate the man who was confident he had tamed it. Thought may confront you with alternatives that block the path to an equilibrium in which the mind ambles along in an uncontentious way. Most of the time such inconveniences are manageable and are expressed by an inner voice that sounds just like your own outer voice. Sometimes inner speech is taken over by a voice or voices that are not yours. This may increase the leverage of contradictory or confusing messages but the phenomenon is still generally manageable. It need not be mistaken for its distant yet unsettling cousin, auditory verbal hallucination. Such a condition can be indicative of schizophrenia but the criteria for diagnosis are as pathologised as the pathology they purport to describe.

On occasion, when the inner voice is rendered in the wrong voice and mounts some sort of critical campaign it is tempting to characterise it as alien or even an alien. It can, equally, be regarded as an invasive spirit or as a ghost. The intensity of such ‘invasions’ can be mild and unperturbing or nagging, insistent and haunting. At such points, in the interests of preserving the thinker a distinction may be made between ‘thinking’ and ‘hearing’, where ownership of the latter is denied and quarantine is introduced.

We approach the possibility that thought comes to be regarded as a medium for the dissemination of fake news. It is a hoax. Clearly it has its uses – it would certainly be difficult to work things out without it. Nevertheless, it is unmannerly and impertinent insofar as it does not petition for entry – one moment it is not there and the next moment it is. There’s not much you can do about that.

Thought, as far as we tend to be aware, lacks the material qualities that render the body, to a degree, tractable. In addition to being impertinent, it is soft and difficult to grasp. It is teasing, coy, coquettish – it has feminine qualities. It is feminine yet it is found in male bodies. How can this be?

A luxurious possibility arises. Given that it is so slippery, it would be better to extinguish it. Not entirely, of course, you need some to work out train timetables, for example, but given its generally inconstant and ill-disciplined nature, the greater volume of it can be turned off.

It is at this point that true luxury is found. Little is lost. The grand hoax is trumped. Now we can get on.

Deface

When you’ve finished Netflix it becomes necessary to adjust the viewing criteria. I generally resist seeing films more than once but, with a few exceptions, will do so if cornered. A more enterprising move would be to seek out films that you don’t think you’ll like. An example would be the John Wick movies, with Keanu Reeves taking the titular role. Wick is some kind of agent or something and people are always after him so he shoots them. I liked the first John Wick but should have waited a few months longer before trying the second one, which I abandoned because it was just the same as the first one. Such fastidiousness is easily overridden in lockdown and John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum becomes singularly unpromising within the first ten minutes. So resolutely unpromising that you say to yourself things like ‘You’re kidding me. We don’t even know who he works for or what his mission is or who wants to kill him or why they do yet within minutes everyone is running and shooting the fuck out of everybody or to be precise they come at him with guns and kicks and he wastes every single one of them using skills with no backstory not the tiniest of pretexts.’ The skills consist of being good at kicks and ducking like his attackers are but he does have one thing over them which is his very special way of offing them. As with the movies of John Woo, the gun is not reserved for the remote resolution of irritating interpersonal conflicts but becomes a handheld propellant assisting flights through the air.

A lot of thriller/cop/gangster films make the mistake of showing you the broken marriages, clandestine affairs, wayward children, destabilising addictions, betrayals, debts and dreams of the principals, as though this were going to somehow disguise the fact that certain other quite basic things simply have to happen or else it wouldn’t be a genre but if they put in emotional difficulty and what are imagined to be complex travails then we won’t notice they are just put in but nine times out of ten these add-ons are so lame and bolted-on we just want the car chase and fuck everything else. Which only makes it worse but in John Wick they don’t make the slightest effort to pretend on your behalf that you are into higher things: he never had wives or children or a dying dog (maybe he did but who cares?) but he does this strange and entrancing thing with guns where despite his martial arts skills with kicks, chops and jumps, he will suddenly close with an adversary, apparently for fisticuffs, but still holding a gun and instead of punching him will hold the gun two inches from the person’s head and blow the head off. It’s kind of cheating but it’s terribly efficient. Reeves is fluidly adept and will be halfway through one of those flying kicks where you do a 360 with your leg raised when he will twist round in the air even as an assailant comes at him from behind and stick the gun in his face as previously described and blam no face.

This is daring stuff. It’s pure. They realise we don’t really pay attention to all the human context stuff and are quite content to watch characters with only, say, two characteristics act out the delirium of undomesticated impulses after which you don’t have to go to prison. John Wick 3 is a film poem – not that you would wish to share this insight with people like John Wick. It’s pure. It has absorbed the idea that often the ‘good bits’ are profoundly satisfying and doubtless help people not to act out bad things in an antisocial way etc etc and it has matched the immoderate urgency of the suppressed impulses with the suspension of the patronising polystyrene packing peanuts that serve to muffle and tease – as if unmuffled and unteased we will not appreciate the facetless force of the uncut, unshaped plasma that bursts forth once push having come to shove is loosed.

If Spiral, for example, is a faultless example of the proper integration of coplife and the extracurricular to the extent that you care, then the Danish procedural The Investigation can be seen as having some of the purity of John Wick 3 but with the psychopathy firmly located in a single character who is never named and whom you never see. The show features exceptionally skilled naturalistic acting from a cast whose members resolutely, almost sacrificially, eschew the pauses, tics and poses of good actors to the extent that were you to turn the sound down on some of the scenes you would conclude that you had chanced upon a well-lit passage from a CCTV installed in a rest room in which three or four people in pullovers sat dispiritedly and without charisma around a table doing very little indeed. This is because, with the sound turned back up, you would recall that the murder investigation is going exceptionally badly and none of the cops has any idea what to do next. There are no leads. It’s probable that a dismembered body has been scattered over a large area of deep water and the only way to determine cause of death is to send divers down to comb the vast acreage of the seabed hoping to find a head or leg or any part, really. Other scenes having a comparable lack of forward impulsion feature police divers repeatedly surfacing from their explorations and signalling to the escort boats that they have found precisely nothing. Over and over and over again. Or scenes in which various cops and experts discuss wind speeds, currents, depths and the fact that some things (arms, torsoes) will drift along the seabed and others (mobile phones) will sink into the sand. No drama. Nobody fancies anybody else. The worst thing in the extra-curricular is the main cop getting a phone call drawing him away from the dinner table just as his daughter announces that she is happily pregnant and he goes into the garden to take the call for several minutes and she is understandably very upset.

Again: this is daring stuff. And entirely gripping. Police work is made neither attractive nor unattractive. It’s a job. Certain positive outcomes are achieved whereupon some of the detectives and cops smile briefly. And the guy gets to hold his granddaughter which pleases his daughter. It’s refreshing.

08.02.2021