wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: cognitivemusic

‘Cheer up honey, I hope you can.’

Maybe the power of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes from just this: its songs are designed to create a world, one less perfect-plastic-lossless-synthetic, one accessible only at night, by a journey inward. It’s a nostalgic album, and a fearful one: about 60% of its 52-minute runtime is touched with feedback, fuzz, static, electronic glitches, or its infamous Conet Project samples (whence comes the title) — and it seems to me the album’s heart dwells in its darkest corners rather than its cleaner, more straightforwardly ‘anthemic’ moments. The brighter, warmer moments recall the band’s brilliant Summerteeth, while the more heavily laden tracks (the collagelike opening song, the astonishing Poor Places > Reservations, whose interrupting silence is as much a part of the suite as the songs that surround it) look sadly forward to the nightmares of A Ghost Is Born.

I like to think (can’t help it) of albums like YHF as portraits of an imagined world the musicians invoked and inhabited and responded to in making the album, rather than a ‘statement’ of some sort. That kind of hero-narrative doesn’t appeal to me when it comes to musicians; I believe them when they report that deep inside the work, they feel they’re responding to impulses from beyond themselves — though I treat the specifics of those testimonials (the Muse, the Cosmic Consciousness) as pretty fictions only. YHF and atmospheric artworks like it not only depict but create a kind of listening-consciousness, about which you feel however you feel, but which is in a sense complete unto itself: pocket universe, paracosm. And in that place, everything comes to mean everything else. Symbol and referent are jumbled, interwoven, the symbolic layer is the ground of the real and vice versa and permute further and so on. If ‘psychedelia’ is this I don’t mind.

Did the album come on the coffeehouse stereo while I was writing this? Yes of course, and it doesn’t mean anything in itself but it means something in me-here-now, or I mean us-there-whenever. This is there; now is every other ever; I become ‘us,’ and it’s about time isn’t it. The music is the echo-artifact-pretense of the transformation which is the art, or (boring) the art’s purpose. Means to many ends, including pleasure (sure!) but especially joy. And ‘joy’ might just be the somatic component(?) of being-truly-in-the-world. Any world. Even this world of ghosts and remembering and war beneath the bedroom window and a mystery voice on a shortwave radio.

Magic.

System(s) of ritual/programmatic antirational worldmaking, way(s) of being-in-the-world resting on a number of ridiculous, factually inaccurate claims, but producing extraordinary results. Our corporate-capitalist unculture’s present interest in psychotropism (microdosing, nootropics, etc.) charts a smooth curve downdowndown from techtopia’s counterculture roots to the Carefully Managed State — SV execs taking meetings at Burning Man, etc. — nothing magical about it. Lost for now for most: enveloping ritual which cleansed the personal of its parochiality (the absolute opposite of ‘myopic’ is ‘cosmic’). The ground of magical practice is the community, the macro-self, the trans-self. No place for that now, no more…eppur si muove.

Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN.

An apocalyptic novel in a literal sense: for 350 pages strange lightning flashes and murderous horseman stalk a land bleached of meaning and bands of painted savages manifest suddenly on distant rises and the language is self-consciously ‘biblical,’ but none of that is as important as the fact that McCarthy’s remythologization of the West places the (no: an) apocalypse in the middle of the 19th century and says in nearly as many words that we are the ones living in the post-apocalypse. Blood Meridian reminded me strongly of the ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Viriconium, not least in the way McCarthy’s characters seem left behind by fate to play out terrible rituals against a backdrop of absolute loneliness. When the kid dies he’s surrounded by civilization, by merriment and physical pleasure — he even buys the services of a prostitute on his last night though we turn away from the act itself — but this being a western of course he can’t be fully restored to the fellowship of mankind. He and the judge converse at the bar, the judge seems to take a bottle of whiskey as if it belonged to him, and no one notices: they’re outside time. (Apocalyptic time, mirror time…) A bear is shot for nothing, suffers for nothing, dies for nothing; a couple of people in the audience notice, none reacts. If the judge had an insect’s head this would be the Bistro Californium.

McCarthy’s prose is literally breathtaking: I kept pulling up suddenly, trying to figure out how a phrase or sentence or extended metaphor could possibly have made it into our world. I’m in awe of his talents and the depth of his devotion.

There are no women in the book.

Let that sentence stand alone.1

And while the kid and the expriest do come to life somewhat by the end, they’re only players in a kind of nightmarish dumbshow — the narration comes to be indistinguishable from the judge’s weird oration, the kid’s sickbed hallucinations are exactly as real as the judge’s visit to the jail or his disappearance into the desert (the heath?) with his fool. This is myth, a world-tragedy rather than a human one. The kid’s death is sad but the horror is not that the judge outlives him but that he’ll never die. He is something unnameable and eternal. He sees himself clearly: he is a great favourite, the judge. He will never die.

Blood Meridian is one of the most American stories I’ve ever read.2 Which is to say it could only be told here, about this country’s (these people’s) twisted relationships to time, to place. Like Gravity’s Rainbow it tells the story of an American boy in a Zone stripped of comfort or sense, a zone of free play; Glanton’s gang is childish, though not at all childlike, and the judge is of course a figure of monstrous fun — dancer, fiddler, reader, scholar, autodidact, hedonist. (People forget that the life of the autodidact is both hard work — no teachers — and extraordinarily joyful, as every forward step is given meaning by the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. The autodidact has constant, deep purpose.) The horrors of Blood Meridian are not lifted or mitigated but enriched by its dreadful humour; the book gets funnier as it goes along, and the final act is preceded by a chapter-length comic interregnum. Its humour is as American as its landscape: you might even say they’re one and the same, as Americanness has always depended on an earnest-ironic response to the impossible mismatch between the vast ancient American topology and the foolishly intimate American idea.

The scene of the kid in the jail cell receiving a visit from the devil himself reminded me funnily of The Stand, which (no surprise) treats American expansion and expansiveness more literally: McCarthy’s novel compresses an universe of terror and judgment into just over 300 pages, while King’s big book treats ‘epic’ as a function of scale rather than vastness (depth of field, colour, time). Both books are ‘inappropriately’ jaunty in places, ‘too serious’ in others; both take violence as a given because it is given to men as a way into the heart of the world. To some men as the only open way. (McCarthy’s elevated tone is infectious…)

Not many novels better than this one that I know of. Christ. Plenty to say but I’ll leave it there.


  1. To be clear, there are a handful of female background figures, none named (few of the book’s characters get named; the protagonist is only ‘the kid,’ then ‘the man’). None of the women in the book are more than props for the main story — though of course, that all-extremely-male arrangement is itself an aspect of the story. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 
  2. I use phrases like this all the time, don’t I. And but they’re always stupid, and but here we are. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 

Ritual and control (systems): freewrite.

The word ‘ritual’ is overloaded w/judgment because the 20th century was horrible. We have a screwy notion of what time is — the body’s relationship to time, and the mind’s.

Neonates’ hearts have to be taught to beat in time. Ever wonder why they respond so well to bouncing at ~80bpm? Their hearts are learning how to keep a beat. They’re learning how to live.

Technologies collapse space and time, can we agree? One major effect of the Internet is that all libraries are local. My car lets me be 60 miles away in an hour; traveling five miles takes ‘no time at all,’ a unit of time so small I don’t notice it unless I’m in a hurry. Benedict Anderson wrote about this already — the psychic effects of 19C mass media. James Scott as well, in another register. Manovich, Kittler — yr Media Studies 101 reading list, basically.

(The Language of New Media put me off when I read it in grad school; I wonder how I’d feel about it today, where my almost unreadably marked-up copy is…)

What’s ritual? Programmatic action to imbue a moment with meaning: to change the relationship of the mind/body to spacetime. Ritual differs from habit by intention. It differs from ‘process’ in its metaphoricity — rituals aren’t always representational but the action/effect mapping passes through metaphor, which isn’t true of a functional process. How do you make scrambled eggs? Crack, whisk, milk, heat, scramble, no need to pour a ring of salt around yourself in the kitchen. Each step of the process accomplishes something physical, obvious; each step in the ritual (the crimson shawl, the ring of salt, the prayer to Pelor) accomplishes psychotropism.

Psycho+tropism: mind+changing. ‘Learning.’ I’ve been making this point (well it’s not a ‘point’ exactly) in writing for 15 years now.

Science — or no not ‘science’ but whatever hip idiots mean when they say ‘Yay, let’s do science!‘ — is supposed by now to’ve freed us from the Terrible Shackles of ritual. We no longer evoke or imbue or incant or call down the ______ but rather we ‘boot up’ and ‘lifehack’ and oh God it’s too stupid to write down. Point being we’ve replaced magical metaphors with technological ones and have failed to register the implied insult, i.e. that you and I are the same kinds of machines as the ones we serve all day. (On the other hand, given this subservience, maybe calling ourselves ‘computers’ is meant as a compliment? Well: I don’t take it as one.) The idea that you can pop a nootropic or microdose and unlock the awesome power of the human mind isn’t even wrong, it’s a betrayal on another conceptual register altogether — of dignity. The idea, I mean, that there’s nothing else to be gained by taking human time: time at a biological scale.

What am I angry about now. What am I going on about. Please, please look: Western minds have shifted over the last few decades toward a resentment/rejection of ritual, languor, symbol, secret, time as pleasure, mind as space — magic, basically. Magical thought. I mean even the phrase ‘magical thinking’ is a denigration now, as if magic hasn’t been a way of working (in) the world since the dawn of the species, as if ‘magic’ referred simply to the incorrect belief that a fingersnap can make a hated enemy feel pain and not to, oh, the years-long process of careful ego-thinning and -reshaping by which minds open up to an ecstatically imaginative (sur)reality.

Or from another angle: if you drink your stupid burnt Dunkin Donuts coffee-sludge in a hurry on the drive into work, the caffeine will make you somewhat more productive for a short time. There are better habits and worse ones. But you should know that in another world, that drink was part of an inexpressibly more potent behavioural psychotropic, a (don’t tell the boss) ritual of movement from hanging-at-home mode to whatever mode you need to get into to work for those predators at the top of the org chart — and billions of dollars are spent every year to convince you that you don’t need it, that there’s no time for that sort of New Age frippery. For those five minutes of generative peace and wonder and focused consciousness.

So: life gets faster and worse. And the other world, which was only ever within you, a metaphor of unspeakable power, gets smaller and emptier and harder to find.

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (tr. Merwin), briefly responded to.

You must read the classics.

I expected the pagan wildness of it to stick with me — this is a Christian tale set in the bizarre hybrid mythosphere of Arthur’s Round Table — but was taken aback by its strange proportions. The Green Knight’s physical description takes dozens of lines, and the longest descriptive setpiece in the book is an account of a boar hunt and subsequent skinning and dismemberment. (A later foxhunt takes only slightly less space, and refers to the fox directly as ‘Reynard,’ adding to the atmosphere of feral primitivism.) Because courtly knighthood was a form of insanity, and because the bedroom scenes are skillfully intercut(!) with the frenzy of the hunt, the simple virtue-testing story is tinged with an unexpected weirdness. Merwin’s translation is unadorned, which is the right approach: our distance from the story is part of the point, now.

Reading Gawain felt a bit like my long trip with Graves’s Greek Myths, a more self-conscious ‘literary’ experience in terms of presentation but generating that same feeling of enormous distance and mystery. I know that ‘deep time’ refers to the geologic, specifically as distinct from the historic, but the term feels appropriate all the same: the old mythoi fill me with a particular ‘adventurous expectancy’ which has to do with the unbridgeable distance between ways of seeing the world. I think of Mark Booth’s silly Secret History of the World, all about a lost mythic mode of seeing; I think of Julian Jaynes, of (getting less silly as we go) Eliade, Couliano, Aegypt, Star Wars, the new Westworld, Gilliam’s Munchausen, of storytelling and drama as incarnation of gods/myths rather than remembrance. The idea of story as a transmission vector for a way of apprehending the world which is in a sense a lost world unto itself, a hologram, invisible interference pattern left by light now past which when properly illuminated brings the old forms and colours back into being — that’s why I turn to the mythic and the mythological.

Distance and time. Terrible distance and murderous time.

The obvious re: fortune-telling.

Divination doesn’t tell you about the future. It can’t, that’s ridiculous.

It asks you about the present.

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.

Graves’s Greek myths.

Updated 21 May (see below)

Three ways into poet/novelist/crank Robert Graves’s retelling (synopsis) of the the great body of Greek myth:

  1. Naively treating the book as a neutral compendium of Greek myths (this is a recipe for madness, and will likely lead in short order to the next reading-posture)
  2. Knowingly treating the book as two — expert retellings of the myths marred by oddly deflating synoptic intrusions, plus a parallel, less compelling work of fantasy in the endnotes — and savouring the main text while dipping into the notes from time to time
  3. Knowingly treating the book as a single work of fantasy based on the Greek myths, marking the endnotes as a kind of optional countermelody

The advantage of the third approach, which I’ve tried to adopt in my own reading, is that it accommodates Graves’s deflating alternate versions and parenthetical insertions — instead of damaging a conventional narrative flow, they can be understood as a necessary feature of an alternative form.

If you haven’t read Graves, this is the sort of thing you can expect:

The Eleventh Labour: The Apples Of The Hesperides

a. HERACLES had performed these Ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month; but Eurystheus, discounting the Second and the Fifth, set him two more. The Eleventh Labour was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where the panting chariot-horses of the Sun complete their journey, and where Atlas’s sheep and cattle, one thousand herds of each, wander over their undisputed pastures. When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.

b. Some say that Ladon was the offspring of Typhon and Echidne; others, that he was the youngest-born of Ceto and Phorcys; others again, that he was a parthogenous son of Mother Earth. He had one hundred heads, and spoke with diverse tongues.

c. It is equally disputed whether the Hesperides lived on Mount Atlas in the Land of the Hyperboreans; or on Mount Atlas in Mauretania; or somewhere beyond the Ocean stream; or on two islands near the promontory called the Western Horn, which lies close to the Ethiopian Hesperiae, on the borders of Africa. Though the apples were Hera’s, Atlas took a gardener’s pride in them and, when Themis warned him: ‘One day long hence, Titan, your tree shall be stripped of its gold by a son of Zeus,’ Atlas, who had not then been punished with his terrible task of supporting the celestial globe upon his shoulders, built solid walls around the orchard, and expelled all strangers from his land; it may well have been he who set Ladon to guard the apples…

Graves goes on this way for several pages; his retelling of the Labours of Heracles expands zenoparadoxically into a series of digressions and clarifications and alternate visions that seems as if it may never end. But it does, and I was sorry that it did — Graves tries my patience but I love this stuff all the same. Paragraph b is typical: I can’t imagine a nonexpert caring one way or the other who exactly gave birth to a 100-headed polyglot dragon, and it matters not even a tiny bit to the flow of the story, but this is neither ‘proper’ scholarship nor pure narrative, and conventional satisfactions aren’t the point.

The function of paragraph b — assuming you think Graves has a point and isn’t simply mad — isn’t to slow the story but to broaden it: Typhon and Ceto don’t figure in this particular story, but by invoking them in this quasi-scholarly way like a Biblical scholar noting concordance between the synoptic gospels, Graves sets them to echoing in the background, as it were. Heracles’s labours matter to Graves and to the book’s metanarrative as part of a system of knowledge; on their own, as a series of well supplied violent rampages by a psychotic demigod, they’re Neat but not hardly Significant. But the mention of Typhon, with his arms 300 miles long and an ass’s head that touched the stars, deepens the colour of the story somewhat. Graves’s endnotes ground the stories in a (ridiculous) myth-history, and his cross-cutting invocations of a heavenly genealogy ultimately function as worldbuilding rather than, er, monomania and indiscipline.

If you think of stories as payloads for information, this strategy won’t make sense; there are better ways, for Christ’s sake, to establish the complexity of the Greek mythos than by dropping a steaming info-pile in the middle of the narrative pathway. But if you think of a story, like any work of art, as a machine for inducing psychotropism at a distance rather than a kind of inductive proof, then Graves’s approach has a certain imaginative logic. The mythos is a map whose territory is an entire long-dead culture’s collective imagination, and you don’t need instructions (‘plot’) to browse a map.

Which isn’t to say Graves’s individual retellings aren’t fun to read — I’ve been reading the Myths for months, a little at a time, and I’m enjoying them more now than ever — only that ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the point.

Non-Newtonian narrative

Sticking only to stories here for a second:

‘Visionary’ narrative maps an imagination — it attempts to render the encounter between a complex mind and a complex world without reducing either to the status of narrative components. Visionary art tends to be unconcerned or at least under-concerned with its own parseability. It doesn’t concede to convention, which at any rate is always a post hoc rationalization of an originating vision.

Conventionally satisfying linear (‘sane’) narrative does not directly map an imagination. It maps a kind of second-order reality: the narrative sequence you cocreate in your mind, Reader(s), is and must be orderly in a way reality never ever is, and the same goes for the author’s private story that the text bundles, encodes, and transmits. A story must be tellable to be told, duh, but the world isn’t. The world is the opposite of a story: it doesn’t presuppose sense and then work within it (unless of course you think the world is a story made by gods, in which case good luck with that), because the world doesn’t assume or presuppose anything. Before everything, being is. Telling comes after, because everything that dreams is needy.

My point here is that when I talk about ‘visionary’ art (which I do a hell of a lot, I know, and not only in the context of ahem psychedelic improvised rock), I mean art that doesn’t presuppose an orderly knowable ‘tellable’ world — nor a tellable mind. I’d say Graves’s own mad autodidactic myth-history falls into this category, though his close contemporary Tolkien’s mostly doesn’t: Tolkien’s legendarium is supremely orderly, which geeks like, and his brilliant long novel, though a work of actual genius, is satisfying in (among others) the totally conventional sense of putting its heroes through escalating heck and restoring them to something like sense on the other side, wrapped up in a bow. As GRR Martin points out, Aragorn is a good ruler because he’s the titular returned king, and for no other reason, really; he represents a neat’n’tidy idea, and he never attains the particularly complexities of a human being because he never actually has to rule. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are more richly imagined figures, their humanity tested rather than their fitness for the role of ‘plucky heroes.’ They’re the ones who grow in the telling.

I’d say that Tolkien attains a dreamlike ‘visionary’ power at points in Lord of the Rings — Shelob’s lair, Moria, Minas Morgul, the doom of the Rohirrim — but his storyworld always snaps back into place afterward. Middle-Earth isn’t elastic like Graves’s ‘encoded patriarchal overthrow of authentic Triple-Goddess worship’ frame; part of the ‘adventurous expectancy’ (HPL’s term) in Graves’s Myths comes from the feeling that he might, on page 600, just start gibbering about Celtic paganism and never stop. The basic imaginative content is the opposite of definitive, not least since you (I) have no idea which of his goddamn endnotes (which take up at least half the book) he’s just made up whole cloth. Whereas Middle-Earth is or at any rate can be written down somewhere, safe and sound. (This is no deprecation of Tolkien or his creation.)

All of which is why I don’t fault Graves’s dryly synoptic presentation. He’s not trying to tell a series of little stories, he’s trying to accurately render his felt sense of the deeply weird complexity of the whole sort of general mythos-mishmash. It is boring at times because worlds are. It contradicts itself at times because worlds do. It makes no sense because the world doesn’t, can’t, because the world isn’t made to make sense. It isn’t made. This is the great virtue of what we might call a ‘mythic outlook’: it pushes us toward an acceptance of the world of the mind (and the world itself) as it is. It is a posture of eager receptivity.

Visions come to prepared spirits. (Kekulé)

Update (21 May 2017)

Coda: The final piece of Graves’s project is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Despite his odd dismissal of the latter (‘the first Greek novel,’ a lower form than myth of course), throughout the Myths Graves has given himself freer rein when nothing was at stake, mythographically speaking. And his dry presentation of the myths, which for a long stretch prior to the labours of Hercules had gotten a little boring, crackles to life whenever the focus of the stories shifts from the divine to the (comparatively) human. The Odyssey is suffused with melancholy anyhow, but Graves treats it as the coda to a vast cosmology, the birth of the modern in a sense — ‘Well, I’m back’ and ‘Goodbye to all that’ — and that framing only intensifies the source texts’ deflationary effects. By linking Homer’s poems to various Mediterranean myths of city-founding, and devoting so many pages to partings and dissipations, Graves undercuts Homer’s narrative arc but finds a deeper, sadder story: the end of the Trojan War seems to take as long as the war itself, and Odysseus’s reclaiming of his throne barely registers as climax before he’s banishing his son to avoid prophesied death (which comes from the sea anyway, ironically in the form of one of his illegitimate half-divine children).

The Homeric material concretizes the Myths, makes them finally into a book rather than a grab-bag of Frazerian fixations.

Plus Graves has one more goofy surprise waiting in his penultimate notes section: Homer was Nausicaa, whatever the hell that could possibly mean.