Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sychronicity in Berlin: Two Books

My Mother just wrote to tell me that synchronicity is "the function of the Third Eye: perceiving and commanding, insight, perception, seeing etc.". She tells me that "Anodea Judith identifies synchronicity with intuition and likens it to joining up the dots".

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn first came into my life when a literary friend thrust a copy at me and told me I would absolutely adore it; the name, I fell in love with first. However, this friend was in the throes of the story herself at the time and so it was up to me to source my own copy. I was already consumed with excitement and curiousity after having only read the title and the blurb... Narrated by a hunch back dwarf called Olympia you say? Whose parents sought to create their own traveling freak-show carnival by mixing up dangerous, wonderful and bizarre drug and chemical cocktails for the pregnant Mother to consume? With much success? And a few tales to tell as a result... Oh Ho! It was another, also studious, friend who eventually gave me a copy of the book; an old book, halved in two and extremely well-thumbed. Perfect.

I am endlessly inspired by this book. It has set my imagination on fire, it has evoked in me most sensual (and sensorial!) imagery and has reinvigorated my gothic infatuation with ripe magic realism, the kind which dominated my inner world as a child. The writing is plump and witty and poetic and gorgeous. It inspired the tune 'Geek Love' on holy ghost toast's Pestersome Nichts album, the video for which you can watch here. I even entertained dreams of composing the sound track for the eventual film (Warner Bros. bought the rights, although Terry Gilliam was a contender). LOVE!

My favourite character, who is described as having "legs as long as history" is Miranda, who is Olympia's daughter. Although they are astranged in the novel, Olympia follows Miranda around, lives in the same building as her and is generally fixated on the young woman, who, it is revealed, possesses a very small tail. Only those who know me very well will know how fascinated I am by human-animal hybrids, and I have lamented how unfortunate it is that we are not more like our beastial relatives. Indeed, I honour the relationships between humans and their familiars, the beloved dog, the healing cat, the farmer's herd, the witch's bat! Whatever! And in my internal world, I have envisioned myself with wings, a tail, ferocious teeth, scales, indeed, all these things that would better my person! (I jest).

So, I have experienced a significant variety of odd synchronous events come about as a result of Geek Love; a man met here, an idea spawned there, conversations which have influenced music making, thoughts, performance ideas, grand philosophical musings, words! All stemming from this book...


And then in a weird series of synchronous moments and chance decisions, this weekend, I am handed Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.

Being a dedicated and enthusiastic fan of the folktale and oral folklore tradition, I had wanted to read Carter's The Bloody Chamber long before I actually got a copy (posted to me in the romantic fashion by a beautiful squid in Leeds sometime last year). It lived up to all expectations, particularly one story entitled the Erl-King:

He smiles. He lays down his pipe, his elder bird-call. He lays upon me his irrevocable hand.
eyes are quite green, as if from too much looking at the wood.
There are some eyes can eat you.
The Erl-King lives by himself all alone in the heart of the wood in a house which only has one room. His house is made of sticks and stones and has grown a pelt of yellow lichen. Grass and weeds grow on the mossy roof . He chops fallen branches for his fire and draws his water from the stream in a tin pail.
(p. 98 in the 2006 Vintage edition)

Before coming to Berlin, I had just finished the first version of a song I'm busy composing for my Cixous Ghost project, entitled 'Mother, Mother, you have murdered me!' which is the closing line in the story of the Erl-King and from which I have stolen words for lyrics for this new tune. The music itself I am really happy with (it's immense and busy and machinic) and using Carter's words has set me off on a new exciting path of imagery and sound, Cixous being the audio visual project that it is.

It is also interesting because the story of the Erl-King is drenched in sound. The Erl-King's house rattles with the voices (cries?) of caged birds; the young female protagonist describes the Erl-King's pipe music as 'inhuman', the sound which brings her returning to him over and over even though she knows he will do her 'grievous harm'. The unstrung fiddle upon his wall features as key in the tale:

Although the bow hangs beside the old fiddle on the wall, all the strings are broken so you
cannot play it. I don't know what kind of tunes you might play on it, if it were strung again; lullabies for foolish virgins, perhaps...
(p. 102)

When I arrived in Berlin on Thursday last, I met with a friend (my very own Miranda, for she too has "legs as long as history") who I only occasionally see and often think of. I told her about the Erl-King and she identified it as a reworking of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Der Erlk├Ânig, the ErlKing. According to wiki, it was originally composed by the writer as part of a 1782 ballad opera named Die Fischerin. In 1910, this is how Albert Sterner envisioned him:

Myself and my Berlin friend talked a bit about depicitions of female desire in movies and literature, which is the reason I adore the story of the Erl-King so. In Carter's tale, the Erl-King is a desired object for the young woman who finds herself engulfed in the wood. In Western narrative (I think it's safe to say), it is unusual for a female character to go undescribed, to be the anonomous narrator and for the male or masculine to be depicted as the beautiful, the desired and sexualised object: the Erl-King is some serious hot tottie! And unlike the dangerous women of conventional narrative, the protagonist in the Erl-King does not suffer as a result of her brazen sexual willingness, in fact, it is she who becomes hero, the active masculine, to the dozens of women who the Erl-King has collected in his crying bird-cages. However, Carter's Erl-King is not cruel or violent. He is a glorious lover, he is 'the tender butcher', the danger simmers gently in the language of description, in the engulfing woods, in the mesmerism of his music, in spittle glistening on teeth, in slow preparatory rituals:

His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven. But in his innocence he never knew he might be the death of me, although I knew from the first moment I saw him how the Erl-King would do me grievous harm.
(p. 103)

And so, during this discussion, my friend presents me with Nights at the Circus published in 1984 (the year of my birth), Carter's final contribution before she died of lung cancer in 1992. From what I have read so far, it is strikingly similar to my beloved Geek Love. The protagonist is a (my heart it doth SING) half swan half woman aerialiste who is both beautiful and gaudy, captivating, mesmerising and all too human - all too woman specifically - or indeed just the right amont of too much to compensate for a history of female characters predominantly... what words should I use... made simplistic? Male envisioned? Airy? Lacking appropriate amounts of flesh? Anyone care to tip in? Boring? Unidentifiable? More fictional than a swan-woman hybrid and less believable than the stories manifested in Angela Carter's book? RANT. Here's a little image:

The blonde guffawed uproariously, slapped the marbly thigh on which her wrap fell open and flashed a pair of vast, blue, indecorous eyes at the young reporter with his open notebook and his poised pencil, as if to dare him: 'Believe it or not!' Then she spun round on her swivelling dressing-stool - it was a plush-topped, backless piano stool, lifted from the rehearsal room - and confronted herself with a grin in the mirror as she ripped six inches of false lash from her left eyelid with an incisive gesture and a small, explosive, rasping sound.
(p. 3, Vintage edition 2006)


Let us pause to contemplate Leda and the Swan; The rape, the love affair. This one is by Leonardo Da Vinci (1505-10):

Of course, when I reflect upon the topic, there have been throngs of awesome female characters and female (as it were) narratives throughout history. But both Dunn and Carter have depicted their female characters in a way that reinvents much of the discourse we consider normal in our narratives. They, I think, are creating new archetypes. These new female archetypes have territory in their stories, they have character. And it is the story that revolves around these women, in contrast to the characters stumbling upon or through a situation which is not their own, not for them or from their perspective; not for people like me. In fact, these stories are stories laid on stories laid on stories for as long as history - or indeed herstory - a layer of which is now one that I have created in expressing both the tales and the authors' writing in my own way, through music. For some reason Ophelia of Shakespere's Hamlet is coming to mind! Poor dear...

I haven't really gone into the details of the synchronicities because they are fresh and they are personal, but I did want to share some of the thoughts brought forth by all this gorgeous stuff. Would love to discuss them more too so comment comment comment. Want yer words and musings.

1 comment:

  1. there's a germane spiel by Germaine Greer in the Grauniad here:

    someone mentions in the comments that her article itself is like a tale, which it is. it's funny how stories provoke us to react, and if we do react and talk about them it's by ourselves telling another story, this time one about the story itself. so things keep going on indefinitely and almost despite us.

    i enjoyed the Carter book, especially the folk-tale retellings. i didnt like the first story -- too purple for me, self-consciously 'late 19th Century', name droppings of Debussy... Wagner... fin-de-siecle painters etc. and too many similes... but she can tell a story well.

    in the Erl King she drops in some lines from William Blake (did a course about him in college): 'How Sweet I Roam'd': - supposedly he wrote that poem when he 14. great little poem. and from reading it i don't think it's clear whether it was written by a woman or a man.

    i'm not sure that the feminine was always displaced from folk-tales in favour of something essentially and dominantly masculine. but i might be misrepresenting ya right there. and it's a mega-complex situation so let's not go on about that.

    synchronicity. i went through a phase a few years ago of strange coincidental happenings along with Paul Gilg, around the time of reading Cosmic Trigger which i was telling you about. discovered there's a word for a 'non-significant' interpretation of it: Apophenia. was it synchronicity or apophenia? impossible to know. my own way was just to trust in it and not think too much about it. hasn't happened so much lately.

    & i read a book sort of concerned with that topic a few months ago called Cosmos by this Polish author called Gombrowicz. one of the best books i'd read in a long time. highly recommended. fucked up and hilarious. makes sense of the world and the 'Cosmos' by way of an absurd and disturbing little story of what goes on between a small goup of people in a house in the countryside.

    have you read Jeanette Winterson's The Passion? Carter's writing reminded me of it, i reckon you'd really like it as well. great buke. about a cross-dressing Venetian girl who works in a casino and has webbed feet, and a young soldier going off to fight for Napolean. Winterson also drops some lines of poetry into her story - this time from The Winter's Tale: 'It is required you do awaken your faith'... which Greer mentions in her article.