I forgot to post this when it was published last week, so here’s my Aeon piece on the Snark, nonsense and reality.
I wrote this essay for publication in Nicholas Johnson‘s catalogue for his upcoming show, Inns of Molten Blue. It was such a pleasure to collaborate with a visual artist, especially one whose interests and influences correlate so intensely with mine. I am very excited about seeing the catalogue in print; his work is strange and beautiful and it will be a wonderful document in its own right. The title of this piece is from Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and it pops up later on too, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to namedrop him in the text.
Once upon a time, we would have spent much of our leisure , or what leisure we had, lying beneath a tree, or perhaps sitting with our back imprinted into the base of its trunk, our legs extending out along its roots, looking. Looking or dozing or gazing, in the psychic twilight edgelands of waking, in the thinning of the veil between worlds, for other sorts of things could be seen if you looked long enough.
Other worlds lay beyond this place, but perhaps they were only ever ways of seeing, otherworlds of being in the same place when the mode of its cognition had shifted for a time. All things can become strange given time. Beyond their surface, and the words we use to denote it, all things are very strange indeed.
The Victorian philologist and comparative theologian Max Müller famously described mythology as a ‘disease of language.’ What he meant by this was that language, as it developed into an ever more sophisticated and specific way of naming things, made them less strange, less big, less alive. It made things into things. In the very early language of the Vedas, words made broad fluid brush strokes of meaning, so that the shifting and metaphorical nature of what it is to view the world outside was not excised.
The disease of language was really a disease of things. The problem was that the strangeness and aliveness of things resisted words. They came to life another way, by animating the words themselves into a new and cartoonish pantheon of beings. The words became gods, Eos and Chaos; the netherworlds of non-ordinary experience became Faerie, and then fairies. Animism – the belief that all things possess, or are possessed by, a spirit – arose out of a cognitive bias.
The gods, Müller wrote, were ‘nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors.’
Something was afoot. Something in the human mind resisted the dryness of things. It bored through their surface and the names by which they were denoted.
Some things were more resistant to thingness than others. Müller created a taxonomy of tangible, semi-tangible and intangible objects in which the insistent vigour of life sounded louder up the hierarchy.
‘Some objects, such as stones, bones, shells, flowers, berries, branches of wood, can be touched, as it were, all round. We have them before us in their completeness. They cannot evade our grasp. There is nothing in them unknown or unknowable, at least so far as those are concerned who had to deal with them in early days.’
Semi-tangible objects carried a mysticism correlating to their scale: ‘even a tree,’ Müller wrote, ‘at least one of the old giants in a primeval forest, has something overwhelming and overawing. Its deepest roots are beyond our reach, its head towers high above us. We may stand beneath it, touch it, look up to it, but our senses cannot take it in in one glance.’ For ancient people, ‘something went beyond the limits of their sensuous knowledge, something unknown and strange, yet undeniably real; – and this unknown and unknowable, yet undeniable something, became to the more thoughtful among them a constant source of wonderment. They could lay hold of it on one side by their sense, but on the other it escaped from them – “it fell from them, it vanished.”’
The intangible objects – those that could be identified by sight but not touched, like the sky, the sun, the dawn – were those most prone to godliness. Awe correlated to scale. To stand before a mountain was to stand ‘in the real presence of the infinite’, and the infinite was either God, or the noumenon, or both.
The indefinite was the gateway to the infinite: where something evaded meaning, or evaded being pinned down in language or at first sight, provoking further consideration, the magic of being could be found. Enchantment was an indefinite exercise, playing in the margins of perception.
Müller had a lifelong admiration for Kant, which led him to translate an English edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. He maintained, however, that there was one adjustment lacking in Kant’s metaphysics. Between the phenomenal perception of the individual and the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves, which defied human experience, there could be an intermediate mode of apprehension, aistheton.
Aistheton was the human faculty to acknowledge that there was more going on beyond the surface of perception; that beyond the horizon of our detailed vision of a thing lay its indefinite nature, and beyond that the infinite. Müller’s error was to ascribe the ability to glimpse the infinite to a particular scale: the demigods of tree and river, the celestial bodies of sun and moon.
If we cannot find the same strange intimation of life beyond the frames of our understanding when looking at a leaf or berry, so that behind the veins and hue and particular geometries of a leaf was something unknowable and alive in its unknowability, perhaps we are not looking closely enough. Perhaps we have forgotten what it is to gaze without imposing prior judgements, until our frenzied application of things begins to melt away into something more indefinite, and we can start to look, and to actually see, again.
The infinite is always there, all around us, immanent in all the things we could see if only we were able to stop naming them as things. It is the infinite domain of the beyond-us, and it does not need to be brought to life as an unreal god, or gods, and it does not need to be named as the infinite.
John Duns Scotus, medieval theologian and Subtle Doctor, described the infinite as ‘a measure of intrinsic excellence that is not finite.’ To ascribe perfection to a finite object was mistaken, for the perfection of the divine was found instead in infinity, which is an intrinsic part of being. The infinite did not exist as some separate ghost-entity beyond material things, but within them.
Concealed in the tangle of the forest beyond the church were moments of infinite perfection to be replicated by the hands of men inside, who adorned them with foliate heads of oak and berried hawthorn and other imagined perfections: fleur-de-lys and waterleaf, and the fruits of otherworldly lilies.
Manuscripts grew tendrils, animated by whole vine-life ecologies of real and imagined plants, beasts, birds. The unruly irrepressible indefinite of life kept creeping into human words, growing beyond its borders into human texts, announcing its own landscape in the human mind.
When we look at small things, something arises in their liveliness. It, whatever it is, for like the small things it is resistant to being fixed down, moves within them, making them indefinite. You can hold the small thing but you cannot suppress the uncontainable truth of its aliveness when it lives, unless you kill it, and to kill it is to enact a violent discomfort about its life. Its aliveness buzzes with intention. Even small things that were once alive – Müller’s shell or berry – is a document, an arche-fossil, of its former self.
If we find the indefinite and unpredictable magic of intention in things, it breaks our sense of thingness and usually results in an accusation of anthropomorphism. To impose consciousness onto other things, like plants or insects or water, is to impose our human frame of being onto something quite unlike ourselves.
It is an odd accusation, underpinned by its own fallacious anthropomorphism, in which consciousness or will or mind or whatever we imperfectly name it must be the same sort of consciousness or will or mind that we possess. There is a lurking tautological maxim in which mind cannot be non-human because mind is human that sits, unexplored, in the darkness of modern assumptions about things.
Things that are not like us do not have a mind. Things that are like us have a mind. God is like us, a named enminded man in the ether, because he has a mind and we have a mind, but things that are not like us are not like God. They are merely arrangements of dust.
Perhaps it is more comfortable not to lie beneath the tree. Perhaps it is more comfortable not to rest in the bizarre and mindbending alienness of plants and fungi and bees, because there is simply too much strangeness in there.
Edwin Abbott Abbott’s novel Flatland is sometimes considered the first piece of science fiction for its multidimensional thought experiments, but it is primarily an allegory: a tale of geometry, of axioms and how to break them, and of the mimetic illusions of the mind.
It tells the story of the Square, a contented member of the regular bourgeoisie in a two-dimensional world ruled by hierophant Circles. One night the Sphere arrives from a third dimension. At first, the Square does not understand what the Sphere is, appearing as it does first as a dot and then as a growing entity whose curvature indicates circularity but of no fixed size. He is discomforted by the apparition. In time, the Sphere communes with him and he with the Sphere, and the Sphere takes him to see Spaceland.
Upon the Square’s return, the frames of his understanding exploded by the possibility of multiple dimensions and driven by a desire to share the knowledge he accrued in his strange experience, he is imprisoned as a madman or a heretic, for they are close cousins.
Whether it is a geometric heresy against the parallel axiom or a theological heresy against certainty, to speculate an otherworld is to engage in a heresy against the world we think we know. In that act of speculation, of imaginative invention, we access new worlds beyond the mind’s old frames. The most terrifying heresy is the possibility that they might be true.
To learn from a tree was to learn from another dimension, and other dimensions were strange and fearsome places whose magic operated on its own principles, and the worlds within them were infinite and unknowable. Sometimes, there were heretics who lived on the far edge of town and took their wisdom from the trees, and they would consume parts of the tree and take it into themselves, so that the tree would become them and they the tree.
Sometimes, the whole town would be complicit in this flirtation with the vegetable otherworld. Sometimes, on May morning, the young girls would go out into the dawn and sip the dew of roses, so that the beauty of the rose might transfer itself onto them for the day of the flowering and the dance.
The flowering boughs of Beltane and northern Midsummers brought the dance from the plants into the human realm, and the insistent life-beat of the plants would drum its way into the human dance, forging new couplings and bringing forth new human lives.
The infinite is remarkably easy to find with a little patience. It has a habit of expressing itself in both expected and unexpected ways. Sometimes, it announces itself by way of the indefinite in resisting description. Sometimes, it reveals itself in strangeness. Sometimes, it reveals itself in patterns.
Patterns have an odd tendency to repeat themselves across scales. We can call them archetypes or tropes or memes, depending on the texture of our cognition. The patterns of Dreamtime paintings and cell biology and the post-war future kitsch of what it would look like to be in space are made of the same shapes. As you circle a city from the air, spiralling closer from space in the approach to landing, it looks by turn like a ragged lichen on the many-scarred dirty surface of its rock, and then cellular, subdivided and peppered with receptors and transmitters and active transport channels. Here are xylem and phloem; veins and arteries; modes of commuting and of commerce.
When we look closely at small things, at tangible objects of little consequence, we find new complexities in them. The same geometric and technological elegance can be found in the architecture of Brunel and organelles, in the double-helix of DNA, in dendriform management structures and in new leaves.
The surface of a fruiting lichen, all emissary launchpads and tentacular factory units, looks up close like some strange futuristic space colony because that is what it is. A hawthorn tree, new-grown for the coming of the new light at the vernal equinox at which point it plans to eat the sun and create weapons so that it may not in turn be eaten, is up to something wild and warlike on the frontiers of existence. If we saw these things in outer space, their weird intentions might make more sense to us. Outer space is what we call the realm of infinite possibility we have forgotten to see in the microcosms of our own world.
Today, though we speak little of the infinite, it sometimes feels as though Max Müller was right: that within us there resides some drive or will to glimpse that which goes beyond ourselves, to see the nature of things beyond their given names, to attune to worlds beyond those we inhabit. Sometimes they call out to us and sometimes we have to seek them.
If a single voice raises the clamour of being, perhaps we do not hear it when the clamour is harmonious. The dissonances provoke us to listen, listen harder for what it is that is happening; to provoke the search for the noise and for its voicing.
‘When we speak of colours or sounds,’ wrote Müller, ‘we seem for all practical purposes to move entirely within the finite. This is red, we say, this is green, this is violet. This is C, this is D, this is E. What can apparently be more finite, more definite? But let us look more closely.’
The dissonances of the inbetween, the both-and-neither, are the sound of difference, large or incremental, differences that endlessly proliferate until they collapse into chromatic sedition, into the indefinite all.
Sometimes there is sameness in difference, things contiguous with the other, repetitions of the same imprints across dimensions and scales. Those shapes, those patterns, tropes or memes or archetypes, forge their way into our aesthetic consciousness as they shape our cognition.
Our minds seek to stamp these cookie-cutter shapes upon the outside world, and sometimes the outside world calls back, teasing us with them, or what we thought they were: the variegated shadows of foliage, hills and rivers, snakes and faces, provoking ancestral emotions from times before and beyond ours.
Here and now and everywhere are quincunx matrices and dendriform fractals, parabolic canopies of growth and decline, configurations perfect and infinite and prone to eventual collapse, for nothing lasts fixed in time forever, but nor does it cease to exist except in form.
But let us look more closely. Let us look more closely until we find ourselves within the tree’s strangeness, so that the mode of its invention confounds us and it seems as though it exists in its own separate fold of spacetime in which our technologies and tools of measurement do not apply.
We cannot truly know it, for its unknowability extends too far into the otherworlds; we can only imagine what it would be like to know it, or to see it, out there on the threshold of our world, where imagined botanies are more real than the things we thought we knew.
Here is the talk Eli and I gave at Breaking Convention. After a really difficult year of working hard on lots of things that didn’t work out well, this was a much-needed success, my lousy presentation skills aside. We got to meet loads of fascinating people we had long admired as a result too.
People asked if we were doing podcasts, which seems to me an excellent idea, so watch this space.
One of the most inspiring events of recent years for me was Breaking Convention 2015, a biennial conference and get-together for scientists, thinkers and dabblers in the psychedelic world. It had the full rainbow of utopianism, bonkersness and cold hard science that you would hope for from such an event. There were people with hairstyles that should not have been legal and respectable men in suits. It was the most disparate and welcoming crowd I had seen in a while. I wandered through the sunshine at Greenwich, completely sober, watching London float on a heat haze like a city from the future. It felt like the future there.
And then 2015 ended and 2016 happened.
I was struck by the oddity, in 2016, of Home Secretary Theresa May’s exceptionally illiberal Psychoactive Substances Bill passing into chaotic legislation – perhaps a bellwether of the Brexit mentality to follow – as trials here and in the USA confirmed the benefits of psychedelic experiences for depression, addictions and end-of-life engagement for terminal cancer patients.
These developments are exciting. They are powerful tools for working with struggling minds. The idea that we have to let people slip into misery, addiction or terminal illness to access psychedelics grates. Once you’re in jeopardy, there’s a slim chance that you may one day be granted therapeutic access via a licensed practitioner. Otherwise, you are a criminal.
In 2013, I wrote this:
If a similar liberalisation strategy goes ahead, it will be authoritarian in its own way, in letting medicine and psychiatry mediate experiences that have long been part of human existence. But at least some good may come of it, and the old moral panics about irreversible madness and the bad trip to infinity may eventually die down in the face of empirical evidence.
It looks like the first part of this might happen, and given the political climate we find ourselves in now, it feels like a fantastic tool for psychotherapy. There is more work to do, though.
Imagine a substance that promoted long-term empathy for other people and life, that made people happier and more productive, that saw anger ebb away. Imagine such a thing existing. It feels like something we could all do with more of right now.
Lay psychedelic use overwhelmingly has these outcomes. See James Fadiman’s microdosing studies; read Erowid or Reddit. Read what people have to say about it themselves. Sometimes there are thorny moments, which are overcome and learned from. People go to the jungle to drink ayahuasca precisely for the thorny moments and come back feeling strong.
Find me the acid casualties, the people who went mad after one trip, who had never taken any other substance before, who jumped out of a mythical window and tell me that they outnumber the people who have brought light into their lives. Tell me that they outnumber the deaths caused by drink-driving and booze-fuelled violence, let alone the slow alcoholic decay of mind and body. Find me the acid casualties, full stop.
The thing is, the acid casualty myths put about in the 1960s were just that: nearly all mythological in character, they were put about in order to curb what looked like the beginnings of a dangerous social revolution. You don’t want your future ruling class thinking property is theft, love trumps war, that God is found in the intricate workings of the universe rather than the established Church. There will always be people out there who break themselves via the mechanism of indiscriminately taking loads of drugs, although the reasons for doing so will inevitably be found deep within their personal and social worlds; those broken souls got labelled acid casualties, because acid felt dangerous.
Psychedelics are dangerous. They are dangerous to a world order of anger, violence and greed, whose continuation depends on ignorance and fear. They are dangerous to a social world dominated by alcohol and its capacity to help us bury and forget that this is how things are. The people who take them are dangerous for the best possible reasons, and that is why I am going to write about them this year.
In the first of the photo albums that line the bottom shelf of my parents’ bookcase is a picture of me, aged about eighteen months, fat-faced and nylon-onesied, next to an ostentatious and substantially larger peacock in a field of heather. I look bemused by the peacock; the peacock’s attentions are to camera. He is used to cameras.
Brownsea Island is inhabited by peacocks, red squirrels, Sika deer and vast numbers of birds. It is also inhabited by vast numbers of visitors and a phalanx of delightful volunteers, as befits a National Trust property. In the daytime, on a sunny day, it is all azure sea and Narnia woods, its filmsettishness eroded only by too many people who slowly erode the paths down to the yellow-pebbled coves along its southern edge.
Our family seems to end up here time and again. There is the office where my grandmother worked for years, the house that her boss lived in, the patch of sea where her and my grandfather’s ashes were scattered when I was newly pregnant with their sixth grandchild. Now I’m in a house my parents are renting on the quay, a house that would normally be booked up for years but for some strange glitch of fate, and a house whose neighbour we stayed in when I was the same age as my son who has gone off somewhere with a stick.
If you draw a map of the layout of places in a dream when fresh in your mind first thing in the morning, the act of map-making often provokes memories of new bits of dream you might otherwise have forgotten. The layout of the dreamed place is often very similar to the layout of a real place, but with the added capability of wormholes and secret passages and paths in the undergrowth that cross-reference it to other dream versions of real places, and something about the many repeated visits and weight of family relations with Brownsea make it exactly like a dream place.
I went running in the rain one night when all the daytrippers had gone home and found the thick patch of wood at the end of the nature reserve with the strange high scaffold that I thought I remembered from early childhood, in a scene etched into the memory of many consecutive dreams. Emptied of people, the museum-like quality of the place ebbs away. I ran past the crumbling village where the soft grey clay that oozes seaward never made a fortune after all, over the beach made entirely of discarded shards of clay pipework, and up back into the woods where the deer ran off, clearing overcleared logpiles on the forest floor and disappearing into thin air as though into another dimension.
I promised the children I’d take them on the same run tonight, in the hope on my part of getting last night free to run alone and indulge the strangeness of memory/dream/reality where they meet and part along the way. I wonder if they’ll have the same relationship with it too one day, here or in some other place.
This piece by Lauren Laverne was great. But seeing clubland’s virtue in terms of economic growth is misguided.
I have millennial friends, five to ten years younger than me, and they all seem to live like monks. They work very hard, drink little and don’t touch illegal drugs. They find the prospect of going to a club abhorrent. Our twentysomething experiences are radically different for a relatively small age gap.
My ex, a 90s clubland stalwart who saw the emergence of the scene out of the M25 raves, always maintained that alcohol was the great enemy of clubs. When Ministry of Sound got a licensed bar, the whole vibe shifted overnight, he said, from something communal and transcendent into a business. Ecstasy posed a huge threat to pub culture and alcohol revenue, and the brewers responded to the wave of new clubs by providing drinks aimed squarely at the club crowds: lurid sugary alcopops and watery import beers.
The impact of this on the atmosphere inside was insidious – they turned back into the meat market discos he had always sought to avoid in the 80s, and women began to stay away. The absence of women in a queue, he said, was a red flag for a bad club. On balance, I think he was right.
I only started clubbing in the late 90s and didn’t take any drugs for the first few years but, without knowing it, for we’d leaf through Time Out and try to intuit which club would be most fun and, critically, finish late so we could jump on the first train out of Charing Cross to Kent in time for Saturday morning school, we seemed to alight on the ones where people didn’t drink and took E instead.
As seventeen-year-old girls this made it possible to go out and be safe in the crowd. Men who drank were leery, sleazy, sexualising the space. Clubs where people took E were light, bright and about the music. You didn’t get hit on, and the only time we got approached was when people mistook our youthful exuberance for chemicals they hoped to acquire. Once the lights came up and it was time to leave, we’d wander through Soho at dawn hoping to avoid the drunks, who on one occasion stalked us all the way to Leicester Square, where we barricaded ourselves in the phone box until a couple of kindly gay men on their way to Heaven offered to walk us to the station.
My ex thought the brewers were slowly winning the battle, bemoaning his twentysomething employees’ proclivity for pubs over clubs. The Psychoactive Substances Act and our bizarre belief that the alcohol industry will magically choose to self-regulate seems to back that notion up. It certainly seems to be the case in London, where my sense of FOMO from the Welsh marches has gradually withered away.
It is hard to have spontaneous, experimental scenes of any sort when physical space to put them in is in short supply – Berlin developed its nightlife by virtue of being underpopulated for many years. Going back after a ten-year hiatus recently, I was struck by how money, a disproportionate tourist population and booze was moving in on Berlin’s clubland. Parasitic entities can last a while before full strangulation occurs, but the soul of it was already fading fast.
That said, I think there might be hope elsewhere in Britain. My best nights out in this country have been in the basement of a Paisley curry house and at Salford’s exceptional Islington Mill. In Paisley I chatted to the German DJs, who expressed surprise that they never seemed to play in London. ‘It’s odd,’ one of them said, ‘it’s a huge city but it’s as though it doesn’t have much of an identifiable techno scene.’
That was a while back, just before the boom in EU migration to London filled its clubs with young people who had grown up in continental cities where they do do techno, but it still seems to be the case that London clubland is driven by the need to run a profit to cover the cost of the space, and the profits come from bars and the music that works for a drinking audience has a different, less upbeat quality.
In Berlin twelve years ago, it was always quite fun watching the middle-class students from posh western German cities like Düsseldorf or Hamburg or Munich in the queue for clubs. They dressed up for the occasion, a massive door policy error, and couldn’t understand that the aura of money worked against them there.
Clubland has always thrived, paradoxically, in the absence of money, and certainly in the absence of big money. When the money moves in, turning land into property, forcing the expansion of bars that can turn a profit on wet margins, it slowly sucks the fun out of the whole affair. Money and its agent, booze, is what’s killing it – and so much emergent culture – in London. It’s time, at least in Britain, that we looked to the North instead.
My dad was a beat PC along the lower stretches of the Thames. He also rowed for the Met. I asked him for stories about corpses on the river for something I’m writing about and he sent this. I want the psychogeographic cop memoir to be a thing in 2016, please.
The freeboard or gunwale of a sporting rowing boat is about twenty centimetres, maybe thirty on a sturdier boat. You sit low in the water and get to know it intimately. The modern oar blade is shaped like a cleaver, for maximum leverage, but we used the old-fashioned Macon spoon blades because they don’t catch the flurries and uncertainties of the tidal water. You can get it clip on an unseen mud bank and not get caught up.
The Met boated from Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, on the Isle of Dogs and directly opposite Greenwich pier. The best time was either side of low tide as the wash of faster boats dissipated across the mudbanks and the really big boats could not operate at this stage of the tide. In theory the bigger boat gives way to the smaller.
The problem is that once they are going they can’t stop and they can’t move out of the centre channel, so the rower needs to be aware and get out of the way. This is no place for an untrained cox and even more difficult for the lone sculler. You will hear other boatmen call out ‘have a look, sculler’ when the river is busy or there is a problem in sight. There is no aggression intended; it’s just that everyone covers each other on the river.
The Met were paying guests of Poplar and this was sometimes an uneasy relationship. The club had been formed by Thames watermen and dockers. They were tough men who remembered the last dock strikes. They were hugely protective of their river-craft and access to their river. They were mainly old style socialists and many were open to a bit of small scale ‘venture-capital’ if it came their way. Mixing with the Old Bill was a matter for delicate diplomacy, although we all had the same pragmatic and physical approach to life’s problems. And the river bound us together once afloat.
We included members of the River Police in our club. I always felt they were a bit like the French Foreign Legion: there is no career path after the boats and most came to forget. There is little activity other than to pootle up and down, doing nautical stuff and rescuing the occasional body. It follows that this was a haven for eccentrics. We used to row heavy boats with these guys. These were similar to naval whalers, which are clinker built with a rowing crew of five. In the old days the odd man in the bow had to handle the harpoon! These things were dreadful to row as you had to bend from the waist and stand into the oar, however they could handle rough water and were designed for the open sea. The advantage was that our men knew the river and its banks intimately, plus it was their beat, so nobody on the river crossed the Thames Division.
The Thames is tidal to some extent all the way up to Lechlade. This means an upstream current twice a day set against a continuous flow of ground water. At any time one will be stronger than the other. There will also be some point, some region or stage of the river where this action levels out. A point where the two currents are roughly equal, a floating object would move up and down, but generally settle down and stay put.
The lower part of river between Tower Bridge and the Thames barrier, just beyond Greenwich, had this quality. The pool of London extended just up from Tower Bridge where there was the last of the deep water and the lower pool was by Wapping Reach, just below the Tower. This was as far upriver as the big ships could sail, as marked by the HMS Belfast today.
On these waters, you would be in a form of stasis, moving at the cusp of the tide, a watershed. The groundwater is in constant interchange with the tide. There is no sense of winning or losing, just flow. When you physically travel on it, when you row it, you have to work with this flow. It has its own time and its own strength; you have to comply, to work with it. You lost sense of clock time. Perhaps this was its attraction, the way it enforced compliance to the equilibrium of change. All very Zen, really, and well put in a koan attributed to Ikkyu: ‘If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going.’
That koan was about death, as are many deliberations on the river. Although I never considered it as doom-laden as Dickens, or gibbet-strewn as in pirate times, trade and property had to defend their capital and frighten the lower classes, and they defined the lower river as a place of fear.
The peculiar equilibrium of the Lower Thames, with its opposing currents and tidal shifts, meant that strange fates awaited corpses washed up there. The oddities of the way the river worked could be adapted for professional purposes.
If you drop a corpse into this environment there is a three-day rule. When the body goes in it will initially float, and then sink. It might get caught up somewhere, but it usually goes down. Then the gut starts to brew up and the body will return to the surface, generally after three days. Until these gases dissipate, the body will float for a while before settling back down. Usually it will be found and recovered – but not always. This is probably why so many murders and thrillers have the bodies cut up, although this is probably more cliché than common practice.
Nonetheless, anyone who has died on the river was treated with great dignity and respect. There was a small unit at Thames Division, headquartered at Wapping Stairs, who tracked down the identities of those who had committed suicide, or had just been retrieved from the water. You couldn’t deal with this without a grim humour and a pragmatic approach. Suicides were ‘jumpers’ and bodies were ‘stiffs’, although this was rarely an accurate term as rigor mortis held no sway after the body came back up.
It was also said that the body could move around of its own volition when convenient. In the language of the McCarthy trials, I was never and did not know anyone involved in such practices. But if a body did not need to come ashore at any particular time, why hurry it? There was every chance that it might wash up somewhere better prepared instead.
The protocol was that if a body was afloat in the river, Thames Division dealt with it. If it was washed up on the foreshore, the riparian division dealt with the case. If it was a sudden death with no suspicious circumstances it was a uniform job, for the finding officer to deal with. If there were suspicious circumstances the CID were informed and took over.
The site of the body could even become a crime scene – inconvenient with a rising tide. For the humble PC, the first scenario could mean hours with a smelly corpse and a nasty, inconvenient attendance at the autopsy for continuity of evidence. The local D.I. had the authority to declare a ‘special event’; the time immediately after a murder was known as the ‘golden hour’ when memories are fresher and suspects still close. Therefore, the local CID boss had to be able to authorise extra overtime and cancel leave. This meant overtime, lots of overtime. Overtime was the oil that lubricated the machine of investigation.
So, in a spirit of pure speculation, an innocent body might get washed up and stranded at low tide, perhaps only just held there by a snagged strand of clothing on a piece of wire from a drowned shopping trolley. For the night duty PC, this body might be too dangerous to recover, or might even float away from his reach and back into Thames Division’s remit. Or it might quietly go with the flow and onto the next Division’s foreshore. On the other hand, for the cash-starved night duty detective, it could present an honest opportunity. The slightest evidence of foul play would mean a murder enquiry and his or her first claim to be part of the murder squad.
The Lower Thames was a vibrant and feisty place, a place of work, travel and opportunity and even escape. It had an exoticism. When they closed down a warehouse in Shad Thames to demolish and develop what is now Java Wharf, the wooden floors gave off an intense smell of the spices which had been stored there for centuries and had leached into the woodwork and structure of the building, and pervaded the surrounding streets.
The river leaves the tight walls on its banks along this stretch and starts to meander, dropping its mud and detritus on the way. It opens out and breathes a bit, like a commuter leaving the tension of the city and loosening his tie on the train home. The mud contains traces of all the lives and industries of the city, some of them pretty grim: effluent, nitrogen run-off from fields, antibiotics and other drugs from human and agricultural use. Rowing near the River Lea, where there were discharges of dry cleaning fluid, it was understood that if you fell in a quick shower was matter of urgency. All of this stuff is deposited in the mud banks, mostly on the inside of bends, the sorts of places where, if you were unlucky, a body might wash up. The mud of the Lower Thames has seen all sorts of things.
I’m on holiday, a family holiday, with my ex-partner who comes here every year and our children, who are dozing off norovirus in bed. From the balcony of our room you can only see trees. I do not know what most of them are – the palms are, obviously, palms, and the car is parked beneath the tendriled shade of a vast banyan, but the others are just trees, unidentified parts of a vista. The managers of the hotel have taken the precaution of removing the coconuts from the palm trees lest they decapitate guests but, aside from that, the immediate visual impression is arboreal, an illusion of nature.
There is sound rising behind the trees: the trickle of water feeding the pool, the repetitive brush strokes of the man whose job it is to sweep leaves from the flower beds, a Sisyphean task carried out with relentless, fruitless efficiency, and the steady thud of dance music.
By dance music I mean the sort of dance music that Roger Scruton now famously disapproves of – the sort characterised by repetitive beats and informal, solipsistic dancing. Scruton claims that the more traditional sorts of dance, with their formalised movements and social mediation of human interaction, are the more enjoyable, and that if only the young deluded folk who go raving out of mindless habit would try them they’d find them superior.
Scruton would no doubt be dismayed by the scene here. India, with its rich cultural heritage, not least in the sphere of music and dance, is losing its youth to the techno parties. The banners for the electronic music festival up the road consist largely of home-grown DJs, and you can’t drive within a five-mile radius of it for the duration. It is a phenomenon remarkable for both speed and scale and it looks terrifyingly as though everyone might be enjoying themselves – at the beach parties there is little evidence of looming existential crisis at the hellscape of atomised dancing.
I first came to Goa twelve years ago, when the party scene that had metastasised from the first Western hippy settlers was entirely Eurocentric. Everyone flew in on charter flights from northern places and pretended that they hadn’t and that they’d been there all along like the proper travellers, who rented beachside shacks and had started to get quite brown. People aspired to the highest level of travellerdom, which was as far as the going native bit went, and had the odd Ganesha embroidered on their bag, and otherwise seemed to ignore their host culture. Encounters with Indian people at raves consisted mostly of interactions with the chai ladies. There was a New Year’s Eve party, an uncomfortable mismatch of worlds, in which a lot of Indian men got very drunk and unpleasantly gropey in what I assume they mistook for a sexual free-for-all. It all felt quite dysfunctional: it is all very well to have utopian visions, and the hippy and trance scene were full of those, although it is not entirely clear what they involved apart from dancing, veganism and the cultivation of unusual mushrooms, but there needs to be something in it for those whose land your purported utopia inhabits.
Things have changed. Ten years ago, on a second visit, I struck up conversations with amicable ravers from Delhi or Mumbai, but there weren’t many of them and they were all male, and on the back foot socially in a still-Eurocentric world. Now, there are ten times more Indian men than women at the parties, but the women are present, and attired in the manner of the international raver, or perhaps in the international manner of the raver, since the habits trample the illusion of the nation-state: comfortable footwear, which must, critically, be bike-appropriate, for the best parties are invariably inaccessible without a motorcycle journey and a long walk, and shorts or leggings and a vest top. There is no space for concerns regarding the modesty of one’s shoulders on a sweaty dancefloor. When it gets busy on the roads, which it does in a way that shrieks peak anthropocene at eleven o’clock at night, clouds of red dust hang in the hot air along with the petrol fumes of thousands of bikes, and it is common to see girls dressed to party on their bikes, faces swathed in scarves to keep the dust out of their hair and face so that only a small eye-slit remains, a sort of reverse niqab situation. As a Western woman, the presence of the Indian party girls makes you feel invisible in a way that you did not before they arrived, and the invisibility feels good.
There is nothing to assuage colonial guilt like the new prevalence of the Indian middle classes on the party scene, as though the presence of the locals on the dancefloor dilutes the reality that as a Westerner you live like a king in the bubble afforded by the roll of currency you changed on arrival. The locals on the dancefloor are rarely local – the local locals are busy working, taking advantage of the busiest time of the tourist year, and the numberplates on the party bikes are from neighbouring Maharashtra and Karnataka, the affluent young professionals of Mumbai and Bangalore. Taking days off to party at a time is an issue of socio-economic rather than racial privilege these days, as perhaps it ever was in India.
For the last decade or so, Goa was the party destination for Russians and Israelis, the latter often on leave from military service and accordingly letting off steam, so that they gained a reputation from the more chilled raver factions for being unduly aggressive. This year, at least right now, at the peak time between Christmas and the New Year, neither are in evidence: the recession in Russia has hit hard, and word on the street is that the Israelis were increasingly refused visas out of fear of terrorist attacks.
It was certainly disconcerting to arrive at a beachside shack in the evening with a jetlagged seven-year-old in tow to encounter an airport-style metal detector. If only the Russians and Israelis could be there too the place would, I suppose, have made the ideal substrate for an angry Daeshophile: add a smattering of assorted Europeans and the new, newly decadent and mostly Hindu upper classes from the most Westernised Indian cities and there’s little not to hate.
The oddity of it, though, is that as far as party scenes go the psytrance world is pretty austere to the point that its more dedicated adherents can be extremely dull, and more interested in proselytising about correct recycling practices than recounting anecdotes of fear and loathing on the road to Siolim. There are no Caligula-style orgies to be found, no silver platters of cocaine, remarkably little drunkenness. The blessing and the curse of psychedelics lies in moderation – at the point where stonedness can’t go any further you will collapse in a corner, involuntarily dancing with your hands or toes, possibly talking nonsense, but that is as far as the dissolution goes. Upon reflection, that is not quite fair: some people claim to have spiritual experiences when dancing in which they become one with a great cosmic mind and that sort of thing, which, when you think about it, is a sort of extreme Withness.
The ingestion of psychedelics is key to the Goa school of raving because it is quite hard to get the point of the music without them: you can hear the fast repetitive beats underpinning it and the rest sounds like sped-up intestinal noise. For a long time, all psytrance acts had names seemingly snatched from cell biology textbooks so that the names of DJs on a flier – I misremember them more than a decade on as things like Metaphase, Telomere, Endoplasmic Reticulum – could look like an exam cribsheet on acid, or, more accurately, DMT, since the Terence McKenna-style machine elves that tended to populate them too are for some reason more of a tryptamine phenomenon.
The character of psychedelic music – and this applies to psychedelic rock music as well as psytrance – is that it contains a lot of unfolding detail. This means that the obvious patterns you can pick up in straightforward 4/4 techno or garage rock do not seem to be there, because there are loads of patterns coexisting in it, because the person who made it took a lot of acid and lost track of the time. This makes it inaccessible at first – it can seem a bit like obnoxiously revved-up white noise. Once you patiently tolerate it for hours and hours or, preferably, get stoned, the patterns start to emerge. It seems as though the drugs enable you to expand your expectation of where to find the patterns that we interpret as being musical. Once you have learned how to do this, it is then possible to apply that particular type of musical pattern-recognition when not stoned. The greatest danger here is mistaking ordinary background sounds – the rhythmic commuter trains passed on the way home from a big night out, the chatter of monkeys in the trees, the swell of waves – for music, so that the world at large takes that shape, but it is a pleasant risk to take.
No doubt this is where Scruton’s beef with techno comes from: he sits in an inveterate line of people cross about new music whose newfangled patterns evade them. Perhaps he should drop some acid. The issue of the quality of the experience still remains.
Scruton talks about “being-with” as the benefit of dancing that gets lost with the old formalities that governed it. You could be-with whoever the village or your father’s gaze would allow you to be with, but the governing social morality of your small world would be ever-present.
In the less constrained settings of the night-time dancefloor, you are being-with in a more extensive way – with the immediate coterie of your surrounding ravers, and with yourself, and, at the risk of sounding hippyish, with the music and the notion of a world in which it is possible to snatch moments of pure introspective pleasure alongside other people who are doing the same thing, and with whom there is an unspoken sense of fraternity. What Scruton fails to see is that it is possible to do being-with on a greater scale beyond the romantic or familial. The early M25 rave scene was a great social leveller for precisely this reason: hippies and yuppies and brickies had that moment, and their acknowledgement of its mutual enjoyment, in common.
It is unlikely that Scruton is acquainted with the millennial comedy series Spaced, but the episode in which its protagonists go clubbing is spot on in its depiction of how the being-with of raving works. There is the moment where they – it is implied – drop the E and the music suddenly makes sense; where, upon spilling a pint over a very big man, a moment of terror sublimates into a matey hug; where previously unspoken acknowledgements of friendship and affection are laid bare.
Before rave culture took off, going to a club was traditionally a sexually predatory activity that carried the risk of a drunken brawl. Dancing was a performative activity in which the aim was to attract a mate or elevate one’s social capital. I’m sure the cry of neoliberalism will continue to be levied against rave culture but it does look a little like an evolutionary improvement on the mating-dance. And how different are those other traditional dances from the mating-dance anyway? They are the mating-dances that hail from a time when the community decided who you could mate with.
At least Scruton is upfront about his conservatism, because nothing is more conservative than the belief in the beneficence of small-town family values. Perhaps he’d think that those Indian party people will come to their senses before long and abandon the dancefloor and its illusory freedoms.
I recently stumbled across the work of Victorian philologist/theologian Max Müller. The existence of philologist/theologian as a descriptor is delightful enough as it is, but I was particularly drawn by the way in which the study of language, and in particular the limitations of language, influenced Müller’s theological interests.
Müller saw religion as a defect of language. He argued that there was a perceptual faculty, aistheton, that was able to contemplate the existence of the infinite, so that rather than being restricted to the phenomenal realm of sense-data we could intuitively get that there was something bigger extending beyond it.
Müller held that very early language, like the early Sanskrit of the Vedas, had a greater depth and flexibility of meaning, largely because the language was more simplistic and there was less of it so it had to do more and express more.
It therefore got used with broader brush-strokes and more poetic licence. It was more metaphorical. Central to this metaphorical form of representation was the description of bits of the physical world – mountains, rivers, the sky etc – as being active rather than just sterile stuff.
Müller called these sorts of big things semi-tangible objects: you could see and grasp bits of them but underpinning that was the knowledge that there was more of it that you could not see. The vastness and not-quite-perceptibility of the natural world was therefore embedded in this sense of aistheton, of a bigger infinite thing beyond the things we see.
For Müller, the development of language that was more tightly focused on picking out nouns – bits of stuff – in what it was describing and concomitantly less metaphorical in those descriptions left a gap where the infinite had previously lurked.
Once you just called a mountain a mountain and a river a river and the dawn the dawn and it was just a thing, you needed to find another way of making it rich with meaning again. The next phase of this was animism, where you take the noun Eos, the Dawn, and make it into a name, so that the Dawn is a person imbued with a mixture of anthropomorphic and dawn-like properties. You have yourself a god.
Müller thought this was a pretty simplistic approach to religion: you lost the sense of wonder and gained a soap opera with a cast of embodied nouns. How was this a conceptual improvement on the magic of metaphorical language, which was poetic and broad rather than denotational, and capable of glimpsing the infinite?
To generate a noun called God and fit all of those attributes into a thing is just as crude as turning Dawn into a character – you end up thinking you understand it, that it is possible to hold and define. Müller lionised the apophatic approach of Buddhism, or certain Buddhist traditions: you can only describe what you are describing by setting out what it isn’t. Müller was a dude.
Anyway, I started thinking more about aistheton. I like it as an idea. I started to wonder if that might be what we’re after when we climb a mountain or wade along the edges of a river or perceive a dawn: the idea that the richness and vitality of something beyond the immediate frame of our perception is present.
Our contemporary disorder of language is guilty of the same drive to object-making that Müller identified over a century ago. We went further and ditched the god-noun, which is probably no bad thing. Our perceptual frames have shrunk back even further, though: the ready supply of synthetic novelty on screens, online, in the weird leisure scenarios of late capitalism have withered away our capacity to dig for richness beneath surface appearance.
Maybe aistheton, now, is simply to be present in a moment unfed by technology and to peer beyond it, and remember that there is a world beyond it whose unfolding detail is vast and limitless, like a river or some other semi-tangible object; maybe it is the ability to hold the world, or anything in it, as something that can not quite be held.
In the queue for the lift at Regent’s Park station I could hear a series of pops, which I now realised were tiny explosions of air extruded from chewing gum in the mouth of the head behind mine. It belonged to a student whose face was perfectly expressionless and flat apart from the rhythmic mandibular manipulation of gum, as though the bottom of her skull had different wiring. I was swept across the Marylebone Road in the wake of a vast French exchange, and into the perimeter of the park where the white-and-black hoardings of the art fair had set themselves up.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. It would be a lie to say that I went there naively hoping to see some art. I had a sort of idea that there might be some interesting insights into material things that, upon closer inspection, are not quite what they seem, that being the mainstay of uncanniness. I had a sort of idea that that was what most contemporary art was about, the manipulation of the appearance of things so that the reality exposed behind it had unexpected qualities.
I queued in a long corridor to ditch N’s old UN rucksack, which was so vast and obviously not handbaglike that there was no way it was coming in. An affable security man remonstrated with people holding, or claiming to hold, VIP tickets; another security woman worked the queue, sniffing out people who didn’t need to be there, terrierlike; people who had all thought a great deal about what to wear walked past in the strange stiff uniformity of movement that besets the self-conscious.
It was like a slick conception of an airport, one of those glassy, glossy airports that Tyler Brûlé would get exercised about. Through security, on the other side, artside, the gates were marked out with big-brand gallery names in which objects noisily jostled for attention alongside all the people.
Eventually I got through and could see the objects. They weren’t as interesting to look at as the man dressed in maps and a lampshade, although perhaps he had set out to be an object anyway. There were huge geometric trompe l’oeil patterns, smarter that the neon throws at a psytrance rave but essentially the same sort of idea, blurry tits and lips and cunts, possible attempts at encapsulating the cosmic and any number of inverted or perverted things – an upside-down drum, banging itself, a head-shaped vase bearing a cactus. You take a thing and put it out of context and then it becomes weird, or at least edgy.
The problem with edginess is that it operates on a basis of sense, which is the slipperiest sort of basis for anything at all: as soon as you chase it successfully and fix it, it has ceased to be edgy and is merely kitsch, which is where edgy goes to die. Perhaps what you have to do in order to avoid this paradox is avoid adopting what seems to be edgy now and, instead, speculate what might become edgy in the future, so that with a bit of semiotic investment your social capital, in reading the trend-led cues around you, sublimates into the cultural capital of canny curation, which you can then sell on. If my theory was correct, its outcome here was a vast inflatable cartoon cat juxtaposed with a photographic close-up of a man, or men, seemingly masturbating in football shorts.
I soon tired of the art and looked at the passing figures instead. The people, insofar that they were people, for some of them had a ghostly presence, moving through the space or at least appearing to do so without actually being present in it, all had strange faces. There were men with caricature eyebrows and noses, like clownish Groucho Marxes, in crazy glasses, loud glasses, dark glasses; women balancing heads on improbably pointed bodies with too-tight cheekbones and eroded facial musculature, as though they all had the same surgeon who speciality was the uncanny valley, the nearly-but-not-quite mimicry of human form and movement that forms the sweet-spot of unheimlich.
I sat by the tables outside where tree-trunks emerged from the floating floorboards and everyone spoke either earnestly in German, or ostentatiously in English, like the American man with a faketanned plasticine face who leaned into me leerily as he passed and said “Nice chapeau,” the foreignness of the noun italicised to impress. I drank sugarless green juice, which, though expensive, was remarkably effective at clearing my hangover, and watched them.
It was as though the extremes of social stratification peculiar to the concentrations of wealth in cities like London had evolved their own posthuman species. Perhaps some new Lamarckian process would see lines of straw-boatered prep school children wander the streets behind the park, gender dimorphised into overdrawn features for the boys and beatific facial paralysis for the girls, children whose newly divergent metabolisms would now run entirely on capital, liquid capital, so that the indignity of eating need not trouble them.
It was not yet clear what would happen to the restaurants in this eventuality, when the need for food abstracted from food finally reached the point of nonfruition where it ceased to be food altogether, and became instead a holographic representation of the memory of food or something like it. That would need work. Perhaps the new congregations would all take place in the consumption of art, at endless private views, where new tweaks to the Krebs cycle would see capital transformed enzymatically, deep in the mitochondria of wealth, into social and cultural analogues ready for transfer and exchange.