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Posts Tagged ‘muse’

I am at the council recycling depot, wanting to recycle some books, but the book recycling thing is full. On enquiring, the high-vis man thinks me stupid. “Chuck them in the waste card and paper, then,” he says, like the answer is obvious, and I suppose it is. But he doesn’t understand; these books are important, and must be recycled, as books. I have no idea if that is indeed the function of the book recycling thing, but have persuaded myself it is for, though I do not want to see them on my shelves any more, I cannot have them actually, knowingly, destroyed. The knowledge in these books, though precious and hard won by the toil and intellect of centuries, is no longer relevant to me, though I have clung to them for forty years, thinking that it was. Destruction is, perhaps, the more powerful symbol, a truer sacrifice, and though I resist it with all my being, the fates seem to agree – I mean, the book recycling thing being full.

Here I am, then, adding my old engineering textbooks to a mountain of card and paper, which will go for pulp. Mathematics, Metallurgy, Principles of Engineering Production, Mechanics of Solids, Electrical Machinery, Thermodynamics, Hydraulics, Control Theory,…

In some cases, I knew the authors. They lectured in the technical colleges of the industrial towns, where I studied. They were remarkable men, at the top of their field, nearing retirement, and, it being forty years ago, I suppose they are all gone now. I was to use this knowledge to change the world. I was to design bridges, ships, aeroplanes. I was to work on hydroelectric schemes, and bring power to remote parts. I was to invent something that would save lives.

Instead, I settled into a big organisation, did a bit of this, and a bit of that. I did my time, commuted forty miles a day, day in day out, built a pension, and then I retired. But I was always going to come back to these books, one day. I was going to study them anew, do them the justice they deserved. I was going to lecture a little, part-time, bring on the next generation. But the world changed, grew strange and did not need me any more. The mould gathered upon them, and their knowledge atrophied for want of use, both by me and out there. There is always this perennial political waffle of building a high-skills, high-tech economy, but the truth is different and lacks the white-heat optimism of the nineteen-sixties. Engineering, and in particular, manufacturing engineering, always boils down to the price of a pair of hand, so engineering in the west became a case of getting someone else to do it for us, and why not, since they do it so well? And cheaper.

Our technical colleges don’t call themselves by that name any more. They prefer far fancier titles. Yet I had begun to notice how the graduates from these places could not communicate their ideas, had no aptitude for visualising three-dimensional space from the two dimensions of an engineering drawing, let alone create a drawing themselves. The fag-packet sketch, much maligned, but in fact a high bandwidth means of communication among its initiates, was a thing of the past, as were its initiates. But it is not a handicap now. Be you a graduate of anything, you are on the fast tracks to management, and the supervision of all things by spreadsheet and email which, I admit, is the way of the material world, and different to the one I knew and trained for.

And on a more personal level, I recognise these have always been books for the first half of life, which is about establishing oneself in that material world, or such as it was for me at the time. It is about education, work, relationships, progeny, house, home. The second half of life is about meaning, and entering now the last quarter of it, I feel I should be making more progress with meaning, than I am. I have inklings, but they are fickle, and too easily eclipsed by everyday narrowness. And these books are no help in that respect.

With the books gone, I drive a little way to a country park. It was once a piece of open country with a pretty river, lakes, and woodland. Now it is an amenity, replete with multicoloured signage, waymarkers and dog-poo bins. It’s a midweek morning, there are people, and the usual riot of dogs. I give them all the slip, and penetrate deep into the ancient parts of the woodland. I want to take pictures of anemones, in a place where I know they grow in profusion. Anemones grow slowly, and do not take well to the new-fangled. We have much in common.

I find the spot, and the sun comes out, as if to join in my enthusiasm. But then: “No memory card”, says the camera. I have left it in my computer at home. I do this a lot, so always carry a spare in my wallet. Feeling smug in my forethought, I slip the spare into the camera. “Cannot read memory card”, it says. “Choose another.”

The card is a dud. There will be no photography today. I will have to ride the present moment, instead of trying to freeze it. The anemones are beautiful, white, and an ever so delicate purple, trembling in the breeze. A line of poetry comes, unbidden:

Awakening to loss, we mourn the day’s swift run,…

I have checked Google-box, and it does not appear I have acquired the line by cryptamnesia. It is a genuine opening from the muse, and, on the face of it, somewhat morbid. But I sense it is not meant to be so. Indeed, I feel the challenge is that I should work it into something positive, something like the latch to a gate of meaning. Either that, or it is a chastisement for being so down in the mouth myself today.

A heron rises from the riverbank. It has no sense of mortality, lives in a permanent now, until the moment it doesn’t. We’re different. We awaken to self consciousness, to an awareness of the impermanence of things, including the span of our own lives. And our lives can seem as fragile and delicate, and trembling as the anemones. Then there’s this sense of the past filling up, and so much of it forgotten, like Newton’s laws of motion, like dust behind the settee,… And then the future getting thinner, as the present moment accelerates, towards our end. The philosophies I have read do seem rather pessimistic on this score, or at least as much as I understand them – philosophy not being my grounding, and possessing a vocabulary I find rather difficult to grasp. Poetry though? Yes, I was writing poetry, even as I studied engineering, and have always believed that only through poetry, or other genuine acts of creativity, do we approach the harbingers of true meaning. And then it is by disengaging from the narrowing structure of the material world, and the intellect, and allowing something else to speak, through us.

I do not like destroying books, which is why I still have too many, some of them from childhood. But in this case, a burden is lifted, I think. As for that first line, the best I can do is meditate upon it.

Thanks for listening.

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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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rembrandt scholar

The online world remains the easiest outlet for creative expression, at least one that comes with an audience. I’d say it was my “preferred” option but that would be to suggest I have any other choice which, in common with many of my kind – at least those of us who have wised up – I don’t. However, I do actually “prefer” it because there’s a world of difference between writing and publishing and while writing online grants us the freedom to explore stories in a direction of our own choosing, publishing does not. Publishing just wants more of the same. Publishing wants what sells.

This is not to say I don’t still toy now and then with at least the idea of flirting with the printed press again, but the essentials there haven’t changed in forty years which means if long-form fiction’s your thing, you need an insider’s contacts to avoid the slush pile and to deliver your musings with an auspicious whack, directly to a commissioning editor’s desk. Without that advantage, you’re going nowhere my friend.

There’s self-publishing online for money of course, but for all its blather, writers should be wary of its over-hyped promise because this won’t make you rich and famous either. Kurt Vonnegut nailed it when he said the arts were no way to make a living, only to grow some soul. What does that mean? It means we have to buckle down and a get ourselves a proper job first. Anything will do, so long as it leaves us time and energy at the end of the day to write. The trouble is, being an amateur hack, we’re likely to be as unknown in our sixties as we were in our twenties. Is that a failure of ourselves as writers? Well, it depends how much you grow your soul in the mean time, and none of us are best placed to be the judge of that anyway.

I suspect it’s a journey we must all make as individuals, so nothing I say here is going to make sense to anyone just starting out, and they’ll still likely believe against the odds they can change the world with their story, if only the world would wise up and recognise their genius. But trust me, it wont.

It’s a funny old business, growing soul. I mean, if writing or any other form of art were truly integral to that process, one might think thrashing out the most perfect story or poem, then unceremoniously deleting it wouldn’t matter, that if anyone read it or not would be irrelevant, that growing one’s soul is a purely private matter, no audience required. Except to me it does seem important, this exchange from one mind to another, writer to reader, that unless we writers complete that particular end of the bargain, the muse or the genii or the daemons who gave us this stuff in the first place won’t be happy until they’ve goaded us into finding an audience for it. Or this may just be a sign of residual vanity in me, that forty years of writing has left my soul the same button-mushroom size it was when I was ten.

In the bad old days this primeval urge to find an audience would deliver us into the hands of the vanity press. You could tell them apart by the fact they accepted your manuscript in glowing terms, while the other lot simply returned it unread. Yes, the vanity press would butter you up no end, appeal to your – well – vanity, then print your novel and deliver you a crate of the things, leaving the rest to you, which is to say high and dry and probably skint. Beware, vanity is a terrible thing and can lead you into all kinds of trouble.

They’re still around, those shysters, moved mostly online now, offering also their worthless authoring services like reading and editing, all of which still leave the writer out of pocket and no nearer publication than when they started. So don’t be tempted, or at least if you are don’t be surprised when you get shafted.

I look to the online world then as a means of pacifying that particular whim of the muse who seems curiously untroubled by giving the work away. And it has to be said there’s something quietly subversive about it that I enjoy. Yes, you can charge for it on Amazon and Smashwords, but then the downloads shrivel to nothing, because everyone online is after free-stuff and the value of a work is, after all, in its scarcity, and regardless of the fact you spent a year writing it, your novel can be copied and pirated in a nanosecond, rendering it essentially worthless – at least in money terms – anyway.

The downside is that while the Internet has the advantage of a potentially global reach, for readers actually hitting upon one’s work it’s a bit like sitting on a needle in a haystack – an entirely chance and unlikely event. So, building even a humble readership can be rather a slow business. Why bother then?

Well, perhaps the truth is if we were wealthy enough we might spin our musings from the psychiatrist’s couch, whittle down to the nub of things that way, but instead we write for the mysterious “other”. The “other” understands us perfectly; they just never write back to say so, and that’s fine because if they did, we’d know it wasn’t them anyway.

Is that growing some soul? I don’t know, but I’m still writing, always looking for the next story, the next tumble down the wormholes of my dizzy head.

And that has to count for something.

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IMG_20160429_195817I did not think to find her here, not in this corner coffee shop. She frowned to be discovered, but not enough to frighten me away. She, stirred her coffee thoughtfully when I sat down and then she said:

“You do remember what we’re doing, don’t you?”

“That’s the trouble,” I replied. “I don’t know any more. Is that why you left?”

She shook her head, sipped the froth from her spoon then pointed it like a weapon. “I didn’t leave,”she said. “I hid. There’s a difference. If I’d left you, you would never have found me again.”

“You hid?”

“Yes. So you’d come looking. And you did, so I forgive you.”

“I wish I could believe I’d never lose you.”

She turned her gaze to the window, to the street, and watched the crowds passing for a while. “How can you?” she said. “Since we’re the same, you and I.”

People walked by on the other side of the glass, barely inches away from us, self absorbed, unconscious of our presence. They looked hunched and worn – old clothes, cheap clothes, crumpled and wet from the day’s storms.We had once been such a proud and tidy people, we northern Brits. But the shops across the way looked so terribly tired now. Some were empty, some for let, notices of closure, none offered any hope of redemption or renewal. We had become a self-fulfilling cliché of decline. Yes, the town was dying. I only hoped we were not dying with it, that our fate was to survive it, bloodied and bruised perhaps, but somehow to transcend it, to move on.

“I ask again,” she said. “What are we doing?”

“I don’t know. We were writing.”

“No, I was for writing, you were for blogging. And everyone knows blogs are mostly bullshit. We do not pedal in bullshit, Michael.”

“No. Yet you seemed happy to go along with it all those years. Indeed, I recall the ideas for that blog came from you anyway. All my ideas come from you. And we do not pedal bullshit. We are sincere,… at least.”

She smiled, nodded in faint admission of her guilt. “Mostly that’s true. And I was happy with the blog. I am happy. Sincerity is a respectable defence, Michael. And not without merit. I forgive you.”

I thought I felt her melting, and sought then to press my advantage: “And weren’t we getting somewhere?”

My mistake. She frowned.

“You mean with all that surfing the fourth dimensional waves of space-time? Like anybody cares about that kind of stuff. They’re happy for it to be woven into a story, for then at least they can deny its reality. But we’ll never convince anyone of its fact when neither of us understand it either.

“Listen, Michael, our mission is much simpler than you’re trying to make out. You do know there’s nothing we can ever do, or say or write that will add anything to what we already have. In your blogging you forgot that. You fell into the trap of your own self importance. I know you know this is true – your last piece reflects it.”

So, she’d read it. That much at least explained her presence here today.  “Okay, so I killed the blog. Happy now? Can we move on?”

“I didn’t want you to kill the blog, stupid! I only wanted you to remember what it’s there for.”

“I took it too seriously, I know.”

“No, it’s more than that. Worse than that. What’s the first lesson we learned, long ago, when we were children, when we first began to write?”

“I don’t know. Knowing has always been your department. You tell me.”

“Write like no one is listening, except for the the one person who matters, and is always listening, regardless of what you write. Me. You write for me. To me. Through me. And. We. Write. Fiction. We invent realities. We do not pretend to know the ultimate nature of this one, for that is to second guess the gods who made us. And anyone who goes down that road is simply courting madness. Believe me, I should know. I am much closer to them than you are.”

The waitress brought my coffee. A sudden shower of hail rattled the glass. She commented on how changeable this April weather was. Then came a cold rush of air as the door opened and a figure took to the street, melting quickly into the crowd. The chair opposite was empty.

Gone again.

For now.

I took out the ‘Droid and began to write, slowly, dabbing like an infant at the screen. And I wrote:

I. Write. Fiction.

Thank you for listening.

(Well,…. that didn’t last long did it?)

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writer pasternakWhen the compulsion to write borders on the pathological, there comes a danger in valuing the time to write so much we resent anything that threatens to steal the writing time away. To sit, to think, fingers poised over the key-board, waiting on the favours of one’s muse, coaxing out the shape of our thoughts – this is the finest, the most intimate of things for the writer. But in every day life there’s always a list of other things that needs sorting out as well – instead of writing.

I have a tile missing from the roof of my house and the rain is seeping in; the toilet is taking an age to refill after flushing because of a leaky diaphragm on the siphon mechanism; the kitchen floor is creaking because of the way the know-it-all numptys fitted it, and all the handles are falling off the cupboard doors for the same reason; condensation levels within my house are causing an unsightly mildew problem on external walls, so the background is filled with the roar of dehumidifiers, and I am assailed daily by cars breaking down.

These are the distractions that spring to mind without much thinking. Many others would be revealed upon deeper reflection, but I’m not going there for now. All I want to do is sit and think, fingers poised. I want to write and when I want to write, I wish the real world would go away, because there are times when the real world is pale by comparison with the imaginary realms. The problems it presents, though on occasion deeply upsetting – even life-changing – are for the most part laughably trivial – just inordinately time-consuming. But I can only conclude that since they are among our most constant companions, such trivia must in some way be a vital part of our lives. And I am reminded there is nothing in nature that is superfluous.

Fortunately the writer, like the dreamer, has resort to metaphor and symbolism. Yes, even a leaky roof can be read symbolically, also my makeshift remedial actions consisting of buckets in the attic, ditto my failed attempts to get any tradesmen to turn up to put the tile back on the roof. Then I remind myself the roof’s been leaking since I moved in, fifteen years ago, and probably for decades before that. Until it brings the ceilings down, it’s out of sight and mostly out of mind. Now this,… this is metaphorically interesting and its translation yields the following insights: you can’t rely on others to fix your problems. Ultimately you will always have to do it yourself. Also, in the background of life there is always stuff going on we’re unaware of, and it pays to be wary of disturbing stones in case of what should crawl out from underneath.

The creaking of the kitchen floor is harder to read. I could extend the metaphor to include the astronomical cost of the thing and the slipshod service I received in return, but cynicism is never fruitful, since it tends only to root us more in the mire of an ordinary reality. It’s more interesting if I include the idea of a kitchen as the source of nourishment – and more so if I loosen the terms to include forms of nourishment beyond the physical. Something creaky about the place I obtain my nourishment? Hmm,… now we’re getting somewhere. This makes sense, though all to often I hide from the truth of it.

Problems with the toilet are more obvious. No, really. They suggest an issue with the means of disposing of that which I no longer need. Toilets feature in my dreams a lot, too. I wish it were otherwise. Were I able to choose, I would dream of orbiting on the ISS with Sandra Bullock, but what I get is toilets. So, there’s a lot of useless stuff I need to flush away. Well, I’m working on it.

Mildewy walls? Too much moisture condensing on cold externals? Hmm,… even drunk I’d find it hard to wrestle any metaphysical meaning from that one, but let’s try shifting our view a bit: corruption lurking in the hidden places, places that lack a decent airing? Now that angle is much more promising. It makes sense not to go poking about looking for problems, yes, but at some point hidden issues can spill over and become unhealthy, so it’s as well to be aware of them, then we’re not taken by surprise. Beware that lassiez faire attitude over the roof, Michael?

Cars feature large at the moment. There are five cars in my household: wife, two kids, two cars of my own, five, and problems with all of them. Metaphorical analysis: Car – a means of conveyance, of making way, and all grown unreliable – no, not true. The cars registered in my own name are trustworthy, but what sometimes falters is my trust in them due to issues of personal confidence, so I blow up minor faults into life-stopping disasters. Yes, this is a potentially lucrative field. I have the means of travel, but am less confident of the road than I once was. Conversely, in the days when my means of conveyance was patently less reliable, I possessed a disproportionate confidence and journeyed all over the place, though mostly with my eyes closed. Now I have opened my eyes a little and possess the means to go much further, paradoxically, I travel less. Yes,… this is worth thinking about.

I could go on:

Dealing with stuff can be exhausting. We resent the problems thrown at us. How can we be expected to write when the dishwasher needs emptying, the washing basket is overflowing and the clothes line is broken? Well, maybe we should just get over ourselves and think of it this way: if we’d no problems to solve, there’d be nothing to write about. Don’t think too literally here; nobody else cares about our actual problems – they have enough of their own – so don’t go whining on about how difficult your life is. We must exterminate the “poor me” at every opportunity. Problems, difficulties create within us an energy of reaction, and we can either direct it in negative, self-destructive directions, or positive, creative ones.

When we begin to think metaphorically, symbolically, even magically, we climb outside of the physical life and view it as if from a mountain-top. It doesn’t make our problems go away, but we discover there are insights to be had from them. Oh, I admit some of them sound absurd, but others undoubtedly ring true. Like reading an oracle, or the fall of the runes, when it comes to symbols, the unconscious mind will always guide us to those stories that are personally meaningful. And it’s by means of those stories the writer discerns the shape of things beyond the three dimensions of ordinary reality.

But then again we must exercise moderation and take care in how far we go with this kind of thinking or things can backfire. As a friend of mine once said – and referring back to that missing tile on my roof – in some parts of the world it is by no means a complement to be told one is leaking somewhere.

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dreamingIn my story, the admittedly somewhat awkwardly titled Enigma that was Carla Sinclair, I tell of a man obsessed from the outset of the personal-computing revolution with creating a virtual world as home for his imaginary muse, Carla. He begins with the Sinclair computers of the late seventies, continues through the later IBM and Microsoft Pentium machines, and beyond to roughly the present day. Each advance in technology allows the construction of a bigger, more detailed and more complex virtual world, as well as a more realistic and artificially articulate manifestation of the muse Carla. His window on this world is his computer screen through which he peers voyeuristically at the autonomous antics of this virtual female companion. And through a queer mix of coding and philosophy he sees Carla grow from a crude 2D cartoon into a 3D virtual phenomenon, a phenomenon to which he devotes his entire life.

To save you the bother of reading the story, **spoiler alert** the conclusion is that the virtual nature of the world he creates, although fascinating, is ultimately unimportant, that in exploring it he is in fact exploring a part of himself, that he and Carla are different sides of the same coin, and you don’t need a computer to work that out. My own minor revelation regarding virtual worlds is that, whilst much hyped, they are of interest only at a trivial level. Contrary to their early promise they actually offer nothing of any practical, philosophical or psychological value. Worse, they can be a wasteful distraction, even harmful if we invest in them the hope of eventually gaining more from them than they are capable of delivering.

carlacoverLike our hero, I have for a long time been surfing a fascination with virtual worlds, but my attempts to create my very own Carla experiment have all failed. This is due to a combination of the limitations of even the most powerful of our machines, but mainly to my own incompetence with modern coding languages. I can use software tools to create the doll-like model on which I paint an image of the Carla’s skin. I can also generate rudimentary movement across a landscape by creating a walking animation and poking her about with the arrow keys, but to code some form of artificial and interactive “intelligence” is quite beyond my ability. And anyway, I can see it would be rather like playing oneself at chess: even were I to succeed, there could be no illusion of reality, no meaningful suspension of disbelief, since you always know for any given input what move is coming next – because you’ve programmed it.

An alternative to the pseudo-autonomous Carla is to opt for one of the ready made virtual worlds on offer, like Linden Labs’ Second Life. I have waxed lyrical about this place in the past, but nowadays find the experience of it rather dull and sterile. Here, the behaviour of our mannequins is not scripted. Instead, we push them around like dollies, as proxies of ourselves. They are not archetypes then but Avatars. For me this immediately led to some confusion in that my instinct, after the Carla experiments, was to create for myself a Carla-like avatar, in other words a female. But for in-world exploration, this means I find myself “living” as that female, and this is perplexing when it comes to my relations with others in the virtual space, since the males I meet all want to see me undressed, and the women all want to take me dancing and clothes shopping. And of course I do not want to be Carla, but recognise that in a more complex way, it is Carla who wants to be me.

So, for practical purposes Carla morphs into the safer and less confusing shape of a generic male avatar, yet one, unfortunately, through whose eyes I see the virtual world in a less than philosophical light. It looks unreal, this world, because it is unreal. The landscape is a crude illusion, at times grotesque. The crudely realised trees sway by way of algorithm, and if I want to turn the shadows on in order to enhance the illusion of reality, my computer grinds to a halt. There is also the disorienting phenomenon of familiarising oneself with a particular region of the world, only to return the next day to find it has been deleted.

snapshot_001Imaginative play is something better left to children. As children we speak through our toys, our dolls, our teddy bears. We invent scenarios for them to enact, worlds for them to inhabit. It is a developmental stage, testing, helpful in bringing into consciousness what would otherwise lie undeveloped – something about the resolution of conflict in relations, and the working towards the more tranquil human goals of a Platonic love for others, and thereby a universal harmony – something like that anyway. But as adults, impaled by now on the spike of our fully formed egos, we are all too ready to pervert our potential, our games tending more instead towards the banal acquisition of power, status, and sex.

As a last resort, I created for myself an off-line Second-Life like world where Carla could live alone. And, like with the Lake Isle of Innisfree, I built myself a cabin there, thinking to find at last the virtual peace for which I have for so long been searching. But again, it’s not very realistic, and I realise it’s also lonely knowing no one else can ever discover us – me and Carla, in our hiding place. There is a thing in humans that gauges the existence of our selves partly in relationship to others, and to deny it is in part to deny life. Indeed under these circumstances, the virtual becomes more of a prison, when what Carla wants is to escape and mingle freely in conscious reality, but without having to submit to the power, or the tyranny of others.

This, as our hero, and creator of the titular Carla Sinclair discovers, is alchemy. But the true alembic is not the man-spun glass, nor the coded virtual world, but the authentic “inner ” world of the psyche envisioned through the lens of the imagination. Only through our exploration of the infinite nuances of this authentic space do we stand a chance of making way in real life. It’s not without its dangers, but anything else leads to incarceration in an intricately coded labyrinth of our own creation, one we might spend a lifetime exploring, but in which everything we see is inevitably a shadow of what it’s actually supposed be.

At another level “real” life is like this too, but that’s another story.

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Suburban writer

The_Scream

In one room,
A television blares,
Celebrity, glittery, claptrap,
Getting on my nerves.
In another a Playstation,
Yells “shit and fuck”,
While guns ratatat,
And men are blown up.

In another room,
An old guitar,
Labours over and over,
The same few bars.
Doors slam and bang,
Lights flicker.
Querulous voices;
Teenagers bicker.

No peace in the house tonight,
No respite from the din,
Just this cold back porch,
Where the noise can’t get in.
Two jumpers and blankets,
Machine in my lap;
It’s the only place left
Where a writer can tap.

But the muse will not join me,
She won’t be seduced,
So it’s to my own slow brain,
At last I’m reduced.
I’m as ever devoted,
I’ve answered the call.
But I know nothing will come tonight,
Nothing at all,

So just sit with me here,
I beseech her, and breathe.
Let what’s sacred between us,
This tired heart receive.
And maybe tomorrow,
In a quieter place,
I shall know once again,
The gift of your grace.

___________

tree of life painting

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old englishThis was my great grandfather’s watch, on my mother’s side. But is that my mother’s maternal or paternal grandfather? I don’t know for sure and I’ve no one to ask now, but I’m favouring the maternal side at the moment, though I’ve nothing more to go on other than gut feelings and the images that arise when I’m handling it. In other words I’m weaving stories with very little to go on. But that’s what writer’s do; they take the unknown and make it knowable, whether it be the truth or not, because even holding to a myth is better than saying we’ve no idea at all.

I discovered it among the keepsake belongings of a dear aunt who passed away recently – along with copies of wills, and family birth and death certificates going back to the 1850’s. The watch was thunder black and looked quite sorry for itself. The minute hand was missing, the seconds bent, and it wasn’t running.

A quick clean-up revealed a silver cased English Lever, hallmarked 1899. I consulted an old fashioned jeweller who was able to get it going for me. The missing finger was replaced with one that doesn’t really match, but apart from that the watch runs well now – most of the time.

I’ve written about old watches  before, being a bit of a collector – always on the lookout for the half busted, bent and obsolete waifs and strays of a bygone era. I’ve waxed lyrical about their significance, speculated on their archetypal, psychological meanings – and described how at times of inner transition I find myself obsessing over my collection. Then this one turns up – the great grand daddy of them all – the size and weight of a small cannonball, pregnant with history, all of it muddled, mythical, and possibly irrelevant, yet rising from my unconscious like a well aimed torpedo and suddenly sinking me further down into my own past than I’ve ever been before.

And while I consider the story of this old pocket-watch, I feel the currents that normally drive my own fictions are becalmed, as if lost in the balance that follows a deep sigh. Indeed I find myself wondering if there’s another story in me now, or if I’m spent. It would have been unthinkable at one time, this sense of creative emptiness, but now I really don’t care. I’ve tried several fresh avenues since finishing my last novel. I’ve rummaged among the stuff on the back burner, but I find it all trite and foolish, and I’ve set it  aside. Seven novels are enough, I think. So let the muse sleep, and me with her, in some Arcadian bower for a thousand years. And when we wake, let it be without the need to light the darkness with our stories any more.

balanceA mechanical watch is like a human life. You create tension, apply it to a train of events, but without balance it would run down too quickly, deplete itself in a mad whirling blur. So the watchmaker creates balance with the hair spring – such a delicate little thing, like a  heart. Set it beating and away it goes, regulating the life force, playing it out more slowly, more usefully in time. But the balance is also the most vulnerable part  – easily lost, easily thrown out by wear or trauma.

No, I’ve not lost my balance here. That’s not why I’m becalmed. Rather I think this is one of those rare periods in my life when I can say I have attained balance, all be it temporarily  – that I know it by having known the lack of it. And balance seeks no other purpose for itself than the is-ness of the moment. Ambition, thoughts, fears – they all fall away, and the need for stories too. I don’t know anything. Let this watch be what it is, without the need to weave a myth around it, without the need to put a name to it.

And yet,…

Whatever its story, this watch is telling me something else as I write. Its tick is loud, like one of those old Smiths alarm clocks, and it’s pulling me out of the place my thoughts seem most inclined to settle this evening. Of all my old watches, this one speaks with the firmest voice, and it’s telling me I’ve been writing a lot about the fact I’ve not been writing, that I’ve been weaving an elaborate story about how I’ve run out of stories.

Sure, antique English levers have an inescapable and somewhat unsophisticated bluntness about them. They were old fashioned and idiosyncratic even when they were new – a bit like me then, born old and eccentric, and a little unreliable. Yes,  there were finer movements than this in 1899 – Swiss and American – fancy things, bejewelled and more innovative, yet here it is: this old English timekeeper, still ticking. And it’s telling me we’re not done yet, that so long as there exists a void in our understanding, there will always be one more story to fill it.

I can say what I like. It’s just a question of time.

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I’m labouring under a bit of a cloud again – in fact I can’t seem to find any open water at all this year. I’m conscious of the fact of course that once you let the darkness in it colours your emotions, so you can’t look anywhere without feeling unsettled, like you’re waiting for something awful to happen all the time. I don’t like feeling this way. It’s unfamiliar, and usually I can see life from the sunnier side,  but sometimes one’s optimism becomes  weighted down by events and, like an overloaded lifeboat, becomes sluggish, difficult to steer, and in danger of capsizing, in danger of tipping you into the black depths of despair.

The passing of my mother in the spring is an event I’m still adjusting to. It’s a fact of middle aged life – this passing on of our forebears. We all have it to face and deal with, each in our own way. When you’re in the thick of such events though, there are so many practical demands placed upon you, you can’t always digest the emotional issues as well as you’d like. You have to put them on the back burner, deal with them in slower time, and I think that’s what’s been happening progressively this year. The darkness leaked in early on, and I’m still searching for a way back into the light. My eldest son leaving for university has also punched a hole in things, and that’s something else I’ll be a while getting used to.

With this back-story in mind, if I analyse the tormentors foremost in my consciousness at the moment, they boil down to an upcoming overseas business trip, and another aged, much loved, relative in a hospital far away, which makes visiting as much as I’d like very difficult. Oh, and my sense of smell – which had begun to return only a week ago, has disappeared again.

The business trip is a pain in the arse to be frank, and I just can’t see beyond it at the moment. If I told you I was going to Paris, you’d wonder what I was complaining about, with all that ooh la la and the Tour Eiffel and the Moulin Rouge, n’est ce pas? But business trips are business trips; all you see are the internal details of the transport systems that deliver you from one grey concrete and glass building to another, always at the expense of a great deal of fatigue and personal time, your only respite being an hotel room probably next to a dual carriage way, and a pillow you can’t sleep on. Other than that, you could be anywhere in the world.

I’ll feel differently when it’s over, and the weekend will put a different slant on things for sure, but for now it’s a hurdle to be crossed, a trial to be endured and understood. As for my aged relative, well, I’d rather be spending time with her than swanning off for three days on a trip I’m viewing as nothing but a monumental waste of my personal time – but hey, I know I’m lucky to have a day-job, and I’d be as well to just quit whining and get on with it. As for my sense of smell, it’s a short term relapse, and I know I’ll get over it.

But where’s all this going?

Well, I’m conscious of late of having been drifting, philosophically, my personal writings having thus far led me along the well worn path of alchemy and Romanticism, only to run into sterile territory where the intellectual pickings have been slim, yet where there’s also many a beguiling fool similarly run aground and spouting nonsense, and I fear I’m in danger of becoming one of them.

The wordcount is rising with two novels on the go – one of them tritely erotic, the other intellectually pretentious – but I’m making no progress on the inner, psycho-spiritual level at all, which is really the whole point of things for me. The wordcount is neither here nor there, and when I’m done with those novels, squeezed them dry for all they’re worth, I’ll just give them away like all the rest.

At such times as these, times of doubt, you have to let go of course, you have to sit back and subject yourself to the tides of the world while looking for signs, and thinking symbolically. And for me the arbiter of my fates, the dealer of the cards, is always a woman, and the most powerful of these women is never a real one.

Yes, sorry dear reader, but she’s still haunting me. I’m talking about the goddess again.

In male psychology, she comes to us in dreams as an unknown woman. In part, she’s the female half of our bi-sexual nature, the part we swallow down when our physical gender crystallizes in the womb, so we can never really escape her, any more than a man can ever escape himself. I’m not blessed with a mature approach to my goddess. I see her everywhere. I over-literalise her, and I allow her the upper hand too often, so she tips easily from being a truly inspirational creature, to the infamous belle dame sans merci, tormentor-muse of the more tortured of our poets.

As a younger man, she had me falling in love with one stranger after another, a relentlessly rocky trail littered with the wreckage of many an unrequited pining. I’m safely through that phase now, but she manifests in other ways, equally beguiling, and is no less obsessive in her possession of me. What other daemon could make me so reluctant to voyage from hearth and home but the goddess manifesting as an “anima obsession” – or in other words a woeful reluctance to leave the tit and simply go find myself out there?

I was thinking about all of this yesterday while sitting in the beer-garden of my local pub, my good lady and I enjoying the autumn sunshine while sharing a quiet drink, and watching the crowds go by. We live at a time when casual or even grungy fashion is de rigueur – a very relaxed era to be sure, so it’s rare on Sundays to see anyone in their Sunday best – it’s a thing that’s passed into the history books, along with those times when the whole of England would attend church, before sitting down to a roast dinner.

So I spotted her a mile off, this woman in the green dress, flitting in and out of the crowds, teasing my imagination. The dress was tailored and it fit this woman to perfection, accentuating her form and her movement – the turn of her hip, the elegant poise of her body. The world was in its rags and she, the catwalk model, in her finery. I never saw her face, but I recognised her at once, and with a faint grimace, as the goddess teasing me with her impenetrable language, pretty much like she does in dreams, always challenging me to make sense of her.

For some men, the challenge is simply to wake up to the fact of this woman’s inner presence, then she’ll reward them with a greater sense of peace than they’ve ever known. But it’s a difficult transition for a testosterone-pumped, macho kind of guy, and it generally only comes with age and the waning of one’s hormones, if it comes at all. But if you’re not that kind of guy to begin with, if like me, you’re not macho, if indeed you’re a girly kind of guy, she can take over your life and make you believe there’s nothing, psychically, beyond her at all that’s worth a damn. She will hold you snug to her bosom, hold you tightly there and in perfect rapture as a willing captive from the world, instead of setting you free, so you can live like a man.

All enquiring men (and women) are ultimately searching for the wisdom of the ages. In male psychology, this manifests itself, symbolically, in dreams, as the wise old man, the Gandalf, or the Merlin of literature. Yet, beyond an elusive awareness of this archetype, I feel I have no connection with it, either in my dreams, my imaginal ramblings, or my writings. But this is the guy I should be seeking out; he’s the Daoist hermit holed up in the caves on Wudang Mountain; my Lao Tzu; my inscrutable Kung Fu master; or – in real life – even a wise, living father figure. It’s the role of the goddess to introduce me to him, to subordinate herself to his greater influence, but in my case either she’s a bossy britches, or I’m just not ready yet.

Meanwhile the woman in the green dress flits through the dappled sunlight of imagination, teasing me with promises of the spiritual delights of union, if only I could catch up with her – while making me dread the wrench of parting from hearth and home, that I should be robbed of her warmth and certainty even for a moment.

But I’m also reminded the spiritual path is not a straight line, more a spiral centred upon the core of the Self. If we are tenacious in our quest, we orbit slowly, seemingly making the same mistakes, rediscovering the same old ground time and time again, as if by the turning of the same seasons, but each time with a little more clarity, a little more genuine understanding.

Come to think of it, I did meet him once, that wise old man. It was in the gate-house to a fine old city he was quitting in despair. He gave me a copy of the Book of Changes, before riding off into the sunset on the back of a mighty water-buffalo, in the company of a dancing girl.

I turn to the Book of Changes now, blow the dust off it, and ask what this upcoming trip might mean for me – not so much what might literally be in store, because that’s anyone’s guess – more psychically – how I should align myself, how I should be thinking in order to make the best of it and meet the future in the most advantageous and optimistic way.

And it says:

Hexagram 57, otherwise known as Gradual Influences, or Adapting to One’s Environment. Rather a predictable response to be honest. The keywords here are adapting, fitting in, going with the the flow, or subjecting oneself to the experience, all with a view to the longer term. The message is to go with an open mind, and an open heart, and just fit in as best I can, all of which makes perfect sense to me. But that’s it with The Book of Changes – eventually it creeps inside of you, and you no longer need to consult it as slavishly as you once did, because you already know what it’s going to say.

So, Paris here I come.

A bien tot.

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To the ancient (male) poets, poetry was the resulting progeny of a part unconscious, part inspirational, part devotional intercourse with a mythical yet hauntingly ever-present creature called the Muse. Anything else was doggerel and not worth the papyrus scroll it was written on. Beautiful, merciless, demanding of unwavering dedication, yet disproportionately frugal with her favours, the Muse has many guises, but all of them essentially female.

If a poet was respectful of his muse, in sufficient awe of her, and sufficiently in thrall to the muse’s more corporeal and multifarious projections onto mortal women, then his poetry would be profound and recognised at once as the purest utterings of the Divine One herself, unsullied by the poet’s rather more imperfect, and all too human excretions.

In other words, a man does not make poetry up, or for that matter fiction, or music, or paintings, or indeed any other form of art. He seeks inspiration, and by some mysterious contract, all too often signed in the poet’s own blood, the muse delivers the art to him. He merely transcribes it, therefore a wise poet never takes credit for his best work, lest he should court her wrath. Conversely, he must always be ready to accept the crap as his own.

But what happens if the poet, the artist or whatever, is a woman?

Male Muse-Goddess psychology is amply explained in the theories of Carl Jung, who would have termed her “Anima”, the divine feminine. It’s from Anima a man derives his wisdom, his inspiration, and his more intuitive faculties. When it comes to women though, I find Jung is less clear – her soul image being defined instead by an amorphous harem of male figures – which doesn’t sound very mystical and muse-like. But to stick with Jung for a moment, it’s through him the concept of the Muse, the Goddess, or even a belief in fairies is rendered accessible and relatively harmless to otherwise rational minds by a process of de-literalising and internalising.

Rather than devaluing such concepts however, Jungian psychology achieves the opposite, promoting the unconscious imaginal realms these daemonic creatures inhabit to a real, if hidden, collective dimension – or what in classical mythology might be called the Underworld. Jung thereby granted the Goddess a supernatural reality she’d not enjoyed since the banishing of the pagan gods by a stern, male-centric, Christianity.

Through our mythologies we see how many a powerful Goddess once influenced the world stage, and one might be forgiven for thinking both contemporary religion and rational secularism have banished her to such an abject obscurity only poets and other unreliable types still talk of her. But we should be careful, for it is through our own selves the old deities have always lived, and through our own irrational and so often inexplicable behaviour they still wield their mysterious influence in the world.

Thus it was in the middle of the twentieth century, the Goddess found herself reborn among a resurgent neo-pagan faithful, who have been quietly redefining the nature of mystical spiritualism under such banners as Wicca and Modern Witchcraft. And it is from among their ranks, some might argue, and some might even hope, she is earnestly plotting the rescue of both the Great Mother (earth), and humankind from ten thousand years of blood letting at the behest of the formerly all-powerful (and male) Sun God, and his equally misogynic demi-gods of War, Rape and Avarice.

The poet Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a vociferous champion of the Goddess, and in his book “The White Goddess” (1948) he claimed to have uncovered, by a process of linguistic analysis of ancient European and Greek myths, persuasive evidence for a Goddess-centric civilisation predating the classical period and stretching back into Neolithic times. The book was largely ignored by scholars who paused only briefly to point out it’s shortcomings and Graves’ embarrassing lack of authority on the subject. However, later work by archeologist and leading feminist Dr. Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), found persuasive evidence in support of Graves’ hypothesis.

It seems there are indeed enigmatic traces of a lost European culture – matriarchal, sophisticated in its industry, and possessed of some of the earliest known writing on the planet – dating to 4000 BC – possibly the equal of the Chinese in its documented antiquity. This old European civilisation, according to Gimbutas, also distinguished itself by having left no trace among its artifacts of any history of warfare, or weapons, suggesting a political philosophy of admirably passive coexistence, resulting in a society that was breathtaking for its multi-millenial longevity.

It has to be said, not withstanding the physical evidence, Gimbutas’ unashamedly feminist interpretation does not go uncontested. However, her thesis, presented in her book The Goddess and Gods of Old Europe (1974) along with Graves’ The White Goddess became essential reading for the feminist and Neo Pagan movements.

But whatever the evidence for her possible role as a Neolithic deity, what we can say for sure is that the Goddess-Muse constitutes an abiding pattern of psychic energy, one whose presence has always been a powerful force in creation. But to come back to my earlier question, given her voracious and vampire like appetite for men, what about women?

If the muse is possessed of such sexually desirable feminine attributes, how can a woman show sufficient devotion as befits art, without distorting her own sexuality? Do women poets, for example, have male muses instead? Can the muse even be conceived of in masculine terms? As a man myself I’m outraged at the very thought, so devoted and protective am I of the Muse-Goddess. Therefore, are only men and moon-struck Lesbians capable of writing decent love letters? And are not all love letters incantations to the Muse, rather than to the poor young lady in question, and on whose shoulder the Muse just happens to be sitting at the time?

These are provocative questions, and clearly I’ll need to tread carefully. Or perhaps not, for since women are every bit as capable as men of sublime artistic expression, the Muse, or the Goddess, is clearly working through them anyway, and we can define it however we like. Just because a woman is an artist it does not make her Saphically inclined, so what is the nature of her relationship with the Muse? And similarly if she aspires to the ranks of neo-pagan neophytes, how does she relate, spiritually, to the Goddess, given that the female psyche is wired so differently to the male? Ah,… I think there might be a clue here.

Graves addresses this enigma in The White Goddess, and I also see answers to it in the WordPress musings of neo-pagan adepts, a great many of whom of course are women. And of those women, a great many I note are also very young. This is interesting, for they are exposed to the same youth-targeted, and overwhelmingly consumerist distractions as others of their age, yet they draw something from the archetype of the Goddess they find uniquely empowering, uniquely capable of granting them the gift of transcendence. By this I mean that through the Goddess concept, they are capable of communing with the spirit, where so many of the godless, and even the nominally religious see nothing of the spirit at all, but instead a bland consumerist edifice where is written the somewhat cynical mantra of our times: “I consume, therefore I am”.

Graves, although a severe and curmudgeonly critic of faddish and pretentious poets, did not admonish women who dallied with the perils of poetic genius. Rather he urged women to recognise their essential femininity, and to write as women, and not to try to write like men whose vision and whose relationship with the muse, by dint of male psychology, is always going to be different.

So after all of that I think the answer slowly reveals itself. A man’s relationship with the Goddess-Muse is one of subservience. She is the dominatrix, sometimes cruel, but just sweet enough, and often enough, to hold the man in thrall. Sometimes dismissed by non-artists as the result of infantile male sexual fantasy, this is none the less how the Muse engages men and goes about her business. For the woman though it’s different. For the woman, the aim is never to court the Goddess, but rather to avail herself and, if favoured, then to be the Goddess. And therin lies the innate power of any woman, be it through her art or in the potential of her relationships with men.

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