full of harp-noises

August 11, 2017

They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.

Mary Butts
Armed with madness

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments. Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing…

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervour, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material…

The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.

Anaïs Nin
On Writing

A journal

I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded. Nor can one let the pen write without guidance; for fear of becoming slack and untidy…

Virginia Woolf
Diary entry: April 20th, 1919

Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that … reveals the essence of things.

Mircea Eliade
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

25th / 26th May

Is it possible I’ve inhaled you in to me? Isn’t that you hiding behind my eyes? I can feel you in my blood, flowing, an impossible heat…

Beside the river bank, jeweled weeds: stinging nettles with translucent stems like human bones in miniature and cow parsley and foxgloves with warm, moist interiors like glowing uteruses.

Hot, sultry weather. At dawn the light seeped like a sigh into the night. Here, in the middle of nowhere, time ceases – or rather, ceases to have meaning. And my thoughts slip into lost infinities –

I hear your laughter, like co-conspirators, the pair of you: children spontaneously giggling. Last night we three drowned in dreams together, and came to realise the distances between stars is vast and lonely. Night remained framed in the bedroom window, while a solitary flickering candle reflected in the glass blotted out those stars and the monstrosities living between them.

I felt your hands running slowly across my memories –

#

Zentai, so I understand, is a term for skin-tight garments that cover the entire body. A second skin, so to speak. I think of those men and women with a latex fetish, smooth as polished black glass, but with access of some sort at the crotch –

#

It is easy to imagine Beauvoir on top of Sartre until she gives that one loud, feminine shriek of pleasure realised. Sartre, of course, is all about suppressed desires, wet dreams, and –

Beauvoir would have hated having him on top of her, stabbing her over and over, until every nerve felt split and bruised. Her pale silver body forced open by him. She would have thought of a new born desperately trying to scramble back inside its mother. She’d have hated that, but would have faked an orgasm anyway. Sartre, of course, wouldn’t have been fooled by her deception –

But he would have remained reasoned, affectionate and polite –

While I would have purchased her a dress of words; she had the most beautiful hands, you know? The slender, flexible fingers of the most lewd fricatrice imaginable. Oh, how I would have loved her to rub me in that special way –

#

Love can be such a fatal disease; kisses infect; kisses kill – like a freakin’ apocalypse of infected lips and words, drowning us all in my disjecta membra.

#

Writing is a battle between laziness and lies which, if you’re lucky, exposes truth.

#

Beside the river in such dreamy weather it is easy to image that ‘golden afternoon’ in 1862 when Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) with his friend the reverend Robinson Duckworth took the three Liddell sisters rowing on the Thames. Lorina Charlotte was the eldest sister, aged thirteen, Alice Pleasance was ten and Edith at age eight, the youngest. They had tea together on the riverbank near Godstow, and Dodgson told them “the fairy-tale of Alice’s adventures underground”. Dodgson who had many ‘child-friends’ and liked to photograph ‘naked little girls’, had a great fondness for writing ‘nonsense’, playing with mathematics, logic and words, and, welding them together, he created on that sun-filled day an immortal children’s fantasy –

Here, today, the hedgerows are a tangled mass of colour: valerian, red campion, common mallow, field ‘forget-me-nots’, and of course blue bells and daffodils grow all around. Nearby woods offer dappled shade and ‘secret places’ where blue bells run wild – as if on steroids! Often we have picnicked here or made love or just sat and contemplated our wild surroundings –

‘For I think it is Love,
For I feel it is Love,
For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’

If ever you feel oppressed by the ‘monstrous mindlessness’ of the cosmos, walk here in the woods beside the river, and that oppression will soon fade away.

You are a witch. You warp the very energy that makes up the universe. You dig chunks of sharp crystal from the earth with bare hands and wear them as trinkets. You rip herbs from the dirt and use them to spice the air. You collect glass and bones and storm water and daggers.

Maybe you’re a different sort of witch. Maybe you write music like a siren’s song, sung to the stars, manipulating them until they shine the way you wish. Maybe you delve deep into code and weave quiet, meticulous charms into the very bones of the cyber world, feeling the flow of waves and Wi-Fi like others do the wind and the ways of the cosmos. Maybe you collect eldritch creatures, spirits and deities like others do stamps, frightened because you’re smart, unceasing because you’re brave, and know you’re much scarier than anything you welcome over your threshold.

Maybe you slip blessings into food. Maybe you slip curses under doorsteps. Maybe you draw symbols on your arms. Maybe you write incantations to be heard only by crickets, wicked, whispered nocturnes.

Whatever you do, however you do it, you are a witch. You are a warrior by default. Your strength is as innate to you as breathing. The only thing you must fear is what will happen when someone pushes you too far.

Source Here

I want to talk about magic, how magic is portrayed in fantasy, how fantasy literature has in fact contributed to a very distinct image of magic, and perhaps most importantly how the Western world in general has come to accept a very precise and extremely suspect image of magic users.

I’d better say at the start that I don’t actually believe in magic any more than I believe in astrology, because I’m a Taurean and we don’t go in for all that weirdo occult stuff.

But a couple of years ago I wrote a book called The Colour of Magic. It had some boffo laughs. It was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. It was also my tribute to twenty-five years of fantasy reading, which started when I was thirteen and read Lord of the Rings in 25 hours. That damn book was a halfbrick in the path of the bicycle of my life. I started reading fantasy books at the kind of speed you can only manage in your early teens. I panted for the stuff.

I had a deprived childhood, you see. I had lots of other kids to play with and my parents bought me outdoor toys and refused to ill-treat me, so it never occurred to me to seek solitary consolation with a good book.

Then Tolkien changed all that. I went mad for fantasy. Comics, boring Norse sagas, even more boring Victorian fantasy … I’d better explain to younger listeners that in those days fantasy was not available in every toyshop and bookstall, it was really a bit like sex: you didn’t know where to get the really dirty books, so all you could do was paw hopefully through Amateur Photography magazines looking for artistic nudes.

When I couldn’t get it – heroic fantasy, I mean, not sex – I hung around the children’s section in the public libraries, trying to lure books about dragons and elves to come home with me. I even bought and read all the Narnia books in one go, which was bit like a surfeit of Communion wafers. I didn’t care anymore.

Eventually the authorities caught up with me and kept me in a dark room with small doses of science fiction until I broke the habit and now I can walk past a book with a dragon on the cover and my hands hardly sweat at all.

But a part of my mind remained plugged into what I might call the consensus fantasy universe. It does exist, and you all know it. It has been formed by folklore and Victorian romantics and Walt Disney, and E R Eddison and Jack Vance and Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber – hasn’t it? In fact those writers and a handful of others have very closely defined it. There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call “public domain” plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.

To see the consensus fantasy universe in detail you need only look at the classical Dungeons and Dragon role-playing games. They are mosaics of every fantasy story you’ve ever read.

Of course, the consensus fantasy universe is full of clichés, almost by definition. Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works. That’s the difference between magic in the fantasy universe and magic here. In the fantasy universe a wizard points his fingers and all these sort of blue glittery lights come out and there’s a sort of explosion and some poor soul is turned into something horrible.

Anyway, if you are in the market for easy laughs you learn that two well-tried ways are either to trip up a cliché or take things absolutely literally. So in the sequel to The Colour of Magic, which is being rushed into print with all the speed of continental drift, you’ll learn what happens, for example, if someone like me gets hold of the idea that megalithic stone circles are really complex computers. What you get is, you get druids walking around talking a sort of computer jargon and referring to Stonehenge as the miracle of the silicon chunk.

While I was plundering the fantasy world for the next cliché to pull a few laughs from, I found one which was so deeply ingrained that you hardly notice it is there at all. In fact it struck me so vividly that I actually began to look at it seriously.

That’s the generally very clear division between magic done by women and magic done by men.

Let’s talk about wizards and witches. There is a tendency to talk of them in one breath, as though they were simply different sexual labels for the same job. It isn’t true. In the fantasy world there is no such thing as a male witch. Warlocks, I hear you cry, but it’s true. Oh, I’ll accept you can postulate them for a particular story, but I’m talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn’t such a thing as a female wizard.

Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise.

Strangely enough, that’s also the case in this world. You don’t have to believe in magic to notice that.

Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.

The archetypal wizard is of course Merlin, advisor of kings, maker of the Round Table, and the only man who knew how to work the electromagnet that released the Sword from the Stone. He is not in fact a folklore hero, because much of what we know about him is based firmly on Geoffrey de Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, written in the Twelfth Century. Old Geoffrey was one of the world’s great writers of fantasy, nearly as good as Fritz Leiber but without that thing about cats.

Had a lot of trouble with women, did Merlin. Morgan Le Fay – a witch – was his main enemy but he was finally trapped in his crystal cave or his enchanted forest, pick your own variation, by a female pupil. The message is clear, boys: that’s what happens to you if you let the real powerful magic get into the hands of women.

In fact Merlin is almost being replaced as the number one wizard by Gandalf, whose magic is more suggested than apparent. I’d also like to bring in at this point a third wizard, of whom most of you must have heard – Ged, the wizard of Earthsea. I do this because Ursula Le Guin’s books give us a very well thought-out, and typical, magic world. I’d suggest that they worked because they plugged so neatly into our group image of how magic is ordered. They serve to point up some of the similarities in our wizards.

They’re all bachelors, and sexually continent. In this fantasy is in agreement with some of the standard works on magic, which make it clear that a good wizard doesn’t get his end away. (Funny, because there’s no such prohibition on witches; they can be at it like knives the whole time and it doesn’t affect their magic at all.) Wizards tend to exist in Orders, or hierarchies, and certainly the Island of Gont reminds me of nothing so much as a medieval European university, or maybe a monastery. There don’t seem to be many women around the University, although I suppose someone cleans the lavatories. There are indeed some female practitioners of magic around Earthsea, but if they are not actually evil then they are either misguided or treated by Ged in the same way that a Harley Street obstetrician treats a local midwife.

Can you imagine a girl trying to get a place at the University of Gont? Or I can put it another way – can you imagine a female Gandalf?

Of course I hardly need mention the true fairytale witches, as malevolent a bunch of crones as you could imagine. It was probably living in those gingerbread cottages. No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless – it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You’d hear a noise in the night and it’d be the local kids, eating the doorknob. According to my eight-year-old daughter’s book onWizards, a nicely-illustrated little paperback available at any good bookshop, “wizards undid the harm caused by evil witches”. There it is again, the recurrent message: female magic is cheap and nasty.

But why is all this? Is there anything in the real world that is reflected in fantasy?

The curious thing is that the Western world at least has no very great magical tradition. You can look in vain for any genuine wizards, or for witches for that matter. I know a large number of people who think of themselves as witches, pagans or magicians, and the more realistic of them will admit that while they like to think that they are following a tradition laid down in the well-known Dawn of Time they really picked it all up from books and, yes, fantasy stories. I have come to believe that fantasy fiction in all its forms has no basis in anything in the real world. I believe that witches and witches get their ideas from their reading matter or, before that, from folklore. Fiction invents reality.

In Western Europe, certainly, wizards are few and far between. I have been able to turn up a dozen or so, who with the 20-20 hindsight of history look like either conmen or conjurers. Druids almost fit the bill, but Druids were a few lines by Julius Caesar until they were reinvented a couple of hundred years ago. All this business with the white robes and the sickles and the oneness with nature is wishful thinking. It’s significant, though. Caesar portrayed them as vicious priests of a religion based on human sacrifice, and gory to the elbows. But the PR of history has nevertheless turned them into mystical shamans, unless I mean shaman; men of peace, brewers of magic potions.

Despite the claim that nine million people were executed for witchcraft in Europe in the three centuries from 1400 – this turns up a lot in books of popular occultism and I can only say it is probably as reliable as everything else they contain – it is hard to find genuine evidence of a widespread witchcraft cult. I know a number of people who call themselves witches. No, they are witches – why should I disbelieve them? Their religion strikes me as woolly but well-meaning and at the very least harmless. Modern witchcraft is the Friends of the Earth at prayer. If it has any root at all they lie in the works of a former Colonial civil servant and pioneer naturist called Gerald Gardiner, but I suggest that its is really based in a mishmash of herbalism, Sixties undirected occultism, and The Lord of the Rings.

But I must accept that people called witches have existed. In a sense they have been created by folklore, by what I call the Flying Saucer process – you know, someone sees something they can’t or won’t explain in the sky, is aware that there is a popular history of sightings of flying saucers, so decides that what he has seen is a flying saucer, and pretty soon that “sighting” adds another few flakes to the great snowball of saucerology. In the same way, the peasant knows that witches are ugly old women who live by themselves because the folklore says so, so the local crone must be a witch. Soon everyone locally KNOWS that there is a witch in the next valley, various tricks of fate are laid at her door, and so the great myth chugs on.

One may look in vain for similar widespread evidence of wizards. In addition to the double handful of doubtful practitioners mentioned above, half of whom are more readily identifiable as alchemists or windbags, all I could come up with was some vaguely Masonic cults, like the Horseman’s Word in East Anglia. Not much for Gandalf in there.

Now you can take the view that of course this is the case, because if there is a dirty end of the stick then women will get it. Anything done by women is automatically downgraded. This is the view widely held – well, widely held by my wife every since she started going to consciousness-raising group meetings – who tells me it’s ridiculous to speculate on the topic because the answer is so obvious. Magic, according to this theory, is something that only men can be really good at, and therefore any attempt by women to trespass on the sacred turf must be rigorously stamped out. Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There’s also a lot of stuff about man’s natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule.

I’d like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it. I incline to a different view, if only to keep the argument going, that the whole thing is a lot more metaphorical than that. The sex of the magic practitioner doesn’t really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic – everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.

Oh well, it won’t win me a PhD. I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.

Terry Pratchett
Speech at Novacon 15, 1985

My hero bares his nerves

March 26, 2017

My hero bares his nerves along my wrist
That rules from wrist to shoulder,
Unpacks the head that, like a sleepy ghost,
Leans on my mortal ruler,
The proud spine spurning turn and twist.

And these poor nerves so wired to the skull
Ache on the lovelorn paper
I hug to love with my unruly scrawl
That utters all love hunger
And tells the page the empty ill.

My hero bares my side and sees his heart
Tread, like a naked Venus,
The beach of flesh, and wind her bloodred plait;
Stripping my loin of promise,
He promises a secret heat.

He holds the wire from the box of nerves
Praising the mortal error
Of birth and death, the two sad knaves of thieves,
And the hunger’s emperor;
He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.

Dylan Thomas

Everyone with everyone

February 10, 2017

bridesmaids-at-cana-stanley-spencer

the question is not
if desire

the question is
when desire

when want
when touch

when thumb
the clit of the heart

yes, to want,
to want and then

to one day
stop wanting –

no explanation
just a gentle

won’t won’t won’t
of an exhausted heart

Molly McGhee

james-cant-merchants-of-death

In 1962 Random House published a first novel by a thirty-two-year-old American living in Paris named Harry Mathews. The Conversions is an adventure story about a man trying to decipher the meaning of carvings on an ancient weapon, and it unfolds in a succession of bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations, with an appendix in German. One particularly trying passage is written in a language once popular with schoolchildren that involves adding arag before most vowels. Furthermore is faragurtharaggermaragore and indulgences is araggindaragulgearaggencearagges.

The book was considered groundbreaking by a certain literary set. Terry Southern called it a “startling piece of work,” and George Plimpton published a seventy-page excerpt in The Paris Review. Mathews’s agent Maxine Groffsky, then in her first job after college in the editorial department at Random House, says that reading The Conversions was like “seeing Merce Cunningham for the first time.” But it baffled most of the reading public, including the poor Time critic who complained that the symbolism “spreads through the novel like crab grass.”

Mathews is one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures. His friend Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter e, has accused him of following “rules from another planet.” He is usually identified as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ group whose stated purpose is to devise mathematical structures that can be used to create literature. He has also been associated with the New York School of avant-garde writers, which included his friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After forty-five years of congenital allergy to convention, he rightfully belongs to the experimentalist tradition of Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce, even though his classical, witty style has won him comparisons to Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh. Yet while he enjoys the attention of thousands of cultishly enthusiastic French readers, Mathews remains relatively unknown in his native land and language. “When I go into an English bookstore, I always ask the same question,” a Frenchman told me with the sly smile that infects all Mathews fans. “‘Do you have Tlooth?’”

Tlooth, Mathews’s second novel, came out in 1966. It begins with a baseball game at a Siberian prison camp. His next book, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Twenty-five publishers rejected it, which isn’t entirely surprising given that half of it is written in an invented pidgin English. Mathews used an Oulipian mathematical scheme to create the plot of his fourth novel,Cigarettes (1987). His last two novels are deceptively straightforward. The Journalist (1994) is the diary of a man obsessed by his diary. My Life in CIA (2005), an “autobiographical novel,” begins reassuringly as a memoir only to devolve into the preposterous, ending with the protagonist Harry Mathews tending sheep in the Alps after attempting murder by ski pole.

In reality, the self-described refugee from the Upper East Side has lived in Paris on and off since the fifties, though he does spend summers in the Alps and he says “there are sheep nearby.” Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930, the only child of an architect and a cold-water-flats heiress. After dutifully attending Princeton for two years, he dropped out and joined the navy, then eloped at nineteen with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. He finished his studies at Harvard, majoring in music, and in 1952 moved to Paris where he briefly studied conducting before deciding to write poetry full time. In 1956 Mathews met Ashbery, who was in France on a Fulbright scholarship. The poet introduced him to the works of Raymond Roussel, the early-twentieth-century French avant-gardist. After reading Roussel, Mathews turned to prose.

A novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, Mathews is also the author of many short works, including Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of more than a year spent following Stendhal’s dictum to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not,” and Singular Pleasures (1983), a series of sixty-one vignettes describing masturbation scenes. A volume of his collected short stories, The Human Country, was published in 2002.

Susannah Hunnewell
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction
Interview in Paris Review, Spring 2007