“If a man would be alone, let him look to the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
** featured image is Lieve Verschuier’s ‘the great comet of 1680 over Rotterdam’ (1680)**
“for man, consciousness is the smallest part of thought, the most superficial. Conscious thinking takes place in words, communication signs, and here the origin of consciousness reveals itself. In short, the evolution of language and the evolution of consciousness (not of reason but only of reason’s becoming conscious of itself) go hand in hand… our becoming conscious of our own sense-impressions, the power of fixing them and, as it were, setting them outside ourselves has increased in the measure that the constraint grew to transmit them to others by signs… The nature of animal consciousness brings it about that the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface and sign-world, a world made universal and common… with all becoming conscious there is united a great fundamental corruption, falsification, superficialising and generalisation”
– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (354)
Nietzsche identifies that consciousness emerges as a result of language, but he does not specify written language, which is a key differentiator. He does however, like Julian Jaynes, talk of consciousness as the ‘smallest and most superficial part’ of thought (Jaynes says something similar when he uses the metaphor of a man with a torch) and even touches on the idea of a varying degree of consciousness which comes with severity of need. Nietzsche here talks of this crucial ‘fixing’ of sense-impressions and ‘setting them outside ourselves’ in consciousness, which is similarly expounded by Jaynes by way of the metaphor and ‘the illusion of continuity’. This ‘fixing’ is best thought of however in terms of Lacan’s Symbolic order, established following the mirror stage during which the child affixes words or rather submerges the surrounding Real, unknowable, objective world with a reality encompassing veneer of language (Jaynes was working on emergence of consciousness in childhood before he died but did not get so far in his formative writing on this), providing surface order in reality. A crucial missing piece here then is in the distinction between literacy and orality, as later identified by Marshall McLuhan (with astounding exactness to Jaynes, considering their vastly different theoretical approaches). Historically speaking, introspective consciousness came about at the exact same time as recorded, written language – and this was simply because this was the historic point at which humanity was able to bury enough of the surrounding Real beneath words. This ‘weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing’ (Jaynes, p. 221), that is, of orality by literacy, thus also led to, in Jaynes’s view, the ‘silencing’ of the inner voice, which was no longer necessary except for in times of greatly increased levels of stress, which is exclusively the result of a weakening on the Symbolic (i.e. the crucial stepping stone to consciousness and the entry into the ‘silent’ world of literate man). The same process of becoming conscious now occurs in all children from literate societies (i.e. you do not have the capacity for introspection pre-mirror stage which is around 18 months) and this is so fundamentally embedded into society that we know no other way (McLuhan cites somewhere a case of a boy in a tribe who learns to read and becomes literate, and experiences a seismic change in terms of his perception of reality – Carothers in Gutenberg Galaxy?). It is likely that pre-literate, ‘verge-of-consciousness’ societies underwent a seminal change in brain chemistry, which was the direct result of writing taking over the crucial function of storing memory: knowledge became externalised and able to be passed along, and so too did an extensive cache of words and so means of logically comprehending the surrounding world by subsequent generations. The key differentiator between bicameral and conscious man is the eradication of ‘trial and error’ modes of thinking.
Notably, Nietzsche also expands on this idea that consciousness is intrinsically interwoven with the herd mentality. A parallel can here be drawn between the conscious herd, which are contained by their Symbolic order, and the unconscious Ubermenschian mind, who are cast off into that abyssal unknown, and so capable of breaching Symbolic bounds, such as the psychotic who inadvertently stands outside of the Symbolic order of language in Lacanian thought (but by Oediapal structuration or Symbolic Constitution?). Nietzsche argues that consciousness evolved ‘only with regard to usefulness for community and herd.. and even those with the best will to understand himself, to know himself, will nonetheless bring into his consciousness only what is not individual in him, his ‘average’.. thought is continually outvoted by the character of consciousness’. A link is to be drawn here with Nietzsche’s discussion of evolution, which he saw not as the archetypal ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather as the prolongation of the ‘average-est’.
Nietzsche lay down and wine spilled from the seems of his mouth as he grinned. Around him were his friends, many fellow philosophers, all whom were admired and revered, but who were as mere shadows on a cave wall in Nietzsche’s almighty presence. He was the greatest among them. They rejoice and recite poetry and reflect deep into the dark night, reclining on cushions under sprawling aphoristic stars and truth shines down on their conversations which run unbridled and free as wild horses streaming over grassy hills. Close by a young man, wide-eyed and wide-eared, writes frantically anything that the prophet utters. What seems a mere jocularity to Nietzsche seems of greatest importance to the young man. He must capture it all, for in these moments of jest, in the swill of wine, his mind dances at its Dionysian zenith. Nietzsche looks up to the stars, and silence adorned those around him. A comet streaked by like the flick of a quill. Then he whispered to no-one and to all: perhaps it isonly in this faithful world of myth, in all its gleeful artistry, that we can find any truth… gaze out into those vast nebulas, those abyssal straits, where all potentials of the imagination are spread out before us.. it is time to relinquish this mind-shackling obsession with the definite, and instead, all hail the infinite!
NB: featured image is Brion Gysin’s ‘Calligraphie’ (1960)
“Philosophy, as I have hitherto understood and lived it, is a voluntary living in ice and high mountains… from the lengthy experience afforded by such a wandering in the forbidden I learned to view the origins of morilizing and idealizing very differently from what might be desirable: the hidden history of the philosophers, the psychology of their great names came to light for me. How much truth can a spirit bear? How much truth can a spirit dare? Error, a belief in the ideal, is not blindness, but cowardice… Every acquisition and step forward in knowledge is the result of courage, of severity towards oneself… Nitimur in vetitum: in this sign my philosophy will one day conquer, for fundamentally what has hitherto been forbidden has never been anything but the truth”
Let us go then, let us flee
Hand in hand for destiny
Shadows dancing, cobbled straits
We run, or surely death awaits
your face by moonlight soft as snow
Carved by Michelangelo
Frantic footsteps close behind
Echoes of a troubled mind
Curtains tight like insomniac eyes
As nightmares start to crystallise
Hunter slows, now comes our chance
We share a fleeting, feather glance
Then gunshot splits open silent air
And cleaves through hearts like a knife through poetry
Falling, falling to the stones with a dull splash like toppled inkwell
Looking up from deep-sea city lights shimmering through your hair
coughs and finally I ask you whether
I can have your smile
etched upon my eyes forever…
When it comes to the work of Beat generation legend William Burroughs, I’m conflicted. I’m conflicted because I love his non-fiction; his fascinating personal letters, and his experimentations with writing and art as epitomised in The Third Mind with Brion Gysin. But when it comes to his fiction, I find it an utter slog, crammed with purposely repetitive and repulsive descriptions and characters, and a black humour which I personally find quite cold and empty. Having said that his work is revolutionary in some respects, and has provoked real change which only the greatest literature can do. I put this revolutionary power down to his ongoing indebtedness to art, and even to junk, which, as Marshall McLuhan identifies, both enable one to ‘reprogram the sensory order’ (‘notes on Burroughs’ 1964). Burroughs had been drawn towards art from the very beginning, when he was still compiling scrapbooks and mottley collages of images and writings using newspapers and cut-outs from his journals. His writing was also uniquely visual, as Allen Ginsberg described, Burroughs’s ‘thinking process as primarily visualisation rather than verbalisation… [he] thinks in pictures’ (The Best Minds of Our Generation, pp. 179-180). When he was trying to describe his psychedelic experiences with various drugs, he endlessly expressed his burning need to paint what he saw… he craved art and what the ability it endowed the great artists. Lost in the abyssal whirlwind of yage, he wrote Ginsberg in the 50s whilst adventuring through the Peruvian jungle, of ‘This insane overwhelming rape of the senses… everything stirs with a peculiar furtive writhing life like a Van Gogh painting… if I could only paint I could convey it all’ (letters of WSB, ed Harris, p.180). He’d sought out these so-called ‘Van Gogh kicks before’ – “Did I ever tell you about the time I got on a Van Gogh Kick and cut off the end joint of my little finger?”, from ‘the finger’, 1954) – and, back in 1939 he cut off part of his little finger to try and impress a then love interest (Jack Anderson). Unfortunately, though perhaps understandably, the relationship was short lived and ill-fated. In later life he would create his own uniquely and characteristically violent, shocking and yet serendipitously beautiful ‘shotgun art’, this whilst going about town with art icons like Gysin and even for a time Francis Bacon.
But Burroughs’s greatest artistic device was the cut-up.. that unique intermediary point between art and literature, between poetry and prophecy. In 1951, a pre-famous, junk-ridden Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer in a William Tell-style trick shot gone disastrously wrong… he was haunted, plagued by the idea that some part of his unconscious had deliberately shot and killed her. He once recalled a cut-up he made whilst in Paris a number of years after Joan’s death which read: ‘raw pealed winds of hate and mischance blew the shot’. He expanded that “for years I thought this referred to blowing a shot of junk, when the junk squirts out the side of a syringe or dropper owing to an obstruction. But Brion Gysin pointed out the actual meaning: it was the shot that killed Joan’ (Word Virus, p. 94). His haunting past was still ever-present.. lying, lurking under the thin veil of language, and only accessible by way of the cut-up. This movement of language into the realm of art by way of the cut-up, cutting up poetry and prose, restructuring them, and then stitching them back together, was thus seen not just as some ‘cheap Dada trick’ (as Kerouac termed it) in Burroughs’s eyes, but as a technique which provided genuinely prophetic, sometimes purgative and revelatory power…by harnessing its power, Burroughs could become something like a literary priest (he was obsessed with the Mayan priest’s power over language which came from their uniquely visual languages) …. performing endless textual exorcisms..
Despite popular belief, the technique was not originally created by Burroughs, and was rather inherited from Gysin in 1959. Gysin had created the technique (which held affinities with the method of Dada superstar Tristan Tzara, who formed poetry using random phrases pulled from a hat) when he began cutting up sections from a newspaper and haphazardly reconstructing them into poetic lines. When he told Burroughs of the method, an author who was forever trying to escape Control, and especially the controlling systems of language on the unconscious, he immediately acknowledged its potential and significance, particularly to his own unique branch of fiction which so often worked at reforming consciousness in new and revolutionary ways. Burroughs called it a ‘painterly’ technique, and he shared Gysin’s view that ‘writing is 50 years behind painting’ in its capacity to tap the unconscious undercurrents in society, and so, to move writing into the realm of art through the cut-up, meant endowing his work with newfound, piercing properties. The cut-up is a method which exposes the frailty of language, and unveils the word (… “IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD”… he so often quoted derogatively) as a flimsy structure, as facade which can easily be manipulated, taken apart, and rewritten. He later expanded his use of the method to other forms like sound and video recordings and these were methods he saw as being capable of reconstituting and rewriting reality itself.
Burroughs and the cut-up influenced countless other iconic artists like Michel Basquiat and musicians like David Bowie (see here for Bowie using the technique to devise song lyrics), whose works have likewise absorbed the creative power of the method. In his instruction manual-cum-philosophical treatise with Gysin, The Third Mind, Burroughs talks us through the method in great detail, and reveals how he often cut-up other authors and poets and philosophers to form his cut-ups… writers like Rousseau, Rimbaud and Eliot, can be found peppered throughout the Nova trilogy in various hacked-up forms. Want to try it yourself? There’s a set of instructions by Burroughs (which can be found here) which talk you through exactly how to use the technique and form your own unique works.
Some time late last year I designed what you might categorise as a kind of text-art / concrete poem which emulates a painting by Salvador Dali. I designed this piece using a similar style to that used by the dystopian author J. G. Ballard, who created a series of unusual billboards in the 50s which were made up of only text. The ads were in stark contrast to the others with their highly visual, eye-catching ads bearing sleek new cars and big breasted women, and instead turned the well-known methods of advertising on their head. Ballard’s were more like a strange encrypted message for the masses, which would make people stop and think. Each person who viewed them would draw their own unique logic in deciphering these works, much in the same vein as the surrealists. In short, Ballard’s ads were working at empowering the consumer, which is very different to most every other ad, which has one overriding goal… MAKE. THEM. BUY. In the first year of my literature PhD I came accross these billboards and wanted to try and work out what they were. I couldn’t simply go along with the vast majority of critics who, because they could not decipher them, concluded that they must be meaningless. The odd thing is, the words and terms that these billboards were made up of are clearly not meaningless, in fact they are very meticulously placed, planned and designed. Many are characters and scenes and objects and memories and other fragments which could be found in a great many of his other works, as if he was providing clues. One day, whilst researching Ballard’s influence by Dali, I started to think on what a Dali painting might look like if it were made purely of words. All of these fragmentary characters and scenes and dream-like dialogues, and then it seemed plausible that Ballard might have been trying somthing similar with his billboards. This was a method also used by Magritte in a small few of his paintings, Magritte being another key influence on Ballard, and so this did not seem too far a stretch. In fact it made a lot of sense. I began scouring Dali’s work to see if there was any works which might fit the bill. I focused on the central ‘image’ in Ballard’s billboard, ‘mr f is mr f’ (below), and, as I knew ‘mr f is mr f’ is a surrealist story about a man who slowly devolves, and is absorbed back into his mother’s womb (weird I know), I started to look for something similar in Dali’s images, until, lo and behold, I was reminded of ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943), which similarly has this huge centralised image of Dali being absorbed into a globe-womb form. Viewinf the image as a ‘textual narrative’ it was just like Ballard’s image. When I placed the billboard and the painting next to each other, I saw that there was far more coinciding elements at play (see my previous blog post here and Guardian article here for more background / examples of crossovers). So could they then be encoded Salvador Dali paintings? What better way to undermine the consumer spectacle than to inundate it with surrealist paintings, paintings which work at reinvigorating the imagination? ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION! As the famed May’ 68 slogan went.
Ballard hailed Dali as the greatest painter of the twentieth century and often expressed how his own literary work was heavily influenced by both the surrealist movement and especially Dali’s work and methods. He constantly repeated in interviews how he had always dreamed of being a painter rather than a writer, but never had the artistic skill to do so, which is probably why he decided to create a new method which would enable him to create art using the medium he knew best… the medium of words. So some time last year I decided to try it for myself and create my own billboard/artwork/poem using a Dali painting as the framework. So I decided to use on of my favourite Salvador Dali paintings, ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937), as the underlying artwork.
The amazing thing about this painting is how it manages to contain the entire Narcissus myth as told by Ovid in a singular image. This by way of a mergence of mythic imagery and his own personal symbology which recurs throughout his work (Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, is a kind of codex for all of these symbols and images which appear and reappear in his paintings). The two central images of the figure and the hand clasping an egg essentially denote Narcissus’s changing psychology as he gazes into the water. The left figure image is Narcissus as he famously gazes on himself in the lake’s reflection, and on the right is a metaphorical rendition of what he finds lurking there: he finds self-love, and so the egg, which represents blossoming love and fertility in Dali’s work, symbolises how, as he gazes into the watery depths, he falls in love with his own image. How he drowns in his own image. The mirror image being a gigantic hand is particularly pertinent in that it represents at once this idea of an aggrandisement of the self (i.e. narcissism) but at the same time this idea of how love denotes, in psychoanalytic terms, what Lacan called the ego-ideal; the perfect and grossly augmented rendition of self (see Lacan’s definition of love here for more clarity). So through these 2 central mirrored image we have a depiction of both outer world and inner psychology. In the distance to the left of the image are the cliffs, the cliffs into which famously the nymph Echo would be transformed, cursed for all time to only mimic the voices of others. But now onto my own Ballard influenced billboard.
So what was my method here and what do these words mean in relation to the Dali image? As Ballard does in his own billboards, I first limited myself to using only text, and then attempted to recreate Dali’s painting using allusive fragmentary headlines (many based on Ballard’s stories and characters) and scientific journal excerpts (in this case from a marine biology journal – i.e. ‘drowned world’ – as does Ballard), using the spacing and squared blocks of text to shape out the image. Let me begin to describe the various fragments of text and what they denote. In the top left appears ‘ravenous’ which is partially severed. There are multiple reasons for this and other truncated portions of text. Firstly, so as to urge the viewer to fill the linguistic or narrative void: the fact that the ‘R’ is partially cut-off suggests that there is part of the word missing, the full word being ‘intravenous’. The word itself contains, in homophonic terms, the word ‘ravine’, which is why it is situated in the same location as the ravine or gorge in Dali’s painting (the letter ‘V’ is dead centre within the word thus mirroring the shape of the ravine itself). It could also be seen to emulate the word ‘ravenous’ as in extreme huger, denoting the idea of either Narcissus’s hunger for himself of Echo’s hunger for Narcissus (as in Ovid’s classic myth). The use of truncated text in Ballard’s billboards often serves to emphasise the limitation in the viewer’s visual field and so is emulated here. The purpose of this is to imitate the effect when one views a painting, whereby the viewer, though limited to the framed image before them, nevertheless assumes the depicted image to go beyond this frame of reference (e.g. when a distant mountain range continues off the edge of a landscape painting). The jarring severance of text here also serves to emulate the overarching theme of mirrors, reflection and self-absorption.
So here like Ballard I’m able to generate a multitude of overlapping concepts through a single word, when I acknowledge it as one which stands in the void between language and image. A little down and to the right of where ‘RAVENOUS’, appears ‘The Drowned’ which could refer to The Drowned World or Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ (note the serif text – Ballard uses serif text when he’s alluding to specific short stories). I liked the idea of leaving the final word empty so that the specification of the story is ‘drowned’ in a sense. You’ll notice further down I use the word ‘giant’, this clearly referencing the story, which has been flipped upside down so as to emulate the reflection of the surface of the water. What this achieves is to recreate the duality rendered in Dali’s painting, in which we at once see a giant humanoid (Narcissus) hunched over the water and the hand of a giant figure underwater (i.e. why i use ‘the drowned giant’). The sense of scale in the painting is constantly shifting, in flux, much in the same way that I use text (‘THE DROWNED giant’), using capitalisation and rescaling. You might expect ‘THE DROWNED’ to be situated beneath the water, and ‘giant’ to be located above, but as we know from Dali’s work, the true ‘giant’ is located exactly where expected; beneath the water, exposing, in Freudian logic, the grossly aggrandised ego, or as Lacan would have it, the ego-ideal, the self-obsession which goes far beyond the scale of the painting itself.
To the left of ‘giant’ appears the words ‘SALINE: UTERINE’ which at once represents the location of the pool of water, but also tackles the Freudian implications of Dali’s painting: a narcissist gazes into the uterine depths longingly, this representing the dislocation of the self-obsessive’s ‘lack’. The ‘uterine’ thus designates the mother, the womb, which has been replaced with the self, this leading to a narcissistic self-love. But it also reinforces this presiding duality within Dali’s painting, especially between the inner and outer world, and the distortion between the gaze of the self and other. Above water, externality, otherness – below water, the self, the uterine truths. On the opposite side of the billboard, mirroring saline/uterine, is ‘canine’, situated in the same location as the dog in Dali’s painting, emulating Ballard’s method of locating certain objects and structures to create an overarching sense of the image. To the right of the centre, rotated 90 degrees clockwise, are the words ‘metacarpal antimatter’ denoting the fragmentation of the pieces of the hand in Dali’s image, in a similar vein to the many atomic themed images by Dali, created at a time when particle physics was a hot topic in scientific circles. The ‘0’ in ‘0.314…’ represents the egg, whilst the incorporation of pi is meant to represent the sense of inconsistent repetition which we see in Dali’s painting; note that in the distance of Dali’s painting, between the snow-capped mountains can be seen the image of another hand clasping an egg in an ‘echo’ of the central hand. The incorporation of pi here was also because I not only got a strong sense of the mathematical from the image, particular by way of the repetitions and the chess-board, but also the Greek statue on the right in front of the mountains, which I saw as harking back to Pythagorean devotion in some sense. As I explored with this method of creating art using using words, exploring this point of intersection between words and images, it became apparent just how many endless possibilities there were. Ballard saw that first.
SAMO, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early alter ego, once wrote ‘graffiti is a poem the city writes to itself’. Though he’s best known for his iconic grafitti art – which sort of blends 80 neon, cave/wall art and tiki masks – his origin you might say was words. SAMOs words plastered and invigorated the New York city streets of the late 70s. Dwindling democracy, rife racial discrimination, violent capitalism and rampant poverty.. these topics were the rocket fuel to his booming creative engine. His words, like his art, were simple and yet pierced to the bone, they grappled with the deeper, underlying truths which were not to be found anywhere else. They made the unspoken not only visible, but beautiful. though already well on his way to the history books and stardom, in 1980 he was befriended by Andy Warhol who immediately saw his artistic genius and even bought some of his work.. Basquiat was made. Later he would collaborate with Warhol, though Warhol himself, one of the most iconic artists who ever lived, was disconcerted by just how easily his own work became lost, drowned out and utterly overshadowed when put anywhere near the sheer aesthetic immensity, originality and gravitational pull of Basquiat’s art. Jean-Michel died tragically of a drug overdose at just 27, but he was prolific, and created thousands of sketches, and hundreds of larger paintings which continue to hold great power and significance.
Below is a series of fragments taken from Basquiat’s early notebooks (ed. Larry Warsh), which I’ve rearranged to make a series of poems. Many of the words and phrases appear again and again in his grafitti/art/poetry – a hoard of words and images that he cut and pasted here and there, not unlike that method used by William Burroughs, an author who he greatly admired. Many of the phrases in the books are crossed out, and it is not known for certain why.. It could have been that he did not like these fragments, or maybe because he had already used them out on the streets. If the latter is true he’d have been something like an 80s NY version of Wordsworth: wandering about with his notepad and spraycans, jotting down ideas and poetic fancies as he went about on his odyssey, through streets thrumming and overflowing with energy and vibrancy. A sense-blitz, in which his creative mind was set alight by the scenes all around him. Many of these fragments, as you’ll see, are so vivid and poetic they could easily have come straight out of the pages of the Beat poets. They’re simple, raw and cut to the core. Here is