Colour Theory
(Part Three)

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Two months of sugary breakbeat highs give way to a persistent sadness. It is weathered, but only just.

I’m working most weekends behind the bar at the Cumberland, in amongst all the fun had. I love it there, but the body cannot take how much I want to do around it. I have had too much fun, perhaps. My mood swings into dark pits but eventually climbs out again. The unconscious cries for help the only way it knows how. One night on shift, I feel this deep pit open up, a gravity well. Music remains an integral salve. The walks home with headphones on put my head back together. When the heart sinks, music provides buoyancy.

Every mood swing is fleeting, but they hit hard and frighten me. I have worked hard to keep depression at bay. “You’ve been doing a lot of drugs”, I’m reminded. But not too many. In general, I steer way clear of my limit. In fact, I’d like to think that the drugs are helping.

Back in January, what felt like a reckless night on MDMA instead shakes loose a lingering cloud of depression.

I had spent the last three months of 2022 on a too-high dose of sertraline, my GP ignoring my constant complaints of a state of anhedonia. “Wait and see” was the repeated and increasingly dispassionate response. Easy for them to say. I go cold turkey over Christmas and New Year and a January night on ecstasy clears out the build-up, like a riot hose taken to my synapses. I feel almost whole again.

The 2C-B taken at Bang Face has a similar effect.

In late 2020, I started shooting on black-and-white film for the first time in years. I told myself I liked the texture of things. Colour was a distraction. I still remember one of the first pictures taken at that time, which I loved so much that I thought I might make the change of medium permanent.

I was walking along the Thames path with Natasha, an emotional and drawn-out goodbye before I left London for good. Having passed through Greenwich, I turn back and spot a lone rower moving silently across the water like a pond skater. I thought about that image for months afterwards. It seemed to encapsulate some wordless feeling shared, as I felt myself rowing backwards across the capital, filling my eyes with one final look at the neighbourhoods I’d called home for last four years.

I’ve shot almost exclusively in black and white ever since. But the 2C-B unlocks something I didn’t realise had become so inaccessible. Bang Face throws me back into colour. On returning to Newcastle, I continue walking around, and where I once saw texture, in the light cast on the city at night, I see a new vibrancy. Colours swell in ways they have not done for years. I enter into colour and do not look back.

Whether this be succinct or reductive, I am currently obsessed by the idea that to be an artist of any sort is to have an interesting relationship with the unconscious.

Following the recent death of Cormac McCarthy, as well as turning affectionately to the novels I love, I have also returned to his 2017 essay on what he calls the Kekulé problem, in which he offers up a novel explanation for the strange disconnection between the speaking subject and the unconscious mind, which eschews (or otherwise simplifies) many of the explanations provided by psychoanalysis.

He argues that the reason the unconscious feels like such an alien part of us is that it operates at a more primeval level that has not yet caught up with our uniquely human capacity for language. Language is a relatively recent development in human evolution, after all, with the unconscious being much older and more settled in its ways than the speaking subject. It is for this reason that it often communicates with us in abstract images and unfiltered feelings. Its primary language, if it can be said to have one at all, is the sublime. Extrapolating outwards from Kantian aesthetics, we are most struck by the things of this world when they agitate the unconscious mind.

The problem is named by McCarthy after the German organic chemist August Kekulé, who

was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth — the ouroboros of mythology — and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.”

The problem that provokes McCarthy

is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” … [W]hy is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

McCarthy is far from self-reflective on this point. He says little of how his own unconscious has assisted him in the production of a much-celebrated body of work. Perhaps the answer is already perfectly implied by the questions asked: “I’ve no fucking clue, and isn’t that so interesting?”

It is particularly interesting to me that McCarthy focuses on the unconscious production of solutions to problems in mathematics and the sciences. Much has already been written on the role of the unconscious in the production of art, but this should hardly surprise us, as it is almost like our second-level (re)production of the images it shows to us were a more natural form of communion with our internal depths. But this leads to a strange inversion of our wonder. Cave paintings, as the disconnected products of a prehistoric culture — that is, we should remember, the products of a pre-linguistic culture, or at least one prior to the invention of the written word — instead appear as rudimentary reproductions of something already familiar to us. It is in writing that things get really weird.

McCarthy writes:

Problems in general are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking — in any discipline — is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived — a sort of milepost — so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.

I’m left wanting for postcards of a similar sort. I hope to pass them onto the unconscious but it has no forwarding address. It is a dead letter office, an empty and cavernous room, like a prehistoric cave or a cathedral, the walls lined with synaptic pigeonholes and otherwise beckoning resonance.

It may make no sounds of its own, but all else chimes wonderfully in its rafters. I want to move my decks in there.

If there is a certain melancholy to these notes, after the bombast of the preceding weeks, perhaps that is to be expected. The last two months I have read a lot, written little, danced constantly. The body grows tired and the mind reflects. The drugs are left alone, the unconscious reverts to its normal state. I write because the itch needs scratching, but perhaps the sadness emerges from writing’s very insufficiency. It solves nothing, instead only ruminating on things less easily put into words.

The communication breakdown grows loud. Sad for what reason, beyond fatigue? I don’t know, or can’t say; one does not necessarily follow from the other. But the writing comes with ease, as if this unknown and unconscious problem, whatever it may be, is signing at me through vague gestures and lucid dreams. Though a break might be needed from the dance floor, I feel reassured by the knowledge that the music will continue to play and things will be worked out in time, at varying tempos, in some future to come.

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