Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Drug and other stories

Aleister Crowley The Drug and other stories (2010)

Whilst I've never exactly been enamoured of Aleister Crowley, I've taken enough of an interest to read past the somewhat hysterical reputation of the most wicked man in the world, as someone or other once put it. So far as I can recall from reading Martin Booth's biography, the worst of the man's crimes was most probably the beastly treatment meted out to Victor Neuburg towards the end of their relationship - although it's been a while since I read the book so I could be wrong there. Personally I'd say that whilst Crowley may well have qualified as the most faintly unsavoury character in the world, when looking to give out awards for actual evil, you might do better to consider Hitler or Stalin or even Fred bleeding West rather than someone who was just a bit of an oddball, the real-life Uncle Fester as at least one website has noted in recent times.

The trouble is that it's difficult to appreciate Crowley without his reputation getting in the way, not least when he himself encouraged the spread of at least some of that reputation, leaving us today with a barely recognisable Crowley as cultural icon to a clueless horde of pseudo-goth wankers with Psychic TV albums. Obviously there's not much good to be had discussing Crowley without some reference to magick, but one should be quite clear about what is meant by such a term in this context. What shouldn't be implied includes actual contact with non-corporeal entities on the grounds of there being no such thing, spells of the kind cast in Harry Potter films, or indeed anything which contradicts the existing laws of causality and physics. Roughly speaking this leaves us with magick as philosophy, a view of the world based not so much upon that which is directly perceived as the means by which it is understood, as expressed in the words of Ida Pendragon in Crowley's The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon:

'Realism,' she went on. 'We want truth, but we want beauty too. We don't want what our silly eyes call truth. We want the beauty that is seen by artists' souls. A photograph is a lie because a camera is not a God. And we would rather the truth coloured by the artist's personality than the lie that his mere eyes tell him. The women of Bougereau and Gerôme are more like what the eyes tell one of life than the women of Degas and Manet. I want the truth of Being, not the truth of Form.'

This view is further clarified by Edgar Rolles in the same tale:

'My good girl, perspective is an eccentricity, a symbol; no more. How can one ever represent a three-dimensional world in two dimensions? Only by symbolism. We have acquiesced in the method of the primitives - do you think men and women are really like Fra Angelico's pictures look to the eyes of the untaught?'

Then again, later:

'So Being is not in Form; it is however only to be understood through Form. Hence incarnations. The Universe is only a picture in the Mind of the Father, by which He wishes to convey - what? It is our Magnum Opus to discover what He means.'

None of which should be confused with beliefs born of a refusal to acknowledge objective reality, for as Crowley states in Felo de Se:

It is fear of death that has fooled men into belief in such absurdities and abominations as Spiritualism and Christian Science.

So, given that our boy wasn't entirely the pantomime villain described by persons subscribing to much weirder belief systems than anything ever claimed as valid by Crowley himself, just what was his game?

In terms of art and literature, the Symbolist movement flourished during Crowley's formative years as a reaction to naturalist tendencies in painting and writing, and perhaps as a resurgence of romanticism inflamed by the ever increasing cultural impact of science and industrialisation. Crowley would most certainly have been aware of all this, not least through the associate late nineteenth century Hermetic revival giving rise to magickal societies such as the Golden Dawn and Ordo Aurum Solis, amongst others. As a young man who spent some time mingling amongst Parisian café society - to which a number of his short stories refer - he could hardly have remained ignorant of Symbolism, or unmoved by its aesthetic as may be inferred from the reference to Symbolist painter Félicien Rops in the short story T'ien Tao. To make a possibly somewhat crass analogy, I suggest it may be in some sense useful to view Crowley as the Andy Warhol of Symbolism, a figure whose life epitomised the preoccupations of the movement, just as the distinctly less interesting Warhol later came to embody the commercialisation and commodification of art; so whilst Rops and Moreau painted it, and Paul Verlaine wrote it, Crowley lived it. On which note, one more from Edgar Rolles in The Ordeal of Ida Pendragon:

'Art,' said he, 'and do not imagine that Art or anything else is other than High Magic!—is a system of holy hieroglyph. The artist, the initiate, thus frames his mysteries.'

If any of that makes any sense, keeping in mind that much of what I have thus far written is suggested mainly for the sake of argument, then it's probably time to take a look at The Drug, a big, fat collection of Crowley's short stories picked up mainly out of curiosity because I'd forgotten that he ever wrote this stuff; and I was further intrigued by there being an introduction from David Tibet, who apparently stopped talking to me after I compared his singing to the mice of the mouse organ on Bagpuss.

Oh well.

As you might imagine given the author, a certain number of the forty-nine short stories gathered here - and many of them previously unpublished by the way - deal with esoteric subjects. Some of these - The Three Characteristics and T'ien Tao to name but two - may well make sense to folks who are really into that sort of thing, but were more or less incomprehensible to me, in places reading much like a man having a conversation with himself. Happily, he improved with practice, learning how to meet his readership halfway, so that by the time we come to 1913's The Testament of Magdalen Blair, if the narrative is still a little muddled in places, the whole is nevertheless rewarding; in this specific case proposing a mechanism of magick as a philosophical system, rather than just addressing those who already get the general idea.

Crowley it turns out was a capable author for the most part. The quality of his writing is rich and poetic, but is sometimes lacking focus, at worst leaving the reader wondering what the hell is going on as we swerve off into yet more digressive observations regarding characters whom we may or may not have already met. Unfortunately though, in some instances the problems are more subtle. For example, in God's Journey we read:

There was one person who had not the normal activity of the brain, that superficial quality of swift reaction without reflection, whose evidence is talk. This was a brain that apprehended situations in some deep stratum of the soul, and the result of whose subtle secret operations is to make decisions which really decide things.

When the hubbub chanced for a moment to be lulled, Nadia, who had been watching the scene silently out of the corners of her sombre eyes, came heavily across the floor towards the master of the house. Her very motion might have suggested some inexorable engine of destruction. She lurched clumsily like a tank, slow, stupid, and yet deadly.

She made the most humble reverence to Pavel Petrovich and said 'I saw Dascha with it.'

The words were quite enough. It let everybody out.

So whilst it's not terrible, the first paragraph is a mess with too much defined by that which is lacking or absent, and concluding with a clause that's pure George W. Bush; followed immediately by a less convoluted paragraph with adjectival content left laying around in awkward places, and which may nevertheless prove a little too rich to digest if one is still scrambling to decode the previous paragraph. Then we come to Dascha, and find ourselves backtracking in hope of deducing the nature of the it with which she was seen; ending with the confusion of the plural words which may or may not become the singular it by which everybody is let out. The sum total is readable, but at a pace dictated by a succession of narrative stumbling blocks. In other words, you need to be already more than averagely well-disposed towards Aleister Crowley to get something out of such passages.

Those individual tales namechecked as distinctly wonderful examples of this, that or the other in the foreword mostly left me unimpressed with the exception of The Drug about which in my notes I have written he forgot to include a story, but otherwise fairly readable. On the other hand, Cancer?, A Death Bed Repentance, The Vitriol-Thrower, The Testament of Magdalen Blair, Felo de Se, Robbing Miss Horniman, and Which Things are an Allegory all made enough of an impression to keep me reading until the end, more or less. The A∴A∴, the order which Crowley helped established in 1907 was dedicated to the pursuit of light and knowledge - as Wikipedia is my witness - an ambition expressed in the motto the method of science, the aim of religion. This seems to me a more accurate summary of that which motivated Aleister Crowley if his writings are any indication, at least more accurate than the pursuit of excess and saying important sounding things in a deep, boomy voice with too much echo; and whilst I'm not suggesting he was necessarily a misunderstood genius, he is clearly deserving of better understanding than has generally been his legacy.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Lobo: Portrait of a Bastich

Keith Giffen, Alan Grant & Simon Bisley
Lobo: Portrait of a Bastich (1992)

Six hundred pages worth of Aleister Crowley's short stories can be a tough mountain to climb, so I've taken a break about halfway through and am refreshing my palate with something which, it might be argued, could be considered the thematic opposite of Crowley's laboured symbolism. Lobo is an extraterrestrial bounty-hunter and parody of the sort of angry over-the-top violent loner types which began to infest caped comicdom during the nineties. Lobo goes out of its way to offend, shares most of its basic values with Beavis & Butthead, and is probably one of the more stupid things I've read this year; and yet it's great because it's done right and it works. Simon Bisley's artwork is as ludicrous as ever, comically violent and presumably fuelled by death metal and hard liquor, but there's nevertheless something oddly beautiful about it all - a fine balance is struck with fiddly detail in all the right places and heavy, solid figures. It almost carries the authority of classical painting and as such makes every other clown who ever drew a scowling muscleman firing a gun larger than himself entirely redundant. Although the two four-issue miniseries collected here may have set out to rip huge streaks of piss out of the art of Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld, the thing works because those involved so obviously loved what they were doing; so despite a superficially similar penchant for those kicking-peoples'-heads-in gags, Portrait of a Bastich feels almost wholesome in comparison to the somewhat cynical and nasty Skrull Kill Krew to which I subjected myself t'other week.

I actually bought these when they came out back in the 1990s, then reluctantly sold them on eBay when raising funds for my move to Texas, and it's great to have them back in the collection. Portrait of a Bastich is, roughly speaking, Motorhead in space written by Douglas Adams but without the smarm, and it's very, very funny.

Better get back to old grumpy bollocks now I suppose...

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Collection of Essays

George Orwell A Collection of Essays (1954)

At last coming to the final titles of a mammoth to-be-read pile upon which I'd been working since February, I am free to read all those books purchased in the mean time and kept to one side so as to avoid further increasing the mass of the aforementioned pile, if that makes any sense whatsoever. Having made efforts to avoid buying an excess of new reading material during this period, that which I have bought has tended to be less representative of my recent reading habits, mainly comprising titles encountered more or less by chance which just seemed too good to pass on. Hence A Collection of Essays, picked up with 1984 fresh in mind, a possibly anomalous title amongst those in a San Antonio library clearance sale. It seemed like something that needed a good home, and the timing was apt.

Only a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of a minor online altercation with a droning leftie, or at least that's probably what I would call her were I politically conservative. I will anagramatically refer to this entity as Mad Oration Ho being as it seems appropriate. I vaguely knew her from dreary atheist bulletin boards frequented back in the days before I had better things to do, and I already found her obnoxious. I think our last point of contact had been whilst she was campaigning to have the image of a menora removed from where it was carved as part of the architecture of a US post office building thus, she suggested, violating the separation of church and state and giving offence to atheists, or some such shite that no-one sane could possibly care about. A few weeks ago she turned up on facebook and so I accepted her friend request, not really knowing why because sure enough she was still a fount of the very worst sort of whining arseache. I spent a couple of days biting my lip, holding myself back from posting clips of Ted Nugent or links to material in support of either the NRA or Westboro Baptist Church, anything to aggravate this steaming leftard as Encyclopedia Dramatica classifies them.

Then finally I popped. She had posted a link to an article crowing over a US survey which had revealed a correlation between political conservatives, gun enthusiasts, racism, and the southern states. I've only been in Texas two years but I'm already somewhat tired of shitheads reducing the entire population of the southern states to a fat, white guy with a gun, so I asked Mad Oration Ho how this really helped anyone given that the correlation was hardly news and the article seemed like just another example of leftards pointing fingers and sneering at the usual easy targets. Being a moron, she didn't understand the question, inevitably assuming I was arguing against the claims of her beloved survey. Perhaps inevitably she adopted the tone of the edumacated secular humanist explaining logic, reason, logical reasoning, and rational logic and reason, to a stupid person; such as I was presumably by virtue of my having failed to congratulate her on her insight.

The point of this story is that it can often be a thankless task subscribing to any view to the political left of centre if you're in possession of even a little intelligence, because one's ideological colleagues often turn out to be bigger arseholes than even those against whom you might all be hopefully united. I myself tend to believe that strong labour unions are a good thing whilst rampant capitalism should be discouraged. I would like these views to gain wider and more popular support but fear that this is unlikely to happen because no-one likes a whining self-righteous tofu-scoffing twat endlessly banging on about changing the name of the planet Jupiter to something less racist; but much as I enjoyed the thought of Mad Oration Ho fuming with rage at any Ted Nugent, NRA, or nutty fundamentalist material with which I might troll her, the problem is that I can't stand any of that right-wing crap either; and to finally get to the point, this is why I appreciate George Orwell, for he understood very well that for certain leftards the need to be seen to take a stance is often of greater importance than the thrust of the stance taken.

Politically, Orwell's views seem similar to my own, and so these essays dissecting numerous interconnected tendencies within the culture and society to which he was born are both fascinating and illuminating, not least because he writes such a clear and well-considered argument untainted by traces of any dogma, point-scoring, or tub-thumping. Of course the world has changed since Orwell's time, but probably not so much as it could have done. We're still making many of the same mistakes, even if the uniforms and the jargon are different. The class system is perhaps no longer quite so rigid as that discussed in England Your England or "Such, Such were the Joys..." but its evils persist by different means; and one might argue that popular culture has moved on from the insular juvenalia of Billy Bunter and others examined in the Boy's Weeklies essay, but many of Orwell's core arguments apply equally well to all those generic entertainment franchises which really aren't quite so sophisticated or grown up as their fans might like to believe; and I always knew there was a reason I never quite warmed to Dickens, a reason Orwell articulates as all details—rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles...

All of which might be Mad Oration Ho style arse-ache were it not for the fact of Orwell being such a lively writer; but the down side is of course that home truths can be both sobering and slightly depressing. This is how the world was in Orwell's time, and it's as bad or even worse now - although knowing this is still somehow preferable to the delusional leftard for whom the routine railing against injustice has become something like a comfort, an action born of the need to be observed in occupation of a moral high ground, a position generally associated with a degree of privilege for:

People with empty bellies never despair of the universe, nor even think about the universe, for that matter.

As a fully grown man with eyes, ears, and a functioning brain, Orwell was as critical of the left as he was of those to whom he voices opposition, and it is this capacity for self-examination, to remain critical even of those with whom one might appear to be in some agreement which makes him such a valuable essayist and commentator on literature itself. In this latter capacity, his looking forward to our own age makes for pessimistic and yet prescient reading, with art subsumed by entertainment, insulated like the biblical Jonah within the whale. It's nothing that wasn't restated in 1984, but it's nevertheless an argument worth repeating.

But from now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer's world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism. It seems likely, therefore, that in the remaining years of free speech any novel worth reading will follow more or less along the lines that [Henry] Miller has followed—I do not mean in technique or subject matter, but in implied outlook. The passive attitude will come back, and it will be more consciously passive than before. Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale—or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, "constructive" lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine.

Whilst I'm obviously biased, I suggest the world would be a better and fairer place if we had a few more like Orwell, and if a few more like Orwell were taken seriously. This would of course mean that we would need to be able to actually hear them over the white noise of Mad Oration Ho and her hectoring ilk. Therefore it's probably fair to say that we're all doomed, but I suppose it's better to at least be aware of the fact and to understand why than not.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Skrull Kill Krew

Grant Morrison, Mark Millar & Steve Yeowell
Skrull Kill Krew (1996)

The roots of Skrull Kill Krew can be traced back to an ancient issue of Marvel's Fantastic Four wherein green-skinned shape-shifting alien spies are defeated when hypnotised and ordered to transform themselves into cows, cows which end up in hamburgers, hamburgers which have passed viral Skrull DNA and abilities to those who consume them in a fairly arbitrary nod to the 1980s outbreak of mad cow disease. I was unaware of this title when it first appeared, having turned my back on comic books thanks largely to Grant Morrison's Unreadables amongst other Vertigo titles that really weren't anything like so clever as their authors believed them to be. Nearly two decades later, I come close to pooing myself with excitement at the prospect of a book such as this, given the above synopsis and the names involved.

With a few Keith Giffen flavoured exceptions, neither Marvel nor DC ever quite managed humour - at least nothing that worked so well as 2000AD - as evidenced by an assortment of laboured miniseries roughly on par with a you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps poster. The Uncanny Ecchs-Men...

Oh my aching sides.

Skrull Kill Krew being spiritually closer to something you might have seen in 2000AD, it might be argued, it really should have worked, but somehow nothing quite adds up. Mark Millar's trademark crass chuckles seem unusually lacking in inspiration - blunted like the one about America smelling of burgers presumably because of fat Americans eating at McDonalds blah blah blah - no doubt hilarious if you've never been to America, but slightly bewildering if you've spent any time longer than a couple of weeks here, or seen anything of the country besides some fucking comic book convention; and then there's Moonstomp, the shape-shifting neo-Nazi skinhead with a magic ball-peen hammer called Nobbler in partial homage to the mighty Thor's Mjolnir - great, except did he really have to be a white supremacist just because he's a skinhead, and this being the case would he really name himself after the Symarip song? Then there's a failure to understand Captain America who, as comic book characters go, really isn't that complicated.

I know it's all intentionally over the top and stupid and gratuitously horrible, but those involved have all done this sort of thing much, much better elsewhere. Skrull Kill Krew reads like all five issues were written in the pub about an hour before last orders, and feels just a little too lacking in sincerity or author investment to work, leaving the reader wondering why he or she, but probably he, bothered in the first place. It's still better than The Unreadables but that's hardly a boast. What a missed opportunity.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick A Scanner Darkly (1973)

At the likely risk of contradicting any previous claim I may have made to the opposite effect, A Scanner Darkly might be viewed as the pivotal Dick novel, or at least a pivotal Dick novel in that it occupies a narrative space roughly equidistant to all other devices by which he attempted to describe his understanding of the universe. Take away a few minor technological details and it reads almost like straight autobiography of a kind which could sit quite happily on a shelf amongst Burroughs' Junky, the oeuvre of Charles Bukowski, and other stumbling accounts of lives failing to happen; whilst on the other, more fantastic hand, all it shares in common with VALIS is buried within the increasingly schizophrenic delusions of Robert Arctor, the main character; so it's fiction, but it's true to life.

Dick believed in a layered universe, or at least in an idea amounting to the same - the thoroughly crappy reality of the world as it is as an illusion imposed upon the world as it should or could be by an errant creator. This theme reoccurs throughout Dick's career and is here expressed in the double life of Robert Arctor, a near permanently wasted addict of the terrible substance D and federal narcotics agent whose cover is so deep that he ends up spying on himself, and who is now so affected by the drug that he doesn't seem to quite notice how he's going around in circles. His world is also going around in circles, as, Dick suggests, is western civilisation, satirised here in New Path, the drug rehabilitation organisation which turns out to be a front for the production of substance D. Almost everything in this novel is eating its own tail.

In Southern California it didn't make any difference anyhow where you went; there was always the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere. And when finally you got hungry and went to the McDonaldburger place and bought a McDonald's hamburger, it was the one they sold you last time and the time before that and so forth, back to before you were born...

They had by now, according to their sign, sold the same original burger fifty billion times. He wondered if it was to the same person. Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread farther and farther in the form of neon ooze.

It is this crushing sense of inertia, of entropic force which forms Dick's illusory superimposed reality, extending right down to the level of human consciousness and experience, the murk of this dreary dream world we float in, as it is later described:

Arctor had hit his head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet directly above him. The pain, the cut in his scalp, so unexpected and undeserved, had for some reason cleared away the cobwebs. It flashed on him instantly that he didn't hate the kitchen cabinet: he hated his wife, his two daughters, his whole house, the back yard with its power mower, the garage, the radiant heating system, the front yard, the fence, the whole fucking place and everyone in it. He wanted a divorce; he wanted to split. And so he had, very soon. And entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all of that.

Probably he should have regretted his decision. He had not. That life had been one without excitement, with no adventure. It had been too safe. All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes, and nothing new could ever be expected.

As the author stresses in the afterword, there is no moral to this novel, but then it does so much that I'm not sure it really needs one. Philip K. Dick had an extraordinary view of the world, and one that might be deemed nonetheless useful regardless of whether you believe any of it, and this is as clear a glimpse of that world as we're likely to encounter outside of the usual biographical sources. At the risk of appearing rude, if you can't appreciate this one then you're probably a moron.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Highway of Eternity

Clifford D. Simak Highway of Eternity (1986)

This was Simak's final novel, and one I approached with some caution. Whilst Simak tended to a clear and uncluttered style with little ambiguity in terms of narrative development, the meaning of his stories has often seemed ambiguous or vague, at least beyond it being obvious that he was trying to say something. He was in his eighties, had spent three years in recovery from leukemia and emphysema, and his wife Kay had passed on in 1985, so it seemed probable that there would be a lot going on in this novel, particularly given the title.

Sure enough, there is a lot going on here, but the whole is much lighter than I had anticipated, and with no sense of a subtext tangled up with convoluted rhetoric unable to decide which way it wants to go; as has appeared to be the case with a few of his novels which were, I suspect, intended simply to inspire questions, but suffered for fostering an impression of some deep and profound statement made just beyond the reader's grasp; at least that's the impression I got.

The story itself perhaps suffers from a surfeit of characters, but is nevertheless readable, a pleasantly surreal tale of humans travelling through time in the hope of escaping their destiny, specifically that staple of much golden age science-fiction, transformation into beings of pure thought. As with many of Simak's novels, I can never quite tell if he has a slightly skewed view of evolution as something guided by a greater purpose, or whether it is simply presented this way for the sake of argument, but the latter is at least suggested by the human rebuttal of destiny as something imposed from outside by those claiming to know better. In this respect, Highway of Eternity is pleasantly straightforward compared to some of Simak's earlier novels in so much as its purpose is relatively clear; and as pastoral science-fiction it scores highly, particularly for the lengthy and evocative chapter of Boone making his way through the wilderness of prehistoric America. It probably isn't the crowning achievement of his career, but it's good enough to inspire regret that of all his oeuvre, I have just six as yet unread novels to go.