Sunday, November 8, 2009

Among the Obelisks 1

Here is the first installment of my second "mural" piece. The actual story features footnotes and a brief introduction by the translator. I've been told that this was necessary otherwise the audience would have no idea what I was talking about. This assessment maybe fair, but there is something about inviting your readers to look things up that I think has been generally under-appreciated in contemporary writing, particularly since the advent of the internet has made this so easy. For the audio version I decided to skip these asides since it would be too jarring on the continuity of the piece, and I hope the atmosphere nevertheless shines through.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Blog is a Most Curious Space.

The effects that the internet has on the form and content of personal, creative and formal writing has been noted by many. Generally, it seems to be seen in a negative light. Accomplished wordsmiths loath the violence done to language by the introduction of "lol", "u" and "brb", and even while the shear bulk of individual correspondences increases, the fine art of letter writing, and the historical record of these exchanges seems to be dwindling away to nothing.

Yet we do not seem to be at a proper junction to really assess the long term gains and losses here. I highly doubt that all the "lol"s in the world will have the power to do any more harm to the quality of our thought than any other kind of slang in the history of language. The historical question is somewhat more difficult.

Recently introduced to the concept of the blog, I have to wonder if it is not in some ways taking over the role of the personal letter, at least for those who spend the time to develop their thoughts at any great length. Of course, there are differences. I tend to use this space as a kind of sandbox, or public testing grounds for ideas I may wish to explore more later. My style is clumsier than in my polished prose, and mistakes creep in at every corner. No message is ever lost, and I can withdraw my statements by deleting a passage at whim. It is also a space in which I question if there is anything in my soul that is worth listening too. These practices would have neither been possible nor acceptable in 1890s prose.

Indeed, aside from the increased concern of spying and censorship by Google, there seems to be a whole new place opened up for the Blog in the world of the written. Some things are lost, though I think they never will be forever, some things are gained, perhaps to be lost again someday, and our daily exchanges are more enriched by this passage from one to the other.

The written word has always been a serpent for our thoughts, it writhes away even while clinging to us, bites us when we grasp it wrongly by the tail, and will only truly obey the gifted Charmer.

In any event, though, it is a living animal, and will never die, for it lives on our most subtle traumas and through our greatest victories.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Spitzweg Among the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie eccentricities and play on popular pastimes embodied in the work of the German artist Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) remain one of my favorite manifestations of the Romantic critique of daily life in the 19th century.

At once a commentary on all the things people will get into and pride themselves on when their material means increase, while at the same time exhibiting a childish fondness for those very same absurdities, it is hard for me to say if Spitzweg was ultimately laughing at or with his subject matter.

Thought when it comes to the matter, I think I enjoy this ambiguity the most. Whether he is depicting the huddled and seemingly lethargic poet in the above painting, or the bedazzled mineralogist in the grotto shown below, there is a strange admixture of absurd fantasy and gritty realism in these works.

Spitzweg is worth checking out. Most of his paintings are available on Wikipedia and he provides an unparalleled look into the paradoxes of life during the 19th century.

For More Information:

Have Brain, Will Travel

The epic of Albert Einstein's brain is a macabre and yet captivating tribute to the cultural impact of the father of modern physics.

The story began in 1955, seven hours after Einstein's death. The attending pathologist who was scheduled to perform the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, is said to have taken the brain without the family's permission. He is also said to have given Einstein's eyes to the physicists optometrist.

Certain that the brain would provide endless opportunities of study to scientists of the future, Harvey eventually lost almost everything in his efforts to keep it in his possession.

He lost his job, his marriage, his house, and for the longest time traveled around America with the brain in the back of his car.

All this time he was seemingly, and somewhat strangely, appealing to random researches and asking them if they would benefit from a study of this or that part of the physicists anatomy.

This fact was not widely known until 1978 when a journalist "broke" the story and interviewed the now aged pathologist.

Today a part of Einstein's brain is in Ontario, most of it was returned to Princeton, but Harvey sent samples to over a dozen different specialists during the time when he was its sole keeper.

While we don't often admit it to ourselves, the contemporary fetishization of knowledge has allowed the organ of the intelelct to take on an uncanny quality, at once grotesque, and yet captivating. The greater we value the intellect of the person, the grater power the messy physicality of their brain takes on in our imagination. Harvey's seemingly irrational actions can be seen in this light to be an extreme manifestation of the cult of genius that evolved around Einstein and his accomplishments, and can not be separated from the same impulse that has motivated generations of Catholics to preserve the relics of their saints.

Not seen in these saintly terms, Harvey died in 2007, and his brain, to the best of my knowledge, was laid to rest with him.

Einstein's Brain:

For More Information:

Michael Paterniti, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain.
Carolyn Abraham, Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain.

(For another scientific relic, see Galileo's finger:

A Beautiful Animism

For me the beauty and the wonder of the movie Wall-e comes from the way in which it is able to instill the fundamentals of life and fellow-feeling in what seems to the human observer to be an inanimate object. While it is CGI, I had the feeling when first watching it that I was observing puppets in motion.

Puppetry as an art is both ancient, and, like many ancient things, deeply under-appreciated. It, and its sibling claymation, has been steadily fazed out because of improvements in computer graphics that see the material construction of cast/scenes to be an unnecessary and complicated expense.

But there is something to be said of the joy of animism in making the inanimate animate through these forms. That a puppeteer could pick up something seemingly dead and with a few skillful motions give it life and personality seems to me to have a powerful effect upon the imagination. It led my mind to reconsider the supposedly harsh duality between matter and mind, spirit and substance, and almost seems to lend a soul to the artifacts around us.

A greater appreciation of the personality of things would do much to ameliorate the present culture of waste and refuse that refuses to adhere to environmental responsibilities. Yet when it comes time for me to throw away some old jacket, or sell some long possessed relic of my childhood, I am often struck with the feeling that I am leaving behind a companion rather than a belonging.

No doubt this view is the height of eccentricity, but such foolishness may well save us in time.

For More Information: (An excellent puppetry theater currently on tour across America)

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a self educated poet, sculptor, painter and writer who spent almost the entirety of his life living in a small cabin in Auburn, California. While supporting himself by picking fruit and cutting wood, Smith taught himself French and Spanish, and read encyclopedias and dictionaries to expand his knowledge of a world he seldom traveled in.

It's hard finding Smiths writing in most bookstores, but the website The Eldritch Dark has done a wonderful job of presenting his creative output. I have long admired Smith's works and contribution to uncanny literature, and would not have known anything about him if it wasn't for this delightful find.

Of course, not everyone would agree with me. Smith was in conscious opposition to the realist litterature of his day, and often expressed frustration when critics would chastize his work for not being another reproduction of Hemingway. His fantastical worlds, their ambivalent moralities and cosmic scope, his enjoyment of concepts of reincarnation, mysticism, the evil or indifference of higher intellects and the ultimate finitude of human activity won him few friends in the polite society of letters in 20th century American literature.

But that does not seem to be what he was really after anyway.

My own story, The Gray Men of the Desert of Dust, was originally written as an homage to the first work by Smith that I ever read. The Abominations of Yondo, while not Smith's finest work, captured my imagination with its arcane use of language and atmospheric qualities. Indeed, readers looking for character-driven plots may be disappointed by his style. His protagonists tend to be archetypal, and his female characters too often find themselves in the old duality of the maiden or the witch. Yet I prefer to treat each work as an exquisite painting, and am little troubled by this.

For new readers I would certainly recommend The City of the Singing Flame, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Disinterment of Venus, The Chain of Aforgomon and The Ghoul to get a feel for what Smith was all about.

For More Information:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Serge Sunne, Time, Identity and Otherness

I know very little about the artist Serge Sunne. He is Russian, but I don’t think he’s gained a wide enough circulation yet to attract the kind of theorizing and speculation given to more popular artists. This, I hope in some small way to remedy.

Since discovering his works I have quickly become enamoured with their strange depictions and surreal sense of the uncanny. Sunne seems to enjoy playing with concepts of identity, otherness, and time in his works in ways that I have not seen before.

“Another Holy Mother”, the title of the above picture combines an unsettling union of the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus with an entirely unworldly subject whose motherly embrace is a nightmare of its entangled, strangely disproportionate limbs. The contrast is made even more complete by the addition of the haloes around the two figures, whose pale, almost feeble light contrast so sharply with the darkness of their bodies.

Also consider the derelict ghost spaceship at the bottom of this post. Few artists I know have really focused on a little explored theme in science fiction: when the new gets old then ancient. Sunne’s “Abandoned Space Port” is another example of this lovely juxtaposition of an almost unfathomable futurity clashing with some sense of deep time.

I hope you enjoy these examples of his work, I probably be examining some of them in more detail as my studies (out side of school) continue.

For more images:

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Atomic Heart of Japanese Robotics

Japanese culture has been one of the major “alternative” imports into the west for the past several years. Their view of A.I. and humanoid robots is refreshingly different from that of the western traditions of Frankenstein, the Christian Golem (unlike the Jewish Golem), and the Matrix.

One of my earliest introductions to the east and robotics was in the form of Astro Boy, the boy with the atomic heart. I was too young to see it at the time, but the show must have clearly resonated with its Japanese audience, the only people who have actually had atomic weapons used against them. It’s hard to overstate the effects that this historical event seems to have had on the Japanese relationship to technology, and their desire to give it a human face in literature, art, and reality.

It is even more interesting juxtaposed, as it often is, to the Japanese dystopia in which the machines often take on a more human character than the humans themselves. Take for instance the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, for which the question of humanity is an overarching theme. The main character is a human brain in a mechanical body, while several of the characters are human brains stored in computer chips and placed within human bodies. Questions of essential personality, indeed, essential humanity, get even more tangled in the light of amnesia, intentional and not, dream worlds, multiple personalities and the concept of storing human memory.

Despite the manga’s occasional turn to what I call “splorching” (excessively pressurized human gore often seen in Japanese media) and often taboo subject matter, the series still has a lot of heart to offer curious readers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Piye and the Black Pharaohs of Egypt

The history of Ancient Egypt is a three thousand year odyssey into the heart of human civilization, and it still echoes in many of our daily activities in ways we do not even begin to realize. I can’t support this belief with anything as respectable as facts, but it’s one that I hold, nevertheless.

It was all the more reason to me to be so intrigued when I learned that Egyptian civilization thrived for three-quarters of a century during the 25th dynasty under the rule of foreign leaders from Nubia. I was even more surprised to learn that their culture and architecture was so closely related to that of their northern neighbours. This seems strange, I mean, didn’t Tutankhamen have sandals with crouching Nubians carved into the feet so that he could constantly trample them? It may have been worse than history of intermittent warfare: it was a family affair.

The ancient nation of Nubia consists mostly of what is now present day Sudan. At the start of the 25th dynasty Egypt had fractured into a series of smaller factions ruled by local warlords. The Nubian king Piye, supposedly feeling that it was his duty to restore Egyptian culture and religion, invaded, defeating each of the individual lords and uniting Egypt with his own kingdom.

It seems incredible that this history of a major African civilization is still clothed in such obscurity. Considering their architectural achievements alone there should have been enough material evidence to raise a few academic heads somewhere. Hopefully this is changing though, and we can look forward to even more details of the life of the Nubians.

Resources of Interest:
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A Tale of Two Alchemists

The story of Isaac Newton's alchemical concerns is a relativity recent, but already much explored facet of the father of modern physics. Yes, he was predicting when the world would end using heretical biblical exegesis. Yes, he was trying to spiritualize matter. The "occult" quality of gravity was actually informed by the occult, and his contemporaries were completely justified in criticizing it as such.

Yet what is more interesting to me is how Newton's alchemical project compares to that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's. Goethe as a young man, ostensibly a poet and man of letters at this time of his life, went through several years of intensive alchemical study and experimentation. And yet over time he became increasingly critical of the material truth of his project, calling it a "beautiful idea" and instead dedicated a reasonable part of his later intellectual activity to elucidating its spiritual truth.

Thus we have a state in which Newton, the "great" of British science, clung to a literal view of his alchemical work, while Goethe, viewed by some historians of science as a mere dilettante, tried its truths and rejected their materiality, opting instead to focus on the power of the ideas themselves.

The matter becomes only more interesting if you consider the opposition of Goethe's and Newton's optics. But that is a story for another time.

Resources of Interest:

Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2002.

Jantz. Harold. “Goethe, Faust, Alchemy, and Jung” in The German Quarterly, Vol. 35,No. 2 (Mar., 1962), pp. 129-141.

Raphael, Alice. Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone: Symbolic Patterns in ‘The Parable’ and the Second Part of ‘Faust’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 1:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust 2:

The Grey Men of the Desert of Dust is one of my few "Mural" pieces. The narrative of the story is driven more by an archetypal series of images and concepts than by characterization, creating an effect of a long, perplexing mural.

I've been told that works like this are almost unpublishable in the current reading environment because of the nonexistent use of character driven plots. That probably won't stop me from writing them though, and I have some hopes, some day of writing an entire book in this mode.

It would be my own Sistine Chapel of the weird. It would also be an attempt to take the "weird" or "uncanny" story and do something with it that I do not think has been successfully done to date. It is a characteristic of these kinds of stories that they start to flounder past a certain size. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath always seemed to fall a little flat of my expectations, and I have yet to find a truly "weird" novel.

I might record and post another one of the mural pieces at some point.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sea Serpents, Science and Vampire Squid

(While not discovered by the Galathea Expedition, many more examples of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, the "vampire squid from hell" were dredged up from the bottom.)

The Galathea Expedition of 1950-52 is a little known but endlessly exciting excerpt from the history of marine science. The Danish project was instigated when the zoologist Dr Anton Frederik Bruun gave a presentation in which he discussed the possible existence of sea serpents to a public audience. The story was picked up by the journalist Hakon Mielche who was so interested in the topic that he contacted Dr. Bruun and together they conceived of an expedition to research what creatures lived in some of the deepest sections of the ocean.

I find this narrative so interested because it seems as if Dr. Bruun really did hope to find a sea monster during their two year voyage, while Mielche was incredulous and consciously used the image of the serpent to raise public support and funds from wealthy Danish supporters, including the royal family. The idea of hunting for a sea serpent struck so deeply at the heart of Danish national identity and was able to be harness so effectivley by a publicist like Mielche because for many generations the Scandinavian people in general and the Danish in particular have served as a major locus of sea monster accounts, and some of the earliest medieval chronicles come from this part of Europe.

I've gone over some of the papers produced by their voyage, and the collection of deep sea oddities is quite substantial, as is Bruun's disappointment that in the end they did not find the fabled serpent.

It is yet another example of the ways in which myths and cultural beliefs can shape the focus of the sciences. Indeed, it sent a group of Danish scientists around the world, and to the very depths of the sea.

For more information:

The Letters of Madness

The correspondences between the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg have long held my mind in curious fascination. Not only because they took place during the period of Nietzsche's deepening insanity, but because the ostensibly sane Strindberg does not seem to have noticed this, or else, even rejoiced in the fact.

In what I believe is their final correspondence
, Strindburg writes entirely in the form of a Latin poem in which he exclaimed "Jelw, Jelw manhnai!" I want, I want to be mad! and "Interdum juvat insanire!" Meanwhile, it is a joy to be mad!

I have to, in my own eccentric way, appreciate a mind that can so sympathize with another that is perched upon the very edge of reason, and still converse in kind.

I believe Strindberg's sometimes spotty reputation is more deserved than Nietzsche's, I find both to be intriguing and worthy of further investigation for any adherent of the eccentric and spectacular. I'm currently writing a PhD disseration on the topic of Nietzsche and science, and hope one day to pick up more of Strindberg's works.

I've seen an English translation of the Swedish film "The Freethinker" that documents Strindberg's life along with his creative output. It is a more than surreal experience in places and the narrative of the "documentary" spins imperceptibly from biography, to fiction, to the actors describing their roles and interviewing members of the Swedish public about their views on the writer.

For more information:

And no further information would be complete without:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Last Man

I first encountered The Last Man in an art galley in Liverpool, England. It was painted by the English romantic John Martin (1789-1854), and I was immediately struck by the vastness of it. Often in the course of my scholarly or literary studies I am given cause to contemplate the end of things.

The poem "The Last Man" emerged many years later while I began collecting pieces for my upcoming collection Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken and it also features in an issue of Fantastic Horror, a lovely community of eerie and horrific works that can be accessed in the Links of Interest section of this blog.

I do hope you enjoy it, even though I know it may seem macabre to some readers.

More information on John Martin:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Der Beobachter

I have long been an admirer of Swiss artist Peter Birkhäuser (1911-1976) and his works inspired by the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

I'd also recommend checking out Light from the Darkness: The Paintings Of Peter Birkhäuser with psychoanalytic commentary by Jung's disciple Marie-Louise von Franz. The text is in English and German, and I hope to be able to pick up a copy, both for the fascinating images and to improve my language skills. If I ever get my hands on one I'll be sure to give a more thorough review.

Check out more of his work at:

Heteropoda davidbowie

Just because David Bowie is a subject that can never be exhausted, I thought it would be fun to spread the word of an internet discovery at the intersection of my love of strange animals and good music. Apparently a German scientist has named a rare species of spider after the the artist in an effort to raise awareness of its endangered status.

And of all the celebrities he could have chosen, Bowie seems a good fit, not because there are any close family resemblances between Ziggy Stardust and Heteropoda davidbowie, (I don't really know how it would be anatomically possible for a spider to have a god given ass, for instance) but because David Bowie's sheer staying power is a fitting role model for any threatened species. Heteropoda Aqua might have a bleaker future ahead of it.

So the lesson here is to learn to reinvent yourself Heteropoda davidbowie and you too may survive the fickle whims of public opinion like your namesake.

Hooked on Hookahs

I never realized before coming to Toronto just how popular hookah smoking was becoming.

A variety of sheesha bars and restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa now offer a wide and often fruity assortment of flavoured herbs for the curious smoker to experience. There is generally the view that it is less harmful and addictive than other forms of smoking and is more appealing because of its exotic apparatus and aura of mystery, but the truth of the matter is that the health effects of hookah smoking are not well known, and in the middle east the ritual is usually reserved for old men sitting around and playing cards.

Not to discredit the entire hookah movement, it is an unusual and interesting experience that I may even enjoy repeating in the future, but just because it's herbal doesn't mean it's a better alternative to tobacco (which is itself a herb), and people should not convince themselves otherwise.

Also, if you do want to go to a sheesha bar, keep in mind the sanitary factors associated with smoking, the hookah should be clean and generally comes with a plastic attachment that is discarded after use.

With these things in mind, feel free to make an informed decision about whether or not you feel comfortable smoking it. The hookah isn't going away anytime soon.

Some links of interest:

Absinthism and Reefer Madness

While sitting on the bus in Ottawa over the summer I overheard some high school students talking about absinthe as if it were a kind of hallucinogenic and I was given cause to smile at the formidable reputation of the green fairy, that Belle Dame sans Merci.

Few seem to know its history as an early precursor to marijuana's reputation for reefer madness. The truth of the matter is that mass hysteria is not the privileged child of the modern age. In the 19th century deaths were blamed on it, civil disorder, and especially the seemingly insane behaviour of eccentric artists. It was only relatively recently that import bans and other sanctions began to be relaxed in countries around the world with a growing realization that absinthe in the end is just another alcoholic beverage, liable only to get you drunk.

In fact, if taken in moderation (diluted as it was often intended) a bottle of absinthe can be comfortably enjoyed for a year or more, which is a considerable benefit over other "hard" liquors.

In Canada the most common type available is Hill's Absinth, but in my experience La Fee's Parisian absinthe makes for a generally milder and more enjoyable drink.

Their websites can be found at:

Also, for information on its relatively innocent side effects:

Emilie Autumn

I discovered Emilie Autumn less than a month ago, but I've quickly added her to my list of delightfully pseudo-Victorian showfolk. Her songs generally involve edgy violin work with her characteristic vocals and electronic flourishes, sometimes harsh, sometimes sweet, but always engaging.

I tend to prefer her softer work such as "Rose Red", "Marry Me", "What If", "Rapunzel", "Save You", "Shalott" and the delightfully macabre nursery rhyme "Miss Lucy Had Some Leeches".

She's worth checking out at Youtube where wingedzephyr has put together several lovely backgrounds with timed lyrics to Emilie's songs.

See the page here:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Zombie Ants and Suicide Rats

There are a number of parasites that radically alter the behavior of their hosts once infected, sometimes in surprising and dramatic ways.

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungal parasite that requires very specific conditions in which to live. In order to ensure that it develops in these conditions the parasite infects a species of ant and makes its host seek out and attach itself to a leaf in exactly the right conditions that the fungus needs in order to survive. The fungus then kills the ant and continues to develop until its fruiting body grows out of its victim’s head, eventually exploding and releasing thousand of thousands of spores.

The case of Toxoplasma gondii, however, is even more exceptional. The reproductive stage of this parasite’s life cycle can only be completed inside the stomach of a cat, but it can infect almost any warm-blooded mammal. When it infects a rodent, it actually destroys its fear of the smell of cats. Not only does the hapless rodent no longer fear cats, but it becomes attracted to them, and encourages riskier behaviour in the intermediary host.

And that’s not all. Toxoplasma gondii can infect humans as well. The behavioral changes are still being reviewed, but could be substantial. Nicky Boulter, a researcher from Australia has commented that:

"Infected men have lower IQs, achieve a lower level of education and have shorter attention spans. They are also more likely to break rules and take risks, be more independent, more anti-social, suspicious, jealous and morose, and are deemed less attractive to women. On the other hand, infected women tend to be more outgoing, friendly, more promiscuous, and are considered more attractive to men compared with non-infected controls. In short, it can make men behave like alley cats and women behave like sex kittens."

This is of exceptional interest because at any given time a substantial portion of the popular (around 40%) are infected by this parasite since its primary host is such a common household pet.

For more information on Ophiocordyceps unilateralis:

And for Toxoplasma gondii:

The Innocent Tongue Crab

Ah, the beauty of nature never ceases to amaze me.

I once thought that all ultimately symbiotic relationships first emerged as parasitic ones in the earliest annals of organic history, for what else but the predator-prey relationship could bring two disparate species into such intimate contact?

Lichens are also a good example of this, since they exist as a symbiosis between an algae and a fungus in which the fungus provides structure and protection while the algae provides energy through photosynthesis. The trick is though, that the fungus is actually eating the algae, but not quickly enough to inhibit the overall growth of the symbiotic organism.

I don't know where I stand on this view right now, but it appeals to me to think of such necessary and vital cooperation among different species as the historical result of an inversion of the old predator-prey duality.

This critter, though, while being exceptionally fun (its "face" looks like an opera mask!) is also the most bizarre example of this that I have been able to find.

Please, read, learn, and enjoy its strangeness at Wikipedia: