Friday, 7 December 2007


Meet Demogorgon. Grotesque art is the antithesis of austere high culture: it is an art of unresolved conflict, abnormal ambivalence, polymorphic morphology, the macabre and the bizarre. The grotesque arises at the confluence of the absurd and the burlesque, black humour, caricature, hybridization and irony.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Poetry Is So Easy

Poetry is so easy these days – its blank verse for a blank generation – even so… All styles, from the fractured remnants of archaic stanza form to the modish Modernism of open field, ‘process’ and the like are available to the auteur. Pick-and-mix as you wish! But reject ever more sharply the vainglorious folie de grandeur of epic high seriousness. Embrace instead the cardinal virtues of the imagination – and what are they? Convulsive beauty, automatism, objective chance (phrases taken at random from a top hat), black humour (nothing is sacred), mad love (the amatory mode always appeals) and – no offence! – total freedom of expression. Oppose all the literary ideologies of the last four decades, put yourself on a collision course with ‘theory’, pour scorn on fashionable radical chic nonsense – it is hardly surprising, you might say, that the chattering classes of academia are fixated on language. We know that all the best work is off the radar.
Illustration: Beyond Writing, 1975 [detail]

Friday, 26 October 2007


Deathmasques was a collection of early writings: a few prose poems and tales from 1970-1973. 
The prose poems comprised six pieces: 'The Poet' (1970), 'No More Beauty' (1971), 'In the Palace of The Sphinx (The Supplicant)' (1972), 'Dream of Stone' (1972), 'Into The Abyss (The Renegade)' (1972) and 'Silence' (1973).
One felt that the prose poem was a particularly Decadent form. Also included were two macabre short stories 'Mute Witness' (1972) and 'We Vampires' (1972). Other texts from this period include chunks of experimental neo-gothic or modern fantastic fiction (mainly dreadful!) and various quasi-theoretical statements relating to art projects such as Crisis of the Object and Rictus Sardonicus.
Deathmasques story 'We Vampires' appeared in the anthology Haunting Tales (2008) and 'Mute Witness' from the same collection appeared in Monomyth # 44 Issue 8.2 (2008) both from Atlantean Publishing.
Illustration: Neo-Convulsive Self-Portrait 1973/2001

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Hermes Bird

The poet, through aloofness or detachment, fleetingly attained in reaction to the disgust provoked by the nigredo, the unregenerate night-world state, perceives how, divorced from everyday functions or associations, ordinary situations, objects, even people, may take on a magical perspective. They acquire an ephemeral, but nevertheless quintessential, glamour, or enchantment of absolute beauty. But, it will be seen that this ‘absolute’ beauty, this ‘threshold aestheticism’, is a coniunctio oppositorum, a union of opposites in the Hermetic sense. It contains not only the essential ‘gold’ of supernal beauty, but also a fearful purity of supernal horror – it is not only Naturalistic, but anti-Naturalistic – it is a force which consumes with a unique intensity. It is not only sublime, it is also of The Abyss. (from The Aesthetic Transformation of Perception, 1993)

Illustration: Dawn Voices/Hermes Bird, 1968

Friday, 12 October 2007

Veronica Lurk

Equivocal high priestess of Neo-Convulsive calligraphic automata, originator of the Enigma Scripts and their associated curiosa, scary femme-fatale Veronica Lurk personifies our erroneous zones – all our innate contradictions, aberrations and incongruities. Diva of Divergence and Digression, she is the very essence of everything gratuitous; everything anomalous and ambiguous; everything anachronistic, fortuitous, ‘off-centre’ and ‘off-the-wall’. Ms Lurk is the reification of singularity – even naked singularity. She is the Princess of Parody and the Patron Saint of Pastiche. As a familiar spirit of deviance and asymmetry, that irregular element always in the background, she embodies the consequences of indeterminacy, encapsulating the absurd in all its mutable, mutating, multifarious improbabilities. Known in Jet City as the Compulsive Beautician, Veronica Lurk is always extraneous – and completely unpredictable!
automatic drawing: Abra Cadavre #30 Veronica Lurk, 1973

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Arcanum Paradoxa

Ostensibly the forerunner of modern chemistry and usually considered a ‘pseudo-science’ Alchemy first emerged in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. At roughly the same time, a form of Alchemy associated with medicinal aspects of Taoism emerged in China.
The general objective of Alchemy was the creation, through transmutation, of some type of marvellous, quintessential substance, often considered a miraculous elixir, a panacea, for curing all ills, bestowing immortality or spiritual enlightenment.
Known as the art of Khemeia, Alchemy had its theoretical basis in metallurgy, Zoroastrianism, Stoic pantheism and Aristotle’s Four Element theory of matter. The first significant exponent of Alchemy was Bolos ‘Democritus’ of Mendes (circa 200BC) whose treatise, Physika et Mystica, dealt with dyeing and colouring, the creation of gems, silver, and the transmutation of metals, specifically the transmutation of lead or iron, into gold. One tenet of alchemical doctrine was that the prime matter (prima materia) or raw material of transmutation comprised the least valued, most disregarded, of all the elements. Common or ‘despised’ material, both ‘contemptible and precious’, formed the basis of The Work, the opus alchymicum.

There is a secret stone, hidden in a deep well, worthless and rejected, concealed in dung and filth... (Johann Daniel Mylius: Philosophia Reformata, 1622)

Khemeia did not flourish during the Roman era, as various Emperors, notably Diocletian, feared that the transmutation of base metals into gold would undermine economic stability. A notable exponent of the Work in later times was the mystic Zosimos of Panopolis (Akhmim) whose Hermetic Encyclopaedia (a 28 volume compilation of existing and original texts) is dated 300CE. However, as Khemeia was considered ‘pagan learning’, much ancient knowledge of the art was lost during the Christian riots in Alexandria in 400CE.
The Arabs revived interest in Khemeia in the seventh century, as part of a general fascination for Greek science and thought. In the Arabic language the word ‘Khemeia’ became ‘al-kimiya’ and it was this form of the word that became the European term ‘alchemy’.
To define Alchemy as a pseudo-scientific forerunner of modern, scientific chemistry is an oversimplification. From the earliest times Khemeia comprised a resonant, symbolic framework for imaginative speculation. This speculative aspect of the art soon overshadowed its ‘practical’ metallurgical objectives, leading to a well-deserved aura of obscurantism and uncertain interpretation.
In the period between Bolos and Zosimos, Holmyard observes, ‘alchemical speculation ran riot’ as diverse practitioners created a complex body of doctrine, ascribing symbolic meanings to the sequence of metallic colour changes, incorporating all contemporary strands of speculative thought into alchemical theory, including Egyptian magic, Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Babylonian astrology, Christian theology and pagan mythology.
Works of Khemeia were invariably couched in an ‘enigmatical and allusive language’ and often ascribed to semi-legendary or mythical authors such as Hermes Trismegistus, Plato, Moses, Miriam (the legendary sister of Moses), Agathodaimon, Theophrastus, Ostanes, Cleopatra and the goddess Isis. Thus, almost any contemporary, metaphysical speculation was assimilated into eclectic alchemical thinking: many sayings, stories and myths were endowed with alchemical interpretation, or incorporated into the Hermetic worldview.
By the Byzantine era Stephanos of Alexandria, a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who flourished during the reign of the Emperor Herakleios I (610-641), had come to view Khemeia as primarily a ‘mental process’. Following F. Sherwood Taylor, E. J. Holmyard quotes Stephanos’ denigration of practical alchemy as a "burden of weariness", observing that by this time (the seventh century) alchemy had ‘very largely become a theme for rhetorical, poetical and religious compositions, and the mere physical transmutation of base metals into gold was used as symbol for man’s regeneration and transformation to a nobler and more spiritual state’.
So, well before the rise of medieval European alchemy, the tendency to regard The Work as an internalised, psychic process or phenomenon was established. Khemeia could easily be dissociated from physical chemistry and metallurgy and defined as some kind of ‘spiritual’ discipline. Now, the objective was not the transmutation of external phenomena, but the transmutation of the adept himself, and this transformative process was expressed in an obscure, introspective, mythic vocabulary of symbols and complex terminology.
In modern times a fascination with alchemy as an internalised, mental process has been continued by the Surrealists and the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). During the inter-war years and roughly around the same time both Jung and the Surrealists claimed Alchemy as significant in their respective investigations:

…let us not lose sight of the fact that the idea of Surrealism aims quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory… (Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1930)

Jung and the Surrealists (particularly Andre Breton and Max Ernst) were operating against the backdrop of a revival of interest in alchemical symbolism in France and Germany. The works of Zosimos had been translated into French and published by Berthelot and Ruelle in 1887-1888. Herbert Silberer, who proposed a connection between alchemical thought and modern psychology, had anticipated Jung’s researches.
In France the Surrealists were influenced the alchemical novels of Francois Jolivet-Castelot and the esoteric writings of Fulcanelli and Grillot de Givry. De Givry drew attention to the hermetic influences at work in the art of painters like Bosch, Bruegel, Cranach and Baldung. Initially Andre Breton saw alchemical thought as a way of re-investing poetic language with a sense of mystery: this soon evolved into a more ambitious proposition, the deployment of an ‘alchemy of language’ to transform consciousness, and by transforming consciousness, change life.
On the other hand Jung’s interest in alchemy was triggered by an ancient Taoist text called The Secret of the Golden Flower translated by Richard Wilhelm and for which he wrote a commentary in 1929. As a result of this work he was motivated to research Western Alchemy, which he subsequently defined as ‘the historical counterpart to my psychology of the unconscious’, and a bridge between Gnosticism and the modern world.
The culmination of these explorations was Jung’s attempt to correlate the ‘transpersonal’ element of his psychological paradigm with modern physics. The ultimate acausal reality or, to use the medieval term, unus mundus, forming the underlying transformative matrix of alchemical processes, can be understood, he argued, as simultaneously both psychic and material. This underlying unus mundus is both the indeterminate universe of psychic symbols and the pre-geometric, ‘implicate order’ of high-energy physics.
At the heart of Jung’s Analytical Psychology is the process of Individuation or self-becoming. Individuation is a non-linear, centralizing developmental process culminating in an enhanced synthesis of the conscious and the unconscious spheres. This synthesis also incorporates a paradoxical harmonisation of contradictory elements, a union of opposites – including, for example, the masculine and feminine principles, the animus and anima – correlating with the alchemical coniunctio as symbolised by the hermaphrodite or androgyny.
Jung felt that elucidation of the opus alchymicum would shed light on the symbolic structure of the Individuation process, because the alchemist’s hope of creating philosophical gold was only a partial illusion: ‘for the rest it corresponded to certain psychic facts that are of great importance in the psychology of the unconscious.’
If the alchemists projected the process of Individuation into the phenomena of chemical change, then the same is true for the poet who, likewise, by a synthesis of automatism and active imagination, projects the same process into the phenomena of poetic (artistic) creation. He or she initiates a transmutation of the ‘prime matter’ of language into the aesthetic ‘gold’ of poetry.
Part of this process is a sustained regression into the sphere of the unconscious (the ‘dizzying descent into ourselves’ mentioned in the Second Manifesto) during which imprints of the individual’s psychological and biological development are uncovered in symbolic form. Thus, the alchemical process, by engaging with the Individuation process, establishes a psychobiological frame of reference for both psychological development and imaginative, poetic creativity (‘inspiration’).
Alchemy, viewed from the Jungian perspective, can be seen as a quest for inner psychic unity and wholeness (actualisation) achieved through a non-rational mode of self-knowledge. However identification of poetry (or perhaps the poem itself) with the alchemical arcanum paradoxa and defining poetic inspiration in the context of a psychobiological, existential substrate, highlights a conflict with conventional ideas tending to categorise writing and/or poetry, as ‘literature’.
Academic and other definitions of poetry as ‘literature’ displace the poetic act of imaginative creation from the interior psychobiological universe to the external world of cultural-linguistic structures where the preferred paradigm is communicative. Furthermore, the current ‘postmodernist’ cultural-linguistic aesthetic model presupposes that everything depends upon language and linguistics to the extent that ‘being’ itself becomes literally indefinable in non-semiotic, extra-linguistic terms. This inevitably inhibits understanding of artistic creativity as in innate psychoactive phenomenon effectively blocking access to sources of inspiration in the indeterminate quantum vacuum of the unus mundus.
The raison d’etre of the ‘literary’ paradigm is communication. In contradistinction, the raison d’etre of the ‘alchemical-surreal’ paradigm is transformation: transformation energised by inspiration, where ‘inspiration’ is defined in terms of psychic energy. In this paradigm of transformation the Jungian valuation of symbols (distinguished from ‘signs’) as ambiguous emanations of non-linguistic or extra-linguistic or even pre-linguistic being is a key factor.
For Jung the psychic presence of symbols (including ‘archetypal’ symbols) is always experienced as ‘numinous’, a categorical term he borrowed from the Kantian-Friesian religious thinker Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). Otto was seeking to extend or deepen the epistemological scheme of his predecessor Jakob Friedrich Fries. This scheme included the notion of Ahndung, a German term which can be translated as ‘aesthetic sense’. Otto expanded the meaning of Ahndung ‘beyond the merely aesthetic’ by introducing the category of ‘numinosity’, the alleged quality of the sacred.
Otto argued that numinosity is the prime characteristic of the collective experience underlying all religions. This experience can involve a sense of overwhelming power, the mysterium tremendum. The mysterium stands as the first cause of all ‘religious awe’, and, in certain respects, if one follows Jung in the matter, accounts for the sense of power and autonomy apparently exhibited by unconscious contents and symbols.
The association of archetypal symbolism with cross-cultural mythic imagery on the one hand, and Otto’s numinosity concept on the other, was one way that Jung, through his writings and researches, endowed psychological processes such as Individuation with ‘spiritual’ qualities. Part of the attraction of Jungian psychology is his overt identification of self-becoming, or personality formation, with the model of the spiritual quest, articulated through an all-pervasive symbolism shared with the alchemical magnum opus, other mystical belief systems or even mainstream theological precepts. As Anthony Storr explains, Jung was able to do this because he identified the integrated Self with an archetypal symbol of totality identical with the underlying reality of Judaeo-Christian monotheism, the imago Dei.
If the raw material of poetry is language, the essence of poetic practice is active imagination or artistic creativity. It is inevitable that imaginative creativity, in pursuit of inspiration, will engage with that innate process of psychological integration Jung called Individuation. From this perspective the poem may appear as a by-product of the process. For the poet, as for the alchemist, the psycho-activity of inspiration arising from the process of self-becoming is the prime factor. It is this psycho-active effect which dissolves the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious, exposing the subject to the autonomous ‘power’ of symbolic otherness, enhancing creative capability.
For many this dissolution is most satisfactorily defined as an ‘archetypal’, visionary, even mystical, experience. Indeed, for some, even the most wilfully mundane or blatantly secular poems can still radiate, however feebly, an aura of the ‘numinous’, investing the text with all the fascination of an alien artefact.
Grounding poetic practice in a fundamental, psychobiological, ontological matrix de-emphasises, even dissociates, ‘pure poetry’ from the cultural-linguistic epiphenomenal ‘foreground’ superstructure of modern ‘literary’ discourse. It is also the case that, contrary to Jung’s position, pro-active engagement with the principium individuationis from an aesthetic perspective may not accord with traditional ‘religious’ paradigms of human perfectibility or divine purpose.
Thus, the alchemical process of inner purification may well amount to a Promethean affront to doctrines of redemption and predestination. Then, the poet, like the alchemist of old, may stand accused of Faustian occultism – or even the heresy of the Free Spirit, interestingly defined by Vaneigem as ‘an alchemy of individual fulfilment’. The declaration of intent in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism to attain the ‘total recovery of our psychic force’ through a ‘systematic illumination of hidden places’ and excursions into ‘forbidden territory’ must be understood in the context of Romantic metaphysical revolt in the tradition of Miltonic Satanism, Byron and Sade. It is not an affirmation of the ‘spiritual quest’, or the unio mystica described as the supreme desideratum by Jung and other exponents of perennial, pan-religious syncretism.
Furthermore Jung’s identification of the integrated Self with any ‘divine’ reality or purpose is open to question in the post-religious context that is the present evolutionary situation of society. Primordial being may exert or radiate a ‘numinous’ attraction of otherness, or the subject may experience such an inspirational effect. It does not follow that experience of this effect is experience of the ‘sacred’. This is true, even if the effect or experience can be shown to be the result of a quasi-objective incursion of, or from, the unus mundus. Only those predisposed, perhaps by cultural conditioning, to a totalising ‘religious’ reading of fundamental experiences can promote such an interpretation without fear of contradiction. Again, if the raw matter of the procedure comprises the least valued, most disregarded, of all the elements, such common or ‘despised’ material. Stuff ‘of no price or value’ (Dyas Chemica Tripartita) will also form the basis of the poet’s Work. Such poetic work is unlikely to meet with approval from the custodians of cultural probity, the proponents of canonical, high-minded artistic or literary greatness.
Is the true poet an exceptional individual?
If the answer is yes, then poetry will reflect the compulsion of such individuals to seek their own path and forge their own identity through an oracular, alchemical poetry, which, like the ancient works of Khemeia, may well appear enigmatical and allusive to the uninitiated.
Digital art: Inner Alchemy III, 2001
Arcanum Paradoxa was published by Atlantean Publishing in The Monomyth Supplement 44, January 2009
Hermetic Art Gnostic Alchemy Of The Imagination (1985) on The Alchemy Website

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Dark Angel Prelude

This language was rather more than I could bear, even from an Angel - Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, 1 October 2007

Tortured Souls

If Decadence is an art of aesthetic nihilism, then Expressionism is an art of tortured souls.
One should not underestimate the influence of Lotte H Eisner’s comprehensive exposition of the cinematic dramaturgy of Expressionist film in her book The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Originally published in French as L'Ecran Demoniaque in 1952, Eisner’s seminal work was revised for its first English publication in 1969, a translation by Roger Greaves. Not only did Eisner explain the historical origins of a ‘predisposition towards Expressionism’ she also identified all of the main features of the movement, defining key ideas including Stimmung, the brooding, speculative reflection of Grubelei and the visual effects of shadowy chiaroscuro, effects that evoke the ‘twilight’ of the soul.
These, and other features were characteristics of an aesthetic tendency which, emerging in the paintings of Kirchner, Marc, Kubin, Klee and others around the period 1908-1910, formed a bridge between the final phases of nineteenth century Symbolism and the emergent avant-garde of the twentieth century. The Expressionist sensibility – all art is a matter of sensibility – is a sensibility that favours violent contrast, it cultivates a mode of ultra-dynamism finding its most extreme resolution in a climactic paroxysm.
Yet, another dimension of the same sensibility, or ‘interior vision’, can be understood as a type of super-stylisation where objects are not so much represented, but rather apprehended through a process requiring the accentuation of ‘latent physiognomy, a term used by the theorist Bela Balazs.
Expressionist intensity generates a paroxysmal vision close to a crystallisation of form, disclosing a hitherto unnoticed, mysterious realm of experience differentiated from other forms of experience by a telltale ambiguity, ‘both attractive and repugnant at the same time’. This ambiguous uncanny realm, positioned at the cultural confluence of the Gothic, the Baroque and the Romantic is the disquieting locality of those tortured souls whose psychic disposition may best be understood by combining the viewpoint of Freud with that of Hoffmann.
It was the basic proposition of The Haunted Screen that cinema – a medium at once concrete and visual – and the inter-war German cinema in particular, found ‘its true nature’ and its ‘ideal artistic outlet’ in the ethos of Expressionism as explained here. The most outstanding example of this distinctive film-dramaturgie (Balazs) is, of course, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari based on the book by Carl Meyer and Hans Janowitz and directed by Robert Weine in 1919. Here the Expressionist treatment is at its most extreme, and the style of acting is conditioned, not by psychological naturalism, but by the studio set design intended to evoke the ‘latent physiognomy’ of a small medieval town. The two lead actors, Werner Krauss in the role of the malign Dr Caligari himself, and Conrad Veidt playing Cesare ‘the sinister somnambulist’, managed to convey the desired mode of ‘bizarre exaltation’ and febrile energy that soon became known as Caligarism. It is known that Artaud admired Veidt’s portrayal of the somnambulistic agency of shadow, a performance that even today incarnates the very essence of catatonic horror – Cesare is an alien being ‘detached from his everyday ambience, deprived of all individuality, an abstract creature…’ who kills without motive or logic.
Moving with a particular and studiously executed gestural language through the artificial filmic environment of this paranoid scenario, and in jarring contradiction to the platitudinous realism of the rest of the cast (excluding Krauss), Veidt-Cesare embodies through his screen presence a new language of ‘reduced gesture’. His performance explores an almost linear theatrical formalism, echoing, to quote Eisner, ‘the broken angles of the sets’.
If Caligari himself is a nightmare incursion of malign, manipulative authoritarian power, it is Cesare, the agent of fate who exemplifies the notion of life as a kind of Gothic ecstasy of style. It is a style that, like the existential basis of Expressionism itself, ‘breaks the bounds of petty logic and causality’ and incarnates the immediate presence of the tortured soul.
Illustration: Cesare the Somnambulist (1994)

Friday, 28 September 2007

Crisis of the Object

Max Ernst paraphrased the classic postulate of Lautreamont as ‘the fortuitous encounter – upon a non-suitable plane – of two mutually distant realities’ (Inspiration to Order). Here, a fruit-drying machine replaces the notorious sewing machine; an analogous object (octopus) replaces the umbrella and the ‘non-suitable’ plane of the dissecting table is replaced by a desolate landscape – in the background? Maldoror. Revised from Crisis of the Object, Letter of Introduction, 1972.

Illustration: Crisis of The Object III The Ducassian Encounter, 1972

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Convulsion Revisited

It might be the case that the idea of Convulsion as a guiding principle arose during a rambling discussion triggered by a short, passing reference to the topic in Patrick Waldberg’s book Surrealism (1965). There may be those who recall taking part in such a discussion in 1967 and who may even remember the very place in Chelmsford where we met – a coffee bar in Duke Street opposite the Civic Centre and Public Library – the last time I looked it was still there. There may also be some who, even today, might recall how, in a crowded, smoky hostelry next to the railway station, the more formal notion of a BCI (Bureau of Convulsive Inquiries, or was it Investigations?) was mooted. Some might claim that such a thing actually existed – on paper at least.
And yet I recall most vividly that it was, in fact, in Villiers Street, near Charing Cross, in a restaurant long since vanished (there was shadowy corner lined with fake books) that the suggestion of a Convulsionist Group was proposed for the very first time. I only wish I could remember the name of the place, but I expect it was a Golden Egg, as the interior decor was elaborate and colourful. We can all agree, I think, that Convulsionism emerged in 1967 for the simple reason that the poem ‘Birth of Convulsion’ dates from that year and no earlier testimonials survive: for a very few the Summer of Love was also the Summer of Convulsion.
It was late afternoon when, walking towards Villiers Street, through the Victoria Embankment Gardens, I came across that embodiment of the Convulsive Aesthetic, or one sharply defined facet of such an aesthetic: the Sullivan Memorial by W. Goscombe John. It was ‘the mourning girl’; an allegory of music grieving for a dead composer that, at that epiphanic moment, caused a veritable frisson of the imagination. This mild shock evoked in turn a quotation from Rider Haggard’s She, which I am very sure read as follows:

…with a convulsive movement that somehow gave the impression of a despairing energy, the woman rose to her feet and cast the dark cloak from her.

It was natural that I then recalled the famous passage from Against Nature where Huysmans decibes Salome's gesture in Gustave Moreau's watercolour The Apparation:

with a gesture of horror, Salome tries to thrust away the terrifying vision which holds her nailed to the spot, balanced on the tips of her toes, her eyes dilated, her right hand clawing convulsively at her throat..

By word association I next recalled an amusing anecdote recounted in a book on Art Nouveau by John Russell Taylor which recorded how, when Burne-Jones admitted that he wished he had seen Blake’s Behemoth as a teenager, a friend exclaimed "My dear, you would have been carried off in convulsions!"
Obsessed with Decadence, I felt the sensual ‘wave-line’ of Art Nouveau, the frisson a l’unison of the ‘Cantique de Saint Jean,’ and certain details of Beardsley’s Salome drawings exemplified the notion of a Convulsive force in a manner that complimented Breton’s eloge du cristal, or Dali’s ‘The Phenomenon of Ecsasty’. Eine linie ist eine Kraft (‘a line is a force’) wrote Henry van de Velde in some forgotten artistic treatise published in the fin de siecle era. Here, I thought, was a kind of continuity, linking the ‘magnetic force’ of Rider Haggard’s awesome Queen of Kor with the Surrealist principle of Convulsive Beauty via the sinuous, ectoplasmic wave forms of Art Nouveau and the galvanic posture of an allegory of music as sculpted for the memorial before me. It was the birth of Convulsion from an allegory of music.
There were others that evening who, because they despised Dali, and for other reasons, argued that Ernst's ‘The Eye of Silence’ (currently on the cover of Ballard’s The Crystal World) and ‘The Robing of the Bride’ epitomised the true spirit of present day Convulsion in art. Together with the ‘secret festivals’ of Leonor Fini and the multiple perspectives of the ‘unconscious anatomy’ described by Hans Bellmer, it was, in the final analysis, Max Ernst who was the guiding light on our quest to become cartographers of 'inner space'. Notwithstanding the still-living presence of Elizabeth Siddal, who seemed, for at least one of us, a more than fleeting presence, Gothic Convulsion in art was exemplified by Rossetti’s absolutely uncanny ‘How They Met Themselves’ (his ‘bogey picture’) while some, even more ambitious, claimed Crivelli, Goya and even Leonardo (think of his crumbling, oracular wall), as precursors.
Yet another asserted the importance of the echoing spaces and voids depicted in Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (this, despite the anti-clericalism of Convulsion), or the tortured, Expressionist sprechstimme of Pierrot Lunaire, to show that Convulsion pervades the universe of music. Convulsion in music certainly existed, it was said, despite the intentions of composers who were, as we knew, often behind the times. Of course the ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan was always cited in such conversations together with some works by Varese and Bartok, while on other occasions, it was permissible to assert that ‘classical’ music (whatever that was) was no longer ‘it’. Quite rightly, to ‘get Convulsion now’, you should listen to ‘Rocket 69’ by Connie Allen, or The Doors’ ‘Horse Latitudes’/ ‘Moonlight Drive’/ ‘People Are Strange’ – well the whole album actually. Jimi Hendrix and his Experience was certainly Convulsive among the ladies, so were Tropicalia, Brian Auger and anything by Charles Mingus, but especially ‘Ysabel’s Table Dance’ from Tijuana Moods.
Above all, I thought of Wifredo Lam’s hieratic and sinister Altar for La Chevelure de Falmer exhibited in 1947 but not illustrated in Waldberg’s book, and certain images from a television programme called The Debussy Film (1965). It was an unquestioned axiom of dogma, a basic tenet of theory, that every utterance and written word by Antonin Artaud was ‘intrinsically Convulsive’ and ditto Marcel Duchamp. The same was true of every move and gesture by Conrad Veidt in the (‘totally Convulsive’) role of Cesare the Somnambulist or, more obscurely, as the eponymous student in The Student of Prague.
But of course, wishing, for obvious reasons, to elevate some film star or super-model to iconic status, most of us, inspired by The Phantom Of Sex Appeal, undoubtedly defined Convulsive Beauty in the context of ‘the internal (or, sometimes, ‘infernal’) feminine’. Candidates for this iconic role would include Charlotte Rampling for her portrayal of the doomed Elizabeth Thallman in Visconti’s The Damned (1968) or – very seriously – Fenella Fielding; and not just for her appearance as Valeria Watt in Carry On Screaming (1966). There was a positive mania for this kind of nomination with candidates ranging from Louise Brooks to Elsa Lanchester, Veronica Lake, Barbara Steele, Verushka, Jean Shrimpton, (not Twiggy) and Catherine Deneuve. One image, of the model Donyale Luna in Qui etes-vous Polly Maggoo?, became the ultimate icon, although a ‘Convulsive moment’ from Fortunata’s dance (Magali Noel in Fellini Satyricon) was also a close contender. At that time I had not seen a film called The Flesh and the Fiends or, without hesitation, I would have added the names of Billie Whitelaw to the list.
From very different perspectives there were other modes of Convulsion, including Lyrical Convulsion which was a style of ultra-decadent ‘Yellow Nineties’ poetry influenced by the naturalism of Arthur Symons, and Hermetic Convulsion requiring a knowledge of Alchemy but exclusively ‘under the poetic angle’. There were Convulsive Objects (instamatic cameras, cash machines, dictaphones, car stereos, audiocassette players), and Convulsive Places and Buildings (The Hellfire Caves, Museum Street, Centre Point, The Post Office Tower, Liverpool Street Station and Hungerford Bridge among others). Macabre Convulsion drew inspiration from Mervyn Peake's Fuschia Groan, Edgar Allan Poe and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, while Absurd Convulsion was definitely both Pataphysical (Faustroll, Ubu Roi) and contemporary – as in the ‘Convulsively funny’ dinner party from Carry On Up the Khyber (1968). Radio 1 was definitely not Convulsive at all, and neither was The Liverpool Scene. The Gernreich topless dress was Convulsive but Post-Painterly Abstraction was not – well, not usually. William Burroughs was ‘in’ but Jack Kerouac was ‘out’… and what about Union Jack sunglasses, and all those sort of things? Well, no, not particularly, even though floral or Op Art ties were sometimes worn to Convulsive parties or gatherings at Le Macabre, a coffee house in Meard Street, or the sordid wine-cellar of Dirty Dicks on Bishopsgate. While writing practice was often 'under guerrilla conditions' (cut-ups inspired by Nova Express), the ideal Convulsive fashion style avoided blue jeans and aspired to attain an Essex Exi-gangster look, via Warhol and the Velvet Underground.

An amalgam of Surrealism and Decadence with an element of the Mod-Pop axis mixed with pure fantasy, Convulsionism valued the imagination and automatism above everything – the ideal Convulsive 'moment' is always inadvertent. In their book Surrealism: Permanent Revelation (1970) Cardinal & Short said correctly:

Surrealism has established its own ‘aesthetics’ by defining beauty in terms of a purely affective response to phenomena.

That this ‘excitation of the nerves’ as Angela Carter defined the concept sometime later, was in fact an extension into the mid-twentieth century of the Decadent idea of the frisson nouveau or crise de nerfs was the clever but not necessarily original basis for the Convulsionist aesthetic. It was an aesthetic that flourished obscurely during the era known by some as 'that decade of convulsion', but, more specifically, The Swinging Sixties, and which, in the long term, I suspect influenced no one but myself.

Illustration: Cantique de St Jean, 1968

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Medium of Doubt

Collage, an ambiguous, complex medium of doubt, to quote Werner Spies, is an aesthetic of radical juxtaposition. In his personal treatise Beyond Painting (1947), Max Ernst, with reference to both Rimbaud, and the famous 'chance encounter' from Book 6 of Les Chants de Maldoror, defined collage as an 'alchemy of the image...' . However,the photomontage style of collage finds its origins in the work of the Berlin Dada Movement who in turn were inspired by the inadvertent imagery generated by early cinema special effects and the composite images of 'trick photography'. The term photomontage was invented by the Berlin 'monteurs', Raoul Hasmann and Hanna Hoch.
From the Freudian perspective it may be that collage exemplifies one of the two 'laws' governing the behaviour of unconscious processes or phenomena (such as dreams): the law of Condensation, or Compression, as it is also called. (The second 'law' is the law of Displacement.) Freud explained Condensation as the 'inclination to create new unities out of elements that we would certainly have kept separate in waking thought...' In 'The Enormous Face' section of his novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), J G Ballard refers to the 'planes of intersection' operative on 'a third level, the inner world of the psyche' where, as on other levels, such 'planes' interlock at oblique angles and where one finds 'fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies...'
Elsewhere is the same book Ballard asserts that images are born at the intersection of such planes, when 'some kind of valid reality begins to assert itself.'
Illustration: Psychic Citadel, 2002

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Elements of Transmission

In automatic drawing graphical lines represent transient trace elements of transmission along neural pathways.
In his text The Automatic Message (1933), Andre Breton explained Surrealism's role in the 'determinaton of the precise constitution of the subliminal' but he also acknowledged that the conditions which validate an 'automatic' text or drawing are insufficiently known. Previously (1916) Austin Spare had defined automatism as an 'organic impulse' produced when the mind is in a 'state of oblivion'. By this means, he said, 'senasation may be visualised'. Just as Surrealists argue that Freudian theory helps to disentangle automatism 'from the sphere of spiritualist mystification' (Rosemont) it may be possible, as an extension of this approach, to suggest that automatist spontaneity is a manifestation of a little-recognised principle of self-activation, or self-determination, that is an essential property of reality.

Illustration: Lucifer Rising, 2006

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

The Convulsionist Group

Could you tell me about the group you formed called The Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group?It is tempting to say we were just a group of alienated teenagers…! We formed the thing in 1967 and it only lasted until around 1971 or 1972. There were about five or six participants based in Chelmsford, Essex. Other places included Colchester, Ipswich and Witham… people used to meet in coffee bars after school – we were all sixth formers doing art or literature, mainly as a way of avoiding sport. The associations continued after everyone left school and tried to get jobs. Some poetry was written and experimental prose cut-up; atonal electronic music was composed and lots of paintings and collages produced. There were occasional expeditions or ‘pilgrimages’ to ‘displaced destinations’ such as the old Hungerford Bridge, the Victoria Embankment Gardens (for the Sullivan Memorial – 'very convulsive’), The Atlantis Bookshop, or the Dashwood Mausoleum and Hell Fire Caves at West Wycombe. But mainly there was a lot of loafing around, drinking coffee and snogging – or going to see Hammer Horror films and German Expressionist movies at the NFT. There was one exhibition at Hylands House – the exhibition was for all the school leavers but we managed to commandeer a room – as the Convulsionists were the general organisers of the show it was quite easy to get the space! We came up with the term ‘Convulsionism’ after the phrase ‘Beauty will be convulsive…’ (from Breton’s Amour Fou). I felt it implied the ‘visceral’ idea - my ideal work of art was to be a meaningless allegory generated by a kind of neurological spasm or frisson that could be transmitted to the viewer – well, if it gave me a frisson it might give you one as well. One old policy document (called To Be Continued) from my archive says: "CONVULSION IS CONCERNED WITH THE BEAUTY OF PURE IMAGINATION AND FANTASY AND IS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED TO CONTRAPTON IN ANY FORM" (To Be Continued: Convulsively Produced Notes On Convulsion, 1968). Earlier, I mentioned some key influences… I should add the Lost Generation to the list – the Francophile ‘Yellow Nineties’ Decadent poets and artists (Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson et al) and, also, the ultra-Symbolist absurdism (as we saw it) of Laforgue and Alfred Jarry – we were quite keen on ‘Pataphysics as I recall… There was some empathy with English Pop Art, so we rather revelled in the Mass Media – Pop Music (The Doors, Brian Auger), Jazz (Indo Jazz Fusions, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus), Science Fiction and ‘cult TV’. It was ironic that the real Surrealists had disbanded themselves in 1966 so we settled for being Neo-Surrealists!
(from the Neon Highway Interview with Jane Marsh, 2006)

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Daughter of Night

This is Nemesis Daughter of Nyx (Night) another early work from the CygnusX Archive. The drawing dates from 1966 and is clearly inspired by Aubrey Beardsley and the large exhibition of his work organised that year by Brian Reade (1913-1989) at the Victoria & Albert Museum. In his catalogue introduction Reade wrote of Beardsley: 'he belongs with the artists of night, not with the artists of day...' . Together with Kenneth Clark (whose article in the Sunday Times Supplement was called 'Out of the Black Lake'), Brian Reade was chiefly responsible for the Beardsley Boom of 1965-1969. This figure of Nemesis, according to one authority, a personifation of 'righteous anger', is a pastiche; it combines an incongruous ancient Egyptian influence with Beardsley's 'Japonesque' manner. To this day Beardsley remains the epitome of aesthetic dandyism; his work exemplifies not only the grotesque nature of Decadence - but also its style and elegance.

'If I am not grotesque, I am nothing' - Aubrey Beardsley

Illustration: Nemesis, 1966

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Guardian of the Threshold

The ‘descent’ or ‘inverse pilgrimage’ (katabasis) is fraught with anxiety, obstacles and difficulties. This experience assumes the character of an ordeal – an ascesis, even – realised through ‘rites of passage’ comprising three known stages: separation – initiation – return. During this process the subject will encounter or confront uncanny horrors and paranoid connections. These terrors may include resurgent atavisms (the phylogenetic inheritance), pathological forces, every form of self-violation (mortificatio) and shadowy, chthonic ‘elementals’ – all characterised by a ubiquitous undertow of archaic nostalgia. The subject is exposed to all the underworld horrors of personal and collective unconscious contents (the 'inferno') and other phantasmagoria – such as tutelary ‘threshold guardians’ – derived, in the final analysis, from psychic formations known as ‘archetypes’. (from the Unique Zero Manifesto 2002-2007)
The picture features a computer manipulated detail from an early collage called 'The Guardian of the Threshold' (1969)
There can be lttle doubt that this Guardian - in part a reification of the artist's Shadow - is also one of those Hungry Ghosts, or, perhaps, a sub-species of that class of entity named The Dweller On The Threshold by Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

From the Archive

There are a few pencil sketches from 1966 in the archive. This rough drawing of The Temptation of St Anthony is probably the earliest. No doubt this frenetic, proto-convulsive figure is really a Damned Poet struggling with his or her inner demons - the first example of a continuing theme.

Illustration: The Temptation of St Anthony, 1966

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Vespula Dreaming

Here is a recent work. Perhaps it is an illustration for a very Decadent poem... Do you have a mystic sister?

Illustration: Vespula Dreaming, 2007

Friday, 17 August 2007

The CygnusX Archive

The CygnusX Archive is a growing digital collection. There are currently 1575 items in the archive of which over 1400 are original artworks. The earliest items in the archive date from 1966. These are grouped into a collection called Within The Glass (1966-1969), the first book of Collected Pencil Drawings, and a small group of miscellaneous uncollected works from 1967. There is also a small, growing collection of documents and diagrams of various kinds. Another section of the archive includes research information and biographical material relating to the Convulsionst Group, The Ultrasphere, publications and various small press interests that have devloped over the years.

' is an outlet toward regions which are not ruled by time and space' - Marcel Duchamp

Friday, 10 August 2007

Welcome to CygnusX

This is the constellation of Cygnus the swan distinguished by the brilliant star Deneb or Alpha Cygni: the energy source object CygX-1 was discovered here in 1965. In 1973, after the Uhuru Mission, CygX-1 was confirmed as the first Black Hole, sinister companion to the star HDE226868.

H P Lovecraft refers to Cygnus, with Deneb 'twinkling above the others' in his tale of alien incursion The Colour Out Of Space. In Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsys, the scientists Dr Valentine Pilman locates the origin of the Visitation Zones 'somewhere along the Earth-Deneb line'. The point of origin is known as The Pilman Radiant.

The cosmic Black Swan is also the The CygnusX Blogspot radiant, a continuing point of reference for current works and projects; for notes, observations and comment; for random incongruities and improbable juxtapositions. Occasional progress reports, featuring back-catalogue items from the CygnusX Archive will also appear from time to time...

Astro Black Morphologies/Astro Dub Morphologies 
Deep Space Poetics from CygX-1 by Flow Motion (2005)