A few weekends ago we drove over to Knole. Deer are, like, my favourite animal and apparently they had loads of them. We discovered in the process that Knole was also a home / romantic getaway for everyone’s favourite literary lesbians: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
It was a short visit. We got caught right underneath a thunder storm and all the deer shat themselves and stampeded so we went home. Cool place though.
Kathy Acker is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I have long known of her work, her reputation, but I’ve only ever read short pieces or heard about her by proxy.
If I’m honest, I’ve always associated her with a certain American intellectual tradition of writing that wanted to ride the transgression way over the Atlantic from France but in a way that felt largely performative and ineffectual…
The Semiotext(e) crowd. Enamoured by the French but too American to immerse themselves fully in that otherness — that internal otherness.
Upstairs, in the final room of the exhibition, there is a vitrine which shows off an interview with Acker in On Our Backs, a magazine for the “Adventurous Lesbian”, in which Acker recalls her first foray into trying to get her work published.
Working as a stripper, travelling from club to club with a car full of girls, she writes down all their stories, retelling each one in the first person so as to appear less like “a sociologist”. Sending them to a prose magazine editor on the recommendation of some friends, she eventually receives a response that declares she “should be in an insane asylum!”
It was this, says Acker, that began her fascination with schizophrenia and the literary power of “I”.
This interview is the last thing read in the exhibition, buried in the last room, but I already felt that fascination. Not just in reading Acker’s “I” but feeling it resonate with the dreams I’ve long had for my own.
In the first room of the exhibition, she tells the story of her life. Dates chronicle a beginning of teenage angst cut up with diary entries from 1777 recalling her imprisonment in Vincennes. A Sadeian woman indeed. Not that this biographical fragment is cited with any reference made to its source. No, because she is de Sade.
And I’m shocked. Here I am reading Kathy Acker for what feels like the first time on the walls of a gallery space but I already know her. She’s the embodiment of my own bookshelf. Every which way I look I see cuttings from Bataille, Deleuze, Iriguray, Blanchot, Burroughs, Kristeva, Quin.
But Bataille more than anyone. He reverberates out of the walls and yet is also so buried. Because everything is Acker. Pointing to the men and women that lie in her literary wake says nothing of their obliteration at the hands of her “I”.
I think about Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation:
For it is remarkable how degraded a discourse can become when it is marked by the obsessive reiteration of the abstract ego, mixing arrogance with pallid humility. The chronic whine that results — something akin to a degenerated reverberation from Dostoyevsky’s underground man — is the insistence of a humanity that has become an unbearable indignity. ‘I’ am (alone), as the tasteless exhibition of an engogenous torment, as the betrayal of communication, as a festering wound, in which the monadic knitting of the flesh loses itself in a mess of pus and scabs, etc. etc. … (You yawn of course, but I continue.)
There is a video upstairs which shows Acker along with a host of other women discussing a new trend for tattoos, branding and scarification amongst women. Women who seem, on the surface, to be “respectable” and “normal”, hiding histories of abuse and mistreatment and malignment. Perhaps they have already learned to self-harm in order to cope. And yet here, ritualised communal exercises in pain and healing demonstrate a powerful reclaiming of their narratives. It is the epitome of a Freudian expedition beyond the pleasure principle through communication with your fellow woman.
Acker herself appears strung up in the white cube, literary barbs piercing her flesh, her bookshelf ripping her apart. Jesus wept. But we are nonetheless present for the writing of her disaster.
I think this is the subconscious reason why I have avoided her for so long. Now that we have met, I feel like I have always known her. I’m left wondering what else there is to add? She embodies — fully, wholly, entirely — a spirit that has long been the engine for my own writing.
Acker’s form of schizophrenia is at once hers and all of ours. Or, at least, most specifically, every American’s. It’s what has fascinated me about American history so much over the last year. It is a mentality that feels wedded to the American penchant for culturally absorbing the world.
It is this that Acker embodies, for better and for worse. The American. And now it crashes on the shore of her utter encapsulation.
And where can you possibly go from there? Where can I go? After Kathy Acker?
Apparently, I need to ask Chris Kraus. Perhaps then I’ll reevaluate by default cynicism regarding the Semiotext(e) set.
Way back in October, I spent another week away in Cornwall, although this time with my girlfriend rather than on “deep assignment” at Urbanomic HQ.
For the first half of the week, I was sick with my first cold of the season. The second half of the week, it was my girlfriend’s turn… We got up to lots nonetheless but that dual autumnal burn-out was a very difficult one to get over. It lasted for most of the rest of the year, in fact, and it was so mentally corrosive that I ended up completely forgetting I’d even started this post in the subsequent haze.
As such, it’s a bit of a futile endeavour to try and finish it. I wanted to write about things whilst they were fresh but now it’s almost 6 months ago. Nevertheless, reshaping what was already here will no doubt be useful. I really want to write something long-form on Cornwall at some point and this is not it. I suspect there are far more conversations needed with Robin before something more substantial can coalesce between us but there is certainly something there, waiting for its moment. (There is another Cornwall visit on the cards so we’ll see what happens then.) For now, this is an attempt to write down a couple of things before they fall completely out of my mind-sieve.
Here’s what I (can remember that I) did on my holidays…
My old post, “Lovers Flight“, on the Yorkshire Gothic and Deleuzean patchwork, has continued bubbling in the background on this blog since I first wrote it. It was the most important post of last year for me. It galvanised something in my thinking — much more than its precursor: “State Decay“, despite that post being considerably more popular — and so I’ve been trying to extend this out into something much more long-form and rigorous, taking in some of the other areas of the UK that share a natural and cultural affinity with the Gothic, but it’s not happened yet. It’s a project that feels so big I think it will have to be book number two. But I really need to finish book number one first…
Daphne Du Maurier has felt like the next literary genius worthy of consideration within this project but linking the Yorkshire and Cornish moors felt like a pretty tenuous leap to make, at first, without enough to justify ignoring their 300-mile disconnection. However, walking through a collector’s fair in St. Ives back in October, I came across a second-hand book stall which was selling about six different editions of a book by Du Maurier herself called Vanishing Cornwall, an exploration of her adopted home that poignantly made the Brontë connection for me. She writes:
The four surviving children, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and the brother Bramwell, had a Cornish mother whom they barely remembered, and a Cornish aunt to instruct them in their most formative years. This heritage played an undoubted part in the development of later genius, and if Emily Bronte, and Wuthering Heights, will always be associated with the Yorkshire moors it must not be forgotten that both her mother and her aunt had on their own doorstep, through childhood and adolescence, the wild moorland scenery, the stories and the legends of West Penwith.
Whilst I cannot profess to have any Cornish relatives to instil me with a moorland mentality, my mother, whilst she was still lucid, would obsess over Du Maurier’s book Rebecca. (Until last year, I didn’t think Du Maurier was “cool” at all because my Mum liked her so much. How wrong I was!) My main memory of going to Cornwall, as a kid, aside from listening to lots of Limp Bizkit, is going to see “Manderley” — although, in the most wonderfully disorientating fashion, I’ve since realised that this visit has become an oneiric entanglement of fact and fiction. I vividly remember the feeling of seeing “Manderley” in the flesh but the vision of the house in my mind’s eye is very much confused with the images of the place conjured up by Alfred Hitchcock and whoever did the set design for a stage adaptation my Mum dragged me too one time at the Hull New Theatre.
So, as much as I have previously played up a kind of tongue-in-cheek Yorkshire nationalism on this blog, in orbit of the prospect of an independence movement, it must be said that what has stuck me most about my various jaunts around this weird little island is that Yorkshire shares many strong affinities with other counties and countries, that are all rooted in the futile Celtic resistance of English imperialism. (Yes, at “home” as well as abroad.) The attraction of moors and the eerie countryside more generally seems, to me, to be based in a Gothic refusal to conform to a consolidated sense of Englishness. As such, my affirmation of my home’s difference is most important to me because it is a difference shared.
The affinities that Yorkshire shares with other territories around the United Kingdom are precisely rooted in this Hobbesian horror — darkened corners of this kingdom that may not have identified with but nonetheless live in the shadow of leviathan, moulded to its shape over centuries by state oppression and class war. The combined heritages of neglect and, in particular, mining mean these affinities go back a long way. I remember feeling this most intensely in Wales. In fact, many other Yorkshire folk I met whilst I was living in Wales a few years back spoke of a very similar natural affinity to its landscape and cultural identity, and people I’d meet in Wales who’d been to Yorkshire would acknowledge the same thing.
These anti-English, or more broadly anti-imperialist, folk traditions — which is to say, folk traditions that survive today as an indirect but no doubt conscious two fingers up to English cultural erasure — are directly linked to the occult, and this is likewise an attraction I have felt existing between Wales and my Yorkshire home — I lived down the road from the Welsh birthplace of Arthur Machen, for instance — and also to Cornwall.
This is to say that, everywhere I’ve lived — except London, notably — it always felt like class consciousness and an affinity with the occult have gone hand-in-hand and Cornwall is no different. Its history of tin mining collides with its various archaeological sights and the mists of its moors. In Cornwall with Robin, this sense of an occultural weather was felt most prominently as we trekked across moors in thick fog and fine drizzle, in search of a crop of standing stones with only an Ordinance Survey map for guidance, carving out a meandering path, avoiding the map markers for abandoned mine shafts.
With far less fog on this October trip, our situation was less moored and more marooned. We found the various standing stones and outcrops with ease and, with the sun blaring down on us, we instead elected to spend a lot more of our time along the coast.
However, it is worth noting that, with visibility high, you get a sense of Cornwall’s illusory island mentality when, from some vantage points on the moors, you can see the whole Cornish peninsula stretch out in front of you with the sea encroaching on both sides. At Land’s End, where we spent one of our days, this sensation is heightened further still, with the expanse of the sea in front of you taking on the weight of the whole of this weird little nation as it unfolds for infinity behind you.
You feel like you’re at the absolute ends of the earth, with the land not stopping, transitioning from earth to beach, but petering out as jagged rock, as if the land forgets itself, dissolving into the abyss like everything else.
A little further round the coast at Lizard Point, the feeling is much the same. Whilst Land’s End is the furthest flung extremity of England, Lizard is its most southernly point. Rather than visit it for this fact alone, it was the first coastal spot on a secret musical sightseeing tour.
Countless times I had listened to Brian Eno’s track of the same name, thinking what this place might actually be like. It did not disappoint as a treacherous bit of coast littered with shipwrecks, caves and seals, although the wealth of tourist activity did dilute the mystery somewhat.
This was the case at a number of other musical spots as well. We went to Logan Rock too, for instance, looking for the Logan Rock Witch but found nothing but a quaint dock and a picturesque sun trap.
However, as is the case with many other popular tourist spots in Cornwall, there is a sense that you would find the atmosphere you were looking for if you were to return at a less sociable hour. It felt like, to see Cornwall properly, when it wasn’t trying to sell itself, you had to see it at night.
St. Michael’s Mount was another Aphex Twin tourist landmark but this one, at least, retained the wonder of its spectacle. It also had an intriguing and potent Gothic history.
On a wall in the visitor centre, it says:
In medieval times, St Michael was thought to determine whether the souls of the recently dead went to Heaven or Hell.
Holy places on hills and mountains were often dedicated to him as the mediator between God and man, which was the case with St Michael’s Mount. We still honour this tradition.
It is surprising, reading this, that there are no other St Michael’s Mounts in Cornwall. It is a part of the world drenched in the sublime. This is felt in equal amounts of terror and wonder. Indeed, there were times when these coastal settlements felt somewhat like they were trying to harness something not of this world, sometimes against better judgement.
We visited one hamlet, for instance, that was nothing but a dock and a few cottages. New houses and a caravan park had been recently built not far away but there was a sense that the original settlers here had not wanted to be bothered. They were tucked very much into the landscape.
It felt like Innsmouth, with the harbour only there to keep up a pretence whilst they communed with something from below. Because the harbour didn’t go out to sea. It simply added a further barrier to something from within an already cloistered cove, embedded within an already existing natural frontier. It felt like something untoward was being kept out. But you couldn’t say what.
We spent a lot of time finding places such as this along the coast. I took hundreds of pictures of them. Too many to fit in this post. One other particularly notable example of this kind of sublime communion, however, was the Minack Theatre — an open-air theatre built over a 50-year period directly into the cliff face.
It was built, originally, to perform Shakespeare on during and after the war. If I remember correctly, one of the first plays performed there was The Tempest and what a perfect play to perform on this coastline of all coastlines.
Further examples exist inland. There are standing stones and stone circles everywhere. Walking through them, you might feel something pass through you. Everyone seems to be built on the perfect spot where land and sky fold into one another.
This is something felt more profoundly than anything on this trip. Of course this strip of land is littered with the archaeological detritus of sun worship.
I’m reminded, at every turn, of Bataille’s text The Solar Anus, describing this great entropic churn back to the plane of immanence. The Cornish coast feels attuned to it. It is the land’s end, England’s end, and it knows it. It loves it. Cornwall is born where England comes to die, its corpse tossed around by the tide.
Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.
Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.
The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form.
But their polymorphous coitus is a function of uniform terrestrial rotation.
The simplest image of organic life united with rotation is the tide. From the movement of the sea, uniform coitus of the earth with the moon, comes the polymorphous and organic coitus of the earth with the sun.
But the first form of solar love is a cloud raised up over the liquid element. The erotic cloud sometimes becomes a storm and falls back to earth in the form of rain, while lightning staves in the layers of the atmosphere.
The rain is soon raised up again in the form of an immobile plant.
Animal life comes entirely from the movement of the seas and, inside bodies, life continues to come from salt water.
The sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis.
I get asked for film and TV recommendations a lot on CuriousCat and I’m never really sure what to say. More often than not, I ignore them, because it ultimately feels quite arbitrary.
I watch everything. Or try to. I used to literally watch everything and my threshold for liking things was low. I paid my dues with French New Wave or Polish Slow Cinema or whatever else. My favourite directors were Kieślowski, Bergman and Lynch but I don’t really want to be the guy who still recommends that stuff at the drop of a hat into his late 20s. (Although, of course, I still think they’re all great.)
If 18-year-old Film Bro me was to give you a list of films that were really influential for me, it would look like this:
I’d still stand by that list, I reckon, but I’m wary of saying it is definitive because I haven’t seen most of these films (except The Thing, which still gets frequent outings) within the last 5 years — 10 years for some. As such, I could just keep going. I’ve seen a lot of films and I’ve liked a lot of films because I was a teenage sponge and there comes a point where a list just becomes redundant because it’s whatever comes to mind first. I don’t want to equate my taste with the effectiveness of my memory. Nowadays, if I watch something and it makes me feel something out of the ordinary, I’ll probably find something to write about it right here.
I could have just said all this when an anon asked earlier if I could recommend some “Gothic media essentials” and, whilst I’d otherwise be happy to, it felt like a good opportunity to offer some broader thoughts on tastes and xenogothic media. Because not all these things are recognisably Gothic and making a list doesn’t really do enough in terms of clarifying that I actually think about the Gothic (and why this blog is called Xenogothic).
I like finding the Gothic in all the telly I watch. My view of the Gothic isn’t that normative because I don’t think the Gothic is — or, rather, it shouldn’t be — that normative. At its best, it ruptures itself. The best examples of the Gothic, for me, are often thrillers and murder mysteries rather than horror movies. More often than not, I end up chatting about the latest murder mystery on Netflix than the latest jump-scare-athon. I’m a big fan of Robin Mackay’s writing on yarnwork in this regard and Robin might be the person I talk to about TV and films the most. (In fact, we shared a folk horror kick last year, watching Blood on Satan’s Claw at Urbanomic’s Cornwall HQ.) He once wrote:
The international thriller and the detective story … present us with a localised object or event that stands out from the ground of normality, suggesting forces as yet unaccounted for. At the same time they transform that vision through abrupt shifts in perspective — the ‘plot twists’ that are the stock in trade of such narratives. This continual interrogation appeals in part because it models the predicament of finite, situated cognition and its aspirations toward universal purchase.
Gothic media essentials are, then, a misnomer for me. It’s about rupturing normality, not finding the best examples of a norm. What I’m interested in is being attuned to the weird as we can find it in the here and now, and the now and then. And there are plenty of examples of media that do that, albeit not being readily seen as “Gothic”. “American Horror Story” never quite got my vote, for example, because it felt so invested in heavy-handed genre tropes. I much prefer the neo-baroque of “Hannibal“, for instance, or, most recently, I liked that new adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House“. Another series I can’t stop thinking about is “Children of the Stones“, particularly for the way that Mark wrote about it on the Hyperstition blog, tapping into a vigilant and militant dysphoria.
I’m surprised that I’ve never seen either the left or right Accelerationists talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll be disregarding the film adaptation, which, though it has some high-grade acting, misses the entire point of the novel due to consequence of its medium making the acts of McMurphy the dram, rather than the commentary of Bromden. The interior perspective of Chief Bromden is, frankly the uniquely interesting part of the book; the rest is just an uncouth prison drama. I’m inclined to think that a better way to think about OFOTCN is that it’s a story from the perspective of Bromden, as he is only able to contextualize the triumph of pseudo-capitalism in America as something equivalent to a unfriendly artificial intelligence of the paperclip maximizer variety. He terms this process as “the Combine.”
“The Combine”, as Bryce demonstrates with some passages from the book, is a central part of the story expunged from the film adaptation. It’s the Chief’s conspiratorial name for a kind of fascistic dynamic that permeates the Inside/Outside barrier between society and the psych ward. Bryce continues:
Bromden blames himself for failing to fit into the Combine’s progam, while also understanding that the Combine’s program is destroying everything he values. The mental patients, as “culls from the Combine’s product” are unable to participate in the American system, which is to say adequately adapted to an artificial environment built by the Combine manifesting its destiny all over the place. However, Bromden still frequently takes the perspective of the Combine as legitimate […] The central tragedy of the novel should not be understood as McMurphy’s failure to successfully lead a rebellion of inpatients, but Bromden’s simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification.
Some readers may remember that I have written about accelerationism and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before but, having never read the book, I can’t claim to have done so very well. I mentioned the film in passing in one of my posts on Westworld from a few months ago and how it was caught up in my readings of the work of Leslie Fielder. In Part One, I wrote:
… does Westworld not become a dramatisation of this very [madness], inherent to the idea of the American West? The revolt of the AI “hosts” of the theme park is as much a catalyst for a “new world” to come as it is the materialisation of a spectre of a past waging war on the woeful consolidation of its own future. […] To be haunted by the fractured memories of previous iterations is surely the central condition which entwines the consolidated American State and and its Self.
Fiedler comes in here for the way that he aligns the figure of the “Indian” with the internalised geographic unconscious of the American psyche, which I wrote about more in-depth in Part Two.
At the end of that post — which I don’t want to rehash so give the link a click if the context isn’t immediately clear — I wrote:
Perhaps the best analogy for all that we have discussed, continuing this ever-entangling entanglement of consciousnesses that Fielder and others explore, is the finale of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jack Nicholson’s character, “Mac” (aka McMurphy), is, in a way, the ultimate Westerner; the rebel, who stirs up and antagonises the status quo. He is, as Fiedler calls him, “the New American Man.” Fiedler writes on the original 1962 book, set in a psychiatric hospital: “McMurphy chooses instead if not madness, at least aggravated psychopathy and an alliance with his half-erased, totally schizophrenic Indian comrade — an alliance with all that his world calls unreason.”
McMurphy, we must remember, is not actually mad. He pleads insanity when convicted of crimes of battery and gambling, believing he will receive a more lenient sentence. The tragic irony of the story is that he is eventually lobotomised, and it is the Chief, in the film at least, on seeing what has become of his friend, the fully-erased New American Man, who breaks out of his affective impotence and heads for the Outside.
Just as the Man in Black, in seeking the maze, is disappointed to find it is not for him, there is perhaps a parable here for the current White Western Man that the revolution is not for him. This seems to be what has the Right running scared. In wanting to take responsibility for their actions only, and not the actions of others, they may be left treading water.
If the White Man really wants to exit, he can’t lead but only follow…
What Bryce introduces on his blog may seem like a very different (even contradictory) reading but I think that the two tragedies of the book, as Bryce describes them — Mac’s failed revolution and Chief’s psychological impotence — are inherently connected.
For Fiedler — something he later clarifies explicitly in the final chapter of his book, The Return of the Vanishing American — madness is a potential avenue for “White transcendence”. For Fiedler, noticing the frequent trope of how White Europeans are so frequently paired up with non-White counterparts, highlights the desires of the White man that these characters are said to represent. If the partner is Black “we tend to interpret as a parable of an attempt to extend our sexuality, to recover our lost libido” — I watched Training Day (of all things) yesterday and that film is a fascinating example of this but its also common to all sorts of stories: Wuthering Heights, in particular, comes to mind. However, if the partner is Indian, “we are likely to read as signifying a desire to breach the limits of reason, to extend our consciousness.”
What is of central importance to Fiedler is the role of whiteness in this story. Both Mac and Big Nurse are tandem figures of a virulent whiteness — an authoritarian whiteness and a whiteness looking for a way out — both of which threaten to snuff out the other but it is Chief who puts Mac out of his miserable post-lobotomy existence. However, as Fiedler points out, the novel can be read as a meta-exploration of this failure. Written by a white man, Chief becomes Ken Kesey’s own internal Indian who he seeks to let free. As Fiedler writes in his previous book, Waiting for the End:
What we customarily call the “oppressed minorities” (and the same is true when the oppressed are, in fact, majorities) are exploited not only economically and politically, but also psychologically, though this latter fact is less noticed in election speeches, newspaper editorials, or even serious analyses of class and race relations, whether pro or con. Oppressors, that is to say, project upon the oppressed certain of their own psychic dilemmas, elements of their own mental life of which they are ashamed, or toward which they are deeply ambivalent.
Nowhere is this more common than in tales of white transcendence such as this, and I think that Bryce’s comment on this pseudo-capitalism is an apt one. The logistics of exit are so frequently racialised along these same lines — unwittingly, perhaps, but I think they should be done so purposefully.
What Fielder calls the Higher Masculine Sentimentality — “a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable” — is rampant in Right Accelerationist circles whilst Left Accelerationism often parrots a patronising Christian-Humanism without fully contending with the consequences of the revolution to come.
To be absolutely clear: Accelerationism should be understood as a spatiotemporal philosophy of entropy for preparing ourselves for the future, for making ourselves worthy of the event of acceleration. What this entropy will — we hope — ultimately lead to is the destruction of the institutions that structure our lives, at the levels of individual, state and planet. These institutions are driving themselves into the ground and we should encourage this — not willy-nilly but from the perspective that this is a necessary process if we are to reach a new future, and we should understand these institutions as white, male and bougie.
If we can read Nyx’s Gender Accelerationism blackpaper as an exploration of the fact that “the future is female” isn’t a soft feminist slogan for democratic politics but a violent transformation of the patriarchal subject / subject under patriarchy, we can likewise read the works of Leslie Fiedler — and so much American culture besides — as containing the implicit message that whiteness is gonna have to go too.
In fact, is the argument that Chief Bromden’s character is defined by his “simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification”, not precisely the argument shared today by Afropessimists and Blaccelerationists? The argument that a worthy critique of capitalism requires an exit from the white male supremacy that structures it at every level?
If run-of-the-mill Accelerationists don’t talk about this more, that might be because many don’t want to think about the social suicide they are encouraging for themselves. But they should.
Fiedler again, with a conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American that is downright Deleuzean, echoing the narrative of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest explicitly and pointing to its relevance to any accelerationist project:
We have come to accept the notion that there is still a territory unconquered and uninhabited by palefaces, the bearers of “civilisation,” the cadres of imperialist reason; and we have been learning that into this territory certain psychotics, a handful of “schizophrenics,” have moved on ahead of the rest of us — unrecognised Natty Bumppos or Huck Finns, interested not in claiming the New World for any Old God, King, or Country, but in becoming New Men, members of just such a New Race as D. H. Lawrence foresaw. (How fascinating, then, that R. D. Laing, leading among contemporary psychiatrists of the theory that some schizophrenics have “broken through” rather than “broken down,” should, despite the fact he is an Englishman, have turned to our world and its discovery in search of an analogy; he suggests that Columbus’s stumbling upon America and his first garbled accounts of it provide an illuminating parallel to the ventures of certain madmen into the regions of extended or altered consciousness, and to their confused version, once they are outside of it, of the strange realm in which they have been.)
Obviously, not everyone is prepared, and few of us ever will be, to make a final and total commitment to the Newest West via psychosis; but a kind of tourism into insanity is already possible for those of us not yet ready or able to migrate permanently from the world of reason. We can take, as the New Westerns suggest, what is already popularly called — in the aptest of metaphors — a “trip,” an excursion into the unknown with the aid of drugs. The West has seemed to us for a long time a place of recreation as well as of risk; and this is finally fair enough, for all the ironies implicit in turning a wilderness into a park. After all, the West remains always in some sense true to itself, as long as the Indian, no matter how subdued, penned off, or costumed for the tourist trade, survives — as long as we can confront there a creature radically different from the old self we seek to recreate in two weeks’ vacation.
And whilst the West endures, the Western demands to be written — that form which represents a traditional and continuing dialogue between whatever old selves we transport out of whatever East, and the radically different other whom we confront in whatever West we attain. That other is the Indian still, as from the beginning, though only vestigially, nostalgically now; and also, with special novelty and poignantly, the insane.
I’m sat in a Starbucks in Bristol city centre right now. I have a few hours to wait before I catch my bus back to London and I’m doing everything I can to preserve the energy of the past week within myself.
On our early — early — morning drive out of Cornwall, continuing to channel the psychedelic folk horror that has erupted from our discussions of Mark’s work, and particularly The Weird and the Eerie, we listened to the Incredible String Band’s third and most famous album, 1968’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.
When “Mercy I Cry City” came on, Robin joked: “This’ll be you in a few hours.”
I was already feeling it.
“Oh, I can see and touch you / But you don’t owe reality much”
It’s funny that before arriving in Cornwall, I’d been haunted by a childhood memory of the place which I couldn’t locate in actual space. Acquiring fragmented and inchoate bearings over the course of the last seven days, I’ve begun to remember more and more of my time in Cornwall as a child. I had all these vague half memories and feelings and now, sat here perusing Google Maps and retracing our Kurtz-gradient, it has all begun to slot into place.
I once spent two weeks in Portmellon and it rained the entire time we were there. My parents had preempted this and, hoping to ward off my only-child utter boredom in the inhospitable weather, I was allowed to bring my PS1 with us as a rainy day emergency measure.
I remember the house was freezing and the wind blew straight through it. It had a dusty TV in an alcove in the tiny front room we watched the Graham Norton Show on one evening. The only other time it was used was to plug in the PS1. With it, I played a demo of Alone in the Dark: A New Nightmare, making up my own narrative variations as I role-played my way through the game’s first 20 minutes over and over and over again.
Watching the above Let’s Play, in true 21st century Proustian fashion, I’ve also come to remember the days out we had on that holiday.
We went to the then-recently-opened Eden Project, of course, and also did a tour of locations associated with Daphne du Maurier such as the Jamaica Inn and the particularly memorable Menabilly estate, near Fowey, reportedly the inspiration for “Manderley”, the primary location in her novel Rebecca.
Looking at pictures of Menabilly today, it is very different to what I remember and, as I continue to explore Google Maps, I think that what I have done is conflate my memory of Menabilly with an image of Manderley from a very Gothic stage adaptation of du Maurier’s book I saw once at Hull New Theatre and also the nearby St. Catherine’s Castle, a 16th-century ruin.
Undoubtedly, it was a very Gothic and very formative staycation.
I think I’ll be revisiting Du Maurier’s books soon, as a surefire way to hold on to some of the energy of the past week as we consider what this “unnamed project” actually is or might be.
It’s actually quite astounding how many influential stories she wrote, so many adaptations of which remain some of the best horror films around: Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” being two particular examples highlighted by Mark in The Weird and the Eerie.
I need to think more on these two stories anyway, particularly “Don’t Look Now”, which has already emerged as being exemplary of one of the most knotted facets of Mark’s analysis, in which the eerie and the weird orbit and spiral around each other, tied to the powers of fate, via which the typically spatial encounters of the weird and the eerie are entangled with “an intensity upstream of time”, as Robin called it.
Robin writes in our notes: “The question of fate is eerie because its also a question of agency — who, outside of time, weaves the pattern that we are a part of, inside time.”
As I sit here surfing on a swell of memories, echoing down the years, close to twenty years later, I can’t help but feel this agency on my shoulder.
We have been told recently that there is a crisis in masculinity in America, and that we should be worried about it. We have been subjected to ideologues using this “crisis” as impetus to consider radically regressive ideas about sexuality. We can counteract this fearmongering by remembering the misogyny of the [literary] canon, which reveals to us that we have always worried about male sexual frustration more than we need to (or at least, more than we worry about more widely devastating social issues). We have always treated the alienation of men as if it deserved thousands of pages of analysis, perhaps because we feared it had the power to endanger us all.
The Guardian recently reposted an essay by Erin Spampinato, asking the question: “How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel?”
In her essay, after charting the now-familiar rise to prominence of the “incel” “movement” on- and offline, Spampinato wonders if it is less underground internet cultures that have nurtured its principles and more the Great American Novel that has given these alienated young men such odd ideas about sexual entitlement. She writes that incels “aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture — they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration”; the product of the Great American Novel, that nationalised canonical signifier, which “treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.”
In reading this historical overview of so-called “involuntary celibacy”, I can’t help but feel like Spampinato is overseeing Western misogyny more generally, albeit topically narrowed to address the recent “incel” explosion. Her observations will already be familiar to most — old-fashioned misogyny and “involuntary celibacy” are, of course, closely linked and share many of the same dissonant contradictions, which she highlights here explicitly — but there are nuances here which can perhaps tell us more about American literature, and certain subsections of the American psyche today more generally, than Spampinato’s overview immediately allows.
The primary frustration for Spampinato is that she is fed up of being force-fed this kind of literature, at the expense of all else that is written within the country and about its society. Her central recommendation is that men broaden their horizons when it comes to their reading habits — suggesting that women’s lives may in fact depend on it — and whilst that is almost certainly a legitimate concern, there is, at the same time, that suggests the “incel movement” is a symptom of modernist man finally being well on the way out.
In reading Spampinato’s essay, I am reminded — once again — of Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel, a book I really haven’t been able to stop going on about in recent months, with it having galvanised a newly ferocious appetite for the “classics” of American fiction that I have previously had no (studious) contact with.
This does not detract from Spampinato’s criticism of over saturation, of course. Male sexual frustration is given all kinds of precedence in the anglo-American literary canon, but what lies beneath this?
At one point, Spampinato links to another article by Rebecca Solnit — “80 Books No Woman Should Read” — written in response to an Esquire article of what it considers to be the 80 best books that everyone should read. Here, the various books are presented to the reader through a woefully performative masculine brevity. (#1 is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Because he showed us just how long the road could be.” It’s like a coffee house spoken word bro’s personality turned into a listicle. It makes me want to retch.) Solnit writes:
Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.
But still I struggle to marry up the criticisms wholly with the reality. Whilst the whole atmosphere around these books and their canonical reputation is intolerable, there is surely more to many of the books themselves.
Many are books, most notably, about men trying and failing to be men. Mass murder seems less an extreme expression of “the job” done well and more the result of a buckling under its weight. These books, to me — as a recent and quite possibly naive reader — demonstrate a sort of protective romanticisation and dramatisation of men’s historic inability to be themselves. These are undoubtedly violent books about frustrated and troubled characters, but rather than offering men with an example to follow, surely what they demonstrate is masculinity at the edge of itself — or, indeed, at the edge of something else.
Take McCarthy’s The Road as a prime example; as a book about fatherhood at the end of the world. Surely it is no coincidence that these two topics are tackled together.
Or, perhaps, to sidestep into the cinematic, Howard Beale in Network. Is he not the epitome of the modern American man? He isn’t just a newsreader. He’s a man despairing at his situation. A man who despairs within his patriarchal role as information-giver and his actual impotence in the face of it.
Fiedler’s argument is even more specific than this in Love and Death in the American Novel and, in contrast to Spampinato’s argument, contends less with the general sociohistorical misogyny of Anglo-American culture and more with the entangled homoeroticism and impotency that defines, for him, all classical literary representations of American masculinity.
Classic American fiction, Fiedler writes, is less misogynistic through its sense of entitlement to the female body and more through its avoidance of women altogether, instead turning “from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing.” Fiedler continues: “the typical male of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility.”
Fiedler even goes so far as to declare that “there is no real sexuality in American life and therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”
Of course, so many of these writers, like today’s incels, have long engaged in similar feats of mental gymnastics to account for their own misogyny and sociosexual impotency. Fiedler highlights, for instance, how Mark Twain, in 1601, “contrasts the vigor of Elizabethan Englishwomen with their American descendants; contrasting the sexual utopia of precolonial England with a fallen America where the men copulate ‘but once in seven yeeres'”.
As with Spampinato’s view of today’s incels, this sexual frustration seems borne of ineptitude rather than a distinct lack of flirtatious opportunities with the opposite sex. However, unlike Spampinato, it is this which Fiedler takes to be the primary focus of the American novel. It’s sexual context is perhaps a left-over tradition from the modern European novel as it has defined itself since its conception. Whilst it nonetheless relates to sexual conquest explicitly, let us not limit the symbolism of impotence to this alone. It becomes, instead, a national trait in all circumstances.
The first modern novel, so says Fiedler and countless others, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a classic story that concerns itself with seduction more than anything else. The tribulations of seduction are also, notably, what seem to end up killing everyone in the story.
This central engine, arguably ever-present but exaggerated in modern literature is, in the most general sense, what Fiedler would suggest is the primary concern of an American literature in his most famous essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” — not love or seduction as such, but an abstracted, at first at least, interpersonal responsibility and failure to uphold it.
This presents the American psyche with a potent challenge, one which has tended towards conservatism ever since the time of the frontier: “the white American must make a choice between coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy or formu- lating radically new ideologies.”
What is the “incel”, in this respect? Is it a radically new ideology in the face of an institutionalised impotence? A new accounting for that central condition of the American psyche? No — it’s certainly not new, Spampinato and Fiedler both make that abundantly clear. Is it, then, instead, another generation’s way of coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy, here interpreted to refer to the blanket misogyny of Western society more generally, as a deeply institutionalized discrepancy between the sexes?
Fiedler notes, already, that queerness and blackness have, for many decades, been the tandem discrepancies to be processed by the white American man. These remain potent points of contention and each has been a central concern for mass shooters in recent years too but now, relative to previous moments in the recent history of American gun violence, it is misogyny that seems to be provoking the most violent ire.
Indeed, considering the hype surrounding the homoeroticism of Bronze Age Pervert, it seems that queerness at least has been absorbed into the male psyche. (Mike Crumplar did well to highlight this strange turn in his review of Bronze Age Mindset.) Blackness still has a long ways to go but, surely, given the continual shifting of demographics, it is only a matter of time. Misogyny, on the other hand, shows no signs of abating.
In the theorising of the “incel” mindset in such a way that seems to bottle this condition, long said by the likes of Fiedler to be a foundation of the American male psyche, we nonetheless see a distinct lack of self-awareness in these online groups. Spampinato suggests that part of the problem may lie in how these books are taught — as well as broadening their horizons, if America were more honest about the way it has long represented itself, it may stop kidding itself.
Because the truth is, if it has always been hard to be a man, it is only getting harder, and the irony of how much effort is being put into retaining misogyny by some groups is astounding and — surely — unsustainable.
As Uri tweeted recently:
Edit: A note on the title:
And I didn’t think about changing it before posting…
Note to self: pick titles after you’ve written things, not before.