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Lunaris Review Reviewed

7 Nov

Lunaris Review issue 9 is available to free read online or to download in pdf format.

I must open with a caveat – I have a poem in this issue, although I hope that might be seen as an additional enticement to take a look at this issue! Also, I won’t be going into much detail with this review, as you should just click over and take a look.

Lunaris Review is a great ezine filled with artwork, poetry and fiction. I really enjoyed the poetry, my favourite pieces being Musings by Fatima Shahzad and the brilliant A Cycle of Futility by Uduak Uwah. None of the fiction quite hit the high notes of the poetry, there are some interesting pieces in here. But, it is the artwork by Omoniyi Gabriel Gilbert that blows everything else away. These are truly excellent pieces of art – especially Arewa and The Glorious Child – and worth taking at the issue for alone.

I really cannot encourage you enough to take a look at this issue. Highly recommended.

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Black Swan Review

30 Mar

A film review by David Leverton

Black Swan (15) // 20th Century Fox // Dir: Darren Aronofsky // DVD

I finally went to see Black Swan at the cinema after meaning to for weeks but not getting around to it, until I figured I’d better get in before the Oscars – because I wanted to view Natalie Portman’s performance unencumbered by the thought that it’s an Oscar-winning one, should that turn out to be the case as was widely tipped. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t already started picking up a decent collection of awards for it, but the Academy Awards are still the ones that ‘matter’, subconsciously or otherwise, aren’t they? I mean, I get this feeling that I’d be watching it like I ‘ought’ to be impressed, like I was being coerced to somehow, and wouldn’t be able to appreciate it on my own terms in the way I really wanted to do. Well, I can say I was highly impressed – it’s a great film, in more than the obvious ways perhaps: quite apart from being an unsettling psychological thriller in its own right, mixed with dazzling dance virtuosity, this is such an immersive experience of an elite ballet world that by nature is supremely highly strung and driven, I actually came out of the cinema feeling in a state of incredibly heightened reality. My own nerves were jangling all the way home, as if I’d been involved myself: quite a cinematic feat, really. It’s hard to say, in a way, just how good Portman is in it; yes, she did win the Oscar days later, and it’s a mesmerising performance as perfectionist-but-inhibited ballet star Nina Sayers, who attempts to get chosen (by an excellent Vincent Cassell’s oh-so-French genius/lothario/Machiavelli of a director, Thomas Leroy) to dance the dual lead role of the pristine White Swan and sensuous, violent Black Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – but in a sense the awe comes less from great acting than mostly because of simply how painfulit looks. Impossible though it is to pinpoint exactly how much of the dancing she performed herself, there’s an awful lot that clearly is her, with every muscle and tendon straining and flexing; and she really is all ribs and shoulderblades, not an ounce of protection on her frame, and you feel everything with her: whether she’s dancing, training, or being stretched, twisted and pummelled every which way on the physiotherapist’s table. Or by her mother, an increasingly repellent, obsessive creation (Barbara Hershey), who is evidently living out her failed dreams through her daughter by driving and controlling every second of her ballet career, whatever the mental and physical harm to Nina.

An obvious and probably instructive comparison is with Darren Aronofsky’s previous, also award-garlanded release The Wrestler; in fact, his earliest idea was apparently for a single film featuring both such characters. Either piece highlights the lone-wolf life of a talented performer, whose body is their everything but who pushes it beyond breaking point, for years on end, in the pursuit of their art – an art that leaves them with few friends, fractured from their family, and physically and emotionally drained. Whether you regard them as high or low culture, they are two sides of the same coin. What separates the ballerina from the wrestler, though, is that, in the test, the latter can depend upon the others in his business for fraternity and support: the ultimate goal is to make each other look good as well as yourself. There are fewer windows of light or freedom in Nina’s frighteningly focused and competitive existence, with even (especially?) her fellow ballerinas not to be trusted since promotion in the company is often by the equivalent of ‘dead man’s shoes’: there is an affecting semi-cameo from Winona Ryder as the (forcibly?) retired previous prima donna, whose own lonely and devastatingly abrupt downward spiral maps out the fate that Nina fears must befall her too, maybe regardless of whether she succeeds or fails.

The suffocating tension ratchets up throughout, as she becomes ever more consumed by thoughts (dreams? fantasies? who knows?) of black feathers, harm, joy and pain, in her effort to persuade Leroy she is capable of letting go of her frigidity enough to dance the dark half of the demanding role. The one breath of fresh air comes from fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who is the yang to Nina’s yin: less technically flawless as a performer, but all expression and soul and effortless erotic drama. Quite whether she is/isn’t/is on Nina’s side is one of the key plot fulcrums, around which the latter half of the film revolves, as Nina’s fragile mind begins to unravel under the stress until neither she nor we can tell – you may notice how many words in this review have crept into brackets followed by question marks – when what’s being seen is reality or hallucination. It’s a brave path to follow, as the corollary is that you could easily lose the audience altogether, but Aronofsky keeps the startling visuals and crackling sensuality flowing without letup. If you’ve seen Revenge of the Sith you’ll know that Portman gives good ‘anguished’, and those crumpled, strained looks become set near-permanently upon her brow as the final act unspools and the Black Swan is finally unleashed. Once again, though, the director leaves his audience hanging (just like he did in The Wrestler), unknowing whether they’ve witnessed triumph or disaster, or both. As a film, though, this definitely falls on the side of the former.
Highly recommended.

THE RED FIRE OF HIS PAIN

30 Mar

E.A. Poe as space invader in verse and prose

By Steve Sneyd

We generally think of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry as darkly Gothic, obsessively exploring a death-in-life Tombworld or, at best, encountering its doomy messengers like the “Nevermore”-quothing raven…

Yet Poe, who applied the phrase “Out of Space – Out of Time” to his own work (it occurs, for example, in his poem Dreamland), echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson (an 1838 Divinity School address), and earlier users of the concept, like Keats “There is no such thing as time and space” (Letters) or Milton’s time and space-bereft Chaos in  Paradise Lostalso made powerful use of settings beyond our Earth.

In his long early poem Al Araaf(1827), Poe gives us intelligent life Out There – albeit the taint of death does still creep in :  this is after-life intelligence – entities, some of Earthly origin, living in truly extraordinary setting.

Writing to potential publishers to introduce the poem (probably originally written while he was in the army, as an ordinary soldier – enlisting after his adoptive father refused to a the gambling debts, forcing him to leave the University of Virginia, he won promotion to Sergeant-Major, then became an officer cadet at West Point, the American Sandhurst, before being expelled in 1831) Poe explained the title Al Araafas being the Koranic name of the Limbo between Heaven and Hell, and the poem’s setting as the “new star” (nova stella in Latin – it proved to be an example of, and gave its name to, the concept of a nova, the explosive death of an immensely-swollen star) discovered by Tycho Brahe in 1572, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, which became brighter than either Jupiter or Venus, remaining visible for sixteen months.

Poe further explained :  “Even after death, those who make the choice of the star as their residence” (the word ‘choice’ is a curious one in the context!) “do not enjoy immortality… but, after a second life of high excitement, sink into forgetfulness and” (a second) “death”. (As American SF poet and critic Jonathan Vos Post has noted of this passage, reincarnation inside an exploding star would indeed be exciting, if brief!)

The poem is long, full of dreamlike, unexplained transitions (although Poe footnoted the poem extensively, explaining sources of names, etc, he left key matters of intent and meaning wide open to interpretation) and ends abruptly, almost anti-climactically. This has led to frequent suggestions either that a final Book has been lost, or, at any rate, was intended, even if never completed :  it may be that, having strong views as to the maximum publishable length of a poem – in his essay The Poetic Principle he held that “a long poem does not exist… is simply a flat contradiction in terms” -, he, then, realised he was in danger of transgressing his own self-imposed rule. Equally, he may have wished to delay no longer in publishing the work, found himself unable to achieve a satisfactory conclusion amid the distracting changes of his own life-circumstances, or simply have felt it appropriate to make the poem an example of the Romantic tradition of the ‘fragment’ or uncompleted poem, so notable in the works of Keats with Hyperion and Endymion). His view, also, that “the highest poetry… is sense swooning into nonsense” – he replied t a Mrs McKenzie who asked why he did not write poems so everyone could understand them, “Madame, I write so that everybody can not understand them” – could help explain the baffling discontinuities of Al Araaf.

It is clear from the poem that, unlike the actual nova that inspired him, Poe’s Nova is a ‘Daedalion’, ie an artificial construction – a precursor of the planet-sized spaceships of modern science fiction. It is manoeuvrable – prior to the poem’s time-scale, for example, it is described as having made a near-approach to Earth, causing our planet to tremble – undergo orbital disturbance, in modern terms.

Equally science fictional is the way that the flora of Al Araaf is used by its female overlord Nesace – her nature is never clearly described, but she is clearly some sort of angelic superbeing – to transmit silent messages to other, distant spheres in space – precursoring, again, modern ideas of organic communications machines/computing devices.

The story, in essence, is that of a couple on Al Araaf, one of Earth origin  – he reached the planet during its flypast – the other of non-Earth origin but clearly humanoid in appearance – who disobey the world’s injunction against physical love, and, at the end, sink into helpless slumber, although it is unclear whether this is a punishment or the result of contravening the physical laws affecting these limbo intelligences. (A lengthy, coherent, if rather too conclusive-seeming discussion of the poem’s meaning, and expansion of data on sources, etc, beyond Poe’s own exegesis, is given by Thomas Olive Mabbott, editor of the Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe in Volume One, Poems, Cambridge Massachusetts, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969).

In another 1827 poem, Stanzas, Poe speaks of his subject as “what in other worlds shall be”, and he returned to extraordinary elsewheres involving Outer Space on various occasions – in the poem Fairy-Land, for example, a fresh moon is created, then destroyed, each night, the remains serving the population as kind of temporary tent or protective dome.

Poe’s other major venture into outer space is on an epic scale, Eureka, written in 1848, can be seen as an extraordinary attempt – reminiscent of the Roman poet Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, but, in an age where the inrush of new knowledge had made the task even more impossible – to create a coherent overall picture giving understanding of the Universe as a whole. Poe himself insisted Eureka should be considered solely as a poem; although it must be said that, even allowing for the wide, ill-defined borderlands of that hybrid entity, the prose-poem, Eurekareads as prose; so, perhaps, Poe’s insistence that it be judged as a poem owes more to his poetic and imagistic approach to data than its linguistic style. One brief instance will illustrate the prose nature of the text – an extract fascinating, also, for the way it seems to prefigure modern ideas of ostensibly willed behaviour by particles in quantum physics – “ – is it not because originally… they (the atoms) were One that now, in all circumstances – at all points – in all directions… in all relations and through all conditions – they struggle back to this absolutely, this irrelatively, this unconditionally One?”

Written in 1848, not long after the lingering death of his child-wife Virginia (she burst a blood vessel while practising her singing in 1842, but lingered on painfully for another five years), its Outward theme perhaps chosen as a means of escaping the all-too-recent realisation of his Gothic fears of the worm within, this 30,000 word “Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe” embraces an eclectic variety of material. This ranges from sarcastic remarks about Western philosophy, to analyses of the problem of “indeterminacy of the language” (for instance, depending on definition, can “man leaping to the moon” be truly considered impossible?).

As Poe interprets the science of his time for his own purposes – the work began as a lecture on scientific development and understanding, Cosmogony of the Universe, delivered on February 3rd, 1848, in the New York Society lecture hall before its expansion and reshaping into the work Putnam published five months later – he looks with a poet’s eye, although, as said, the text is in prose form throughout. He makes leaps of expressive interpretation which can, from today’s ‘horizon of expectation’, seem to precursor, as well as the modern quantum physics mentioned, aspects of relativity and non-Euclidean geometry we tend to ascribe purely 20thcentury origins.

Indeed, as the protagonist/persona voice of Eurekatakes flight to meditate upon ultimate causes, a passage on derivation of Creation from the splitting of atoms was what the late Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the great pioneers of astronomical physics, tribute as having first aroused his interest in the subject which became a life’s work.

The 96 pages of Eurekaend with a conclusion more mystical than scientific – that the total of all sentences experienced by sentient beings, particularly happiness but also suffering “appertain by right to the Divine Being when concentrated within himself” – which, in science-fictional terms, would imply that these emotions are collected or harvested as some sort of food or fuel for some Universal Mind, a Mind which, on a vaster scale by far than the poet attempting to describe the indescribably vast, thinks “unthoughtful thoughts” and even higher-order “thoughts of thoughts”.

This envisioning of a vast Intelligence in operation upon humans and their environment with which Eureka implicitly ends is a metatheme also of his haunting 1847 story The Domain of Arnheim, later so to inspire the work of the Surrealist artist Magritte and the Scots poet Edwin Morgan – in this story, like Slatti Bardfast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but without that being’s displayed humanity, vast distant beings reshape the landscapes of Earth for purposes beyond our understanding.

(A further return to science-fiction-like themes occurs, incidentally, in a story written the year after Eureka, Mellonton Tauta, Poe’s picture of the 29thcentury.)

In a sense, thus, Outer Space for Poe is as darkened by cosmic fear as it was for HP Lovecraft a century later, although Poe’s metaphysical despair is less specific than HPL’s conjuring of the cold vast Old Ones.

The world of Al Araafmay indeed have been paradisal for Nesace, its ‘captain’ – and, for those of its ‘limbonauts’ (to use a modern coinage of term) who obeyed the rules – as it “lay lolling on the golden air / Near four bright suns” at a “temporary rest” in its voyaging – yet, it is also “Dread star!”, disrupter of “a night of mirth” making a red, fearsome flypast of “timid earth”.

Indeed, although Poe thus, also, wrote of realms above and outwith our planet, spacious and star-scattered, as well as dark tomb places within the Earth, there are in Al Araaflines which illuminates the psychic connections, the way in which space, to him, was as much a source of fear, guilt – and horrid attraction – as the more conventionally located lands of death populated by those the writer had failed in life.

It is hard not to feel that, in the way he here personifies a lifeless astronomical phenomenon into an image of fallen angels, he is writing as much about his self-image as he is about the real wanderers of ice and rock Out There :

“…the barrier overgone / By the comets who were cast / From their pride, and from their throne, / To be drudges till the last – / To be carriers of fire / (the red fire of their heart) / With speed that may not tire / And with pain that shall not part.”

Look upward and outward to the stars as he might, it seems, then, that they offered Poe no real escape from the mind-tomb within himself.

Ends

Previously published in Ibid #110 (Teaneck, NJ, USA, March 2000); Monas Hieroglyphica #10 (Essex, UK, Spring 2000); Argentus#6 (Springfield, IL, USA, December 2006).

The Search For Novelty : Progress Dies

30 Mar

An opinion piece by DS Davidson

These days, everything is focused upon novelty, upon change, upon THE NEW. Stuff the old-fashioned, we’ve got something new – and new means bigger and better (or should that be smaller and more sophisticated?). Western culture is obsessed with novelty – and that obsession is blinding people to the fact that a lot of what is ‘new’ is actually not much cop. In fact, most of it is not even very new – even the obsession with novelty is as old as the human race!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with replacing something that doesn’t work with something new that does – that’s entirely sensible! The problem is that people assume something must be better because it is new and thus, obviously, more advanced. Now, that’s not true in itself – but it is an even greater fallacy when one actually examines these ‘new’ trends and finds they are not actually original…

As an example, let us consider just a handful of the more controversial ‘new’ ideas that are in the news at the moment :  Evolution, Paganism, Metrification, US Global Hegemony, Democracy and the EU. All five of these are things that rely upon their novelty to argue their relevance (you know the arguments, Evolution is true because it is modern science not discredited superstition, Paganism is good because it is not evil ol’ Christianity, Metrification is good because it is more logical than old fashioned Imperial, the US knows what is right for the world because it is out to create a ‘New World Order’ of freemarket Capitalism to replace the old ways, and the EU is good because it will end the old fashioned pan-European warfare).

As none is no more worthy of attacking than the others, let’s look at them in the order I typed them up… so, Evolution first. Yup, got to be true as it’s brand shiny new science and light of logic banishing away the shadows of ignorance. Um, not really. If you really want novelty, try Van Daniken or Intelligent Design. Evolution is nearly a century and a half old in Darwinian terms (Origin of Species, 1859) – from an era when most people believed that heavier-than-air-flight was impossible. And, if you get down to basic theory, it goes all the way back to Aristotle – that means it’s older than Christianity!

Paganism’s novelty is a strange beast – on the one hand it is the new way of understanding the world and it loves nothing better than to attack Christianity for the alleged excesses of Dark Age and Medieval Catholics, but on the other hand it claims to be the rediscovery of the ORIGINAL, pre-Christian religions – minus, of course, such dubious aspects as human sacrifice (can’t bully the Catholics if you have to admit to once having filleted virgins, I guess…) . So, whilst capitalising on novelty, the faith is based solely on a claim to great age. Of course, they really DO possess novelty, as very few have even a passing resemblance to anything likely to have been practised in antiquity (just as the majority of Churches would be unrecognisable to Jesus, John , Peter or the rest of them if they took a pew today). We could also drag in Buddhism here, except that true Buddhists have never tried to claim novelty for their religion, only ignorant Westerners expecting some Oriental miracle-cure.

Metrification :  a wonderful conceit. This relies on being more logical than Imperial (except that base-6 is at least as useful for calculations as base-10, if not more so), easier to remember (ie it is good because imbeciles can do it – in that case illiteracy is superior to literacy!), it is global (except Imperial was once almost as global and nobody insisted we all go with it then) and, well, modern. Alright, in a vague sense, Imperial measurements have been around for millennia – but in real terms they were defined and standardised in about the late Middle Ages with refinements going on for several centuries, so they are not much older than Metric which has its origins in Gabriel Mouton’s decimal measurements of 1670, being refined into modern Metric in 1790 and made compulsory in France in 1840. The closest it gets to novelty is the occasional redefinition (in microscopic terms) of the metre – maybe we could redefine the yard by a 1/16th of an inch every now and then to make it ‘happening’ or something? If we’ve really got to change how we measure things, couldn’t we at least come up with something better than the insipid nonsense that is the Metric System?

The US believes that, because it is a young nation without all that bothersome history, they can somehow be a global power without being an evil Empire. Unfortunately, it’s all that history that generally made the old Empires somewhat better at running their evil Empires than the USA. You can shout all you want about freedom and democracy but, when you plant your flag in another nation’s soil and make it do what you want at the barrel of a gun, then it is Imperialism – and that’s not a novel idea…

I think we can gloss over Democracy –  everyone ought to know that it dates back to ancient Greece (and, before anyone points out that it wasn’t ‘true’ democracy because slaves, poor people and women couldn’t vote – ask yourself whether the poor and disenfranchised have any real say in the modern version…).
The EU is not much of a novelty, either – even its current form is fifty years old and so dating slightly. Every lunatic with an army (whether of German stormtroopers or Belgian bureaucrats) and located somewhere in Europe has dreamed of creating their own European Union. It even existed once – it was called the Roman Empire and it did not bring peace to Europe (more the opposite – the Pax Romana was waaaay overrated…).

An old book says ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ and that’s true, even if it’s not very new. The problem with the search for novelty is that progress dies. Rather than searching for truth or trying to make things work better, people spend their time for the next ‘buzz’ and all-too-often find themselves being shortchanged and bamboozled with old ideas wrapped up in new packaging. Rather than just accepting that something must be wonderful because it’s supposed to be new, you need to start using your mind to think about things and decide for yourself. If you don’t, the next novelty experience you encounter might just be another old favourite – totalitarianism…

Grand Expectations : Human Aspiration And The Finite Nature of Creativity

30 Mar

By Neil K. Henderson

Creativity is a deceptively enticing phenomenon – simultaneously satisfying an inner need in the artist while exciting him with the prospect of greater achievements to come. But it has to be understood and accepted that creativity cannot be progressed indefinitely. The creative mind is bound by the limits of both its ‘talent’ and its basic human capability. Indeed, the quest for perfection – the Ultimate – in any artform is likely to be destructive rather than beneficial to the artist. However inspiring it may be in theory, he can never attain such a goal – because after a certain point in the process of experiment and refinement, in the search for the new and improved, there simply is no more. Every individual has his creative niche – a ‘fingerprint’ on the communal creative process. But while he can expand and elaborate on variations of his particular range, he is bound by the configuration of his personal whorls, loops and arches, and unlikely to break free of a pattern established at the outset of his creative career. (This, of course, is a generalisation – some prodigies have extra fingers. Michaelangelo and Verdi, for instance, are exceptions to this general rule. But even completely new strains of creativity, operating on a different level from the original creative path, are themselves bound to prove ultimately finite – always assuming the artist lives long enough to exhaust them.)

The trouble is the human mind – which is programmed to dream and speculate, to make projections or assumptions based on the present rate of expansion or growth. The creative mind tells itself that the rate of expansion from the ‘blank canvas’ stage at the beginning will continue unchecked – and that there is some ultimate perfection, as yet uninmaginable, still to be attained. The purpose of creativity, it reasons, is not simply to be creative to the best of one’s ability, but to go beyond – to break down barriers to reach this unvisualised ideal. But therein lies the misunderstanding. This supposed artistic grail cannot be imagined or visualised because it isn’t there. It is nothing more than an empty supposition.

It’s like imagining the future – as soon as we conceive some ‘futuristic’ style or attitude, the conception itself has existence from that point on. It is originated in the present, and is likely to be made manifest in the present in, say, the design of cars and furniture, or clothes and hairstyles. When the anticipated future date arrives, those original ‘futuristic’ ideas will actually belong to the past, denoting the viewpoint of that period when they were first thought up. Some of the designs of the 1960s and ’70s are probably more ‘futuristic’ – imagining 21st century ‘modernity’ – than the styles we have now in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, here in the new present (which was the future back then) the imagined refinement or elaboration of these early projected ideas has failed to take place, because the ‘new’ attitudes imagined a third of a century ago haven’t materialised – we are basically just the same as we were then.

In creative terms, we can perhaps view this more objectively by looking at the careers of artists who either died young, or ceased creating or performing at an early age for whatever reason. Shelley, Rimbaud, Aubrey Beardsley, Tony Hancock, Syd Barrett – there are plenty to chose from in all mediums. It is natural to mourn the ‘lost potential’ of their talents. But what exactly is this ‘potential’ we set such store by? Surely no more than a vague expectation based on the assumption that the achievements so far produced were simply the early stages of a progressively improving stream of output whose limits have no end. This is optimism of the most uncompromising kind – since its hopes can never be disproved. But study of artists who lived to fulfil their destiny in total usually tells us that their ‘best’  (most innovative, and hence ‘creative’)  work was done in their younger years. or, at least, the work produced by the older, more experienced and mature, artist is often of a very different nature from his juvenilia – no matter how brilliant the juvenilia may have been – and so could not have been predicted at the outset. (Verdi’s Otello being a case in point.) Hence it is useless basing speculation about ‘lost potential’ on such work as has been left by the artist who ceased early.

I mentioned  Tony Hancock, and it strikes me that he typifies, at least in recent times, the fate of the artist (in his case, performing artist) who strove to realise his own ‘lost potential’ – never seeming to have understood that he had already reached the ultimate level of his artistic achievement. Driven by this self-deluding intellectual programming to continually seek a perfection which was never there to be found, he drove himself into the spiritual and creative abyss. His story is well-known and tragic. Perhaps, had he been able to accept the finite nature of his own talents (and those of his writers) he might have been satisfied with such greatness as he  had, rather than waste it chasing the illusion of the absolute. After all, if what you do is already consummate (within the bounds of human capability), it is impossible to perfect it further.

Perhaps some of the blame lies with the generally accepted notion of ‘the masterpiece’. The creative artist is encouraged by example to strive to produce some work of outstanding excellence – (a) with regard to the rest of his own output, and (b) in terms of all human accomplishment. Both cases can really only be judged from some distance in time after the artist’s death – and the second category is particularly ephemeral. Not only is it a pretty tall order to achieve at all, but the judgement of posterity is liable to vary with successive generations. No doubt the challenge to achieve this kind of supremacy can stimulate an increase in productive effort by the individual, but whether or not such extraneous pressure is conducive to producing universally acknowledged ‘great works’ is debatable.

The great achievements of mankind usually result from the cumulative effect of a series of individual minds adding their efforts to the same problem – not one mind steadily expanding its own reasoning processes. The world-changing breakthroughs come from a new perspective, a tangential connection, applied to the blueprint of a previous body of work. Though by no means impossible, it is a lot less likely that one person, constantly ploughing the same furrow of creative endeavour, is going to suddenly make the quantum leap which galvanises the process into a new dimension. But this is not to diminish the work that has gone before. The individual creators along the way have each played their uniquely vital part, without which no startling future discoveries are possible.

Artistic success, then, would appear to involve a degree of balance. There are two kinds of success for the creative individual. There is personal success, whereby the artist (in the widest sense) achieves popular acclaim or prestige for being particularly proficient in a specific mould. Then there is ‘true’ artistic success, exhibited by the fullest realisation of the artist’s unique vision. The later category is our main consideration here, of course. And some measure of that artistic success is the point at which the artist deems his work to be finished. There has to be some acceptance of the boundaries of the artist’s abilities, beyond which his vision is more likely to be  harmed than fulfilled. The universe or the Divinity may be infinite, but the artist’s job is only to describe such things – he is not required to emulate them or pursue them into the Void. That way, for limited mortal consciousness, lies madness….

First Published in The Journal no. 5, Summer 2002

Life In The Stone Age, or The Lost Art Of Whingeing

30 Mar

Some thoughts by Neil K. Henderson, electronically archived for posterity.

I am writing this now, while there is still time. For all I know, I may already be the last of my kind, but I have decided to put ink on paper (yes! ink and paper – does that shock you, my audience?) in hopes that these words might somehow reach a kindred spirit, that they might know that they are not alone. If it is already too late, then perhaps my text can be used to script some kind of virtual reality exhibit on primitive customs. (Pray gaze respectfully on my hologram – remember, I once was flesh and blood, like you…)

I come from a time before that imp, the Microchip, did make a mockery of our ancient craft. I am of that time-honoured brood of writers, who have laboured to set down the fruits of their imaginations by the process of… well… actually writing them down. I know this must seem an outlandish practice, so let me explain it simply. See, back in the old days, there were still some of us who hadn’t won the Lottery (before it became compulsory to buy tickets), and who didn’t have any of those fancy gadgets like PCs and word-processors. Indeed, even as late as the mid-1990s, it was possible to openly admit this deficiency without fear of persecution. (No doubt, in your ‘Brave New World’ it will be impossible for a writer to be published unless he can supply his work on disk, or whatever is the latest technology.)

In my youth, it was not uncommon for the literate among us (and there was an astonishingly high rate of literacy then) to set down our thoughts on sheets of paper (like the stuff you get with Finger-Lickin’ Chikkin – only bigger and flatter, and without the lemon-fresh detergent), using implements called pens (hand-held tubes of ink – a watery black substance). As often as not, these pens would be cracked and battle-scarred from the ritual practice of pretending to play the drums in time to popular music of the day, in order to summon the spirit of Inspiration during periods of mental blockage. This would lend a delightfully off-balance syncopation to the flow of the prose. Of course, as like as not, this would only be a rough draft in long-hand scribble (an elaborate manual artform) on the backs of old envelopes (torn rejection delivery packets). So, further manipulation would be required to render the words into readable form.

This is where an ancient instrument known as the typewriterwould be pressed into service. The more politically correct among you may wish to avert your gaze from the scenes of violence I am about to describe – but if one wishes to gain a full insight into my erstwhile life and times, it will be necessary to appreciate the levels of barbarism that were commonplace then.

This typewriter contained a quaint embryonic ancestor of the keyboard – but it could not be truly classed as a machine, since it could not, at the time I speak of, be operated electronically. No, my audience – I am refering to the manual typewriter, which required the user to strike the keys in order to force ink from a coated ribbon onto the (paper) page. Alas, this sometimes had to be done so violently that a slight temporary numbness could afflict the typing finger – thus greatly increasing the likelihood of typing errors.

In such a circumstance, the Deity would be implored, and a sacred ointment called Tipp-Ex applied to the stricken text – accompanied by incantations to encourage the fluid to dry quickly. Failure to do this often resulted in a bout of ‘write rage’, in which the Tipp-Ex bottle would be hurled against a wall or door, to shatter messily. Thus, frantic carpet-scraping would be added to the previous problem of smudged re-typing. Veterans often refered to this kind of ‘write rage’ as whiteout – to distinguish it from a similar tantrum caused by having to wind new ribbons onto obsolete spools, since the new spools were incompatible with the obsolete typewriter. Failure to automatically rewind, or the detachment of one end of the ribbon, could lead to a temperamental blackout involving the metal lid of tha apparatus being bounced off the floor, household objects being smashed, apartments dismantled and typewriters tossed out of windows. This kind of ‘write rage’ was once an everyday occurrence, and, in America, members of the ‘hardboiled’ school of typing were required by law to register their typewriters with the authorities as potentially lethal weapons.

It is impossible to accurately convey to a technobonkers posterity just how character-forming all this physical aggravation could be to a wordsmith. How many word-processor operators do you know, who can honestly be described as ‘hard-bitten’? No, life in the Stone Age may have been tough, but men were men and typewriters were bastards. At least we knew where we stood. This is not to say that life was totally without fear, however. The woods were full of ruthless predators, and scribes were often afeared some monster would make off with a child of their endeavours.

It wasn’t so much the sticky gangs of toothsome sweetie elfs which haunted cut-price photocopy shops, that posed a real threat to Homo Prospectus – though they could provoke a shudder, and the odd spasm of tut-tutting. The real malefactor was dreaded more by its absence than its presence. The Stone Age hack worshipped a gargantuan supernatural mollusc, to which he entrusted his literary offspring, that they may be safely delivered to the headmen of the various publishing tribes. Alas to tell, the shameless Mail Snail would often swallow up the progeny, who would never be heard of again. One distraught begetter was so overcome with grief over his lost manuscripts that he cired out despairingly that he would be “just as well sending them up the chimney to Santa Claus.”

But, unlike biological children, one can always keep copies of intellectual offspring, as with any accompanying messages to or from their proposed benefactors. I suppose by the time you read this, all correspondence will be electronic, with the relevant information stored in a PC database, as I believe the term is. No doubt this is very efficient, for those who want to find  things… quickly. But how can anyone in your era possibly understand the levels of spiritual satisfaction to be gained from keeping handwritten notesin haphazard filing? I suppose the word jotter is no longer in use, but this denoted a kind of writing pad or booklet for keeping notes. Oh, the depths of ingenuity that were required to keep track of submissions and editors’ comments! There was a system, to be sure – submissions being logged chronologically in the jotters, with comments from letters added in red ink later. The letters themselves would be filed – again chronologically – in numbered wallet folders, under the appropriate publisher. In order to preserve the Greek unities, publishers were themselves filed under the date they were first contacted.

In those heady, aesthetic days, it was not thought proper or dignified to use the alphabet for mere filing purposes – its letters still commanding an almost religious reverence. Thus, reminder notes had to be written in the submissions jotters to indicate where the publishers’ letters were to be found, since one couldn’t memorise all the dates. Such was the classic ‘chaotic’ filing technique. Sometimes, I feel quite sorry for the modern writer who is deprived of the thrill of the chase in tracking down such information. In my day, the excitement of using deductive reasoning and convoluted lateral thinking to locate a vital file was considered sport well worth the price of a morning or afternoon’s writing time.

Chaotic filing was just one source of that superiority of moral fibre possessed by the ‘life in the raw’ pre-electronic author. We have already witnessed (in laser-intensified sterophonic holo-vision, for all I know) the harsh realities of ‘write rage’, when allowed to go out of control. But we early pluminids were aware of the cultural benefits of harnessing this anger, and re-channelling it into some less damaging (or, at least, less expensive) form of communication. And, so it came about that a sophisticated linguistic codification of wrath subtly evolved, so that, on the one hand, carpets, windows, typewriters, and marriages could be spared the ravages of destruction, and, on the other, the very species of Homo Prospectus could be protected from the degenerative effects of complacency, and its editorial sub-species saved from extinction through over-enthusiastic mutual back-patting activity.

This verbal safety-valve has become known as whingeing, and, through the near-instinctive use of its varied modes of expression, paleolithic pen-pushers have averted bloodshed and salvaged their egos when confronted with some perceived threat – unreliable equipment, inaccurate printing, editorial hatchet-wielding, another writer doing something the first writer wished he’d thought of himself… but not using proper grammar, and so on. Thus, the need for painful self-destruction is avoided, and any hint of inferiority turned into a ‘moral victory’ by the persuasive powers of whingeing.

I could go on forever… but what’s the point? I don’t suppose anyone in the age of electronic publishing will look twice at this manuscript. My trouble is that I was born out of my time. If only I’d had the breaks, I coulda been someone, Eddie. I coulda been a contender… I’d like to have a good long whinge about it, but the art has been lost completely.  

Author’s note :  This authentic manuscript article was constructed using genuine recycled job application forms, an Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriters, and three gallons of A16 Tipp-ex.