Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Inspirations: Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni

The rest of the film is very badly dated (and is therefore not worth explaining here), but this final sequence, seen in isolation, is perhaps the best music video of all time, even though Pink Floyd's 'Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up' doesn't actually start until about two minutes in. That's okay, because the preceding section is taken up by multiple camera views of an actual exploding house (you would make the most of that footage too, if you had blown up an actual house).

The title chapter of Pistols! Treason! Murder! could be seen as a homage to this sequence.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Five Wounds: Cuckoo and Lacan's Mirror Phase

I recently read the Icon Books title Introducing Lacan, and I was struck by the description of Lacan's theory of the 'mirror phase', an elaboration of Freud's ideas on ego formation in the infant. The description corresponds exactly to (it mirrors?) the characterisation of Cuckoo in Five Wounds. Cuckoo is a man with no face, or rather a face made of wax, which he reshapes constantly in imitation of those whose identity he wishes to steal. He is also obsessed with his reflection, with which he can never fully identify.

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

Now here are some passages from Introducing Lacan (pp. 21-23):

The child identifies with an image outside himself, be it an actual mirror image or simply the image of another child. The apparent completeness of this image gives [him] a new mastery over the body. .... 'But all this at a price [says a picture of a child standing before a mirror in the Icon book]. If I am in the place of another child, when he's struck, I will cry. If he wants something, I'll want it too, because I am trapped in his place. I am trapped in an image fundamentally alien to me, outside me'. .... Lacan shows how this alienation in the image corresponds with the ego: the ego is constituted by an alienating identification, based on an initial lack of completeness in the body and nervous system.

There is a broader point here about how symbolism works: I mean symbolism in a general sense, rather than Lacan's more technical definition of what he calls the 'symbolic register', which for him complements the 'imaginary register' ('imaginary' from 'image'). For Lacan, language is the essential element that distinguishes the symbolic from the imaginary, so that in the symbolic register, the relation to the image will be structured by language (Introducing Lacan, p. 47). Cuckoo, by contrast, remains in the pre-linguistic, imaginary register, where the reflected image of his face cannot be described (in words or otherwise).

What I mean by 'symbolic' is rather the way in which Lacan's theory of the mirror phase describes an ongoing process (of ego formation) via an abstraction. It uses a single, signifying idea - the child looking at its own reflection - to stand for that broader process. The fictional character of Cuckoo then reverses that operation. I mean that Cuckoo's predicament takes Lacan's symbolic abstraction, and makes it both literal and definitive, so that it actually excludes other possible ways of understanding the nature of ego formation.

N.B. I am a big fan of the Icon Introducing series, which I am interested in for theoretical as well as pragmatic reasons: i.e. I am interested in how these unique attempts to present abstract ideas through a comic strip format work, beyond the information actually conveyed in any specific title. In this, they are natural successors to seventeenth-century emblem books. More on this in a future post perhaps ....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inspirations: The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton (1955)

Charles Laughton's film The Night of the Hunter (1955) has thematic concerns in common with another of my inspirations: Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).

To fully appreciate the second clip above, you have to know from the outset that Mitchum is the villain, from whom Lillian Gish is protecting the orphaned children sheltering in her house by means of the shotgun cradled across her lap. Laughton represents the conflict between these two characters (or rather, archetypes, who are defined in part by their opposed notions of God) by having them harmonise with each other while singing the same hymn, which they obviously understand in radically different ways. It is a brilliantly counter-intuitive dramatic strategy.

Simon Callow's book on The Night of the Hunter is an excellent introduction to this unique film, the only one directed by Laughton. On the film's tone and aesthetic, Callow explains (pp. 43-44):

From the beginning, Laughton had been insistent on conveying to all his collaborators the essential fairytale-like quality of the story. Everything, he told [art director Hilyard] Brown, should be seen from the boy's point of view. He accordingly designed the sets 'from the position that only children see certain things.' .... There was little pretence that a real world was being filmed, the shapely lines and symbolic details creating a highly stylised environment in which expressive power was achieved by painterly or sculptural means ....

On Mitchum as the villainous Preacher, Callow has this to say (pp. 65-66):

The performance is almost two-dimensional; both the actor and the character seem to be giving conscious performances, which lends a highly original dimension. At the risk of introducing an over-used and devalued tag, this is a Brechtian performance in the technical sense of the word - it is a demonstration of a certain kind of behaviour which promotes an analytical and critical attitude from the audience. .... Character becomes a kind of conjuring trick: the fascination comes from watching the way in which Preacher works his effects. The more naked the contradictions, the more chilling the effect.

Truffaut's initial review described the film as being like 'a horrifying news item retold by small children.' All of this recalls to me the following comment by Will Self on the worlds created in the fiction of Roald Dahl (quotation from The Guardian, 17 October 2009):

[T]here are big white spaces in Dahl-world where any realistic detailing might well be shaded in by a lesser writer; and again, in common with [Quentin] Blake’s vision, Dahl-world is at once lurid and curiously ill-defined. The passions are strong and clear – fear, hatred, avarice, love, greed (especially for sugar) – but they are played out against a backdrop that is only wonkily apprehended.

Dahl mimicked to perfection a believable child’s-eye view, that, looking up from below, sees the adult realm as foreshortened, and adult foibles as grossly elongated.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Five Wounds: The Proverbs Sequence in 'A Meeting of Minds'

The video trailer for Five Wounds is not the only time I used mathematical principles in thinking about the book. The only scene in which all five protagonists are in the same place at the same time occurs in the chapter 'A Meeting of Minds', at p. 113, ch. 6, v. 1-18. On this momentous occasion, they all spout banal proverbs at one another. The implication is that they do so in a quasi-trance-like state, perhaps under the hypnotic influence of a divine voice that intermittently interrupts them with the refrain 'MeNe MeNe TeKeL UPHARSIN'. They speak as follows.

1 ‘MeNe, MeNe, TeKeL, UPHARSIN,’ the voice said.
2 ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ Crow said.
3 ‘Freedom exists only in the kingdom of dreams,’ Gabriella said.
4 ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him,’ Cur said.
5 ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ Cuckoo said.
6 ‘Every bird thinks its own nest fine,’ Magpie said.
7 ‘MeNe, MeNe, TeKeL, UPHARSIN,’ the voice said.
8 ‘One must howl with the wolves,’ Cur said.
9 ‘Better to be a knave than a fool,’ Magpie said.
10 ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ Cuckoo said.
11 ‘The devil can quote scripture for his own ends,’ Gabriella said.
12 ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,’ Crow said.
13 ‘MeNe, MeNe, TeKeL, UPHARSIN,’ the voice said.
14 ‘The cowl does not make the monk,’ Cuckoo said.
15 ‘Love me, love my dog,’ Cur said.
16 ‘Either Caesar, or nothing,’ Crow said.
17 ‘Tell me who your friend is, and I’ll tell you who you are,’ Magpie said.
18 ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wise man,’ Gabriella concluded.

This passage has a marginal cross-reference to Plate 12, 'A meeting of minds', which is reproduced below.

Plate 12: A meeting of minds

There are several things going on in this image, which also relates to Plate 1, Initiation (insofar as it is only possible to make sense of several of the elements within Plate 1 by reference to this subsequent image: you can figure that out for yourself), but Plate 12 receives its immediate textual justification from another passage in 'A Meeting of Minds', at ch. 4, v. 3: Crow imagined all the heads in the room separated from their bodies and floating in jars, dumbly, waiting for the inscription of ulterior motives upon them.

Obviously the particular proverbs that each character 'chooses' to declaim tell us who they are, but the precise sequence is also important, and relates to Plate 12. The sequence breaks into three groups of five, within which each character speaks once (if we remove the three interjections of the disembodied voice, which are null characters in this interpretation). If we assign a letter to each protagonist according to the initial order in which they speak, and break up the sequence accordingly, it looks like this:

a (Crow)
b (Gabriella)
c (Cur)
d (Cuckoo)
e (Magpie)



If you take this list, and use it as if it is a set of vector instructions for a diagram - as if the sequence is actually a program, as I also described the language of heraldry in a previous post - then you get the following layout, which I have scanned in its three successive states, to clarify how it is constructed.

Proverbs 1st

Proverbs 1st + 2nd

Proverbs 1st + 2nd + 3rd

So, if you follow the sequence, and fill in every line accordingly, you progressively build up the figure of the pentacle, as illustrated in Plate 12 above (and in Plate 1, for those who think to make the comparison). Some lines are drawn through twice as the sequence doubles back on itself, but never in the same direction: for example, the fourth transition runs from Cuckoo to Magpie, and the seventh goes back the other direction from Magpie to Cuckoo, but the rule is that once we have traced both directions, we can't then return to this arm of the diagram.

This isn't perfectly logical. In that case, every possible direction would be represented (as it is in the video trailer, using a different set of principles), and for every possible direction to be represented, there would have to be twenty lines rather than fourteen. But this was the best version I could create that also allowed me to construct the pentacle line by line, which is what I was trying to do. I also tried several other ways of arranging the sequence of speakers, but this was the only variant in which I managed to trace all fourteen vectors as unique and unrepeated.

I used a pentacle as the basis for this diagram because it represents the five wounds of Christ in medieval iconography, notably in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I read as an undergraduate (and which features a talking, severed head!).

As for the mathematical games, either you are the sort of person that thinks in these terms, or you aren't, in which case the whole exercise probably looks insane. But even if it is insane, it does relate to the worldview of the protagonists, whom I have desribed elsewhere as autistic. In particular, Crow and Gabriella, who are the intellectuals of the group, and who therefore appear as the first two points in this sequence, are inclined to think in these terms.

[Plate 12 by Dan Hallett; illegible sketches by me.]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five Wounds: Modern Dystopia and Empathy

Last year I appeared in a session on ‘Modern Dystopia’ at the Melbourne Writers Festival with DBC Pierre, moderated by Justin Clemens. A recording of this session was subsequently broadcast on Radio National. It can now be downloaded as a podcast, and I have uploaded it below, along with some further thoughts on the question of empathy, which were inspired by my discussion with DBC and Justin.


[N.B. I am actually talking about Five Wounds in the session, even though the presenter mentions Pistols! Treason! Murder! in the introduction.]

Empathy is a precondition for the novel to exist. In the novel, we imagine what it is like to be somebody else. We imagine an existence other than our own; we try to make such an existence credible, and involving.

If empathy makes the novel possible, then a world without empathy is the ultimate fictional dystopia, because it removes the enabling preconception on which fiction rests. Five Wounds takes place in such a world. Its characters fall into one of two categories. Either they are autistic: that is, they find empathy to be a profoundly difficult and troubling concept; or they are solipsistic: that is, empathy is literally inconceivable for them. So, given that at least some of the characters in the novel are trying to understand the concept, perhaps it is not quite accurate to describe Five Wounds as a world without empathy. Rather, it is a world in which empathy can never be taken for granted. It is never a given; it is never natural or instinctive. It can only be created by a supreme effort of will and imagination.

To whom do we extend our empathy? This is a crucial question. By defining someone as inhuman or subhuman, we are effectively asserting that they are beyond the reach of empathy. We are under no obligation to imagine what it is like to be them. Their pain – or their joy – is no concern of ours. Animals raise an interesting test case here. For a thinker like Descartes, as for many modern scientists, vivisection did not raise ethical considerations, because the pain of animals is of less consequence than that of humans. We do not concede to animals the legal or moral status of persons, and Descartes did not concede to them the status of rational beings. But our responses are rarely so coldly logical, and in fact the pain of animals often engages us. In a fictional context, it is interesting that in Blade Runner, all the questions posed in the test to determine empathic response, and thus determine if the subject questioned is actually human, describe witnessing the pain of animals, and not the pain of another human subject.

I mention all this because all of the characters in Five Wounds are freaks. Like animals, they are test cases, who pose questions regarding the limits of the category ‘human.’ Do such freaks deserve our empathy? And how is it possible for a freak, whose experience of the world is, by definition, singular, to imagine what it is like to be someone ‘normal,’ someone like us?

I write alone, but - at the same time that I imagine the hypothetical existence of my characters - I must also imagine the existence of a hypothetical reader. As I attempt to describe my characters to that reader, I must also in some sense imagine what it is like to be that reader. And what I imagine is the reader in turn reimagining the characters.

The ‘existence other than our own’ that the novel presupposes is thus doubled.

In autobiographical narratives, this idea is sometimes presented as a problem. In other words: What makes you think that anyone is interested in reading about the minutae of your life? Why would you imagine that My Battle With Cancer or My Miserable Childhood might be compelling to someone else? Assuming that there is an audience for the unremitting chronology of your life is here evidence of a greater failure of imagination: a more far-reaching variety of solipsism. The problem is that the audience conjured into being in the writer's head in this case is an audience of poorly-conceived, two-dimensional characters who have nothing better to do than read about someone else's self-obsession. Imagining real readers - readers with their own experiences and preoccupations, whose interest has to be solicited and constantly re-engaged - requires a far greater effort, and at some level, a surrender of self (even in autobiographical narratives: perhaps especially there).*

As the writer of Five Wounds, I am obliged to make this effort, which - among other things - requires me to sublimate the autobiographical backstory to the novel. Within the story, each of the novel's autistic or solipsistic protagonists also struggles to pose these questions in a way that makes sense to him or her. Cuckoo, for example, thinks in terms of mimesis (imitation). To imagine what it is like to be someone else means taking that person’s place, literally. Magpie, by contrast, applies the notion of empathy to perverse ends by imagining what it is like to be a machine: that is, a camera, or, to be more precise, a photosensitive emulsion. Identifying with a machine frees him from the obligation of identifying with other people. Crow acknowledges no peers: for him, the category of those who are entitled to empathy is limited to himself, and since he is leprous, and therefore literally insensible, even this formula presents him with some difficulties.

The novel in general asks, What does it feel like to be someone else? Five Wounds in particular asks, What does it feel like to be unable to imagine what it feels like to be somebody else?

*This paragraph recalls the argument of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments in some respects, a text I may return to in a later post.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Guest Post for the 'Big Idea' Feature at Whatever

A guest post I wrote for the 'Big Idea' feature at John Scalzi's popular Whatever blog has now gone up. It is on the advantages of illustrated books as a format, and it includes some detailed discussion of the 'Synaesthetic Paradise' diptych from Five Wounds, which I use as a case study to explain the relationship between text and image in the novel.

There is actually some additional discussion of this pair of images here, and there will be more to come shortly.

Below is an excerpt from the post at Whatever:

According to an old set of critical prejudices, the adult pleasures of true literature are entirely separate from the infantile sugar rush of pictures, and the presence of the latter in a book is therefore a kind of an implicit admission of failure on the writer’s part. The very word ‘illustration’ is part of the problem here, since it implies redundancy and subordination. Illustrations understood in this pejorative sense are somehow both more direct and more naïve than language. They cannot be paraphrased, but nor can they dissemble. They do not require interpretation, and they cannot contain a subtext. They are, by definition, un-literary.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Five Wounds: Daguerreotypes

Susan Sontag's On Photography is a classic introduction to the medium, whose influence can be felt in almost all subsequent discussions. But there is a problem with it, in that actual photographers do not recognize its depiction of their activities, or perhaps more significantly, do not identify with its description of their motivations. Consider the following passage:

What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality – which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal. ‘The pictures have a reality for me that the people don’t’, Avedon has declared. ‘It is through the photographs that I know them’. To claim that photography must be realistic is not incompatible with opening up an even wider gap between image and reality, in which the mysteriously acquired knowledge (and the enhancement of reality) supplied by photographs presumes a prior alienation from or devaluation of reality. [On Photography, p. 121]

The idea that photography is at war with reality seems counter-intuitive to most of its practitioners, who also take exception to the idea that they are all, by definition, alienated voyeurs. An alternative point of view is advanced eloquently by Nan Goldin:

The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history. [The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, p. 6]

In a later interview, Goldin explains, again in implicit counterpoint to Sontag, 'For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress' [Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your Mirror, 1996, p. 452].

One of the protagonists of Five Wounds is the thief Magpie, who also works as a daguerreotypist. Daguerreotypes were created by a photographic process that yielded a unique, positive image. They were popular in the 1840s, but were subsequently rendered obsolete by William Fox Talbot's introduction of negatives, which permitted multiple prints to be made of any individual image. In the world of Five Wounds, however, the daguerreotype remains central. I chose it over other better-known photographic processes as a way of returning to the pre-history of an overfamiliar technology: to draw attention to unchallenged and unacknowledged presuppositions surrounding its later, more familiar variants, whose characteristics we retroactively assume to be given or inevitable. Other examples of this same technique in Five Wounds include the use of heraldry to think about superhero costumes and the introduction of a character with a mutant strain of rabies to think about werewolves.

Magpie's activities as a daguerreotypist are therefore a parody of the argument of Sontag's book. I started with a thought experiment: What if you were a Martian who had never taken or seen a photograph, and the only evidence you had as to what that activity might involve was Sontag's book? What kind of person would you imagine the ideal photographer to be? The answer is: a freak; an alienated thief. In the extract below, Magpie describes his philosophy.

1 AT first, Magpie had paid prostitutes to pose for him.
2 They required no explanations, but in other respects they were not ideal subjects, because they had mistaken assumptions about the nature of his interest.
3 He discouraged them from adopting provocative expressions.
4 He did not want the illusion of intimacy.
5 To remind himself of this, he removed the faces from their portraits.
6 It required little force. A single motion of his thumbnail would do it.
7 ‘Don’t squirm. You’ll only get scratched.’

1 UNDER a magnifying glass, which revealed details invisible to the naked eye, the intensity with which the image was fully present was disturbing.
2 It was more present than the living bodies of the prostitutes had ever been.
3 ‘Pretend you’re dead if you like. That sometimes helps people stay still.’

1 MAGPIE would eliminate what was inessential and reveal what others could not bear to see.
2 He would steal from his subjects the revelation of their deeper selves and the truest aspect of the world they inhabited.
3 He would photograph the shift between the face people presented to others and the scratched face they revealed involuntarily and refused to acknowledge.

In fleshing out this account, I did, however, draw on the work of several actual photographers to create the character of Magpie, as indicated below.

Magpie's Photographic Influences
Above: Magpie's Photographic Influences

Of these acknowledged influences, Witkin and Arbus are both famed for their interest in freaks, and in Witkin's case, for his habit of photographing corpses. Both photographers are quoted on several occasions within the novel (e.g. the extract above includes a paraphrase of a remark by Arbus); and, indeed, one of the epigraphs used at the beginning of Five Wounds is a quotation from Arbus. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in early twentieth-century New Orleans, and several of his images, infamously, have the faces of the subject scratched out (below: Plate 29 from Storyville Portraits by Bellocq).

4 Bellocq Plate 29

This defacement has prompted much lurid psychosexual speculation in a manner derivative of Sontag's analysis: for example in Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter (which features Bellocq as a character). There are in fact much more innocuous reasons why someone - not necessarily Bellocq - may have defaced the images after their maker's death. However, as in my (ab)use of Sontag's book, I picked up on this motif - of scratched-out faces - and gave it a more sinister origin related to Magpie's psycholgy; but I also asked Dan to use it for quite different purposes in the illustrations depicting one of the other characters in the novel: Cuckoo, the man with a wax face. He is always represented with a scratched-out face, in homage to Magpie, and hence to Bellocq (below: Plate 6 from Five Wounds, Cuckoo's reflection).

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

[Pie chart diagram and Cuckoo portrait created by Dan Hallett.]