wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: April, 2021

Steaks: low.

Lance Mannion died — real name Dave Reilly, was a well known figure in ‘left blogistan’ back when that phrase meant something, back when I used to post thousands of words a week to my own Typepad blog. He started his blog in 2004 and kept it up until his death. Respect.

This week I went home — my other home, I mean, the village where I grew up in Western New York. I say ‘village’ though my family actually lived in a hamlet (pop. 800) bordering the town (pop. 1,500) which contained the village (pop. 500 then, now down to 380), and my school was actually in the next town over (pop. 2,000). Well I went there anyway, handled some things, and one night in the hotel I thought that I’d forgotten how to sit down and just write. My daily leisure/work activity, one of my life’s loves. No idea. It comes and goes, I guess. What was missing was wanting: I couldn’t write because I didn’t know how because I didn’t want to, really, though I wanted to want.

Wanted in other words to believe myself whole. I’m tough to convince.

All through spring and summer I worked on the tarot book. It’s a ‘book,’ did I tell you? I printed a couple copies just to get a feel for it in the hand, see if the pages were page-sized, if I could stomach the ‘style’ and ‘personality’ and ‘dubious fact-claims’ of the thing. My first response:

… And was shocked to find that the early chapters, on the ‘earthly’ trumps, are much better than I’d given them credit for, while the later chapters just tired me out. … Anyhow I’m proud of myself for having written it, and proud of having faced my ambivalence to read and discover and be surprised. Proud of giving myself the opportunity to be proud.

Well, it’s a book. Next question is is it a good one, and no I think no I won’t no — it’s maybe a good something but prolly a middling book. Or else I’m being too hard on myself. Or else I just can’t tell it’s too close it’s too personal. Or else I can’t yet tell and need someone else to read it. But then once read it schrodingers into being for real and how can I back out? Who’m I obliged to at that point? On the other hand I had that shit novel from 2008 that I binned without great regret after a couple of people read it without great pleasure. Precedent: there is it.

You didn’t come for this sort of thing, we know. We sorry.


DECLARE by Tim Powers.

I just finished reading Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides, a lesser novel that shares some of Declare‘s unique strengths but all of its weaknesses. Here’s how I responded to rereading the better book earlier this year, the usual sorta first-draft message to myself:

The other day I was thinking about ‘secret history’ — of which Declare is said by some aficionados to be the premier example — as structurally akin to high modernist mythicization: sfnal (rationally extrapolated history) cousin to the fantastic (mythically interpolated psyche) playform which characterizes the literary domain of Graves, Joyce, Woolf, as well as the paraliterary domain of Freud and Jung. (Lovecraft used the tools of secret history to write fantasies of negative theophany.)

(Maybe interpolation and extrapolation should be inverted there, vis-à-vis sf/fantasy? Leave that aside, along with the controversy over whether Declare is sf at all. (It’s not.))

I’ve written too about conspiracism as a sort of degenerate secret history: the easy, anti-mysterious answer to all questions, vs the evocative/mysterious questions raised by seeing things clearly. This was too simple but hopefully retains value as a critical provision.

Tim Powers writes secret histories in which conspiracy features prominently. This seems like the obvious/necessary approach to the genre; it’s hard to have a secret history without secret relationships, though in Declare Powers is working in Le Carré’s conspiracy-of-spies domain, which turns out to be the perfect genre-peg on which to hang the necessary infodumps and parallax-inductions. Declare is a secret history of the Great Game and the Cold War — and because it’s a specifically Catholic one, i.e. a story in which Catholic metaphysics are just physics and baptism confers very real magical qualities, there’s a built-in esoteric/exoteric theological boundary that perfectly mirrors the now-traditional spy-story shape (‘the further in you go, the deeper it gets’). This is a story perfectly suited to Powers’s strengths.

That said — and I want to get this part down well before the end of my response — Declare also highlights Powers’s weaknesses, especially his total inability to write women. Powers is considerably worse at women characters than Le Carré, whose ice-cold moralism enabled him to depict their compromises and amorality in terms consistent with The Lads; Powers’s women are all special cases, desire-objects, plucky and willful but ultimately differing in kind from the men in their natures. Declare is partly a love story, but the spy Elena is literally a prize to be won, her Communism an obstacle to overcome. It is the story of Andrew Hale’s love, and of the woman/symbol he loves — tellingly, it’s implied that by the end of the novel Hale hasn’t loved or indeed fucked anyone in decades because of his sentimental attachment to Elena…yet Powers writes, at book’s end, that Hale hasn’t allowed himself to think about Elena for more than a moment. This is ludicrous; indeed it’s a mistake. In a book where the spiritual nature of marriage ends up playing a geopolitical role, where the fate of empires hangs on the thwarted-transcendent love between two Catholics, it’s maddening and insulting that Powers appears to grant the Lady Love Interest no erotic agency or identity beyond the protagonist-circle — and appears, too, to cut off the erotic imagination of the hero at the same boundary.

(Kim Philby, Declare‘s villain and history’s own, just loooooooves fuckin’. Encountering this tiresome moral schema in a story where the conservative Catholic Powers’s metaphysical beliefs are literally true — and where Catholicism itself is a life of noble suffering — one finds oneself prompted to unwanted, uncharitable thoughts about Powers himself.)

Along with Powers’s questionable command of character, however — or let’s grant him the large benefit of a small doubt and say questionable approach to it — comes a great consolation: a vivid (if at times abstract or impressionistic) sense of setting, and an extraordinary gift for drum-tight magical plots that relate organically to an impeccably researched real-world history. In his afterword to Declare, Powers describes its genesis in his reading about Philby and T.E. Lawrence; it’s actually an important part of the book. Powers’s attention to seemingly irrelevant weirdness — details that arose in actual history but which don’t feature in our consensual History-Tale, the shallow highlight reel which is our fading shared memory — is the core of his method and his books’ appeal. I’m reminded of GRR Martin, actually, whose fans point to his rendering of history as a series of paths-not-taken, mixed motivations, and unanswerable questions. (What were the many purposes of the great tourney at Harrenhall, an event almost entirely irrelevant to Martin’s present-time potboiler plot yet central to the two-generation historical narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire? That’s the sort of thing Martin-obsessives fret about.) Powers and Martin are willing/compelled to sacrifice certain literary comforts at the altar of a rigorous historical consciousness; both tell stories of locomotive force that sometimes have an unexpected anticlimactic quality, as story-elements reinsert themselves into history.

But Martin gets people, and Powers doesn’t seem to — which tilts Martin toward a grotty ‘realism’ and Powers toward archetypal horror. (I’d kill to read Powers’s take on Martin’s dragons; and we deserve Martin’s version of Elena.)

Declare isn’t fundamentally about the Great Game or fallen angels, it’s about a man born in a puzzle-box declaring for transcendent love against cynical materialist unlife; yet Powers (like Martin, unlike Martin’s TV adapters) is too committed to his magical storyworld to allow it to collapse into a simple stage-set. His story keeps (respects) history’s shape, and Declare‘s heroes feel like the game’s players rather than its purpose. Here, unlike in his other novels I’ve read, Powers’s history and metaphysics are perfectly aligned in narrative-mechanical terms. Hale’s decades-long hero-quest to find Elena and save her from the cruel Philby overflows, or rather interleaves with, the spy-story genre-frame; the war-in-heaven, the Great Game, and the love story share stakes — and asymmetry. Hale knows he serves the side of holy light, of God/England, and his willingness to die on history’s behalf marks him as heroic. (‘They also serve…’) One key element distinguishing Powers from Le Carré is that, in Powers’s telling, the West’s victory in the war against the Russians/Soviets is unproblematically As It Should Be; the Good guys do bad things, but that in no way compromises their Goodness. Powers’s politics are subsumed in his moral schema, which makes for bad historical analysis but great storytelling.

(The Russians serve a not-solely-metaphorical ghul after all, whose power is in a sense the essential meaning/nature of the Russian/Soviet Empire; and did I mention she takes the earthly form of an erotically intoxicating Arab woman? No? And here you thought Powers’s girl problems ended with actual girls…)

Is Declare a good book? It’s fucking great! Better than I remembered, better than I originally thought, as good as Ken Hite always said. But it’s narrowly great, so to speak.

Which might just be the cost of doing genuinely original work. Declare‘s weaknesses seem to be Powers’s own — the same ones that colour The Anubis Gates and Last Call and Three Days to Never and On Stranger Tides — and here he comes closest to surmounting them. Like its author, the story is perfectly itself. You and yours should be so lucky.


15+ years ago my friend Farhad used the phrase ‘duration music’ and it stuck with me — under my craw in fact. In fact, enough that I’m thinking about it this morning.

I just listened to Loscil’s Triple Point while plowing the sidewalk slush. Hourlong album, sounds and feels like one song.


Beyond the usual pop/rock/funk/whatever, my music listening often tends toward a mix of the ‘old-fashioned’ (jazz, classical), the psychedelic, the ambient-electronic. These have ‘duration’ in common. As a kid I’d throw on my mom’s Beethoven records and ride out for a half-hour and more on a single multipart composition; in college I’d listen to an hourlong continuous jam by Phish, then rewind the tape and listen again. They Might Be Giants write perfect 3-minute pop gems, but queue up three in a row and you’re essentially having a continuous TMBG experience, long talk in an alien language — how long does the music need to play before its character changes, or yours does, and the listening rather than the playing becomes the locus of temporal identity? Is a long listen to short tunes a thing in itself?

Trout Mask Replica and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts don’t sound much alike, but it seems to me they have a related psychotropic effect; is there a metagenre — of reception-posture rather than performance-form; perhaps we should speak of a ritual role — which they can be said to share?

Or does ‘duration’ relate to ‘enduring such repetition’? And what’s the point? By so enduring, what do you break through to?

The Loscil album — his first: minimalist ambient techno, pretty/empty — is an hour of almost undifferentiated drone-baths and bleeps and pressure-differentials (excuse me, ‘beats’), like a row of computers trying not to interrupt each other while taking the SAT. There’s not a single moment of the album that demands or even rewards attention, and while I’ve heard it enough to recognize the first two tracks, the rest of the hour has no identity at all. I want to say it’s ‘egoless’ music, in a sense, except that it takes some ego to think that such (any) music needs to be made and shared. Maybe not much.

And I’m glad it does exist. While Zero Point excites no passion in me at all, no emotion of any kind really, it forms an important part of an outer/inner experience that I do treasure. Like Stars of the Lid, And Their Refinement of the Decline — like Adderall, or so I hear — Zero Point grants access to a powerful realm of action.1

Even the action of sitting very still, of cultivated ‘inaction’; though of course not only that.

One of my favourite activities used to be going out on a late-night errand, ideally grocery shopping, with 88.1 FM on the radio, whether on the car stereo or in the headphones. MIT’s WMBR — Walker Memorial Basement Radio — is Boston’s best and most interesting station, and night they generally play a strange spacey mix of tunes, from goth-wave melodrama to psychedelic soundscapes to experimental improvised rock-noise to the usual electrobleep wallpaper-glitches that apparently substitute for womb sounds among helicopter-parented Gen Z kids. I love it; to me the whole mix signifies darkness-as-permission and I’ve been grateful for the WMBR DJs’ night-journeys since arriving in Boston nearly a quarter-century ago.

I wouldn’t call my night-listening ‘habitual’ now, not only because I’m not around the car radio much now. But it’s unquestionably a ritual headspace I return to occasionally at what I determine, according to some improvisatory whim, to be the right moment. It’s not solely curiosity that pushes me to WMBR at those times; I do occasionally wonder what’s on, but that wondering needn’t propel me to listen, necessarily. There’s plenty else on. Rather, it’s a kind of conscious openness that motivates me to tune in. From time to time, I’m ready/able to receive transmissions on a certain (metaphorical) frequency, and that readiness can manifest as listening to WMBR’s literal broadcast frequency…but less literally/simply, too, it means relaxing my grip enough that my continuity of experience is restored (to me). Is that ‘holism,’ is that entry to an altered state through ‘holistic’ practice?

Call it instead ‘psychedelic’ experience, which is absolutely (nondeterministically) linked to ‘duration,’ as to disjunction and a matrix of perceptual contrast-effects: continuity where ending should come, precession and peak and recession and then weird dissipative wobble where clean lines are customary, sad mad fluting out of a clear night, music coming in colours, backward speech, secret speech, angel-voices booming through the Heaviside layer on a clear channel, wisdom from a stone, a plant, a kiss. Psychedelia’s stylistic link to rainbows and spectra flows from the quality — not solely attributable to psychotropic chemicals — of a reconstituted continuity, the erosion and smoothing of sharp artificial edges between domains of experience, action, sense, feeling.

An imaginative posture of receptivity, or more precisely one of a range of such postures, marks the psychedelic experience as much any formal quality of text/place/act. And as with (say) performing a demanding series of yoga asanas, to enter into a state of psychedelic openness takes not just time but a long damn time. Not only that: while psychedelic experience is often the furthest thing from ‘relaxing,’ it does call for the mind-body complex enter into a sort of fluid flow state, grounded, corners rounded, different in kind from the ‘continuous partial attention’ (i.e. managerial disconnection) of ordinary time. In other words: acceptance of, or let’s say ‘authentic engagement with,’ the flow of things — even things that won’t flow. Psychedelia is about getting deep with it, whatever ‘it’ is.

Not to say, of course, that great psych-art can’t be discontinuous and disturbing and aggressively weird — there’s nothing rounded or flowy about Trout Mask Replica or Apollo 18 — but rather that you need to come to such art ready to ride out the experience. You’ve gotta commit. This is one reason corporate ‘mindfulness’ practices are so ugly and transparently fraudulent: they’re precisely and explicitly about ‘microdosing’ practices (e.g. breath meditation) which, sustained in their proper measure, would make consumers less susceptible to the motivating/dehumanizing anxieties of corporate anticulture. A one-minute break to breathe really is purely good for you, but the last thing your HR Team Lead actually wants is for you to attain inner peace, or even to pursue it.

That’s not what they pay you for.

One reason psychedelic culture is so preoccupied with ‘ancient wisdom’ — one non-silly reason, that is, there being plenty of silly ones, as well as an assortment of particular social-historical contingencies which this essay is waaaaaaay too fucking broad-brush to be concerned with — is that sinking into psychedelic experience, drug-induced or not, calls for an imaginative flexibility (or even-temperedness, good nature, conscious embrace of contingency/paradox/uncertainty, etc.) to which bite-size fluorescent antiseptic analytical clocktick stutter-step stop-motion modern being(-barely)-in-the-world is not just incompatible but actively hostile. The least intrusive portion of our modern existence is night, when we’re least accessible to surveilling power, least jittery, least often interrupted and interfered with, restored to ourselves by depletion, drifting toward dream: i.e. least modern, most like our ancestors. Sleep is a thing they and we share, and dream. In the shadow-time inbetween days, between forced submissions to more and less obviously hostile systems of external control, the discretizing rationalizing systematizing abstracting intelligence which serves Good Order can recede and a different faculty assert itself, something deeper down, scarier — (dis)quiet connection, (dis)solution…an encounter, there, for which the human mind has always been equipped by evolutionary accident, and which calls forth not daybroken intelligence but nightlit wisdom…

So I put on this Loscil album, right? And if it’s the right depth of dark and I’m the right sort of ready (or ready to be ready), I go to a place that’s no place, an inner state in which I’m coolly attentive to the curve the music makes where/when I am, but without demanding that the music (or where, when, Self, cool, inside) submit to whatever of day’s rationalizing demands I might unthinkingly pass along — ‘transmit,’ to borrow the obvious epidemiological term. That state might not be relaxing in itself, but at some level you have to relax into it, to defocus and suspend perception of fine-grain topology in order to bring slower contours into your listening-consciousness; paradoxically this can be hard work, as any woman who’s given birth can tell you. It’s a standard drug-trick too but not only that. Various kooks and goofs will talk about ‘deeper awareness’ and respectable sorts will laugh, are trained to laugh — but why wouldn’t there be a cognitive equivalent to deep-tissue massage, and why wouldn’t it too involve slow strokes and sustained pressure?

Magical texts suggest two sets of techniques for inducing ekaggatā or single-point awareness: the inhibitory and the excitatory, respectively the quieting/collapsing of awareness and its intensifying/fracturing, both resulting in a posture of clarified, ego-suppressive awareness. This is magical consciousness — psychedelic experience — and common to both inward/outbound paths is time, which is to say devotion. One aspect of devotion is burning off enough fuel to get rid of jittery self-consciousness, accepting the nature of the thing itself, working hard enough that basic depth-maintenance isn’t such hard work anymore.

(Imagine your first swim teacher gently holding you at the water’s surface, encouraging you to relax and float; imagine somebody else yelling ‘Just relaaaax!’ from somewhere outside the magic circle.)

Our specific terms here are from Peter Carroll in Liber Null, but students of tantra, BDSM, Ritalin, video games, William James, any intellectual endeavour requiring multiple hours of sustained concentration, or music that goes so fast that it feels slow, will recognize thesis antithesis and synthesis. Indeed, Carroll’s work was explicitly agnostic as to method:

Certain forms of gnosis lend themselves more readily to some forms of magic than others. The initiate is encouraged to use his own ingenium in adapting the methods of exaltation to his own purposes.

‘Methods of exaltation’ sounds like Eliade’s ‘techniques of ecstasy,’ which is perhaps to say2 one measures a circle beginning anywhere.

And our point here — intentional or emergent — is that we might think of Loscil’s synth patches and Carroll’s magical trances and Fort’s adventurous-expectant circle and Eliade’s technicians, along with Sun Ra’s spaceship and William Gibson’s typewriter, as points or ranges within a shared domain of human (and indeed transhuman) experience. Or—

Or no, maybe our point is that ‘intentional’ and ’emergent’ aren’t opposites.

Cambridge MA : February / April 2021

  1. I wrote about And Their Refinement and its place in my ritual-listening for the 33-1/3 B-Sides anthology from Bloomsbury. 
  2. (after Charles Fort, but I hope you knew that already) 

In the dungeon, March 2021.

On weekends I run a D&D game for my son and a few of his friends. We use Zoom, ‘theater of the mind’ style (I’ll show them a dungeon map from time to time to orient them spatially). Last time out, the kids looted the treasure room of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, finding enough gold and jewels to set them up for a long journey, along with a slew of odd magic items.

My view of D&D magic is this: ‘magic’ entails ‘mystery,’ so I’m not interested in a fully knowable, ‘rational’ system — only a (largely) learnable one. Banshees don’t follow the same ‘rules’ as the PCs, but tomorrow’s banshee should be recognizably the same Kind of Thing as today’s. I don’t care what level spells Gandalf has access to, only that he feels like Gandalf. This fantasy-logic extends to the magic items the kids found in the vault, taken from a handful of OSR blogs:

  • magical gum that, when spat out, creates a homunculus of the chewer
  • a magic flute that calls money to it
  • a monocle that causes entropic collapse of whatever is seen through it — but this takes a long long time

The kids lucked into killing a basilisk, and in a moment of desperation the bard decided to stick its eyes into his own eye-socket, which was conveniently vacant because he was wearing a magic eye-removing ring he’d earlier found. My quick ruling: replicates the basilisk’s gaze, but only as a one-off effect, and starts to decay pretty fast inside the skull. Gross, rewarding, and now he’s got the other eye in his hat, in case they get into another tight spot. I consider this a big win all around: the bard had a clever, gross idea, and the world got both more knowable/manageable and stranger.

My son, meanwhile, decided he wanted a basilisk-scale cloak. Took the scales to a leatherworker in Bernt Arse. Then robbed the trading post in Bernt Arse along with the thief and the bard. Now he wants to head back into the village to retrieve the cloak — but of course the village watch is looking for them. I don’t wanna hit them with the double whammy of near-death and a useless cloak…so I think the basilisk scales give some kind of light magical protection, but they’re really heavy, interfering with stealth. This means chucking out my original Theory of the Basilisk, but I’m happy to roll with this new ruling as long as it creates interesting choices for the crew.

One of the kids has been crowned Goblin King.