wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: highweirdness

It’s nice to be pleased with a paragraph of your own writing.

If Sandover is ultimately an artistic failure — debatable but let’s humour the boring consensus for a moment — in what sense, by what standard, does it fail? What is Merrill supposed to be doing? Litcrit rules are dumb and dangerous but the time for circumspection is past: in Sandover, Merrill fails in an attempt to become transparent, to socialize his (and Jackson’s) vision. A long literary work ‘teaches you how to read it’ when its early movements provide the tools for accessing the more difficult later material: an API or access-language. Sandover‘s later movements, though beautiful, are a taxing read because they sacrifice clarity for purity.



Excerpt from mss. in progress –wa.

Yeats’s ‘lonely impulse of delight’ — the mundane-mystic vision at the heart of his Irish airman’s honest testament — comes back to me unbidden several times a year. It’s one of the few ‘adult’ poems I’ve memorized, and it’s hard for me to recite it without breaking down. OK, now how’s this for mundane: the aerial chase that brings the third Matrix movie to its climax, with Trinity’s flying-craft breaking through eternal oilsmoke night, vouchsafed her (our) first glimpse of the unscarred sky only to plunge to cruel death which in turn frees her blind lover-brother to save both the human and the machine worlds, is forever intertwined in my stupid head with Yeats’s ‘tumult in the clouds.’ ‘I balanced all, brought all to mind’: peace and equipoise, slow and life and quiet amidst machine-death. Trinity looks out at the old world (light from 93 million miles away, memory of faraway minutes ago) and whispers, ‘Beautiful.’ She flies toward grace.

Syllabus: 69 Love Songs.

(from the manuscript in progress)

If he’d released them as a series of albums — 18 Love Songs, 15 More Songs About Love, Nine Songs for Bored Lovers (and a Song of Thwarted Hope), 16 Love Songs Involving the Wondrous Accordion, and the 10-track promotional release Love at Leeds — would anyone but diehards ever have given a shit about Stephin Merritt’s showpiece/monsterpiece, or bothered listening? Part of the genius of the work is the fact that it’s too big, specifically this much too big, never mind the marketing hook of the whole 69 thing, ‘ha ha.’ Well, love is too big, specifically (for some people, sometimes) that much too big, and its dual status as narrative series and random-access collection says something (to us, sometimes) about its subject. It’s all these things and not the sense you make of them, but go ahead make sense; the album’s a lot like love, and love is a landscape. You occupy it and vice versa. It makes sense of you. You should move freely inside it while you can, so that sensemaking goes on when you leave. It doesn’t all make sense. You’re too smart for your own good, dumb as a post, needy, infinite, still giggle or primly purse your lips at the number 69, got it figured out, nowhere close to figuring it out. Any of it.

I’m not kidding about genius either. It’s probably ‘too big’ and a few of the songs are wastes of space on their own terms, but that’s the thing — each song’s terms are shaped by that very stupid mega/metacontext. You can only hear these tunes as part of the larger thing, which is truer in itself than any willfully insincere piece would ever cop to being. You can only tell someone so many details about a mountain, can only answer ‘What’s it like?’ so many times, before you have to point to the top and say ‘Just go already.’ The whole thing is the truth. Love is a landscape.

Adam Gorightly, SAUCERS, SPOOKS AND KOOKS (2021).

This is what I wrote last year in my ever-expanding textfile of quick reviews of every book I read, which’ll doubtless be a critical treasure beyond price someday:

A disarming history — partly extrapolated, partly hallucinated, fond, fanciful, and highly strange — of the various ufologists and presumed intelligence agents/assets connected to the Dulce Base mythos and the ‘Bennewitz affair,’ in which contactee Paul Bennewitz came forth in the 80s with claims that eventually drove him mad…supposedly with help from various ‘alphabet soup’ (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) gov’t orgs.

Gorightly’s account is, at times, a litany of indistinguishable kooks making claims and counterclaims about who’s a narc and who’s a spook and who’s been compromised, which makes for wearying reading. But it’s also a warmly empathetic — and critical — memoir of the 80s/90s fringe/conspiracist/ufologist community, which Gorightly was a part of. His evocation of his fellow believers and seekers reminds me of Slacker and Waking Life, and is tinged with the survivor’s melancholy that colours A Scanner Darkly (PKD and Linklater again) and the Montauk books. Gorightly’s a breezy writer, thank God, and the book is written for and about fellow believers but with a humane, light touch. He takes less for granted than most of his fellow travelers, to his credit.

Better (from a ‘critical’ i.e. bloodless perspective), Gorightly was part of the eruption of fringe culture into the mainstream in the 1990s (with The X-Files as the best-known example/vector), and takes time to lay out a bit of the media history of the ufology/conspiracist fringe, tracking the circulation of specific memes, first through correspondence and social networks, then into a network of underground publications, finally out to a wider audience via charmingly guileless low-rent broadcasts.

Wellllll, maybe not entirely guileless: Gorightly plays throughout with ‘psyop’ ufo conspiracism, entertaining (if not explicitly endorsing) rumours of government disinfo plots and shadowy characters. Men in Black turn up throughout the story, as do a series of MJ-12 forgeries and the suspected Real Thing. Unlike, say, Redfern and Keel and Pauwels/Bergier, Gorightly isn’t a self-promoter or tease: SS&K isn’t a pulp narrative about brave researchers against the Man, it’s a look at a strain of American folklore by first- and secondhand witnesses. There are no cliffhangers, maybe out of a certain kind of respect, but also because this is a story of deliquescence and dissolution. Bennewitz isn’t the story’s only mental-health casualty, and many characters seem to come to the banally sad ends that await most True Believers — leaving the ufology community, drifting in(to) obscurity, denied narrative closure and even the consolations of material success.

The disinfo ‘plot’ gives Gorightly’s book an ambivalent charge, but again, it’s no thriller. The possibility that the USA gov’t is fucking with the ufologists at every turn is part of the attraction for gawkers, but for more credulous sorts, it seems to settle — over years — into a dull fact of life. ‘You know about the suppressed transmission, of course’: it’s more statement than question, reflecting both the believer’s myopia and his faintly depressing settlement. The cynical ‘skeptic’ guessing game (‘Does the author really believe this stuff?’) doesn’t interest me; for whatever reason I’m sensitive to a kind of weary resignation in such utterances rather than the repetitive (passive-)aggression that less sympathetic listeners/readers perceive (infer, impute) even in what I take to be extra-cheerful kooks.1 As a result, Gorightly’s tale reads to me as an account of a community living so long with Weirdness that it sinks in and replaces ‘normality.’

Perhaps that’s where the weird flatness of the (much less well written) Nichols/Moon Montauk books comes from: as far as Nichols is concerned, he’s just relating the way the world works. There’s no mystery, it’s not pulp fiction, just an account of living day-to-day with what’s now stupidly known as ‘your truth’ — which in his case happens to involve absurd occult conspiracy, but to focus on content misses the point. (Gawking is also obviously the opposite of what the seemingly sad and lonely Nichols wanted out of those books — though Moon seems to’ve been more than OK with gawkers as long as they bought the books.)

Gorightly isn’t cynical, and his genuineness is key to the books appeal, both imbuing his story with a gently sardonic affection and robbing it of some narrative thrust. As such, I find myself grateful for having read the book, and slightly hesitant to recommend it on ‘literary’ grounds — even as I recognize that they don’t, needn’t, shouldn’t apply. Perhaps you ought to read it for yourself.

  1. Yes, that’s three sets of parentheses in one sentence. 


Excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –wa.

The ideal state, it seems to us, is sensory-imaginative immersion so total that every element of the experience comes to metaphorize every other — a borderless innerstate of total fluidity and mutability, surrounded and penetrated and haunted, absolute becoming-multiple. Being as we are, we most easily conceptualize such states in musical terms. Remember Bennie Maupin’s ‘Ensenada’ spreading out from pedal point as polytonal mist: intense bodily experience of stillness and slow movement. Remember the cruel carnal-cosmic ‘On your knees, boy’ from U2’s ‘Mysterious Ways,’ literate technosex as border-crossing, principled pain/pleasure. Remember Bernard Xolotl’s ‘Nearing the Gates of Eleusis,’ which establishes its minor colour and then denies return for seven minutes, circling spiritual-erotic yearning for release from the V7 like dervishes dancing, nearing the gates, secret innermost place… Remember those snaredrum 32nd notes racing beneath Jeff Tweedy’s despairing octave leap on the outro chorus of ‘Radio Cure,’ machine noises at the edges of vision like a migraine, like arms enfolding, distantly. Remember the camera pushing in on D’Angelo’s face as his listens to his band mount that astonishing crescendo to sexual-spiritual ecstasy and his rapturous smile shy then proud is the song’s true climax, true self hearing true self. Remember Burial’s ‘Kindred’ circling back to repeat after beatless break, that aching IV in the bass as warped voices multiply and maybe wanna rise, ‘Baby you can find the light,’ but dawn comes for this dream—

We think of experiences of conceptual hull-breach, doors thrown open and compartments flooding one another, every signifier another’s signified: radical polysemy. Nonpolynomial expansion of meaning. He licks his lips because he’s nervous to be naked (vulnerable, validated), he’s thinking of sex (desire, defilement, divinity), he’s thinking of food (family, fellowship), he’s thinking of God (ascension, assumption, apocalypse) — those ideas superpose and crosspollinate until every moment of the work belongs to every one. Think of this unmooring of/from meaning not as irresponsibility but as total responsibility: every possible imaginative relation is in hand, you are trusted with your every thought. No metaphoric link is forbidden or discouraged. Freest association. This is the environment of non-ordinary permissiveness which the term ‘fusion’ in its deepest sense can evoke.

This empowering, exhilarating boundarylessness characterizes mind-altering experiences of ‘psychedelic’ consciousness. It can bring terror, joy, serenity, longing, satisfaction, focused intensity, oceanic diffuseness, distortions or enhancements of perception, affirmation and obliteration of various self-narratives — but always a sense of being intensely alive. A more momentous present moment: more real precisely because more unreal, more surreal. The real world filled with all those other worlds, and no distinguishing between them.

When we speak of the ‘cosmic,’ this is what we mean: the sense, not of breadth or distance, but of multidimensionality.

We were at a party on Jones Beach or thereabouts one night with a bottle of bourbon in hand staring out at the water and things had grown complicated for what felt like it must be (better be) the last time, worst time; we craved resolution and felt intensely sad, angry, broken — sensed ourself to be in violation of principles perhaps we never held. We threw the bottle into the water and went to sleep in the car, maybe not right away. Looking back nearly 20 years later we don’t (as you might expect) ruefully recall the painfully abrading knot of good intentions and bad judgment and mixed emotions which bound us and others (each poisonously to all); it was hard and we were dumb but that’s as far as it went. Rather, we see in that moment an incredible complex potentiality, vast energies circulating. The desperation attached to the memory isn’t to do with hopelessness or choices cut off, but rather the chance (not taken) for absolute transformation. Angry, sad, broken, yes; but also comprehensively involved, able to see out to sea, able to touch inner organs flayed bare, bound up with other hearts, fending off knowledge and drowning in feeling. The sky was huge. It might’ve been summer or spring — what difference does it make?

Not cosmic, not hardly. But without question an experience of the irreducible interconnectedness of things, coloured by negative affect (then and in memory now) but lit from within. Longing, lust, lament. Love and loneliness, and a quietly violent confusion. Knowledge of pain. I fucking felt like everything.

The motif of ‘adventurous expectancy’ which runs through the present work is most intensely evoked, for us, when a purity (singularity) of sensation joins a complexity (multiplicity) of sense: algebra giving way to ecstasy, the great unwieldy mass of form made weightless in ecstatic flight to outer/innerspace. The utter simplicity of a single trembling note, sight of a high strange house on the hill, a pirouette, or the hour after the caffeine kicks in when hard problems feel easy but are known in their complexity — every aspect present. That’s what life is like, at best: every idea, every memory, flowing beneath this single-point awareness. All the contents of the imagination brought to the fore, everything in foreground, front-of-macromind.

The joining of this kaleidoscopic imagination with that of another person, desires in common (in communion), gives this imaginative experience its identifiably erotic dimension. That feeling of borders collapsing to points, points variegating to spaces. You and me, dimensions of one another. Mind and body amen.

Telling the truth is a love letter to everything imaginable.

Notes on the MATRIX movies.

The following, written a month or two ago, is excerpted from a manuscript in progress. –w.

The Matrix / Reloaded / Revolutions / Resurrections

The release of Lana Wachowski’s Matrix Resurrections will muddy the critical legacy of the original trilogy++. Not to say it isn’t time for a reevaluation: it’s long been fashionable to backhandedly compliment The Matrix as a ‘perfect’ yet pretentious and intellectually slapdash film, complain about Reloaded as a bloated indulgence with impressive setpieces and a ludicrous ending, and dismiss Revolutions as an overlong and ultimately mundane messiah-tale. All three of these judgments are incorrect. But today’s American film audience — raised on secondhand Star Wars and Marvel’s sub-cinema of expensive reassurance, in a discursive context that prefers video ‘explainers’ and ship-fics to meaningful ambivalence — isn’t capable of meeting the original films on their own terms, and Lana Wachowski’s reinterpretation of the trilogy serves, I think, to narrow and reduce it, even while seeking new things to say about sentimental nostalgia. The Matrix trilogy is more ambitious, with more on its mind, than any ‘blockbuster’ entertainment since, and much morseo than the surprisingly modest Resurrections. It continues, even now, to transform.

The center of the Matrix story is the widely mocked and parodied conversation between Skywalker (Neo) and Emperor (The Architect), which serves as anti/climax to the astonishing second film, Reloaded. I suspect, as I did then, that the Architect scene caused titters partly because its dialogue is a little complicated, but mostly because it explicitly undermines the seemingly familiar narrative which the The Matrix had established.

The first film is the straightforward hero-story of a soul’s liberation: a young Hero fulfills his Destiny as The (Chosen) One, guided by allies from the Hidden World, only when he learns to Sacrifice his illusory Self for Love. The superbly expressive kung fu, snappy dialogue, and wondrous vfx make the Wachowskis’ tale of modern-day gnosis look like sf, but as with its key forerunner-texts Star Wars and The Invisibles, The Matrix is basically old school mythic fantasy (i.e. allegory of self-actualization and restoration to authentic existence) told using familiar, indeed universal, magical terms: Neo/Anderson (tr. ‘Son of Man’) comes to know himself and gains the powers of flight, martial mastery, truesight, transcendence of death, etc. It’s fast and funny, and has a killer ending. No wonder audiences loved it.

But Reloaded all but chucks the surface story of the first film out the window, and after a lot of baroque plotstuff it ends up with Neo confronting the Architect behind, as it were, the curtain. The villain tells the hero that the first film, ostensibly about seeing the hidden truth behind the world of illusion, is itself a long lie: the prophesied messiah, ‘The One,’ is an emergent phenomenon which the evil robots have accounted for in the design of the Matrix; the machines wrote the prophecy. The One exists to keep dissident humans in line, who otherwise might attain critical mass and actually endanger the entire system. The human city of Zion isn’t a paradise, it’s a safety valve (remember what William Empson said about those); the war between humans and machines is a line-item in the machines’ energy budget, and the ‘imaginative freedom’ peddled by The One — i.e. the regularly recurring ‘messiah’ function which our hero/avatar/figure of identification happens to be fulfilling this time around — is another system of control. It’s Plato’s caves all the way down.

On top of that explicitly political rug-pull, there’s the central philosophical proposition of the second film: ‘free will’ being an illusion, the real action is not in choice but in understanding (i.e. a combination of thinking and feeling our way into) the nature of our choosing. The mark of the awakened human isn’t ‘free’ choice, there’s no such thing; it’s insight, self-knowledge, which enables authentic living, and The Matrix‘s iconic ‘red pill’ scene will be recast in Resurrections as a fakeout, a trick — pseudo-agency, a choice undertaken in ignorance of the system which gives rise to it. The weakness of the perfectly logical computer-villain, the Architect, is that he/it can’t conceive of truly free choice. The eminent British sf novelist/critic Adam Roberts cites this as the series’s most interesting idea; I agree and am reminded of the fifth Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones. (Stay with me.) That otherwise risible film revolves on Anakin Skywalker’s private interpretation of compassion as ‘unconditional love,’ which he takes not only as ‘encouragement to love’ but as exhortation toward selfish, destructive passion — which the monkish code (to his mind hypocritically) rejects. The secret marriage that closes Clones is presented to the film’s audience as a consummation devoutly to be wished, but of course the Star Wars prequels are antiheroic tragedy, and Anakin’s willful blindness to the cost of his selfishness destroys the/his world, obligating his (and other people’s) kids to fix things, and sometimes die trying, a generation later. This is the attractive paradox at the heart of the messy but unbelievably ambitious Star Wars films, the motivating misreading which makes Empire possible. The Wachowskis make a similar move in the parodically wooden Neo/Architect scene, sabotaging the trilogy’s pleasure-system, tearing up the contract.

Not for nothing does most of the third film, Revolutions, take place in the real world — we even see the sun for the first time, my favourite moment in the trilogy. Having undercut their own apparent ‘truth will set you free’ message, the Wachowskis finished up with another conceptual backflip: Neo ends up fighting to preserve the Matrix against Agent Smith (The Zero), and ironically fulfills the messianic prophecy by ending the Machine War from the other side. There’s a soporofic mechs vs robots battle scene beneath the earth, and a glorious climactic fistfight in the (virtual) sky; the climax sees Neo deliberately lose his fight with Smith, allowing the code which created ‘The One’ to disseminate into all people plugged into the system (of control). Which is to say, Neo returns to the mundane world after his journey of self-questioning, bearing the magical gift of self-knowledge, and dies in order to share it; it’s one of the cleverest, most elegantly structured hero-journey payoffs in pop-art history. Audiences hated it. Here I’m reminded of the disturbing transhumanist finale of James Cameron’s Avatar, in which our human hero rejects his species (after mowing a bunch of American soldiers down) to become part of an alien world-tree — another weird, subversive image/message laughed out of the Overton window by the usual taste-enforcers. It’s telling that the Wachowskis took the risky path of shooting both sequels at once, embodying the gotcha at the heart of their story from the beginning: if The Matrix was about self-knowledge and the ironic irrelevance of prophecies, why were we so eager to misread it as Neuromancer-plus-Superman?

That’s the real affront of Matrix Reloaded — the Wachowski’s insistence that The One, the messiah-fairytale, wasn’t their ‘mislead’…it was our misread.

Lana Wachowski’s Resurrections doesn’t expand on the in-world mythology of the trilogy in any way, disappointing the nerds; it features hardly any fisticuffs, disappointing action fans, and (worse) what’s there is artless and weightless; it loses two of its best performers, Hugo Weaving (whose unhinged performance as Smith is one of Hollywood’s great villain turns) and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, letting down the pure nostalgists, then ironically recasts those parts with young actors whose characters are explicitly acknowledged in-world as doing a nostalgic bit — even watching clips of the first movie to ‘train up’ on their mythic destinies. Wachowski’s broadside against capitalist necrophilia (per Roberts, ‘The Reboot…our contemporary fascination with reshooting (as it might be) the same Star Wars film every few years’) feels too explicitly/narrowly contemporary to resonate in the mythic register as did the original film. The best thing about Resurrections is how weirdly personal it is: Lana Wachowski, Hollywood’s best known transsexual filmmaker, moves the action from ‘The City’ to San Francisco and shifts the allegorical focus of the original trilogy toward the comparatively mundane present-political, reducing ‘transhuman’ to ‘trans’ and losing most of what’s interesting about the trilogy but enabling a liberated explicitness of theme and message. Resurrections functions as a kind of fan-essay about the original films rather than a continuation of the original story. In the end, Trinity gains the powers of The One (the 1+1?), and she and Neo beat up the evil psychotherapist(!) who entrapped them before flying off into a rainbow sky (yes, really) with actual smiles on their faces. They’re still in the Matrix, mind you, but they’ve relieved the tension of their tantalizing artificial separation. They refuse to be rebooted as they were; one suspects they’ll now allow themselves to both live and die on their own terms, in a story no longer obligated to be heroic.

It’s lovely at times, particularly its final shot, and parts of the movie are fun, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lana needs Lily — indeed, I left the theater wondering whether the whole thing wasn’t at some level a regretful love letter to their own perhaps broken collaborative relationship, as much as to their parents whose death drove Lana Wachowski’s to revisit the story after years of refusing.

What Resurrections isn’t, makes no attempt to be, is strange — which in retrospect seems inevitable and probably healthy, but dull. The original trilogy is enveloped in mystery from its classic opening sequence (Trinity’s narrow escape from the hotel) to the Superman finale that tees up the ‘real’ story, but insofar as Resurrections is about making peace with sundered selves and being earnestly explicit about love (which literally conquers all this time around), it makes sense that its dramatic arc is one of demystification and dissipating tension. Indeed, its dramatic inertness stems partly from the fact that it seems to want to put its own world behind it; since it’s a big-budget Hollywood film rather than an experimental French or Russian one, there’s just no way in the world it’s not going to function ultimately as an affirmation. Lana Wachowski’s desire to attain and celebrate integration is purely admirable, but there’s no tension in the film, no threat — its antagonisms come off as pedantic and deflationary. (Fun fact: Resurrections premiered not in Los Angeles but at the Castro Theater, the nation’s temple of gay bourgeoisie.) It doesn’t have to explain its ideas because it doesn’t have any, just feelings; that’s beautiful in its way, but in today’s idiotic political climate there’s something weird and worrisome about the association of ‘transcending (gender) binaries’ and ‘not wrestling with ideas.’ (This isn’t to say Lana Wachowski doesn’t have ideas aplenty — only that this movie doesn’t much.) Matrix Resurrections is less a Matrix movie than a movie about the creation- and reception-history of the original trilogy, set in a parallel world. It could as easily, and more succinctly, have been an interview with its stars and director.

Which is to say that the technobody horror and erotic-philosophical charge of the original films might’ve been a side effect of whatever demons of disintegration plagued the Wachowskis from within, or maybe just natural storytelling modes for two writers who got their start scripting Clive Barker comics for Marvel…but their aesthetic upside was to ground the trilogy’s tragic transhuman transcendence in a world both as heady as the Baudrillard it namechecked and as achingly bodily (though not fleshy) as the PVC domme-wear that inspired its look. It’s enough, maybe, to note that in Resurrections Neo never changes out of his work clothes — he spends the movie dressed up, let’s face it, as middle-aged Keanu Reeves. From one angle that’s just lovely, but even if (part of) Wachowski’s point is that maturation and integration involve letting go of a suffocating attachment to thwarted longing (they do! you should!), movies still need to work. The first three, the ones the Wachowskis made together — they worked.

Indeed, the closest the movie comes to having an idea is Lana’s sly decision to replace Reloaded‘s Architect, the archetypal inhuman(e) central planner, with Neil Patrick Harris’s Analyst, whose job is to keep Neo/Thomas taking pills and trading on his reputation and allowing his memory to be ‘weaponized’ instead of doing whatever it is that movie protagonists do. The Analyst is the only interesting figure in the film, embodying the old-fashioned idea that emotional control is the trustiest means of political subjugation. This is how Lana kicks back at ‘redpill’ fetishism: the villains of Resurrections generously offer their subjects plentiful false choice, including those stupid (symbolically overloaded, wonderful) pills, but the trilogy’s story of becoming-One was about insight, inner plenty — and the Analyst knows how to manage that shouldabeen-sacred innerworld directly, cutting out the materialist middleman and speaking directly to/of desire. Harris himself remains a sympathetic figure in his own middle age, and sympathy in place of action is one pseudopolitical trap that Neo ends up having to escape. ‘Am I crazy?’ ‘We don’t use that word in here.’ Of course not: pronouncing capitalist subjects crazy is the sole domain of the state, the machine. Integrated selves might make integrated communities, and unlicensed community runs the risk (from the machine-state’s perspective) of illegibility. Better to keep Mr Anderson fixated on the problems of middle age, to keep his eyes off the possibility of a new one.

What you changed that nobody believed could ever be changed: the meaning of ‘our side.’

In a movie not exactly overflowing with strong dialogue, this — one of the new kids reminding Neo what he was once capable of — is a good line. It’s a lovely expression of solidarity, but in the context of a movie where the villain works in the ‘helping professions’ in order to monitor the inner lives of his prisoner-subjects, the line is also awfully bleak: Neo/’Tom’ pays handsomely for the Analyst to redirect him inward, chasing an atomized and isolated and terminally static ‘wellness’ instead of the (re)union which might make him fully human…at the risk of making him unrecognizable. His sense of himself as self-contained and sick is capitulation to the machine.1

The first time Neo and Trinity get coffee, she’s impressed by his work on the in-world videogame, The Matrix, and pushes him to acknowledge his achievements. (This is the during the long, charming stretch of the movie that’s a kind of ‘real-person fic’ about the cast and crew of The Matrix — much the best thing in the film, but it desperately wants another dialogue pass.) Keanu/Neo/Tom misses the point, just like he’s been trained to: ‘We kept some kids entertained.’ Not just false humility, this is a failure to see art as a bridge between souls: Anderson (Wachowski, in one meaning-frame) dismisses the original story as something other than an exhortation to engage and transform, even while the cast of young would-be heroes whose lives he and Trinity made possible are begging him to support their own ongoing struggles. He mistakes ‘keeping it together’ for being whole, which requires points of interpersonal contact that a well-managed Citizen no longer possesses. The Analyst helps his patients maintain an acquiescent longing that mistakes busyness for action, spectatorship and nostalgia for meaningful engagement — helps them become Matrix fans, rather than protagonists.

Of course, the trilogy has already been here. Remember, this is how the first film ends, with Neo speaking to the machines:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. (my emph. –w.)

This is an odd moment: a movie ostensibly about choosing freedom over enslavement ends, triumphantly, with the hero explicitly announcing that the real story is what happens after the supposed hero-journey, and then offering the bad guys a role in deciding what happens next. But of course, the direct address in that scene is also aimed at the audience: I remember seeing the film in theaters nearly a quarter-century ago and understanding myself to be both one of ‘these people’ and the ‘you’ that Neo goads to action. The man even looks at the camera before flying off to begin his work, after all. He may as well say ‘Give me your hands if we be friends.’

And of course, the rest of the trilogy reveals much of Neo’s closing monologue to be merely incorrect: The One is himself an artifact of the system of control, the machines have nothing to fear from humans, and the two tribes’ fates are forever bound together. But beneath the plotstuff, the message (we might more gently say, the perspective) is consistent: emancipation, gnosis, transcendence, is ongoing work rather than a permanent achievement. Neo is just one guy, albeit a superpowered one; he is the hero but the story isn’t ‘about him,’ it’s about the magical boon he brings back to the mundane world, which is a work assignment. Even the choice to liberate oneself from the Matrix (or stay behind and pretend to eat steak) is, at a certain level, predetermined; what’s left is meaning, self-knowledge, resting transparently in that choice.

In English-language versions of Buddhist texts, the term nibbana (nirvana) often goes untranslated — it is understood, at times vaguely, as an exalted state of awakened consciousness, and the ‘exotic’ label subtly reinforces a sense of magical otherness, along with a certain unattainability. In a community which venerates the Buddha (the first truly awakened being) as a self-made semi-divine figure, this choice carries extra weight and some annoying metaphysical connotations. The American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his translations of the Pāli Canon2, chooses to translate nibbana as ‘Unbinding,’ close to the literal sense of the extinguishing of a fire. The American Buddhist scholar Glen Wallis, following TB’s lead, in his own translations knocks the capital letter off the front: it’s just unbinding, an ongoing process of relinquishing our death-grip on unease/stress (dukkha, conventionally translated as ‘suffering’) as a fundamental premise of our existence. Further along the path to awakening, but still on it: awakening as skill, not reward.

This right here is a good idea.

Neo/Lana spends all of Resurrections trying to awaken from a bad dream to a better one, and then to awaken Trinity/Lana — it works, they win, and the Wachowskis remain smarter than the movies’ fans. But if Resurrections is critical of those who see the trilogy’s call to self-knowledge and ongoing action as mere entertainment (while ruefully acknowleding how easy and tempting it is to see it that way), it doesn’t join in the original work. In the end Love Conquers All, which is a fine message for those living in this world but, as Paul McCartney might’ve told John Lennon, not much of a plan for changing it. Our young sequel-Morpheus tells Neo…

You gotta fight for your goddamn life if you want to see Trinity again.

…which is, lemme tell you, the actual best line in the movie by a long leap, stirring in context — but the movie can’t live up to it. It ends with Neo/Keanu and Trinity/Carrie-Ann thanking the villain for giving them ‘a second chance.’ Irony and self-reference, sure, but not only. The trilogy had the good guys fighting for peace; this adjunct-art sees them settling into love, if not for it. The Matrix movies have gotten old. That’s OK.

  1. It’s a brave story, isn’t it. Annoying as it is in purely cinematic terms, disappointing as it is when compared to the heights of the original movies, there’s something wise and admirable about Lana Wachowski’s insistence on the beautiful wrongness of freedom. 
  2. ‘Pāli’ is the name given to the language of the conservative Theravāda Buddhist scriptural canon, collected and written down a touch more than 2,000 years ago, and this footnote is probably the right place to apologize for not being too concerned about getting my diacritics consistent. You know what I mean. 

On climax (excerpt).

Note: This is excerpted from a work in progress. –wa.

To loosely borrow terms from molecular biology: the climax is the egophilic end of the story, its region of attraction and attachment to the sensemaking, sense-craving world of selves. But the body of the story is egophobic, deranging and repelling the unitary ego-self, asserting an alternate order in which we the audience become disordered, dissolve. ‘Lost in the story.’ We bind to the story at its premise (‘on entry’) and come undone, and are put back together when we leave at the end. Maybe that’s what endings are for. They feel great — like letting go of something you’ve clung tightly to, and feeling blood rush back into your hands.

Anticlimax leaves you with an otherworldly feeling, which — in the terms, not solely allegorical or metaphorical, of the present work — marks the presence of an actual other world. Storyworld is real, we can live whole lives there. Anticlimax and ambivalence and insinuation leave open connections between day and night, dream and waking. Sometimes you want that. Sometimes you need it.

Taxonomizing, categorizing, hierarchizing, contrast-heightening judgment marks and enforces that grey blurry border between this world and others. It pushes story-stuff back into its cage. The poet is ‘unacknowledged legislator’; the critic is the hanging judge impressing the law upon once-free subjects. Making the lawmaker’s aspiration into his fiefdom.

To look into the closed system of meaning which is the poetic text, the living community, the human life, and pronounce judgment from without — to demand that it be made legible, communicable, meaningful, climactic — is to cut away that aspect of it which most resembles your own life, all life. This is fear. It is to choose order over disorder and so welcome destruction. It is to refuse to see beauty in the strange; it is to look at the nonsensical world, the impossible universe, to look into infinity, and demand that it do the only thing it can’t, to make sense. To you. You of all people, you of all nations. This is fear and fuck that.

Criticism is possible — e.g. this book exists — but you have to go inside to know. You have to know in vivo. What can you say about music you can’t hear?

On Tolkien as mythos (or not).

Note: The following is a sketchy first-draft excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –w.

It makes little sense to speak of a ‘Tolkien mythos’ — his ‘legendarium’ lacks the quality of mystery, of uncertain and seemingly unknowable depth, which characterizes the Lovecraft mythos (‘Yog-Sothothery’), the Silver John stories of Many Wade Wellman, or the Discworld books (q.v. all three). There’s rather a domestic quality to Tolkien; he doesn’t give the feeling of having received or discovered the Middle-Earth stories, and as we read there’s a pervasive deflating sense that every detail of his world-story is Fully Worked Out somewhere. (His son/literary executor Christopher Tolkien’s periodic exhumation of ‘new’ JRRT works deepens this sense, unfortunately but perhaps not unintentionally.)

Tolkien obsessives love this, of course; the idea of a fantastic encyclopedia of all things is certainly a locus of ‘adventurous expectancy’ for many readers, and the idea that Tolkien himself became such an encyclopedia does have a strange charm and charge. But while Tolkien’s characters occupy a world shot through with myth-history, in which the relics of the ancient past regularly irrupt through the earth itself (think of the Balrog, the colossi at Rauros, the White Tree), Tolkien didn’t write in such a way as to extend that sense to the reader. Tolkien’s mythic past is a known unknown.

Put another way: if you’re a fan of Middle-Earth, what could you possibly write fanfic about? Frodo’s day off? Mary Sue Pandolfin, who romances Isildur and charms Legolas? There’s a whole bookshelf of knockoff Cthulhu stories and games, a vast Star Wars Extended Universe (look up the ‘Corporate Sector’)…but if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser came to Gondor, what could they possibly fill their time with? Tolkien created a world-story, a world built for one story; there’s nothing left to happen once The line of tales has been drawn, and anyone else who turns up is just there to watch the Chosen do their heroic thing.

Put another other way: there’s a reason Lord of the Rings-themed board games have done reasonably well, while Middle-Earth roleplaying games have never worked. Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Role Playing, which I owned and loved as a kid, is remembered — if at all — as a valiant but doomed attempt to carve out a space for ‘noncanonical’ stories in a bespoke paracosm where everything is built to feel canonical. Like the beloved (and successful!) West End Games take on Star Wars roleplaying, MERP worked as a source of fan-supplements for nerds, but unlike George Lucas, Tolkien gives no sense of a busy world in which something else is about to happen.

Partly that’s down to story-form: Lucas created serial/episodic tales, Tolkien set out to make a unified ‘legendarium.’ The edges of the Star Wars universe remain ragged in order to accommodate Upcoming Episodes, and that has imaginative consequences — for one thing, what’s Lucas’s storyworld called? Who knows? The Star Wars tales are named after a kind of thing that happens in them, ‘star wars,’ while Middle-Earth is actually explicitly called ‘Middle-Earth’ by its inhabitants; of course this is presented as a translation of Hobbit-speak, or Wizard-speak, or the ‘common tongue’ or whatever, but the sense remains that the world, the tale, is bounded by the manner of its telling — the words themselves constrain it. And they constrain anyone who’d follow. ‘Pulp Tolkien’ and ‘frontier Tolkien’ and ‘Gimli goes into politics’ are ludicrous contradictions on face, but ‘Star Wars romance’ and ‘Star Wars detective story’ and ‘Jedi schoolkids’ aren’t, and that’s as much down to the exclusivity of Tolkien’s storytelling approach as to Lucas(film)’s inclusivity.

(I feel comfortable predicting that the forthcoming ‘Second Age of Middle-Earth’ TV series will be terrible and feel nothing at all like Tolkien — like Petter Jackson’s horribly ill-advised Hobbit movies, for what it’s worth.)

To be clear, none of this criticism indicts Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has provided me with two of the peak aesthetic experiences of my life, more than 20 years apart, and I look forward to revisiting that tale some other autumn. It’s one of the great achievements in all of English literature, not a perfect novel but perfect of its kind, and Middle-Earth has continued to enrapture readers because of the nature of its imagining. You don’t go to Middle-Earth to brainstorm fanfic topics or project yourself into some corner of the tale, you go to feel what the hobbits feel on their journey through mythic geography, to get Tolkien’s vivid sense of walking through a sort of fictionalized Lancashire studded with broken ruins of millennia-old empires. To feel small in a particular way, connected to an immensity of Time, over the extent of a thousand-page novel: of course control is required.

Whatever Tolkien’s obsessive ‘legendarium’ meant to him, it’s Lord of the Rings that matters to the human species, and its value depends on its completeness, its cohesiveness. The closest it comes to admitting something wholly alien to its own cosmos is the fairytale episode at Tom Bombadil’s house, easily the most widely derided (and indeed disregarded) piece of the story, which Jackson simply cut from his (disastrously superseding) movie translation altogether. Bombadil is the story’s most Lovecraftian element, you might say: he steps in and out of the tale without quite feeling of it — something (a literary device, a demigod) vast, warm, and sympathetic, but palpably Other. The story closes around him as he goes.

You know what I’d love to read, though? A story about a team of modern archaeologists recovering cursed artifacts in the remains of Middle-Earth, trying to figure out who built the cyclopean ruins, colossal tiered cities, creepy subterranean delvings, and odd fairy-rings that dot the landscape of what they’d always suspected was just England. What ritual was performed at this burial mound in the field amongst standing stones? How did a gold ring come to rest in this river?

There’s room for a weird tale, for dark strange myth — ‘in the deep places’ — but I fear Middle-Earth must pass away entirely for us to find it.


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) 

On the ‘Hour of Slack’ (another excerpt from syllabus-mss in progress).

You know the drill. –wa.

Hour of Slack

Idiotic freeform radio show out of…Texas, I believe, now relegated to the Internet with the rest of the culture-corpses. For a time Ivan Stang’s radio bullshit was a beacon of performative insanity, audio nonsense as media critique, lashing out at the absolute hollowness of postwar consumer culture (rather a grand term; ‘shopper culture’ seems more appropriately derisive?) while functioning too as an actual-existing cynical cult — a meta-cult maybe. I mean you can still pay them, though I’m not sure you’d want to. Anti-heirs to the Discordians — neurotic not sociable, pissed off not agog, their sarcasm at the reader’s expense instead of the Man’s — the Subgenius represent(ed) a once-hyperlocal adolescent-male response to postwar conformity, religious and secular; their milieu was both millennarian and terminally late, both nervous about the coming millennial apocalypse and cynically certain it wouldn’t matter anyway since everything was bullshit. Their yetis and UFOs and false gods scan now as an expression of disappointment in the failure of late-20C fantastic to get the guys laid or at least deliver flying cars, poisoned too by uncertainty over whether the atomization which drove late-20C conspiracists/cults (crazy/nowhere) was their own fault. It’s not, not really, but you kind of want to blame them for it anyway, since they’re assholes. Funny ones.

And that’s baked right into the premise: Stang and his fellow (former?) stimulant addicts are at least smart enough to realize, here in late middle age if not before, that the ‘Bob’ pseudocult’s full of people who came within a hair’s breadth of an uglier life by picking up the Principia Discordia (or Penthouse) as teenagers instead of Atlas Shrugged. I think the unpleasantness of it all is accounted for; it must be. So then the melancholy self-consciousness I pick up from peak-era Subgenius stuff is probably bleeding through from High Weirdness by Mail, Stang’s sarcastic denigration/appreciation of hyperlocal 80s mail-order weirdo culture. That book’s a glorified listicle but really does possess a profound loneliness — the loneliness of the Max Fenig character on The X-Files, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (‘Meet me in Montauk’) — and the Subgenius’s whole borderline-Extropian ‘street corner prophet’ shtick has always sounded to me like the prelude to a nervous breakdown, which I’m guessing Stang would say is societal not personal (and HWBM gets entered as evidence either way). The sole recognizable human feeling in the Subgenius act is resentment, which is fun for a while, and the open wound that High Weirdness by Mail represents is probably the reason why. You can only live lonely for so long.