don’t tell anybody
about this place
the woman said
but i can’t
resist the temptation
vision of paradise
heaven on earth
in her eyes
somewhere to rest
body mind spirit
safe haven beneath
clear blue skies
don’t tell anybody
about this place
the woman said
but i can’t
resist the temptation
vision of paradise
heaven on earth
in her eyes
somewhere to rest
body mind spirit
safe haven beneath
clear blue skies
saving time from what?
what unspeakable evil
is it that besets time
that it needs rescuing so?
time-saving aids are
as lifelines to
a better life
but what if I should
and time should
perish on my watch?
I can’t exactly confess to having been afflicted with writer’s block this past year. For instead it’s truer to say I had totally given up on being a writer altogether.
Ironically, however, the circumstances leading to my complete abandonment of my craft, I believe, make for an interesting enough story, on reflection.
After having seen my debut novel sink beneath the waves of global public indifference, it was suggested to me I seek guidance in the form of mentoring from an already established writer.
And as an example of the adage “careful what you wish for”, through a series of seemingly synchronistic events, I soon managed to make contact with one of this country’s more celebrated and awarded writers.
What thrilled me most of all was the fact that this writer in question also claims to have been largely inspired to write by the very same 17th century alchemist I myself have been. Too mind-blowingly cool!
Anyway, now the story gets a little bit more complicated. Because my first real contact with this writer is actually with his wife. An amazing experience in itself. For, literally two or three days earlier, I had quite by chance read the book of poems written for her by her future husband to be, with which he had first wooed her. And now here was this great writer’s muse standing before me — in the hallowed recesses of his writing studio no less — sharing intimate details of the intervening 40 years of their married lives together.
“I think he really is happy at last,” she confessed to me, “now that he has decided to stop writing.”
It was the usual story. There’s no money in it anymore, the dumbing down of the reading public, the all-pervasive curse of political correctness. This is a man after all that can recite whole cantos of classical poems in their original Latin, from memory. I mean, I feel stupid even thinking of myself as a writer worthy of the name in comparison.
So I listen to how this great luminary has finally decided to call it quits and feel all conviction drain from my body. Still, I leave my details with his wife and arrange for a time when it would be convenient for me to make contact with the man I wished to be my writing mentor.
Soon afterwards, I do in fact next have a telephone conversation with the man himself. Although the problem is that I can’t seem to clarify whether he thinks he is going to mentor me as an apprentice alchemist or as a failed novelist. Argggh, it’s all so hopeless! I don’t know what the hell’s going on.
“Look, it’s very hard to talk about these things abstractly,” he says, “but I’ve got a book of essays coming out next month that explains everything. Give me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Read that, and then we can start from there.”
Fine. I’m totally confused. Not least because his wife has just told me he has quit writing, and yet now I’m informed he apparently has a new collection of essays coming out. Also, I don’t know if I’m ready to start an apprenticeship as a real-life alchemist any time soon.
A month passes. Nothing. No book of essays comes my way. Just as I suspected. The whole thing was an elaborate lie to brush me off. Okay, so this writer is no JD Salinger when it comes to reclusive writer types, but he’s not exactly the kind to hold literary soirées either. All right fine. I give up, I think to myself. Being a writer simply isn’t worth it. What’s more, I’ve made a complete golden ass of myself with this whole mentoring debacle already.
Two months pass. Three, four, five. Still nada. I turn my attention to honing my guitar playing skills, swearing to never write another stinking word. Alchemy is for the birds. What delusional world had I been living in? Synchronicity? Oh, brother!
Seven, eight, nine months go by. I haven’t written a single poem, stanza or word. But my guitar playing is off the chart. Woo-hoo, couldn’t be happier.
Ten, eleven, twelve months have now past, when I pull up in the driveway and see an envelope sticking out of the letterbox. I grab the oversized piece of post and open it distractedly in the front seat of the car.
Oh, shit. It’s the book of essays, but I can’t remember their significance. I’m finally happy being just another second-rate guitarist rocking the suburbs. Man, I’ve given up. Like really given up. What the fuck. I feel like someone has just dragged the needle back across the record of my life, and that the back-masked message I’m now hearing threatens to implode the very reality of my new simple, dumbed-down choice of existence.
“Read that, and then we can start from there,” my would-be mentor had told me almost exactly a year ago.
Start what? I can’t remember what it was I wanted so badly. Let me go back to my Wild Turkey and amplified heat haze. Fuck this, I was happy. I was happy for having quit.
I crack open the cover of the book, searching for answers. But it only gets worse. My mentor has handwritten notes to me in the margins of his own book. His tone is jovial and self-deprecating; his handwriting impeccably informal.
Don’t make me go back to being my old self, I beg the Fates. It’s too hard to contemplate. I’m a fraud. A master alchemist will see right through me. I’ve forgotten how to turn words into a golden phrase. I have fallen out of love with all language and it with me.
But still I hold this invitation in my hands.
Within this municipality of
There’s no gift of sleep
For the truly wicked
Ultra-marathon night vigils
Convened around the
Dying embers of the many
Cruel luxuries of excess
All this in indirect
Contravention of those
Early accepted promises
Made covenant between
Heaven & Earth
Long since lost
In direct transmission
Due to bad energy diaspora
Committed by the so-called
Mafia Elite, masquerading
As the Hallelujah Police.
The title quote comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And, for those of you not familiar with the poem, these words are how the Ancient Mariner describes his killing of an albatross.
Now, I don’t profess to be an expert about this poem, not even for a minute. In fact, like with a lot of poetry, I tend to let the words simply wash over me and then form an impression of the poem based on what stays with me after I have finished reading.
Granted, it’s probably a fairly imprecise way of dealing with poems, but I am far more interested in poetic appreciation these days rather than deep contextual analysis and interpretation. Suffice to say, I’m content to leave such tasks to academics and their PhD students.
So, with that understood, I wish to now talk about what the title quote means to me, personally. Because I admit to currently being obsessed by the idea of having done “an hellish thing”, for which one must next do penance.
I can’t explain directly why this concept should fascinate me as much as it does. I mean, it’s not like, for instance, that I’ve done anything particularly hellish myself ever. Well, not in this lifetime, I’m pretty certain.
However, as a case in point about my obsession, when it came to my writing a novel, I chose for some undefinable reason to write about the defunct Antichrist’s search for a personal moral compass and eventual redemption, in a world long gone to hell. And, surely, there exists no more hellish figure than that, obviously other than Satan himself.
So, do I identify with this figure, then, somehow? This most evil and unforgivable agent of the apocalypse? Is that what is going on here? For why else would I have spent all those hours writing a novel about such an odious character?
And, I suppose, therefore, the answer to these questions must ultimately be, “yes”. Essentially, I see something universal about the figure of the Antichrist. There is something of the Antichrist in each and everyone of us, I would suggest. But let me explain, first, before you object.
OK, for me, then, this is the meaning behind the Rolling Stones’ lyrics to Sympathy for the Devil, where Mick Jagger sings,
‘I shouted out,
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me’
You see, we all carry the burden of guilt for hellish things that are done in the world, even when those things are done ostensibly by others. If there is evil in the world, it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to identify our own individual share in this evil.
Women and children are being killed every day in foreign war zones. And if you live in a Western democracy you must accept that a certain percentage of these innocent civilians are being killed in your name. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. Even if it’s happening on the other side of the world, in a country you can’t find on a map. It is a sickening fact you can’t truthfully deny.
Whether we like it or not, we all carry this guilt, just like the Ancient Mariner, who had the body of the albatross he killed tied around his neck, as penance.
And you know what? It stinks! Sure, some of it is simply middle-class guilt, I’m describing. A privileged form of despair, if you will. But, deep down, anyone with even a scrap of conscience must concede that our lives are ultimately built on the suffering and exploitation of others.
I understand it’s not a pleasant message I’m putting out there. But I honestly believe it to be the truth. Likewise, with the novel I wrote. It may not have the most pleasing literary style or even a heart-warming narrative, but it seeks to tell it like it really is. Not how we like to think things are, but how they are below the sanitized surface of political correctness.
But why? Why would I intentionally set out to remind people about what miserable wretches we all are? Why, indeed…
Well, anyway, let me tell you why. Because I have done an hellish thing, and this is my penance.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the life and teachings of Gurdjieff, let me just quickly explain that he was a Russian mystic of the early twentieth century, who insisted most of humanity languishes in a state of torpor similar to a deep hypnotic sleep. His remedy to this trance-like somnolence was what he termed the Work, which essentially consisted of training one’s mind to stay alert during our day-to-day dealings with others and our environments.
One concept he used in particular to explain why, as people, we often fail at what we set out to achieve or accomplish has stayed firmly with me in the intervening years since I first read it. And, in fact, I believe I saw confirmation of its validity this very morning.
The idea is based around the way that a musical octave is divided within the Western tradition. I make this distinction, because in Eastern musical scales all kinds of microtonal possibilities come into play.
All right, so the next piece of the puzzle, as it were, gets a bit theoretical, so bear with me while I elaborate. Although, at the outset, I will point out it might help to think of what I’m going to say next in terms of the black and white keys on a piano.
No matter. What Gurdjieff said was that our progress (within any endeavor that we undertake) will always follow the same pattern as an ascending major scale.
Now, for the musically uninitiated, a major scale consists of the following pattern of tones and half-tones (or semitones, if you like), namely TTSTTTS, where T stands for tone and S for semitone.
Ok, so before your eyes glaze over, I’ll simply add that what this means is that there are always two points in any major scale where the notes are only separated by an interval of half a tone. Specifically, this occurs between the third and fourth note of the scale and also between the seventh and eighth (or octave) note of the scale.
In the key of C, therefore, the major scale consists of the following notes: C D E F G A B C, where E and F are separated by only half a tone and B and C are likewise only one half-tone apart.
By looking at a piano keyboard, you can physically see what I’m describing by way of the fact no black key exists between E and F or between B and C, for that matter.
Essentially, what Gurdjieff proposed was that these two half-tone intervals represented a “weakening” of the scale. Moreover, he saw that this idea of weakening could be seen as a model of how, as humans, we constantly waver from our initial resolve in the course of setting out to achieve our goals.
Conveniently, just as there are seven notes in a major scale (before the return of the octave), there are also seven days of the week. So it is quite easy to see what Gurdjieff was getting at by thinking of Monday as the first note of a major scale and Sunday as the seventh note, with the other intervening days corresponding to their major scale counterparts.
What this model then suggests is that there exists a “weak” point in the week between Wednesday and Thursday, as well as between Sunday and the returning Monday.
Think about it. You resolve to start regularly exercising bright and early one Monday morning, and for two full days you amaze yourself by sticking to your new, grueling regime of physical fitness. But on the third day you wake up stiff all over and decide to throw in the towel. Sound familiar?
Well, you have simply fallen prey to a “semitone day”. And it’s a pattern that applies to all those times in life we resolve to change something about ourselves or our circumstances. Whether it be starting a diet, learning a language, controlling an anger management problem or the writing of that sequel to our blockbuster debut novel.
Similarly, Day Seven is another semitone day, and is usually experienced as those maddening times when it feels like we have simply given up just as something looks likely to succeed.
But don’t despair. Gurdjieff taught one merely needed to be aware of these weak spots and push forward that little bit harder on such days.
I saw it happen to the youngest member of our household today. Let’s just say, he and school aren’t a great fit. Anyway, he had resolved this week that he was going to try really hard to make school work. And for two days he actually managed the impossible. He was the model student. But this morning — the dreaded semitone day — the wheels completely fell off, and he arrived at school without having eaten his breakfast, ready to wreak havoc in his usual way.
So what did I do? Well, I explained Gurdjieff’s theory to him, for the first time, pretty much as I have for you right here. But did he buy it? you ask incredulously.
Would you believe me, if I said he came home with the headmaster’s prize for handwriting and is currently sitting and picking out tunes on our previously-neglected piano, as I write this?
Gee, thanks, Gurdjieff! Whoo-hoo, and now we’ve got three whole-tone days of coasting, in a row, to look forward to, until the next semitone day rears its ugly head…
I was thinking today about those words that have disappeared from use during my lifetime. And for whatever reason the first example that came to mind was the term Christian name.
Now, strictly speaking, a Christian name is the name given to a child when they are christened, and therefore it is a baptismal name, if you like.
However, when I was growing up, the terms Christian name and given name were totally interchangeable. Whether you had been christened or not, you were always asked by people to provide your Christian name when filling in surveys or forms etc.
I understand this conscious shift away from the term Christian name is an attempt to create a more religiously tolerant society, whereby members of other religions or beliefs (including atheists) don’t feel marginalized or offended by the said term.
Ditto for how we are now encouraged to wish people a happy festive season, as a opposed to Merry Christmas. As an aside, Happy Solstice Celebrations might at least give people a link to the astronomical significance of this particular time of the year.
Ok, whatever. So, look, here’s the thing, I’m not going to argue for or against this push towards secularizing language as it pertains to my own views of the rightness of the Christian faith.
Instead, I am questioning what is being offered to replace what I see as a loss of meaning (or impoverishment, if you will) within language generally.
The idea of a Christian name showed that an individual “belonged” to something higher than simply the family they were born to. Yet now one simply possesses a first name and a last name. Even the terms family name and surname are in danger of being totally eroded, I would argue.
Same for our national holidays (holy-days). They are in the process of becoming nameless breaks from school or work and nothing more.
It’s a way of reducing words to numbers. Easter becomes a four-day weekend, for instance. And it’s that myopic ass, so-called political correctness, that’s driving it. But at what cost to our humanity, ultimately? Where will it end?
How long before the days of the week are also renamed? Monday becoming One Day, Tuesday becoming Two Day, Wednesday becoming Three Day etc. After all, Thursday and Friday are actually Thor’s Day and Freya’s Day respectively, aren’t they?
Surely, the inferred pagan worship of these Norse deities alone, as instituted within the words Thursday and Friday, is cause enough to reduce all week days to a more suitable number-based system of naming?
Hell, while we’re at it, why stop there? I’m thinking, why not do away with our personal names altogether, too? Whether Christian or Muslim or Rastafarian or what have you. Take the omnipresent name John, for instance. It means “God is gracious” or “God is generous”. What God are we talking about here? Jehovah or Allah or Vishnu? It’s a freaking minefield of potential cultural conflict.
Numbers are so much safer. People can’t take offense at them, because they hold no special meaning beyond what they quantify. So let’s replace our names with our social security numbers, which we could have tattooed or barcoded onto our foreheads for convenience sake. What say you?
Let’s be done with the bothersome task of trying to find new meaning in an increasingly secular world. The sacred has no place in either language or our lives anymore. Even a word like enthusiasm is too contentious for widespread use, meaning as it does, in its etymological sense, to be filled with god.
I jest, obviously. But my concern is real. And I believe it is the duty of us writers to help find new meaning within our shared language, before it’s stripped bare. A universal language of the human Spirit, at the very least, is what is needed, I propose. Because if we don’t create new meaning to replace the old, we’ll eventually end up losing a lot more than the right to own our own names, I can guarantee you.
To finish, consider the irony of the following quote:
“Words have meaning and names have power” – unknown