Alan Moore, M. John Harrison & Me

The night I read M. John Harrison’s The Great God Pan, I dreamt I went to the Magus of Northampton, Alan Moore’s house for elucidation. His house was a Dionysian temple as re-imagined by Capability Brown, more an Eighteenth Century version of a Greek temple built on a snug scale for two or three occupants. From the outside it looked as though an immense solid stone block had been dropped from a great height and embedded itself into the city street. Inside, there were three levels to it. The entrance off the street led into a snug living space, the width and length of the whole building. The thick stone walls muffled all sound, as though we were in a subterranean cave. Six stone columns rose through the room and I sensed that they spanned all three floors of the building, connecting basement to roof.

To one side of the room were two wide stone stepped staircases, one leading down to the basement and one leading up to the mezzanine and living quarters. Above us, the main light source, a the large glass dome extending the entire length of the ceiling, the only light source in the entire house. I could see that the glass surface was old and weather-beaten, encrusted with thick moss, which gave the light inside a thick green cast. I looked up the staircase that lead up to the top floor, but felt somehow that it was off-limits. An irrational compulsion not to even let my mind imagine what was up there. As though I were neither worthy nor trusted to take those steps upwards.

So Alan took me down the stone staircase to the basement. It was dark and musty, the light from the large ceiling glass didn’t percolate down to this level. Full bookshelves bordered every wall. Ancient books, large hard-backed grimoires filled the shelves. Most of the dream was spent down here, in the silent dark, as Alan Moore, in grave hushed tones, gave me pointers on how to read The Great God Pan.

Afterwards, upstairs in the light, I was enthusiastic as Alan Moore showed me around his house. I could suddenly sense a change in my host’s mood, as he began to tire of my wildly enthusiastic responses to the smallest of mundane details. Not wishing to impinge on my host’s hospitality any further, I said my goodbyes and opened the large wooden front door, and made my way out onto the street. I looked back at the house one last time and saw that it was indeed a small Dionysian temple, with the most intellectually appealing dimensions. Something of the Golden Section in its proportions, conjoined with the perfect aspects of scale in relation to me. I awoke from the dream to those pleasurable feelings of inherent rightness.

What Alan Moore said in the basement – How to read The Great God Pan

melispsalter-munch

Alan Moore began by looking for clues to the mysterious magical working that binds the four protagonists. The ritual to access the Pleroma. The ritual occurs years before the story begins, and is only alluded to, never in detail. Even the narrator has forgotten what happened. But that slippage of memory can be seen as part of the working, as all participants in the magical ceremony  lose something essential to their inner selves. None more so than Ann, who struggles with epilepsy.

How is the Pleroma accessed? What working would grant access to it? Alan Moore begins to search his shelves, rifling through great tomes, seeking clues in the paintings and illustrations that are mentioned in the text. We study the strange spermatoza shapes in the Melisendre Psalter, echoed in the borders of Edvard Munch’s Paris paintings. We make imaginative leaps from spermatoza to conception to birth to the cocooned twins of the story. Alan Moore puts forward the theory that accessing the Pleroma would involve some kind of sex magic. This could explain why Lucas and Ann get married later, when the working has failed, and they have to face mundane reality, to validate the forced intimacy of the ritual? To comfort each other, a consolation after the glimpsed joys of the Pleroma?

But what is the price for accessing the Pleroma? Why are all the participants in the ritual damaged in some mental or physical way? Alan Moore reaches to a shelf and pulls down Carl Jung’s Red Book. Consulting it he tells me that the dreadful cost of accessing the Pleroma is related to the soul. The clue is again in the spermatoza-like shapes in the Melisendre Psalter, which on closer inspection are revealed to be stylised alchemical symbols, shorthand for alchemical operations. The ritual separates the anima from the psyche and it is externalised, made corporeal, damaging the interiority of the participant. This psychic damage is what Ann is suffering from, and her and Lucas’ externalised anima/animus is seen in the story as the ghostly floating couple, dismissed by the narrator as a shared hallucination.  This couple, briefly glimpsed in the narrative, both “writhing and embracing” are an alchemical symbiosis, the externalised anima and animus, conjoined, hanging in the air “like a chrysalis in a privet hedge”.

Reading from the Jung book, Alan Moore intones; “Should any tensions arise between the conscious and the unconscious, the figures of the anima and animus, harmless until then, control the conscious mind in personified form and behave like systems split off from the personality, or like part souls.” He declares the conjoined floating twins to be Ann and Lucas’ part souls, separated from their respective psyches, by the workings of the ritual – the high cost of accessing the Pleroma.

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Egnaro – M. John Harrison

M John Harrison

Oranges aren’t the only fruit

Lucas is a shady, evasive bookshop owner running a tatty second-hand book store on the rundown streets of Deansgate. He begins to overhear fragments, enigmatic gnomic references to the wonders of a fantastical land at the edges of the known world called Egnaro. This leads to an obsession with  Egnaro, as his health, his business and his livelihood suffer.

Lucas deals in collectable, original editions of fantasy paperbacks. The narrator, Lucas’ straight-laced accountant, sees Lucas’s fantasy collection and his personal longing for Egnaro as the same thing – simple escapism, and tells him to focus on the world around him, “perhaps the housing estates are the real undiscovered countries.”

The pragmatic narrator has no time for Lucas’ fantasies, viewing his fantasy books as feeding a longing for the past, the simplicity of childhood, when desires were more easily consummated. Fantasy as merely adolescent desire.

But Lucas’ obsession with Egnaro grows and he becomes frustrated with the conspiracy he perceives to obfuscate its existence. For him the idea of Egnaro begins to assert itself over reality.  Lucas rages against life. His fantasy is superior to grey mundanity of the modern world.

The setting of Deansgate is vividly realised in its rundown, dishevelled state of urban neglect. A transient urban space without anchors. A geography without a culture where only office workers and students pass through the rundown streets on the way to somewhere else. The bitter winter winds blowing through the drab streets sharply contrast with the warm sun-soaked landscapes of Egnaro. Deansgate is a society without a soul. Why wouldn’t you chose the fantasy when reality is this bleak?

So fantasy is a consolation to the quotidian mundanity of life. But it is more than merely escapism. Egnaro is many things, a fantastic realm at the edges of reality, the conspiracy to keep its location hidden, a longing for childhood simplicity, a desire for what is lost. Desire itself. Also and maybe the most obvious, it is orange spelt backwards. Even in the title, Harrison undercuts the romantic with the banal.

M. John Harrison’s prose is elegant and precise. He has a focus on the minutiae of reality, superbly detailing subtle feelings, atmospheres, the play of light. He builds up an intimate portrait of reality, without a trace of romanticism. A realist at war with romanticism, whilst still being fascinated by its effects.

Sugimoto’s Seascapes

Early morning, dawn. Cold clear.

Castle Point, Falmouth, purpose built for easterly seawards observation and the perfect location to record pre-dawn and sunrise. The simplest of pictorial forms: the sky, the sea, separated by the horizon line. It’s hard to view this scene without mediating it through the seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Baltic sea, Ruegen, 1996 Gustave Le Grey, Un effet de soleil,1856

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Baltic sea, Ruegen, 1996
Gustave Le Grey, Un effet de soleil,1856

A photographer I met said that Sugimoto’s seascapes couldn’t be improved and that his body of work is the last word in seascape photography. The implication being that Sugimoto’s photographs render all other seascapes redundant. But surely they are just one kind of aesthetic. When his work is compared to the Nineteenth Century photographer, Gustave Le Gray, that aesthetic becomes clear. Superficially their seascapes are similar but Le Gray worked in a completely different tradition to Sugimoto’s. Le Gray is heavily influenced by nineteenth century academy painting, with its onus on a classical realism. His photographs, made of two separate exposures, one for sea and one for sky, whilst lyrical are more descriptive than Sugimoto’s.

Sugimoto’s seascapes are formalist, the sea and the sky separated by the centrally placed horizon line. They are radically minimalist, stripping elements down to their rawest forms, bringing to mind Ad Reinhardt’s work.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997 Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bay of Sagami, Atami, 1997
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

But with their sea mists and out of focus impressionism, they reach towards the infinite and in so doing the photographs also reference the Romantic Tradition. They reference the sublime tradition in painting that sprang from the Northern European Protestant practice of finding the spiritual in the natural landscape. This strain of painting is exmplified by Caspar David Friedrich and reaches its summation in the late paintings of Mark Rothko.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ligurian Sea, saviore, 1993 Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer, 1808-10

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ligurian Sea, saviore, 1993
Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer, 1808-10

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Boden Sea, Uttwil, 1993 Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Boden Sea, Uttwil, 1993
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969

David Bowie the when and where

Inspired by my current reading of David McCanddless’ Information is Beautiful, this is when and where Bowie recorded his amazing run of 1970s albums.

 

BOWIE 1970s albums infographic

Two things of note. Bowie worked fast, most albums are finished in just two months. & interesting to see that only one album from the so-called Berlin Trilogy is recorded at Hansa Studio, Berlin.