Archive for September, 2013


‘To rescue the intoxication of cosmic experience’: Remembering Walter Benjamin

September 29, 2013

A bit of a subdued end to our time in Amsterdam – the last full day on the 27th. Thoughts of returning to the grind and good things running their course, I suppose. I wonder whether this sad anniversary added to the general mournfulness:

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Benjamin was temporarily interned in the French “concentration camps” established for German citizens. On his release a few months later he returned to Paris and there continued his work in the Bibliothèque Nationale on The Arcades Project. The notes for his unfinished research were left in the safekeeping of librarian and friend, the writer Georges Bataille, as Benjamin fled Paris before the advancing German army in the summer of 1940. The last few months of Benjamin’s life reflect the precarious experience of countless other Jewish Germans in Vichy France: a flight to the border and preparations for emigration by legal or illegal means. Lacking the necessary exit visa from France, he joined a guided party that crossed the Pyrenees in an attempt to enter Spain as illegal refugees. Turned back by customs officials, Benjamin took his life in the small, Spanish border town of Port Bou, on September 27, 1940.

(Taken from here:

Walter Benjamin

This entry from Benjamin’s diary of 1938 registers a sense of foreboding:

March 6. On recent nights I’ve had dreams that remained deeply engraved in my day. Last night I dreamed I had company. Friendly things came my way; I believe they consisted primarily in women taking an interest in me — indeed, even commenting favorably upon my appearance. I think I remember remarking aloud that now I probably wouldn’t live much longer — as if this were the last display of friendship among people bidding one another farewell.
(Cited by Tom Clark on this blog).

I’d actually taken a sheaf of photocopies to read in Amsterdam, including a copy of this article on Benjamin’s On Hashish. As the author, Scott J. Thompson, observes:

The writings on hashish, opium and mescaline by critic, philosopher, and aesthetician Walter Benjamin provide an antidote to the cognitive straightjacket placed on aesthetic experience by Lukács. On the other hand, Benjamin considered his visionary experiments as a utopian prelude to a worldwide messianic upheaval.

S. J. Thompson 2000 ‘From ‘Rausch’ to Rebellion: Walter Benjamin’s On Hashish & The Aesthetic Dimensions of Prohibitionist Realism’. The Journal of Cognitive Liberties, Vol.1:2, pp. 21-42, retrieved 17/06/2003.

Gershom Scholem summarises Benjamin’s contribution as a test subject in psychopharmacological research in his essay, ‘Walter Benjamin and his Angel’: ‘to rescue the intoxication of cosmic experience that the human being of antiquity possessed for the proletariat in their coming seizure of power’.

In his later years, the dreamscape of the Parisian Arcades became the urban setting for Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk, exploring the Paris of surrealist revolution, searching for prospects of profane illumination. This monumental work, published in English as The Arcades Project, survived because Benjamin’s friend, Georges Bataille, hid the mountain of papers from which it was composed as the Nazis occupied Paris. The quest to discover the liberatory energies locked up in everyday life remains current.


Eugene Atget Femme 1925



Magic and the Art of Leonora Carrington

September 28, 2013

Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s fascinating paper at the Enchanted Modernities conference, ‘Leonora Carrington and the Occult’, deliberated on the nature of Carrington’s debt to esoteric speculation or occultist practice. He presents her ‘stubborn unwillingness’ to explain occult references in her work, an attitude consistent with the feeling that the world of visual experience ‘just happened to her’, eluding rational explanation. Such experience is resistant to the kind of close textual analysis expected of literary works.


Hanegraaff’s paper devolved to two avenues for future research. First, to know more of Carrington’s actual experience of visionary realities, which included a lifelong propensity to see otherworldly entities. Secondly, to learn more of her actual readings of esoteric texts and to establish a chronology of those readings, so as to trace any parallel allusions in her paintings and other works. This is a very interesting proposition, though I wonder how far such an approach would analyse the life out of an art  that has a spontaneous vitality, that ‘just happened to her’.

Notwithstanding my ambivalence about such an analytical approach, I include here a reproduction of Leonora Carrington’s Litany of the Philosophers (1959). On the centre of the wall she places an occult symbol, a seven-pointed star which I take to be a representation of ‘the Seal of Babalon’ or ‘the Star of Babalon’, symbolising the ‘Scarlet Woman’ of Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic magick. By her use of this symbol I assume Carrington had at least a passing acquaintance with Thelemic magick, either through her own reading or through her associations.

star of babThere’s also a retrospective on Carrington’s work, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, called The Celtic Surrealist. Details here


Odysseus Lashed to the Mast

September 22, 2013

An online search for an image of Odysseus – lashed to the mast of the ship to resist the dangerous allure of the songs of the Sirens – led me to this picture.


I’ve no idea who did it, but it is an illustration to this article, ‘Anti-Odysseus’, which draws inspiration from a primordial Dionysian current against the poverty of a life of unspoken despair under the rule of Law. The deprived existence which this Greek-language article addresses is more fundamental than, though coincident with, the material austerity imposed as part of the ‘debt crisis’ in Greece. However, against these different forms of poverty, its motto ‘is not the makropolitiko interest of a sick society’, the wealth management of utilitarianism, but ‘the completeness of the subject’, ‘intensifying the sidelined desirable and reinventing the human person born for enjoyment’.  Through the warped optic of its automatically-generated English translation, the blog as a whole is a hypnotic blend of portentous Deleuzian mysticism, deepened by the main image of what appears to be the ‘Peacock Angel’ (revered by a pre-Christian and pre-Muslim sect called the Yezidi, in northern Iraq). Phrases like ‘prismatic subjectivity’ (presumably, in contrast to the bounded subject seated in the ‘egotistiko throne of Ithaca’) permeate the text, wherein ‘all sides comes the Dionysian laughter, no reason to tame playful activity under the requirements of homogenised Law’. I’m really not sure what to make of it all. It’s interesting, though disconcerting, reading…


Odysseus and Calypso
Max Beckmann



Je lève, tu lèves, nous rêvons – I rise, you rise, we dream

September 16, 2013

Je lève tu lèves nous rêvons (I rise, you rise, we dream)

Peinture-mot/Word painting

Asger Jorn and Christian Dotremont (1948).



A Garment of Gold with Red: a Dream of Lost Lovers

September 16, 2013
Gold and Red - Cretan Embroidery

Cretan Embroidery: Exactly the colours that featured on a garment in a dream yesterday morning

Rownest Wood Lane, heading towards Woodmancott. It’s raining.

Unseen, but known of, the two young lovers had disrobed together and left the building ‘to walk in the woods’.

Not seen for five days…

Happen along in the rain. A hive of activity at ‘the building’ – like a school: flat-roofed, one-storey, grey brick – ‘GLC estate architecture’. Out of place in the fields and hedgerows, with woodland within walking distance.

Major police incident. Missing persons. A search party is being organised.  Just passing but decide to join.

Someone holds up and shows the garment ‘she’ left behind… a ‘kimono’ – gold ground with bright-red decoration.

A throng of keen old ladies. See-through polythene overalls handed out to the willing volunteers.

File out into the rain, clutching plastic…

“The phone’s ringing!”

alchemy lovers




Goose (after Jorn)

September 15, 2013

Goose (after Jorn)

Simon Crook

Goose (after Jorn)

Red Biro on scrap A4 paper

Sometime after October 2000.

           ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I rediscovered this pen drawing today while trying to sort through piles of papers. It was an attempt to imitate the style of Asger Jorn (1914-1973) to show my wife what I was trying to describe in words – the way living forms can emerge from what seems like nothing more than a random tangle of lines. It didn’t have a title before today. The date on the bottom right corner gives a terminus post quem for this hastily dashed off ‘scribble’.

I suppose the style I had in mind was something like this:

 JORN (Asger). Luxury Paintings. Catalogue de l'exposition à Londres chez Arthur Tooth & Sons du 30 mai au 24 juin 1961. Plaquette in-8, broché, 26 planches en noir et blanc. Texte de Lawrence Alloway (l'inventeur quelques années plus tôt du terme " Pop Art "). Avec une lithographie originale (23 x 35,5) en couleurs de Jorn constituant la couverture. Druckgrafik, 228.

JORN (Asger). Luxury Paintings.
Catalogue de l’exposition à Londres chez Arthur Tooth & Sons du 30 mai au 24 juin 1961. Plaquette in-8, broché, 26 planches en noir et blanc. Texte de Lawrence Alloway (l’inventeur quelques années plus tôt du terme ” Pop Art “). Avec une lithographie originale (23 x 35,5) en couleurs de Jorn constituant la couverture. Druckgrafik, 228.







‘in the lazily eye of his lapis’: A Dream and a Dish from a Stavanger Charity Shop

September 14, 2013

‘Irise, Osirises!’ (FW 493.28)

On 3rd September I bought an unusual-looking little, shallow dish in a charity shop in Stavanger, Norway. It was obviously hand-thrown, perhaps from a local craft pottery, with an eye-catching combination of deep blues (suggestive, if not indicative, of lapis lazuli), gold, brown, splashes of red and flecks of white. These colours are combined with good effect to focus the gaze on an ovoid motif at the centre, which resembles an eye. As such, it is reminiscent of ‘the Eye of Horus’, a sacred Egyptian symbol, seen below on this depiction of the cow goddess, Hathor, in the recension of The Book of the Dead known as the Papyrus of Ani. Ani, interestingly enough, is the anonymous scribe who writes ‘the leaves of the living in the boke of the deeds’ (FW 13.30-31) of Finnegans Wake (Mark L. Troy’s Mummeries of Resurrection is the most thorough study of the Wake‘s rehearsal of the Egyptian mysteries). In the exclamation, ‘Irise, Osirises!’ (FW 493.28) both the opening of the eye (the iris) and the reawakening of the god are suggested… but I’m getting ahead of myself.


Actually, however, I picked the dish up partly because it connected with a disconcertingly strange dream I’d had a couple-or-so days before. The dream revolved around a slightly grubby, cracked saucer, the sort left over from a lost tea service, that people would use to put plant pots on on the window-sill or by the back door, with the characteristic accumulated, earthy, tide-marked encrustation of many waterings. In the dream this mundane saucer was a magical and dangerous object, much like the four treasures brought back to the grimy streets of 1960s Manchester from the otherworld of Elidor by the four children in Alan Garner’s novel of the same name. Here, a spear becomes a rusty iron railing; a sword becomes two bits of snapped lath nailed together; a goblet becomes a cracked cup, and so on… Charles Keeping’s illustration from Elidor (lifted from here) shows well the transformative spectrum of the marvellous and the mundane.


A distinguishing  – and sinister – feature of the dream saucer, which had somehow been passed into my hands, was the fact that the concave surface of it was caked with dried blood – suggested in the red and brown pigment on the Stavanger dish. Two interpretations of this surfaced in the dream. The first, that it was the vessel of ‘the blood of the saints’, borne by the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation. This figure is celebrated in the Thelemic Magick of Aleister Crowley as Babalon. In the dream, it was with mounting distress that my wife tried to stop me putting water in the saucer to ‘enliven’ the contents, as if by doing so some uncontrollable power would be awakened. As I drifted towards waking consciousness, another interpretation presented itself: that the saucer in fact contained the menstrual blood of Mary Magdalene…


C.C. Askew’s depiction of Babalon, as retrieved from here.

So far, so freaky. The apocalyptic ambience of the Babylon/Babalon theme was doubtless influenced by news reports of the escalating spiral of war-like rhetoric surrounding the dreadful bloodbath in Syria, with the attendant threat of world war. Perhaps also there was a foreshadowing of Molly Bloom’s birthday on the 8th September (a profane reflection of the Virgin Mary’s birthday) and her eight-sentence soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, in which she muses upon her menstrual flow, amongst other mundane things, as she sits on the chamber pot. The following extended quotation from The Irish Ulysses coincides very well with the convergence of dream, myth, magic, history, life and art, described above, and – ‘in the lazily eye of his lapis’ (FW 293.11) – it is a lazy way for me to round out this post:

Molly Bloom… takes her place in the long line of Irish euhemerized goddesses. Indeed, the way Molly’s character is poised between mythic and realistic components itself recapitulates almost perfectly the presentation of most of the great female figures of early Irish literature, particularly as presented in the sources Joyce would have known. The female figures take their place fully in a historical context, yet their characters are informed by mythic patterns. The most striking and well known example of this sort is Medb of Cruachan, the queen of Connacht and leader of Ulster’s enemies in Táin Bó Cúailnge. Many aspects about Medb—from her name, which means ‘the intoxicating one’ (connecting her with the ale of sovereignty), to her wide onomastic connections, to her history in one text of having a long series of husbands —indicate that she is the euhemerized Sovereignty of Tara who has been translated to Connacht, yet she is localized in one specific temporal period and treated as a historical figure in the text of Táin Bó Cúailnge itself.

Celtic myth provides many parallels to Molly’s urination and menstruation, symbols that are central to the linked destructive and procreative powers of Celtic mother goddesses. Charles Bowen (“Great-Bladdered Medb”) has argued that menstruation and urination in early Irish literature are both centrally connected with the powers of the Celtic mother goddesses. The blood of menstruation, the literal demonstration of female fertility and the female life force, is one reason the goddesses were connected with bloody war. Bowen connects urination, by contrast, with the life-bringing powers and creative fertilization of water—rain, rivers, and amniotic fluid. Bowen sees this water symbolism as linking the territorial or Sovereignty goddesses with the Celtic river goddesses. The dual symbolism of blood and urine is found at the end of Táin Bó Cúailnge, where Medb fills three lakes with her fúal fola, literally her ‘urine of blood’ or her ‘bloody urine’ (C. O’Rahilly 133).

These elements of blood and urine are also central to the portrait of Molly in Ulysses since Molly produces a large volume of mixed menstrual flow and urine (18.1104–48), and they connect Molly with the Irish river goddesses. Frank Budgen pointed in this direction as early as 1934, when he described Molly’s monologue in terms of a river: “Marion’s monologue snakes its way through the last forty pages of Ulysses like a river winding through a plain, finding its true course by the compelling logic of its own fluidity and weight” (Making of “Ulysses” 262). It is not simply that the monologue represents “the displacement to language of her urinary and menstrual flow,” a kind of mental punning on the body, as Mark Shechner (217) would have it. Rather, Molly’s bodily flow and fluid language are both part of her mythic nature as Joyce has delineated it in Ulysses; they are counterparts and complements to the earth-goddess aspects of her portrait. The circularity of Molly’s soliloquy, which begins and ends with “Yes,” is more than a counterpart to her nature as earth goddess, a sign of her as the “huge earth ball slowly . . . spinning” (Letters 1:170); this circularity is also one facet of Molly as a river deity. Joyce matured and perfected the image of Molly as river goddess in the figure of ALP in Finnegans Wake; but as in Finnegans Wake the circularity of Molly’s speech should be related to the continuous cycle of the waters running from cloud to rain to river to sea to cloud again.

… All these considerations indicate that what appears to be a touch of naturalism in Ulysses —Molly’s chamberpot sequence, complete with the emphasis on the volume of her urine and the beginning of her period—has its place in the mythic framework of Joyce’s early Irish prototypes.

Maria Tymoczko 1997 The Irish Ulysses Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 111-112


In its deep blue – redolent of the lapis lazuli pigment used in mediaeval iconography to depict the Virgin Mary – and earthy, red decoration, the little dish from Stavanger reflects and condenses these overlapping, simultaneously elevated and fundamental themes, as real in the realm of Morpheus – ‘The Morphios’ (FW 142.29) – the dream narrative of Finnegans Wake, as in the unbounded consciousness that integrates word and world, individual and cosmos: ‘a maryamyriameliamurphies, in the lazily eye of his lapis’ (FW 293.10-11), where ‘the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever’ (FW 19.35-36).