November 22, 2008

PLUNDERPHONIA – by chris cutler

Filed under: music,new media politics (k3) — ABRAXAS @ 11:29 pm



Sounds like a dive downwards as a sped up tape slows rapidly to settle into a recognisable, slightly high-pitched Dolly Parton. It continues to slow down, but more gradually now. The instruments thicken and their timbres stretch and grow richer. Details unheard at the right speed suddenly cut across the sound. Dolly is changing sex, she’s a man already; the backing has become hallucinatory and strange. The grain of the song is opened up and the ear, seduced by detail, lets a throng of surprising associations and ideas fall in behind it. The same thing is suddenly very different. Who would have expected this extraordinary composition to have been buried in a generic country song, one thousand times heard already and one thousand times copied and forgotten?

So I hear John Oswald’s version of Dolly Parton’s version of The Great Pretender, effectively a recording of Oswald playing Parton’s single once through, transformed via varispeed media (first a high speed cassette duplicator, then an infinitely variable speed turntable, finally a hand-controlled reel-to-reel tape – all seamlessly edited together). Apart from the economy of this single procedure of controlled deceleration, which is, as it were, played by Oswald, no modifications have been made to the original recording. However, although the source is plainly fixed and given, the choice, treatment and reading of this source are all highly conscious products of Oswald’s own intention and skill. So much so indeed that it is easy to argue that the piece, although ‘only’ Parton’s record, undoubtedly forms, in Oswald’s version, a self-standing composition with its own structure and logic – both of which are profoundly different from those of the original. Oswald’s Pretender would still work for a listener who had never heard the Parton version, and in a way the Parton version never could. Though the Parton version is, of course, given – along with and against the plundered version. What Oswald has created – created because the result of his work is something startlingly new – is a powerful, aesthetic, significant, polysemic but highly focused and enjoyable sound artefact; both a source of direct listening pleasure and (for our purposes) a persuasive case for the validity and eloquence of its means.

John Oswald’s Pretender and other pieces – all originated from existing copyright recordings but employing radically different techniques – were included on an EP and later a CD, Plunderphonic (Oswald 1988). Both were given away free to radio stations and the press. None was sold. The liner note reads: ‘This disc may be reproduced but neither it, nor any reproductions of it are to be bought or sold. Copies are available only to public access and broadcast organisations, including libraries, radio or periodicals.’ The 12″ EP, consisting of four pieces – Pretender (Parson), Don’t (Presley), Spring (Stravinsky), Pocket (Basie) – was made between 1979 and 1988 and released in May 1988, with some support from the Arts Council of Canada. The CD, containing these and 20 other pieces was realised between 1979-89 and released on October 31st 1989 and was financed entirely by Oswald himself. Between Christmas Eve 1989 and the end of January 1990 all distribution ceased and all extant copies were destroyed. Of all the plundered artists it was Michael Jackson who pursued the CD to destruction. Curiously Jackson’s own plundering, for instance the one minute and six seconds of The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Beethoven’s Ninth which opens Jackson’s Will you be there? on the CD Dangerous, for which Jackson claims no less than six credits, including composer copyright (adding plagiarism to sound piracy), seems to have escaped his notice.
Necessity and choice (continued)

In 1980 I wrote that ‘From the moment of the first recording, the actual performances of musicians on the one hand, and all possible sound on the other, had become the proper matter of music creation.’ (Cutler 1991). I failed, however, to underline the consequence that ‘all sound’ has to include other people’s already recorded work; and that when all sound is just raw material, then recorded sound is always raw – even when it is cooked. This omission I wish now in part to redress.

Although recording offered all audible sound as material for musical organisation, art music composers were slow to exploit it, and remain so today. One reason is that the inherited paradigms though which art music continues to identify itself have not escaped their roots in notation, a system of mediation which determines both what musical material is available and what possible forms of organisation can be applied to it. The determination of material and organisation follows from the character of notation as a discontinuous system of instructions developed to model visually what we know as melody, harmony and rhythm represented by, and limited to, arrangements of fixed tones (quantised, mostly 12 to an octave) and fixed durations (of notes and silences). Notation does not merely quantise the material, reducing it to simple units but, constrained by writability, readability and playability, is able to encompass only a very limited degree of complexity within those units. In fact the whole edifice of western art music can be said, after a fashion, to be constructed upon and through notation1 which, amongst other things, creates ‘the composer’ who is thus constitutionally bound to it.

No wonder then that recording technology continues to cause such consternation. On the one hand it offers control of musical parameters beyond even the wildest dreams of the most radical mid-20th century composer; on the other it terminally threatens the deepest roots of the inherited art music paradigm, replacing notation with the direct transcription of performances and rendering the clear distinction between performance and composition null.

Perhaps this accounts for the curious relationship between the art music world and the new technology which has, from the start, been equivocal or at least highly qualified (Edgard Varese notably excepted). And it is why the story I shall have to tell is so full of tentative high art experiments that seem to die without issue and why, although many creative innovations in the new medium were indeed made on the fringes of high art, their adoption and subsequent extension has come typically through other, less ideologically intimidated (or less paradigmatically confused?) musical genres. Old art music paradigms and new technology are simply not able to fit together2.

For art music then, recording is inherently problematic – and surely plunderphonics is recording’s most troublesome child, breaking taboos art music hadn’t even imagined. For instance, while plagiarism was already strictly off limits (flaunting non-negotiable rules concerning originality, individuality and property rights), plunderphonics was proposing routinely to appropriate as its raw material not merely other people’s tunes or styles but finished recordings of them! It offered a medium in which, far from art music’s essential creation ex nihilo, the origination, guidance and confirmation of a sound object may be carried through by listening alone.

The new medium proposes, the old paradigms recoil. Yet I want to argue that it is precisely in this forbidden zone that much of what is genuinely new in the creative potential of new technology resides. In other words, the moral and legal boundaries which currently constitute important determinants in claims for musical legitimacy, impede and restrain some of the most exciting possibilities in the changed circumstances of the age of recording. History to date is clear on such conflicts: the old paradigms will give way. The question is – to what?

One of the conditions of a new art form is that it produce a metalanguage, a theory through which it can adequately be described. A new musical form will need such a theory. My sense is that Oswald’s Plunderphonic has brought at last into sharp relief many of the critical questions around which such a theory can be raised. For by coining the name, Oswald has identified and consolidated a musical practice which until now has been without focus. And like all such namings, it seems naturally to apply retrospectively, creating its own archaeology, precursors and origins.

Of all the processes and productions which have emerged from the new medium of recording, plunderphonics is the most consciously self-reflexive; it begins and ends only with recordings, with the already played. Thus, as I have remarked above, it cannot help but challenge our current understanding of originality, individuality and property rights. To the extent that sound recording as a medium negates that of notation and echoes in a transformed form that of biological memory, this should not be so surprising3. In ritual and folk musics, for instance, originality as we understand it would be a misunderstanding – or a transgression – since proper performance is repetition. Where personal contributions are made or expected, these must remain within clearly prescribed limits and iterate sanctioned and traditional forms.

Such musics have no place for genius, individuality or originality as we know them or for the institution of intellectual property. Yet these were precisely the concepts and values central to the formation of the discourse that identified the musical, intellectual and political revolution that lay the basis for what we now know as the classical tradition. Indeed they were held as marks of its superiority over earlier forms. Thus, far from describing hubris or transgression, originality and the individual voice became central criteria of value for a music whose future was to be marked by the restless and challenging pursuit of progress and innovation. Writing became essential, and not only for transmission. A score was an individual’s signature on a work. It also made unequivocal the author’s claim to the legal ownership of a sound blueprint. ‘Blueprint’ because a score is mute and others have to give it body, sound, and meaning. Moreover, notation established the difference and immortality of a work in the abstract, irrespective of its performance.

The arrival of recording, however, made each performance of a score as permanent and fixed as the score itself. Copyright was no longer so simple4. When John Coltrane records (1961) My Favourite Things (Coltrane 1961), a great percentage of which contains no sequence of notes found in the written score, the assigning of the composing rights to Rogers and Hammerstein hardly recognises the compositional work of Coltrane, Garrison, Tyner and Jones. A percentage can now be granted for an ‘arrangement’ but this doesn’t satisfy the creative input of such performers either. Likewise, when a collective improvisation is registered under the name, as often still occurs, of a bandleader, nothing is expressed by this except the power relations pertaining in the group. Only if it is registered in the names of all the participants, are collective creative energies honoured – and historically, it took decades to get copyright bodies to recognise such ‘unscored’ works, and their status is still anomalous and poorly rated5. Still, this is an improvement: until the mid 1970s, in order to claim a composer’s copyright for an improvised or studio originated work, one had to produce some kind of score constructed from the record – a topsy-turvy practice in which the music created the composer. And to earn a royalty on a piece which started and ended with a copyright tune but had fifteen minutes of free improvising in the middle, a title or titles had to be given for the improvised parts or all the money would go to the author of the bookending melody. In other words, the response of copyright authorities to the new realities of recording was to cobble together piecemeal compromises in the hope that, between the copyrights held in the composition and the patent rights granted over a specific recording, most questions of assignment could be adjudicated – and violations identified and punished. No one wanted to address the fact that recording technology had called not merely the mechanics but the adequacy of the prevailing concept of copyright into question. It was Oswald, with the release of his not-for-sale EP and then CD who, by naming, theorising and defending the use of ‘macrosamples’ and ‘electroquotes’, finally forced the issue. It was not so much that the principles and processes involved were without precedent but rather that through Oswald they were at last brought together in a focused and fully conscious form.

The immediate result was disproportionate industry pressure, threats and the forcible withdrawal from circulation and destruction of all extant copies. This despite the fact that the CD in question was arguably an original work (in the old paradigmatic sense), was not for sale (thereby not exploiting other people’s copyrights for gain) and was released precisely to raise the very questions which its suppression underlined but immediately stifled. Nevertheless, the genie was out of the bottle.

The fact is that, considered as raw material, a recorded sound is technically indiscriminate of source. All recorded sound, as recorded sound, is information of the same quality. A recording of a recording is just a recording. No more, no less. We have to start here. Only then can we begin to examine, as with photomontage (which takes as its strength of meaning the fact that a photograph of a photograph is – a photograph) how the message of the medium is qualified by a communicative intent that distorts its limits. Judgements about what is plagiarism and what is quotation, what is legitimate use and what, in fact if not law, is public domain material, cannot be answered by recourse to legislation derived from technologies that are unable even to comprehend such questions. When ‘the same thing’ is so different that it constitutes a new thing, it isn’t ‘the same thing’ anymore – even if, like Oswald’s hearing of the Dolly Parton record, it manifestly is the ‘same thing’ and no other. The key to this apparent paradox lies in the protean self-reflexivity of recording technology, allied with its elision of the acts of production and reproduction – both of which characteristics are incompatible with the old models, centred on notation, from which our current thinking derives, and which commercial copyright laws continue to reflect.

Thus plunderphonics as a practice radically undermines three of the central pillars of the art music paradigm: originality – it deals only with copies, individuality – it speaks only with the voice of others; and copyright – the breaching of which is a condition of its very existence.
Recording history: the gramophone

As an attribute unique to recording, the history of plunderphonics is in part the history of the self-realisation of the recording process; its coming, so to speak, to consciousness6. Sound recording began with experiments in acoustics and the discovery that different pitches and timbres of sound could be rendered visible, most notably in 1865 by Leon Scott de Martinville attaching a stylus to a membrane, causing the membrane to vibrate with a sound and allowing it to engrave its track on a glass cylinder coated with lampblack moving at a fixed speed. Such experiments were conducted only to convert otherwise invisible, transient sound into a ‘writing’ (phono-graph means ‘voice-writer’), a fixed visible form that would allow it to be seen and studied. It was some ten years before it occurred to anyone that by simply reversing the process, the sound thus written might be recovered. And it wasn’t until the late 1870s that the first, purely mechanical phonograph was constructed, without clear purpose, speculatively appearing as a novelty item, talking doll mechanism and ‘dictaphone’. The music gramophone really started to take hold after the electrification of the whole process in 1926, but the breakthrough for the record as a producing (as opposed to reproducing) medium, came only in 1948 in the studios of French Radio with the birth of musique concrète. There were no technological advances to explain this breakthrough, only a thinking advance; the chance interpenetrations of time, place and problematic.

The first concrète pieces, performed at the Concert de Bruits in Paris by engineer/composer Pierre Schaeffer, were made by manipulating gramophone records in real time, employing techniques embedded in their physical form: varying the speed, reversing the direction of spin, making ‘closed grooves’ to create repeated ostinati etc.. Within two years the radio station, in the face of resistance from Schaeffer, had reequipped the studio with tape recorders; and Schaeffer, now head of the Groupe de musique concrète, continued to develop the same aesthetic of sound organisation and to extend the transformational procedures learned through turntable manipulations with the vastly more flexible resources of magnetic tape. Other composers began to experiment with disc manipulation around the same time, including Tristam Cary in London and Mauricio Kagel in Buenos Aires. Tape had completely displaced direct-to-disc recording by 1950 and the studio that was to become an instrument was the tape studio. Disc experiments seemed merely to have become a primitive forerunner to tape work. It is curious that, in spite of the intimacy of record and recording, the first commercially available musique concrète on disc was not released until 1956.

Where the gramophone was an acoustic instrument, the magnetic recorder, also invented at the end of the nineteenth century, was always electrical. The gramophone, however, had numerous initial advantages: it was easier to amplify (the energy of the recoverable signal was greater to start with), and as soon as Emile Berliner replaced the cylinder with the disc and developed a process to press copies from a single master (1895), records were easy to mass produce. Wire – and then tape – were both much more difficult. For these and other reasons, tape was not regularly employed in music until after the Second World War, when German improvements in recording and playback quality and in stable magnetic tape technology were generally adopted throughout the world. Within five years tape had become standard in all professional recording applications.

The vinyl disc meanwhile held its place as the principle commercial playback medium and thus the ubiquitous public source of recorded sound. This division between the professionally productive and socially reproductive media was to have important consequences, since it was on the gramophone record that music appeared in its public, most evocative form; and when resonant cultural fragments began to be taken into living sound art, it was naturally from records, from the ‘real’ artefacts that bricoleurs would draw. But before we get to this part of the story, I want to take a quick look at plundering precedents in some other fields.

From early in the twentieth century conditions existed that one would expect to have encouraged sound plundering experiments as a matter of course. First, the fact of sound recording itself, its existence, its provision of a medium which offers the sonic simulacrum of an actual sound event in a permanent and alienable form. Moreover, in principle, a sound recording, like a photograph, is merely surface. It has no depths, reveals no process and is no palimpsest. It’s just there; always the first, always a copy. It has no aura, nor any connection to a present source. And with its special claims toward objectivity and transparency, the tongue of a recording is always eloquently forked and thus already placed firmly in the realm of art7.

Secondly, montage, collage, borrowing, bricolage have been endemic in the visual arts since at least the turn of the century. The importation of readymade fragments into original works was a staple of cubism (newspaper, label samples, advertising etc.) futurism and early soviet art. Dada took this much further (Kurt Schwitters above all and the photomontagists) and as early as 1914 Marcel Duchamp had exhibited his bottle rack, a work in which, for the first time, a complete unmodified object was simply imported whole into an ‘art space’. Yet strangely it waited 25 years for John Cage in his Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939) to bring a gramophone record into a public performance as an instrument – and he still only used test tones and the effect of speed changes.

Having said this, I recently learned that at a Dada event in 1920 Stephan Wolpe used eight gramophones to play records at widely different speeds simultaneously – a true precedent, but without consequences; and of course Ottorino Respighi did call for a gramophone recording of a nightingale in his 1924 Pina di Roma – a technicality this, but imaginative none the less (though a bird call would have sufficed). Moreover, Darius Milhaud (from 1922), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus (1923) and Edgard Varese (1936) had all experimented with disc manipulation, but none eventually employed them in a final work. Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch did produce three recorded ‘studies’ (Grammophonmusik, 1929-30), but these have been lost, so it is difficult to say much about them except that, judging from the absence of offspring, their influence was clearly small8. More prescient, because the medium was more flexible, were sound constructions made by filmmakers in the late 1920s and 1930s, using techniques developed for film, such as splicing and montaging, and working directly onto optical film soundtrack – for instance, in Germany, Walter Ruttman’s Weekend and Fritz Walter Bischoff’s lost sound symphony, Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball; and, in Russia, constructivist experiments including G. V. Alexandrov’s A Sentimental Romance and Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm. There had also been some pieces of film music which featured ‘various treatments of sounds’ – probably created with discs before being transferred to celluloid – by such composers as Yves Baudrier, Arthur Honnegger and Maurice Jaubert (Davies 1994).

The ideas were around, but isolated in special project applications. And strangely, optical recording techniques developed for film in the 1920s, although endowed with many of the attributes of magnetic tape, simply never crossed ever into the purely musical domain – despite Edgard Varese’s visionary proposal in 1940 for an optical sound studio in Hollywood – a proposal which, needless to say, was ignored.

With so many precedents in the world of the visual arts and the long availability of the means of direct importation and plunder, it does seem surprising that it took so long for there to be similar developments in the world of music. And when, at last, the first clear intimations of the two principle elements crucial to plunderphonic practice did arrive, they arrived in two very different spheres, each surrounded by its own quite separate publicity and theory. The key works were Pierre Schaeffer’s early experiments with radio sound archive discs (e.g. Etude aux tourniquets, 1948) and John Cage’s unequivocal importation of readymade material into his Imaginary Landscape No.4 (1951) for twelve radios – where all the sounds, voices and music were plundered whole, and at random, from the ionosphere. In 1955, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 specified as sound material forty-two gramophone records. Thus, although Schaeffer used prerecorded materials, these were ‘concrete’ sounds, not already recorded compositions; while Cage made his construction out of ‘copyright’ works, although this fact was purely incidental to the intention of the piece.

It wasn’t until 1961 that an unequivocal exposition of plunderphonic techniques arrived in James Tenney’s celebrated Collage No.1 (Blue Suede) (Tenney 1992), a manipulation of Elvis Presley’s hit record Blue Suede Shoes. The gauntlet was down; Tenney had picked up a ‘non art’, lowbrow work and turned it into ‘art’; not as with scored music by writing variations on a popular air, but simply by subjecting a gramophone record to various physical and electrical procedures.

Still no copyright difficulties.
To refer or not to refer

Now, it can easily be argued that performances with – and recordings which comprise – ready-made sounds, including other people’s completed works, reflect a concern endemic in twentieth-century art with art media in and of themselves, apart from all representational attributes. This can take the form, for instance, of an insistence that all that is imitation can be stripped away, leaving only sensual and essential forms with no external referents; or a belief that all semiotic systems consist of nothing but referentiality – signalled by the addition, as it were, of imaginary inverted commas to everything. But it is only a loss of faith, or illusion, or nerve, that stands between this century’s younger belief in ‘pure’ languages and today’s acceptance of the ‘endless play of signification’. Moreover, plunderphonics can be linked, historically and theoretically, to both perceptions. Thus a recording may be considered as no more than the anonymous carrier of a ‘pure’ – which is to say a non-referential – sound; or it may be an instance of a text that cannot exist without reference. In the first way, as Michel Chion’s ‘ten commandments for an art of fixed sounds’ makes clear, the composer ‘distinguishes completely sounds from their sonic source … he has done with mourning the presence of the cause.’ (Chion 1991 p. 22). Here the goal is to ‘purify’ the sound, to strip it of its origin and memories (though it may well be that that same erased origin remains still to haunt it). In the second way, the recording – for instance a sample – may be no more than a fragment, a knowing self reference, a version, and may be used to point at this very quality in itself.

As a found (or stolen) object, a sound is no more than available – for articulation, fragmentation, reorigination; it may be given the form of pure ‘acousmatics’ or made an instance of the availability and interchangeability – the flatness – of a recording, its origin not so much erased as rendered infinitely relative. These applications, of course, do not exhaust it: as a pirated cultural artefact, a found object, as debris from the sonic environment, a plundered sound also holds out an invitation to be used because of its cause and because of all the associations and cultural apparatus that surround it. And surely, what has been done with ‘captured’ visual images (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein) – or with directly imported objects (Duchamp, the mutilated poster works of Harris, Rotella, De la Villegle and others) – all of which depend upon their actuality and provenance (as readymades) – can equally be done with captured ‘images’ of sound.

Plundered sound carries, above all, the unique ability not just to refer but to be, it offers not just a new means but a new meaning. It is this dual character that confuses the debates about originality which so vex it.
High and Low

Popular musics got off to a slow start with sound piracy. Nevertheless they soon proved far more able to explore its inherent possibilities than art musics, which even after fifty years of sporadic experiment remained unable rigorously so to do. It is interesting perhaps that Tenney, who made the most radical essay into unashamed plunder, chose popular music as his primary source. In a later piece, Viet Flakes, from 1967 (Tenney 1993), he mixed pop, classical and Asian traditional musics together and in so doing drew attention to another significant facet of the life of music on gramophone records, namely that, in the same way that they conceal and level their sources, records as objects make no distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, ‘art’ and ‘pop.’9 A record makes all musics equally accessible – in every sense. No special clothes are needed, no expensive tickets need be bought, no travel is necessary, one need belong to no special interest or social group, nor be in a special place at a special time. Indeed, from the moment recordings existed, a new kind of ‘past’ and ‘present’ were born – both immediately available on demand. Time and space are homogenised in the home loudspeaker or the headphone and the pop CD costs the same as the classical CD and probably comes from the same shop. All commodities are equal.

For young musicians growing up in the electric recording age, immersed in this shoreless sea of available sound, electronics, Maltese folk music, bebop, rhythm and blues, show tunes, film soundtracks and the latest top ten hit were all equally on tap. Tastes, interests, studies could be nourished at the pace and following the desire of the listener. Sounds, techniques and styles could flit across genres as fast as you could change a record, tune a dial or analyse and imitate what you heard. A kind of sound intoxication arose. Certainly it was the ideas and applications encountered in recorded music of all types which led a significant fringe of the teenage generation of the late 1960s into experiments with sound, stylistic bricolage, importations, the use of noise, electronics, ‘inappropriate’ instruments and – crucially – recording techniques10. The influence of art music and especially the work of Varese, Schaeffer, Stockhausen and others cannot be overestimated in this context and, more than anything, it would be the crossplay between high and low art that would feature increasingly as a vital factor in the development of much innovative music. In plunderphonics too, the leakages – or maybe simply synchronicities – between productions in what were once easily demarcated as belonging in high or low art discourses, are blatant. Indeed, in more and more applications, the distinction is meaningless and impossible to draw.

But there are simpler reasons for the special affinity between low art and plundering. For instance, although the first plunder pieces (viz. the early concrète and the Cage works mentioned) belonged firmly in the art camp, blatant plundering nevertheless remained fairly off limits there, precluded essentially by the non-negotiable concern with originality and peer status – and also with the craft aspect of creating from scratch: originating out of a ‘creative centre’ rather than ‘just messing about with other people’s work’. The world of low art had few such scruples: indeed, in a profound sense plundering was endemic to it – in the ‘folk’ practices of copying and covering for instance (few people played original compositions), or in the use of public domain forms and genres as vessels for expressive variation (the blues form, sets of standard chord progressions and so on). The twentieth-century art kind of originality and novelty simply was not an issue here. Moreover, in the ‘hands on’, low expectation, terra nova world of rock, musicians were happy to make fools of themselves ‘rediscovering America’ the hard way.

What I find especially instructive was how, in a sound world principally mediated by recording, high and low art worlds increasingly appropriated from one another. And how problems that were glossed over when art was art and there was no genre confusion (like Tenney’s appropriation of copyright, but lowbrow, recordings) suddenly threatened to become dangerously problematic when genres blurred and both plunder and original began to operate in the same disputed (art/commercial) space.
Low art takes a hand

Rock precedents for pure studio tapework come from Frank Zappa, with his decidedly Varese-esque concrete pieces on the albums Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy and Only In It For The Money, all made in 1967 – Only In It For The Money also contains an unequivocally plundered Surf music extract- and The Beatles’ pure tapework on Tomorrow Never Knows from the 1966 album Revolver. Revolution No 9 on The White Album is also full of plundered radio material. In the early 1960s radios were ubiquitous in the high art world and in some intermediary groups such as AMM and Faust (in the latter, on their second UK tour, guest member Uli Trepte played ‘Space Box’ – a shortwave radio and effects – as his main instrument).

Such examples – taken in combination with, firstly, the increasing independence, confidence and self-consciousness of some rock musicians; secondly, a generation of musicians coming out of art schools; furthermore, the mass availability of ever cheaper home recording equipment; and, finally, a climate of experiment and plenitude – made straightforward plunder inevitable. This promise was first substantially filled by The Residents. Their second released album, Third Reich and Roll (1975), a highly self-reflexive commentary on rock culture and hit records, curiously employed a technique analogous to that used by Stockhausen in 1970 for his Beethoven Anniversary recording, Opus 1970, which had nothing to do with influence and everything to do with the medium. What Stockhausen had done was to prepare tapes of fragments of Beethoven’s music which ran continuously throughout the performance of the piece. Each player could open and shut his own loudspeaker at will and was instantaneously to ‘develop’ what he heard instrumentally (condense, extend, transpose, modulate, synchronise, imitate, distort). To different ends The Residents followed a similar procedure: instead of Beethoven, they copied well known pop songs to one track of a four-track tape to which they then played along (transposed, modulated, distorted, commented on, intensified), thus building up tracks. Though they subsequently erased most of the source material, you can often, as with Opus 1970, still hear the plundered originals breaking through.

In 1977 it was The Residents again who produced the first unequivocal 100% plunder to come out of pop, following in the high art footsteps of James Tenney’s Presley-based Collage No.1, and the later, more successful 1975 work Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis by American composer Richard Trythall (plundered from various recordings of Lewis’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On). Trythall comments: ‘Like the table or newspaper in a cubist painting, the familiar musical object served the listener as an orientation point within a maze of new material… the studio manipulations… carried the source material into new, unexpected areas, while maintaining its past associations’ (programme note on ReR CMCD). The Residents’ work was a 7 inch single titled Beyond The Valley Of A Day In The Life and subtitled ‘The Residents Play The Beatles/The Beatles Play The Residents’. It came packaged as an art object in a numbered, limited edition and hand-silkscreened cover, but was sold to – and known by – a rock public. One side of this single was a cover version of The Beatles song Flying. The other was pure plunderphonics. This whole side was assembled from extracts dubbed off Beatles records, looped, multitracked, composed with razor blades and tape. It is an ingenious construction, and remains a landmark.
Sampling and scratching

Although there were some notable experiments and a few successful productions, tape and disc technologies made plundering difficult and time consuming and thus suitable only for specific applications. What brought plundering to the centre of mass consumption low art music was a new technology that made sound piracy so easy that it didn’t make sense not to do it. This development was digital sampling, launched affordably by Ensoniq in the mid-1980s. Digital sampling is a purely electronic digital recording system which takes samples or ‘vertical slices’ of sound and converts them into binary information, into data, which tells a sound producing system how to reconstruct, rather than reproduce it. Instantly.

At a fast enough sampling rate the detailed contours of a sound can be so minutely traced that playback quality is compatible with any analogue recording system. The revolutionary power associated with a digital system is that the sound when stored consists of information in a form that can be transformed, edited or rewritten electronically, without ‘doing’ anything to any actual analogue recording but only to a code. This really is a kind of a writing. When it is stored, modified or reproduced, no grooves, magnetised traces or any other contiguous imprint link the sound to its means of storage (by imprint I mean as when an object is pressed into soft wax and leaves its analogue trace). It is stored rather as discrete data, which act as instructions for the eventual reconstruction of a sound (as a visual object when electronically scanned is translated only into a binary code). Digital sampling allows any recorded sound to be linked to a keyboard or to a Midi trigger and, using electronic tools (computer software), to be stretched, visualised on screen as waveforms and rewritten or edited with keys or a light pencil. All and any parameters can be modified and any existing electronic processing applied. Only at the end of all these processes will an audible sound be recreated. This may then be listened to and, if it is not what is wanted, reworked until it is and only then saved. It means that a work like Cage’s four minute long Williams Mix (the first tape collage made in America) which took a year to cut together, could now be programmed and executed quite quickly using only a domestic computer.

The mass application is even more basic. It simply puts any sound it records – or which has been recorded and stored as software – on a normal keyboard, pitched according to the key touched. The user can record, model and assign to the keys any sounds at all. At last here is a musical instrument which is a recording device and a performing instrument – whose voice is simply the control and modulation of recordings. How could this technology not give the green light to plundering? It was so simple. No expertise was needed, just a user friendly keyboard, some stuff to sample (records and CDs are easy – and right there at home), and plenty of time to try things out. Producing could be no more than critical consuming; an empirical activity of Pick’n’Mix. Nor was that all. Sampling was introduced into a musical climate where in low art plundering was already deeply established in the form of ‘scratching’ – which in its turn echoed in a radically sophisticated form the disc manipulation techniques innovated in high culture by Hindemith and Koch, Milhaud, Varese, Honegger, Kagel, Cary, Schaeffer et al, but now guided by a wholly different aesthetic.
From scratch

The term ‘scratching’ was coined to describe the practice of the realtime manipulation of 12 inch discs on highly adapted turntables. It grew up in US discos where DJs began to programme the records they played, running them together, cutting one into another on beat and in key, superimposing, crossfading and so on. Soon this developed to the point where a good DJ could play records as an accompanying or soloing instrument, along with a rhythm box, other tracks or singing. New and extended techniques emerged – for instance the rhythmic slipping of a disc to and fro rapidly by hand on a low friction mat to create rhythms and cross rhythms – alongside old Concrete techniques: controlled speed alterations and sillons fermés riffs.

Two manual decks and a rhythm box is all you need. Get a bunch of good rhythm records, choose your favourite parts and groove along with the rhythm machine. Using your hands, scratch the record by repeating the grooves you dig so much. Fade one record into the other and keep that rhythm box going. Now start talking and singing over the record with your own microphone. Now you’re making your own music out of other people’s records. That’s what scratching is. (McLaren (1982)).

It was only after scratching had become fashionable in the mid-1970s in radical black disco music that it moved back toward art applications, adopted quite brilliantly by Christian Marclay. Marclay used all the above techniques and more, incorporating also an idea of Milan Knizac’s, who had been experimenting since 1963 with deliberately mutilated discs, particularly composite discs comprising segments of different records glued together. Of course everything Marclay does (like Knizac) is 100% plundered, but on some recordings he too, like John Oswald on his seminal Plunderphonic recordings, creates works which, echoing Tenney and Trythall, concentrate on a single artist, thus producing a work which is about an artist and made only from that artist’s sonic simulacrum. Listen, for instance, to the Maria Callas and Jimi Hendrix tracks on the 10 inch EP More Encores (subtitled ‘Christian Marclay plays with the records of Louis Armstrong, Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, John Cage, Maria Callas, Frederic Chopin, Martin Denney, Arthur Ferrante & Louis Teicher, Fred Frith, Jimi Hendrix, Christian Marclay, Johann Strauss, John Zorn’).

Marclay rose to prominence as a member of the early 1980s New York scene, on the experimental fringe of what was still thought of unequivocally as low art. He emerged from the context of disco and scratching, not concrète or other artworld experiments with discs (though they were part of his personal history). His cultural status (like the status of certain other alumni of the New York school such as John Zorn) slowly shifted, from low to high, via gallery installations and visual works and through the release of records such as Record Without A Cover (1985), which has only one playable side (the other has titles and text pressed into it) and comes unwrapped with the instruction: ‘Do not store in a protective package’. Or the 1987 grooveless LP, packaged in a black suede pouch and released in a limited and signed edition of 50 by Ecart Editions. Marclay’s work appears as a late flowering of an attenuated and, even at its height, marginal high art form, reinvented and reinvigorated by low art creativity. It traces the radical inter-penetrations of low and high art in the levelling age of sound recording; the swing between high art experiment, low art creativity and high art reappropriation, as the two approach one another until, at their fringes, they become indistinguishable. This aesthetic levelling is a property of the medium and this indistinguishability signals not a collapse but the coming into being of a new aesthetic form.
Oswald plays records

Curiously, the apotheosis of the record as an instrument – as the raw material of a new creation – occurred just as the gramophone record itself was becoming obsolete and when a new technology that would surpass the wildest ambitions of any scratcher, acousmaticist, tape composer or sound organiser was sweeping all earlier record/playback production systems before it. Sampling, far from destroying disc manipulation, seems to have breathed new life into it. Turntable techniques live on in live House and Techno. Marclay goes from strength to strength, more credits for ‘turntables’ appear on divers CDs and younger players like Otomo Yoshihide are emerging with an even more organic and intimate relation to the record/player as an expressive instrument11.

It is almost as if sampling had recreated the gramophone record as a craft instrument, an analogue, expressive voice, made authentic by nostalgia. Obsolescence empowers a new mythology for the old phonograph, completing the circle from passive repeater to creative producer, from dead mechanism to expressive voice, from the death of performance to its guarantee. It is precisely the authenticity of the 12 inch disc that keeps it in manufacture; it has become anachronistically indispensable.

Applications of a new technology to art are often first inspired by existing art paradigms, frequently simplifying or developing existing procedures. Then new ideas emerge that more directly engage the technology for itself. These arise as a product of use, accident, experiment or cross fertilisation – but always through hands-on interaction. New applications then feed back again into new uses of the old technologies and so on. For a long time such dynamic inter-penetrations can drive aspects of both. Painting and film, for instance, have just such a productive history. A similar process could be traced in the tension between recording and performance. A particularly obvious example of this is the way that hard cuts and edits made with tape for musical effect inspire played “edits” – brilliantly exemplified in the work of John Zorn. This process can be traced more broadly, and more profoundly, in the growth and refinement of the new sound aesthetic itself, which from its origins in the crisis in art music at the turn of the century through to contemporary practices in many fields, is characterised by the dynamic interactions between fluid and fixed media. New instrumental techniques inform, and are informed by, new recording techniques. Each refines a shared sonic language, sets problems, makes propositions. Each takes a certain measure of itself from the other, both living and dead: “Records are … dead” as Christian Marclay carefully points out12.
More dead than quick

What is essential – and new – is that by far the largest part of the music that we hear is recorded music, live music making up only a small percentage of our total listening. Moreover, recording is now the primary medium through which musical ideas and inspiration spread (this says nothing about quality, it is merely a quantitative fact). For example, one of the gravitational centres of improvisation – which is in every respect the antithesis of fixed sound or notated music – is its relation to recorded sound, including recordings of itself or of other improvisations. This performance-recording loop winds through the rise of jazz as a mass culture music, through rock experiments and on to the most abstract noise productions of today. Whatever living music does, chances are that the results will be recorded – and this will be their immortality. In the new situation, it is only what is not recorded that belongs to its participants while what is recorded is placed inevitably in the public domain.

Moreover, as noted earlier, recorded music leaves its genre community and enters the universe of recordings. As such the mutual interactions between composers, performers and recordings refer back to sound and structure and not to particular music communities. Leakage, seepage, adoption, osmosis, abstraction, contagion: these describe the life of sound work today. They account for the general aesthetic convergence at the fringes of genres once mutually exclusive – and across the gulf of high and low art. There is a whole range of sound work now about which it simply makes no sense to speak in terms of high or low, art or popular, indeed where the two interpenetrate so deeply that to attempt to discriminate between them is to fail to understand the sound revolution which has been effected through the medium of sound recording.

Plunderphonics addresses precisely this realm of the recorded. It treats of the point where both public domain and contemporary sound world meet the transformational and organisational aspects of recording technology; where listening and production, criticism and creation elide. It is also where copyright law from another age can’t follow where – as Oswald himself remarked – ‘If creativity is a field, copyright is the fence’13.
Pop eats itself

I want now to look at some of the many applications of plundering beyond those of directly referential or self-reflexive intent like those of Tenney, Trythall, The Residents, Oswald and Marclay.

First, and most obvious, is the widespread plundering of records for samples that are recycled on Hip Hop, House and Techno records in particular, but increasingly on pop records in general. This means that drum parts, bass parts (often loops of a particular bar), horn parts, all manner of details (James Brown whoops etc.) will be dubbed off records and built up layer by layer into a new piece. This is essentially the same procedure as that adopted by The Residents in their Beatles piece, except that nowadays the range and power of electronic treatments is far greater than before and the results achieved of far greater technical complexity. Rhythms and tempi can be adjusted and synchronised, pitches altered, dynamic shape rewritten and so on. Selections sampled may be traceable or untraceable, it need not matter. Reference is not the aim so much as a kind of creative consumerism, a bricolage assembly from parts. Rather than start with instruments or a score, you start with a large record and CD collection and then copy, manipulate and laminate.

Moral and copyright arguments rage around this. Following several copyright infringement cases, bigger studios employ someone to note all samples and to register and credit all composers, artists and original recording owners. ‘Sampling licences’ are negotiated and paid for. This is hugely time consuming and slightly ridiculous and really not an option for amateurs and small fish. Oswald’s Plexure, for instance, has so many tiny cuts and samples on it that, not only are their identities impossible to register by listening, but compiling credit data would be like assembling a telephone directory for a medium sized town. Finding, applying, accounting and paying the 4000-plus copyright and patent holders would likewise be a full time occupation, effectively impossible. Therefore such works simply could not exist. We have to address the question whether this is what we really want.

For now I am more interested in the way pop really starts to eat itself. Here together are cannibalism, laziness and the feeling that everything has already been originated, so that it is enough now endlessly to reinterpret and rearrange it all. The old idea of originality in production gives way to another (if to one at all) of originality in consumption, in hearing.

Other applications use plundered parts principally as sound elements which relate in a constitutive or alienated way to the syntax of a piece. They may or may not carry referential weight, this being only one optional attribute which the user may choose to employ. The Anglo-German group Cassiber (comprising Chris Cutler, Heiner Goebbels and Christoph Anders) uses just such techniques in which samples act both as structure and as fragments of cultural debris. Cassiber creates complexities; no piece is reducible to a score, a set of instructions, a formula. Simultaneity and superimposed viewpoints are characteristic of much of the work – as is the tension between invention and passion on the one hand and ‘dead’ materials on the other.

When the group was formed, singer Christoph Anders worked with a table stacked with prepared cassettes, each containing loops or raw extracts taken from all manner of musics (on one Cassiber piece, there might be fragments of Schubert, Schoenberg, The Shangri-La’s, Maria Callas and Them). The invention of the sampler put in his hands a similar facility, except with more material and infinitely greater transformational power, all accessible immediately on a normal keyboard. It means that, in a way impossible – though desired – before, they can be played. They can be as unstable as any performed musical part – and as discontinuous. Cassiber’s use of familiar fragments, though these are often recognisable – and thus clearly referential – doesn’t depend on this quality which is accepted merely as a possible aspect – but rather on their musical role within the piece. Where House and Rap use samples to reinforce what is familiar, Goebbels and Anders use them to make the familiar strange, dislocated, more like debris – but (and this is the key) as structural rather than decorative debris. It is an affect only plundered materials can deliver14.
The Issue

What is the issue? Is it whether sound can be copyrighted or snatches of a performance? If so, where do we draw the line – at length or recognisability? Or does mass produced, mass disseminated music have a kind of folk status? Is it so ubiquitous and so involuntary (you have to be immersed in it much of your waking time) that it falls legitimately into the category of ‘public domain’? Since violent action (destruction of works, legal prohibition, litigation and distraint) have been applied by one side of the argument, these are questions we cannot avoid.


There are cases such as that of Cage, in Imaginary Landscapes 2 and 4, where materials are all derived directly from records or radio and subjected to various manipulations. Though there are copyright implications, the practice implies that music picked randomly ‘out of the air’ is simply there. Most of Cage’s work is more a kind of listening than of producing.
B: Partial Importations

An example of partial importation is My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (Byrne and Eno) and the work of Italians Roberto Musci and Giovanni Venosta. In both cases recordings of ethnic music are used as important voices, the rest of the material being constructed around them. The same might be done with whale songs, sound effects records and so on; I detect political implications in the absence of copyright problems on such recordings. At least, it is far from obvious to me why an appeal to public domain status should be any more or less valid for ‘ethnic’ music than it is for most pop – or any other recorded music.
C: Total Importation

This might rather be thought of as interpretation or re-hearing of existing recordings. Here we are in the territory of Tenney, Trythall, The Residents, Marclay and quintessentially, of plunderphonic pioneer John Oswald. Existing recordings are not randomly or instrumentally incorporated so much as they become the simultaneous subject and object of a creative work. Current copyright law is unable to distinguish between a plagiarised and a new work in such cases, since its concerns are still drawn from old pen and paper paradigms. In the visual arts Duchamp with readymades, Warhol with soupcans and brillo boxes, Lichtenstein with cartoons and Sherry Levine with re-photographed ‘famous’ photographs are only some of the many who have, one way or another, broached the primary artistic question of ‘originality’, which Oswald too can’t help but raise.
D: Sources Irrelevant

This is where recognition of parts plundered is not necessary or important. There is no self-reflexivity involved; sound may be drawn as if ‘out of nothing’, bent to new purposes or simply used as raw material. Also within this category falls the whole mundane universe of sampling or stealing ‘sounds’: drum sounds (not parts), guitar chords, riffs, vocal interjections etc., sometimes creatively used but more often simply a way of saving time and money. Why spend hours creating or copying a sound when you can snatch it straight off a CD and get it into your own sampler-sequencer?
E: Sources Untraceable

These are manipulations which take the sounds plundered and stretch and treat them so radically that it is impossible to divine their source at all. Techniques like this are used in electronic, concrete, acousmatic, radiophonic, film and other abstract sound productions. Within this use lies a whole universe of viewpoints. For instance, the positive exploration of new worlds of sound and new possibilities of aestheticisation – or the idea that there is no need to originate any more, since what is already there offers such endless possibilities – or the expression of an implied helplessness in the face of contemporary conditions, namely, everything that can be done has been done and we can only rearrange the pieces. This is a field where what may seem to be quite similar procedures may express such wildly different understandings as a hopeless tinkering amidst the ruins or a celebration of the infinitude of the infinitesimal.

Final comments

Several currents run together here. There is the technological aspect: plundering is impossible in the absence of sound recording. There is the cultural aspect: since the turn of the century the importation of readymade materials into artworks has been a common practice, and one which has accumulated eloquence and significance. The re-seeing or re-hearing of familiar material is a well established practice and, in high art at least, accusations of plagiarism are seldom raised. More to the point, the two-way traffic between high and low art (each borrowing and quoting from the other) has proceeded apace. Today it is often impossible to draw a clear line between them – witness certain advertisements, Philip Glass, Jeff Koons, New York subway graffiti.

It seems inevitable that in such a climate the applications of a recording technology that gives instant playback, transposition and processing facilities will not be intimidated by the old proscriptions of plagiarism or the ideal of originality. What is lacking now is a discourse under which the new practices can be discussed and adjudicated. The old values and paradigms of property and copyright, skill, originality, harmonic logic, design and so forth are simply not adequate to the task. Until we are able to give a good account of what is being done, how to think and speak about it, it will remain impossible to adjudicate between legitimate and illegitimate works and applications. Meanwhile outrages such as that perpetrated on John Oswald will continue unchecked.

APPENDIX 1. A note on proportion

Current copyright law differs from country to country, but in general follows international accords. It certainly allows ‘fair use’ which would include parody, quotation and reference, though these may need to be argued and defended. This is a minefield in which only lawyers profit. So where The Beatles had to pay up for quoting In The Mood at the end of All You Need Is Love, and Oswald had his work destroyed, Two Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman got off free as ‘fair use’. Or take Negativland’s parody of U2′s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1991). This was also recalled and destroyed after Island Records sued the group and its record company, identifying illegally stolen samples as one of the main causes. But Negativland are famous precisely for their tapework and cut-up techniques, as well as their sharp fragmenting and commenting on the media debris by which we are all, like it or not, daily assaulted. This piece was funny, as well as telling and not commercial – in all these respects unlike the record by Two Live Crew. It and the group and the record company all got hammered (all copies recalled and destroyed, $25,000 fine and other financial penalties, assignation of Negativland’s rights to Island records). Now compare the case of disco mixers DNA who made a techno manipulation of Susanne Vega’s song Tom’s Diner, released it on an independent label, sold a few thousand copies and then, when Vega’s record company heard it, were offered not a crippling lawsuit but a deal for an ‘official’ release. Questions of works unstarted, or only circulating privately, or of a climate where ideas and opportunities are simply abandoned – all for fear of copyright difficulties – are not even broached here. There is no proportion because there is no clarity. The rethinking of copyright law is long overdue. Recording has been with us now for more than 100 years.
APPENDIX 2. Everyday sample and plunder

I have restricted myself above to artworld precedents and applications of plunderphones but, of course, sampling and ‘electroquotation’ have long been endemic to the production of rap and other popular musics. In 1994 I interviewed freelance studio engineer Bob Drake about his work with Ice T. and other rap artists. He described what was then standard practice. Since then, the technology has been radically updated and is even easier to use; indeed composing with other people’s work has now been thoroughly integrated into instrument design and studio practice.

A typical group’s producer has a machine like a linn/akai mpc60, which has 12 pads like a drum machine, lots of memory for sequencing, and most important, it’s a huge sampler too. This person spends time at home with their huge record collection finding suitable bits to build a new song with. Usually they’ll start with a drum loop, perhaps from a james brown record – 1, 2 maybe 4 bars. Then a loop with a bass line (maybe with drums on too) say from the zapp band – 1 or 2 bars. Horn section from an earth, wind and fire album, electric piano from some incredibly obscure funk album, add a few more drum loops to fatten it up and give it a rolling, driving feel. Some percussion, tambourine, hi-hat samples. A lot of producers have their own ‘signature’ hi-hat and tambourines which they use on all their stuff and won’t tell anyone where they sampled them from; if you recognise it you’re a true fanatic scholar of all the old records. The 808 kick drum is a major part of the sound, the ‘boom’. It comes from the roland tr 808 drum machine if you turn the decay on the bass drum all the way up. Very few people actually own an 808, but there are plenty of samples around. You can also make a good boom by sampling an oscillator, somewhere between 60-100 hertz and adding a regular kick drum sample to it. The sound is so deep it can be way up in the mix like it’s supposed to be and not get in the way of anything else.

So all these loops and sounds are put on different pads on the mpc60 and sequenced into a song form. Before it’s actually a song, with breaks, choruses and so on, the whole big rolling piles of samples and loops is called a ‘beat’. But to arrive at this, getting all the loops and samples – most of which were originally in different tempi – to play in perfect synch with one another, is a whole job in itself. They all have to be synched up with the metronome in the sequencer. Drummers speeding up and slowing down with the four bars of a sample, horn sections slightly behind or ahead of the beat – all the natural human ‘imperfections’ – sometimes make it necessary to break a loop into two or four separate segments, shortening or lengthening each to get it ‘in time’. All these loops have little idiosyncrasies, people talking, band/audience members shouting, stuff going on in the background, scratches and pops from the old vinyl, all of which add up and contribute to the overall end sound.

When it’s been shaped into a song, it’s all printed on the multitrack, each sample and loop on its own track and the ‘live’ parts are added: maybe a bass guitar, wah-wah guitar, sax. Then the vocals and scratches. The scratches are added by the dj, the guy with the turntable and crates full of old records. The dj is almost like a soloist and spaces are left in the song structure for scratching, the same way a rock band leaves a space for a guitar solo and for fills and flavouring throughout the song. They’re really good at knowing just where to get the right little phrases and sounds which somehow relate to the lyrics of the song, often rearranging the words of an old song, or piecing lines from several songs together to make them say what they want for the new song. A really great dj is unbelievable and fun to watch and listen to: real performers.’ (Cutler 1994 p. 13)

References mentioned

Chion, Michel (1991), L’Art des sons fixés, Fontaine: Editions Metamkine/Nota Bene/Sono-Concept.
Cutler, Chris (1991), ‘Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms’, III (i), File Under Popular, London: ReR Megacorp (revised edition).
Cutler, Chris (1994), ‘sampling notes: in the studio’, unfiled: Music Under New Technology (ReR/Recommended Sourcebook 0401) pp. 13-14.
Davies, Hugh (1994), ‘A History of Sampling’, unfiled: Music Under New Technology (ReR/Recommended Sourcebook 0401) pp. 5-12.
Kostelanetz, Richard (ed.) (1971), John Cage, London: Allen Lane/Penguin.
McLaren, Malcolm (1982), B-Bu-Buffalo Gals (sleeve note), Charisma: MALC12.
Not mentioned but critical:
Oswald, John (1986) Plunderphonics, ot audio piracy as a compositional preogative. Musicworks 34.

Recordings mentioned

Cassiber (1990), A Face We All Know, ReR: CCD 1989.
Coltrane, John (1961), My Favourite Things, Atlantic:
Eno, Brian and Byrne, David (1994), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, EG: EGCD 48.
Marclay, Christian (1988), More Encores. (EP) No Man’s Land: NML 8816.
Musci, Roberto and Venosta, Giovanni (1990), Messages and Portraits, ReR: MVCD1.
Negativland (1991) U2, SST CD 272 (destroyed).
Oswald, John (1988/1998), Plunderphonics (EP), released by John Oswald; Plunderphonic (CD) (1989), as previous (destroyed); Discosphere (CD) (1991), ReR: JOCD; Plexure (CD) (1993), Avant: AVAN 16.
The Residents (1974/1987), The Beatles Play The Residents/The Residents Play The Beatles, (7″ single), Ralph Records (1974); (CD reissue Third Reich’n Roll bonus track), (1987) East Side Digital: ESD 80032.
Schaeffer, Pierre (1990), L’oeuvre musicale intégrale, INA/GRM: C1006-1009.
Stockhausen, Karlheinz (1970), Opus 1970, Deutsche Grammophon (LP): 139 461.
Tenney, James (1992), Collage No1 (Blue Suede), ‘Selected Works’ (CD), Artifact: FP001, (1993), Viet Flakes, MusicWorks: MW56.
Trythall, Richard (1971), Ommagio a Gerry Lee Lewis, CRI (LP) (1977): SD 302; ReR (CD): CMCD 1980.
Yoshihide, Otomo [Ground Zero] (1986), Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, ReR: GZ1.


1. As I have argued in ‘Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms’, section II (i), in Cutler (1991). return to text

2. There were sporadic experiments, as we shall see, and notably Varese grasped the nettle early. Pierre Schaeffer made the radical proposal, but precisely from his work as an engineer, and not emerging out of the art music tradition. A few followed – Stockhausen, Berio, Nono and others – and new schools formed which in part or whole abandoned mediating notation (concrete, electronic, acousmatic, electroacoustic musics, for example), but these too tried to retain, so far as was possible, the old status and values for their creators, merely replacing the score with direct personal manipulation, and continuing to make the same claims to originality, personal ownership, creation ex nihilo, etc. John Cage was an interesting exception: his originality and individuality were claimed precisely in their negation.return to text

3. For the full argument of this claim see ‘Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms’, section III (ii), in Cutler (1991).return to text

4. The first Copyright Act in England was passed in 1709. The current Act dates from 1988 and includes rights of the author to remuneration for all public performances (including broadcasts, jukeboxes, muzak, fairground rides, concerts, discotheques, film, TV and so on) as well as for recordings of all kinds. The recording is copyrighted separately from the composition, so that every individual recording of a composition also has an owner.return to text

5. Most copyright bodies still discriminate between works which earn a lot by the minute (‘serious’ composed works) and those which earn a little (pop music, for instance and improvised-compositions). Criteria for making such decisions vary, reflecting the prejudices of the day.return to text

6. Which is to say, where it raises questions that reflect upon its own identity.return to text

7. And through its documentary authenticity also in the realm of the political, as the purity of the retouched photograph and doctored tape attest.return to text

8. Hugh Davies recently brought to my attention a report from a 1993 conference in Berlin where it was reported that in the mid-1980s Hindemith’s discs had been offered to the director of a German musicological institute. He refused them after which they were almost certainly destroyed.return to text

9. I shall treat the quotation marks as read from here on.return to text

10. See Cutler (1991) chapters on The Residents, Necessity and Choice, Progressive Music in the UK.return to text

11. Hear, for instance, his ‘Ground Zero’ recording Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (Yoshihide 1986).return to text

12. From an interview with J. Dean Kuipers Ear magazine (1993).return to text

13. From the Plunderphonic CD booklet.return to text

14. For example Start the show from the CD A face we all know (Cassiber 1990).return to text

This essay was first published in in MusicWorks 60 (Fall 1994), then in two parts in Resonance 3.2 and 4.1 and in translation in Bologna as an independent booklet by Angelica (1997). It has been anthologised in Classic Essays on 20th Century Music (ed Kostelantz and Darby), Schirmer Books, NY. (1996) and in Music, Electronic media and Culture (ed Simon Emmerson), Ashgate Press, London (2000) and has also appeared translated into Japanese and Polish.

first published on the web on chris cutler’s website

November 21, 2008

ART – A Vision of the Future: third text 100th anniversary issue

Filed under: art — ABRAXAS @ 7:27 pm

Third Text has come to its 100th issue. This marks our 22 years of publishing history since Third Text’s foundation in 1987. It also amounts to a considerable body of work achieved by the scholarly efforts of our collaborators on an international scale. Third Text has been fortunate in eliciting and encouraging all these responses across the world whose critical reflections might otherwise have been neglected or altogether excluded. Third Text’s brief remains, as it always has, to provide an international platform for those artistic and critical practices, and in general for the production of knowledge beyond Eurocentric confines, that are constantly at risk of being marginalised. An archive of impressive benefit to anyone interested in the narratives of modern art history and visual culture has accumulated over this long and consistent process.

The point of this ‘special centenary’ issue is not to rest on self-congratulation. On the contrary, and mindful of this new century’s global troubles, it is incumbent on Third Text to take critical stock of itself, to review its shortcomings, and even, why not, to consider its failure. There can be no success in advancing a critical examination of the world if one is not prepared to confront failure.

Two questions need urgently to be addressed. What good is criticism? What knowledge does art have? These are the questions in simple words, but not simple in fact, posed to self-examination in this special issue for the 21st century. How best to approach them? These questions must be asked with even greater rigour than before, now as we face a legacy of failures in modern history that endangers the future prospects of humanity. Aspirations and hopes at the dawn of the 20th century were dashed by the slaughter of the First ‘Great’ War. Bourgeois ideology was revealed bankrupt and art had no choice but to turn to anti-art in a bid to liberate itself from the emptiness of bourgeois aesthetics and integrate with everyday life. But did it succeed? Is there not a failure of the avant-garde due to a persistent delusion that art can still reflect the world and change it merely by the self-centred enterprise of exceptional individuals? Has art now not become part of the bankruptcy it sought to confront by adopting complicit sensationalism and mass media celebrity tactics in its efforts to thrive on the global market? Its failure of vision is the dark lens in which we see trapped the aspirations of working people, the formerly colonised and feminist ideals, now debased and become no more than the desire to take part in the very system that they once struggled against.

This failure is not an absolute closure. The merits and deficits of the historical avant-garde are in need of reconsideration if we are to understand the present and plan for a better future. Art must again take its place, as it once hoped to do, in and not against the interests of the collective. The avant-garde’s radical ideas failed, inasmuch as these were contained within aesthetic individualism and legitimated within mainstream institutions, and inasmuch as they were appropriated and their true significance aborted by turning them into institutionally manageable objects frozen in their temporalities. But the ideas themselves are still there to be recuperated from their institutional closures. Ideas in the course of productions of knowledge can never be frozen or trapped, either as the absolute property of any individual or any institution. They can always be salvaged and given impetus in keeping with the dynamic of new times and spaces. They can indeed be made to perform a radically transformative function in dealing with the problems of humanity today in the 21st century.

In order to perform this function, the very concept of art will have to liberate itself from the two historical limits of containment and legitimation. One is the containment in the artist’s own narcissist ego; the other is institutional legitimation which facilitates and promotes art only as reified commodities placed in its museum showcases.

This special centenary issue of Third Text invites its contributors to offer their views on the knowledge there is in art, beyond its prevailing containment, and to consider the interrelated function of criticism, in the widest remit of critical theory and history, and thereby deliver that knowledge from the bonds of institutional legitimation so that humanity can move forward.

contact richard dyer, thirdtext@btconnect.com

November 18, 2008


Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 7:25 pm

[from The Heartstring Noodle Bar]

I felt the blinding headlights slide across my back and then angle off in another direction altogether. Soon the cacophany of sound and glare was moving pleasantly off into the night, and I was left alone in the semi-darkness with Hans and the candy penyata boy. The night was warm this far from the ocean, and the harsh coastal breezes had subsided into soundless breaths of tired air. The desolate station lay in arid scrubland littered with the corpses of many rusted cars. The lights of the city were visible in the distance, glazing yellow twinkles along the skyline. Tattered iron railway tracks led down into the shallow basin which accomodated the enormous, shambling structure. Hans hopped off my shoulder and ran across the hacked tracks, his claws skittering against the iron. I followed him down into the gloom, skirting the pools of sallow light which stained down from ancient floodlights. I groped my way across the rubble of shattered concrete walls until we had neared a looming entranceway. Inside, the station was full of echoes. Large featureless walls of concrete cascaded away in every direction. Every now and then, one could discern the sound of distant dripping and the scurry of desert centipedes. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why Genevieve would want to celebrate her birthday in this godforsaken squalor. I entered into a vast hall, lit by banks of dismal fleuroescents and paused to set the candy penyata boy on the grimy floor. I then pulled the femur from my sleeve, examining the bloody scrawls for any mention of directions. As I was in the process of doing this I became aware of a stealthy tread somewhere behind me. I turned to see three sinewy figures emerging from the gloom. They were clad in ragged scuba suits and brandished machetes. Hungry grins covered their faces like some sort of contagious rash. I was about to flee when the lead scallywag spied the bloody femur in my hands. His face went suddenly slack and a gurgle escaped his lips. The others followed his eyeline. Before I could even react, they had bolted in terror. I heard them vaulting over barbed wire fences, crashing off into the sub-spaces in their desperate escape. I raised an eyebrow and went back to my examination of the bone. The directions were cryptic. I was evidently supposed to go to Cul-De-Sac Number Thirty Three, just past a generator enclosure, and telephone a given number from an orange callbox. I looked around hopelessly and began to wander the vacant lots in search of a sign. Oddly enough, I had only gone about a hundred meters when I came upon a rusted sign swinging from a battered post. The sign read ‘CUL-DE-SAC 33′ in huge block letters. And dead ahead, across a stretch of concrete was a vivid phonebooth. I walked over and picked up the reciever, dialling the number off the bone as best I could. I completed the sequence of digits and waited, eyeing Hans as he played joyfully in the empty vestibules. I was surprised to hear a distant clanking arising in response to my button pushing. I looked to my left and realised that I had inadvertedly activated some elevator mechanism. The elevator shaft was housed within a monumental pillar, which I approached nervously. There was no door to the elevator, only a rusty grate resembling the battered frame of an ancient bed. I peered through the grating to glimpse an ominous lift rising from the depths of the Hadean shaft. I stepped back and allowed the lift to surface. It rose and halted, revealing an open interior of plush burgundy velvet, quite in contrast to the desolate wilderness without. A hunched bellboy stood, framed in the doorway, clad in an immaculate crimson uniform. One of his white gloved hands rested on a brass lever, the other he held behind his back. I watched as he pushed the grate aside and noticed, with surprise, that there was a closet behind him. It was set ornately against the back of the elevator, and I wondered what it could possibly be doing there.

“Good evening sir,” the Bellboy said suavely. “Welcome to Cul-De-Sac 33, may I please see your invitation?”

I held out the femur and he accepted it wordlessly. I observed as he turned sharply on his heel, opening the closet behind him with a smooth, practised motion. Inside the closet, dangling on neat little meat hooks were four skeletons with the occasional bone missing. The Bellboy kneeled and tested the femur against each skeleton until he found a match. He shot me a proffesional litle smile and secured the wayward bone to its place. I called for Hans, hefted the candy penyata boy under my arm and entered the elevator. The grate was slammed shut and we sank slowly down into the bowels of the earth. The Bellboy ho-hummed pleasantly all the while, perhaps to lull me into a sense of security and detract my attention from the immense desolation of the basement areas of the station. As we descended I caught glimpses of the seemingly endless successions of levels which were slipping slowly past the grate. Each successive veiw seemed more dilapidated than the last. At first the long vistas of grey concrete were relatively well lit by recessions of jittery neon. These floors bore a vague likeness to vacant parking lots, but these resemblances soon degraded utterly. The neon gave way to sparse guttering lamps, and these too soon surrendered to ambiguous dimness, punctuated by distant guttering fires. After awhile, there was nothing but darkness. And if it weren’t for the vague illumination radiating from the carriage of the elevator, it would have seemed as though we were in some sort of diving bell, plunging slowly but surely toward the seabed. After about twenty minutes or so of regular descent, I turned to the Bellboy.

“Look,” I asked casually. “Just how far down are we going?”

The Bellboy straightened up his shoulders and turned his head slightly to face mine. There was a vaguely ironic look upon his face.

“Cul-De-Sac 33 is indeed a Cul-De-Sac sir, ” he explained politely. “It therefore stands to reason that it would be situated at the very end of whatever causeway led to it.”

I eyed the blank, black spaces tumbling endlessly before us.

“Right,” I replied. “That is altogether illuminating, but I’m afraid that you still haven’t quite answered my question.”

A hint of irritation danced in the Bellboy’s eyes.

“I think the answer you require would be; All the way down, sir.”

“I see.”

We continued for awhile in silence, and I began to feel sleepy. I realised that I hadn’t slept or eaten anything for many hours, perhaps even days. I had indeed become ‘wrapped up in myself”, as the psychologists are fond of saying. I looked over at my shoulder to see Hans dozing comfortably and was suddenly possesed by an uncontrollable urge to join him in restful slumber. I looked around the interior of the lift for somewhere comfortable to sit or lean my head. Unfortunately, the only extremity available was the ungainly cupboard. Paste filigree adorned the edges of the cupboard, twirled into flowers and other fanciful decorations. And although these inventions were skillfully wrought and most pleasing to the eye, they provided a barrier of almost razor sharp edges, preventing any comfortable proximity to the closet. I began to feel restless and annoyed, questioning the sense of obligation which had caused me to be here, in the slum-like outskirts of the city, sinking into the earth without a trace. Strange paranoid thoughts, prompted by my sleeplessness, began to assail me. What if the lift jammed and we became trapped in these enormous, lightless spaces? What if the Bellboy was in league with the scuba suited vagabonds? What if, what if, what if. It was enough to drive one insane, especially this far underground. I was very nearly at the end of my tether when the lift began to show signs of slowing. I noticed that we had left the levels behind now, and all that passed before the grate was solid bedrock veined with mineral strata. We emerged abruptly into a large cavern, passing through a flue in the roof. Harsh, jarring music composed entirely of metallic cacophanies and screeching white noise suddenly assailed my ears, amplified biliously by the wierd acoustics. Stalagtites slipped passed and I gazed down upon a raucous scene. The cavern was enormous and marbled with several interconnecting rock pools. These pools were illuminated by limpid underwater lights and dark figures drowsed and frolicked within their glowing tracts. Enormous banners and flags depicting vampires and scenes of urban wreckage decked the walls. A damp and pungent smell of stone and smoke arose from the gathering below. There were several makeshift bars fashioned of driftwood, situated inside convenient rock alcoves. People hovered at these bars, drinking and arguing. The majority of the patrons were women dressed in the intricate black garb favoured by the Night Maries. Yet some of the other clintelle were lean, bearded types, very obiously resistance fighters of some sort. A small number of them were carrying automatic weapons. These gun-toting barflies were clad either in rags or in camoflagued fatigues, sporting red bandannas around their heads like tennis players. Some even wore coloured berets or symbolic bandages. I realised that I had stumbled upon a secret meeting place for, amongst other wayward malcontents, members of the many scattered revolutionary factions. The Night Maries wafted amongst the drunk freedom fighters, leaning soporifically against pillars and dancing amongst the rock formations with bizarre, contorted movements. Globular black candles guttered in the occasional niche, but overall, the light came from the very walls of the cavern, which were coated in a thick growth of some strange phosphorescent lichen. The lichen extruded itself in dense, spongy nodes of bluish green matter, giving off a peculiar, yet regular glow not dissimilar to ultraviolet bulbs. I descended into this maelsrom, clutching the candy penyata boy nervously to myself. The lift touched down on the uneven floor of the cave and the Bellboy opened the grate.

“End of the line sir,” he sneered sarcastically.

I stepped out and watched as the grate snapped back into place. The elevator gave a shudder and rose along outdated wire frameworks to the uncertain world above. I wandered amongst the boozing desperadoes, looking for Genevieve in the grottoes and gullies. At some point I glimpsed a large bear-like revolutionary drawing the caricatured features of General Alcazar onto pineapples with lipstick and tossing them to a rabble of skinny dissidents who slashed expertly at them with enormous kukri knives. The music changed soon after I witnessed this frenzy of pineapple pulp. Piercing guitar feedback bled over lopsided analog tape loops, lending a seasick gravity to the proceedings. I eventually found Genevieve beside one of the larger rock pools ensconced within a gaggle of Night Maries. The enormous carcasse of a savaged cake lay beside them, leaking icing and black marzipan into the clear water. Ishioko Onda was there, perched on an outcrop with a shoulder holster and a bottle of champagne. I waved at her but she was beyond any state of recognition or recall. A large military issue spotlight was lying at the bottom of the pool. The glow it produced within the water was severe and silvery. Chaotic water patterns danced in wavelengths across the glowing walls while long, tattered Night Maries swam across the luminescent shafts, twisting in the depths like graceful barracudas. Genevieve noticed me and smiled rather disturbingly.

“///// my friend!” she called out. “Welcome to the end of the line!”

A few intoxicated Night Maries crawled off her lap at this disturbance, curling off and settling around the rocks like drugged cats. I picked my way through their emaciated forms, sitting carefully beside Genevieve.

“Happy birthday Genevieve,” I declared, kissing her calloused cheek. “I brought you this little offering.”

I handed her the candy penyata boy. She took it solemnly and stared into it’s black and sugary eyes.

“I will treasure it forever,” she said, tossing it into the pool.

Three Night Maries surfaced immediately, pulling the candy boy beneath the surface and tearing it to fragments within seconds. I watched these fudge-like shards dissolve clumsily in the crystalline fluid as the Night Maries finned away, exploring submerged crevices and fissures with their long, pale fingers, dark hair fanning in their wake like seaweed. A section of the candy boy’s skeleton grin sank to the bottom, caramelising instantly against a spotlight. I felt a nudge against my shoulder and turned to see a rake-thin Night Mary smiling shylly and proffering a tiny goblet of some ruby fluid. I graciously accepted it and watched as she suddenly coiled up into a little foetal form beside me, toppling instantly into a narcoleptic slumber. Her black lips parted gently and the vague sounds of snoring rose off her head. I frowned into the goblet.

“Don’t tell me this is blood,” I murmered, wondering again why I had come.

“It’s her blood,” Genevieve mentioned over her shoulder. “And it would be most impolite not to quaff it.”

“Why on earth did she just give me a cup of her blood?”

“It’s customary amongst our kind at these sorts of celebrations, just pretend it’s a daquiri or something.”

I tried to pass it off to Hans but he was having none of it, so I gulped the warm salty draught down in one sharp swallow. It wasn’t quite as bad as I expected, tasting rather predictably like some inexplicably intense tomato cocktail.

“Some folk drink that people-juice all day,” Genevieve muttered, shaking her heavy feline head.

I found that the girl’s blood was extremely satisfying, considering that I hadn’t eaten anything for so long. I realised that I could even do with a little more. I looked around expectantly, but seeing no other proffered goblets in my vicinity, settled on a slice of the vast, ruined cake. Using a machete I discovered lying on the lichen beside me, I carved myself a lurid section of the ominous confection. I scraped it onto the flat of the blade, and turning the weapon precariously, manouevered the cake to my lap. I balanced the machete across my folded legs and produced a napkin from my jacket pocket. Hans, I noticed, was eyeing the slab of cake with beady little eyes. I realised then that I was without an eating utensil. I was about to despair when I suddenly noticed that the Night Mary who lay coiled beside me was possessed of the most singular silver trident earrings. I hesitated for a moment before reaching down and carefully unscrewing one of the earrings from its cold lobe. It took some doing, but eventually I was well on my way toward a first bite. I dug a strange blue cherry from the loamy marzipan and fed it to Hans before deciding where to plant my makeshift pudding fork. I was into my third bite when Genevieve noticed what I was doing.

“You do realise that that birthday cake is laced with a very powerful psychogenic substance,” she stated flatly.

Within seconds I was attempting to claw the blue cherry from Hans’s throat. But alas, it was too late, we had both eaten of the treacherous dessert. I tossed the messy machete aside and sighed.

“What are the affects?” I asked Genevieve dismally.

“It’s not all that simple I’m afraid,” she said, lighting an enormous Montecristo cigar.

“Of course not,” I echoed. “Please illuminate me.”

“Well, the sisters and I have eaten of the Nin seed in order to venture out on a vision quest this evening, Hannah over there…” she indicated a cleopatra bobbed waif with war paint and a demonic expression who was balancing on one leg in some strange yogic posture on the other side of the rock pool.

“…She’s reached what we Night Maries call the Amazonion gate and must hunt her first dream animal. The process of the vision quest is as follows: We all eat of the Nin seed and accompany the apprentice into the wilderness, focusing out intent on summoning a dream creature for Hannah to hunt. She must then venture out alone and, in accordance to rules of the Amazonian path, she must then slay the spirit creature and bring back it’s body. Since you have eaten of the Nin seed tonight, you and Hans must acompany us on our vision quest.”

This was really going from bad to worse. I was about to protest when Genevieve waved her hand, silencing me instantly.

“It’s pointless to fight the will of the spirits,”she said between thick puffs.

“Well then, could you at least tell me what to expect?”

“The Nin seed is used to summon guides in the spirit world,” she said. “If you were alone, you would no doubt envisage some creature who would then engage you in activities or conversation of an astral sort.”

“And would I then have to kill this poor creature! And bring back it’s body!” I exclaimed, rather nerve-racked.

“No, of course not,” Geneveieve said blankly. “Hannah is on the path of the Amazon, her interaction with her dream creature must be fierce and fantastic. You are an artist. Your interaction would be relatively benign in comparison.”

“What a relief.”

“I wouldn’t let it concern you though,” she smoked solemnly. “We will all envisage an adversary for Hannah tonight, and our summons shall invoke a creature worthy of our combined attentions. You need not fear a personal encounter, only one creature shall be summoned, our physical unity and the completion of the ceremony will see to that.”

“Then I’m not really required to do anything so intense after all, merely imagine a worthy foe for Hannah over there?”

“That and row out to sea with us in a ceremonial death boat till the adversary appears.”

“Oh my God.”

She put a slab-like hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t worry ///” she said with intensity. “I shall be at your side.”

This actually did quite alot to reassure me under the circumstances. If there was one thing I was certain of, it was Genevieve’s relative indestructability. I gave Hans a grim look and he replied in kind.

“Lets go to the bar,” Genevieve suggested. “You look like you could use some monkeyrum.”

I nodded weakly, climbing to my feet. Genevieve rose in an uncommonly agile movement, almost with no effort whatsoever and guided me to the nearest driftwood bar. At nearly seven foot, she towered over many of the other roughnecks, moving with a panther-like grace through the lumbering revolutionaries.

“Look Genevieve, I almost forgot,” I said suddenly. “I’m thinking of leaving for a couple of weeks, I’ve met someone and we’re taking a short break, do I have any engagements booked?”

“You’ve met someone?” She grinned down on me like some malicious jungle goddess, smoke leaking between her enormous ivory teeth.

“Yes, and we’re thinking of going on a holiday.”

“And this girl has helped you to defeat the curse which has been over your head for so long?”

“Well, yes,” I smiled. “It’s quite remarkable really.”

She put a heavy arm around my shoulder and squeezed my arm to a pulp, letting out a leonine belly laugh which cut through the hubbub, echoeing around the cavernous spaces like a bat.

“That is wonderful my friend,” she said. “I will cancel the engagements, there are few and of little consequence.”

“Thank you Genevieve.”

“Do not mention it.”

We reached the bar and Genevieve elbowed a swarthy pirate aside. He waved his hook hand at us in anger but disappeared quickly enough. I heard her call for a bottle in the strange half-this half-that port-talk one heard around the all the sailor’s taverns. Hans was flicking his head from side to side, obviously suffering from the strange taste of the blue cherry he had so greedily gobbled.

“So where, may I ask, are you going for this holiday?” Genevieve asked, snagging an oily bottle from the barkeep.

“Orbis Altyerra,” I replied innocently.

Practically half the cave went silent at this. The effect began with those directly around me, but then spread like wildfire. Genevieve’s eyes went as wide as saucers and within seconds she had lifted me by the scruff of my neck, much in the same way a lioness will grab a cub. She transported me into a deserted grotto and pushed her wide, spatulate face unbearably close to mine. I believe I was quite incredulous at this point.


“Who on earth asked you to Orbis Altyerra!” Genevieve hissed in a sibilant whisper.

The saturated blue glow of the lichen had turned her face as dark as oil.

“Soledad…the girl I was…you know…”

“Madre Natura!” Genevieve exclaimed, shaking her head. “This girl is not what she seems, Orbis Altyerra! By the Blood of the Black Madonna //////! What were you thinking?”

“Look Genevieve, I don’t understand what you’re on about, what’s all the fuss about Orbis Altyerra?”

She looked nervously around her, eyeing the pirates and revolutionaries who drifted about like raggle-taggle sharks.

“Are you going there with her?” Genevieve asked.

“No,” I spluttered, beginning to worry somewhat by the direction this conversation was taking. “She said she leaves this morning, I…I haven’t thought how I am to get there yet, I thought I’d simply go to a travel agent…”

Genevieve guffawed loudly at this and I began to become slightly annoyed.

“Look! What’s all the fuss about Orbis Altyerra!” I spluttered at her, thoroughly outraged.

She quelled her laughter and looked at me with intense seriousness.

“Orbis Altyerra is a mythical place,” she said. “Many of these revolutionary types, desperadoes and utopia freaks have been trying to find Orbis Altyerra for years. Some say it’s location is secret, others say it does not exist at all.”

“You are jesting and jibing with me Genevieve, and I can assure you, I am not amused.”

“I would not jest and jibe with you //////, you know that in your heart, this girl has lied to you.”

I felt a heavy, leaden weight begin to slowly descend and attatch itself to me.

“Have you ever tried to find Orbis Altyerra Geneveive?” I asked her with a hint of desperation.

“No,” she said. ” It has never interested me.”

“What is so special about it?”

She sighed, glimpsing the depth of my predicament.

“They say that it is a sort of Shangri-La for spiritual outcasts, a paradise of culture out in the unnavigable wasteland, far from the eye of the police states. They say that it exists as a preserve of the arts, a creative sanctuary, founded by those who were unsatisfied by the endless cycles of revolution and revolt, those who did not seek empowerment, but the pursuit of beauty.”

“Listen Genevieve, what if there is truth to these stories? What if Soledad came to me from this place? I must get there Genevieve, you don’t understand the importance of this…I must get to Orbis Altyerra!”

“Get a hold of yourself ////! I never thought I’d see you go down this road!”

I realised that the Nin seed must be affecting my judgement slightly. I also began to suspect that Genevieve was engrossing me in some ridiculous lie in order to test my strength against the coming ordeal of the vision quest. I decided that the best thing to do would be to play along with her until I had regained some measure of my former lucidity.

“Is there a telephone here Genevieve?”

“You must be joking,”

“Of course I am! Ha ha!”

She peered at me in an unconvinced fashion.

“We will have to discuss this later,” she said curtly. “It will soon be time for us to embark upon the vision quest. But tommorrow, I will call you and we will discuss this…I will consort with my Voices and seek counsel for you.”

“You are a true friend Genevieve, I don’t care what the priests say.”

She nodded and dragged me from the grotto. I noticed that a select gathering of Night Maries was preparing a long black boat ornamented with all manner of serpentine carvings and scaled hullwork. They were manouevering the small vessel deftly from a small inlet in the far side of the cavern.

“They were wrong to call this place a Cul-De-Sac,” Genevieve grumbled as we stalked down to the pools. “Underground passages lead out to the sea and even further underground, all the way to the subterranean lake systems beneath the mountain country. Almost all places are navigable from this so-called Cul-De-Sac.”

“Perhaps its called a cul-de-sac because these people can go no further…” I mused, eyeing a revolutionary as he threw daggers at a watermelon effigy of the General.

“What an astute observation,” Genevieve muttered in a basso growl. “I must remember it for my memoirs.”

We neared the boat and I noticed that a collapsible mast, tucked all hither and thither with black sails, had been secured in brackets by tiny silver chains and bone woven rope. Night Maries swarmed the boat like cats, checking details, buckling on knives and dark oilskins. Genevieve ushered me onboard the bobbing deck and I took a seat in the back as she attended to some piles of rigging. The boat was large enough to accomodate ten to twelve people quite comfortably and had been built of old, yet supple timber. Ten Night Maries divided amongst themselves, lugging slim oars and coiling cables with an air of efficiency. They took their places at the cramped rowing stations as Hannah slunk onboard, settling near the prow like a lost animal. She was naked save for dark swimming shorts. Ornamental tattoos of fin-like wings rose from her stomach, over her square shoulders and splayed down her long ballerina back. Her fingers and toes had been dipped in ritualistic blood. I watched as she fumbled in a small wooden cavity. A nearby Night Mary approached and buckled a rather sophisticated black utility belt around Hannah’s hips. The belt, I noticed, included amongst other items, a holstered speargun, a sheathed knive and several other sturdy, bulging pouches. Hannah’s questing fingers slithered over the items at her belt as the Night Mary sat back down at her station. Another pasty, ash-blonde Night Mary came up alongside Hannah and ceremoniously twined bracelets of tiny feline skulls around her ankles, wrists and throat. Hannah maintained a steady, psychotic reverie throughout this, gazing hypnotically at one of her little fingers. The ash-blonde attendant then opened a stained ceramic jar and began to smear a thick greasy substance over Hannah’s limbs and stomach. Somebody handed Hannah a long knife which she clutched at absently. I found myself settled comfortably against the dark wood and began to light a cigarette for Hans. I glimpsed Ishioko Onda, staggering along the opposite shore of the pool, hoisting an enormous zoom lens and snapping jagged, uncalculated photographs of the proceedings. Genevieve stepped aboard, causing the boat to tilt suddenly toward her dense bulk. She squatted beside me, grasping the rudder with sure, henna stained hands. She tossed me an oilskin and I wound it about the exhaggerated shoulder pads of my suit. The pasty attendant gave Hannah a once-over before sliding overboard with a faint splash and a tinkle. I peered over the side to see her glide below the boat, surfacing somewhere near a nearby formation of pale, mushroom coloured stalagmites. I realised that we were almost ready to cast off. A twisted barbed wire anchor was hoisted and battened. The silent faces of the Night Maries stood solemnly along the faintly lapping stone shore as their sisters began leaning into the scimitar-like oars, pulling us deeper into the recesses of the sprawling cavern. Some swam around us like demented dolphins as we moved off, following us into the far edges of the pool before dispersing into the shadows. Hannah vomited a thin green gruel at some point, but no-one seemed to notice. She was curled at the prow, making distorted faces at her reflection in the water, her hair bobbing like a mad helmet. Genevieve settled heavily into her long seat , lighting another Montecristo whilst steering us toward a pronounced fissure in the rock. The cold blue gleam of the lichen became more pronounced as we left the ragged lantern light and noise in our wake. Voices drifted across the water from the celebrations behind us, but the heavy silence of the stone was slowly gaining sway, mufffling all that came before into a suffocated stillness. We crossed the threshold of the fissure and entered a natural channel of clear water, just wide enough to admit the boat. I looked up to see the ceiling drifting in through the dim blue, closing in some few meters above us. Then there was only the creaking of wood and the sustained flick and whisper of the oars. The long, cobalt passage hazed in intestinal convolutions before us, unribboning into the vaults of the earth as we began to pick up a steady pace. My thoughts soon focused upon the worrying exchange I had just had with Genevieve. I found that I could not rule out the possibility that she was in fact telling me the truth. This idea disturbed me profoundly, shedding strange, unexpected shadows across my interaction with Soledad. After all, what did I truly know of Soledad Evora? It’s true, she had initaited a profound healing effect across the more damaged quadrants of my psyche and soul, but I still did not even know where she worked, let alone lived. I had only ever seen her twice. She was a voice on the phone, a complete mystery theatre in which my paranoid delusions held sway. I felt the doom-watch of misery begin to cloak me in a hard, grey jelly of despondancy. To make things worse, I was now on my way to some psychadelic sea-monster party surrounded by girls with knives. Hans was however quite happy. He always became content when he was close to an abundance of cool fresh water. I think that it reminded him of the island which he hailed from. I could feel him licking his eyes in contentment. It was at times like this when I tried to take a page out of Hans’s book. After all, here was a lizard who could weather all manner of travails and still stay on top of things. I needed that kind of rock-like stability in my life, an anchor of reason I could cling to when my life was spiralling desperately into chaos. I watched him puff away in a state of zen-like absorbtion, and it was with quite a sense of surprise that I realised that the lichen was thinning considerably. We were already in a sort of pellucid half-darkness, shuffling down that smooth walled tract with all the echoes. Two of the Night Maries detatched from their berth’s and removed a series of heavy iron dungeon lanterns from a series of deep lockers. They lit these with sloping tapers, hanging them from sinister hooks around the boat. I noticed Hannah hissing and jumping as the flames swelled, ducking from the swelling vacoules of buttery light. Soon we were trafficking wildly bobbing luminous swatches across the length of the slippery throat of stone. The proximity of the sea became suddenly apparent to me, I could feel it in the icy, mineral quality of the air, now damp and heavy in my lungs. The prescence of salt became a luminous thing. I had a thought that this sudden intoxication of my senses might very well be due to the machinations of the Nin seed. Regardless of this worrying factor, these refreshing qualities cleared my head somewhat and I was able to begin to feel slightly more positive about life. This bizarre mythologising of Orbis Altyerra was no doubt some kind of incredible mix-up, prevaricated no doubt by Genevieve’s inebriation and compounded by my infernal hunger. I scanned the peripheral area for something to eat and gave up after finding a bucket of fish heads beneath one of the bulkheads. By now, the only light came from the iron lamps, and we were surrounded by the darkness of many ancient pirate coves. It wasn’t long before a pale haze of starlight announced the enroachment of the ocean. By now my brain was swelling and slipping like a helium balloon inside my skull. I imagine that this was much like the candy penyata boy must have felt as his head melted into the mineral purity of the underground pools. The ragged cleft in the darkness grew steadily larger, and soon we were buoyed out into a luminescent night along the floral backwash of a jet black undertow. My stomach gave a lurch and I clung for purchase as the boat toppled along the edges of slowly collapsing tidal churns. The water made dark and pendulous formations, swirling with muscular undercurrents. The starlight came down bright and icy, scattering a million silvery eyelids across the ocean. The rocking lamps swabbed at the heavy air with their cargo of flame, buttering light across the impenetrable waters. The waves had the appearance of smokey quartz, unpacking themselves along fractures, dense and crystalline in the lamp reflections. We navigated the choppy froth, skillfully piloted by the wraith-like Night Maries, who evidently knew these waters well. We passed the breakers and they suddenly started to sing in unison. High, shrill voices which cleaved at the night in glassy little shrieks and half-formed melodies. The unified sound had an inescapable effect and I soon found myself singing vaguely along with their cacophany. Hans also appeared to be emmiting a vague whistling in time to their syncopations. I turned my head woozily to regard him and saw him moving his weight from foot to foot in some bizarre reptile dance. The stars had begun to spin lightly on an indeterminable axis and I clutched at the old wood of the boat for balance. I saw Hannah leaping around the stern in some maniacal tantrum, waving her machete at the roaring ocean and screaming her lungs out. Genevieve’s hand was suddenly upon my shoulder and she pulled me close.

“Listen carefully,” she said in a low rumble which somehow penetrated perfectly through the deafening racket.

I nodded, licking my tongue around my dry mouth while Hans danced around my shoulders, whistling and clicking. Genevieve’s Montecristo breath fluffed once more at my face.

“You must now envisage a foe worthy of Hannah,” she instructed. “Picture it rising in your mind’s eye, picture it rising until it has risen into the world itself!”

She released me and I crashed back into my niche. I peered overboard and saw that we were now well out to sea. The craggy shorelines swayed sickeningy in the bone coloured starlight, receding steadily into the distance. My stomach felt like a little black grape. I closed my eyes in the scraping yawls of the Night Maries, and began to imagine the approach of all manner of strange creatures. White manticore-like beasts with a hundred green eyes, coiling serpents with the lower halves of circus midget’s, Mad aquatic chicken beasts with fantastic arrays of muscular fins blossoming behind their violently clacking beaks, enormous amoebas the colour of winter twilights…the list was endless. In fact, I would have become lost completely had Genevieve not violently shaken at me, pointing suddenly at the sky. I looked around in a daze and realized that all the Night Maries were staring aggressively at the turbulent heavens, their white faces swabbing pale daubs against the black skeleton-work of the boat. Someone doused the lamps and we were plunged into cold starlight. I became aware of an enormous churning drone, like that of an enormous metal insect. I turned to follow their gaze and only vaguely discerned tiny, red pinpricks of intense red light, dancing like demonic eyes against the clouds. The sound grew louder and I could feel the Night Maries scurrying about in state of furious urgency. Hannah was on the tips of her toes, screaming obscenities at the things in the sky. Then floodlights shuttered on in blinding rays of whiteness, sweeping across the roiling waters like the giant, clumsy fingers of some obscure Grecian god. It was then that I realized that were being approached by a trio of black helicopters. One of the beams seared momentarily across us and the sudden intrusion of white light was shocking in its sudden clarity. I heard the muted chatter of machine gun fire.

“We have to jump!” Genevieve yelled. “It’s our only chance!”

Instinct overcame me. I grabbed Hans and shoved him into my jacket while Night Maries leapt hither and thither into the boiling black foam. I saw the helicopters turning in the sky, dragging their glowing pillars across the ragged curtains of spray. I moved to the side of the boat, glimpsing Hannah at the prow, still fiercely waving her machete at the approaching aircraft.

“Jump Hannah!” I shouted. “It’s no use!”

She stared at me for a second with bloodlust in her eyes, and then returned to her tirade. I took a deep breath and followed Genevieve into the ocean.

The icy water dragged me deep and filled my throat with salty surge. I could feel Hans digging his claws into my waistcoat to keep from being sucked off into oblivion. I struggled for the surface, wishing that Soledad’s arm would appear magically around my shoulders and pull me to safety. We finally broke the surface along a sliding mass of inky blackness. I was tossed to and fro, glimpsing the odd Night Mary, finning away like barbed fish into the night. Genevieve was nowhere to be seen. I had already been towed far away from the boat and had to strain to keep it in veiw over the tops of bilious swells. I was shocked to see it suddenly illuminated in the shaky overexposures of a floodlight. Hannah was a glowing white slip, dancing around like a wildcat, shooting bolts into the air from her speargun. I was unexpectantly ducked under and re-emerged to the violent clatter of machine guns. Hannah had vanished, but the boat was being chewed mercilessly into a maelstrom of wreckage and flashing splinters. I turned and began to tug shoreward with all my strength, hoping that they would decide not strafe the surrounding waters. I glimpsed one of the helicopters unfurling a large black shape from it’s belly, like an inverted parachute, or an opening seed pod. Another helicopter followed it’s example, vomiting a huge floppy shape from it’s underside. I was at a loss as to the purpose of this mysterious operation and decided to duck underwater should the vessels wheel any closer. I swam over a dark rise and spilled down into a shallow trough. And it was then that I saw one of the helicopters taking a low, slow scoop at the water with the dark pouch-like shape. I watched as the shape trawled, like a soft cup in the ocean, pulling a quantity of water up into the air. The heavily laden helicopter then rose sluggishly into the night, beginning the long limp back to shore with it’s sloping cargo of seawater. I swam after it, toward the calcified crags of the rocky shoreline. I hadn’t got very far when I noticed that the drone of the closest helicopter had become suddenly deafening. I looked up to see winking red lights above me. Long cables whipped wetly in the air. I swam recklessly, but soon realised that the horizon had become somehow unhinged. I was rocked back and forth, like a fly in a mug. Then several cables pulled tight and the black edges of canvas rose like shark fins some meters distant. My little slice of ocean was pulled into the air like a leaden weight. I tried to swim for the edge of the canvas, but was tossed biliously about. By the time the water had calmed sufficiently, we we already high above the waves and climbing. I paused to curse my predicament. It was obviously one of those situations where one had been given the clear option of staying in bed and playing with one’s iguana, watching clouds and reading. One of those situations in which the right choice had been flagrantly dismissed in favour of outright calamity. I could try to blame Genevieve, but I had known from the outset that she was in league with the Devil. I could blame the state of the country, but bad politics are inescapable wherever one goes. At the end of the day it was down to myself and the ‘vagaries of chance’, as the General had put it. Fate had once again had a fatal little chuckle at my expense. The water settled into the sort of roll one finds in the swimming pools aboard ocean liners. One or two confused looking fish darted around my legs and Hans peered out of my jacket with a questioning look. The noisy chop of the rotor blades made thinking impossible. I waded over to the edge of the canvas and clutched at the rigging, hoisting myself to a position where I could gaze over the side. It was difficult, because the entire affair was swaying like a pregnant hammock. All I had to keep myself from spilling over the side were the jointworks of the black cables, which I kept within easy reach. The smooth, black egg of the helicopter’s belly shifted above me as I struggled for a grip. Hans slipped out of my coat and backstroked around while I surveyed the approaching coastline. Below us, the rushing white scars of breakers heralded the approaching shore. An icy wind buffeted me as we slowly gained altitude, flashing over the beach and banking sharply over a craggy cliff face. The water bulged unexpectedly, sloshing over the far side. I reached out quickly and grabbed Hans by the tail to prevent him being swooshed overboard. The helicopter settled into a smooth glide over the shaggy tops of dark trees. In the distance, across the mangrove woods, I could see the orange haze of the city. We were some kilometers shy of the barren concrete outskirts of the city, but closing the distance fast. I held tight to the rigging, contemplating my fate as the sullen facades of rotting factories began to slip past beneath us. I watched the ragged tin roofs and ominous steam towers loom and recede in the winds of our passage. A swarm of bats ejaculated past in a sudden, silent flash. Lonely suburbs began to unravel their dim one-way streets toward the approaching hubs of shadowy buildings. One or two little stick-drawing men watched our flight from sallow streetcorners in the night. Faceless little drunk men, en route back to their fishwives while steam whistles called out the graveyard shift from the desolate factory lots. Long skeins of falling water knitted down like shawls of spiderweb, splattering on roofs and spilling down chimneys. The swooping din of the helicopters left a wake of frightened people throughout the city, awakened suddenly from their slumber. Rusted train tracks coded and divided through wasphives of cold concrete bridges and empty downtown offramps. Tiny streetlamps cast cold, moth drowned pools which swam past at regular intervals. I recognised the silhoette of the approaching cityscape. We were approaching the center of town across the western industrial districts. I also began to discern the sinister glow of fires, dancing across the faces of distant buildings. The other two helicopters were some distance before us, both lugging their swollen cargo over the dreary side of town. The buildings grew steadily more sophisticated and small parks and piazzas began to unfurl into the old palatial districts. We were nearing the public library, which lay at the end of the old botanical gardens. It’s enormous dome became evident behind the rows of stately trees, clearly ablaze from within. I watched with mounting anxiety as the first helicopter unsaddled its load, spilling a long white wash of seawater over the library’s dome and rococo roofing. The helicopter then banked as the water gushed in rivulets over the shattered French windows and monumental stonework. Another deluge of seawater followed the first as we began an approach over the old flower terraces. I grabbed Hans and swaddled him into my jacket, realising that this could very well be it. I thought about hanging on to a cable and trying to deal with the helicopter crew, but soon realised that this would only lead to a more jarring death. I would have to take my chances with the falling water. A weightless sensation claimed my innards as we rose suddenly before the facade of the library. Then the entire affair capsized and I was gushed out into space.

November 16, 2008

60 years after the Nakba

Filed under: politics — ABRAXAS @ 10:17 am

1948 was the year of the Nakba, or the ‘catastrophe’. The ‘catastrophe’, the 60th anniversary of which the Palestinians are commemorating this year, was their expulsion from their homeland. Dr Nur Masalha analyses and traces the background to this traumatic event which set into motion a process which eventually resulted in some 70% of the Palestinian people being turned into refugees.

1948 saw the establishment of a settler-colonial Zionist state on 78% of Mandatory Palestine. It also symbolised the Palestinian Nakba (the ‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophe’)1 – the destruction of historical Palestine and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Palestinians. In 1948 the expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians was carried out as an integral part of the infamous Plan Dalet and through the systematic use of terror and a series of massacres, of which the massacre of Deir Yasin in April 1948 was the most notorious.

The Nakba resulted in the destruction of much of Palestinian society, and much of the Arab landscape was obliterated by the Zionist state – a state created by the Ashkenazi Jewish yishuv, a predominantly European settler-colonial community that immigrated into Palestine in the period between 1882 and 1948. From the territory occupied by the Israeli state in 1948, about 90% of the Palestinians were driven out – many by psychological warfare and /or military pressure and a very large number at gunpoint. The 1948 war simply provided the opportunity and the necessary background for the creation of a Jewish state largely free of Palestinians. It concentrated Jewish-Zionist minds, and provided the security, military and strategic explanations and justifications for ‘purging’ the Jewish state and dispossessing the Palestinian people.2

The Nakba has become in Palestinian history and collective memory the demarcation line between two contrasting periods; it changed the lives of the Palestinians at the individual and national levels drastically and irreversibly; it also continues to inform and structure Palestinians’ lives. Denied the right to independence and statehood, the Palestinians were treated after 1948 as ‘refugees’-either as a ‘humanitarian problem’, deserving the support of international aid agencies and, more specifically, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), or as an ‘economic problem’ requiring ‘dissolution’ through resettlement and employment schemes (Masalha 2003).

But the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nakba and the displacement of Palestinians did not end with the 1948 war, and the Israeli authorities continued to ‘transfer’ and dispossess Palestinians during the 1950s (Masalha 1997). Israel instituted a military government and declared Palestinian villages ‘closed military zones’ to prevent displaced Palestinians from returning. The Israeli army and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) became the two Zionist institutions key to ensuring that the Palestinian refugees were unable to return to their lands, through complicity in the destruction of Palestinian villages and homes and their transformation into Jewish settlements, national parks, forests and even car parks. The JNF also planted forests in the depopulated villages to ‘conceal’ Palestinian existence. In the post-1948 period the minority of Palestinians (160,000) who remained behind, many of them internally displaced, became second-class citizens, subject to a system of military administration by a government that confiscated the bulk of their lands. Today almost a quarter of the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel are ‘internal refugees’.3

Although the ocean of refugee suffering is bound to be perceived as unique by the Palestinian people, it is, however, resonant with all extreme human suffering, including historical Jewish persecution and suffering in Europe. Surely the Nakba and ongoing Palestinian suffering are a reminder of the reality of the suffering of Jews in Europe. It is precisely because of the Jewish holocaust that the truth about the Palestinian Nakba and the continuing horrific suffering of the Palestinian people have remained invisible to enlightened public opinion in the West. Of course acknowledging the truth of what took place in Europe can never morally justify the uprooting of another people outside of Europe and the destruction of historical Palestine.

The foundational myths of Zionism

It is frequently argued that Zionism is in essence an unchanging idea that expresses 2,000 years of yearning for Jewish political and religious self-determination to be exercised over the ‘promised land’. Because political Zionism has culminated in the creation of the state of Israel, it is also often argued that its historical realisation has confirmed its unchanging essence, and no less important, the brutal means used for its realisation. Very little is said about the actual genealogy and provenance of Zionism, especially the European settler-colonial context of the late 19th century from which Zionism drew its force; and almost nothing is said about what the creation of the state of Israel entailed for the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Despite its distinct features and its nationalist ideology, political Zionism followed the general trajectory of colonialist projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America: European colonising of another people’s land while seeking to remove or subjugate the indigenous inhabitants of the land.

‘Land redemption’ (geolat adama), ‘land conquest’ (kibbush adama), emigration, settler colonisation and demographic transformation of the land, the Judaisation of Palestine and the Hebraicisation of its landscape and geographical sites have all been permanent themes of modern Zionism. The analogies between Eastern and Central European populist nationalisms and Labour Zionism: Zionist nationalist socialists repudiated liberal individualism and were suspicious of bourgeois liberal democracy. In this illiberal legacy of Labour Zionism, Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell finds the seeds of current Israeli problems – the lack of a constitution, an inadequate concept of universal human rights, the failure to separate religion and state, etc. Deflating the socialist pretensions of Labour Zionism, Sternhell explains that socialist Zionists and the right-wing Revisionist movement of Betar, founded by a Russian Jew, Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), through Menahem Begin (1913-1992) and Yitzhak Shamir to Binyamin Netanyahu, were all integral nationalists. The settler-colonial legacy of Labour Zionism, with its obsession with land settlement, ethnic and demographic separation (hafrada), continued after the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. With no social perspectives or ideological directions beyond a racialist volkisch nationalism and mystical attitudes towards the land, based on abstract ‘historical rights to the whole land of Israel’, the mould set in the pre-state period did not change. After 1967, unable to come to terms with Palestinian nationalism, Labour Zionism had inevitably pursued its settler colonialism in the occupied territories and tried to test the Zionist method of ‘creating facts on the ground’ (Sternhell 1998).

From the beginning of the modern Zionist settlement in Palestine, European Jewish settlers had to confront the reality that their project immediately clashed with the ethnic, religious and demographic realities of Palestine and precipitated conflict with the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. In particular, Palestinian demography and the land issue were at the heart of the struggle between the Zionist settlers and indigenous Palestinians. Even in 1947, the indigenous Palestinians were the overwhelming majority in the country and owned much of the land. The Jewish community or Yishuv (mainly East European settlers) was about a third of the total population and owned, after 50 years of land purchases, only 6% of the land.

In the 1930s, with the intensification of the Palestinian resistance to Zionism, the general endorsement of ‘transfer’/ethnic cleansing by David Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Jewish Agency (in different forms: voluntary, agreed and compulsory) was designed to achieve two crucial objectives: (1) to clear the land for Jewish settlers and would-be immigrants, and (2) to establish an ethnocratic, mono-religious and fairly homogenous Jewish state. During the same period key leaders of Labour Zionism, such as Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, strongly believed that Zionism would not succeed in setting up a homogenous Jewish state and fulfilling its imperative of absorbing the expected influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe if the indigenous inhabitants were allowed to remain.

The myth of an empty and deserted land

The state of Israel was built on old biblical symbols and legends and modern Zionist myths. Central to Zionist foundational myths is the theme that the land, until the arrival of European Jewish settlers, was virtually barren, desolate and empty, waiting to be made fertile and populated by Israel; it was the rightful property of ‘returning Jews’ (Whitelam 1996: 40-45). The mega-narrative of Zionism contains several intertwined foundational myths which underlie contemporary Israeli culture. These include the ‘negation of exile’ (shlilat ha-galut), the ‘return to history’ (ha-shiva la-historia), the ‘return to the land of Israel’ (ha-shiva le-Eretz Yisrael) and the myth of ‘empty territory’ (Piterberg 2001: 31-46). The ‘negation of exile’ allows Zionism to establish a line of unbroken continuity between ancient Palestine and a present that renews it in the resettlement of Palestine (Piterberg 2001: 31). These slogans run through state education in Israel and find strong expression in children’s literature. One such work for children contains the following excerpt:

‘Joseph and some of his men thus crossed the land [Palestine] on foot, until they reached Galilee. They climbed mountains, beautiful but empty mountains, where nobody lived … Joseph said, “We want to establish this Kibbutz and conquer this emptiness. We shall call this place Tel Hai [Living Hill] … The land is empty; its children have deserted it [reference is, of course, to Jews]. They are dispersed and no longer tend it. No one protects or tends the land now”‘ (Gurvitz and Navon 1953: 128, 132, 134, in El-Asmar 1986: 83).

In a similar vein, Israel’s leading satirist, Dan Ben-Amotz, observed in 1982 that ‘the Arabs do not exist in our textbooks [for children]. This is apparently in accordance with the Jewish-Zionist-socialist principles we have received. “A-people-without-a-land-returns-to-a-land-without-people”‘ (Ben-Amotz 1982: 155).

This characteristic thinking echoes strongly the deep-seated theme of ‘land without a people’. These images and formulas of ‘underpopulated and untended land’ gave those who propounded them a simple and self-explanatory Zionism. These myths not only justified Zionist settlement but also helped to suppress conscience-pricking among Israeli Jews for the dispossession of the Palestinians before, during, and after 1948: if the ‘land had been deserted’, then no Zionist wrongdoing had taken place.

For the Zionist settler who is coming ‘to redeem the land of the Bible’, the indigenous people earmarked for dispossession are usually invisible. They are simultaneously divested of their human and national reality and classed as a marginal non-entity. Furthermore, Zionism, like all European settler-colonial movements, had to demonise and dehumanise the indigenous people in its path in order to legitimise their displacement and dispossession. Thus, the Palestinians were depicted as ‘conniving’, ‘dishonest’, ‘lazy’, ‘treacherous’, ‘liars’, ‘murderous’ and ‘Nazis’. Indeed, Zionist historiography provides ample evidence suggesting that from the very beginning of the Yishuv in Palestine the attitude of most Zionist groups towards the native Arab population ranged from a mixture of indifference and patronising racial superiority to outright denial of its national rights, the goal being to uproot and transfer it to neighbouring countries. Leading figures such as Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish writer, close lieutenant of Theodor Herzl and advocate of the ‘transfer’ solution, worked relentlessly to propagate the slogan that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. Another use of the same myth of an empty country was made in 1914 by Chaim Weizmann, later president of the World Zionist Congress and the first president of the state of Israel:

‘In its initial stage, Zionism was conceived by its pioneers as a movement wholly depending on mechanical factors: there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country? The owners of the country [the Ottoman Turks] must, therefore, be persuaded and convinced that this marriage is advantageous, not only for the [Jewish] people and for the country, but also for themselves’ (Weizmann, 28 March 1914, in Litvinoff 1983: 115-16).

A few years after the Zionist movement obtained the Balfour Declaration, Zangwill wrote:

‘If Lord Shaftesbury was literally inexact in describing Palestine as a country without a people, he was essentially correct, for there is no Arab people living in intimate fusion with the country, utilising its resources and stamping it with a characteristic impress; there is at best an Arab encampment’ (Zangwill 1920: 104).

Disposable natives

Neither Zangwill nor Weizmann intended these demographic assessments in a literal fashion. They did not mean that there were no people in Palestine, but that there were no people worth considering within the framework of the notions of European white supremacy that then held sway. In this connection, a comment by Weizmann to Arthur Ruppin, head of the colonisation department of the Jewish Agency, is particularly revealing. When asked by Ruppin about the Palestinian Arabs and how he (Weizmann) obtained the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Weizmann replied: ‘The British told us that there are some hundred thousand negroes [kushim in Hebrew] and for those there is no value’ (Heller 1984: 140).

Such pronouncements by Weizmann, Zangwill and other leading Zionists planted in the Zionist mind the racist notion of an empty territory – empty not necessarily in the sense of an actual absence of inhabitants, but rather in the sense of a ‘civilisational barrenness’ justifying Zionist colonisation and obliviousness to the fate of the native population and its eventual removal.

In my works (Masalha 1992; 1997; 2003) which are largely based on Hebrew and Israeli archival sources, I have dealt with the evolution of the theme of ‘population transfer’- a euphemism denoting the organised removal of the Arab population of Palestine to neighbouring or distant countries. I have shown that this concept – delicately described by its proponents as ‘population exchange’, ‘Arab return to Arabia’, ‘emigration’, ‘resettlement’ and ‘rehabilitation’ of the Palestinians in Arab countries, etc. – was deeply rooted in mainstream Zionist thinking and in the Yishuv as a solution to Zionist land and political problems. Although the desire among Zionist leaders to ‘solve’ the ‘Arab question’ through transfer remained constant until 1948, the envisaged modalities of transfer changed over the years according to circumstances. From the mid-1930s onwards a series of specific plans, generally involving Transjordan, Syria and Iraq, were produced by the Yishuv’s transfer committees and senior officials.

The justifications used in defence of the transfer plans in the 1930s and 1940s formed the cornerstone of the subsequent argumentation for transfer, particularly in the proposals put forward after 1948 and in the wake of the 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza. After 1967, Zionist territorial maximalists and proponents of transfer continued to assert, often publicly, that there was nothing immoral about the idea. They asserted that the Palestinians were not a distinct people but merely ‘Arabs’, an ‘Arab population’, or an ‘Arab community’ that happened to reside in the land of Israel.

Closely linked to this idea of the non-existence of the Palestinians as a nation and their non-attachment to the particular soil of Palestine was the idea of their belonging to an Arab nation with vast territories and many countries. As Ben-Gurion put it in 1929, ‘Jerusalem is not the same thing to the Arabs as it is to the Jews. The Arab people inhabit many great lands’ (Teveth 1985: 39). And if the Palestinians did not constitute a distinct, separate nation, had little attachment to Jerusalem, were not an integral part of the country and were without historical ties to it, then they could be transferred to other Arab countries without undue prejudice. Similarly, if the Palestinians were merely a marginal, local segment of a larger population of Arabs, then they were not a major party to the conflicts with Israel; therefore, Israeli efforts to deal over their heads were justified.

Despite their propaganda slogans of an underpopulated land, of Palestine’s ‘civilisational barrenness’ and of their making ‘the desert bloom’, all of which were issued partly for external consumption, the Zionists from the outset were well aware that not only were there people on the land, but they were there in large numbers. Zangwill, who had visited Palestine in 1897 and come face-to-face with the demographic reality of the country, himself acknowledged in a 1905 speech to a Zionist group in Manchester that ‘Palestine proper had already its inhabitants. The pashalik [province] of Jerusalem is already twice as thickly populated as the United States, having fifty-two souls to the square mile, and not 25% of them Jews’ (Zangwill 1937: 210).

Abundant references to the Palestinian population in early Zionist texts show clearly that from the beginning of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, the Palestinian Arabs were far from being an unseen or hidden presence.

The concept of ‘transfer’ in mainstream Zionism

The concept of ‘transfer’/ethnic cleansing is as old as modern political Zionism and has accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century (Masalha 1992; 1997).4 Ben-Gurion, in particular, was an enthusiastic and committed advocate of the transfer ‘solution’. The importance he attached not merely to transfer but forced transfer is seen in his diary entry for 12 July 1937:

‘The compulsory transfer of Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we never had [an Arab-free Galilee], even when we stood on our own feet during the days of the First and Second Temple’ (Ben-Gurion 1974: 297-99).

Ben-Gurion was convinced that few, if any, Palestinians would ‘voluntarily’ transfer themselves to Transjordan. He also believed that if the Zionists were determined in their effort to put pressure on the British Mandatory authorities to carry out ‘compulsory transfer’, the plan could be implemented:

‘We have to stick to this conclusion in the same way we grabbed the Balfour Declaration, more than that, in the same way we grabbed Zionism itself. We have to insist upon this conclusion [and push it] with our full determination, power and conviction … We must uproot from our hearts the assumption that the thing is not possible. It can be done.’

Ben-Gurion went as far as to write in his memoirs:

‘We must prepare ourselves to carry out the transfer’ [emphasis in the original] (Ben-Gurion 1974, vol.4: 297-99).
A letter to his son, Amos, dated 5 October 1937, shows the extent to which transfer had become associated in his mind with expulsion. Ben-Gurion wrote:

‘We must expel Arabs and take their places … and, if we have to use force – not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our own right to settle in those places – then we have force at our disposal’ (Teveth 1985: 189).

At the Twentieth Zionist Congress, held from 3 to 21 August 1937, Ben-Gurion emphasised that transfer of Arab villagers had been practised by the Yishuv all along:

‘Was the transfer of the Arabs ethical, necessary and practicable? … Transfer of Arabs had repeatedly taken place before in consequence of Jews settling in different districts.’5

A year later, at the Jewish Agency Executive’s transfer discussions of June 1938, Ben-Gurion put forward a ‘line of actions’ entitled ‘The Zionist Mission of the Jewish State’:

‘The Hebrew State will discuss with the neighbouring Arab states the matter of voluntarily transferring Arab tenant farmers, workers and fellahin [peasants] from the Jewish state to neighbouring states. For that purpose the Jewish state, or a special company … will purchase lands in neighbouring states for the resettlement of all those workers and fellahin.’6

Ben-Gurion elaborated on the idea in his ‘Lines for Zionist Policy’ on 15 October 1941:

‘We have to examine, first, if this transfer is practical, and secondly, if it is necessary. It is impossible to imagine general evacuation without compulsion, and brutal compulsion … The possibility of a large-scale transfer of a population by force was demonstrated, when the Greeks and the Turks were transferred [after the First World War]. In the present war [the Second World War] the idea of transferring a population is gaining more sympathy as a practical and the most secure means of solving the dangerous and painful problem of national minorities.’7

Ben-Gurion went on to suggest a Zionist-inspired campaign in England and the United States that would aim at influencing Arab countries, especially Syria and Iraq, to collaborate with the Jewish Yishuv in implementing the transfer of Palestinians in return for economic gains.

There are mountains of evidence to show that in the pre-1948 period, ‘transfer’/ethnic cleansing was embraced by the highest levels of Zionist leadership, representing almost the entire political spectrum. Nearly all the founding fathers of the Israeli state advocated transfer in one form or another, including Herzl, Leon Motzkin, Nahman Syrkin, Menahem Ussishkin, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Tabenkin, Avraham Granovsky, Zangwill, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Pinhas Rutenberg, Aaron Aaronson, Jabotinsky and Berl Katznelson.

In August 1937, Katznelson, who was one of the most popular and influential leaders of the Mapai party (later the ruling Labour party), had this to say in a debate at the World Convention of Ihud Po’alei Tzion (the highest forum of the dominant Zionist world labour movement) about ethnic cleansing:

‘The matter of population transfer has provoked a debate among us: Is it permitted or forbidden? My conscience is absolutely clear in this respect. A remote neighbour is better than a close enemy. They [the Palestinians] will not lose from it. In the final analysis, this is a political and settlement reform for the benefit of both parties. I have long been of the opinion that this is the best of all solutions … I have always believed and still believe that they were destined to be transferred to Syria or Iraq.’8

A year later, at the Jewish Agency Executive’s discussions of June 1938, Katznelson declared himself in favour of maximum territory and the ‘principle of compulsory transfer’:

‘What is a compulsory transfer? Compulsory transfer does not mean individual transfer. It means that once we resolved to transfer there should be a political body able to force this or that Arab who would not want to move out. Regarding the transfer of Arab individuals we are always doing this. But the question will be the transfer of much greater quantity of Arabs through an agreement with the Arab states: this is called a compulsory transfer … We have here a war about principles, and in the same way that we must wage a war for maximum territory, there must also be here a war [for the transfer "principle"] … We must insist on the principle that it must be a large agreed transfer.’9

In the early 1940s Katznelson found time to be engaged in polemics with the left-wing Hashomer Hatza’ir about the merits of transfer. He says to them: don’t stigmatise the concept of transfer and rule it out beforehand.

‘Has [kibbutz] Merhavya not been built on transfer? Were it not for many of these transfers neither Merhavya or [kibbutz] Mishmar Ha’emek or other socialist Kibbutzim would have been set up’ (Gorny 1987: 304. Also Katznelson 1949: 241, 244; Shapira 1984: 335).

Supporters of ‘voluntary’ transfer included Ruppin, a co-founder of Brit Shalom, a movement advocating bi-nationalism and equal rights for Arabs and Jews; moderate leaders of Mapai such as Moshe Shertok and Eli’ezer Kaplan, Israel’s first finance minister; and leaders of the Histadrut (Jewish Labour Federation) such as Golda Meyerson (later Meir) and David Remez (Masalha 1992).

But perhaps the most consistent, extreme and obsessive advocate of ‘compulsory transfer’ was Yosef Weitz, a Polish Jew who arrived in Palestine in 1908 and later became director of the settlement department of the Jewish National Fund and head of the Israeli government’s official Transfer Committee of 1948. Weitz was at the centre of Zionist land-purchasing activities for decades. His intimate knowledge of and involvement in land purchase made him sharply aware of its limitations. As late as 1947, after half a century of tireless efforts, the collective holdings of the JNF-which constituted about half of the Yishuv total-amounted to a mere 3.5% of the land area of Palestine. A summary of Weitz’s political beliefs is provided by his diary entry for 20 December 1940:

‘Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country . After the Arabs are transferred, the country will be wide open for us; with the Arabs staying the country will remain narrow and restricted … There is no room for compromise on this point … land purchasing … will not bring about the state … The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left. And the transfer must be done through their absorption in Iraq and Syria and even in Transjordan. For that goal, money will be found – even a lot of money. And only then will the country be able to absorb millions of Jews … there is no other solution’ (Weitz 1940: 1090-91).

A countryside tour in the summer of 1941 took Weitz to a region in central Palestine. He recorded in his diary seeing:
‘large [Arab] villages crowded in population and surrounded by cultivated land growing olives, grapes, figs, sesame, and maize fields … Would we be able to maintain scattered [Jewish] settlements among these existing [Arab] villages that will always be larger than ours? And is there any possibility of buying their [land]? … and once again I hear that voice inside me call: evacuate this country’ [emphasis in the original] (Weitz 1941: 1204).

Earlier in March 1941 Weitz wrote in his diary after touring Jewish settlements in the Esdraelon Valley (Marj Ibn ‘Amer): ‘The complete evacuation of the country from its [Arab] inhabitants and handing it to the Jewish people is the answer’ (Weitz 1941: 1127).

In April 1948 Weitz recorded in his diary:

‘I made a summary of a list of the Arab villages which in my opinion must be cleared out in order to complete Jewish regions. I also made a summary of the places that have land disputes and must be settled by military means’ (Weitz 1948: 2358).

In 1930, against the background of the 1929 disturbances in Palestine, Weizmann, then president of both the World Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency Executive, actively began promoting ideas of Arab transfer in private discussions with British officials and ministers. He presented the colonial secretary, Lord Passfield, with an official, albeit secret, proposal for the transfer of Palestinian peasants to Transjordan whereby a loan of one million Palestinian pounds would be raised from Jewish financial sources for the resettlement operation. Lord Passfield rejected the proposal. However, the justification Weizmann used in its defence formed the basis of subsequent Zionist transfer arguments. Weizmann asserted that there was nothing immoral about the concept of transfer; that the transfer of Greek and Turkish populations in the early 1920s provided a precedent for a similar measure regarding the Palestinians; and that the uprooting and transportation of Palestinians to Transjordan, Iraq, Syria or any other part of the vast Arab world would merely constitute a relocation from one Arab district to another. Above all, for Weizmann and other Jewish Agency leaders, transfer was a systematic procedure, requiring preparation, money and a great deal of organisation, which needed to be planned by strategic thinkers and technical experts.

The ‘Transfer Committees’ (1937-1948)

While the desire among the Zionist leadership to be rid of the ‘Arab demographic problem’ remained constant until 1948, the extent of the preoccupation with, and the envisaged modalities of, transfer changed over the years according to circumstances. Thus, the wishful and rather naive belief in Zionism’s early years that the Palestinians could be ‘spirited across the border’, in Herzl’s words, or that they would simply ‘fold their tents and slip away’, to use Zangwill’s formulation, soon gave way to more realistic assessments. Between 1937 and 1948 extensive secret discussions of transfer were held in the Zionist movement’s highest bodies, including the Jewish Agency Executive, the Twentieth Zionist Congress, the World Convention of Ihud Po’alei Tzion, and various official and semi-official transfer committees.

Many leading figures justified Arab removal politically and morally as the natural and logical continuation of Zionist colonisation in Palestine. There was a general endorsement of the ethical legitimacy of transfer; the differences centred on the question of compulsory transfer and whether such a course would be practicable (in the late 1930s/early 1940s) without the support of the colonial power, Britain.

From the mid-1930s onwards the transfer solution became central to the assessments of the Jewish Agency (then effectively the government of the Yishuv). The Jewish Agency produced a series of specific plans, generally involving Transjordan, Syria or Iraq. Some of these plans were drafted by three ‘Transfer Committees’. The first two committees, set up by the Yishuv leadership, operated between 1937 and 1944; the third was officially appointed by the Israeli cabinet in August 1948.

As of the late 1930s, some of these transfer plans included proposals for agrarian legislation, citizenship restriction and various taxes designed to encourage Palestinians to transfer ‘voluntarily’. However, in the 1930s and early 1940s, Zionist transfer proposals and plans remained largely confined to private and secret talks with British (and occasionally American) senior officials. The Zionist leadership generally refrained from airing the highly sensitive proposals in public. Moreover, the Zionist leadership was tireless in trying to shape the proposals of the Royal (Peel) Commission of 1937, which proposed a partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs. It has generally escaped the attention of historians that the most significant transfer proposal submitted to the commission – the one destined to shape the outcome of its findings – was put forward by the Jewish Agency in a secret memorandum containing a specific paragraph on Arab transfer to Transjordan.
The Nakba as a form of politicide

The ethnic cleansing of the Nakba led to the creation of the state of Israel on 78% of historical Palestine (and not 55% according to the UN partition resolution), and resulted in the destruction of much of Palestinian society and much of the Arab landscape by a predominantly European settler community immigrated into Palestine in the period between 1882 and 1948. The 1948 war was presented by the Zionist leadership in messianic terms as a ‘miraculous clearing of the land’ and as another ‘War of Liberation’ modelled on the Book of Joshua. The question is: from whom was the land ‘liberated’? From the British, whose colonial administration in Palestine after 1918 had alone made it possible for the growth of the European Jewish settlement against the will of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians? Or from its indigenous inhabitants, who had tilled the land and owned the soil for many centuries10 and for whom the Bible had become an instrument mandating expulsion (Prior 2002: 44-45)?

The myth of ‘no expulsion’ was echoed by the first United States ambassador to Israel, James McDonald, who told of a conversation he had with the president of Israel, Weizmann, during which Weizmann spoke in ‘messianic’ terms about the 1948 Palestinian exodus as a ‘miraculous simplification of Israel’s tasks’. McDonald said that not one of Israel’s ‘big three’ – Weizmann, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett – and no responsible Zionist leader had anticipated such a ‘miraculous clearing of the land’ (McDonald 1951: 160-61). The available evidence (based on mountains of Israeli archival documents), however, shows that the ‘big three’ had all enthusiastically endorsed the concept of ‘transferring’ the Palestinians in the 1937-48 period and had anticipated the Palestinian refugee exodus in 1948.

In the official Zionist rendition of the 1948 war the events are presented as a battle between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath. Central to key narratives in Israeli culture is the myth which depicts the Israel-Palestine conflict as a ‘war of the few against the many’. Since the early 20th century Zionist historiography has based this narrative of ‘the few against the many’ on the biblical account of Joshua’s conquest of ancient Palestine, while mainstream Israeli historians continue to portray the 1948 war as an unequal struggle between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath, and as a desperate, heroic, and ultimately successful Jewish struggle against overwhelming odds.11 It was the European Zionist settlers who brought with them to Palestine the ‘few against the many’ narrative – a widespread European cultural myth which appeared in many variations, including the American western cowboy variation of the early 20th century (Gertz 2000: 5). Turning the Jewish faith into secular ideology, Israeli historians and authors have adopted and reinterpreted biblical sources and myths and have mobilised them in support of post-1948 Israeli objectives (Gertz 2000: 5). The few, who overcame the many by virtue of their courage and absolute conviction, were those European Zionist settlers who emulated the fighters of ancient Israel, while the many were those Palestinians and Arabs who were the embodiment of various ancient oppressors. The Zionist struggle against the indigenous Palestinians was thus portrayed as a modern re-enactment of ancient biblical battles and wars, including David’s slaying of Goliath (Gertz 2000: 5).

While the ‘David and Goliath’ version of the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to gain hegemony in the Western media, since the late 1980s, however, many of the myths that have come to surround the birth of Israel have been challenged by revisionist Israeli historians including Flapan (1987), Morris (1987), Papp‚ (1992) and Shlaim (1996, 2000; Rogan and Shlaim 2001). Furthermore the new and recent historiography of Israel-Palestine has shown that the 1948 Palestinian catastrophe was the culmination of over half a century of often secret Zionist plans and, ultimately, brute force. The extensive evidence shows a strong correlation between transfer discussions, their practical application in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba. The primary responsibility for the displacement and dispossession of three-quarters of a million Palestinian refugees in 1948 lies with the Zionist-Jewish leadership, not least David Ben-Gurion. The work of revisionist Israeli historians contributed to demolishing some of the long-held Israeli and Western misconceptions surrounding Israel’s birth. Containing remarkable revelations based on Hebrew archival material, their studies throw new light on the conduct of the Labour Zionist founding fathers of the Israeli state.

The new historiography of Israel-Palestine shows that in reality, throughout the 1948 war, the Israeli army outnumbered all the Arab forces, regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre. Estimates vary, but the best estimates suggest that on 15 May 1948 Israel fielded 35,000 troops whereas the Arabs fielded 20-25,000.12 Moreover, during the war imported arms from the Eastern bloc – artillery, tanks, aircraft – decisively tipped the military balance in favour of Israel. During the second half of 1948 the Israelis not only outnumbered but also outgunned their opponents. As ‘the Arab coalition facing Israel in 1948 was one of the most deeply divided, disorganised, and ramshackle coalitions in the history of warfare, the final outcome of the war was not a miracle but a reflection of the underlying Arab-Israeli military balance’.13 Furthermore, since 1948 the Arab-Israeli military imbalance has been illustrated by the fact that Israel (with US backing) has developed the fourth most powerful army in the world and has become the only nuclear power in the region.

Ben-Gurion’s 1948 war against the Palestinians was a form of politicide.14 Ben-Gurion entered the 1948 war with a mindset and premeditation to expel Palestinians. On 19 December 1947, he advised that the Haganah, the Jewish pre-state army, ‘adopt the method of aggressive defence; with every [Arab] attack we must be prepared to respond with a decisive blow: the destruction of the [Arab] place or the expulsion of the residents along with the seizure of the place’ (Ben-Gurion 1982: 58). There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that as early as the beginning of 1948 his advisers counselled him to wage a total war against the Palestinians, and that he entered the 1948 war with the intention of expelling Palestinians:

a) Plan Dalet: A straightforward document, this Haganah plan of early March 1948 was in many ways a blueprint for the expulsion of as many Palestinians as possible. It constituted an ideological-strategic anchor and basis for the destruction of Arab localities and expulsion of their inhabitants by Jewish commanders. In conformity with Plan Dalet, the Haganah cleared various areas completely of Arab villages.

b) The general endorsement of transfer schemes and the attempt to promote them secretly by mainstream Labour leaders, some of whom played a decisive role in the 1948 war, highlight the ideological intent that made the 1948 refugee exodus possible. Ben-Gurion in particular emerges as both an obsessive advocate of compulsory transfer in the late 1930s and the great expeller of the Palestinians in 1948 (Masalha 1992; Morris 1987; Flapan 1987; Segev 1986; Papp‚ 1992; Shlaim 1996; Rogan and Shlaim 2001).

In 1948 there was no need for any cabinet decision to drive the Palestinians out. Ben-Gurion and senior Zionist military commanders, such as Yigal Allon, Moshe Carmel, Yigael Yadin, Moshe Dayan, Moshe Kalman and Yitzhak Rabin, played a key role in the expulsions. Everyone, at every level of military and political decision-making, understood that the objective was a Jewish state without a large Arab minority.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a policy of mass expulsion was adopted and carried out in 1948. Aharon Cohen, who in 1948 was the Director of the Arab Department of Mapam, wrote a memorandum dated 10 May 1948:

‘There is reason to believe that what is being done … is being done out of certain political objectives and not only out of military necessities, as they [Jewish leaders] claim sometimes. In fact, the “transfer” of the Arabs from the boundaries of the Jewish state is being implemented … the evacuation/clearing out of Arab villages is not always done out of military necessity. The complete destruction of villages is not always done because there are “no sufficient forces to maintain garrison”‘ (Cohen 1948).

Yosef Sprintzak, who in 1948 was Secretary General of the Histadrut, stated at a debate at the Mapai Centre on 24 July 1948, which was held against the background of the Ramle-Lydda expulsions of 12-13 July (see below):

‘There is a feeling that faits accomplis are being created … The question is not whether the Arabs will return or not return. The question is whether the Arabs are [being or have been] expelled or not … I want to know, who is creating the facts [of expulsion]? And the facts are being created on orders’ (Morris 1990: 42-43).

Sprintzak added that there appeared to be ‘a line of action … of expropriation and of emptying the land of Arabs by force’ (Morris 1990: 42-43).

With the 1948 war, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership succeeded in many of their objectives. Above all, they created a vastly enlarged Jewish state (on 78% of historical Palestine) in which the Palestinians were forcibly reduced to a small minority. The available evidence shows that the evacuation of some three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948 can only be ascribed to the culmination of Zionist expulsion policies and not to mythical orders issued by the Arab armies. Benny Morris’s Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem explodes many Israeli myths surrounding the 1948 exodus. Morris assesses that of 330 villages whose experience he studied, a total of 282 (85%) were depopulated as a result of direct Jewish attack.

Ben-Gurion, who was personally responsible for many of the myths surrounding 1948, had this to say in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) debate of 11 October 1961:

‘The Arabs’ exit from Palestine … began immediately after the UN resolution, from the areas earmarked for the Jewish state. And we have explicit documents testifying that they left Palestine following instructions by the Arab leaders, with the Mufti at their head, under the assumption that the invasion of the Arab armies at the expiration of the Mandate will destroy the Jewish state and push all the Jews into the sea, dead or alive.’15

Ben-Gurion was propagating two myths: (a) that there were orders from the neighbouring Arab states and the Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, for the Palestinians to evacuate their homes and lands on the promise that the Arab armies would destroy the nascent Jewish state; and (b) that those armies intended to ‘push all the Jews into the sea, dead or alive’. Ben-Gurion gave no attribution for this phrase, nor did he claim that it was a quote from an Arab source. Since the Second World War the Holocaust had been used as a legitimiser of Zionism. However, the phrase ‘push all the Jews into the sea’ – a highly emotive phrase invoking images of the Holocaust, though adapted to a Mediterranean setting – has since acquired extraordinary mythical dimensions as it is constantly invoked by Israelis and Zionists in order to justify the policies of Israel towards the Palestinians as well as the continuing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.16

Although Ben-Gurion and his commanders did not drive the Palestinians into the sea, they did drive them from their homes and villages and ancestral lands and from Palestine and into squalid refugee camps. The irony of Ben-Gurion’s ‘chilling phrase’ should not escape us. He demanded deference for a fictitious intention on the part of the Palestinians and Arabs17 while denying his own direct and personal involvement in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Palestinians.

Lydda and Ramle

From the territory occupied by the Israelis in 1948-49 about 90% of the Palestinians were driven out, many by psychological warfare and/or military pressure. A very large number of Palestinians were expelled at gunpoint. A major instance of ‘outright expulsion’ is the widely documented case of the twin towns of Lydda and Ramle in July 1948. More than 60,000 Palestinians were expelled, accounting for nearly 10% of the total exodus. Ben-Gurion and three senior army officers were directly involved: Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan. Shortly before the capture of the towns, Ben-Gurion met with his army chiefs. Allon, commander of the Palmah, the Haganah’s elite military force, asked Ben-Gurion, ‘What shall we do with the Arabs?’ Ben-Gurion answered (or, according to one version, gestured with his hand), ‘Expel them.’ This was immediately communicated to the army headquarters and the expulsion implemented (Morris 1986b: 91). Morris (1990: 2)writes:

‘At 13.30 hours on 12 July … Lieutenant-Colonel Yitzhak Rabin… issued the following order: “1. The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age. They should be directed to Beit Nabala … Implement immediately.” A similar order was issued at the same time to the Kiryati Brigade concerning the inhabitants of the neighbouring town of Ramle, occupied by Kiryati troops that morning … On 12 and 13 July, Yiftah and Kiryati brigades carried out their orders, expelling the 50-60,000 remaining inhabitants of and refugees camped in and around the two towns.’

In the case of Nazareth, Ben-Gurion arrived only after its capture. On seeing so many Palestinians remaining in situ, he angrily asked the local commander, ‘Why are there so many Arabs? Why didn’t you expel them?’ (Bar-Zohar 1977: 776).

The massacres factor

The view that the Bible provides Jews with a title-deed to the ‘Land of Israel’, combined with European Zionism’s self-perception as morally superior to the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, was echoed in the myth of ‘purity of arms’ – a slogan initially coined by the Haganah/Palmah in early 1948. In the period between the mid-1930s and 1948, the Yishuv Labour leadership had embraced the concept of ‘transfer’ while quietly pondering the question of whether there was a ‘more humane way’ of expelling the indigenous Palestinians. In Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, Anita Shapira shows that already during the Great Palestinian Rebellion of 1936-39 the Zionist leadership abandoned the slogan of havlaga – a restrained and proportionate response – and legitimised the use of terror against Palestinian civilians – the Zionist nationalist end justified the means (Shapira 1992: 247-49, 350).

More crucially, however, the 1948 war proved that engineering mass evacuation was not possible without perpetrating a large number of atrocities. According to Israeli military historian Arieh Yitzhaki, about 10 major massacres (of more than 50 victims each) and about 100 smaller massacres were committed by Jewish forces in 1948-49. Yitzhaki argues that these massacres, large and small, had a devastating impact on the Palestinian population by inducing and precipitating the Palestinian exodus. Yitzhaki suggests that almost in every village there were murders. Another Israeli historian, Uri Milstein, corroborates Yitzhaki’s assessment and goes even further to suggest that each battle in 1948 ended with a massacre:

‘In all Israel’s wars, massacres were committed but I have no doubt that the War of Independence was the dirtiest of them all.’18

Both Israeli ‘new historiography’ and Palestinian oral history confirm that in almost every Palestinian village occupied by the Haganah and other Jewish militias during the 1948-49 war, atrocities – such as murders, execution of prisoners and rape – were committed (Finkelstein 1995: 110-12; Prior 1999: 208-09).

Moreover, the most striking result of the new historiography of Israel-Palestine is that the discourse has shifted away from the orthodox Zionist interpretation of the Deir Yasin massacre as ‘exceptional’. The focus of study is no longer so much on the terrorism carried out by the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organisation), the military arm of Betar Zionism, and Lehi irregular forces before and during the 1948 war, but on the conduct of the mainstream Haganah/Palmah and Israeli Defence Force (IDF). At issue are the roles and involvement of the Haganah and the Israeli army in the numerous atrocities carried out in 1948. Sharif Kanaana of Birzeit University places the massacre of Deir Yasin and the evacuation of Arab West Jerusalem in 1948 within the framework of what he terms the Zionists’ ‘maxi-massacre pattern’ in their conquest of large Palestinian cities: Jewish attacks produced demoralisation and exodus; a nearby massacre would result in panic and further flight, greatly facilitating the occupation of the Arab city and its surrounding towns and villages (Kanaana 1992: 108).

Deir Yasin

Deir Yasin was the site of the most notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians in 1948 – a massacre which became the single most important contributory factor to the 1948 exodus and a powerful marker of the violence at the foundation of the state of Israel. On 9 April, between 120 and 254 unarmed villagers were murdered, including women, the elderly and children. (The number of those massacred at Deir Yasin is subject to dispute. The widely accepted death toll has been that reported in the New York Times of 13 April 1948: 254 persons.) There were also cases of rape and mutilation.

Most Israeli writers today have no difficulty in acknowledging the occurrence of the Deir Yasin massacre and its effect, if not its intention, of precipitating the exodus. However, most of these writers take refuge in the fact that the massacre was committed by ‘dissidents’ of the Irgun, then commanded by Menahem Begin19 (who would later become Prime Minister of Israel), and Lehi, then co-commanded by Yitzhak Shamir (who would also later become Prime Minister of Israel), thus exonerating Ben-Gurion’s Haganah, the mainstream Zionist military force.

Recently published Hebrew material, however, shows that: a) in January 1948, the mukhtar (headman) of Deir Yasin and other village notables had reached a non-aggression agreement with the Haganah and the neighbouring Jewish settlements of Giva’t Shaul and Montefiori; b) the Irgun’s assault on the village on 9 April had the full backing of the Haganah commander of Jerusalem, David Shaltiel. The latter not only chose to break his agreement with the villagers, but also provided rifles and ammunition for the Irgunists; c) the Haganah contributed to the assault on the village by providing artillery cover; d) a Haganah intelligence officer in Jerusalem, Meir Pa’il, was dispatched to Deir Yasin to assess the effectiveness and performance of the Irgun forces (Masalha 1988: 122-23).

Although the actual murders of the non-combatant villagers were carried out by Lehi and the Irgun, the Haganah must share responsibility for the slaughter. The atrocity was fiercely condemned by liberal Jewish intellectuals, most prominent of whom was Martin Buber, who wrote repeatedly to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion about the massacre. But apparently Ben-Gurion did not reply.ÿAccording to Israeli historian Morris, Ben-Gurion was at that very time explicitly sanctioning the expulsions of the Palestinians (Morris 1987: 113-15).ÿMore significantly, recently published Israeli material shows that Deir Yasin was only one of many massacres carried out by Jewish forces (mainly the Haganah and the IDF) in 1948. Recent research proves that the Palestinians were less prone to evacuate their towns and villages in the second half of the war. Hence the numerous massacres committed from June 1948 onwards, all of which were geared at forcing mass evacuation.

In 1948, al-Dawayma, situated in the western Hebron hills, was a very large village, with a population of some 3,500 people. Like Deir Yasin, al-Dawayma was unarmed. It was captured on 29 October 1948 without a fight. The massacre of between 80 and 100 villagers was carried out at the end of October 1948, not in the heat of the battle but after the Israeli army had clearly emerged victorious in the war. The testimony of Israeli soldiers present during the atrocities establishes that IDF troops under Moshe Dayan entered the village and liquidated civilians, throwing their victims into pits. ‘The children they killed by breaking their heads with sticks. There was not a house without dead.’ The remaining Arabs were then shut up in houses ‘without food and water’ as the village was systematically razed. ‘One commander ordered a sapper to put two old women in a certain house … and blow up the house … One soldier boasted that he had raped a woman and then shot her. One woman, with a newborn baby in her arms, was employed to clear the courtyard where the soldiers ate. She worked a day or two. In the end they shot her and her baby’. A variety of evidence indicates that the atrocities were committed in and around the village, including at the mosque and in a nearby cave, that houses with old people locked inside were blown up, and that there were several cases of the rape and shooting of women (Masalha 1988: 127-30; Morris 1987: 222-23; Khalidi 1999).

The evidence surrounding the Galilee expulsions shows clearly the existence of a pattern of actions characterised by a series of massacres designed to intimidate the population into flight. On 29-31 October 1948, the Israeli army, in a large military campaign named Operation Hiram, conquered the last significant Arab-held pocket of the Galilee. According to new Israeli archival material, commanding officers issued expulsion directives: ‘There was a central directive by Northern Command to clear the conquered pocket of its Arab inhabitants’ (Morris 1999: 70). Moreover the operation was ‘characterised by a series of atrocities against the Arab civilian population’ (Morris 1995: 55). On 6 November 1948, Yosef Nahmani, director of the Jewish National Fund office in the eastern Galilee between 1935 and 1965, toured the newly conquered areas. He was accompanied by Immanuel Fried of Israel’s minority affairs ministry, who briefed him on ‘the cruel acts of our soldiers’, which Nahmani recorded in his diary:

‘In Safsaf, after … the inhabitants had raised a white flag, the [soldiers] collected and separated the men and women, tied the hands of 50-60 fellahin and shot and killed them and buried them in a pit. Also, they raped several women … At Eilabun and Farradiya the soldiers had been greeted with white flags and rich food, and afterwards had ordered the villagers to leave, with their women and children. When the [villagers] had begun to argue … [the soldiers] had opened fire and after some 30 people were killed, had begun to lead the rest [towards Lebanon]. Where did they come by such a measure of cruelty, like Nazis? … Is there no more humane way of expelling the inhabitants than such methods?’ (Morris 1999: 73). (Also see box.)

Erasing villages and deleting the reality of historical Palestine

In 1948 more than half of the Palestinians were driven from their towns and villages, mainly by a deliberate Israeli policy of ‘transfer’ and ethnic cleansing. The name of Palestine disappeared from the map. To complete this transformation of the country, in August 1948, a de facto ‘Transfer Committee’ was officially (though secretly) appointed by the Israeli cabinet to plan the Palestinian refugees’ organised resettlement in the Arab states. The three-member committee was composed of ‘Ezra Danin, a former senior Haganah intelligence officer and a senior foreign ministry adviser on Arab affairs since July 1948; Zalman Lifschitz, the prime minister’s adviser on land matters; and Weitz as head of the committee. The main Israeli propaganda lines regarding the Palestinian refugees and some of the myths of 1948 were cooked up by members of this official Transfer Committee. Besides doing everything possible to reduce the Palestinian population in Israel, Weitz and his colleagues sought in October 1948 to amplify and consolidate the demographic transformation of Palestine by:

preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes and villages;
destroying Arab villages;
settling Jews in Arab villages and towns and distributing Arab lands among Jewish settlements;
extricating Jews from Iraq and Syria;
seeking ways to ensure the absorption of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries and launching a propaganda campaign to discourage Arab return.

Apparently, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion approved of these proposals, although he recommended that all the Palestinian refugees be resettled in one Arab country, preferably Iraq, rather than be dispersed among the neighbouring states. Ben-Gurion was also set against refugee resettlement in neighbouring Transjordan (Morris 1986a: 549-50).

An abundance of archival documents shows a strong correlation between the Zionist transfer solution and the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. By the end of the 1948 war, hundreds of villages had been completely depopulated and their houses blown up or bulldozed. The main objective was to prevent the return of refugees to their homes, but the destruction also helped to perpetuate the Zionist myth that Palestine was virtually empty territory before the Jews entered. An exhaustive study by a team of Palestinian field researchers and academics under the direction of Walid Khalidi details the destruction of 418 villages falling inside the 1949 armistice lines. The study gives the circumstances of each village’s occupation and depopulation, and a description of what remains. Khalidi’s team visited all except 14 sites, made comprehensive reports and took photographs. The result is both a monumental study and a kind of memoriam. It is an acknowledgement of the enormous suffering of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees (Khalidi 1992).

Of the 418 depopulated villages, 293 (70%) were totally destroyed, and 90 (22%) were largely destroyed. Seven survived, including ‘Ayn Karim (west of Jerusalem), but were taken over by Israeli settlers. A few of the quaint Arab villages and neighbourhoods have been actually meticulously preserved. But they are empty of Palestinians (some of the former residents are internal refugees in Israel) and are designated as Jewish ‘artistic colonies’ (Benvenisti 1986: 25; Masalha 2005). While an observant traveller can still see some evidence of the destroyed Palestinian villages, in the main all that is left is a scattering of stones and rubble.

The destruction of Palestinian villages and the conceptual deletion of Palestinians from history and cartography meant that the names of depopulated Palestinian villages and towns were deleted from the map. The historical Arabic names of geographical sites were replaced by newly coined Hebrew names, some of which resembled biblical names. In his 2004 book, A History of Modern Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Papp‚ remarks:

‘[W]hen winter was over and the spring of 1949 warmed a particularly frozen Palestine, the land as we have described .- reconstructing a period stretching over 250 years – had changed beyond recognition. The countryside, the rural heart of Palestine, with its colourful and picturesque villages, was ruined. Half the villages had been destroyed, flattened by Israeli bulldozers which had been at work since August 1948 when the government had decided to either turn them into cultivated land or to build new Jewish settlements on their remains. A naming committee granted the new settlements Hebraized [sic] versions of the original Arab names: Lubya became Lavi, and Safuria Zipori . David Ben-Gurion explained that this was done as part of an attempt to prevent future claim to the villages. It was also supported by the Israeli archaeologists, who had authorized the names as returning the map to something resembling “ancient Israel”‘ (Papp‚ 2004: 138-39).

The disappearance of Palestine in 1948, the deletion of the demographic and political realities of historical Palestine and the erasure of Palestinians from history centred on key issues, the most important of which is the contest between a ‘denial’ and an ‘affirmation’ (Said 1980; Abu-Lughod, Heacock and Nashef 1991). The deletion of historical Palestine from cartography was designed not only to strengthen the newly created state but also to consolidate the myth of the ‘unbroken link’ between the days of the ancient Israelites and the modern state of Israel. Zionist post-1948 projects concentrated on the Hebraicisation and Judaisation of Palestinian geography and toponymy through the practice of naming sites, places and events. The Hebraicisation project deployed renaming to construct new places and new geographic identities related to supposed biblical places (Abu El-Haj 2001; Benvenisti 2002; Masalha 2007). The new Hebrew names embodied an ideological drive and political attributes that could be consciously mobilised by the Zionist hegemonic project.

Dr Nur Masalha is Reader in Religion and Politics and Director of the Centre for Religion and History, St Mary’s College (University of Surrey), UK. He is the author of many books on Palestine-Israel, including The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Palestine-Israel (2007). (For more information on this book, please refer to the advertisement on p. 36.)


1 One of the first authors to label 1948 the Nakba was Dr Constantine Zurayk, a distinguished philosopher of Arab history and liberal intellectual, in his book The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), a self-critical analysis of the socio-economic causes of the Arab defeat in 1948, written almost immediately after the 1948 war. The term also became the title of the monumental six-volume work of Palestinian historian ‘Arif Al-’Arif entitled The Disaster: The Disaster of Jerusalem and the Lost Paradise 1947-52 (Al-Nakba: Nakbat Bayt al-Maqdis Wal-Firdaws al-Mafqud, 1947-1952) (Beirut and Sidon, Lebanon: Al-Maktaba al-’Asriyya, 1958-1960 [Arabic]).
2 For an extensive discussion of Zionist ethnic cleansing policies in 1948, see Masalha (1992; 1997; 2003).
3 For an historical overview of ‘Palestinian Internally Displaced Persons inside Israel’, see release by BADIL Resource Center, 6 November 2002 at:
http://www.badil.org/Publications/Press/2002/press277-02.htm (accessed on 25 March 2008).
4 See also Benny Morris in The Guardian, G2, 3 October 2002.
5 As reported in the New Judea (London), XIII, nos.111-12 (August-September 1937): 220.
6 Protocol of the Jewish Agency Executive meeting of 7 June 1938, in Jerusalem, confidential, vol.28, no.51, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.
7 David Ben-Gurion, 15 October 1941. ‘Lines for Zionist Policy’, in Masalha (1992: 128-29).
8 ‘Al Darchei Mediniyutenu: Mo’atzah ‘Olamit Shel Ihud Po’alei Tzion (1938).
9 Protocol of the Jewish Agency Executive meeting of 12 June 1938. Vol.28, no.53, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.
10 Kohn (1958), in Khalidi (2005: 836).
11 Avi Shlaim, ‘The New History of 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba’, first published by www.miftah.org on 18 March 2004, at http://www.miftah.org/PrinterF.cfm?DocId=3336.
12 Shlaim, ‘The New History of 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba’.
13 Ibid.
14 The term ‘politicide’ was used by Kimmerling (2003) in connection with Ariel Sharon’s war against the Palestinians.
15 Quoted in William Martin, ‘Who is Pushing Whom into the Sea?’, 11 March 2005, at: http://www.counterpunch.org/martin03112005.html (accessed on 14 March 2005).
16 Martin, ‘Who is Pushing Whom into the Sea?’
17 Martin, ‘Who is Pushing Whom into the Sea?’
18 Guy Erlich in Ha’ir, 6 May 1992.
19 Begin sent a congratulatory note to the Irgun fighters who had carried out the Deir Yasin massacre: ‘Accept congratulations on this splendid act of conquest.ÿTell the soldiers you have made history in Israel.’ Quoted in Ellis (1991: 31).

November 15, 2008

Spotlight on the resurgence of women poets

Filed under: arja salafranca,dye hard press,poetry — ABRAXAS @ 5:29 am

However, it is no easy ride and the challenges remain, writes Gary Cummiskey

Despite poetry being regarded as a marginalised genre internationally, the past 14 years has seen an increase in the number of poetry collections published in SA, and particularly a rise in number of volumes by women poets.


Arja Salafranca, author of A Life Stripped of Illusions and The Fire in Which we Burn, says: “It is difficult to pinpoint why there has been a rise in the number of women poets, “but more women are writing today than ever before in SA — whether it’s poetry, short fiction or novels. Perhaps women are finally feeling freed and empowered enough to devote time to their writing”.


Haidee Kruger, author of Lush: a poem for four voices, says: “The growth in the number of women poets being published probably corresponds to the general growth of the book industry in SA, though this growth is more centred in the genres of fiction and trade nonfiction. I have a sense of expansion and diversification in the South African book market and I think the increasing number of more women poets being published is part of this.”


Joan Metelerkamp, author of several poetry collections including Requiem and Carrying the Fire, takes a more backward glance into history, and sees it as being more of an issue of power, with many unanswered questions.

“It has as much to do with the history of the various languages in this country as with the politics of publishing and reading. Why were there many strong Afrikaans women poets published before 1980? Was it just paternalism — Afrikaners had a culture of looking after their women? And after 1948, when it was the language of power? Why did anyone still bother about poetry?”


Makhosazana Xaba, author of These Hands and Tongues of their Mothers, recently published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, says: “Men were the familiar, men had sold poetry, so men got published. When isolated publishers here and there started taking the risk publishing women, others began to feel the risk was lessening.”

Metelerkamp says: “The fact that the publishing industry was dominated by men is no surprise: every institution all over the world used to be dominated by men.”

Kruger says that “possibly there may still be a lingering perception among some that ‘serious literature’ is, by and large, written by men, while women pen chicklit and children’s books. But how prevalent this kind of perception is, I don’t know”.

Salafranca, however, feels it also involves traditional views on gender roles. “I think writing, for a long time, has been regarded as a thing that men do. Men had studies, shut the door, said to the wife and the kids that they were busy writing and this was accepted. Now women are perhaps doing the same. So they are writing — whether it is poetry or other genres.”


Megan Hall, whose debut collection Fourth Child, published by Modjaji Books, recently won the Ingrid Jonker poetry prize, disagrees that poetry has historically been regarded historically as a genre for men, but admits: “I remember reading somewhere that women who wrote under gender-neutral names were more likely to be published than those who wrote under names that were clearly those of women. I haven’t tested this out myself.”

But do women poets see themselves as different from men poets?

Salafranca says, “No, we are not fundamentally different. We’re all human. Perhaps, though, I have tackled more ‘feminine’ topics than men would approach.” A poem of mine, On the Morning of my Period, published in The Fire in Which we Burn, would certainly not really be written by a man, although men have often imagined themselves into women’s lives. But I have many poems that don’t ‘show’ or reveal my gender.”

Kruger says, “I think of myself as a poet and not as a woman poet. It is striking how often a female poet will be described as a woman, female or, to my horror, lady poet, whereas you don’t often come across descriptions of ‘the male poet Breyten Breytenbach’. There is an odd suggestion in this that the female poet is an aberration from the norm (which is the male poet) and as such needs to be qualified. I am wary of the motivations behind distinctions. This too easily leads one into gross oversimplification. Having said that, though, the fact that I am a woman does play a profound and complex role in my writing.”

Metelerkamp says: “I do differ from poets who are men, but then I also differ from women, even from women poets whose work looks similar.”

Hall says that “different poets differ from one another in different ways. I think there are other differences that are at least as interesting as those to do with gender”.

Since 1994 there has also been an increase in the number of literary journals and independent presses in SA, and women’s poetry is certainly gaining greater coverage and exposure. A few years ago, for example, independent publisher Botsotso published Isis X, an anthology of poems and photography by South African women, including Salafranca and Xaba.


Colleen Higgs, poet and founder of independent press of Modjaji Books, which focuses on women’s writing, says: “Poetry is always a bit of an a misfit genre and activity and I don’t see adequate coverage as an external issue. Poetry is unlikely to be headline news. It is a marginal activity. It is up to poets and poetry publishers to find ways of getting get coverage.

“I think we have to do things for ourselves; and not wait for some more appropriate other to do things for us. So women need to get into independent publishing, we need to claim poetry editorships; we need to see that we have power.”

Xaba says there is not yet adequate coverage of women poets in SA, but feels that “there is a growing opening of space, a growing understanding that women poets are worthy to be published, a growing acceptance that there are very good women poets in this country.”

Hall says she is curious about what percentage women actually occupy in the various new avenues of publication. “When I was working on New Contrast I did not factor gender into my choices at all. I don’t know whether the end result was balanced or not.”


However, Salafranca asks why this wider coverage for women should be an issue. “Can’t we just publish good poetry, whatever the gender of the poet? Literary journals have sometimes devoted issues to women’s writing – the most recent edition of Wordsetc celebrated women’s writing, for instance. But generally I feel women’s poetry is getting adequate attention in journals.”

Previously many women poets responded more to overseas poets than local ones, although this is obviously changing.

Salafranca says, “I love the poetry of South African Eva Bezwoda Royston. Her work was intensely personal — about her psychological experiences, for instances. She was a bold, different, fresh voice and that speaks to and inspires me. As does the confessional, skilled work of Anne Sexton. Today, I am impressed by various local poets, both men and women.”

For Higgs, the poet who has influenced her the most is Adrienne Rich. “I love her voice, her sensibility, her quiet courage, her consisAdd Imagetent position on the side of telling the truth, especially when it isn’t popular or comfortable. However I love the work of a great many poets: Raymond Carver, Nazim Hikmet, Joan Metelerkamp, Karen Press, Megan Hall, Ingrid de Kok, Yehuda Amichai, TS Eliot, Sharon Olds, Wislawa Sjmborska.”


Kruger says, “There are many active South African women writers who whom I admire, and who are inspirational in their very diverse talents: Joan Metelerkamp, Gabeba Baderoon, Napo Masheane, Finuala Dowling, Ingrid de Kok, Karen Press, Lebo Mashile, Antjie Krog and Isobel Dixon, to name a few. However, in terms of my own development as a writer, up to now, I think that, with the possible exception of Afrikaans writers such as Krog and Ingrid Jonker, it is mostly British and American poets who have influenced me. But I find myself increasingly turning to South African and other African poets.”

Says Hall: “I’m certainly moved by writing by other South Africans and southern Africans, both men and women, and intrigued and educated and encouraged too. The same goes for writers from overseas, although the biggies for me include Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Tony Harrison. I am trying to read some of the younger wave.”

While there is undoubtedly tremendous enthusiasm about the increase in the number of women poets being published and the widening opportunities, there are, however, challenges, mainly about reaching audiences.

“It’s about getting published, finding readers and reaching readers,getting readers to buy books, getting published” says Higgs. Kruger agrees, but points out that this is a challenge facing all poets, irrespective of gender.


Xaba feel that there is a definite need to boost the number of women poets published. “While there is a growth in women’s voices it’s still in its infancy. I would like to see publishers focusing more and more on women in order to undercover talent I know exists and is waiting to be exposed to the reading public.

“The financial support that exists for poets is minimal. Writers of any kind need time out and space to focus solely on their art. Writing residencies need to become commonplace within SA, and they need to be accessible. And they need to be friendly to women.”

For Salafranca the main challenge for women poets is getting published. “There are so few publishers willing to take on collections. People don’t buy them, so it’s an uphill battle to get them out into the world.

“Some presses do publish poetry, but they are few and far between. It remains a marginalised genre, an unpopular choice for local readers who prefer reading novels to poetry or short stories. Local readers are now reading local novels in droves, because we have moved beyond apartheid literature with its messages and heavy emphasis on guilt. We have seen a renaissance of novels by local authors.”

But Hall also brings in a reminder says that a huge challenge for poets in SA “would be things like having the leisure to write, or the energy and determination to force the leisure or time to appear” We also need reasonable access to writers of different persuasions, both local and international,” and Metelerkamp also emphasises the need for poets to keep writing, which is often a challenge in itself, especially in view of poetry’s marginalised position.

First published in Business Day’s supplement on books and publishing November 15,2008.

first published on the web by dye hard press

November 13, 2008

a small book on debauchery

Filed under: literature,paul zisiwe — ABRAXAS @ 10:42 am

This Day

How did the lush of youth fly past those moons of our discontent? There we were, moribund, messed up with charred rhythms in our souls, assailing the stuff of life. We were twenty then, candle minds raped by the last twin decades shunned in the blessing bloom of this sabbatical. This proved that we are simple and made of stone, the mystery of life we could handle with a bard of torture’s personalities. When they had come the last time, we had shoved small memories in boxes which we later chased. This was how our world reeled, breaking window eyes, commiserating a mood of television excess complications. We were here, two special friends and I, a rocket soul mauling lust’s avenues; a splintered cranium spewing vague tutorials of rage, pacing the mansion penitentiary of suburbia.

Waltzing our common dark of age… wayward the later phases of this dream, the maw that imbibes promises, before the culling… at this subtle hour of the sun’s trot into the earth’s underbelly, we thought of the bulging sky’s chest tearing… in words of adornment mashed for nirvana’s brew. He chokes, genuflecting spine of hearty poses, twisting a roaring laughter, actual mess marooning coiled hair… fleas in tripe buzzing a melody at his eyes’ choice. He had to record the events in spirit, a slight float in ransom of some ancient thoughts – a dog vomiting from fresh grass; the dances and jazz blown sparks impressed to memory’s chorale.

Locked gazes, bass flowing with a girl carrying a silver coated glass of ale; engulfed in notes glowing purple and green, orange with the night’s hideous infestations. Crimson petals hang like glitter-balls from earlobes, arms flung like oak branches on shoulders of louts – old sights and voices saying:
‘I don’t know what it is you’re on… but what it is is possible.’
A table is mapped by beverage spills, jabbed – slim elbows moving with travel of sounds, murmurs of delight pulsating toe taps in slouchy muddied sneakers.

And he says to the woman in a mink coat: ‘I know Frederich Nietzsche.’
‘Oooh wow…’ she exclaims with an indifferent expression of surprise. ‘And what does he have to do with the note you passed me earlier?’
‘Hedonisius instincts…’ he confers. ‘A pathless journey some say, where the journey is the destination.’
‘Hug me then.’ She demands, ‘write that down,’ another says; the thought missing a link to the piecing potency of a past referral.
‘Always spontaneous, I see… a joyful release of a soul in need of play,’ miles in her words – a cataclysm so wined up in terror.
‘And then the rooms like fill with balloons and other unbranded delicacies…’ he jesters,
‘Yes.’ A faint smile twists a broken halo on her face, and he wells up fatigued.

The sunset was on our war – peril of youth’s claws causing jitters on brows… Jews flocking the loo – darkies flabbergasted by joy’s smoke. Horn psalmody was awhirl in a cauldron of bitter-sweet gestures; lulling diesel morbidity bending towards the slots of our owned hypocrisies. Yet we were here, at Niki’s Oasis, freeloaders miserly lifting in nihilistic tonality. No after-life for the melody. I sit in its mist of wanton calm, syllables of hatred hugged to my loin, knees and lips blazing rings. And the common lament – jazz – skeletal rears posing – eco-enlightened women in a pale trend, pointing fingers in raw wails for attention and sex.

‘Beauty. Who defines, feels.’ I overhear a sublime epithet blown into thin air, an effeminate voice, charged with song.
‘I love these friends,’ he hunkers and staggers to the beat, ‘strangers who have become inspired friends. Ah, life is beautiful.’ A cloudy sigh.
‘But – hello sunflower.’ He ambiently utters another sibilant noose unto the figure, ‘my name is The Fat Tenant.’

I sit and ponder shafts of lights between thighs with wet near closed eyes. Psychic abandon was a prudent move I thought. I had been sleeping massacred by drink nightly for twelve moons now, the exploits of a weak mind slopping into slaughterhouses of funk. Skinned sunken eye sacks I implore not to surrender me to torpor. I feel toxic, yellowed teeth cringing, eyes crying for a draft in August’s dust. Another day will soon rise behind these eyelids – weeping blots of a maddened orange in the frenzy of the sun’s art. Unshorn chin, a template of queer negation of self – a wincher with empty palms – an incorruptible aim chained to bony shoulders. All antique demons I have orphaned were rising, moaning – thunderous and searing like a tin drum inside.

Recalling the evenings when this man-child whined under Shiva’s trample – is like seeing myself reflected in a dog’s eyes and never had I seen myself like that in any human eyes. I was to floor amid maidens who loathed wombs – heads glossed with bladed perfumes of masculine oratory, but wearing cool eyes – entreating gazes. There were suggested plans for a train trip down south I hear about, over weeks of creamy dialogues with these women of no moral regard… bliss, and debauchery’s nightmare over steel tracks towards a journey that was the destination. We would cross over open dead lands, given to a fear of open spaces.
The common disease of city image-bound catwalks would until then leer its nauseated tongue and puke at natural splendor vinyl-slide crawling outside stained TV style panes. But uncertainty was the great nemesis to premeditated hedonism as I would have to later deal with the trip in the story of this wretched company.

Creaking doors whispered among the noises of smokers some forlorn wail stinking with time’s rust. Posters glowed heavenly with moguls of sound poised and waiting still. On this night miserly faces spoke in cultured tones, brews of assortments like a hospital dispensary cabinet gurgling froth over lips of glasses.

The eve wailed rowdy with lusty informal deities and eternal puzzlement that settled when there was talk about witchcraft, how relatives have hidden hairs and nails in pot-plants for alchemies beyond youth’s common gaze. The wild resonance of their fears when living an age that exterminated such mystical séances, I found unnerving. A generation born beyond the whims of tradition’s intransigence, cosmopolitan sycophants with skins peeled over their head, how dimensional shifts affect them – harm their blue ignorant souls? That which relegated their ancestry to oblivion seemed too invincible for their challenge, and they had failed for a while… I see it everyday in faces of those who live with ghost tenants and possessed legions of the cursed. I sit and ponder the electronic age shamans and sorcerers amidst the bile forming in my throat – ales labeled black slick on buds, watching my friends, one a charm’s peril and the other a soul muscle lynched with souls akin mine. They have always managed to arouse the alchemist in me every noon under covers of delirium.

Earlier clouds of hail pour outside the venue of disgust’s revenge unfit for re-birth’s awe; babes rushing among droplets, serpentine waltzes unto the morale of bar chorus.
‘Lovely art thou,’ I murmur, chasing with wrecking ball eyes, sighing that they have saved me from in-birth and its wallowing maw ground beneath my lopsided rear. Now and again they fairy a tale at me, about their grilled destinations and choir souls who wish for their company – whom I might leave somber if they happened to indulge in conversation.
‘Just keep close,’ they’d warn amiably, languid fellows lounged braced by metal whilst the grass was dappled with droplets of sky’s spit. Some faces peeped strewn with melancholy still – old men at play when jilted by anathema’s shames. Stooped at mad portraiture poses, their guffaws bellowed as they watched their fears through me, a foolhardy sleuth – grey boned, and a ball of unkempt hair.

I saw stars, a moon halo over curse’s embrace piled with love for truth – leather thighs and pinched lip-gluttons parading hell’s make-over. I sneer initially, self-possessed – flaunting my drudgery and catching bait traded by demon pulchritude. A beast I had become once again, culling my jaws in wonder; a rained out night tasting stale flowers wired on lightning strikes. My saints watch and smile indifferently, caressing foods to sewer their bellies. Loved were they, all – as sinned out for no sin to churn my hell. The in and never out jockey steering on, wide – chest heaving of sound, bearing flowers like nightly wizards on his brow. It’s a friend’s aging day – they said, her face colored in young pain surrendered to inebriation, and so were we of these dying young – at life’s bazaar without exits.
There were no specified entries either, with moist lips charring my chin at intervals wasting sentimentalities; I figured my hands dirtied by chores of this theatre.

‘What detergent was suited for these crucified gadgets raging for hugs and polite holds?’ an inner self queries desperately within the stupor of gin and juice.
A kiss on the forehead – a saintly shock to black martyrdom it gave. As we shuffle the dark wept by strange corners later that eve, pierced by walls; we speak of how the sound was bursting suns in our ears.

I live with these vagabonds, twirled journeys with bloated knuckles, saying still memories are for an after-life and a life of before. Now was for mere remembrance or rather the membering of all dis-membered terrains of our travails. Suddenly a succulent poke into my ear raptures my senses. Past other boozing rooms of mystery staggeringly, dj brooding over decked signals of a generation’s wail. Women brawled uterine gossip at their postcard gents – lustily, them who goggled at this chaos sorely needed in their prim lives. I felt at the prime of a monstrous orgy, light footed as grass blades danced dewed waltzes under toes of hobos. Chest folded charred with efforts for air, nicotine blockage bubbling like an infernal comet twitching with my voices phlegm. Cameras flashed, shuttering stout prayers for visuals of my collapse… I was done for, the floor calling.

At her home of parties, gold glowered on the rubber pool – silent youths in pig-tail charms blazing hopes for fun. My twin saints carried me here, slump sack of bones, caressing my hair with bold fingers. A woman buzzes a strut past the stricken eye and I stare, a sweet visage on a dawn’s glory. She bows to name me: ‘The sun’s pose,’ mingled with ‘Brother loved.’

Hail storm was sizzling in guts, the whole world seeming drunk with bright breaths. South Africa – me seeing all, now you being nothing, a rand’s ransom, quarry fever reeling in your bones. But all was well with me.

‘How’s he doing?’ mutters concerned pink and rosed lips.
‘I am divine.’ I say.
‘And the smile?’ they giggle, womanly red windows spewing marvel in laughter.
‘My dear… please just give more floral chatter to this ball of slurs, around his mad buzz,’ I lie still saintly impugning, no rude face necessary. I bask face up looking at those who pass over me, feeling elated despicably. Then the street fight’s motion graces the lapa filed with mannequin fellows, enraged by ill-luck in sex slums… weakness compensated with jeers.

There was however one trait of these saints that throttled many here – good food, sung with knives among choruses of coal god’s throats. I blazed at the crested surf over these souls impaired by pride – when shame’s call wasn’t akin nudity, but souls merely nudely darkened within shards of exploded moons. And tonight groans with infinity, heralding red confessions in coffers of the miserly. I recoil into sleep, my craned out assemblage stretched over the cooing and flight of the crowd’s tongues.
Pillars of air we trotted through with women of strengths lost, at my virtue’s desolation – slipping past swift dreams, warning and sultry with the draft mounting their thighs wayward a bright room awhirl with night’s echoes.
Whence the culling of memory burst acid mucus showing stale need, how fooled I felt. But no love – that progeny of futile youth gnashing its jaw – reversed to a beyond – matriarchal curse for the unborn. A cackle of mockery assails my skull; profaned efforts of all my love slumped when a grizzled heroine called earlier that night demanding I cease to contact her. I was ashen, inner ravine gone putrid with marsh as I blacked out, blanket tailed between bony knees – paralyzed.

Had a nightmare that nap, amid this eve’s discord, whence I dreamt of L for some reason having paid a visit. I am a teacher at a school held beneath industrial chimneys. An age that seemed locked in a future’s death, boys and girls abound. A suffocated nose keeps rousing me for attention, am I at school to teach? A huge ditch runs along the playground, clogged with muddy storm water from which I see her ascend. Water is crashing violently with sounds of break time’s resonance as the dream shift to interior a maze of a depressed warehouse shelter. Those fatally normal shifts of space careened as unpredictable as the fall of an avalanche. And spooned with the overture outside, we caress like old frozen covers, her touching face clear as well water.
Then suddenly a mirage of my grandfather swells in my eyes, him looking away; rear against mother squirming under a floral plastic rag clad kitchen table, blood soaking her skirt from that crimson crevice of my exit from that life to this afterlife. I wonder why; for it was my birth I was seeing.

Her pimpled nose milkly kissed; a metropolitan setting crowding the dream, an unknown fall behind – only to see her sharing a brace with a stranger, a man dreamily black and dreadlocked. I pass them nonchalantly, with a sea of doubt preserving scars, bile of disgust for the familiar ridicule I have endured on love’s trials. Another change in eye’s dream folds a face in car, seated with an elderly woman, in her seventies I guess. A mother she seems from an initial enquiry, walking still among patches of dying grass as she climbs into the backseat lowering herself for a nap. The strange fellow follows into the seat, crawling and sliding to penetrate her from behind a vividly raised skirt. Then lucidly in boiled presence of this calm mother companion, they fuck raucously.

A while of moans and orgasmic fervor creams ears of passerby girls, eyes saddened for me as though this was a fatal blow unto my charred chest. She looks my way in shame’s coolness; waltzing out the wagon of her displeasure’s expose… flaunting the scent of a newly flogged maiden, wet, sweet sweat seeped into creased fabric. I shuddered, really trying to make talk, clouded by revulsion, sexual wizardry amok a primitive craving.

The car drives away with the twin occupants – mother and son – as she approaches me, inner voices muttering how shameless all needed to be, petting the welling pain as clarity vanishes from bleak dream-eyes.
How vile is that a dream can last minutes yet feel as though eternal? Damn, my soul is still stuck in the city for sure; I figure the window a place to chill. By its myth’s pane I loose the pain and smile in denial… beauty bashing shards from all sights raped in the dark flow of dawn in mind, but – was the heart there? Weed was on my mind, meetings at the night’s square creeping some more in the face I saw swearing the might I never sold for a dirty note. I wanted to dream with her again, but she went away – I had to forget about the deeds I said were ok. I saw soil stuck in her locked hair, and I could not best it that any more. How has the universe been treating her soul-manure?
Was her soul-book for the after life filled with awe or mirth?
Had the tree’s love cornered her in its shade?
Did peace exist in the certainty of a frail life?


There was talk of musicals about dead kings at midnight’s cry; we were here, our palms grasping their heartlessness for the first time. Curses going on with clapping hands; and so wet were eyes, getting on with someone’s birth date. You could shake the silence but never disappear. They tore my name out the window and I found it difficult to get to myself and the forces of loss. I was happy, wrapped in the robe my mind made up.
And here they step into the room looking like in-between nightmares… ruined city towers hovering in the distance. The rut of terror in my throat still thinking that it was prophetic of occurrences to become of her visit. But why such clarity of color that I’d even recognize the skirt’s silken fabric in glossed pinkish orange daubed embroidery? I had hoped to awake and sing to her instead, a greeting:
‘Molo Ntokazi Entsundu…
Ngaz’ba uluhle lwe’ndalo lisa khanya nga’mehlo wakho na?’
Hoping to share a breath through fingers and sigh…in awe of the beauty she etched in my MUD.
And yet so brilliantly divine, I took pride to have known a sister who could do that with dignity, without making my unsealed being feel loathable. Anyhow, still admitting that it would be futile for me to claim I will stop yearning…and besides, that would prove me a liar, may he who art loved in the depth of her heart be content…as I have noticed the contentment in her face about the present engagement. Love is impersonal and may it be that which binds all souls in the union of a celestial copulation.


Feeling lost in that school of reveries, I recall a sudden slap by the greenery blotched for a forest thick – walking weighed down a winding stretch of a path cut by paddlers. My placid twin saints were there with me through sense not sight, perhaps dancing around my sunken head as I lay there in torpor.

I meet uncles drooling and familial friends who died with youth’s dark clime, clouds of plastic lives floating over the puddles dried by feet. We chat, glittering faces blossoming with rouge freedoms. Along sleek bends we reach a house – a cool stroke of ease filling our breasts. A joint is lit in this dream, intoxicant even to in-life’s eyes. It seems one who fucked the girl is here, my face flushing with glacial rage. A bony and tattered van speeds past and we swallow its mutinous fumes, gone hidden over-head upon that road of our descent. We wound around shrubs that concealed monsters of our star-lipped whispers, and it keeps flowing, raging, blue lights flashing on its roof like a demon at bliss with wind in its hair.
It pulls up rapidly in front of our shack in the bushes; dust specks rising as the car’s door sways open.
A bulgy policeman with impervious eyes begins a sly silent inspection of our coiling smokes and dusty puffs cloaking tree-tops, and says: ‘You are under arrest,’ tearing my white plastic sack to reveal my measly tattered belongings. He ties one of the saint’s wrists in metal cuffs and calls us to bend over.

I wake up tired and in tears, head rushed with what shame I had withheld for this pen’s death; radical cells running amok in poisonous trails across my skull – combined with the sour after-taste of an immortal dream land’s deathly air. Serpentine were those rays of thought that posed in my woken stupor, acid in girdle twisted around my belly. Much of the dream contents were for deciphering in further mystery spaces. But I was here still at this lovely place full of drunks, genuine threats pinned across faces of bored vagabonds and their queers. I felt irate, entangled in gloom though among the jubilant, chatter feeling like a gnash of teeth, toneless hissing of a delayed lung burning in my chest. My shriveled palms were feeling ghostly since the previous dusk and now the final glasses were being gulped with stale vigor on sleepy brows.


‘How are we doing this morning?’, comes a voice piercing the bubble in my head, sickle arms stretched to my yawn, sword face flashing duly before I could strike a response to my throat.
‘Dumbfounded my friend,’ I say with tears blistering my eyelids.
‘What’s wrong?’ a saint stammers bending over my face disheveled by pain. Twisting his hands and hair poked sincerely in this morning light dolefully climbing creased curtains, my poor breath blasts like tar smog from a warmly drained nasal cavity – a scalding heat swimming through an open window. The saint rubs off sweat dribbles from my forehead, mingled with droplets from blindly stingy balled sockets.

I awake with ghost dull aroma of dawn sullying other overheard snores bound to each breath’s horizon. Church thoughts being lighted in mirages holy as art us of piety’s burden. I was dumb struck with a gnawing pain. Saw two birds peaked in a duel over a worm. I fluttered inside with shamed pity, love smitten and fouled.
‘Is there a fucking drink in this house?’ I enquire in loose death breathing its demand for relief. The saints tear a thimble, lips parted by heaves twiddling in my bosom. Froth ascends at the scarcity of a numbing drink, and then awkwardly joints grease to a forlorn brace for strength. They hug me, bravely and brazen with comments of courage. I heave putridly, moans leprous upon their soaked shoulders, plumes of misfortune intermitting with rage exuding from love’s hatred.
Thoughts frittered away my machismo as we stood, beard bristles daubed with spittle and mucus; brimming silent curses at love.
‘We should visit father, I say’, the other suggests in a warring dare, ‘for brews they will never muster… to avenge the poisons injected in us.’


November 12, 2008


Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 10:29 pm

I will tell you of a kingdom. A kingdom of dust, closed spaces and sliding portals. Perhaps there are many of these secret kingdoms, existing in miniature. In those dark and microscopic delusion-scapes beneath the most ancient of staircases. Or between the stairs themselves, inside the ticking of the walls or in the depthless cathedral spaces of broken clocks. The twisting alien highways only the outcast ants and the travelling spiders know. Who can tell? There probably are. I have certainly, on occasion, found myself stranded in one or two of these realms. In bleak and endless microscopic nights where I have lost my sense of depth and proportion. Wandering circles in desolate halfway houses on the edge of forgettable dreams…

In any case, the kingdom I will tell you of now was patrolled by a prince. And his name was Gilgamesh. And he was the only thing alive in his lonely cupboard kingdom. He moved with an insectile grace, through the spaces of his places, his mind eaten by unameable spite. A gulf had opened up in his soul. And it was with bitter potions that he began to fill its void. His crepuscular, white body flexed as he pedalled his bonecycle across the bumps, in the half-lit dark. Rattling his fingers and rattling his toes. Gilgamesh had upon him the obsidian eyes and mandibled mouthparts of an insect, twittering and globe eyed. Glistening and clacking. He also had three thumbs, one of which he kept in a pouch at his belt. He collected dust. The particles of dust were as large as cattle in some cases and came in many different forms, floating exempt of gravity, like ghastly zeppelins through the depthless avenues of his kingdom. Long, red viral formations which twisted in slow motion in the air. Large sheets of dessicated skin flapping soundlessly in the windless spaces. Featurless cogs, slowfalling spindles and peeling doll’s limbs. Insect wings like glassy gossamer sails turning lazy somersaults in the void, flickering in the dark. He collected things which he found to be of interest, painstakingly labelling and storing them in the vast, vault-like multitude of closets and cupboards which made up the structure of his shadow dreanched palace. Every wall slid open. Each door disguised another and every drawer had its secret compartments (which in turn had their own hidey holes, some containing keys to even more secret compartments). And the dust things shivered and squirmed in their wooden box-worlds. Thousands upon millions of little and large prisons skittering and shuffling with strange prisoners, swaddled in the gulf-like blankets of silence which swamped this closet-palace. On and on he pedalled, through this labyrinth-house, filled with bile. And all this hate, this green bitterness, he directed like a searchlight toward the unlit forest of dust below his kingdom. The forest was indeed a stygian and forgotten place. Endless and tangled, depthless with dead and landed dust things; a graveyard of dust. Multileveled and vast, it stretched black, black in every direction below the kingdom of Gilgamesh. And this hate-beam flew hard and sharp as a burning arrow to that which lurked in the forest. For you see, in the tenebrous and endless nightworld of Gilgamesh, it was possible at times to listen for the distant flap of large and dusted wings over the labyrinthine forest. Each black and ceaseless eve would Gilgamesh crouch at the edge of his kingdom, high above the forest and gaze down the drop to spy for the gliding form of his adversary. The Nemesis, the lamyros gnosis, the moth. The moth of forbidden knowledge which had come to roost and fast in this godless depth of nowhere. In this land without sun. This closetland of no definable proportion. And many times would the enormous mass of the airbourne creature swoop, soundlessly below the clenching toes of Gilgamesh. Sometimes feet, sometimes leagues below, yet still high above the distant, dead tendrils of the forest. Orbiting an airspace of slowly spiralling, slowly descending dust bodies. Making them spin in its silent wake. And Gilgamesh would sit and stare mindlessly at the forest. Hating that which dwelt below. Hating it because it was the thing which he pursued. Loathing it because of the obsessions it kindled in the embers of his smoking soul. And it was here, in the stinking putrefecation of a mind so dissolved into obsession, which he brewed the spices of desperation and malice. Cooking them into a mollasses of murderous intent. Drying this into a candy of concentrated sin. A tabula rasa. A rosetta stone of black and blue scribbles. A grape of wrath.

And this he ate.

And you are what you eat. No more. No less.

The fiendish Gilgamesh pedalled the echoing halls of his dust ridden necropolis, a fresh plot burning web filaments through the well of his mind. A plan of rapture; a plan of capture. Its glowing strands stitching themselves together in the fingers of malice which clickety-clacked behind the reflections of his glittering insect eyes. And as he pedalled he noticed a twitching in the pouch at his belt. He withdrew his third thumb and found that it had grown slightly, having sprouted four vestigial nubbins at its sides. Almost like budding limbs.

He strove to recall where he had locked the thing which he sought. Where in and amongst all his hoardings had he placed that particular dust thing? Under which drawer? Behind which closet? Inside which box? Where did he put that thing….? This precious item with which he would bait the nameless moth. The rapture before the capture. He searched long and hard. Peeking through keyholes and digging in cupboards until he reached an obscure wall of drawers which soared cliff-like above his head. Many, many drawers stretched upwards into blackness, a veritable century of sniffing and sorting. A long and spindly stepladder towered alongside the hall of drawers, set on jiggly tricycle wheels. He climbed and climbed and searched high and low until he reached a drawer sequestered at some considerable height. He checked the fading sepia label set above the brass handle and his mandibles began clattering with delight. He grabbed at the tarnished handle and pulled open the wooden drawer which cloistered the much desired dust thing. Once open, he carefully perused the contents of the drawer. Inside was curled a slender little girl-thing. Fast asleep. A bud of fingers clasped at her parted lips. Goldy-sun colour locks of hair caramelised over her milky shoulder blades. He clasped the dust-thing around its soft waist and tossed it in the net. The girl-thing was partially awake now, big blue eye-things half lidded, They were the lost blue of creamy china in a twilight glow. The blue ofbroken cuckoo’s eggs. The girl-thing lay calmly in the net as Gilgamesh descended the rickety ladder and mounted his bonecycle. Clasping the net to his heavy belt, he pedalled furiously off. He retracted the girlthing and laid it on the on the scarred wood surface of his worktable. She lay there blinking as Gilgamesh fiddled about in the cupboards. After much rummaging, he withdrew a long, long, long coil of sinew. All pulled and cured by time and dust into a strong cord pulled from goodness knows what manner of creature..perhaps it was a cat. To one end he attached a long and wicked butcher’s hook, which he sunk deep into the girl-thing’s back. The dust-girl gave a low, moany noise as the point emerged, jutting between the sternal meeting of her lightly protruding ribcage. She regarded the hook in her with a detatched langour as Gilgamesh wrapped the cord around his white knuckled fist and stalked off. The dust thing was dragged off the worktable and across the threshold of the kingdom, to its very edge. Here Gilgamesh fastened the loose end of the sinew length to a nail. A hard and unbendable nail jutting from the floor. Once this task was accomplished, he tossed the girl-thing over the edge of nowhere. Down, down she tumbled. Farther and farther until the sinew snapped taut and the hook caught meatily into her, bouncing and spinning her into a dangle. A slender little dolly, white above an ocean of black. The bait-girl dangled on her hook and line and Gilgamesh waited for the nameless thing to manifest. The pretty little lure dangled for a long time before Gilgamesh spied the moth a-circling. It glided, no doubt eyeing the girl-bait from afar. And at a length it remained, moving in slow and giant revolutions. Gilgamesh chattered his termitish mandibles, sensing that it was merely a matter of time before the creature took the girl-thing for its own. By this time, the twitching of the third thumb had grown irritating. Gilgamesh pulled it out and found that it had indeed begun to grow its own arms and legs, even a tiny head. He tossed the thumb to the floor and it crawled to a corner like a foetal puppet. Gilgamesh muttered and drew from his bonecycle a heavy saw. Its teeth were jagged and savage and its iron was rusty. He moved to the edge and folded down on his angular haunches. And then he waited. Watching the spaces. Many times did the moth circle. Again and again there came the quiet and heavy swoop of enormous wings as the nameless one dove nearer and nearer. And Gilgamesh’s fingers clenched and his mandibles twittered as the moth drifted nearer still.

And then suddenly, the leathery swoop of wings veered abominably close and Gilgamesh lunged to the brink. He witnessed the vast bulk of his Nemesis rising. It arose from the depths like an aquatic behemoth. The scaled wings showered a vapour trail of dust in a comet wake. The eldritch wingbones strained against the thrust of this ferocious ascension. The silver-latticed eyes rattled like church windows, fired with a madness distilled in the pure cauldron of utter isolation. Those ancient, agonizing, terrifying eyes. Orbs which had been cast and set in the moulds of knowledge forbidden . A mouth loomed like a tunnel below these eyes, gaping and gilled, ringed with fur. And the speed of the kill erupted with such ferocity that the entire image seemed scalded into the fabric of some clarified dimension. A dimension where time could be slowed and scrutinized at will. The image of the rising monster, its maw unfolding below the sylphy form of the bait. Her pale, winter-blue eyes gazing listlessly up at the distant kingdom. The bare legs which dangled above the throat corridor and galleries of teeth. Gilgamesh stared down deep into the cathedral nave of those hideously ascending eyes, and out across the butcher’s hook which jutted above the hips of the girl-thing. He watched as the fully unfurled sails of the wings cauterized themselves irreparably into the loam of his naked memory. Caught in the amber of a bloody second.

Then the moth took the bait. And with the sound of galleon sails collapsing, it attempted to bank back into the blackness with its succulent little grub. But the butcher’s hook had sunk deep into its gullet. And the catchline snapped taut; a ruthless violin string. The nameless one fluttered and pitched in space, flicking its serpentine abdomen violently about. But its hampered aerodynamics failed it, and it was left jerking spasmodically at the leash. The girl-bait flopped like a puppet, half in, half hanging out of the clenched and lipless mouth. Gilgamesh had begun to leap up and down in a fit of insane joyousness. Rattling and clattering and chattering his mandibles as he gaped and gloated over his landed prey. For a long time did the moth battle and struggle against the catchline. And eventually it tired, waning into a reckless fatigue. Gilgamesh tucked the saw into his belt, squatting long limbed over the line. He clenched the sinew between toes and knees and began his descent. He gibbered with pleasure all the way down. The moth’s head-sized eyes were fixed unerringly upon that which came to it along the instrument of it’s capture. And who could attempt to understand whether this nameless moth comprehended the festering intent of it’s capturer? The nameless one’s mind was tangled beyond all enigma. What manner of trials would a being have to undergo in order to probe a mind so ancient, so corrupted by knowledge. Corrupted until it had become an alien thing, alien even in such a forgotten place. Alien, perhaps even to itself. Indeed, a mind which had so distilled madness and soaked itself in its own devastating loneliness, had ultimately become a victim to the ravages of its own desperate thoughts. The nameless one’s mind had slowly, over the centuries, eaten itself like an ourobouros. It had dissolved and blurred into an abysmal void, wherein drifted the flotsam and jetsom of a millennial accumulation of distant imagery and emotion. And it was into this giant soul that Gilgamesh stared, through the silver-latticed windows of its eyes. And thusly, with feet planted firmly in the fur of his enemy’s head, and with the remnants of the girl-bait moaning and pawing between his ankles, Gilgamesh pulled from his belt a rusty pudding spoon. And whilst staring into those eyes, he began to scoop out wet chunks of their gelid substance. Sucking them into his faceted insect mouth with yelps of barely disguised pleasure. The moth began to shriek. A mindless howl, resonant as the pipes of a cathedral. A deafening and endless mewlwhich continued whilst Gilgamesh ate out the silvery jade jelly to it’s fishbone sockets. He even sucked up the veinery. And the moth screamed on and on in the vast blackness. And when the eyes were emptied, Gilgamesh climbed down onto the furry boulder of a head and began to saw viciously into the braincase. Spasmodic flurries of fur, flesh and bone flew with each frenzied grind of the saw. Gilgamesh leaned in, cutting deeper and deeper, until a honey like ichor fountained from the fissure in great head. He hammered at the chink in the carapace until finally, with a mighty crack, the entire misshapen dome of chitin split like a monstrous eggshell, falling away in three bloody fragments. These became dislodged and spiralled away into darkness, like jagged petals. Gilgamesh stared in victory at the purple, many lobed brain which throbbed beneath his saw. Tiny blue lightenings travelled, shivering, across its soft walnut orbs. The brain was cancered, malignant with unwholesome growth. The nameless one was still shrieking when Gilgamesh gobbled it all up in great, sticky spoonfulls…

Perhaps, in this act, you can find a suitable conclusion to this half remembered tale of envy and dark intent. Perhaps you can glean from this bloodiness an understanding of why this story was recited to you. Perhaps it is fitting enough in its perverse exactitude to merit an ending of sorts. But it is not the conclusion I would wish you to have. For all tales of microscopic exactment require something far more circular in nature. And I fear that I have not yet communicated to you the sense of circular emptiness that haunts me in my endless cupboard nights. And, being a storyteller, I must remain faithful to the tale I tell…

Gilgamesh committed yet one more sacriledge to his Nemesis before abandoning the vast carcass. He sawed off the wings of his adversary and with a curved needle, whilst clinging to the back of his dead foe, sewed two sections of them to his own scrawny shoulder blades. This accomplished, he ascended back to his kingdom along the length of his catchline, dragging in his wake the lifeless drapery stitched to his backbones. Sated beyond any sane measure, his stomach bloated with the machinery and plumbing of his enemies’ mind, he cut the line and watched the leviathan shudder once as the line went slack. It then began its freefall tumble to the forest of dust many leagues below. The girl-bait still blinked and mouthed silent whispers in the clenched jaws of the dead monster. It watching the kingdom of Gilgamesh grow smaller and smaller as she, and that which had eaten half of her, fell away from it. Gilgamesh watched too, as the remains of the Moth and it’s fatal lure shrank from whale-like dimensions to that of a door, and then to the size of a thumbnail. They were the size of a sugar grain when they plunged into the tangled tendrils which canopied the forest. Perhaps they fell much farther, crashing through endless levels of fused dust bodies. Matter which had been corrugated together by time. Perhaps the forest did not have a floor, just a depthless maze of false levels supplied by an eternity of slow falling dust. Gilgamesh turned from the edge of his kingdom and saw the puppet like figure of the thumb in the shadows. Grown to the size of a bent child now, watching him mutely from the half dark.

Gilgamesh went back to his business of collecting dust.

After some time, Gilgamesh found that the wings stitched to his back had regained some measure of their former function. He would flap them incessantly to raise himself to the higher closet levels of his domain, rendering his multitudes of spidery ladders obselete. Eventually he took to gliding above the forest as dark unimaginable thoughts began clouding his once pure intentions. His legs and arms shrivelled to stumps over time, and what was left swelled abominably. His self inflicted dust collection duties lay unattended as, more and more, he was to be found orbiting ceaselessly above the forest. The thumb grew much all this while. It grew arms and legs and a third thumb; which it would keep in a pouch at its belt. It haunted the corridors of the kingdom, picking up and hoarding things it found to be of interest. Soon the former prince was nowhere to be seen around the desolate kingdom, having retreated entirely into the labyrinths and airspace of the forest. And the thumb would sometimes stop collecting dust to watch as the distant creature swooped and glided in the blackness. It became obsessed with the moth’s movements. Slowly growing to hate that which brooded in the vast spaces below. Hating it because of the obsession it kindled in the in the embers of its smoking soul.

And the name of the thumb was Gilgamesh.

November 9, 2008

The Abolition of Work by bob black

Filed under: miscellaneous — ABRAXAS @ 10:58 pm

No one should ever work.

Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act.

The ludic life is totally incompatible with existing reality. So much the worse for “reality,” the gravity hole that sucks the vitality from the little in life that still distinguishes it from mere survival. Curiously — or maybe not — all the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they believe in so little else.

Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry. But if all the ideologues (as they do) advocate work — and not only because they plan to make other people do theirs — they are strangely reluctant to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.

You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and serious. To be ludic is not to be ludicrous. Play doesn’t have to be frivolous, although frivolity isn’t triviality; very often we ought to take frivolity seriously. I’d like life to be a game — but a game with high stakes. I want to play for keeps.

The alternative to work isn’t just idleness. To be ludic is not to be quaaludic. As much as I treasure the pleasure of torpor, it’s never more rewarding than when it punctuates other pleasures and pastimes. Nor am I promoting the managed time-disciplined safety-valve called “leisure;” far from it. Leisure is nonwork for the sake of work. Leisure is time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but hopeless attempt to forget about work. Many people return from vacations so beat that they look forward to returning to work so they can rest up. The main difference between work and leisure is that at work at least you get paid for your alienation and enervation.

I am not playing definitional games with anybody. When I say I want to abolish work, I mean just what I say, but I want to say what I mean by defining my terms in non-idiosyncratic ways. My minimum definition of work is forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies whether capitalist or “communist,” work invariably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness.

Usually — and this is even more true in “communist” than capitalist countries, where the state is almost the only employer and everyone is an employee — work is employment, i.e., wage-labor, which means selling yourself on the installment plan. Thus 95% of Americans who work, work for somebody (or something) else. In Cuba or China or any other alternative model which might be adduced, the corresponding figure approaches 100%. Only the embattled Third World peasant bastions — Mexico, India, Brazil, Turkey — temporarily shelter significant concentrations of agriculturists who perpetuate the traditional arrangement of most laborers in the last several millennia, the payment of taxes (= ransom) to the state or rent to parasitic landlords in return for being otherwise left alone. Even this raw deal is beginning to look good. All industrial (and office) workers are employees and under the sort of surveillance which ensures servility.

But modern work has worse implications. People don’t just work, they have “jobs.” One person does one productive task all the time on an or-else basis. Even if the task has a quantum of intrinsic interest (as increasingly many jobs don’t) the monotony of its obligatory exclusivity drains its ludic potential. A “job” that might engage the energies of some people, for a reasonably limited time, for the fun of it, is just a burden on those who have to do it for forty hours a week with no say in how it should be done, for the profit of owners who contribute nothing to the project, and with no opportunity for sharing tasks or spreading the work among those who actually have to do it. This is the real world of work: a world of bureaucratic blundering, of sexual harassment and discrimination, of bonehead bosses exploiting and scapegoating their subordinates who — by any rational-technical criteria — should be calling the shots. But capitalism in the real world subordinates the rational maximization of productivity and profit to the exigencies of organizational control.

The degradation which most workers experience on the job is the sum of assorted indignities which can be denominated as “discipline.” Foucault has complexified this phenomenon but it is simple enough. Discipline consists of the totality of totalitarian controls at the workplace—surveillance, rotework, imposed work tempos, production quotas, punching-in and out, etc. Discipline is what the factory and the office and the store share with the prison and the school and the mental hospital. It is something historically original and horrible. It was beyond the capacities of such demonic dictators of yore as Nero and Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible. For all their bad intentions they just didn’t have the machinery to control their subjects as thoroughly as modern despots do. Discipline is the distinctively diabolical modern mode of control, it is an innovative intrusion which must be interdicted at the earliest opportunity.

Such is “work.” Play is just the opposite. Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. This is axiomatic. Bernie de Koven has defined play as the “suspension of consequences.” This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is). Some otherwise attentive students of play, like Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens), define it as gameplaying or following rules. I respect Huizinga’s erudition but emphatically reject his constraints. There are many good games (chess, baseball, Monopoly, bridge) which are rule-governed but there is much more to play than game-playing. Conversation, sex, dancing, travel—these practices aren’t rule-governed but they are surely play if anything is. And rules can be played with at least as readily as anything else.

Work makes a mockery of freedom. The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or-else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smaller details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups, public or private. Either way, dissent and disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing.

And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace. The liberals and conservatives and libertarians who lament totalitarianism are phonies and hypocrites. There is more freedom in any moderately de-Stalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary American workplace. You find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline in an office or factory as you do in a prison or a monastery. In fact, as Foucault and others have shown, prisons and factories came in at about the same time, and their operators consciously borrowed from each other’s control techniques. A worker is a part-time slave. The boss says when to show up, when to leave, and what to do in the meantime. He tells you how much work to do and how fast. He is free to carry his control to humiliating extremes, regulating, if he feels like it, the clothes you wear or how often you go to the bathroom. With a few exceptions he can fire you for any reason, or no reason. He has you spied on by snitches and supervisors, he amasses a dossier on every employee. Talking back is called “insubordination,” just as if a worker is a naughty child, and it not only gets you fired, it disqualifies you for unemployment compensation. Without necessarily endorsing it for them either, it is noteworthy that children at home and in school receive much the same treatment, justified in their case by their supposed immaturity. What does this say about their parents and teachers who work?

The demeaning system of domination I’ve described rules over half the waking hours of a majority of women and the vast majority of men for decades, for most of their lifespans. For certain purposes it’s not too misleading to call our system democracy or capitalism or — better stil l— industrialism, but its real names are factory fascism and office oligarchy. Anybody who says these people are “free” is lying or stupid. You are what you do. If you do boring, stupid, monotonous work, chances are you’ll end up boring, stupid, and monotonous. Work is a much better explanation for the creeping cretinization all around us than even such significant moronizing mechanisms as television and education. People who are regimented all their lives, handed to work from school and bracketed by the family in the beginning and the nursing home in the end, are habituated to hierarchy and psychologically enslaved. Their aptitude for autonomy is so atrophied that their fear of freedom is among their few rationally grounded phobias. Their obedience training at work carries over into the families they start, thus reproducing the system in more ways than one, and into politics, culture and everything else. Once you drain the vitality from people at work, they’ll likely submit to hierarchy and expertise in everything. They’re used to it.

We are so close to the world of work that we can’t see what it does to us. We have to rely on outside observers from other times or other cultures to appreciate the extremity and the pathology of our present position. There was a time in our own past when the “work ethic” would have been incomprehensible, and perhaps Weber was on to something when he tied its appearance to a religion, Calvinism, which if it emerged today instead of four centuries ago would immediately and appropriately be labeled a cult. Be that as it may, we have only to draw upon the wisdom of antiquity to put work in perspective. The ancients saw work for what it is, and their view prevailed, the Calvinist cranks notwithstanding, until overthrown by industrialism — but not before receiving the endorsement of its prophets.

Let’s pretend for a moment that work doesn’t turn people into stultified submissives. Let’s pretend, in defiance of any plausible psychology and the ideology of its boosters, that it has no effect on the formation of character. And let’s pretend that work isn’t as boring and tiring and humiliating as we all know it really is. Even then, work would still make a mockery of all humanistic and democratic aspirations, just because it usurps so much of our time. Socrates said that manual laborers make bad friends and bad citizens because they have no time to fulfill the responsibilities of friendship and citizenship. He was right. Because of work, no matter what we do, we keep looking at our watches. The only thing “free” about so-called free time is that it doesn’t cost the boss anything. Free time is mostly devoted to getting ready for work, going to work, returning from work, and recovering from work. Free time is a euphemism for the peculiar way labor, as a factor of production, not only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace, but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance and repair. Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewriters don’t do that. No wonder Edward G. Robinson in one of his gangster movies exclaimed, “Work is for saps!”

Both Plato and Xenophon attribute to Socrates and obviously share with him an awareness of the destructive effects of work on the worker as a citizen and as a human being. Herodotus identified contempt for work as an attribute of the classical Greeks at the zenith of their culture. To take only one Roman example, Cicero said that “whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves.” His candor is now rare, but contemporary primitive societies which we are wont to look down upon have provided spokesmen who have enlightened Western anthropologists. The Kapauku of West Irian, according to Posposil, have a conception of balance in life and accordingly work only every other day, the day of rest designed “to regain the lost power and health.” Our ancestors, even as late as the eighteenth century when they were far along the path to our present predicament, at least were aware of what we have forgotten, the underside of industrialization. Their religious devotion to “St. Monday” — thus establishing a de facto five-day week 150-200 years before its legal consecration — was the despair of the earliest factory owners. They took a long time in submitting to the tyranny of the bell, predecessor of the time clock. In fact it was necessary for a generation or two to replace adult males with women accustomed to obedience and children who could be molded to fit industrial needs. Even the exploited peasants of the ancien régime wrested substantial time back from their landlords’ work. According to Lafargue, a fourth of the French peasants’ calendar was devoted to Sundays and holidays, and Chayanov’s figures from villages in Czarist Russia — hardly a progressive society — likewise show a fourth or fifth of peasants’ days devoted to repose. Controlling for productivity, we are obviously far behind these backward societies. The exploited muzhiks would wonder why any of us are working at all. So should we.

To grasp the full enormity of our deterioration, however, consider the earliest condition of humanity, without government or property, when we wandered as hunter-gatherers. Hobbes surmised that life was then nasty, brutish and short. Others assume that life was a desperate unremitting struggle for subsistence, a war waged against a harsh Nature with death and disaster awaiting the unlucky or anyone who was unequal to the challenge of the struggle for existence. Actually, that was all a projection of fears for the collapse of government authority over communities unaccustomed to doing without it, like the England of Hobbes during the Civil War. Hobbes’ compatriots had already encountered alternative forms of society which illustrated other ways of life—in North America, particularly—but already these were too remote from their experience to be understandable. (The lower orders, closer to the condition of the Indians, understood it better and often found it attractive. Throughout the seventeenth century, English settlers defected to Indian tribes or, captured in war, refused to return to the colonies. But the Indians no more defected to white settlements than West Germans climbed the Berlin Wall from the west.) The “survival of the fittest” version — the Thomas Huxley version — of Darwinism was a better account of economic conditions in Victorian England than it was of natural selection, as the anarchist Kropotkin showed in his book Mutual Aid, A Factor in Evolution. (Kropotkin was a scientist — a geographer — who’d had ample involuntary opportunity for fieldwork whilst exiled in Siberia: he knew what he was talking about.) Like most social and political theory, the story Hobbes and his successors told was really unacknowledged autobiography.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, surveying the data on contemporary hunter-gatherers, exploded the Hobbesian myth in an article entitled “The Original Affluent Society.” They work a lot less than we do, and their work is hard to distinguish from what we regard as play. Sahlins concluded that “hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.” They worked an average of four hours a day, assuming they were “working” at all. Their “labor,” as it appears to us, was skilled labor which exercised their physical and intellectual capacities; unskilled labor on any large scale, as Sahlins says, is impossible except under industrialism. Thus it satisfied Friedrich Schiller’s definition of play, the only occasion on which man realizes his complete humanity by giving full “play” to both sides of his twofold nature, thinking and feeling. As he put it: “The animal works when deprivation is the mainspring of its activity, and it plays when the fullness of its strength is this mainspring, when superabundant life is its own stimulus to activity.” (A modern version — dubiously developmental — is Abraham Maslow’s counterposition of “deficiency” and “growth” motivation.) Play and freedom are, as regards production, coextensive. Even Marx, who belongs (for all his good intentions) in the productivist pantheon, observed that “the realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under the compulsion of necessity and external utility is required.” He never could quite bring himself to identify this happy circumstance as what it is, the abolition of work—it’s rather anomalous, after all, to be pro-worker and anti-work—but we can.

The aspiration to go backwards or forwards to a life without work is evident in every serious social or cultural history of pre-industrial Europe, among them M. Dorothy George’s England in Transition and Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Also pertinent is Daniel Bell’s essay “Work and Its Discontents,” the first text, I believe, to refer to the “revolt against work” in so many words and, had it been understood, an important correction to the complacency ordinarily associated with the volume in which it was collected, The End of Ideology. Neither critics nor celebrants have noticed that Bell’s end-of-ideology thesis signaled not the end of social unrest but the beginning of a new, uncharted phase unconstrained and uninformed by ideology. It was Seymour Lipset (in Political Man), not Bell, who announced at the same time that “the fundamental problems of the Industrial Revolution have been solved,” only a few years before the post- or meta-industrial discontents of college students drove Lipset from UC Berkeley to the relative (and temporary) tranquillity of Harvard.

As Bell notes, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, for all his enthusiasm for the market and the division of labor, was more alert to (and more honest about) the seamy side of work than Ayn Rand or the Chicago economists or any of Smith’s modern epigones. As Smith observed: “The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations… has no occasion to exert his understanding… He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” Here, in a few blunt words, is my critique of work. Bell, writing in 1956, the Golden Age of Eisenhower imbecility and American self-satisfaction, identified the unorganized, unorganizable malaise of the 1970s and since, the one no political tendency is able to harness, the one identified in HEW’s report Work in America, the one which cannot be exploited and so is ignored. That problem is the revolt against work. It does not figure in any text by any laissez-faire economist — Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Richard Posner — because, in their terms, as they used to say on Lost in Space, “it does not compute.”

If these objections, informed by the love of liberty, fail to persuade humanists of a utilitarian or even paternalist turn, there are others which they cannot disregard. Work is hazardous to your health, to borrow a book title. In fact, work is mass murder or genocide. Directly or indirectly, work will kill most of the people who read these words. Between 14,000 and 25,000 workers are killed annually in this country on the job. Over two million are disabled. Twenty to twenty-five million are injured every year. And these figures are based on a very conservative estimation of what constitutes a work-related injury. Thus they don’t count the half-million cases of occupational disease every year. I looked at one medical textbook on occupational diseases which was 1,200 pages long. Even this barely scratches the surface. The available statistics count the obvious cases like the 100,000 miners who have black lung disease, of whom 4,000 die every year. What the statistics don’t show is that tens of millions of people have their lifespans shortened by work — which is all that homicide means, after all. Consider the doctors who work themselves to death in their late 50’s. Consider all the other workaholics.

Even if you aren’t killed or crippled while actually working, you very well might be while going to work, coming from work, looking for work, or trying to forget about work. The vast majority of victims of the automobile are either doing one of these work-obligatory activities or else fall afoul of those who do them. To this augmented body-count must be added the victims of auto-industrial pollution and work-induced alcoholism and drug addiction. Both cancer and heart disease are modern afflictions normally traceable, directly or indirectly, to work.

Work, then, institutionalizes homicide as a way of life. People think the Cambodians were crazy for exterminating themselves, but are we any different? The Pol Pot regime at least had a vision, however blurred, of an egalitarian society. We kill people in the six-figure range (at least) in order to sell Big Macs and Cadillacs to the survivors. Our forty or fifty thousand annual highway fatalities are victims, not martyrs. They died for nothing — or rather, they died for work. But work is nothing to die for.

State control of the economy is no solution. Work is, if anything, more dangerous in the state-socialist countries than it is here. Thousands of Russian workers were killed or injured building the Moscow subway. Chernobyl and other Soviet nuclear disasters covered up until recently make Times Beach and Three Mile Island—but not Bhopal—look like elementary-school air-raid drills. On the other hand, deregulation, currently fashionable, won’t help and will probably hurt. From a health and safety standpoint, among others, work was at its worst in the days when the economy most closely approximated laissez-faire. Historians like Eugene Genovese have argued persuasively that—as antebellum slavery apologists insisted—factory wage-workers in the Northern American states and in Europe were worse off than Southern plantation slaves. No rearrangement of relations among bureaucrats and businessmen seems to make much difference at the point of production. Serious implementation of even the rather vague standards enforceable in theory by OSHA would probably bring the economy to a standstill. The enforcers apparently appreciate this, since they don’t even try to crack down on most malefactors.

What I’ve said so far ought not to be controversial. Many workers are fed up with work. There are high and rising rates of absenteeism, turnover, employee theft and sabotage, wildcat strikes, and overall goldbricking on the job. There may be some movement toward a conscious and not just visceral rejection of work. And yet the prevalent feeling, universal among bosses and their agents and also widespread among workers themselves, is that work itself is inevitable and necessary.

I disagree. It is now possible to abolish work and replace it, insofar as it serves useful purposes, with a multitude of new kinds of free activities. To abolish work requires going at it from two directions, quantitative and qualitative. On the one hand, on the quantitative side, we have to cut down massively on the amount of work being done. At present most work is useless or worse and we should simply get rid of it. On the other hand — and I think this the crux of the matter and the revolutionary new departure — we have to take what useful work remains and transform it into a pleasing variety of game-like and craft-like pastimes, indistinguishable from other pleasurable pastimes except that they happen to yield useful end-products. Surely that shouldn’t make them less enticing to do. Then all the artificial barriers of power and property could come down. Creation could become recreation. And we could all stop being afraid of each other.

I don’t suggest that most work is salvageable in this way. But then most work isn’t worth trying to save. Only a small and diminishing fraction of work serves any useful purpose independent of the defense and reproduction of the work-system and its political and legal appendages. Thirty years ago, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just five percent of the work then being done — presumably the figure, if accurate, is lower now — would satisfy our minimal needs for food, clothing and shelter. Theirs was only an educated guess but the main point is quite clear: directly or indirectly, most work serves the unproductive purposes of commerce or social control. Right off the bat we can liberate tens of millions of salesmen, soldiers, managers, cops, stockbrokers, clergymen, bankers, lawyers, teachers, landlords, security guards, ad-men and everyone who works for them. There is a snowball effect since every time you idle some bigshot you liberate his flunkies and underlings also. Thus the economy implodes.

Forty percent of the workforce are white-collar workers, most of whom have some of the most tedious and idiotic jobs ever concocted. Entire industries, insurance and banking and real estate for instance, consist of nothing but useless paper-shuffling. It is no accident that the “tertiary sector,” the service sector, is growing while the “secondary sector” (industry) stagnates and the “primary sector” (agriculture) nearly disappears. Because work is unnecessary except to those whose power it secures, workers are shifted from relatively useful to relatively useless occupations as a measure to ensure public order. Anything is better than nothing. That’s why you can’t go home just because you finish early. They want your time, enough of it to make you theirs, even if they have no use for most of it. Otherwise why hasn’t the average work week gone down by more than a few minutes in the last sixty years?

Next we can take a meat-cleaver to production work itself. No more war production, nuclear power, junk food, feminine hygiene deodorant — and above all, no more auto industry to speak of. An occasional Stanley Steamer or Model T might be all right, but the auto-eroticism on which such pest-holes as Detroit and Los Angeles depend is out of the question. Already, without even trying, we’ve virtually solved the energy crisis, the environmental crisis and assorted other insoluble social problems.

Finally, we must do away with far and away the largest occupation, the one with the longest hours, the lowest pay and some of the most tedious tasks around. I refer to housewives doing housework and child-rearing. By abolishing wage-labor and achieving full unemployment we undermine the sexual division of labor. The nuclear family as we know it is an inevitable adaptation to the division of labor imposed by modern wage-work. Like it or not, as things have been for the last century or two it is economically rational for the man to bring home the bacon, for the woman to do the shitwork and provide him with a haven in a heartless world, and for the children to be marched off to youth concentration camps called “schools,” primarily to keep them out of Mom’s hair but still under control, but incidentally to acquire the habits of obedience and punctuality so necessary for workers. If you would be rid of patriarchy, get rid of the nuclear family whose unpaid “shadow work,” as Ivan Illich says, makes possible the work-system that makes it necessary. Bound up with this no-nukes strategy is the abolition of childhood and the closing of the schools. There are more full-time students than full-time workers in this country. We need children as teachers, not students. They have a lot to contribute to the ludic revolution because they’re better at playing than grown-ups are. Adults and children are not identical but they will become equal through interdependence. Only play can bridge the generation gap.

I haven’t as yet even mentioned the possibility of cutting way down on the little work that remains by automating and cybernizing it. All the scientists and engineers and technicians freed from bothering with war research and planned obsolescence should have a good time devising means to eliminate fatigue and tedium and danger from activities like mining. Undoubtedly they’ll find other projects to amuse themselves with. Perhaps they’ll set up world-wide all-inclusive multi-media communications systems or found space colonies. Perhaps. I myself am no gadget freak. I wouldn’t care to live in a pushbutton paradise. I don’t want robot slaves to do everything; I want to do things myself. There is, I think, a place for labor-saving technology, but a modest place. The historical and pre-historical record is not encouraging. When productive technology went from hunting-gathering to agriculture and on to industry, work increased while skills and self-determination diminished. The further evolution of industrialism has accentuated what Harry Braverman called the degradation of work. Intelligent observers have always been aware of this. John Stuart Mill wrote that all the labor-saving inventions ever devised haven’t saved a moment’s labor. Karl Marx wrote that “it would be possible to write a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.” The enthusiastic technophiles — Saint-Simon, Comte, Lenin, B.F. Skinner — have always been unabashed authoritarians also; which is to say, technocrats. We should be more than skeptical about the promises of the computer mystics. They work like dogs; chances are, if they have their way, so will the rest of us. But if they have any particularized contributions more readily subordinated to human purposes than the run of high tech, let’s give them a hearing.

What I really want to see is work turned into play. A first step is to discard the notions of a “job” and an “occupation.” Even activities that already have some ludic content lose most of it by being reduced to jobs which certain people, and only those people, are forced to do to the exclusion of all else. Is it not odd that farm workers toil painfully in the fields while their air-conditioned masters go home every weekend and putter about in their gardens? Under a system of permanent revelry, we will witness the Golden Age of the dilettante which will put the Renaissance to shame. There won’t be any more jobs, just things to do and people to do them.

The secret of turning work into play, as Charles Fourier demonstrated, is to arrange useful activities to take advantage of whatever it is that various people at various times in fact enjoy doing. To make it possible for some people to do the things they could enjoy, it will be enough just to eradicate the irrationalities and distortions which afflict these activities when they are reduced to work. I, for instance, would enjoy doing some (not too much) teaching, but I don’t want coerced students and I don’t care to suck up to pathetic pedants for tenure.

Second, there are some things that people like to do from time to time, but not for too long, and certainly not all the time. You might enjoy baby-sitting for a few hours in order to share the company of kids, but not as much as their parents do. The parents meanwhile profoundly appreciate the time to themselves that you free up for them, although they’d get fretful if parted from their progeny for too long. These differences among individuals are what make a life of free play possible. The same principle applies to many other areas of activity, especially the primal ones. Thus many people enjoy cooking when they can practice it seriously at their leisure, but not when they’re just fueling up human bodies for work.

Third — other things being equal — some things that are unsatisfying if done by yourself or in unpleasant surroundings or at the orders of an overlord are enjoyable, at least for a while, if these circumstances are changed. This is probably true, to some extent, of all work. People deploy their otherwise wasted ingenuity to make a game of the least inviting drudge-jobs as best they can. Activities that appeal to some people don’t always appeal to all others, but everyone at least potentially has a variety of interests and an interest in variety. As the saying goes, “anything once.” Fourier was the master at speculating about how aberrant and perverse penchants could be put to use in post-civilized society, what he called Harmony. He thought the Emperor Nero would have turned out all right if as a child he could have indulged his taste for bloodshed by working in a slaughterhouse. Small children who notoriously relish wallowing in filth could be organized in “Little Hordes” to clean toilets and empty the garbage, with medals awarded to the outstanding. I am not arguing for these precise examples but for the underlying principle, which I think makes perfect sense as one dimension of an overall revolutionary transformation. Bear in mind that we don’t have to take today’s work just as we find it and match it up with the proper people, some of whom would have to be perverse indeed.

If technology has a role in all this, it is less to automate work out of existence than to open up new realms for re/creation. To some extent we may want to return to handicrafts, which William Morris considered a probable and desirable upshot of communist revolution. Art would be taken back from the snobs and collectors, abolished as a specialized department catering to an elite audience, and its qualities of beauty and creation restored to integral life from which they were stolen by work. It’s a sobering thought that the Grecian urns we write odes about and showcase in museums were used in their own time to store olive oil. I doubt our everyday artifacts will fare as well in the future, if there is one. The point is that there’s no such thing as progress in the world of work; if anything, it’s just the opposite. We shouldn’t hesitate to pilfer the past for what it has to offer, the ancients lose nothing yet we are enriched.

The reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps. There is, it is true, more suggestive speculation than most people suspect. Besides Fourier and Morris—and even a hint, here and there, in Marx — there are the writings of Kropotkin, the syndicalists Pataud and Pouget, anarcho-communists old (Berkman) and new (Bookchin). The Goodman brothers’ Communitas is exemplary for illustrating what forms follow from given functions (purposes), and there is something to be gleaned form the often hazy heralds of alternative/appropriate/intermediate/convivial technology, like Schumacher and especially Illich, once you disconnect their fog machines. The situationists — as represented by Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life and in the Situationist International Anthology — are so ruthlessly lucid as to be exhilarating, even if they never did quite square the endorsement of the rule of the workers’ councils with the abolition of work. Better their incongruity, though, than any extant version of leftism, whose devotees look to be the last champions of work, for if there were no work there would be no workers, and without workers, whom would the left have to organize?

So the abolitionists will be largely on their own. No one can say what would result from unleashing the creative power stultified by work. Anything can happen. The tiresome debater’s problem of freedom vs. necessity, with its theological overtones, resolves itself practically once the production of use-values is coextensive with the consumption of delightful play-activity.

Life will become a game, or rather many games, but not — as it is now—a zero/sum game. An optimal sexual encounter is the paradigm of productive play. The participants potentiate each other’s pleasures, nobody keeps score, and everybody wins. The more you give, the more you get. In the ludic life, the best of sex will diffuse into the better part of daily life. Generalized play leads to the libidinization of life. Sex, in turn, can become less urgent and desperate, more playful. If we play our cards right, we can all get more out of life than we put into it; but only if we play for keeps.

Workers of the world… relax!

first published on inspiracy.com

November 8, 2008

helgé janssen on the lesbian scene in sms sugar man

Filed under: 2008 - sms sugar man,helgé janssen,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 5:13 pm

Anna, Grace and SELENE represent three aspects of the ANIMA and centrally the ANIMA is personified as DIANA the Roman Goddess.

Diana in fact means Goddess.

Diana: Roman Goddess of Light, Moon Goddess, Queen of Heaven, Lunar Virgin (note that to the Romans, “virgin” meant a woman who had never been married or pregnant, not a woman who had never had sex), Goddess of Wildwood, Divine Huntress, Protector of Animals, Lady of Beasts.

Kaganof is not questioning the moral (social) standing of these women as prostitutes. And yet, while presenting them within a narrowly defined context he nudges the viewer to look behind the facade:

“This is Grace….she thinks she’s a man…..”

“I’m not a woman, I’m a cat…..”

“This is Anna, my favourite Sugar….”

If anything (in this film and possibly for Kaganof generally) prostitutes represent an extracted poetic link to a vital Dionysian energy which gains strength through not only a belief in its own inherent dynamic prowess, but also from the empowering results of its actions. This aesthetic approach reverberates within the psychosexual/cosmogonic role that prostitutes have performed in our society at large: the oldest profession in the world.

As such these three character portrayals represent an authentic dynasty which resonates and refocuses female mythology. SELENE is the Moon Goddess and Grace the Warrior Goddess. Anna represents the Lunar Virgin aspect of Diana.

Both Leigh Graves as Grace and Deja Bernhardt as SELENE meet the challenge of representing these underlying mythologies with performances that are nothing short of a tour de force. Further, it is the chemistry of these two women that drive and magnify the narrative inexorably, enhancing their on-screen presence and thereby the depth and import of SMS Sugar Man, the film. It is Deja who perfectly captures the poetic power of Kaganof’s text, and Leigh who perfectly demonstrates the many sides of Diana: vixen, goddess, protector, man hater. In this sense it could be argued that Leigh’s role is the more challenging of the two. However, the roles are so perfectly counterbalanced, so equal in gravitas, that this distinction would become a meaningless exercise. It is fitting and exactly correct that they should express their ‘oneness’ in a hedonistic surge of erotic (never pornographic!!) sexual abandonment. This scene ramifies deep with the echelons of goddess mythology and is absolutely true to its cosmology within a thoroughly modern context: hence the appearance of Anna within the layering collage of the filmography within this scenario. They all stem from the same archetype, and as such they demonstrate the unifying power of their ‘single-mindedness’ which stands in direct contrast to Sugar Man’s dissolution.


The power of this scene is further enhanced by the Tuxedomoon penned track “In a manner of speaking”, here presented with the poignant Nouvelle Vague cover version.

For further enlightening input on the role of DIANA go to:


p.s.: I find it a little disturbing (sometimes) as to how far one needs to ‘explain’ things in a South African context because all too often one is surprised at how ‘impressed’ South Africans are, and how beguiled they are of surface reality – a condition possibly more evident in Durban than other parts of the country??

Perhaps this is all just another layer in the destruction that has been wrought by apartheid where people obtained an education without having to be intelligent and who now (sadly) occupy positions in our society where they feel threatened by (and therefore block) anything they cannot understand?

I therefore find it necessary to state that in my opinion Kaganof is not ‘using’ mythology as in ‘name dropping’. If anything Kaganof is doing the opposite: he is ‘using’ surface reality to unveil (trigger) undercurrents of meaning, the pursuit of which is not absolutely essential to the enjoyment of film itself, but which is there never-the-less for those who wish to delve deeper. It is this deeper reality which makes the film an extremely satisfying one and which is sustained at every level of analysis. I feel completely the opposite about the disastrously titled film by del Toro “Pan’s Labyrinth” (please refer to my review on my site under ‘reviews’ – the Devil’s Labyrinth) where a deeper analysis defies logic and one is only left with the veneer of a ‘beautifully costumed’ film.

The more I delve into SMS Sugar Man the more it becomes evident that this film is possibly Kaganof’s magnum opus.

this review first appeared on helge’s website


Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 12:55 am

[www.myspace.com/htrk2 for the preferable soundtrack to this piece of writing]

I staggered out the front of The Pit, immediately noticing a bald woman sitting on the outside steps. She was wearing a cheap black suit and tie. Her shirt was soiled with bright blue fluid. I heard her whisper something. Something about bad television signals. At least those were the words I heard. I walked away, across the vacant lot, through the vast support system colonnades, beneath the roaring highways. The pylon billboard soared; a mechanized Babel of electric sugar. The slipstream screams of the cars echoed overhead, crumbling down like an endless barrage of reckless, low flying aircraft. I found the car where I’d parked it – behind a row of abandoned, truck sized dumpsters. I climbed in, started it up and drove off.

I stopped at a petrol station and entered the seven eleven to buy a carton of cigarettes. Rows of cartoonish, migraine coloured bottles made me dizzy. The smell of frying donuts hit me like a wall. I moved down pillbox sweet aisles in the sanitized light, trying to find something cold to drink. I was still numb to the scene in the bedroom. But it disturbed me that I might have cut that girl and not even remembered. Bright neon stuck like glue to my retina. Refurbished bodies leered down at me from shiny magazines like dead undersea creatures. I slowly realized that the cashier was staring at my hand. Two droplets of blood had fallen on the counter top. Vivid as miniature crimson jellyfish on the gleaming white linoleum. I saw them inching slowly over the edge with soft sucking noises looking for the bloody shorelines in my palm. Digital counters beeped and loomed monstrously. I paid for the cigarettes and left.

A day passes. Then another. Then three or four more. I am still thinking of the girl in the bedroom. I start on the first series of glazes. I find that I have been washing my hands too much. Despite the cuts. I wash them thoroughly with soap and antibacterial dishwashing liquid and then ten minutes later I find myself scrubbing them again in case I missed some dirt under my fingernails. Dirt breeds bacteria. There are microscopic kingdoms. The first glaze I prepare is a rich copper-rust coloured sepia tone I have mixed out of pear and apple green oils combined with a fair amount lemon yellow and cadmium orange. Sometimes I find that I’m washing my hands four or five times every half-hour. I have been watching one particular French film over and over. Constantly rewinding and replaying my favourite scenes. I feel like I am in some form of active cryogenic suspension. I am able to operate, but I am falling through a slow, sustained stasis. I can’t really remember how long I’ve been feeling like this. Time seems to speed up and slow down for no apparent reason. I darkened the glaze with a burned umber primer and diluted it with thinners, which I feel works much more effectively than linseed oil in this case. I discovered that I have difficulty in distinguishing the day from the night if all the blinds and black curtains are closed. I think time carries little or no meaning for me these days. Like an hour of high resolution tape that is being constantly looped. The same minutes. Replayed over and over from different angles. I wear surgical gloves when I paint. I feel like I’ve stopped aging, and the prospect of this looped time frightens me more deeply than any other aspect of this limbo I’ve found myself in. The film I’ve been watching and re-watching is about a young woman living in a futuristic Paris tenement who discovers that the man she has been living with has been dead for over twelve years. Constant usage of the thinners leaves me often very light-headed and disorientated. I am sometimes unsure of my exact surroundings. Evocative high resolution shots of high-tech stainless steel elevator mechanisms and penthouse views of highways shot through a blue filter. The French girl has a futuristic Cleopatra haircut and masturbates under a deep blue light with a sleek, chrome handheld device. I am still thinking of the girl in the bedroom. A tiny red light blinks along the chromed side of the device. Slow shots of cigarette smoke behind tinted glass and long airless corridors. My hand is healing nicely. I use the glaze on the details of the cross. The cross is intricate and vaguely Coptic. I have used brassy ochre accents against dark, metallic bronze tones. Blackened yellow-gold highlights run like scars of light. The constant washing has left my hands very antiseptic, and the cuts on my palm have remained uninfected. The cross contrasts exquisitely with the creamy fleshtone image of Manon’s body; which I have elongated unnaturally. The hot water stings in my cuts. The expression on Manon’s face as she is crucified remains serene and dark. Like she is sleeping with her eyes open. Red rims and a blue mouth. I fall asleep now and then without noticing that I have. I am thinking of adding ornamental wings to her cross. Large black wings, ragged as sails. The thinners leaves me extremely light-headed. The French girl smokes behind vast panels of polarized glass overlooking a system of highways. My palm didn’t need stitches. I think I’m running out of vermilion paint. I light another cigarette. The cross contrasts beautifully with Manon’s long bare stomach. The room’s starting to get stale with them. It disturbs me that I might have cut that girl and not remembered doing it. Feels like weeks ago. I wash my hands with…overlooking a system of highways. Ten times an hour. A slow, sustained…smoking near the. Deep blue light on the chrome device. Bronze highlights. Constantly rewinding and…Washing my hands with…Then I am not… High resolution dirt under my fingernails. High resolution. Burned umber. Minutes. Different angled…I use the glaze on…

The phone started ringing. I woke up and slid off the kitchen counter where I had been sleeping, moved jiltingly into the lounge and found the phone. I answered it. The line was very bad and it crackled and hissed.

“Hello?” I asked in a voice as dry as paper.

There was a hollow electronic silence. Filled with crackling.

“Hello?” I asked again, softer this time, sensing something I couldn’t describe

I listened and could make out the faint, faraway sound of someone crying. Slow, suppressed painful breathing. A terrible and desperate sadness filled the hollow, crackling void of the phone line.

“Manon..?” I whispered. “…is that you?”

The line cut off sharply and my ear was filled with a piercing disconnected tone. I slowly replaced the receiver. Frowning and trying to wake myself into a cognitive state. I went and brewed myself a cup of bitter coffee. The phone rang again while I was making it. I went to answer it, but it stopped ringing before I could answer. I’m thinking of buying an electron-relay phone. Then I can be reached anywhere. Even at the bottom of the ocean.

A day or two dissolved before I decided to go back to the Pit. The phone had rung again over the last few nights. Once or twice I think. But I couldn’t get to it in time to answer. I needed to speak to Manon about that night in the bedroom. Who was that girl? The one she had introduced me to. I needed to clarify what had happened during the night. I needed to know what she had done to that girl. I needed to know what I had done. I took a few boxes of cigarettes to put in the car. I put on one of my black jackets and a clean pair of black pants. I then retrieved my car keys from one of the black paintboxes. I sliced some cold octopus out of the fridge and ate parts of it. Then I moved down to the underground garage and into the car. The lift to the garage had moved with the deep electric hum of heavy machinery and I got the unpleasant sensation of being inside one of the moving components of a vast video camera. They say that an octopus is five times more intelligent than a dog. I hadn’t driven the car for a week or two, but the engine caught like a blade and purred deep under the sleek hood.

When I got back to the Pit, a regular called Moll was in the kitchen making tea. He gave me a vague and vacant look and poured sugar mechanically into his plastic thermos. Moll was constantly working on highway schematics for some technical book he was writing about the road systems. He used to design road structures for the government, but now I wasn’t sure if he did anything other than work on his book. He looked shabby and unshaven in his grey overalls. I went up the spiral stairs but hesitated outside the door to the room. I thought I felt a charge of mild electricity, like static, in my stomach as I turned the handle, but it passed so quickly I was sure that I’d just imagined it. The room was empty. Manon was conspicuously absent. So was the whip thin girl. I was so sure that they’d both still be entangled on the bed, still frozen in that unspeakably insectile moment. Like a film left on pause. But they weren’t. For a moment I couldn’t believe that they weren’t. Manon wasn’t there. Neither was the whip thin girl with black lipstick. I had the frightening feeling that they’d been erased somehow. Recorded over. The bed was stripped and all the sheets and bedding lay scrunched into a soiled heap in the corner like badly bleached skin. The worn striped mattress was askew atop the rusty spring base. A scattering of used syringes and a cold molten mess of candles lay on the floor. Near the bed. A pellucid underwater light filtered through the window and cracked walls. A heavy fecal animal smell contaminated the room. Cigarette butts lay around the floor like iguana droppings. I could also smell faded make up and the lingering ghost of perfume below the rank stench. I closed the door and went downstairs. I considered the possibility that Severance was in one of the other rooms, but I knew from past experience that this was unlikely. I went back downstairs to the sunken lounge. Moll was crouched down over some highway blueprints he’d spread out on the floor. He was scribbling illegible numerations and footnotes across the translucent paper. The top of his balding head was burned pink and flaky with wisps of grey like fibrous fungus. Baxter was sitting on the couch nursing a cup of coffee. At the sight of me he leapt to his feet and beamed broadly in a fast and shaking smile. There was a shining red rim around his bulging eyes, which vibrated behind elegant and expensive prescription glasses. He was wearing a stained silk tie.
“Yes oh yes it’s you its you hello my friend..” he said in a fast burst of code.
“How you doing buddy pal my friend huh?”
His designer suit was soiled and crumpled. His triangular bone of a face was unwashed and hadn’t seen a razor in a while. He grabbed my limp hand and shook it hard. The dim lights caught his glasses like oil as he nodded his head furiously.
“Have you seen Manon?” I asked him, my throat dry.
“Fucking bitch wouldn’t give me head she’s out be back in a while I think you want some devil dandruff some coke?”
I shook my head and sat down on the couch. I noticed a fly inching slowly across low tabletop. It sidestepped the glutinous swampy crescents of blackening coffee stains and crumbling hillocks of ash, trawling the greased surface with its segmented tongue. Baxter sat down and was quiet for a while. The sound of Moll’s scribbling pen sounded like moths dying in an electric trap. The fly finds a miniscule pink splatter of candy glued like excrement to the table. It unfolds its origami tongue and vomits buckets of anticoagulant. I feel sick and on edge. Baxter’s going to start talking to me. Any minute now. The candy dissolves into the vomit like melting plastic.
“So I was what was I doing I was riding the monorails across town cos see I can’t simply can’t drive the fucking…no more it kills me and I was riding the trains and shit…” Baxter says.
“…And I’m eating junk and mini donuts and drinking diet cola and eating candy tots and sugar out of the packets and I’m doing coke in the trains I mean monorails.”
He stops for a long second and seems to be staring at something.
“I’m moving in here permanently.” He says to me slowly, annunciating each word.
I look at him.
“I’m doing an experiment you know an experiment on myself so I can…so I can…do something to myself…so I can…do something.”
He gets up and takes hold of my arm.
“Come see.” He says and pulls me up.
I stand there looking at him. The fly buzzes into the air and crawls over his face vomiting candy over his face.
“Come see.” He says and ushers me up the velveteen spiral staircase. He leads me to a previously disused room down the passage and up some more rickety stairs. We go into the room. The walls are filthy and the stained floorboards are covered with plastic sheeting. A naked bulb swings from the ceiling. An expensive waterbed sits before a huge black television set. There’s a neat pile of antiquated videotapes stacked near the set. He walks in before me.
“Beautiful.” he says flinging a dirty sleeve motion at a pristine vintage television. ” 20 inch screen dual tuners stylish design it’s a Sony a KV-214 VU dual tuners videoplus plus PDC timer programming teletext…”
He waves a huge remote control in front of his grinning face.
“…front panel auxiliary input sockets NTSC format playback auto/manual tuning on/off timerautomaticheadcleaningautorepeatandoptimum pictureadjustment and all the extra facilities youcouldwant except long play…” he trails off staring at me with his bulging spectacled eyes. He rubs them behind the lenses and blows his nose on a silk handkerchief. Long blackened loops of mucus stick to his nose and glasses. He looks at me.
“A 14 inch single tuner version was also manufactured….” He says sadly.
Then he sits on the bed and regards me solemnly.
“I’m trying to eradicate my sexual responses through mastubatory therapy I’m trying to get to a stage that I hope when I can spontaneously ejaculate when I see this particular advert on television…”
He points the remote control at the television and the inbuilt video comes to life with a subdued click and hum. I have the unpleasant sensation of being caught inside one of the moving components. The screen flickers to life. A smooth doctor voice-over comes on. ‘There are unseen microscopic bacteria living and multiplying in your toilet’s cistern…’ I hear Baxter mouthing along with the voice-over and close up shots of bacteria under a microscope flash onto the screen. Synthesized danger music. The garish pink bacteria writhe and blossom like alien life forms in amniotic fluids. ‘They are in there and they are dangerous. You must defend yourself…’ A toilet flushes in slow motion.
“I’m jerking off to this advert one maybe two hundred times a day only this advert I want to be in control of my impulses I want to be in control and get to the stage where I can spontaneously come and no fucking cuntheaded cuntfaced smiling bitch can get me by the balls and I can only jerking off to this advert no other sexual stimulus I ca…”
Bacteria multiplying in the sick soup like atomic amoebas. Then it cuts back to a shot of a pristine white toilet bowl and a hand holding a bright blue lozenge comes into rapid focus with triumphant electronic music.
‘..just one of these in your toilet’s cistern and you..’
Crystalline blue water floods the basin in slow motion. The bacteria fill the screen. Pulsing villi shiver and gibber madly. They wriggle and die in the protoplasm and fade to a white screen. The picture skips and a smooth doctor voice-over comes in as the advert repeats itself. Looped tape constantly replaying the same moments. High resolution bacteria blossoming across the screen like atomic mushrooms. Blue lozenge.
‘…are unseen microscopic bacteria living and multi..’
I become aware of a wet frenzied flapping noise. I turn my head. Baxter has unzipped his fly and is masturbating frantically on the edge of the bed. Weird pseudopodia warp and melt. His eyes are glued to the screen and his legs are pressed tightly together, Italian loafers pidgeon toed as his hand flies up and down the skinny shaft of his fish coloured member.
‘They are in there and they are dangerou…’
Blue water floods the screen in slow motion bacteria slipping and self destructing in the anaesthesia.
‘..just one of th…’
Fades to white and a smooth doctor’s voice-over comes on as the tape loops over and ov…Baxter ejaculates all over his designer crotch with a stifled splutter. He gasps in harsh, sharp sucks and falls jerkingly back onto the rolling liquid bed.
‘..living and multiplying in…’
Bacteria gibber and quake in the spew of their internal fluids. Slow motion blue water. Baxter rolls over. His back to me. Rising and rolling sickeningly on the waterbed. Blue lozenge and triumphant electronic music. He is saying something. Garish video bacteria exploding mutant jellyfish in contaminated oceans.
“..just just just…just…” come his stifled grunts.
I go down the rickety stairs and into the cramped yellow room. I can hear Moll scribbling furiously on the crinkling blueprints. Moving on his knees. I can hear the flies vomiting on sugar in the kitchen. I can hear the smooth doctor voice-over. I lie down on the worn striped mattress. Bacteria dying in slow motion inside of me.

I dream short sharp video bytes of flat plastic hamburgers and chocolate wrapper tamaguchi and radiation tested mineral water. Television satellites in blue sanitizers dissolving in bright red neon frequencies and slow motion skeletons like spider husks dying in the chemical light. I wake up and it’s night. Dead flashing neon glare burns dimly into the cold room. My head is filled with tightly packed cottonwool. Manon is lying next to me. Watching me from the shadow of my head with colourless, neon glazed cats eyes. Her hands move over me like snakes in the darkness. The slow flashing neons strobe her long slender underwater body as it uncoils softly against me. Her mouth opens like a hot soft scar and closes over mine. Chilled limbs enfolding me like a thin many limbed anemone. Her legs butterfly in the drugged strobe flashes and a small volcanic aperture sucks me into her like a leech. And as she pulsates around me I can feel myself mortifying in stop motions, the blood turning to rust in my veins as my muscles atrophy. I can’t move as she writhes and flutters soundlessly in the halogen light like an injured moth in fast shaking edits, and my nerves oxidize and petrify as she kisses me in soft deep anticoagulant penetrations with her soft pointed origami tongue and fucks numbing insect narcotics intravenously into me. She blossoms up my spine like slow-acting venom as my mouth dissolves against hers like melting plastic as she slowly swallows my melting face like sucking candy. And I fall through the safety net of paralysis, through the caving mattress and the rotting floors and the echoing sub-basements into a rapid-eye-movement ocean of mortified video byte images. And as I slip and fall she wraps herself around my frozen form like a soft bodied virus. Falling with me into a soundless black vacuum of slowly fading afterimages.

I stop on the side of the freeway, on the verge. Sheer faces of concrete and twisted wire barriers barricade the world. A deluge of cars screeches past. Heavy, aerodynamic flashes of compacted metal and glass; like uncontrollable escape pods. Flashes of empty eyed passengers like partially exposed silver nitrate images. The air conditioner vents breathe out silent gas-cold air. Filtered windscreen skyveiw and gamma radiation. The cars roar past perpetually, in constant deafening bursts. I light a cigarette. Manon unbuckles her safety belt and slips it off. She raises a bare leg, resting the wafer-thin black lacquer sole of her shoe upon the gun-metal grey dashboard. The satin on her divides, collecting in smooth scrolls. The axis of hips exposes glowingly, like a negative. But the alabaster limb is marred with a tattoo of tiny pink holes. These pucker like spiracles along the smooth curve of her inner thigh. Like the vestigial leavings of some unspeakable evolution. Melancholic orchestral arrangements loom behind the slow crackle of the tape. Her snakeskin purse snaps open on her lap as she trawls the safety belt up, past her raised foot and between her legs. Till it lodges against the inside of her thigh, locking into the stripe of her underwear. The black nylon weave wraps around her thigh again, geometric and bloodless. She stretches out the buckle and I hold it to keep the strap from retracting. Cars flash past like shuddering cruise missiles. Their fading reverberations trembling through the road and door hydraulics and crashcouch infrastructures. Sunlight glints off the sleek black chassis and refracts in the sunfilters. The filters cast a subdued greenish chemical glare over half of the capsular cockpit. The leg is a bright, overexposed whiteness in all this diffusion. Crackling analog clips in. Extractor fans suck cigarette smoke through sharkgill vents. She extracts one of the disposable, pre-prepared syringes and taps it neurotically. I wind the seatbelt in slow, hard turns, spreading her limbs against the taut pull of the black nylon weave. The wide loops of the seatbelt-tourniquet carve reddening ridges into the whiteness. The foot arches. A black needle heel locks against the dashboard while thin toes hover like fingertips against a spotless windshield. My knuckles are growing white around the metal, quivering slightly. She locates a marble blue vein with probing fingers and slides the needle in smoothly. It hooks into the soft wax of her inner thigh like a limbless mosquito as she slowly depresses the plunger. As the cars rocket violently into a mechanized tarmac limbo. The plunger tacks soundlessly against a plastic hilt and I release the seatbelt. The buckle slingshots sharply, catching her hard across her jaw and snapping her head around. Her skull cracks loud and heavy against the window, the strap reeling her legs closed, whipping tight against luminescent skin. She lolls against the safety harness as her insides liquefy in slow, electric plasmabursts of hot mink syrup. She raises limp wrists against a convulsing throat. Expressions rivulate and settle, setting in automatically before shivering out. Fingers clasp like skeletal flowers against this melting wax face. Nerve reactions blossom like bullets under cling black as the overloaded spine arches her to breaking point against the tangle of straps. The syringe still waves in her loose fingers. A chaotic stylus tracing abysmal gradients in the enclosed space. The needle accidentally pierces her cheek at an oblique angle. It sinks in, to the plastic seal and I hear it scraping against the inside of her teeth. The raised foot slides slowly across the vista of a windshield as her ankles loosen from within. The needle of the heel scrapes slippery glass as she forgets her grip on the syringe. It hangs from her face for a second before sliding out, falling between the seat and the handbrake. A garter of red reptilian ridges fades slowly from existence as I start the engine and drive off the verge. And glide into the speedlanes all look the same. Like looped tape. Moving back into a stuttering fast-forward.


A day slips past. I think three days have past. I think we’ve been driving around on the freeway for three days. The stainless steel lift is airless and silent as it moves up the dark shaft. I must arrive at my home. The pressure recedes as space slows and the heavy airlock doors hiss open. I think I left her lying on the side of the freeway. The long white antiseptic corridor stretches to both sides. I move down its lunar silent length to my apartment door. I think I left Manon in a seven eleven eating red lollipops and amphetamine. I needed to stop to wash my hands. My head hurt and I felt sick.

My door comes into view and I stop suddenly. There is a small black envelope lying on the carpet outside my door. I glance around warily. Long white tubes hum in regular subdued light niches. I approach it and lean over to pick it up. There is nothing written on either side of the envelope. In fact it is utterly featureless. I enter the apartment and sit on the couch. I put the envelope on the low table and stare at it. Someone left this outside my door for me to find. This makes me feel paranoid and violated. Something very bad is happening. I smoke three or four cigarettes and vomit before I could open it.

I think I have been hallucinating. Last week I thought someone sent me the skin of the girl from the pit. I hallucinated that someone had sent me a portion of flayed skin from the girl I was afraid I’d cut and not remembered. Someone left a package of bad meat outside my door and I hallucinated. I thought that it was the skin off the girl’s torso. It was veal I think. Rotting veal. Of course I have no way of knowing now. I think I put the meat in the incinerator. It’s not in my apartment anymore. Either way I can’t seem to find it. It’s gone. I must have done something with it. Something is happening to me. Something very bad is happening. I light a cigarette. I am slipping. I am…they are in there and they are dangerous. I must defend myself. I must pull myself out of this limbo I have found myself in. I ate some cold octopus out of the fridge. I hadn’t eaten in days. I went down to the underground garage and started my car. I hadn’t driven it for days but the engine caught like a blade. I drove to the Pit and found Manon naked and comatose in one of the corners. Cockroaches were crawling over her thighs and stomach. I couldn’t find her clothes so I wrapped some clear polymer sheeting around her inert form and pulled her up to her knees. Her eyes were rolled back, settled like oysters in their sockets. A thin webby tracer of drool leaked out of her open mouth. I got her down the stairs and outside. I had to support her with every step and almost dropped her on several occasions. Her limbs were those of a marionette and her doll’s head lolled sickeningly. The sheets billowed and collapsed like a shroud. I dragged her across the darkened lot as cars slashed deafeningly above. If I could just get us back on track. If I could just get us out of this hole then maybe I could…maybe I could… I pulled her into the car and she sprawled corpse-like across the crashcouch. I climbed in the car and started it up. The smell of burned plastic and internal fluids vapoured off her, filling the capsule. I drove back to the apartment in a numb haze. I managed to get her out and into the lift. One of her ankles slammed against the door frame as I was pulling her out. I saw a purplish bruise begin to slowly develop as I heaved her across the concrete. At one point while the lift was ascending, she slipped out of my grasp and collapsed heavily to the rubberised floor; like a puppet whose strings had been all of sudden hacked. I gathered up her limp limbs and insinuated my arms around her hollow torso. She wasn’t very heavy, but I felt weak and bilious. I got her up as the airlock doors hissed open and dragged her down the white and silent corridor. Her chin bumped repetitively on her breastbone, and the sound of her clashing teeth made irregular clacking noises. Her long bare legs trawled lazily across the carpet like the tendrils of a bluebottle. Once we were inside, I dropped her on the floor and went into the bathroom. I turned on the shower faucets and went back to fetch her into the bathroom. Her head cracked heavily against the toilet bowl as I let go of her to turn down the faucets. Steam filled the reflective room. I stripped off the fetid sheeting and manhandled her into the mirrored shower cubicle. She lay curled on her back in the cramped shower. Twisted in a backwards foetal position in the mirrors. Her skin pinkening as hot water bulleted and gushed over her stomach and face and slopped onto the floor. I threw the sheet into the bathtub and arranged her head so it was above the gathering waterline. I could see my reflections moving in the corners of my eyes, yet I could not meet my own gaze. The movements of those reflections seemed incongruous and disconnected from mine. The shower drain sucked and gurgled near her mouth. Steam clogged my eyes and face. I sprayed liquid soap over her and slid the glass shower door shut. Then I walked into the lounge and walked back to check that it was she who was naked and twisted in the shower and not me. That it was me who had dragged her across the mirrors and stripped her and not the other way around. I stared at her but couldn’t look in the reflections. I went into the lounge and collapsed onto the couch and lit a cigarette. I smoked it down to the filter and then moved to do what I had been dreading for so long.
I went into the bedroom and opened the secret drawer and got out the black box. I moved to unlock it, only to see that it was already open. My mouth was dry.

I stared at the empty envelope till my eyes hurt and I fell into a dreamless sleep in the dark. I could feel the memories straining against me and coming back like as I fell asleep in the dark. I felt myself being fish hooked momentarily out of limbo; up one level into the buried misery I had been forced to exhume in order to save myself. I woke up hours later, swimming muzzily into focus to find myself sprawled in the dark. The distant sound of the shower ebbed into my ears from faraway. I realized that I had forgotten about Manon. I stumbled to the bathroom and opened the shower door. She was still lying comatose in the gushing jets of now icy water. Her skin was pale, bluish and marbled. I had no idea how long she’d been lying in hissing cold water. I quickly turned off the faucets and got in to pick her up. Her skin felt squidlike and pebbled with goosebumps. Her lips had turned purple like faded bruises and her long thin fingers were stiff and bloodless as shrivelled wax. Her nipples were hard as stones. Little purplish pink stones. Hair hanging in short, jet coloured swollen strings. Her eyelids were slightly parted and her eyes were rolled back to the whites. I dragged her out onto the floor and pulled a towel down off the chrome bar. Her open lips and cheek were pressed coldly against the tiles, in the long glassy puddles. I pulled her out into the hall and dried her off. Her skin rashed pink and hypothermic under the rough towel. I turned off the lights and sat beside her immobile form. And in a tiny flaring second, for a luminescent moment, I actually feel nothing whatsoever. I feel nothing at all.
Then the walls come crashing down again.
And I’m back in hell.

I woke up in the morning light, blue-grey and warm through the curtains I’d forgotten to draw. I climbed out of bed and her arms and legs slip away from me. I rubbed my eyes and looked at her. She was sleeping peacefully beneath the sheets. I felt as if I’d accomplished something. She looked clean and innocent as a sleeping child’s doll. She had felt warm under the blankets, pressed against me. In rare moments like these I felt that there was actually a chance. A chance that I could be a real person. That I might actually become real again. I went and made myself coffee. Then I came back into the room and slowly pulled off the blanket till she lay exposed in the glow of the morning. Then I started to draw her with Indian ink on a sheet of smoked glass. And when I was finished, I looked at the glowing naked figure I had drawn. I felt my sense of accomplishment begin to slowly falter into an oily neutral as I saw the completed picture. As I saw that I had accidentally drawn my own corpse. I drop the sheet of glass from an open window and watch it the image fall to the systems of highways. It shatters soundlessly in the world below.

Manon is sitting at the black and glass table in the lounge. Her eyes are quite dark underneath but she wears her recovery with chic abandon. It’s late afternoon, I think, and I have cooked her a small plate of steak fajita and nutmeg seaweed grilled in grapeseed oil. I have made her some bitter green tea. Gunpowder tea from the Kwong Sang province. Not the best. Vitamin E is an excellent antioxidant. I am making things normal. If used in conjunction with selenium, vitamin E doubles its effectiveness. She smiles at me and I try to smile back. My mouth feels like its full of sawdust and guilt. I have put her into a soft white toweling robe. Her hair is mussed like a French prostitute in a cheap Paris detective story I watched last week. The prostitute was stabbed to death in her face halfway through the fifth scene. I have sat her down and she looks as if she’s somehow decreased in age. I make her eat some soft gel vitamin E capsules and three pecan nuts. I pull the blackened fajita and crispy seaweed out of the oven and set the baking tray on the stainless steel sink. Hot juice runs like stale steak blood into the faucet. Oil like melting mammary matter. I catch myself. One pecan nut contains enough selenium to last a person several days. I pull off the oven gloves and take out a stylish black plate and some designer cutlery. Maybe it was walnuts I was supposed to give her. I’m…not…sure…I slide the steak and seaweed onto the plate and sprinkle some pine nuts over them. I pour out a tall glass of tomato juice and carry everything into the dining area inside the large lounge. She looks up from inside the oversized robe and gives me a hangover smile. I have the unnerving sensation that I am about to feed a cat or some type of household pet. I set the plate in front of her.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
I think that she is wary of my mothering. By my looking after her. She likes it. I pour antioxidants down her thin long throat and watch her eat. She eats the grilled steak so slowly. Like she is chewing tinfoil. It hurts to watch her eat. Feeling her mouth divide the salt from the oil. The rosemary from the carcinogens. The protein from the saturated fats. The fork never even touches her teeth. I sit down and light a cigarette.
“How is it?” I ask slowly.
She gives me a photogenic smile through the chewing.
“Its delicious,” she says.
I force out a response-smile. She eats with small movements of her wrists and neck moving side to side as her mouth pouts over the meager forkfulls. A constant chain of tiny bites. Like a praying mantis eating a spider’s head. I feel sick. I keep expecting her to open double jointed jaws and vomit over the food. Unfurl a long, hollow butterfly tongue and suck up the dissolving meat and the partially melted plate. I think I am losing my mind.
“You should drink the tomato juice,” I say with a dry mouth. “The V8 factor…it…its isotonic and provides a rich source of…vitamin C and…beta…carotene…”
I trail off.
“Are you all right?” she starts quietly and then stops, taking my hand in her smooth, cold fingers.
Her fingers feel like polished bones. Like delicate sea creatures. I want to retract my hand but it feels paralysed. She blows me a kiss and goes back to eating. I watch her drink the tomato juice. For a second I panic that I accidentally filled the glass with blood. She looks like a French vampire. Stale steak blood. Whip thin girl blood. She sprinkles in some black pepper. She is eating the blackened steak fajita I don’t remember buying. Wrapped in plastic in the back of the fridge. It looks just like veal. I need to wash my hands. I get up and go to the bathroom. I can hear her swallowing the thick cold red juice all the way. Small sips. Her tongue divides the pectin from the monosodium glutamate. The worchester sauce from its constituents. The iodised salt from the ferrous traces. I wash my hands over and over and over and over and ov…

I live…I live in the smoking ruins. I live in the smoking ruins of myself. I turn everything over on itself in the dark. She breathes softly at my side in the blackness as the words tumble like falling bricks through my head. The closed window blinds slice out deep blue slivered reflections of underwater light but everything else is in shadows and colourless syrup reality. She moves against me in her sleep and sometimes I forget that her hair is dark and that her eyes are mandarin green. Sometimes I am almost sure that the hair like frayed silk on my shoulders is burned honey blonde, and that she is a stranger I picked up while sleepwalking who watches me while I dream of nothing. I live in the smoking ruins of myself and I get up in the dark and it feels like I’m not moving. It’s difficult to judge the dimensions of the room. And although I move in a blackness that is silent and complete, I know that my shadow cannot be far behind me. Moving free in the dark, crawling along the walls and ceiling like a girl sized spider. Pacing me in catlike leaps and bounds with each faltering step I take. I fall asleep without noticing. I wake up in its webby arms. Her legs wrapped around me like a dead or unconscious spider as the blue slivers of aquatic light peel away the black like a dissolving scab. And her hands snake over me. Almost like a lover. But the dreadful sense that something vital is missing overwhelms whatever comfort there is in her soft reptile caresses. And when I sink into her, I become sure that I am dead.

November 7, 2008

Deon Maas interview – Protest is still alive and well in ‘Afrikaans’ music

Filed under: derek davey,music — ABRAXAS @ 7:55 pm

My first memory of Deon Maas is of him sitting scrunched up between the ceiling and the top of a built-in cupboard. He was perched up there, rather uncomfortably, somewhere around 1991, to watch a band I was playing in at the time. There was simply nowhere else for him to sit … the studio was filled with instruments, equipment and sweaty musicians. He was talent scouting for a record label at the time, and wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb.

He’s come a long way since then. As Deon points out in our interview ¬– conducted in his comfortable Linden house, in front of a roaring blaze, over a bottle of good red – he has carved himself out a significant niche in the Afrikaans market. That’s from his work in the music industry, writing columns for top papers like Rapport and Beeld, and from being a judge on the popular Idols television show.

Being a legend in the tiny South African lunchbox opens doors for him when he does his own interviews; he doesn’t get stuck at the secretary any more when he phones a company; the bosses return his calls.

That’s why he’s adamant that he wasn’t trying to make a name for himself or provoke (“I never write to provoke”) with his now-famous column about Satanism, which he says was actually about tolerance (for those who don’t know, Deon wrote a column which basically outlined how Satanists, under our new constitution, should not be discriminated against. An SMS campaign, orchestrated by an outraged dominee, put so much pressure on the paper it appeared in that Deon was ultimately fired).

“A lot of the stuff I have written has had reactions … I write on a satirical level … I write on a very emotional level, so I say things the way I want to say it …” says Deon, showing me the R40 000 Rolex he bought with the Rapport payout “given to make me fuck off and shut up”.

But anyway, Deon was getting bored with writing columns: “it was like, ok, cool, I have done all this shit, I mean how many columnists can actually claim to be the headline story on the newspaper, not even Bullard got that right, Rapport a week after they fired me, I was the main story, there were four pages in the newspaper dedicated just to me, and the whole issue, which was huge, it was ‘alright, this is how far I can get as a columnist’ …”

Did the reaction to the column surprise him? “Undoubtedly, I mean they were threatening to burn the trucks in the Platteland that took the newspapers there, they were threatening to burn down the cafes that stocked the newspaper, it was pretty hairy shit …”

And what did it show about our country? Three things: that Satan still scares the crap out of people, that South Africans are still as intolerant as they ever were, and thirdly, that if you get organized, that you can change things, referring to the dominee (priest) who began and ran the campaign against Deon’s tenure at Rapport, in reaction to his “un-Christian” column.

I think Deon is a bit disappointed with where we are today in SA. We still haven’t grown up, we still throw our toys if anything pisses us off: “I firmly go for the view that up until 1994, in this country, we couldn’t think for ourselves: the policeman and the teacher and the dominee (priest) thought for us, you know, no matter what colour you were … since 94, we have had the platform for open debate, but yet, South Africans don’t debate, if somebody says something that they don’t like, its like, ‘fuck you’, or ‘lets burn his house down’ or whatever, whereas these things should be open platform for debate you know, it should be about getting to know each other …”


Still on the Christian theme, I question Deon on why Afrikaans music is less pirated than Gospel music. The theory goes that it is less pirated than gospel … because Afrikaans people are practicing Christians, and therefore moral, which hardly make sense, since Gospel lovers should also be, surely, practicing Christians?

Deon responds that the reason Afrikaners don’t pirate is based on common decency; Afrikaners are bought up with respect, taught to respect others and the belongings of others. It’s also a pride thing: Afrikaners like to buy an original cd to show they have the money, and to have the booklet to show their friends, to brag.

“You must understand that Afrikaners have money, no matter what people say about how disenfranchised they are and shit like that in the new South Africa, Afrikaans people have money.”

Not only do they have cash, their culture is booming. “Afrikaans” is the biggest selling music genre in South Africa. Just after 1994, in an era where many thought Afrikaans would die out, Deon persuaded his bosses at Tusk to start up an Afrikaans music division, and to sign up bands like Prophets of the City and Johannes Kerkorrel. Afrikaans is now, as Deon aptly puts it, “kicking the collective ass of every other language in South Africa”.

Mr Maas is extremely optimistic about what is happening to Afrikaans music: “Afrikaans is no longer a protected language any more, so its survival is up to how well people can exploit it commercially, and they seem to be doing that very successfully at the moment … and wait till the ‘coloured’ music catches up … it is still very contained in its own market at the moment … if you look at bands like Kallitz and Brasse Vannie Kaap, that music is incredibly good, and yet you just don’t hear it enough for it to be commercially viable, but that’s the next step, that is going to be the next phase of growth in Afrikaans as a language, when the doors open there as well, because the Afrikaans thing is still pretty much a closed shop, for white people, to a large extent …”

There’s quite a lot happening in Afrikaans culture right now that stirs up Deon’s blood, which reflects his values … artists like Rian Malan, Radio Kalahari Orkes, Fokofpolisiekar. This wasn’t always the case, by any means. There was a stage when Deon felt completely alienated from his own culture:

From rock spider to rock
How I got my Afrikaans back through music

“Afrikaners vroueslaners, skisofrene en politici, kom vergader hier en sing nou saam die wiegelied van anargie” (Andre Letoit)

The Poolclub was not a regular hangout. Just off Market Street, virtually unmarked and frequented by a clientele that were at best, well the kind of people who weren’t allowed in other places. This is where Afrikaans rock was born (some will say reborn) to a new audience that would spawn a whole new genre and politicise a language, split them in two and showed the government that not all Afrikaners were the same.

I’m standing in The Poolclub, the only people I still speak Afrikaans to are my parents and my wife. People I know and mix with frequently only find out months after they met me that I’m actually Afrikaans. I’m not hiding my Afrikanerdom; it just doesn’t exist for me anymore. I can find no music, movie, television or even a magazine in my mother tongue that marginally reflects what I’m about.

The rockiest Afrikaans band of my youth was Groep Twee, whose Dink Jy Darem Nog Aan My topped all the charts. I saw them live in the Bellville Civic Centre, dressed in matching brown striped shirts tucked into brown crimpelene pants with grasshopper shoes. One member, Sias Reyneke, died in a car accident like so many other Afrikaans artists, the other, Gert van Tonder, became the presenter for Wielie Walie. Anton Goosen started rocking my world but he shortly went off on a hippy route that this Afrikaans punk didn’t relate to.

The reason I’m in the Poolclub is because there’s a revolution going on in Afrikaans music. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. On Afrikaans radio they’re playing Carike Keuzenkamp but here there’s the smell of beer, cigarettes and anarchy. There are sideburns and safari suits, pseudo ethno bongos with African prints and grass bangles, rockers with boots all dressed in black. One morning the kitchen language of Afrikaans woke up and rediscovered itself amongst a bunch of trendies.

There is much discussion in the media and amongst Afrikaans music fans as to who wrote the first Afrikaans rock track. Some think it was Groep Twee, some credit Anton Goosen, but if you need to define a moment when Afrikaans music combined with rock became a movement rather than an individual, the birth of the Voelvry tour at the Poolclub, has to be recognised as a starting point.

The new movement of Afrikaans rock started on the cabaret stage – a place it would end up again for a lot of performers. Johannes Kerkorrel did the Black Sun in Berea, a major trendy hangout at that point to do subversive tunes that not only pissed on politics but religion too. He followed it up with Piekniek at Dingaan, at the fringe theatre at Grahamstown. Bernoldus Niemand was doing some stuff over there, Andre Letoit, at this stage mainly known as a writer is learning to play guitar to get his message across (by the way, an art he really never mastered). Afrikaans music up and until then, strictly controlled by the SABC, ATKV and FAK took a left turn by bus, driven by a non-government-approved driver.

Now remember that the government didn’t like dissent. People were dying in detention from “slipping on the soap while washing”. It was bad enough when the black ouks were dissenters, but now that had to cope with those in their own midst.

The troops were mobilised and the old boy network kicked into place. Most songs were banned from airplay by the SABC, at that stage the only broadcaster that played Afrikaans music. Venues were closed on them; security police were videotaping the concert audience – in part to identify political dissidents but also to intimidate. Television crews from Canada and England were rubbing shoulders with police cameramen to capture a low key uprising, even though they were doing it for different reasons.

The song that really got the movement going was a honky tonk, rock and roll ditty called Sit Dit Af. Even though the track Hillbrow from Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band’s debut album Eet Kreef would later turn up to be the real sleeper hit, Sit Dit Af was catchy, danceable and above all took the piss out of PW Botha – just not the kind of thing that you did at that stage of the game. And he even blasphemed on the record! This was the first generation that admitted that author Eugene Marais was a drug addict and that Paul Kruger wore an earring. The only cow these boere knew was the picture on the milk bottle…even dominees were denouncing them as satanistic blood drinkers.

From this anarchy emerged three names: Kerkorrel, Bernoldus Niemand, an English guy from the East Rand and the author Andre Letoit, who quickly reinvented himself as Koos Kombuis.

The impact of Voelvry was immeasurable in today’s terms. A natural youth revolution that started on the streets and because of media bans confined to word of mouth for it’s growth, it changed the music industry and threatened the status quo when it just wasn’t done – especially in Afrikaans.

Socially the music reconnected people with their own roots. It was more than just music; it was a societal change that reflected the time.

It was Afrikaners’ version of punk rock.

But it’s important to also recognise other bands of the time. Even though Voelvry is always portrayed as the definitive of what happened in Afrikaans rock at that time, it’s easy to forget influential groups like Koos and Joos Tonteldoos.


Koos featured amongst other two famous Afrikaans actors, Marcel van Heerden and Gys de Villiers. The group was considered to be too out there for inclusion in the mainstream representation of what was Voelvry and therefore confined to a cassette only release that was sold in a brown paper bag. Lead vocalist Marcel van Heerden would recite reasons given by the police for the death of detainees, from Christopher van Wyk’s In Detention “he slipped on a bar of soap, he fell from the ninth floor”, to the ominous background of percussion and lamenting bass lines. Voelvry was about the pop revolution, but even they had fringes. Joos Tonteldoos, fronted by Paul Riekert, was way too hard, even though in today’s terms they would most probably get airplay on regional stations. Their hard driving rock and studenty lyrics were widely frowned upon by the very intellectual stalwarts of the New Movement. While mainstream Afrikaans music of the time took the highway, the rock scene panga’ed it’s way through the forest.

Voelvry disbanded amongst the clashing of egos, fights amongst friends and accusations of people hogging the limelight – all the usual stuff that Afrikaners have been fighting about for 150 years or so. What started out as politics soon became cash though with people like Mynie Grove, long a mainstay of the Carike Keuzenkamp variety, now decked out in black brought out a “rock” album – or at least her version of what rock should be. Kerkorrel did Bloudruk – his biggest selling album ever, Koos Kombuis did Niemandsland and it all culminated in a rock festival called Houtstok.

Houtstok represented the highlight of the new movement combined with the commercial exploitation. The SABC covered some of it, TV talent competition winner Phillip Moolman was introduced and stacks of people smoked dope, drank beer, lit fires and celebrated the new. An alternative Afrikaans movement had been born, sucked in by the capitalists and it would be the beginning of something new.

The subversion of the original ideas had started way before that. But there were also other forces at play. In 1992 the influential Afrikaans weekly, Vrye Weekblad, wrote an article of how the cultural organisations in cahoots with the SABC were making sure that this kind of music was not finding it’s way to the broader mainstream audience. All of a sudden the new rock movement found itself in a terrible predicament. It was too rock for Afrikaans radio and too Afrikaans for rock radio. This music, even though it had more in common with international trends than Afrikaans ones were never playlisted on 5FM (or Radio 5 as it was known then).

But at the same time the country was starting to go through major political changes. Old school media people had to show that they were down with the new dispensation Kerkorrel was lucky enough to be the chosen one. His album Bloudruk was featured in every conceivable way on every channel and station to show how cool the Afrikaans media really was. This lead to a lot of criticism from Voelvry co-hoots and new musicians. He had sold out and it was time to look for the next new thing.

While Kombuis was quietly carving a name for himself amongst the intelligentsia and party animals (the tales about his jorling are legendary and mostly true), darker things were brewing. When Battery 9 unleashed themselves on an unsuspecting public on 1 April 1995, it was no April Fool’s Joke. They were hard, unrelenting, socially and politically hardcore and had more in common with Nine Inch Nails than anything in their mother tongue ever. Valiant Swart and Piet Botha were embracing the blues, Battery 9 was going industrial – and there was a path for both of them.

Both Valiant and Piet had been quietly doing their thing on the side gaining popularity amongst fans before they received recognition through the media. Piet had the curious tie of having had a National Party minister as a dad, a genetic make-up that included alcoholism, honesty and the ability to convince people of your point of view. Valiant was just an ouk from Stellenbosch in love with cheap wine, madjat (cheap marijuana) and the spirit of a journeyman. Valiant kissed a lot of frogs before he got to the prince. Both him and Piet earned their stripes the hard way – by being on the road and building up a fanbase from the street up before having any notable releases.

At this stage the spotlight moved to Stellenbosch. Driven by the Voelvry ex-pat Dagga-Dirk Uys, the Wingerdstok festivals and compilations started gaining a lot of attention by both media and fans. The festivals were inevitably on wine farms and served as a showcase for new bands. Some of them lasting only a few gigs but leaving behind at least one or two songs of note. Unfortunately Uys’s inability to run a business soon put an end to this movement. And even though to this day he has a finger in a lot of pies, he has never regained the influence of that time.

In the meantime Anton Goosen was busy reinventing himself and asserting himself as the guy who invented Afrikaans rock. Even though some preferred to disagree, he was making political satire with the “Kommisie van Ondersoek” and even dueting with Lucky Dube.

After the 1994 elections radio started with a slow and conscious effort to phase Afrikaans music out. The selling off of SABC radio stations meant that playlisting was now in the hands of people who had a bone to pick with their Afrikaans bosses from the old era. Started by Peter de Nobrega at Highveld, followed by East Coast and Algoa and brought the full circle by KFM, even though it was never admitted. The reason usually given? “It’s not suited to our format”. South Africa, the only country in the world where one of it’s own languages doesn’t get played on pop radio. The odd video was still played on television, the print media was supporting it, but when it came to the most essential tool of selling music, radio the door was closed.

This however did not deter the Boere. They know how to beat the odds and the rise of campus radio, especially Tuks FM in the later half of the Nineties started serving as a new outlet for ideas. Tuks FM was different from the rest of the campus stations. Driven by a real sense of commercialism, dedicated student DJs and people who really loved music, this station played a huge role in the resurrection of Afrikaans music on radio. Followed (not so closely) by Matie FM, the centres of Afrikaans rock became Pretoria and Stellenbosch. In Bloemfontein it was being kept alive by Die Mystic Boer – a club named after a Valiant Swart song.

Afrikaans rock became a cottage industry, sold at gigs and small independent record stores, ignored by the big corporations and kept alive by labour of love labels like Wildebeest.

This time it took a woman to kick new life in the business. When Karen Zoid’s Afrikaners Is Plesierig was first heard by the public it unleashed a new revolution. Part punk, part sex goddess and part rocker, the single blew new life into a sagging movement. Helped by the vision of Geraas, an SABC2 music programme that did not discriminate against any form of music (on an ideal programme you’d see Patricia Lewis, some unknown one hit wonder of the week and Paul Riekert) the new voice found a new media channel to stimulate it’s growth. The media started using terms like the “Zoid-generation” in the same way that the American media refers to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. In it’s wake followed Brixton Moord en Roof, Spinnekop, Akkedis, Trike and a host of other bands that will be remembered in history for one or two songs by a small cult audience. Even the magnificent Kobus hardly dented sales charts with their hit Sondagmiddag.

But perhaps all is not lost. Afrikaans punkers, Fokofpolisiekar became the first Afrikaans band to be played on 5FM – even though they are only called Polisiekar. But does one swallow make the summer? Kerkorrel and Bernoldus Niemand are dead, Piet and Kombuis cleaned up, Valiant became a heartthrob TV star, Zoid sold out to major sponsorship and somehow that path panga’ed open by the pioneers seems to start growing some grass again.

But now things have come full circle. You can sense Deon’s frustration in the last paragraph. What happened to the artists with the pangas? Do they still have an axe to grind, now that anybody can say anything in the new South Africa, or have they simply been subsumed by the capitalist machine?

And what happened to the cottage industry ethos, which kept Afrikaans music alive, even in the face of getting no radio play? “I think if you look at the prelude to the current success of Afrikaans music, if you went into the Platteland, I would go into these small towns, and there would be these posters up, of artists that I had never heard of, and these guys – or women – would sell their cds by performing live in these small towns and selling it at the gigs, and they would sell 20 or 30 000 units from the boot of their car, without any radio play … so what happened is the Afrikaans thing started small, usually an underground movement starts in the cesspit of the city, and then filters into the Platteland, but with the Afrikaans thing, it started in the Platteland, and then it filtered into the cities, and I can’t think of any other movement in music that has ever started that way around, especially without support on the radio …”

But he is certainly satisfied that subversive content is there: “Ja, of course, there is a cd out called Genoeg is genoeg, and basically what it is, its right-wing music, but its subversive, you can’t say for music to be subversive, it has to be liberal or humanist, it doesn’t have to be U2 … and if you listen to bands like Klopjag, or Abel Kraalsal, or Die Melktert Kommissie, you listen to Die Helde, these are all guys who are politically commenting on this country, be it pro or anti-government, so the subversiveness in Afrikaans music is very much there, on both sides of the political spectrum, which makes it very unique.”

On the other hand, Koos Kombuis’ latest album Bloedrivier is dismissed by Deon as an ‘embarrassment’: “I think that he obviously made his name complaining about one government, and now he feels that he should be complaining about another one – not that I am in any way protecting the current government, and I think that they need to sort their shit out – but the way that he is complaining, is pretty close to the ideas of a lot of right-wingers, and I think that he has become a middle-aged suburban house husband, who is feeling so threatened by all the changes around him, that he can’t actually absorb it and filter it and reflect it in the right way … I mean even the title, to call it Bloedrivier, its not cool …”

Koos frankly admits that he can’t keep up with what’s happening around him: “I’m too old to properly comprehend the lyrics of young bands. I have tried a few times, but the lingo escapes me. Take a band like Foto na Dans, for instance: the young people are crazy about them, and know all the words by heart, but to me they make no sense at all. I can’t even say with any certainty weather it is protest music or just gibberish. I think I have passed a certain age where, like the old folks who were ignorant of George Harrison when I was young, I have been left behind to some extent. It was bound to happen sooner or later… fuck, I’m 53. Or 54.”

He also is quite alright with remaining a protest artist, no matter which government is in power: “I made this CD because I was angry with the ANC. I waved my finger. I also got guys like The Gereformeerde Blues band to help me do it. That’s the only protest I understand, it’s what I do best, and if one looks at the sales figures, it proves that I wasn’t quite off the mark.”

But he emphatically denies that he is right-wing: “I knew right from the start the right wing would love this record, and all for the wrong reasons. So I did two things to prevent this from happening. I asked 24.com to help me make a pop video of the song Reconciliation Day, featuring a multicultural cast. This they did, and the video will be released on the Web and on MK89 shortly. Secondly, I deliberately picked a fight with Deon Opperman and Sean Else. It placed Bloedrivier in the market as a non-right wing CD. Thank God, the message got through: go browse any right-wing website, you will see how much they hate this album. I have no credibility there, they see me as someone who stole their ideas and their metaphors and mixed it up with a lot of swear-words. Perfect.”

I guess when one talks about “subversive” or “protest” music, a lot depends on what your definition of these terms are. For Deon, “anything that steps on the collective liddoring (corns) of the nation” is protest music. He tells me: “I did a radio program the other night on RSG, about cocaine, about all the cocaine references in current Afrikaans music, and we easily filled up an hour with cocaine references in Afrikaans music … now that to me is protest as well, because it is anti-establishment …”

When I object by saying that to me, cocaine is about the most establishment drug you can get, he responds “not when you are 18 years old”. True enough.

So, Afrikaans music ¬- in itself a tricky term, since, as Deon reminds me: “I have a problem with using this term ‘Afrikaans music’ as a generic form, because it is just the language that ties it together, nobody talks about Zulu music, they talk about mbqanga or mbube or maskandi, because those are different genres which use the same language, and the same with Afrikaans music, you have Death Metal to Country to Schlage and Hip-Hop and everything in between, and yet there is this generic term, you walk into Musica or Look and Listen and it goes ‘Afrikaans music’, and here you can find everything from Kallitz and Fokofpolisiekar to Bles Bridges …” – is still full of subversive content.

And its not just anger, although there is plenty of angry, nihilistic music out there for the angry youth, there is also intelligent comment: “now, more so than ever, Afrikaans music is reflecting the wide girth of Afrikanerdom, in all its different aspects: the angry people, the death metal people, the happy people, the people who want to escape, the people who don’t want to watch the news, its all there, the whole broad spectrum …

And it has matured, in the case of Karen Zoid: “… she started off angry, and then grew into a musician who actually has something to say about her current circumstances … she moved from this reportedly lesbian, reportedly drug-using angry woman, into a mother … and her music is reflecting that, and I think its important that musicians should reflect where they are at, because musicians are the creative leaders of any society, I think that music is the most subversive art form that any society can have, because you don’t have to go to a gallery to see it, you don’t have to go to a theatre, its around you the whole time, wherever you go there is music, its on television, its on the radio, its in the lifts man, its just everywhere, so if you really want to change a nation, or change a thinking pattern, the way to do it is through music …”

But the boom of Afrikaans culture is starting to level off: “… the market is huge, but I think it is going to level off, and I think it will soon reach a stage where the men will be separated from the boys, because we have been going through this boom period, and it has to level off, it has to, it can’t be sustained, and I think that is when it is going to get really interesting, because at the moment Afrikaans creative people aren’t challenged enough, because it actually comes pretty easy, getting a book deal or a record deal, putting your own music out and being able to make a living out of it, writing a play, because there are all these people who are just absorbing it, and I think its going to level out and that’s when the real creativity is going to come through, because then it will be quality, not quantity, and at the moment its quantity, rather than quality …”

Perhaps this is when “underground” artists will come into their own, and be recognized for their genius. “… I hate the word ‘underground’ … so Paul Riekert came up with this word, systroom, (side-stream) so you have the hoofstroom, the main river, and then you have the small river running next to it, and the stuff that OneF is doing, like Battery 9, Die Menere, Trike, Plank, Esme Ewekwaad, Buckfever Underground, they all fall very much into the systroom …”

History will let us know! Watch this space for more from Paul Riekert and Marcel van Heerden.

October 24, 2008

Bones, Sharks and Bullshit

Filed under: south african cinema — ABRAXAS @ 6:44 pm

Thu, 23 Oct 2008

Local cinema goers are eagerly awaiting the imminent release of Mr Bones 2: Back From The Past, the sequel to South Africa’s highest grossing film ever, Mr Bones. The monumentally popular Leon Schuster reprises his role as Mr Bones, a white sangoma, who in this latest film, displays a love of rugby.

To this end, Mr Bones will attend the Currie Cup Final between the Sharks and the Blue Bulls at ABSA Stadium on 25 October. In fact, some scenes from the film were shot at this Stadium and feature Springbok and World Cup flyhalf Butch James in a guest appearance.

Speaking from his home in Kavukiland, Mr Bones said, “I am so looking forward to the match. It’s going to be very, very exciting! The Bulls, they must be very careful because they are playing at the seaside where the Sharks live. The Sharks are very strong when they are near the sea and my bones, they tell me that the Sharks will gobble up the Bulls.”

Mr Bones has a strong Durban connection, having shot Mr Bones 2: Back From The Past in the city. Among the locations used in the film are Prince Edward Street, Blue Lagoon, The Pearls of Umhlanga, La Mercy Beach, Verulam and Dakota Informal Settlement in Isipingo Beach.

Mr Bones 2: Back From The Past will be released nationwide on 27 November by Videovision Entertainment through United International Pictures. The film stars Leeanda Reddy, Tongayi Chirisa and Kaseran Pillay. It is edited by Johan Lategan and director of photography is Chris Schutte with music by Didi Kriel. The film is executive produced by Sudhir Pragjee and Sanjeev Singh with the screenplay by Leon Schuster and Gray Hofmeyr, produced by Anant Singh and Helena Spring and directed by Gray Hofmeyr.

October 23, 2008

Black Sun of Renewal.

Filed under: chimurenga library,literature — ABRAXAS @ 5:52 pm

The magazine Souffles made an important contribution to modern Moroccan culture in the1960s.


Souffles was a literary and cultural quarterly review published in Rabat, Morocco. Its first issue was published in February 1966, the last in December 1971. In all, there were twenty-two issues. The cover, designed by the painter Mohamed Melehi, was austere yet elegant: under a geometric square glowed a round circle, a black sun. The composition remained unchanged for the first fourteen issues. Only the cover and the circle’s color changed. On the back, “Souffles” was written in Arabic, Anfâs (“breezes,” “breath”). Up to the double issue 10–11, the magazine was only in French; it then became bilingual (French and Arabic). After the fifteenth issue, the layout, cover, and size changed. Those who have written on the history of Souffles divide it into two periods: during the first period from 1966 to 1969, its collaborators were poets, writers, artists, and intellectuals passionately working for a new Moroccan, and Maghrebi, culture. The second period, from 1969 to 1971–721 was marked by a radical ideological Marxist-Leninist turn. “Literature was no longer sufficient,” declared Abdellatif Laâbi, the founder and editor of Souffles. The literary section became less relevant than the political section, dedicated to Third World struggles for independence from colonial imperialism and to national politics. Because of its new approach, Souffles was banned in 1972 and Laâbi arrested for his political opinions. While in prison he was awarded several international poetry prizes. After a long solidarity campaign, he regained his freedom in 1980.

Toni Maraini


Historical Background

When Morocco gained independence in 1956, much needed to be done to free its culture from the burden of colonial (French and Spanish) ideology. Colonialism had imposed a patronizing, Eurocentric culture and controlled every aspect of life, outlawing political parties, associations, gatherings, and group activities. Moroccan authors and media were often censored, and even the use of Arabic language was carefully monitored. The colonial protectorate had industrialized and modernized the country mainly to control and exploit people, land, and resources for its own profit. Although fascinated by their “exotic” aspects, it had ignored the universal values of the local culture, its historical heritage, its dignity of identity. By curbing freedom of expression, it had inhibited the development of a national modernist avant-garde. Moroccan culture was mainly regarded as picturesque. Modern thought and intellectual life were not supposed to suit the Moroccans and were considered a dangerous challenge to colonialism itself. But Morocco and the Maghreb had a very rich history as well as a wealth of artistic, poetic, and intellectual traditions, and modernist ideas had spread in many circles and domains even before the arrival of the colons. The echoes of the Near East’s Nahda (renewal) had stirred the Maghreb since the beginning of the twentieth century. Although much of the intellectual elite’s energies had been absorbed by the struggle for freedom and although people’s desire for progress and development had been curbed by discriminatory policies, modernist movements were on the make. In spite of censorship and control, urban elites had their intellectuals, writers, reviews, and publications2. Some authors, like Ahmed Sefrioui, Driss Chraïbi, and the philosopher Mohamed Aziz Lahbabi, had published in French.


Yet, after independence, a petty provincial and Eurocentric culture was still dominating the scene. The salons organized for Western artists admitted only Moroccan “naive” painters as a touch of “indigenous color.” Local European poets used to gather in clubs littéraires around the foreign cultural missions “where they wrote verses on the ambassadors’ gardens.”3 They ignored the best of Western production and the daring experiments of modernity, as well as the high tradition of classical Arabic poetry, not to mention Afro-Berber and popular arts and literature. They were not interested in the productions of a Moroccan cultural avant-garde. It is important to keep all this in mind, as the Western world has not always acknowledged what colonialism really was. It might be interesting, for that matter, to read the courageous writings of the Moroccan historian Germain Ayache,4 who in the 1950s denounced the abuses of colonialism, the distress and misery of the Moroccan population, and the control over its cultural roots. To understand the impact of Souffles, one has to go back to a situation still shaped by the dramatic consequences of all this. On the other hand, after half a century of colonial propaganda and isolation, the Moroccan bourgeoisie had either lost touch with its roots or found refuge in a nostalgic, if not dogmatic, vision of the past. A modernist national culture had yet to be loudly proclaimed, its theoretical basis openly debated, its creative and visionary nature concretely expressed in terms that would correspond to the new realities of an independent Morocco.


Owing to a remarkable set of circumstances, this became possible around 1964, when, in Casablanca and in Rabat, two small groups of young artists and poets joined forces to launch a movement that impulsed profound changes and is today considered the milestone of a new era. Formulating their ideas clearly, they produced vibrant, original works of art and literature and, most important, started organizing their own independent events. The same year, 1964, intellectuals had founded, in Arabic, the important independent magazine Aqlâm, yet its contribution was mainly philosophical and theoretical rather then poetical and avant-garde. Up to then, culture had either been in the hands of foreign missions or of the state bureaucracy and conservative elites. With the exception of the writer Driss Chraïbi, the older intellectuals looked at the new groups with uneasy surprise or disdain. A handful of creative young people with daring ideas suddenly broke into the scene and galvanized the attention of the public. The so-called Casablanca Group of artists (Mohamed Melehi, Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Chebaa) engaged in innovative activities and works (paintings, exhibitions, manifestos, debates, publications).5 At the same time, in 1964 two young talented poets, Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine and Mostafa Nissaboury, published the manifesto “Poésie Toute” and the review Eaux Vives (only two issues) in Casablanca. “For Khaïr-Eddine, breaking with the existent literatures, both in French and in Arabic, was the main historical duty of the new generation.”6 When they met another young poet, Abdellatif Laâbi, the birth of Souffles was already almost a foregone conclusion. And when the Casablanca Group joined them, the movement came into being. They shared goals, hopes, and visions. They considered themselves a generation committed to building a free, just, inventive national culture. They were truly avant-garde. “We work with all our awareness for a future world [...] and this review intends to be a tool for the new literary and poetic generation,” declared Laâbi in the first issue of Souffles.


In order to answer the question, “Who are we after the impact of colonialism?” they had to look back at the roots that had been most depreciated both by colonialism and by the national bourgeoisie, that is, oral traditions, Afro-Berber and popular Arabic poetry, arts, and culture. The first to focus on this heritage in Morocco were the abstract artists of the Casablanca Group, who claimed that popular traditional arts were modern ante litteram in spirit and aesthetics. Colonial ethnography had considered them minor arts, but for the Casablanca Group, as for Paul Klee and Walter Gropius, a rural carpet was a painting, and the artisan an artist. The poets of Souffles could not but agree. In the meantime they were all determined to fully participate in the twentieth century, experimenting with new languages and ideas and sharing universal values with all the poets and artists of the world. When they stood up and said “Enough!” to provincial salons and clubs littéraires, they expressed deep expectations of change. Their artistic and poetical revolt spread like a hot wind in summer. Those artists and intellectuals who had up to then worked in solitude were encouraged to join. Thus, when, in 1966, Abdellatif Laâbi concretely started the project of Souffles in Rabat, he could count on the support of some talented and committed poets, painters, and intellectuals. The project was heralded and carried on by means of fervid and visionary discussions in cafés and studios. The Casablanca Group designed the cover and illustrations. Getting on one of the old buses that once crossed the country, the painter Melehi took the magazine to Tangier, where it was printed at a lower price than in Rabat. Such was the birth of Souffles.


The role of Souffles and the impact of its literary, artistic, and cultural production were of the greatest importance. Souffles figures in the annals of Maghrebi modern history as a bold, innovative experience. Besides Eaux Vives, it was the first independent literary magazine in French. Since its inception, it attracted some of the best young poets, artists, and intellectuals, whose support and contributions significantly shaped modern Moroccan and Maghrebi culture. It was not only a literary magazine; it also published notes and comments on the sociocultural situation, cinema, theater, and art, as well as critical texts, manifestos, and historical essays. By demasking neocolonial ideology, it stirred up the stagnant literary and intellectual situation in the country. Some of its comments and notes were audacious, clear-sighted pamphlets on highly urgent matters. For a magazine that had started with a slim publication of thirty-six pages, it was a remarkable achievement to become the cultural reference for a whole generation.


The first issue was thin, but it responded “to an imperative demand” (Laâbi). Soon it reached 100 pages. Khaïr-Eddine had by then migrated to France and his name does not figure in the comité d’action, but his presence was assured by his poems. Haunted and solitary, Khaïr-Eddine (whose mother tongue was Berber) had fueled new Moroccan poetry (and literature) with the concepts of the “linguistic guerrillas”7. To finish with the garden verses and the classical elegies, someone had to dare to break the rules of literary French. He did so and opened the way to language experimentation. Widely debated by Maghrebi writers in French, through Souffles the topic reached the young generation of Moroccan writers both in French and in Arabic. At the core of the debate was the question, in which language would the new independent Moroccan writers write?8 The answer given by Laâbi in the first issue of Souffles is still valuable today: “The language of a poet,” he wrote, “is above all [his own language,] the one that he creates.” By encouraging translations and collaborations, Souffles had the great merit not to divide literary production into Francophone and Arabophone, as creation and culture in both languages were considered (and are) a complementary historical reality rooted in a common ground.


Souffles would not have come into existence without Laâbi’s steadfast work. His poetical gift and passion were matched by his rigorous intellect. He was aware of his mission. Souffles opened with a severe “j’accuse. . .” regarding the cultural situation in Morocco and focused on the question of national identity and culture, but did not forget to write that “Our writer friends, Maghrebi, Africans, Europeans, and of other nationalities are fraternally invited to participate in our modest enterprise.” He was farsighted. And he soon received letters from Europe and the Maghreb. The Tunisian writer Albert Memmi wrote “I was waiting for this publication, I was hoping it would exist”; Driss Chraïbi affirmed “your magazine is fantastic!”; and the Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri welcomed the “young” review. Such encouragement from three great writers of the older generation was important. As the mouthpiece of a new generation, the review took a stand in the defense of those Maghrebi writers—like Chraïbi or Kateb Yacine (Algeria)—whose work had expressed the revolt against both local feudalism and foreign occupation. What the authors who were published by Souffles meant to young readers was of great importance. Paralyzed by the language problem (literary French? classical Arabic? Berber oral tradition?), they had long repressed their anguishes, rages, emotions, and hopes. Now each of them could create their language, use vernacular terms, experiment, “scream.” Nissaboury has called it “poésie chacaliste”: the screaming of the jackal. Soon, however, la poésie chacaliste would be a juvenile joke and each poet—Laâbi was the first—would reach poetical maturity.
In the third issue we find mention of a comité d’action. It included Ahmed Bouanani, Souffles-cover,no.6,Rabat1967Nissaboury, Abdallah Stouky, the Algerian poet Malek Alloula and the French poets Bernard Jakobiak and André Laude. Bouanani, a fine intellectual and a wonderful storyteller, was the author of beautiful poems later collected in the anthology Les Persiennes. His articles on popular poetry were remarkable at a time when that subject had been studied only by ethnologists. The names in the committee were to change somewhat over the years. One of the first to give support to Laâbi, Nissaboury, the amazing author of the book La mille et deuxième nuit, remained a member until 1969. So did the painters of the Casablanca Group. In the course of time, among the various collaborators we find distinguished authors like Mostafa Lacheraf (Algeria); Azeddine Madani and Mohamed Aziza (Tunisia); Abdallah Laroui and Abdelkhébir Khatibi (Morocco). Except for a long poem by Etel Adnan (Lebanon) and few other critical contributions (by Jeanne-Paule Fabre and myself), women were barely present in Souffles. However, when women poets and writers came on the scene with their own books, magazines, and actions, they looked back at Souffles as an experience that had prepared the ground for new ideas.
Every issue of Souffles opened with a note by Laâbi. The “urgent matters” were innumerable. Significantly, religion was not an issue: fundamentalism had not yet troubled the old and wise Maghrebi Islam, which was open to changes and secularity. In 1967, besides poetry readings, Laâbi and his poet friends, with the support of Melehi, created the Collection Atlantes, which published booklets by Jakobiak, Laâbi, Nissaboury, Alloula, and Laâbi’s book L’oeil et la nuit. In 1968 Souffles participated in the birth of the national cultural association ARC (Action et Recherche Culturelle), created—as Laâbi wrote—by “some artists, university researchers, scientific and technical professionals, students. . . .” It was an important and ambitious project that also involved political parties.


Souffles took part with enthusiasm in the first cultural activities that were boldly extended to the rest of the Maghreb. The collaboration of Abraham Serfaty, a notable Moroccan intellectual, became more relevant than the one with Tahar Ben Jelloun. Convicted with Laâbi in 1972 and later imprisoned, Serfaty was set free in 1991. After the fifteenth issue, dedicated to Palestine (“Pour la Révolution Palestinienne”), Souffles changed its layout, cover, and format. Laâbi’s review had become “the organ of the revolutionary Moroccan movement” (Gontard). This was a radical change. A decision, recalls Jakobiak, of “idealistic generosity,” “one that pushes you [however] to all kinds of ruptures and divides the world into two halves: the good and the bad. [. . .] Once the euphoria faded there were those who converted to dialectic materialism and those who did not.” Painters and poets of the first period of Souffles did not follow the new course (or were not accepted in the new comité d’action). In a climate of painful debates, the creative group split from the political group. It was the normal outcome for a cultural movement. The same had happened to other groups in the history of modern avant-gardism. Those who believe in free independent creation resist the diktat and jargon of political parties. On the other hand, ideology needs intellectuals and poets to renew its views on the world. Souffles had generously offered its contribution. It then issued consistent documents on the main revolutionary struggles of the time (Angola, South Africa, Mozambique, etc.) as well as on the political situation in Morocco. In a troubled time of “betrayed independence” (Laâbi) Souffles’ new course was important for the nation’s political awareness. Yet when art and poetry had spoken aloud, they had also set in motion a change that was revolutionary and good for the nation’s awareness. If the Souffles of the first period Souffles-coverfirstedition,Rabat,1/1966graphicsbyM.Melehiand its collaboration with the Casablanca Group had never been, Morocco and the Maghreb would have felt its absence. That is why, when the younger Moroccan generation writes today about Souffles, it looks back with admiration at its artists and poets, who had the courage to create and invent, as well as at its intellectuals, who had the courage to defy injustice.9

Toni Maraini, poet, writer, art critic, and a specialist on Maghrebi art and culture, is founding member of Souffles. She now lives in Rome.


Marc Gontard, “La Littérature marocaine de langue française,” and Bernard Jakobiak, “Souffles de 1966 à 1969,” in Europe (June–July 1979), p. 107f. and pp. 117–23.


Abderrahmane Tenkoul, “Les Revues Culturelles,” in Regards sur la Culture Marocaine, no. 1 (1988), pp. 8–13.


Gontard, “La Littérature,” p. 107.


Germain Ayache, Les écrits d’avant l’Indépendance (Casablanca, 1990).


I was myself a member of this group, and have been writing about their experiences since 1964; see, for example: Toni Maraini, Écrits sur l’Art, 1964–1989 (Rabat, 1990).


Lahsen Mouzouni, Le Roman marocain de langue française, (Paris, 1987), p. 71.


The term guerilla linguistique was introduced by Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine in his autobiographical novel Moi l’Aigre (1970).


After gaining independence from French colonialism Arabic was declared the official language in 1956.


“Revue : Souffles Coupés” [editorial note], in Tel Quel (Casablanca), no. 148 (2004), p. 23.

this article first appeared in documenta magazines online journal

Writing from the belly of the beast: African writers of the Diaspora in Italy

Filed under: literature,raphael d'Abdon — ABRAXAS @ 5:27 pm

The “Domiziana” is a no-man’s land between Naples and the Garigliano that does not appear on tourist brochures: a 29-Km-long waterfront split in two by the Volturno river, whose desolate landscape is shaped by a conglomerate of concrete buildings, little villas and corrugated iron shacks erected clandestinely by local mafia chiefs, surrounded by illegal dumps and polluted sea. This post-modern urban nightmare is the undisputed kingdom (as Roberto Saviano has masterfully described in his book Gomorrah) of the family of Camorra boss Francesco “Sandokan” Schiavone: a diversified criminal empire built, amongst other, over the lives of the “wretched of the earth” who migrate in this uncelebrated area of glittering Europe to be enslaved in the multi-billion business of the tomato industry (aka “the red gold”). Most of these slaves employed in the seasonal (July-August) tomato industry are undocumented immigrants coming from Africa.


It was in the dantesque inferno of Domiziana, in the so called “Ghetto of Villa Literno” that, on 25 August 1989, Jerry Essan Masslo, a South African asylum seeker who had arrived in Italy to find refuge form apartheid, found death by the hands of a local gang of tsostis who murdered him after robbing the shack where he was living with some fellow migrant workers. This shocking execution raised a wave of popular indignation throughout the country, and the following month the biggest antiracist march against racism ever made in Italy took place in Rome, in the name of Jerry Masslo. This event marked a watershed in the history of immigration in Italy, a history marked, indeed, by ruthless exploitation, xenophobia and violence.

In an essay titled Science, Liberty and Peace Aldous Huxley far-sightedly wrote: “The collective mentality of nations – the mentality which reasonable adults have to adopt, when making important decisions in the field of international politics is that of a delinquent boy of fourteen, at once cunning and childish, malevolent and silly, maniacally egotistical, touchy and acquisitive, and at the same time ludicrously boastful and vain”. Much water has flown under the bridges since Jerry Masslo’s assassination in 1989, but the attitude of Italian politicians and institutions towards a pivotal political and social issue like immigration has remained very much similar to that of Huxley’s political leaders and Jerry Masslo’s killers: one of “delinquent boy-gangsters”. In fact, in Italy as well as in all other countries of the EU, the immigrant keeps being conceived as a “take-away” object, a sub-human form of life to be used when the markets needs extemporary cheap manpower and dumped when industrial production decreases (a sort of guinea-pig for experimental practices of “social toyotism”…). The case of undocumented immigrants sums up well the European leaders’ approach to immigration issues. The individuals who migrate in Europe equipped with great expectations – but no papers, are in fact systematically imprisoned in so-called “Detention Camps for Immigrants” (DCI), the European Union’s home-grown Guantanamo camps which dot the map of the continent (to see shocking map check Migreurop: http//:pajol.eu.org; www.fortresseurope.org). These ethnic prisons are nothing but “social dumps” where detainees regularly undergo torture, harassment, humiliation and, sometimes, death. The sub-terrestrial world on the shadow of the DCI is the quintessential symbol of the so-called “Fortress Europe”. Far from being a romantic epitome of human and civil rights, the EU is rather a rational political system which enforces racism and segregation: a system that French sociologist Etienne Balibar defines as “European apartheid”.

Notwithstanding the bleak scenario depicted above, the history of immigration in Italy is also one of inspiring experiences of self-organization, self-affirmation and resistance. The most adamant example of such innate capacity of migrants to constantly renew their strategies of physical and cultural survival is given by the migrant writers.

In the last 30 years Italian “indigenous” literature and culture have suffered a progressive – and ongoing – decline in terms of originality, inventiveness and creativity. Beached in the sinking sands of post-modernism, intimism and self-reliance, Italian literature has stopped producing serious civil writers (the above-mentioned Saviano represents a pleasant exception, though). An apparently unstoppable tidal wave of decadence which started being put under scrutiny in the 80s, with the arrival of the first immigrants who, coming from every corner of the planet, started writing, in Italian, about their “brave new world”. Since then, the number of migrant writers has constantly increased, and so has the quality of their artistic works. In other words, the advent of these “outsiders” in the Italian cultural scenario has been, so far, one of the main factors of positive, transformative renovation within today’s Italian culturally polycentric society. Within the pluriversal category of the “migrant writers”, Africans are certainly frontrunners of this cultural (r)evolution. The list of African migrant writers is a long one but most importantly, as hinted before, a constantly growing one. Amongst them, a few names of accomplished authors are worthy to be mentioned since, for different reason, they have been able to attain a prominent position within contemporary Italian literature.


The first of this kind is certainly Algerian Amara Lakhous, the first “non-Italian” winner of prestigious national literary prizes “Ennio Flaiano” (2006) and “Leonardo Sciascia” (2006) with the novel Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio [Clash of Civilization for an elevator in Vittorio Square]. Lakhous’s masterpiece, definitely on of the best novels of Italian post-war literature, has sold 25.000 copies so far and has been printed 8 times. In addition, it will be soon translated into English in by New York-based Europa Editions, and a film based on it will be produced starting form next June.


Alongside with Lakhous, Somali Garane Garane deserves a special place in the history of Italian migrant literature since, as Prof. Armando Gnisci states, his Il latte è buono [The milk is good] (2005), is the “first Italian post-colonial novel, i.e. a novel written in Italian by a son of the soil of an ex-Italian colony”.


Third name on the list is Togo-born Kossi Amékowoyoa Komla-Ebri. Author of short stories, novels and essays, member of the board of El-Ghibli (one of the most important national journals on migrant literature. www.elghibli.org) and panellist in several national and international conferences and festivals (he was one of the guests at the “Time of the writer” festival in Durban in 2005), Komla-Ebri has established himself as one of the most popular and original migrant writers of Italy. Apart form the artistic value of his stories, Komla Ebri’s case is particularly relevant for his commercial success. His most notorious works Imbarazzismi. Quotidiani imbarazzi in bianco e nero [Embar-racism. Daily embarrassing in black and white], and Neyla (the latter translated into English and published by Farleigh Dickinson University Press) have sold an amazing 65.000 and 40.000 copies each, even if they are published and distributed by small publishing house Dell’Arco, whose books are sold exclusively on street corners by young African vendors.


Psychiatrist, poet, actor and sublime performer Eritrean Hamid Barole Abdou is an eclectic artist, whose literary and social activity is “inspired by the spirit of Frantz Fanon”. He is the winner of two important prizes: the “Satyagraha” prize, which he won with his collection of poetry Akhria. Io sradicato poeta per fame [Akhria. I, poet uprooted by hunger], and the “Multiethnicity and Interculture” prize, sponsored by the City of Rome, Caritas and the International Organization on Migrations granted for his fully bilingual (Italian-English) book of poetry and short stories Seppellite la mia pelle in Africa – Bury my skin in Africa. The important aspect of this book is that it lacks the parochial dimension which sometimes characterizes the works of its canon, since it has been published to be fruited not only in the local market, but also in the Anglophone one. Moreover, this collection is the result of the collective work of Barole and the “Traduttori e traduttrici per la pace” [Translators for peace], and the money resulting from the sales has served to finance a project for the children living on refugees camps of Sudan.


Together with Barole and other fellow African writers like Moroccan Mohammed Lamsuni, Berber storyteller Karim Metref is another writer for whom civil commitment stands at the core of any artistic activity. Film maker, pedagogue and activist in the field of intercultural education Metref is the winner of the 2006 prize for migrant writers “Lo Sguardo dell’Altro” [The Other’s Stare] (short stories section), and a perfect incarnation of Gramsci’s ideal of “organic intellectual”. For Metref in fact field research and direct involvement with the community must go hand-in-hand with both fictional and non-fictional writing. This is why alongside with his brilliant literary publications Baghdad e la sua gente [Baghdad and its people] (2005), Caravan to Baghdad (2007), Tagliato per l’esilio [Cut for the exile] (2008) Metref has produced powerful documentaries such as Il Ritorno Degli Aarch – I villaggi della Cabila scuotono l’Algeria [The return of the Aarch – the villages of Cabilia shake Algeria] (http://www.carta.org/rivista/video/index.htm#Aarch) and …E Il Tigri Placido Scorre… Istantanee dalla Baghdad occupata […and the Tigris flows tranquil… Pictures from occupied Baghdad] (www.tdhitaly.org).


Last (but not least) in this necessarily limited list of migrant writers is Ethiopian-Italian Gabriella Ghermandi. Born in Addis Ababa, she moved to Italy aged 14 to live in Bologna, the northern city where her father comes from. Winner in 1999 of the “Eks&Tra” prize for migrant writers, Ghermandi’s works have has published extensively in many anthologies, collections and journals. Her biographical journey is very significant since it represents a back-to-the-roots experience. A master on the art of metaphorical speech typical of the Ethiopian tradition, Ghermandi is one of the best spoken word artists of Italy. Her novel Regina di fiori e di perle [Queen of flowers and pearls] is the winner of 2007 “Popoli in Cammino” [People on the move] prize: an enchanting story set in Ethiopia in the times of Italian colonization. In a country where the debate on colonialism is virtually absent, Ghermandi’s book certainly shines out as one of the most important works in the history of modern Italian literature. In fact, even if very few historians (like Angelo Del Boca) have shown how Italian colonialism was as much ferocious and barbaric as other colonialisms (sometimes even more barbaric: let’s just remember, for instance, that Mussolini’s was the first army to use illegal chemical weapons against civilians – the infamous hyprite – long before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings), all politicians, both the conservatives of the right and the “reformists” of the “left”, remain on denialist positions. They simply avoid to discuss the topic, which remains covered by a veil of silence. And literature makes no exception, for writers have paid no attention to this shameful page of Italian history. In fact, before the publication of Ghermandi’s novel, the only remarkable book on the colonial experience written by an Italian was Ennio Flaiano’s Tempo di uccidere [Time to kill], published in 1947.


And what about the migrant writers from Mzansi? So far, apart from Italian-South African Valentina Acava Mmaka’s remarkable novel Cercando Lindiwe [Seeking Lindiwe], no noteworthy text has been published by South Africans. Nonetheless, a few of them have started coming out of the closet: Durban-born writer (and tenor) Masa Mbatha-Opasha is the winner of a minor local prize in Rome and Sowetan sis Lerato Phiri had one of her poems included in the introduction of I nostri semi – Peo tsa rona, an anthology of spoken word artists translated into Italian, published by Mangrovie.

It is said: “cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”. The seeds of African word have been planted in the soil of Italian cultural desert, and they have started blossoming. Despite the provincial attitude of the political class and the media, which keep denying it, the creolization of Italian (and European) literature, culture and society is a historical process that can not be hushed up or stopped. Not today, not tomorrow. For now we, the readers, are enjoying the sweet taste of African migrant writers’ words. Words that are paving the path for a called-for Africanization of self-centred, decadent Europe.

Copyleft: this work of art is free, you can redistribute it and/or modify it according to terms of the Free Art license. You will find a specimen of this license on the site Copyleft Attitude http://artlibre.org as well as on other sites.

raphael d’abdon
Tembisa, March 2008

October 21, 2008


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 6:42 pm

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015

The next time he walked down Hout Street he stopped on the pavement opposite City Guns, hesitated, and then crossed over. He had a strong aversion to firearms, deeming them abhorrent on three counts. Force, or the threat of force, as a means of settling a dispute seemed to him to be a very unintelligent option. The non-violent possibilities were numerous and he believed strongly in his own ability to extricate himself from confrontation and conflict by employing such methods as argument, persuasion, flattery, reassurance, deception, deceit, pleading, weeping, promises, distraction, diversion and sleight of hand. Secondly, the mere sight of a gun made him feel faintly queasy. This was on account of his own personal involuntary response to the visual stimulus. Into his mind there instantly leapt a scene of horrible carnage: bullets ripping into flesh, blood spurting, bones being irreparably smashed, spinal cords snapping, arteries and nerves being severed. The fact that a gun was loaded meant that it was waiting to go off at any fraction of an instant. It had to go off, like a time bomb, and he braced himself for the imminent explosion. Finally, he associated a certain type of person with the bearing of firearms, and it was a person not to his liking at all. It was clear that some men derived a Freudian pleasure from carrying a gun – it made them aggressive and obnoxiously proud of their masculinity. They tended to scowl and swear more than was their usual habit, and to swagger and be argumentative. They became boorishly boastful and spoke coarsely of women, subconsciously certain in the delusion that the carrying of a pistol was accompanied by miraculous generation of erectile tissue. These were the selfsame poseurs whose virility was charged up when they slid behind the wheels of their souped-up Ford Cortinas.

Henry didn’t like them. He didn’t like anything to do with firearms but nevertheless he crossed the street to look in the window, fully intending to enter the shop and experience the dubious pleasure of being sold a gun.

The door was solid and massive and the colour of Pears Soap. The window displays which flanked it were curiously innocuous and, as it turned out, deceptive. The window to the left was devoted largely to an array of knives. There were Swiss Army combinations consisting of a whole toolbox of miniature equipment: scissors, file, can opener, corkscrew, bottle opener, awl, tweezers, saw, pliers, magnifying glass, tooth pick, screw driver – almost entirely useless for practical purposes. Then there were the spring-loaded clasp knives arranged like the spokes of a wheel – these were ideal for cutting bite-sized lengths of biltong or for stabbing rival gangsters. Behind the knives in one corner stood a family of stainless steel vacuum flasks, made in the USA and very expensive. In the other corner were two Coleman cooler boxes arranged one on top of the other. The right hand window was given over to a scene from the bush, with grass and twigs on the floor and a black pot astride the coals of a campfire. On the seat of a canvas folding-chair was a felt bush hat complete with leopard-skin headband. Casually leaning against the chair was a .303 hunting rifle. In the background he saw a weathered tree trunk upon which hung a pair of handcuffs and a four-foot sjambok of genuine hippo hide. The sporting life was sketched with skilful economy and the window dresser’s dark message was not lost on Henry once he spotted the accoutrements on the periphery – strict discipline was an essential ingredient for a successful safari.

In the Metropole Bar on the corner of Long Street he drank two beers to prepare himself for the little adventure that awaited him. He had no intention of becoming a gun owner but he was more than moderately curious about the process surrounding the legal acquisition of a firearm. What he was about to do was deceitful and a premeditated waste of salesmen’s time. He justified his intentions by reminding himself that to deal in arms was an indisputably immoral occupation and that the major religions of the world roundly condemned trafficking in commodities that lead so inevitably to an increase in human misery. So what if it wasted their time? He would be delaying, if not preventing them, from making a genuine sale. He would go in there and act his part and learn something more about the peculiar behaviour of human beings. He drained his glass and sallied forth full of Thespian resolve.

When he pushed open the door a klaxon bellowed twice with the same hoarse urgency of a bullock undergoing castration. Nervously he stepped inside and became aware of several pairs of eyes regarding him with intent suspicion.

“How can I help you?”

Henry jumped. The voice came from directly behind him. The man had been standing on a narrow footplate attached to the back of the door. His jeans were tucked into jackboots and his white lounge shirt was open at the neck. The cuffs of the shirt were rolled twice and flapped midway between wrist and elbow. The potbelly on an otherwise scrawny frame added to the seediness of his appearance and Henry was reminded of the alcoholic barman at the Fireman’s Arms. They could be brothers. From the shoulder holster he was wearing there protruded a Colt Government Model pistol.

“I – I’m thinking of buying a gun.”

“For? What purpose? We have hundreds of firearms here.”

And it was true. He hadn’t entered a shop – this was a veritable arsenal. Thousands of guns. Before him and to his left two long counters formed an L. To the right a flight of steps descended into the basement. Behind each counter stood two men, and all four of them were conspicuously armed and staring at Henry, who was the sole customer at that moment.

“This counter is for sporting guns and assault rifles, and this one is for hand guns.”

The older of the men at the sporting counter beckoned and Henry advanced obediently. He looked into China blue eyes set close in a meaty red face and he felt at once that this big-bellied hulk had to be an ex-cop. China Blue? No, these eyes were Delft Blue. They glinted with the coldness of sanitaryware and Henry was in no doubt that the blueness of these eyes must have had an emulsifying effect on the contents of many a large colon.

“Alright Meneer. I can see you think you don’t know what you want but actually you do know what you want, if you see what I mean. Don’t worry about any crap from that ou over there about ‘what purpose?’ Every man come in here for the same purpose – hy soek ‘n wapen. And what you wants a wapen for? I tell you straight: security. A white man come in here for one thing only – to protec’ hisself. To protec’ hisself, his car, his house, his kids, his dogs, his wife.”

“Well, I’m not married and…”

“Ag don’t worry man, you don’t look like a fokken moffie. Anyways, we don’t allow moffies in here.”

“No ways.” The doorman said this emphatically. He made a lightning draw form his shoulder holster and sighted along the blue-black barrel of his pistol, left hand steadying the right, one eye closed, aiming at the groin of an imaginary hermaphrodite. “Get your poofter arsehole out of here before I blow your balls off.” Satisfied, he lowered the gun and jettisoned the magazine before commencing to strut up and down. Every few paces he would go for his gun, whirl on his heel and pull the trigger. Meanwhile the ex-cop had resumed his sales pitch.

“A man has always got something to protec’, and there’s always a enemy. And in the Republic we got plenty enemies, that’s for fokken sure.”

“You can say that again. The whole world’s our enemy, and inside the country every coon and coloured’s our enemy.”

“For sure. That’s why a white man’s got to protec’ hisself. No commies or kaffirs is going to chase us off our own land. Not a fuck. A intelligent ou realise he got to arm hisself. And no ways are one firearm enough. Man, you got to plan this thing proper.”

“Man, you listen to what he says. We won’t chune you kak, no word of a lie. Six. That’s the minimum.”

“Six guns?! Jesus Christ! I…”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. We can get you all the credit you need. You can sign your name? Right, my mate.” And he sprake unto Hinry mit zinzer und ernst, leaning forward, hands on the counter, belly resting on the scarred wooden surface. “This is now serious business. There’s plenty danger out there. You got to think about this logical and cool. This is our history we talking about, this is our destination, so help me God. If you’re too shit scared to take your own history by the balls and examine it and say yes, this is my destination and this is what I got to do, then fuck it man, you nothing but a fokken moffie, and one day soon you’ll be calling the kaffir “Meneer” and he’ll be living next door. No man, you got to say, Not a fuck, over my dead body, and you got to fight, fight, fight. Ever since Jan van Riebeeck, way, way back… thousands of years… we been fighting the Hotnots and the Kaffirs. You know, I’m going to tell you something no word of a lie, and I’m proud of it. It’s part of my heritation.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

October 16, 2008

unmasking the black face of traditional dutch fun

Filed under: politics,ruby savage — ABRAXAS @ 3:21 am

2. The Golden Age of Racial Stereotypes

There are many different explanations of the origin of Zwarte Piet; however to me it is clear that the present-day figure is a descendant of the historical stereotype of an African or black man, which is rooted in Europe’s colonial past. Before showing how the Dutch figure is related to this stereotype, I will trace its historical development and the negative baggage it carries.

Throughout my education, I was taught about the glorious ‘Golden Age’ of Holland in the 17th century. This was the period in which Holland blossomed and triumphed, economically and culturally. We heard little however about the imperialism that was imposed on peoples and lands in other parts of the world. The exploitation of other countries and the trade in peoples from Africa were mentioned light-heartedly and were always subordinate to the more important aspect of this period: the success of the Netherlands. Allison Blakely explains in his book Blacks in the Dutch World:

‘The eternal battle against the sea to gain and maintain a tenuous hold on the land fostered a constant concern with material well-being and with commerce. The mastery of the sea gained from their struggle at home coupled with this concern led the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to build one of history’s most impressive trading empires.’ (1993, p.2)

As I experienced myself, growing up in the Netherlands, the wealth and reputation gained during this period is still of great significance to the Dutch and pride in the achievements of the Golden Age are still central to the Dutch identity.

Much of the prosperity of the Golden Age was due to the activities of the VOC (Dutch acronym for United East India Company) and the equivalent WIC (West India Company), which focussed on trade to the Americas. These companies maintained fleets of trading ships, which for a period during the 16th century had almost complete monopoly over the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. Together they turned ‘the Republic of the Netherlands into Europe’s leading power and trade nation by the 17th century.’ (translated from Wit over Zwart, 1990, p. 19)

One of the chief sources of revenue for these companies was the trade in slaves. According to Blakely (1993, p.7) from 1654 on, the slave trade became the main occupation of the West India Company and ‘Dutch involvement in the trade would remain sufficiently high for them to account for shipment of some half-million Africans to the Americas before it ended.’ Blakely also argues that:

‘The Dutch role in this trade contains much of the explanation of Dutch attitudes and practices towards Blacks during the slavery era and even beyond. It accounts for important inconsistencies in behaviour and stark contrasts between the prevailing values at home and those in the colonies.’ (ibid, p. 4)


It was during this period of colonizing and slave trading that Europeans came into contact with Africans and started to construct a representation of the ‘Other’ which Michael Pickering describes in his book Stereotyping (2001, p.51). In White on Black (1990), Jan Nederveen Pieterse analyses the European perception of African and Black peoples and points out that one of the first major stereotypes was that of the African “savage”, which depicted Black peoples as dangerous, vicious and a threat to Westerners, as a means to justify colonization. In other representations they were linked to animals and nature and were thus less evolved, or even ‘sub-human’, reflecting the belief that Europeans were more technologically advanced and therefore ‘civilised’. Pickering (2001, p. 51) analyses a similar construction, which he calls ‘the white racial phantasm of the Primitive’ which came into prominence during the later nineteenth century. ‘Western societies classifying themselves as modern and civilised relied heavily on the contrast between their own sense of advancement and the idea of racially backward and inferior societies.’ (ibid) The ‘Primitive Other’ underlined the progress of Western civilisation. The Primitive was something that did not have to be feared but helped. As power in the colonies was established Africans no longer needed to be seen as a threat but as grateful, subordinate peoples. So, the ‘Other’ could no longer be depicted as the enemy that needed to be tamed but had to be portrayed as obedient and content under colonial rule. And so the ‘Savage’ was replaced by the ‘Primitive’, who was a more childlike, intuitive and spontaneous ‘Other’. In other words, ‘the Western depictions of Black peoples demonstrated and propagated stereotypes as a means to further different agendas in Europe and America.’ (Brown and Tavares, 2004, p.94)

The visual stereotypes that came with these representations accentuated their ‘given characteristics’. The depiction (see image 2.1) also took away any kind of individualism and was mostly based on strong visual symbols (see image 2.2) like an entirely black face, full round red lips, and bright white teeth and eyes. No further personalisation was included to exclude any individual identity.

These examples of representation of Black peoples: the ‘Savage’, the ‘Primitive’, the ‘Jolly’, were images created by and in favour of Europeans. Pickering (2001, p.75) shows how ‘the ‘Other’ is constructed in and for its subordination, in and for its ‘inferiority’ to the self-in-dominance who has produced it’ and argues that the main problem with stereotyping is that it denies people the right to represent themselves.

October 15, 2008

A Farewell to the Master of Arab Cinema

Filed under: film — ABRAXAS @ 10:05 pm

By Kamran Rastegar, Lecturer in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh
Youssef Chahine: 25 January 1926 to 27 July 2008


In 1998, Youssef Chahine spoke at a Film Studies class in a university in New York City – his film, Al-Masir (Destiny), had just been featured at the New York Film Festival and the students of this class had seen the film. Al-Masir is a fictionalised account of the life of the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) recounting his intellectual struggle to promote reason over religious literalism. The film treated this historical episode as a parable concerning the spread of fundamentalist politics in the contemporary Arab world, and, through musical scenes and fantastic swordplay, ends with a call for the rejection of religious literalism.

One student asked the director if the film aimed to promote “tolerance”. Chahine chuckled and replied by noting that in his view “tolerance” is a typically Western notion – he would prefer to have the film seen as promoting respect and reciprocity for religious and cultural difference, something much more meaningful that simply adopting a tolerance for others. He went on to say that his understanding of Ibn Rushd was that he represented that dimension of Arab-Islamic civilisation which flourished not simply on tolerance, but on active engagement with religious and cultural Others, and which promoted this engagement through rationalism and science.


By citing this ideal, Chahine was possibly also tapping memories of the Alexandria of his childhood, where he grew up in a mixed Syrian-Greek Christian family – the Alexandria which would serve as the setting for the films in his “Alexandria Trilogy”.

But it would be wrong to call Chahine a romantic nostalgist – his Alexandria, a place of respect and reciprocity for Others, served more as an ideal that could be reached only through political and social struggle. This sense of commitment and engagement serves as one of the few threads by which we may try to tie together his very diverse oeuvre.

While his films ranged in style from neo-realist to epic and from surreal to melodrama, one could always rely upon Chahine’s personal engagement to be reflected within their frames. His films also consistently addressed issues of specific concern to a progressive Egyptian artist such as gender equality, acceptance of non-normative sexualities, and the destruction of class distinctions and prejudices.


There are certain films by Chahine that are viewed by many as successfully bringing a wide range of these themes together – one of these most certainly must be el-Ard (The Land, 1969), one of the classics of Egyptian anti-colonial cinema, screened as the opening film at Africa in Motion 2008. Coming as it does nearly at the mid-point of Chahine’s career, it showcases his command of the cinematic form, while retaining the vitality and originality of a filmmaker who makes films as part of his ideological and social commitments. The film narrates the gradual politicisation of a small Nile-delta village in the 1930s, tracing the eventual revolt of the villagers against the corrupt colonial government. The political theme plays out against the backdrop of a love story and intergenerational conflict among the villagers.

The film is populated by memorable archetypes of the anti-colonial genre, and to some extent follows the template of socially committed filmmaking by depicting a poor community as it begins to awaken politically. el-Ard ends on a distinctly ambivalent note – celebrating the struggle, but uncertain of where this endeavour has led to – through a searing final shot that will be imprinted on the memory of any viewer of the film.


In el-Ard we discern the crucial social commitments that were to guide Chahine through so much of his work. It would be too facile to say, however, that Chahine’s work is easily reduced to terms such as “anti-colonial” or “Arab nationalist” even if these stances are valid terms to describe dimensions of some of his works.

Even in this film we may also follow Chahine’s fearless self-critique of Egyptian society’s deep class divisions, as well as his disillusionment with the aftermath of the 1952 revolution. Chahine was typical of the bravest members of the engaged secular Left of the Arab world in his ability to turn the mirror of criticism upon his own society, even while continuing to point to the unjust global systems which he believed were often to blame for the fundamental problems in Egypt and the Arab world. Schooled in filmmaking in the US, Chahine always mixed his praise of the openness and generosity he experienced on the part of Americans with trenchant criticism of what he viewed as the US’s profoundly negative role in the Arab world.

With the passing of Chahine this last July at the age of 82, the Arab world in general, and Egypt in particular, have lost one of the preeminent cultural voices of the secular Left. Chahine inspired numerous younger filmmakers and several of his protégés now occupy positions of note within a recently rejuvenated Egyptian cinema industry.

Chahine’s own legacy is assured, and with him we may say that Arab filmmakers found a confidence and clarity which has laid the groundwork for the current generation of filmmakers who have placed Arab cinemas squarely into a global spotlight.

first published on the africa in motion film festival website

October 13, 2008


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:07 am

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

*** This scene is set in the late 1960′s. It takes place in the Whites Only half of the public bar at the Majestic Hotel in Kalk Bay. After many years of disuse this building was recently refurbished and turned into a bookshop. ***

It was Ivor Hopper who triggered in Henry a passing interest in firearms. They were seated on their barstools looking out through the open door to the harbour and the sea beyond the wall. Both felt pleasantly weary after a morning on Fish Hoek beach playing touch rugby with Ivor’s mates, fooling about in the waves and soaking up the hot sun and the cool southeaster. Now it was easy to feel the relaxed freedom of mild intoxication, and Ivor waxed eloquent on the merits of a playboy existence.

“Man, this is lekker. This is the way to live. What could be better? What more does a man need?”

“Well, maybe some good food. In the medical trade I believe it’s known as hypoglycaemia. I have all the symptoms: faintness, weakness, tremulousness, visual disturbances, confusion, palsy, personality change and, above all, hunger.” They ordered fish cakes and fried potato chips, and Ivor continued to extol the free-and-easy lifestyle of an unencumbered bachelor.

“You know, one doesn’t need much to live like this. The best things in life aren’t free, but they don’t cost a whole pile of money. It’s a pity we don’t live in a society that caters for individuals like us. A modest pension for life and in return a commitment to stay out of the job market, make room for those obsessed with the capitalist work ethic, those driven by insatiable greed to possess THINGS. And we could undergo voluntary vasectomies, thereby helping to diminish all this rampant procreation that has overcrowded and overloaded the planet. It makes economic sense. But no, the society we find ourselves in is terrified of the likes of us.” He shook his head regretfully. “They would be threatened by our incomprehensible happiness.”

Henry was in full agreement with these sentiments. “I’m afraid you are dreaming of a utopian world beyond the realms of possibility. We can’t look to Society for any assistance. On the contrary.” A coloured waiter of diminutive proportions appeared behind the bar bearing a tray laden with four fat fish cakes, one large platter of golden yellow chips, smoking hot, salt, pepper, vinegar and a large plastic squeeze-me tomato of sauce.

“God, but this looks good! This is the ultimate! Place before me a naked young wench, all eager and panting, and require me to choose – I’d toss a towel to her and tell her to await my pleasure, and I’d sate myself on this superior pleasure. Then I’d see to her. Probably in a half-hearted, unsatisfactory way. But what the fuck? A man must eat.” He squirted a puddle of tomato sauce onto his plate, took up a fish cake in his left hand, dunked it in the sauce and took a mouthful. With his right hand he began on the chips. Henry followed suit with grunts and other non-verbal utterances of appreciation.

At length Henry paused to drink deeply of his beer before asking a rhetorical question. “Do you know why these fish cakes are such good value for money? The ingredients would be in the dust bin if we weren’t eating them.”

“Tastes alright to me.” Ivor looked unperturbed but gave the last half of his second fish cake a precautionary sniff. “Smells alright too.”

“I’m not suggesting anything unsavoury or unsafe. It’s just that I happen to know a little about the preparation of this dish. Mrs Hildagonda De Groot, the housekeeper at Ingachini, was a very competent cook and, being Dutch, hated to throw away food of any description. If it wasn’t fit for European consumption it was fed to the dogs and the black staff. Whenever we had fish we knew we would be getting fish cakes a few days later. A very simple recipe: a cup or two of leftover fish flaked finely, two or three leftover potatoes mashed, a grated onion, one beaten egg, one tablespoon of cake flour, a sprig of chopped parsley, a few scrapes of nutmeg, a dash of Worcester sauce, salt and pepper. Throw the whole lot in a bowl and mix till stiff, then fry spoonfuls in hot oil. As easy as that. It makes sense for a hotel to recycle the leftovers and sell them cheap to the dronkies in the public bar.”

Ivor was almost finished with his meal and was looking thoughtful. “What you’re actually saying is that there exists the possibility that the food that I have just eaten was partially masticated in a former life. The fish might have borne the denture marks of Colonel Blithering-Wickforth, or some other honoured guest. The potato might have been lodged in the windpipe of some old codger before being coughed up onto the floor and then converted into fish cake.”

“Exactly.” With a split match Henry picked a morsel from his teeth, took a mouthful of beer and proceeded to light up his pipe. He blew a cloud of smoke towards the door and watched its transformation as it drifted into the sunlight. “Apart from dreaming of the Perfect Society, have you no other ideas on how to lead this idyllic life without having to work? Surely there must be a way.” The barman cleared away the plates, wiped the counter and placed before them another two beers.

“I’m afraid I can only fantasize. Winning a prize, inheriting a fortune, stumbling on hidden treasure. Kid’s stuff, you know.”

“Robbing a bank?”


Ivor laughed and his good eye shone with a manic light. “Often, man, often. But it always ends in a fuckup. You want to hear how I rob Basil’s Corner Café down the road?” Henry nodded, eager for the privilege of entry into the Hopper imagination. “Right, well, I don’t like the revolting Greek ball of grease, anyway, so he’s a choice victim and I can enjoy myself. I hate patronising his shop but it’s convenient and he gives credit. Bright white fluorescent light; pyramids of grass green Granny smiths on indelible blue tissue; heaps of bananas and pineapples; pockets of potatoes. Too often I’ve been witness to scenes of violent unpleasantness. Shouting in patriarchal Greek at his young wife – not a bad looking woman, don’t know what she sees in him, his money probably. He cuffs a coloured slave for standing idle – “Whata ya theenk? Whata ya theenk? Ya theenk ya does a fuck-all in my shopa. Ya theenks I pays ya fuck-all? I keeck ya fucking black arse.” And even gives his grey old idiot father a verbal horse whipping when he drops a tomato. The trouble is I know the bastard’s got a gun. Have to choose the moment carefully. A quiet moment. Only the old man at the till, Basil at the back in the cold room. The old man’s not looking; step into the cold room as Basil reaches down a tray of lettuces; grab him by the blubbery neck and bang his face down on the shelf, four, maybe five times; then throw him across the floor to land spread-eagled in the corner, eggs and chickens and boerewors and cheese cascading down on him. Aim a tremendous kick at his bursting trousers as he struggles to get up; try to inflict enraging pain. Slam the door shut, never having given him the chance to see his assailant. Then I run to the front, shouting to the old man, “Your son, your son! He’s dying!” Basil’s banging on the door, the old man rushes, mouth open. I rip open the till, grab the notes, all the notes, stuff them into a hollowed-out pawpaw. Close the till and hurry to the back. “Hey, what’s the trouble? Can I help? Did you see him? I saw him. A fucking coloured ou – big, huge, with a knife. Are you alright? Shouldn’t you call the police? Wipe the blood, man. He skopped you in the balls, eh? Fuckin bastard. Your wife will be disappointed. Or maybe not, ha ha. Yah, of course, must have been a big guy. Maybe two, three of them? Yah, could have been. What they do that to you for, Basil? You good guy, Basil. Gentle. You not Greek poes. No ways!” And then the pawpaw falls right through the bottom of the packet, bursts open and spills notes all over the floor in front of the doubled-up retching little pig, and his eyes nearly fall out of his head onto the floor as well. He screams in Greek and I know I have to kill them both. Quick. An execution for the sake of not having to go out there and make a stupid honest living. Forget it. Not Basil.”

When Henry’s laughter abated and he was calmer, he said, “Ivor, I love it. This is what I thrive on. What about the bank? You must have planned any number of bank robberies.”

“Not really.” Ivor was modestly offhand. “Only one, actually. Standard Bank, Fish Hoek Main Road.” His voice took on the callous tones of a hardened criminal. “There’s no point in fucking about with small fry like Basil. The paltry amount in his grimy till wouldn’t keep me in idleness for more than six months. No. If you’re going in for armed robbery then it might as well be Big Time. Might as well do it properly the first time, that’s what I say. Take enough to live on for the rest of your natural days. Alright, so I plan to rob the Standard Bank. I’ve bought a 9mm pistol from City Guns and it’s fully loaded and feels heavy in my pocket. I’m quite prepared to shoot the shit out of those cabbages and turnips working in the bank. I’ll put a little terror into their lives so that their eyes look like the eyes of real human beings. Life will never be the same. For years they’ll be waking at three in the morning sweating at the image of my finger tightening on the trigger. Every time a car backfires in the street they’ll be cowering under their desks. Right. It’s just going one o’clock. The black guy at the door must be the security guard, judging by his ridiculous uniform. Very sophisticated! Doesn’t even have a knobkierie, for Christ’s sake. He stands in the vestibule waiting to lock the doors, just one remaining customer. I walk up the steps, bold as brass and cool as a cucumber, show him the big jute flour sack. Open it in front of him and say, “Can you tell me what’s in this sack?” Puzzled, he bends over and peers in. I jerk the bag up over his head and shoulders, expertly pull it down to his waist, tighten the nylon drawstring. Snarl through the coarse fabric, “Madala, you make one sound and I shoot your head clean off your body with makulu mbumbulu.” I close the heavy outer doors and bolt them. Now I’m inside and stride across the banking hall to the Manager’s Office, knock sharply on the door and enter. Or try to enter. But the fucking door is locked. There is one of those two-way speakers with a push button and a red and a green light. Press the button and the red light comes on. I push the button again. Sweat breaks out all over and I feel like a bowel movement. One of the tellers calls across, “The Manager’s out to lunch. You must make an appointment.” It’s beginning to go horribly wrong. The last customer heads for the door. A loud twanging noise as my nerve snaps and I rush for the exit just ahead of the customer. The security guard still stands motionless like a bewildered chicken waiting for dawn. Grapple with the bolts, wrench open the door, burst out into the glare of sunlight and a fresh breeze. I walk away from a non-event, away from another failed attempt at laying my hands on some easy money. I’m afraid my imagination is incapable of producing a satisfactory plot, or of reaching the intended climax.” Despite Henry’s obvious delight in the story Ivor sounded momentarily dejected. Then he brightened. “But hey, maybe my versions are more true to life than most fiction. Real life is one big fuckup anyhow, isn’t it?”

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za

October 10, 2008

The Rubick’s Juke

Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 8:55 am

excerpt from OUT-HERE-NOWHERE

Night cast the glass sea in impenetrable black. The glistening swells loomed and receded with an unreal majesty beneath the starry spill of a false heaven. And the blackness of the glass was so full of depth that became almost luminescent in its darkness. He wandered out, far past the belts of stormy coastal water to where the sea became at last, a still and smooth zone of star filmed jet. And then even this tranquil scape became disturbed by the violent beauty of tidal churns. Here were smooth lipped chasms caught in mid-boil. Delicate spray fanned from these eruptions in fragile organic constructions. Turbulent forces had met here, creating unbelievable troughs and tubes of enraged water/glass. The Boy, hideously weakened by his ordeals, crossed these dark distances, exploring small tracts and cosms, avoiding the finer sheets of spray lest they shatter or lacerate him. And I think we can assume that the Boy finally found some measure of peace with the emptiness of that world, out there on the cool glass surfaces. He sought refuge inside a long, sloping gulf, curling against the inside of a wave with his head clutched firmly between his forearms. And there, in that alien place of unearthly beauty, he slept the desperate sleep of fugitives and lunatics. The dreams came eventually, like harpies. But none of these could stain him as deep as the sight of an entire ocean frozen in time.

He awoke screaming in the aquamarine vase of the wave. The image of the lizard eating Suzie had wrested him from sleep with ugly visions. He stumbled with momentary vertigo on the life-like glisten of the water, but he was not sucked under. The world was still glass. A bright blue sky gleamed over the crest of the wave and hot light filtered beautifully through the cascade of cobalt forms. The Boy peered below his feet to see the distant shapes of plastic sharks, stilled in their wheeling motions like insects in amber. The glass lit up evenly to great depths, unlike the shifting substance of water which diffused and dampened the solar glare. The entire scape resonated with light. He crawled painfully out into the sun and was very nearly blinded by the infinity of reflective surfaces. He could feel that he was near death. He had lost much weight and felt perpetually drained. Sudden bouts of fatigue swamped him. He wandered out further, toward the haunting line of a blue horizon. The sea changed like a face and the Boy changed with it, drifting further and further from himself as he penetrated deeper still into this wonderland of glittering pinnacles and quartz-like, womanly shapes. He passed out several times from dehydration, and then it was night again.

He awoke once again, in the cool, jagged wasteland of morning. His limbs felt like bony helium balloons. He found himself floating on his back at the base of an enormous spiral of deep turquoise. It was difficult for him to move, but he was pleasantly shaded by the twist of an upended spill. So there was no need to move really. Shapes of diluted blue sunlight drifted like fish over his face. He let his head fall slightly, to gaze beyond the edge of the spill, taking in the gaudy gulfs of sky. He soon found his attention drawn inexorably to a dark speck at the very corner of his vision. It drifted like a mote in the water of his eye. He realised that it was in fact growing steadily larger. He had understood some time ago that he was not mad, so now he forced himself to fully investigate this phenomenon. He heaved himself onto the points of his bruised elbows and the sea seemed to shift beneath his physical unsteadiness. He felt the proximity of death like a religious certainty now, and he watched with a sort of suicidal awe as the speck swelled to a blotch. This blotch grew, until he realised it to be an enormous, disembodied head. The head was haloed by a sun-kissed spectacle of platinum curls. This head drifted gradually down, through the clouds, growing steadily more enormous as it descended. The face in the sky was one of rapturous beauty. A face glimpsed through the heady scope of celluloid memory. A high cheekboned visage of eyes smoky with mascara and lips bowed with the faintest trace of irony. The Boy felt that the face was that of a specific person, the star of some former spangled era. He sensed that her name was on the tip of his tongue. Yet no name came. It was almost as if the face encapsulated many faces and many names. A somehow universal face, bereft of identity and yet somehow infused completely with it. Its vast familiarity and nameless concentration of attention lurked in the ever-present soft focus of his memory like an unattainable fish. The head floated there, in a haze of silver and gold. It’s lashes batted the air heavily, like the wings of black angels. Gleaming locks of white-blonde cascaded closer and closer, an encroachment of blonde waterfalls. Then when it had blotted out the sky almost completely, and the entirety of the glass sea seemed suffused with the gorgeous smell of that hair and skin, one of the eyes winked at him. Detonations of mascara flowered into the air like flocks of birds. And it was as if the whole world had suddenly leaned in to give him a kiss. It was then that he saw the figure, emerging like a speck of dust from the impenetrable pupil of that eye. The figure strolled casually through the thin air, in the manner of a speech bubble. It seemed to take him hours to reach the Boy. His suit was the yellow of an overripe banana. And his shining quiff seemed crafted of solid vinyl. His face had a neurotic thinness and was dominated by an enormous pair of horn-rimmed glasses. His wingtips never touched the ground. A gleaming microphone hovered before his acne pitted face. He alighted upon the spiral at whose base the Boy lay and looked around nervously, as if he wasn’t supposed to be there. Air circulated belligerently below his suspended shoes. There was a graininess about him. The Boy noticed this with a detached interest. It was almost as if the thin, bespectacled figure were being projected somehow, directly onto the back of the Boy’s eyes.

“I am the Fush,” the figure eventually murmured into the microphone.

His voice came at the Boy from vast speaker systems in the sky. A crystalline shard of feedback gathered, threatening to break like lightening. The Fush covered his microphone with a white-gloved hand and the shrill feedback subsided cheekily, lurking somewhere in the clouds like a petulant child.

“You haven’t seen two dogs have you?” he asked casually.

The Boy breathed hoarsely, his dry throat unclasping clumsily around the very idea of speech.

“…Shot them..” the Boy wheezed. “..shot.”

The Fush slapped the back of one white glove against the palm of the other in irritation. The Boy heard the sound of this only faintly. It filtered from the sky as a background sound, microphone leakage.

“Fuckbuggy,” the Fush muttered caustically to himself before adjusting his glasses.

He peered down at the Boy, as if he were inspecting a bug on his shoe.

“Where’s the girl?” he demanded in a clipped voice. “Don’t tell me you plugged her too.”

The Boy struggled weakly to his knees, shaking his head in a drunken fashion.

“Are there others?” the Boy managed to ask.

The Fush chewed his lip, rummaged about in his lurid jacket and extracted what looked suspiciously like a love letter. He peeled back the pink envelope and withdrew a Valentine’s day card. He opened it and cleared his throat stratospherically.

“One schoolgirl, two dogs, one male polar bear, a bottle of unopened milk, fourteen Emperor butterflies, the entire pen-pal correspondence of a twelve year old in Mexico….and you I suppose.”

His voice echoed down on the glass sea like muted thunder.

“You aren’t on the list,” he sneered.

Then he seemed to suddenly grow wistful and distant.

“There’s always a coffee stain on the calendar,” mused the sky sized murmur.

The Boy tried to stand but his joints had grown too weak to support his weight. The Fush nimbly caught him under his arms and pulled him to his feet. Faint charges of static played over the areas in which the Boy came into contact with that unforgivable suit.

“Easy Tiger, ” the Fush winked suavely.

“Right,” muttered the Boy, and promptly passed out.

Sometimes folks up and get plucked from the Hamster Wheel. And all those everyday daytime reasons so precious to the former hamster just turn their backs and hustle to cover up the hole that was left. Reality runs like blood, time cakes over like a scab. Happens all the time the guy in the End-Is-Nigh sandwich board will tell you. But I wouldn’t give a fig for any statement that relies on time as its stabilizing jelly. Jesus knows I have too many little bits of time caught in the lining of my hip pocket. After awhile they stick together like boiled sweets in the sun. And then you don’t even want to go in those pockets no more. No place to do and nothing to go when time gets sticky like that. Nosirree Bob.

The Fush abruptly ceased his elucidations. The Boy noticed that he looked somewhat depressed. The Fush was rather thoughtfully attired in the khaki day uniform of the Boy’s former school. We can only assume that he did this to put the Boy at ease, although there might have been other reasons. The grey jersey was too big and gave him the appearance of a scrawny turkey. His shiny school shoes bobbed on cushions of air. They were sitting amongst the roses in the small English garden which the Fush had cultivated at the crown of the enormous blonde head. An antiquated tea table sat between them. A pot of eight hundred year old ginseng tincture had been set upon its wrought iron surface. The Boy had asked the Fush how he’d managed to acquire eight hundred year old ginseng, but he’d just shrugged, muttering something about the perks. The air was crisp and refreshing up in the cloud layer. Heated oxygen pumped up in drifts through the plants. The rose garden gave way to a hedge maze and several meandering paths lined with aspidistra and trellises of bougainvilleas. Monstrous blonde trunks of hair fountained beyond the farthest trees like detonations of peroxide lava. The sky through which they floated was the flawless blue of a cuckoo’s egg. It was pleasant for the Boy to have the Fush talk without that biblical microphone of his. Aboard the Diva’s head, the Fush’s voice was the low, cynical drawl of almost any disenchanted armchair philosopher. The armchair however, was one of exceptional, even monolithic proportions. He fed the Boy ancient ginseng and cinema-hot popcorn until he was fit to be interrogated. It was almost obvious that they’d become friends. The Fush did seem disturbed by the lizard incident though.

“Poached!” the Boy heard him mutter.

He asked him what he meant, but the Fush merely spouted some gibberish about his father being an English teacher during the war. Life on the Diva’s head was slow and strange. Each corridor had its own popcorn machine. The Fush told him one day, whilst they were shooting clay pigeons above the forest of platinum: “I once choked to death on a Rubik’s Cube.”

The Boy asked him about Suzie and the world several times, but the Fush would simply mumble incoherently or suggest something ridiculous, like a fishing expedition. Then unexpectedly, he would conjure up a pot of tincture, lock up the microphone and start talking.

When you step out with the Hamster Wheel, the Hamster Wheel steps out with you. ‘Cept it ain’t ever the Hamster Wheel you knew. No hamsters usually. If you know what you’re doing, or, if you have the right room, you can navigate. Reality Jukebox Number One. But under circumstances such as yours, a snapshot of the former Hamster Wheel comes complimentary. Just a slice’o time to potter round in. Nothing but a glorified waiting room. Kinda like life. Kinda life-like. I knew someone used to call ‘em Polaroid Voids. But it ain’t a natural snapshot plot you woke up in. Not the way you came in. Nothing natural about those sorts of Easter Egg hunts. Word comes down the line to pull a certain something or a certain somebody and the star machines up in the Nebula Shack start processing made-to-order glass oceans, if you get my meaning. You should see the Nebula Shack sometime. One Polaroid void every time your heart skips a beat. Nothing fancy though, we’re talking bulk orders here. Some kinda strange, empty limousines for just a handful of lost souls. But I guess it worked out cheaper that way. You wanna talk big! Get outta town junior, the Shack is ROBUST! But there are coffee stains all the time when that kind of assembly line has to politic with representatives from any given walk of Reality Realty. Many coffee stains make for less coffee if you know what I mean. So orphanisms like you are kept hush-hush most times. This is when they start falling through the cracks. I know buyers in the Stranger-Trade, lemme tell you. But I don’t go in for that kind of bumrush. You don’t feed pets to pets if you get my drift.

Caching the polar bear was a lot of fun for the Boy. The head pouted in over a milky, plastic ice-cap. Vast Styrofoam icebergs crunched like enormous bobbets of popcorn in the glass waves. The polar bear was clawing a blaze of fluff out of the side of a towering polystyrene glacier. It had evidently been driven insane in its hunger and confusion. Fush and the Boy hung about in one of the badly wallpapered observation lounges staring at a seven foot node of translucent jelly. Fush had the node nerved up proper to one of the eyeballs. Overstuffed paisley print couches were strewn about like children’s toys. The Persian rug had cigarette burns. Every now and then the eye blinked and the jelly core flashed black. Fush was up against the far wall, which was in fact a large surface of exposed flesh. Long glands and capillaries were attached to the quivering plane of tissue. Many of these had been stripped of their membranes and jury-rigged to interface with a system of stained plastic valves and transparent tubing. The tubes fed into the observation node, within which swam a dirty crystal-ball image of the tundra and its lone bear. Fush wrestled with the valves like some obsessive symphonic conductor. He twiddled screws and pressure points along the glands until a pale secretion ran down one of the tubes into the jelly. The viscosity of the jelly immediately changed as the fluid blossomed within it. The fuzzy image of the bear zoomed into focus almost immediately.

“Synapses are flaky,” Fush muttered, half to himself. “This baby needs ginseng like I don’t know what.”

It was obvious that the Fush was alone most of the time, pacing the inside of his starlet’s head, dressed in an unbelievable array of bad suits. The Boy kicked a cranky popcorn machine and watched as it coughed up a card carton of steaming nubbins. The Fush produced an enormous syringe of ginseng tincture which he promptly injected into the wall of flesh. The raw pink matter quivered reflexively as the needle pierced it. It then flushed a deeper shade, seemingly revitalized.

“Billy Button bought a buttered biscuit,” Fush mumbled meaninglessly.

They ate popcorn, watching the bear savage the polystyrene mountain. Only Fush wasn’t really eating. He seemed to enjoy pretending to though. At first it had made the Boy vaguely nervous, but after awhile he began to overlooked it as a harmless eccentricity.

“Did you watch us like this?” the Boy suddenly found himself asking.

The Fush eyed him quizzically, with one eyebrow raised.

“Its just a monitor,” he drawled. “Its not like I can really kick back and be entertained.”

“Did you watch us?” the Boy repeated stubbornly.

The Fush picked his nose cautiously. He studied the flawless white tip of his gloved finger.

“I liked the part with the shooting-holes-in-the-night routine,” he eventually admitted. “Was a real original twist.”

It was at times like this that the Boy felt like committing at least one homicidal act. The Fush didn’t seem to notice.

“Lets bag this Bonzo!” he drawled with fire in his eyes.

They quit the observation lounge, took several identical corridors until they reached a globular chamber padded with foam walls. Fush popped a surgical white manhole in one of the curved walls, and the Boy found himself crawling through vaguely intestinal passages toward a minty light. The passage walls were soft skin, pulsing lightly and downy. A cold draught issued from the light, announcing the outside world. The pair emerged into the mouth of a cave-like formation. Hard arctic light lay sharp as sleet over the whorled, fleshy structures around them. A blinding, white sky gleamed over a smooth outcrop above. They Boy realized that they were in the ear. They scaled the jutting cartilage and leaned over a dizzying drop to see the entire tundra extending away into stark forever’s. The wind seemed to pierce hypothermically, affecting the Boy’s bones before his skin. The Fush was completely unfazed in his

hound’s-tooth zoot suit. The Boy noticed that he had the microphone out again. His teeth chattered and shook as the bear gaped up at the Diva’s face in sudden shock. It uttered a caustic roar and began to lope maniacally across the plastic ice-shelf. There was a sickening moment of vertigo as the entire head tilted in pursuit. The Boy clung onto the warm, supple folds of skin as the vast cranium darted buoyantly, to and fro, above the crazed, furry shape. It was then that the Boy noticed an antique grandfather clock, wedged deep against the far corner of the ear. He also noticed that the Fush was edging surreptitiously toward it. Upon reaching it, Fush unlocked the clock’s door and withdrew a chipped metal cannister about the length of his forearm.

“What’s that?” the Boy called above the wind.

“Nerve gas,” Fush mumbled, his voice breaking like modulated explosions from the speaker systems in the sky. The Boy clapped his hands over his ears, hearing the bear scream in fear below.

“Sorry,” Fush squinted deafeningly, adjusting some unseen and metaphysical volume control.

He scuttled over to the Boy, fiddling with antiquated gauges and dials set along the head of the cannister.

“Picked this up in Zurich, 1946,” Fush’s voice pealed from high above the cottonwool clouds. “Should knock Bozo off the pitch for an inning.”

The head sank closer still and the perspectives of the world aligned dizzyingly. Fush pulled a greasy tab at the canister’s tip. There was a loud fizzing noise and the Boy watched as the cannister fell like a bone to the white below, taking its fizz with it. It landed surprisingly close to the bear, spewing out violent whorls of garish orange smoke. The bear was down in seconds. It wasn’t long before the head had licked it up like a drop of ice-cream.

There was a day, the Boy would later recall, when he grew weary of the English garden for no apparent reason. He strode down the meandering paths to the farthest trees and stared through the iron bars of the fence, deep into the dense blonde forest. After a moment’s deliberation, he climbed the fence and dropped to the scalp’s surface. It was moist and spongy underfoot. Thin oozings of clear oil coated everything with a sap-like lustre. The incredibly intimate smell of a beautiful woman’s head was almost overpowering in its intensity. It felt to the boy as if his nose were pressed perpetually to the nape of an invisible neck. He waded onward in a peculiar state of melancholic arousal, pushing aside thick, scaly strands of golden hair. The bleach had eaten deep into the fibre of the hair, leaving it husked as beeswax. The strands felt like a strange sort of rubbery bamboo against his body. He found himself in tears over trivial memories of his former life, clasping great handfuls of the hair to his breast and crying like a baby. When this faded, he lay in the warm swamp of luxurious oil and toppled into a deeply peaceful sleep. Intense dreams prompted an irrational need to discover what exactly had happened to Suzie.

What you are is a refugee Sunny Jim. A refugee from reality, what I would write up as an orphanism. You are a nobody an a great mess of nowhere’s. Now that Suzie Cruze, what she is, is poached. She talked to Strangers. Strictly speaking, I have no respect for Strangers who wheedle into a snapshot and capitalize off an orphanisms’s natural suicidal tendencies. It goes against my grain, if you know what I’m saying. But where there’s sugar there’s flies. And faces on milk cartons are sugar to some. So what do you got springing up round the Orphanism problem? One monster under-market; The Stranger Trade as its known round the block, with its catflaps all about time and space like snooker pockets. And tunnels and trains in between, nerved up all through the cheese of time like a parasite vine. And this is bony knuckles-to-the-wall blackmarket transit lemme tell you. Down there in the Corridor Quarter, where the Strangers take off their trenchcoats. So anyway, to get back to the plot, this Komodo jumps a catflap back at the Shack, or in transit someplace, and stows away on the snapshot. It locates you and crazy girl then acts all THIS-IS-THE-WAY so it can jack you without resorting to monster movie tactics. Or maybe it only planned for one pigeon? who knows. Either way, it seems that this is the sort of Stranger who offers sweets. Whatever the case, it jacked the wrong pigeon. She was on the list. If it had been you? No sweat, Lizard Lounge for you bud. Bet her, she’s an ORDER, she’ll be missed. What this soup boils down to is yours truly going down into the Clock Quarter after I’m done cleaning out this snapshot and finding Mr Komodo so he can cough up crazy girl No 1. This annoys me no end, but after all it is my fault. I was in Egypt fetching one unopened bottle of milk, when what I should’ve been doing was watching the walls for geckoes. But that’s the Life. Never a dull moment. Reality jukebox baby. Rubik’s Juke No1. No rest for the snookered.

When they found the right plastic rainforest, the Fush dug up an old rope ladder he’d accumulated somewhere along the way. The head coasted in low over the creeping sea of trees and bobbed motionlessly while Fush tossed the ladder out of the ear. The Boy swayed heartstoppingly over the drop, clinging to the rungs like he was about to die. It took him ages to start climbing. It was terrifying at first, but once he had descended into the plastic canopy things got better. The whole world smelled like new toys down there. Plastic creepers, livid plastic tree frogs, dense plastic tree trunks and a billion rubbery lianas suspended across the cathedral spaces. Trapped heat rose in suffocating waves. At one point, the Boy saw a shiny orang-utan moulded around a branch. The Fush strolled in mid-air, along unseen planes of invisible force with his microphone. He picked his nose occasionally and poked neurotically around in the trees. It took the better part of the day to collect the fourteen butterflies. They were all dead of course, but Fush insisted that nothing real be left behind.

‘There are no spares in the universe, ‘ he said from somewhere in the canopy above. ‘Everything is waiting around to be used by something else.’

He talked more about the Stranger Trade and the jumble of reality alleys, which he drolly referred to as The Corridor Quarter or The Catflap Quarter. The conversations emerged like paintings over a sequence of strange days above the Greek islands. The endless archipelagos drifted in the bottle-green sculptures of what was once the Mediterranean . The Boy watched them loom and dissolve with a sweet poignancy, remembering the endless formaldehyde of history lessons. For some reason, the litmus coloured memories led him to think of the many plastic temples set like wedding cakes in the lands below. Images of plastic Grecian sculpture distracted him at odd times. The Fush had dug up a battered old velvet couch and somehow secured it into the whip-like mesh of one of the enormous eyebrows. It nestled against the curve of lustrous skin, ensconced by stiff follicles. The Fush also showed the Boy the path which bisected the blonde forest. It lay to the right of the head, an unswerving highway of pale pink scalp. The Boy had been instantly awed by the division of the hair, parting on either side of the path like the Red sea. Vast diamond hairclips drifted overhead like iron bridges. The view from the hairline was truly staggering. Fush once again handed the Boy the rope ladder, shaking his head at the now familiar bursts of fear which laced the Boy’s face. The first few rungs were always nerve-racking for the Boy. But once he reached the couch , everything became incredibly pleasant. The pair would lounge on the huge sofa, munching popcorn (and pretending to munch popcorn), watching the skies darken and brighten. Fush occasionally brought his sun-setter control box down with him. On these occasions they would take turns toggling the sun up and down whilst they talked. And thankfully, for the Boy at least, the microphone remained under lock and key for the majority of these Mediterranean talks. And the voice of the Fush came soft and sombre in the long winds.

Thos zigzag canals…those chopped up alleys. I have such memory tea for those crazy lanes down in the Tick Tock Quarter. Sweet Limbo and her substructures between the cracks of whenever. A plump wasphive of ‘em too. Some are badly burrowed or set all wrong, like fractured bones leading to nothing but dead time. Some are rickety and blow off in the clocky winds. You’ll have silver nitrate moments in those hip pockets let me tell you. ..If you live to darkroom up after that is. Le Quartier Limbo is the spaces between the places. Rats alley deluxe. And o ‘course when the Trade started setting its operations like bones into the loose skin of the alleys, we had a real firmament coming to the fore. All the blackmarket brainpans and thunder-tailors put meat and sinew on this jellyfish skeleton . Grade-A suturing from Pluto to Timbuktu. So now the whole flimsy thing billows Out-Here-Nowhere, like some majestic kite for screwy-eyed God and his scarecrows. Some obscure polka dot’ll always be trying to map, or explore its obscure randoms to the envelope. Nuts to that I say. Place is bigger than yesterday, isn’t even a place! Lotta pilgrims to Ninurtia wind up down in the Corridor Quarter, you’ll always find the lost and the desperate down those passages, trying to hunt dreams they tasted when they were children. Those sorts of Easter Egg hunts can suck a soul down into the Memory Bends as easy as sugar in a shower. There are well established Korridors and spook-trains and catpaths. These subdivide and subdivide and subdivide. You gotta know the snakes and ladders before you go all Red Riding hood down there in the soup. And there are serious Strangers in that hedge maze. It’s the Land of Strangers Out-Here-Nowhere. Some have had the notion that the Quarter is, and always was some manner of ‘place’, like a mythical fracture-city, spread out in moments and murmurs all over everywhere. That it was even ‘place’ before it was THERE, like a memory in reverse. A country of trapdoors. Some say its spill-over from Ninurtia, a kind of no-mans land between that dreamy fog and the jelly of time. Maybe there’s salt in any one of these theories, but who gives a hoot. Far as I can tell, the place was put there to drive me bananas. Last snapshot season I had an orphanism pulled down into the burrows by a Stranger called Mr Cloud. This was just his grapevine handle by the way, no-one knows his real name. Happy old feller with a sky blue suit, seventeen eyes set like marbles in his head and a briefcase full of outdated newspapers. Who knows what escape-pod the kiddie saw in that grin, out there across some plastic boulevard. Took me a lifetime to find the little pigeon. Traders had already brewed its Tea by the time I wrote myself into the script. And junior was knocking Stardust in some badly written Loop. The Loop was run by a pod of nested Mon-Ghighletts. The plotline required junior to fly across eternal sunsets as a little birdie. There were other orphanisms flapping in there as well. So junior was knocking some nightingale Stardust up in the toy sky so pretty, flapping shadow puppet wings for all those methane breathers in the clouds. Stinking proles in their fishbowls. Hate those manky Ghighletts. Stinking nun suckers those. There’s some rudimentals you ought to get the know for by the by. Remind me to show you the Tea Room.

A hot day in Mexico. The Boy stood on the edge of a dusty red road kicking down plastic cactus. A row of houses cascaded off into the asphalt coloured stretches like broken cardboard boxes. The Fush was in one of those boxes, extricating a one-sided penpal correspondence from broken cupboards. Seven plastic crows dangled from tattered telegraph wires. He saw the Fush emerge from a distant door, blatant as a bloodstain in his red dungarees. He watched him wave the envelopes in the dull, soundless whistle of the wind. The Boy was eating red grapes from a vine which he’d discovered growing somewhere in the English garden. Fush had mumbled something to him about eating the seeds too. The other half of the correspondence was apparently in Russia somewhere. The Boy thought that it would be fun to read something again. Plastic tumbleweed blew past. The Boy had the sudden sense that his time aboard the Head was coming to a close.

It was sometimes disconcerting for the Boy, to turn a corner and see the corridor terminating in some enormous organic process. It was at times like those when he remembered that he was inside a head. Thick walls of transparent jelly kept the cranial fluids and organs at bay in these half finished cul-de-sacs. The habitable sections of the head resembled an endless canteen in some bizarre, recreational submarine. And the Boy always had the sensation that there were secret floors and quadrants hidden between those high cheekbones. He slept on couches because there were many of these, three for every popcorn machine if the Boy’s calculations held any water. There was a small Boeing 747 lavatory installed against a cartilaginous formation inside what the Boy assumed was the nasal quarter. A tap gave out lukewarm water recycled from the savilatory glands. Translucent chutes linked all the levels. Warm blood and living tissue pulsed beyond their crinkled walls. There was an inescapably medical atmosphere about these chutes and the Boy avoided using them as much as possible. Plastic rungs, warm from their proximity to the blood, made life easier in the chutes. When the Fush pointed out what he referred to as the ‘spinal staircase’, which led down to the Tea Room, the Boy knew that he was about to become privy to a place somehow crucial to the secret operations of the Diva’s head. The mouth of the staircase gaped through one of the walls of jelly. Its walls were lined with a smooth meniscus of slippery plastic. The Boy saw its coil snake down through the tissue, into the enormous form of a vertebrae which floated like a whale beyond the jelly. The Fush motioned for the Boy to walk ahead, and together they descended into the drifting tubule. Spiralling steps had been set into the jelly. They swivelled on an intricate system of gyroscopes, remaining level as the tube slicked between bone formations and red belts of muscle. They descended only a short way, emerging through another plane of jelly into a dingy little foyer. The foyer had an atmosphere similar to certain nameless hotels glimpsed only through the windows of cars at night. A single naked bulb swung from a damp and stained ceiling. It radiated a buzzing, yellow fluorescence. The close walls emitted strips of peeling wallpaper. They loomed, dank and ancient in the claustrophobic gloom. A ratty carpet disclosed many indefinable stains and burns. For some inexplicable reason, a tricycle brooded in the corner. The Fush seemed enormously embarrassed by its presence and very obviously ignored it. He indicated an old, panelled door which stood directly before them. The door also carried with it the same dirty ambiance of nameless hotels, yet there was something distinctly ominous about it. It seemed to emanate palpable waves of dense magnetic influence. A faint crackling haunted its hinges and lintels. The air was thick with ozone. The Boy had the sudden, deep understanding that he had come to an unavoidable crossroads, and that what lay beyond this door would catalyse all the unseen changes to come. He felt uniquely afraid of the chamber beyond and looked to the Fush for support. The Fush was, however, almost genocidally distracted by the tricycle and did not even acknowledge the Boy’s stare.

“Moving on swiftly…” he muttered unexpectedly, brushing past the Boy.

He casually opened the door and passed through to the other side. The Boy followed numbly. The chamber beyond was carpeted, low-lit and extended for about twenty meters. The long, soft, almost corridor-like space gave the nerve-wrenching impression of being completely airless. The Boy began to feel the heady, suppressed panic of a dream. It became difficult for him to breathe. The colourless carpet swallowed his footfalls completely, so all the sounds became as muffled as lights through frosted glass. In the centre of the long chamber was a severe, antiquated photo booth, the sort you might find in desolate Scandinavian airports. The Fush began walking toward it in that long, sloping way of his, his wingtips trowelling through the air above the carpet like clock pendulums. The Boy followed, wading through the syrupy air with some difficulty. A heavy buzzing began to oscillate in the deepest parts of his ears. He tried to speak but no sound emitted from his vocal apparatus. All he could manage was stifled choke.

“Don’t try to speak yet,” the Fush murmured from ahead. “This is a foreign environment for you.”

The Boy floated onward, leaning against the wall like a drunken person. The air began to feel like a solid mass, congealing over his face and arms like gelatine.

“We’ve now collected the last items on the shopping list,” the Fush announced without turning his head.

He was quite far away from the Boy now, almost at the booth. Yet his voice sounded close to the Boy’s ear, and somehow recorded. The curtain of the booth began to open from within. The Boy began panting, as though from an enormous exertion. The curtain eventually parted to reveal a vivid, mirrored interior. A headless woman sat in the brightly lit booth. She wore a shimmering silver gown and a white mink stole lay about her shoulders. Diamonds glittered at her satin gloved wrists. She stood like a mannequin, moving only slightly. A glass partition separated the box’s interior from the void of the chamber.

“This snapshot is on its way to the wastepaper basket,” Fush murmured. “But there’s this place where you can get a ticket to anywhere.”

The Boy breathed raggedly in the long distances of the room. Fush had pulled the Valentine’s day card from a concealed pocket. The Boy still couldn’t see his face properly. He realised that he was crawling across a vast carpet toward the distant, livid shape of the Fush.

“You probably feel like a bluebottle that’s been washed up on a beach,” Fush chuckled reassuringly.

The Boy struggled to retort through the dense light and lack of sound.

“Anyhows,” The Fush coughed, clearing his throat. “You’ll need to pay for a ticket, and there’s only one way to pay Out-Here.”

Now he turned and eyed the faraway Boy with something like detached sympathy. The glare from the booth reflected across his spectacles, replacing his eyes with lozenges of light.

“Don’t wind up at the Arcade though,” he said with an unmistakable edge of warning in his voice. “The butchers down at the Arcade mix their thinks.”

He snorted dryly.

“I can have your Memory Tea brewed and help you trade it for an EXIT, what do you say?”

The Boy reeled groggily against an endless expanse of carpeting. He wheezed in a vain attempt to formulate speech. And the wheezing made him think of molluscs on the beach and the suction sounds they made when the tide stranded them on rocks.

“Your life up until now,” Fush explained as the headless woman slowly drew back the glass partition. “You don’t need it anymore, it can only bring you pain and loss. But I can have it brewed for you, and extracted. You’ll be able to trade it and buy yourself a brand new From-Now….somewhere fresh and breezy maybe.”

The Boy goggled at the Fush in a cornered fashion, too disorientated to even consider the ramifications of what was being offered to him across the void.

“Its really the only way Bub,” he bit his lip at the Boy, placing the envelope in the woman’s outstretched hand.

The Boy began to turn, to try crawl away from the bright blur of the Fush. He struggled across the softness as the woman’s hands dismembered the envelope like a small animal. She emptied the miniature objects within into the photo booth’s coinslot. Somehow, the boy could discern perfectly what they were, even at such a colossal distance. They fell into the slot like playing pieces. Tiny, falling figures; a polar bear, two dead dogs, a bottle of milk…

The Boy somehow reached the door as the curtain of the booth closed. From behind it came a stark flash of white-hot photographic light.

The Fush found the Boy crying in the dingy little hotel foyer with nowhere to go and nothing to do. He peered at him inquisitively for several seconds before pulling a tiny, red hardcover book from his breast pocket. The Boy glimpsed the dust jacket, which had the words: ‘Appropriate Clichés’ embossed across its surface in gold leaf.

“Tough break kid,” he read from somewhere inside.

The Boy put his face in his hands while the Fush edged away from the tricycle.

“Why don’t we start with your childhood,” Fush suggested amiably. “You won’t miss that.”

They sat in the English garden for the last time. The Fush had prepared a tincture of ginseng and rose petals. A carton of popcorn lay unattended to the right of the Boy, a wreath of red grapes to his left. The coldness of inevitability lay between them both, like slices of white, suspect meat. Still, the Fush attempted to be cheerful. Four enormous hoops, the sort tigers might leap through at the circus, had been erected amongst the rose bushes and aspidistra. They stood at right angles to one another. Fush was slathering vast quantities of the Diva’s saliva along the tops of these hoops with an oversized paintbrush. The fluid fell in rainbow sheened skeins, until each hoop was glistered over like a soap bubble blower. Fush then activated four ancient wind machines, which he’d ‘picked up’ in Hollywood circa 1935. They burred rustily into life. Then, much like soap bubbles, the saliva began to inflate into four quivering, pearly orbs. The trembling, amoeboid form of the closest bubble grew enormous, engulfing the table stickily. The Boy also felt himself passing through this warm, filmy membrane. He soon found himself within the quivering vacuole with the Fush and his breakfast. The wind machines grated at the mouth of this space like some strange air conditioner. All this time, the Head had been slowly rising, past the cottonwool cumulonimbus formations and into the icy gulfs beyond. Clouds loomed, snagging occasionally in the blonde hair, eventually passing like haloes or hangovers. When Fush was satisfied with the bubble’s steady rate of expansion he goggled at the Boy through his spectacles.

“Gotta just fetch something,” he explained clumsily. “Hold the fort would you old chap.”

He then turned and loped off, passing through the bubble’s meniscus like a colourful ghost. The Boy eased back into the wrought iron chair, grateful for the respite. The logic of the Fush’s offer had been slowly torturing him into submission. And he was right of course, The Boy had no need whatsoever for the accumulated detritus of a dead life. Here was a chance to begin anew, along some alien tangent, free from the remorse and longings of a severed existence. The Fush knew that the Boy would have to eventually agree. He casually rolled a grape between thumb and forefinger, contemplating the sweet anaesthesia of amnesia. Down in the rose bushes, the edges of the bubbles had stretched up from the hoops like overtaxed ligaments. Eventually the stress became unbearable and these liquid tendons leapt up from the wind machines, merging in a lightening fast coagulation. The newly formed single bubble rose like the immense belly of some strange Buddha. It swelled and roiled, pushing past the circularities of the hedge maze and into the farthest trees. It slowly swamped a perimeter into the surrounding hair. The Boy watched as the top most parts of it began to slowly etch with frost against the starry black beyond. These frozen parts slowly spread, joining like continents, obscuring the spaces beyond. Fush appeared in the trees to the left of the Boy. He had the headless woman on one arm and a small, army issue backpack on the other. Although headless, the woman was still significantly taller than he was. She was still attired in the same glamorous ensemble as before. They made a ridiculous couple. The snowy mink stole obscured her severed throat. The sky outside was growing slowly darker. When the pair drew close to the Boy, Fush tossed him the backpack. The Boy quickly realised that it was a parachute. A small nervous tingle erupted behind his ears.

“Slip that sucker on,” Fush said, seating the headless woman opposite me. “Make sure it’s real snug.”

The Boy climbed through the straps, staring covertly at the snowy beauty of the woman’s flawless shoulders. Her white satin fingers were laced neatly at her lap. The Boy couldn’t shake the unnerving sensation that she was somehow watching him.

“Does she have an invisible head?” The Boy asked Fush nervously.

The Fush merely stared at him as if he were totally stupid.

“Put your parachute on,” he muttered, fiddling with a large node of translucent jelly which poked through a row of ornamental potplants. The Boy went back to securing the many buckles and straps. When he was finished, he looked up and noticed that the stars were passing beyond the scope of the saliva’s dome. Thousands of gold and silver pentangles were suspended in the void beyond like some sort of celestial minefield. Each luminesced with an inner radiance. Some caught and crumpled in the invincible hair, their inner bulbs winking out like dysfunctional Christmas lights. The quadrant of stars passed soon enough, like the span of some yuletide asteroid belt. Then it was just black, and this too was soon swallowed by the encroachment of the frosting. An enormous half-sphere of organic ice-crystal now arced above their very strange tea party. Fush poured the Boy a cup of steaming tincture.

“The beginning of the bend,” he toasted.

I noticed the fuzzy image of the moon inside the node of jelly. It seemed to be approaching he head slowly. Fush noticed the Boy’s sudden interest.

“I always collect the snapshot moons,” he chattered away conversationally. “Good market for them Out-There…I know some feller cut surgical cross-sections and re-directs his blood flow through the shapes, blood on the moon…go figure.”

The Boy stared at him, harnessed awkwardly in his tight-fitting parachute.

“Drink up,” the Fush muttered dismissively, adjusting items on the table like a waiter.

The decapitated woman sat regally, as if awaiting the arrival of someone or something. The Boy watched as the enormous, lipsticked mouth of the head slowly kissed open and closed over the moon. He then ate many grapes and drank the cup of tincture, making sure to chew each seed to a pulp before swallowing. Some time passed before the Boy noticed the bubble beginning to melt. As the frosty swathes steamed back into transparency, he saw that the snapshot-Earth now hung mysteriously above them. They had somehow swung upside-down during their ascension. The snapshot-Earth was also incongruently small, disproportionate in size to the time it had taken them to leave it’s surface. It was almost as if the entire globe had shrunk. Now it loomed overhead like some ghostly football in the gulf of perfect black. The bubble abruptly popped. Ghostly strands of saliva wisped off into the forest of hair. Fush stood up, reached over his head with both hands and clasped the snapshot-Earth in his white gloves. The Boy was stunned to see him place the football sized globe on the wrought iron table. It wavered uncertainly between the popcorn and the ornate tincture pot.

“What…” the Boy stammered, staring at the now miniature world.

“Never mind,” the Fush said curtly.

He leaned over to the Boy and snapped his gleaming fingers before his face. The Boy blinked out of his trance.

“Listen carefully, “The Fush said quite evenly. “Take the path out to the hairline, climb down to the eyebrow and jump off the head.”

The Boy stared at him in vague comprehension.

“Count to fourty four and then pull the ripcord,”

He motioned to the orange ripcord tab which the Boy had been fingering for the last half-hour.

“Comprénde?” he asked the Boy.

The Boy seemed almost hypnotised by these orders, incapable of either movement or reason.

“Go now!” goggled the Fush.

The Boy rose on a sort of shaky autopilot and stumbled off into the rosebushes. The wind machines still wheezed uselessly through the empty hoops. He paused near the treeline and looked over his shoulder. The Fush motioned dramatically for him to go on. Beside him, the headless woman sat motionless in her seat, legs crossed elegantly at the ankles. They formed a bizarre circus-like tableau. Fush waved again, as if signalling aircraft. The Boy disappeared into the trees and vaulted over the fence. The blonde forest was dense and warm. Soft, dewy mushrooms of perspiration had ballooned along the surface of the scalp. A blanket-bound, inviting scent rose in maddening waves from these pearly globules. The Boy located the path with little difficulty in the wan, bluish light of space. Its open curvature stretched off toward the Boy’s uncertain fate. He began to run along the soft skin highway, slipping on blossoms of oil and perspiration. The yawning hairclip bridges lurched shakily over his head as he ran. He reached the hairline with his breath heaving in ragged gasps. Far below the head, yawned a vast, milky expanse. The Boy peered in closer to see the mysterious scallops of dunes, stretching off into eternity on all sides. The atmosphere up on the hairline was cloying and temperate. Spikes of hideous clarity rose up off that strange, pale land, piercing the alien night in cones of unnatural coolness. The Boy found the rickety ladder’s moorings and began to scrabble and jerk down the flawless brow. The entire universe seemed to resonate with silence, and every sound the Boy made became obscenely magnified against that immensity. He reached the lopsided couch panting and fell upon it for several minutes. Smooth, white-blonde coils fanned their celluloid architecture far above him, framed by a luminescent infinity of blackness. And there he was, the Boy, at the end of his tether. He took one deep breath and rolled off into space. His stomach lurched as he fell between the eyelashes like a tear. He hit the creamy slope of the high cheekbone at a violent angle. The wind buffeted from him as he rolled crazily across the warm, powdered gradient. Then the ridge of the cheekbone caught him and he was flung headlong into the close, jagged serenity of infinite space. He watched the beautiful face flutter away between his kicking legs. And he could have sworn that she was looking down at him as he spiralled away into the drapery of the night. That panoramic vista of scalloped paleness also danced above and below him as he turned and turned in the void. He counted, panicked, lost count and yanked the ripcord with all his might. Ropes and silk vomited from behind his head. This was followed by a tremendous lurching motion which almost crushed his ribcage. He clung on for dear life as the fall settled into a broad, curving drift. He opened his eyes and gazed fully upon the milk hued wastes which approached like a dream or a vision. The fluttering cap of silk rustled and billowed noisily above him. And he descended like some desolate seed pod. The measureless white zone faltered, hovered and then gradually swept up to engulf him. He hit the dunes with the velocity of a pebble across a pond. He was surprised to feel these dunes splatter across his legs as he struck them. He careened through the rises and dips of this cool, creamy medium, finally coming to rest, half-submerged in the crest of a large swoop. He struggled to disengage himself from the straps and crawl out of the pearly ooze. He squelched to his feet and dizzily surveyed the expanse of smooth white forms. The substance of the white matter had the viscosity of congealed paint, yet it did not stain or cling. It slid and parted as neatly as mercury, rejoining into itself without a trace. The Boy looked back to see the rude streak of his landing closing over on itself like the underside of a snail. The dirty parachute drifted lightly upon the surface of the white, rejected like the rope-ridden corpse of some giant squid. The Boy noticed, with a faint sense of wonder, that the dunes were all moving gradually. He realised that they were in fact not dunes at all, but waves, waves which somehow operated in some slower, denser time frame. The Boy then saw the great head, suspended above the white vista, descending slowly, some distance away. He began to hurriedly make his way over to where he estimated it would settle. Slipping and squalling, he began to draw near to the head’s projected landing site. When he was only a few waves away, he saw that the head had in fact stopped sinking and was now hovering in the impenetrable blackness like some strange balloon. He continued to close the distance, finally making out the tiny figures of Fush and his headless companion. They were positioned directly beneath the enormous face, standing at the very tip of a smooth curve of whiteness. When the Boy was close enough, the Fush spotted him and waved. The Boy waved back and hastened his approach.

“Some folks call this an ocean of milk,” Fush announced when he was within an earshot.

“But its not anything you or I would understand as milk,” he finished succinctly.

The Boy caught his breath beside them, his hands trembling on his knees. The diamonds on the woman’s wrists glinted in the starry light. The Boy turned his head upwards, his breathing coarse and conspicuous in the unearthly silence. The head floated above them, made smaller by distance, seeming to have shrunk to the proportions of a natural head. The Boy watched as the Fush reached up, deftly took the head in his white gloves and replaced it on the woman’s beautiful shoulder’s. He then dusted his palms together for no real reason. The woman inclined her fine featured face and winked at the Boy. He saw her cough something delicately into her gloved palm and hand it to Fush. As the Fush pocketed it, the Boy caught a glimpse of the moon shining between his gloved fingers.

“Let us be upon our merry way,” Fush nodded to the Boy. “There’s a boat here some where’s…”

The Boy gazed wistfully at the woman and her halo of platinum shapes. Who would believe that there were thousands of unattended popcorn machines inside her head?

“Let’s go,” the Fush insisted. “She belongs here.”

The odd pair began to move off into the pale, creamy scape. The Boy noticed that Fush’s wingtips also sank and squelched in the amorphous substance of the place. At some point, the Boy looked back to see the woman silhouetted against the recessions of gleaming scallops. She stood naked, bathed in the mother-of-pearl light. And it was as if her softly rounded forms had already joined together with those lunar recessions. Rejoining into themselves without a trace.

October 3, 2008


Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 2:18 pm

(from the secret diary of Tiffany Twisted)


There are many faceless drones like you. But there is only one of me. And you will never ever learn my secret name. Acquiring knowledge of faerie monsters like me is like going against the law of gravity. You think that maybe that you’ll have me, when I’m pinned beneath you like a rare butterfly, or perching pretty in the gilded cage you have bought for me. But then some strange light will glint through the chinks, and you will realise that you have seen but one room in an enormous house. And you will become lost in that house. You will even hear others, trapped like you, in the house that is me. You will all avoid each other like the plague, those of you who are caught. Each prisoner will secure their territory and then wait for doom, both obsessively curious about the other rooms yet terrified to the core to see them. For to see those places is to understand that they belong to others; to understand that I was never yours in the first place. I am a monument to futility, to absurdity, to the great cosmic comedy that is creation. And you will wait for death inside my webs little, shiny beetle, waiting with your hands drenched in the blood of friends and strangers. Waiting for me to send word through my vines, or visit you in your sleep like a vampire.


But enough of the witchety-routine, let’s instead talk about Alex (the corpse). Slap a mosquito and there’s always a moment when you’re not sure if the blood on your hand is yours. Poor thing. I picked him out of a photo because his eyes were an almost colourless blue. It happens, like stepping on snails in the dark. We would drink latte’s in sunny cafe’s and fuck to classical music compilations. It was the kind of intimate thing you lose after a few days, like a rented ballgown. Tentacles disappear – the movie ends, all you are left with is popcorn. The first Alex ever saw of me was a byte-size, grainy picture in an anonymous electronic gallery. ‘Tiffany Twisted’ was the rather unbelievable name I had assumed in this gallery. The cosmic absurdity I spoke of earlier was present in that eskimo pie of a pseudonym. A rather sugary feeling which suggested an inexplicable private joke; a jibe in which the rest of mankind was somehow not included. Only one monochrome image of my smiling lips guarded the threshold, but it was enough to pique Alex’s interest and make him want to creep deeper into the saccharine mystery I had invented. He wasn’t alone. Thousands of names lined the ephemeral, neon shrine I had erected to my body. Some were never sure if I was a robot, but they all requested access anyway. The anonymity of these systems brought the Jeckyll up to the flesh. And those who ate regularly of this electric vine had long since shod their old protocols. Repulsive honesties spilled over into everyday interactions, tainting reality like a subtle, yet inescapable infection. We trawled these mind-pools like those despicable, translucent creatures one see’s in undersea documentaries. Those see-though faces full of glassy teeth and captivation-organs who trawl their whole lives away in search of endless new ways to soothe their savage appetites. Nature was alive in this invisible, somehow cellular world. The jagged, hungry aspect of nature which see’s creatures eating each other in the filth of creation.


Thoughts like this must have occupied Alex, when first he saw my smile beckon at him, from the other side of nowhere. It was a dense night as I recall and he was on his phone in the city, killing time before a meeting. The sordid, anodyne heaviness of the urban nightmare was weighing down particularly on him that night. He took refuge in his electric universe, in his many identities and the fleeting, intellectual transactions which occupied them. But even these familar opiates were not enough to numb him to the inevitablity of what he had in store for himself. You see, he had planned to meet a lover later for dinner in Soho and was preparing to end the liason. They had been flogging a dead horse for several months now, attending forgettable films and indulging in the kind of clinical sex favoured by glossy suburban publications. She had a terrible, toothpaste-white smile which, he claimed, made him often contemplate killing her. She worked in advertising and joked about lying for a living. In two weeks they would have forgotten about each other and he would spend his seed on electronic shrines like mine, till the next episodic fling shuffled wearily in. Permamanancy was threatening him with immanent collapse. He was ripe for the plucking. You can imagine his vague excitement when the request to enter Tiffany Twisted’s magical gallery was not only accepted, but accompanied by a short message:

[My GPS app tells me yur in the same city. I like yur eyes. Want to tangle?]

I imagine that all men find this directness titillating. For all he knew the pretty monochrome face he was communicating with was a sixty year old pervert in a hotel on the other side of the world. I once knew a girl who took great pleasure in arranging anonymous liasons with men. She would bake them in promises but fail to consumate their eventual plans to meet. She told me that she would loiter across the street from the arranged rendevous point and surreptitiously film them waiting. She told me that it made her feel strangely fulfilled, watching them grow more and more uncomfortable as the glaze of fantasy dried out, revealing the bitter flesh beneath. She told me that she would often watch these recordings in times of stress and take great comfort in them. Stories of this sort were plentiful. They had hardened boys like Alex, forcing them to skirt risk like a disease. All those boys who thought themslves such clever rascals by avoiding reality are those who maintain an alleycat prestige in it’s deficit. They, like so many others, preffered to play the voyeur, remaining on on the boundary of real events. And like most modern men, Alex was a coward. His experience was limited to the intricacy of his lies. Constant social obsessions with the notion of substance had only made facetious secret agents of the majority of ‘that other gender’. Society had perfected the concept of substance and they had constructed a thousand escape hatches back to the empty pavilion of the inner self. Exposure was taboo; the bull-ring of Fame was testimony to this. Everyone’s alternate identity was famous to some degree, but we were all still after-images of ourselves, living in the ghost-hotel of the shadows we had created. Alex’s grim liason with his soon-to-be-ex lover was testimony to this persistant perpetuation of illusion. He and his beau were running out of hidey-holes, and a new refuge was desperately needed. But such is the pasteboard upon which the modern lover builds their life. Over-population had tuned natural mating responses into a disease of inertia. The inevitable outcome could only be extinction. That evening found Alex unusually grim, doused in thoughts such as these, almost suicidal (as his vanity would prefer to say). Temptations of obliteration flickered inside him like rogue cats. He needed some form of distraction – And what better distraction than a pretty package of candy? He found himself replying automatically to my ghostly monochrome voice.


[Sure - I'm free in an hour. Lets meet]

He must have put his phone back in his pocket, not expecting a reply. But he had to pull it out only a moment later.

[where] I asked, smacking down the glove.

He arranged to meet me at a cocktail bar and began to scour all the information he could have gleaned about me. He knew that I had been going through all the online pictures of him, picking at his background life like a magpie. My tracking devices registered him tracking me, as I rifled quickly through some of his personal information. The reality of the situation would have begun to occur to him by then. He would suddenly begin to feel a little excited. The drossness of his mood would dissipate and he would feel vaguely thankful toward the mystery girl for stroking his ego across the night. His doubts however would remain; like ink-stains on an otherwise pleasing picture. In all likelihood, to him, I was just a bored teenager. This is what his mind would say. It would tell him that I was some little zombie looking for caustic antidotes to her immediate boredom. I mean he wasn’t particularly attractive, either phsyically or financially. If asked to describe himself I could imagine him saying that he was ‘expendable’ (with a rehearsed smile of course). He probably anticipated a drink or two and some meaningless flirtation before this little fantasy-teen of his mind’s eye got cold feet and vanished into the wasteland of short-term memory. But even that would be enough to lighten the spell of inertia which had clogged his evening. I was like a neon nun of the underworld. I could wipe away misery with one flash of my wand. It wasn’t any wonder people thanked me so profusely after abusing the images of my body. It was in the nature of men to worship the eternal feminine. Even misogyny was a bastardised version of this lustful sacrament. He cancelled his meeting and began to walk to the cocktail rendevousz, just like a good little pagan.


The place was in Kingly street. The walls and ceilings were plated in LED screens and spacious video booths lined the walls in the manner of some futuristic, orbital diner. Within the enclosure of the booth, one could toggle through background scenery and ambient music to create a variety of atmospheres and moods. He went in, ordered a drink and thumbed an image of the rolling sea onto the walls around him. I was watching from the bar. He opted for a beat-less shakuhachi soundtrack while high-resolution waves crashed soundlessly against an illusory distance. This isolated and superficially spiritual mantle was of course, a common starting point with many men upon first meeting a woman. The agony of the would-be pilot, or the cowboy betrothed to his own special electronic horses. The predictability of the act probably nauseated him, but he was obviously too demotivated to court orginality. He spotted me almost immediately as I detached from my perch. Many people do not resemble themselves in photographs. They manufacture facial expressions and body alignments harvested from the outer gardens of transmitted imagery. But their natural inclinations/faces always betray them in real life. I, however, had been educated by witches. In the kingdom of predatory insects and spiders, superficial attractiveness is sometimes the most fatal weapon. And it is a craft not lightly undertaken. I had been shown how to fold myself in, like a magician’s handkerchief. In appearance, I was a perpetually maintained hologram of Tiffany. I wore my Daemon familiar like an automatic illusion. And I held myself behind this forcefield at all times, letting the occasional wild feather of personality jut from beneath the armour of her, like a sliver of insubordination. Tiffany’s hair was platinum, bordering on a pale gold or silver. Her face was always doll-like in its cultivated glassiness. This threw all my emotions into focus by avoiding them. Undercurrents whiplashed about like caged fish, threatening constant breakage (Such is the gravity of high magic). But Tiffany’s enforced blankness created psychic screens which deflected the thoughts of others like a water-tight surface. It was a vaguely magnetic technique which Madre Sanguina the witch had taught me in the casinos of the Cote D’Zur. Nothing like a Blackjack table to sharpen a girl up like a knife. Alex saw me and I crossed over. We shook hands and I sat, smiling vaguely. He was ill at ease, threatened by my casual command.

“How did you find me?” he asked as I ordered a drink.

“I’m a friend of Jessica Brandt,” I lied.

Jessica was a good-time girl I knew he knew from the boat party circuit. I had met her once at a dress-up one or two weeks ago and she had pointed him out in passing. I remembered his eyes – and London is a smaller town than you would think (especially in profile-world). She told me that they had slept together and that he had a rather pleasant cucumber-like cock. We were talking one-night-stands at the bar and she gave up the most outrageous details. She also mentioned that he was disease-free so I knew I could go in guns blazing and keep him on edge. My mention of Jessica instantly quelled whatever reservations he had about the stranger infront of him. He sort of melted into it. He now had references and vainly assumed that he understood my motivations (that Jessica had boasted about his prowess or something). We were suddenly in second game, past the darkness of the woods and playing sexual tennis.

“Is your name really Tiffany?” he oiled.

“No, of course not.”

My drink arrived; pale liquid set amongst lacerations of ice.

“Do you know what this is?” I sipped, switching the background walls to the gaping vertigo of a Grand Canyon flyover.

“I’m not sure,” he captioned. “A Vodka mixer of some kind?”

“It’s Shochu,” I answered pertly. “A Japanese spirit brewed in clear glass casks. You can drink it straight all night without getting a hangover.”

“You accent is strange,” he frowned. “Where are you from?”

“Africa,” I smiled. “Where the wild things walk.”

He smiled back. And some inner stop watch started ticking down.


He had a flat in Kensington, an address he was relatively arrogant about. I wasn’t impressed, though pretended to be. We took a cab and didn’t talk much. He said I was supple for a beautiful girl. He told me that in his limited experience, cosmetically attractive girls were like porcelain figures. You could place them anywhere and they would adorn the space around them like a shrine of some kind. But if you bent them they would always break.

“You’re strong…” he muttered, locked beneath the grinding axis of my pale limbs.

A flicker of sweat caught like syrup in the minimal light. It left my shoulderblade and licked at his eye like a bluebottle. I laughed. In the confined space it was a rather brutal coughing sound, like

the bark of a hyena.

“Yes,” I gritted from the shadows above.

“I’m very strong.”

He wasn’t fit enough for me. He said that it had been a draining day and that the stress had worn him down to almost nothing. I rolled off him and crawled over to my things. In the blue shafts of light, he was like some sort of beached fish. He glistened as I moved, watching me, perplexed. I extracted a dark glass ampoule from my purse and turned a frozen face to him.


“Cum in this for me,” I whispered.

He was about to protest, so I slid back over the sheets like a cuttlefish. My muscular fingers coiled and clutched around him, flicking off the moist latex membrane. My mouth must have moved like a hot, open wound because primal responses flamed vividly in the darkness. ‘She is milking me’ I felt him think, in a split-second of delirious telepathy, ‘milking me like an animal’. Then something small and potent burst, emptying the whole night into the small bottle which I angled carefully between his thighs. Whatever last vestiges of strength he had left, drained away like gutter water. I retracted, an underwater thing and changed in the darkness. My clothing rustled, as his eyes kept closing with sullen heaviness. He listened to my heels as they clocked down the passage, entering the kitchen. The light of the fridge blushed the darkness open like an eye. And I could hear him listening as I drank ice water in the pale light. Glass after glass, clinking and swallowing. He fell into a dream which he would later tell me about. A vision of glaciers and large roaming octopi which were hunting the last survivors of mankind; hunting them for their blood.

A word or two about reptiles before I tell you about The House of Scalpel Valentine’s (and the cum thing). It was reptiles who got us all into this mess in the first place. Once the world was ruled by insects and plants. No birds, no animals- zip. All those things were in the sea. The sea was where it was at baby – Mama Eternal, the lap of the Lady herself. But Those reptiles had another idea of course. It was the bugs that did it. Those juicy, buzzing kingdoms were thriving like fast-food franchises up in the world above. Can you imagine a world ruled by insects? Some strange sea monsters did. They changed they way they breathed to get at the gourmet shit. That’s how intense a reptile can be. They crawled out of the ooze and colonized. The rest is speculative history. We are the natural progression of insatiable appetites. And this is why we have no future.

Once mothers ruled the world. The universe was one gorgeous tapestry and the Goddess-Spider from whence we sprung was worshipped accordingly. It was like a return to the sea, that time of feminine power. The reptile in us managed to harmonise with the maternal and thrive…Oh we are such pretty pagans, we Sisters of the Scalpel. We remember that time like it was yesterday. And we worship a secret face of the Holy Virgin, Our Lady of Sorrows; the Surgeon Mary. We live in a dark age, you must know that. Look out a window and see the future, freezing on your ledge like some mutilated cat. Once we understood that our bodies where given to us by the Earth and our Spirits by the stars. Now we are the crumbs under Satan’s fingernails. Alot of people took to hidey holes and secret systems. I tried alot of them, especially in California. But I settled for the Sisters when I met Sanguina. She brought me to London and got me out of the mirror-verse which threatens every girl. We had a big house in Hampstead, on Templewood avenue, quite near West Heath road. It was a fortress and used to belong to a diamond magnate. There were two towers and too many rooms to count. The upper floors were reserved for new girls, who weren’t allowed to leave for nine months (the time it takes to be born anew). And yes, we had rituals and special robes and all that stuff which makes every cult so darn special. Every belief-system has it’s fancy dress. I got there and was buzzed in by the guards. Celeste was in the kitchen overseeing the preparation of lunch. Large, white slabs of marlin lay around like tombstones. I asked her if she would help me perform a sigil ritual when she was done and went up to the Lab. It wasn’t really a laboratory, but we called it the Lab because everything in it was just such an operation. I turned on the radiators full blast, disrobed and washed myself in an adjoining steamroom. I bathed with a bucket of steaming spring water and giant chunks of lemony glycerine. Then I took a good half hour to scrub every inch of myself down with rock salt and rose petals – to get into that spell casting groove. When Celeste came in I was lying naked on the heated black marble altar, half in and out of sleep. This state, which we Witchies call the Liminal Zone, is a tough place to get to and maintain. Don’t get me wrong, we all fuzz into it around sleepy-time. But to get into it and stay there took a little sweat. I learned the Liminal Gnosis on a boat in the Meditteranean. I would swim every day and then lie for hours in the sun, sometimes well into the evening glow. I would doze, trying to catch myself in the webby nexus of pre-sleep so I could hold it around me like a rare gossamer garment. It took some weeks, but I got my sickle shaped scout’s badge on that boat. Now I was slippery in the spell of hypnogogia; my limbs weightless and warm, my mind expanding like a slow balloon. The black bottle of harvest-sperm was in it’s niche beside me and all was quiet in the Lab. I could hear distant, sparse traffic and the trees on the Heath. Everything was tuned to a terminal relaxation up in the Lab. The dark wood pannelling and black pile soaked up the all the sounds like blotting paper. Celeste disappeared into the washroom and emerged later, unclothed and steaming. I was so in and out that she seemed to quiver between two images of herself. Her slanted eyes made four and every sound that came off her was as crisp and freshly peeled as a sweet wrapper. She uncapped scented oils and began to massage me in a rather pornographic way. This might seem pretty B-Grade to the casual esoteric, but I assure you, kinky arousal is Gateway Number One to Liminal Land. So it wasn’t long before I was all cookies and cream. Sexual electricity had gathered all over me in a kind of waspish, pink static, and I manouvered and swirled it around in buoyant mind-tides. Sleep came at me occasionally, like a starving pet. It snuck up, inflicting bouts of vertigo. But I was a veteran of Never Never Land and held fast between worlds, grinning like an imp. Celeste had an expert touch and inflicted the kind of secret pleasures only witches know. My comatose moaning and ooh-ing and ah-ing slowly started to turn into strange words. These ecstatic vocalizations; this Glossolalia, fountained out of my sleeper’s mouth. The sonic vibrations became visual, forming into cubic shapes above me. It was like watching sugar crystallize in a highly illuminated solution. I slowly focused my electric sex-sugar into the long video form of Tiffany Twisted. She grinned down blonde fire above me, turning in space like a hologram. Somewhere in another world, Celeste uncapped Alex’s rehydrated ejaculate. She rubbed it into my solar plexus, spiking it with a lashing of Myrrh-y oils and mentrual blood. The sticky, sulphuric substance broiled on me like an egg as I saw Tiffany whip down with a sly little purr. She regarded the offering for a moment before squeezing open like a kitten; lapping up the long glowing strands of vital energy from the saucer of my stomach. A cord tightened across the city; from Tiffany’s puppet finger, through the lens of my perfect tummy and through the streets to Alex. And as soon as Tiffany was fed, Celeste’s warm palms left me. I back-vaulted into luminous dreams of underwater palaces. Mysterious places which I somehow felt I’d visited before. And all through this, Tiffany Twisted held my hand, wafting above me like a radio-angel from le Universe Perverse.


I woke up satisfied and yummy, curled like whitebait across the marble slab. By now it was dusk. I could see a thin red line smouldering behind the branches outside. I left the Lab and took a bubblebath in one of the boudoirs upstairs. I came down when it was dark. Some girls were in the lounge flicking through magazines and trying on expensive pairs of shoes. Someone was playing a harp in one of the downstairs chambers. I went into the kitchen and found a teenage girl eating a sandwich in a tracksuit. She waved, nibbling at her olive bread like a mouse. Long furry angel wings had been harnessed onto her, and they bumped the counters whenever she moved. I opened the walk-in fridge and extracted some marlin left over from lunch. We ate together in silence and then I left, lighting a cigarette at the door.

So I’m one bullet-proof chiquita huh? Well, even titanium Barbie Dolls have their one fatal crack. It’s never all blueberries and blue-steel (unfortunately). Karma has a way of nosing in like a sacred snake, invading the nest and eating all your eggs while you lie helpless, watching. I could lie and just play peachy, but this is a secret diary and all the dirt and dead skin has to be scrubbed off and scrutinized. For starters, I’m not as heartless as I play. My heart was locked up in a cage. And the name of that cage was Etienne Juniper (and no, it’s not his real name). None of my Scalpel sisters knew about Etienne. And I think I even managed to keep him a secret from Sanguina. You might think it’s impossible to keep secrets from a witch like Sanguina, but let me tell you now: Nothing’s impossible! I met him when I was a complex gypsy of a thing, lost at sea and chainsmoking by rainy windows. At first it was just because he was so pretty. And Etienne was a pretty little prickle-pear – all pinstripes and werewolves. And he knew how to fuck his way into a girl’s heart. Alot of boy’s think they know how to pull the love-lever. But let me tell you it’s a one in a million. Most girl’s don’t even know that they have a lever. But when a lady finds her system controls, she wants the best car on the block. Now firstly, Etienne was genetically blessed. And many ‘sensitive’, oestrogen-mimic enfused, mag-reading males might dispute this endowment factor, but let me assure you: the love-garage is built to spec. And no matter how sweet or touching the flame, it all boils down to animal courtship rituals. Mother Nature is in the driver’s seat down here on Planet Dirt, and let’s not forget it. So, like I said before, human mating rituals are now the evolutionary joke of the century – But despite this fine comedy, primal programming still held the biggest megaphone. At the end of the day (down by the inescapable pond), the female frog is still going to choose the male frog with the biggest croak. It’s built in baby. There are secret buttons all along the inside of my kitten; set out like an express elevator all the way up to the womb room. And each cosmic button has to be activated to achieve escape velocity. It therefore takes a fine cat-burglar to lockpick the universe (and having quality gear is just the first step). I mean even a stallion has to know how to jump! What’s the use having a Ferrari if you’re only going to drive it to the shop? No babe, a machine needs to be taken down to the highway and opened up. And that’s the secret sauce with boy’s and their toys: sensitivity to the secret rhythms. No man can enter the Temple of Venus without first recognising the Anima within, the triple faced Goddess which bequeathed the body unto him. And that combination of self-knowledge and material ability was rare as blue butterflies. And Etienne had both in spades. There was a snag of course (there always is). His profusion of knowledge came with a heartlessness which was positively fictitious. He took his time with me, soaking up my dry heart in glowing slashes of textbook romance and play-play love. I was young, lonely and foolish and fell right into the web. It reached the stage when I would do anything to be near him. He took me down to the bottom of the well and I learned about the blackness of love-mud. I used to call him ‘Frankie Teardrop’ because he’d play the song sometimes when we did it and I started to cry. He had it on an old white cassette with the word ‘SUICIDE’ scrawled across the plastic in silver marker. That tape got so chewed after six months, you could hardly hear the words, only Alan Vega’s occasional jagged scream. It was Lisbon in 1999. I was eighteen, reading Neil Gaiman and dying my hair every second week. The future looked bleak. Everyone had end-of-the-world fever and I was in love with a secret cyclops. I found out about Etienne’s pirhana-side from a friend who waitressed in the waterfront area. She’d eavesdropped on him and some of his port buddies while they played cards. The whole web began to unravel but I didn’t care, I was besotted. It turned out that my Frankie Teardrop was a rare fish indeed, one of those homosexual barracudas who turned over rich housewives for guilt money. After two years of fucking desperate debutantes and loaded ladies, Etienne learned almost everything he needed to know about getting a girl onto her knees. He studied the art of pleasuring women with a white-hot battery of hate. And his application of romance was diabolical. His conquest of the female erogenous zones was approached with clinical detachment, and a with a veiw to material gain. He was an exquisite misogynist, and each heart he invaded gave him a spiteful satisfaction beyond mere physical pleasure. Etienne had transgressed genders and arrived at some strange and demonic androgyne of the soul. Soon he would start seducing girls just for fun. He would enter into long and complicated relationships with them, hiding his heartless nature behind a chocolatey facade. This conflict of pleasures made him an outcast amongst the gay community. People argued that whichever way he cut it, he took more pleasure sleeping with women than men. No-one could understand him except me. And it made me love him all the more. I fell into that let’s-save-the-broken-bird syndrome, which so many girls got around the demonically possesed. Etienne became my special project, and so I fell in deeper. His ability to be honest with me and still maintain a sexually parasitic relationship opened up the red door of sadism. And it’s shocking what love can give a girl a taste for. He was in and out of my life for a decade, coming and going like a cyclone, keeping a long grip on the leash. I don’t know why, But I couldn’t deny him anything. I often hated him. But then he would smile and charm his way back into my bed. And whenever the tip of his devil cock knock knock knocked at the painful portal of my womb, it triggered some kind of physical response which went way beyond sense. He had all the crazy keys to me; my very own personal devil in velvet. So when he called and told me that he was in London I ran to him like a lost thing. It took just one phonecall to betray my oath to the Sisterhood – That’s how low and fickle I am. We started up again like an infection. He had a coke operation running in the party circuit and told me he had plans to start up a high-class, online escort agency. I knew what he had in mind for me and tossed it around before he even asked. I needed money and, in a way, my time with Sanguina had trained me for the shark tank. There were no accidents. And at moments of revelation, I somehow knew that the old Basque witch was still walking me through the wood, smiling at my false sense of privacy. Etienne had no idea about the Sisterhood and I played it weak and medoicre when I was around him. I told him I’d been here for a couple of years, writing copy for an ad agency and taking acting classes. He had no reason to disbelieve my story and set about degrading me with reptilian relish. He knighted me with the incredibly unimaginative name ‘Candy Glass’ and sent me to an out of work fashion photographer to get some lingerie shots done. He told me that he had to build an online escort profile and needed oiled-up pictures of me immediately. It all started with a metallic bang; a cold night in Maida Vale, on my knees in a white limousine, listening to hip-hop while an as-yet-unamed Turkish producer stuck his perfumed cock up my ass. Etienne must have enjoyed seeing that security camera footage. I couldn’t walk for two days, made over two grand in one night and decided to lay down some ground rules sharpish. Etienne was always wondering how much abuse it would take to chase me away, but I wasn’t about to break. God knows what would happen if I did. The rules of the universe would invert, polarities would shift. So we played our game of terrible chess. I took the calls, prepped my pussy and set about gorging Tiffany with the cream of London’s sleazy seed. And there’s nothing like fast food to make a daemon familiar grow big and strong. Tiffany grew larger in her astral sphere, easier to slip on than a fur coat, more ferocious than a tank full of white tigers.


I stopped at the apartment in Belgravia, went online and re-entered the artficial world. I kept this apartment exclusively for Candy and my Etienne cover story, and it often gave me a sort of, I don’t know, Monosodium Glutamate kind of feeling. Etienne had a date lined up for Candy at midnight. I unsealed my patent leather spike heels and microscopic Prada combo. I selected a diamond choker and made a hair and nail appointment (Rituals always fucked up my hair). I then decocted a Chinese Angelica potion, downed it and went to do my witchy stretches. I still had an hour to harmonise my meridians before zooting down to the 24hour hairdresser/manicurist which Etienne kept on ice for his bitches. I don’t smoke, but Candy Glass does. I would light up an Yves Saint Laurent by the window before I went out as Candy. And I often cackled as I blew smoke at the not too distant lights of the Grosvernor hotel. How the Sisters of the Scalpel would retch if they saw me now; a glazed up sweetmeat, all ready to play doll with all the dogs of the universe.

Candy is my name in the pink fur. Poison is my name when I hipswing. Loitering in the shiny boxes of elevators, smoking delirious curls outside red velvet doors. I move through people, shimmying hip-deep into the narrow, jelly-channels of nocturnal circulation; filter feeding myself to the animals who roam the galactic corridors of moonbase hotels. I drag fingers and thighs along every eye, as I tick night after night in the labyrinth; the splendid theatre of never-ending rooms. Candy’s origami fingers are stiff with gleaming hotels and baby oil. Her body moves like a construction of snakes and soft plastic. Candy is the the name of a girl who has no name. Who prefers to forget that she ever had a television addiction or a warm pillow to swim into. Candy is the name of sugar that has dissolved in water and reconstructed itself around whatever objects have drowned. Candy is sucked in the mouths of strangers and kept in boxes in bedroom containers; left on pillows as presents and eaten out of guilt.

Sometimes I am lost in the waters. Down in the deep shark tanks, suspended beneath the futuristic dream city. I float-out aimless in the medical depths while distant searchlights throw skyscraper pillars of high resolution into the endless successions of glass tank systems. Each room is a shark tank, each mark is a shark, every interaction a minefield and my throbbing heart a hydrogen bomb. I wear my black bottles of pilfered fluid like oxygen tanks while vast mantas of lost hope flicker out across the drowning people. Nobody really knows how old sharks in Sharkville are. I mean some sharks ate dinosaurs in the womb. Sharks are ancient visitors. They were around thousands of years before mr Tyrannosaurus Rex even evolved. I mean they have it down babe. And I eat sharks with my daemon, bumping against plexiglass planes like a weighted doll, slowly unclipping my skin to show sugar crystal bones. And the water floods into me, making my skeleton thinner with each swirl. Fleshtone erodes in syrupy tentacles and I dissolve into the murk and gloom, travelling in seams of sweetness which tiny parasites cling to and feed off. Candy is not a name which anyone would wish upon themselves. Because sugar rots your teeth. And people who lose their teeth have to suck their fluid foods behind closed doors. People who live off sugar are doomed to become insects; mutating in tiny rooms, feeling their organs cramp and rearrange as they bloat in the flickering lights. Hatching every night into a frenzy of technicolour vistas and peeling flesh palaces. Falling out of high and tiny windows and fluttering through the shambling carcasses of vast structures, vomiting over Candy to encourage dissolution. First: guilting into their switchblade situations in some feverish trenchcoat scene, then: spilling out the trenchcoat treasure in some airtight room. They unwrap back the glittery translucencies and strips of foil and shedded predator skins, trying to get at my soft center which need not be dissolved. But there is never a soft center in true candy. Candy is hard and glassy and needs to be shattered first to be properly engorged; eaten till sick with sticky fingers and scattered in broken pieces across a wilderness of burned carpets and heavy neon decay. Candy will pull out needle blowtorches and run them along her spine to melt herself for fun sometimes. Feeling the crystals in her back break apart into slag and tendrils which ooze out all over the tables and flowers like a lethal meltdown (Heavy smell of caramel tainting the air into poison gas…), Feeling arms and legs soften and run as she is consumed by the glittering insect which drops down violently from the walls and ceilings. Speeded up wings flutter against a white neon wall as the luxurious suite shakes and dislodges from its moorings; tumbling through endless rotting basements and sewer cathedrals to catch in the world of cobwebs beneath the streets. The distant tremors of approaching spiders inflicts tiny geometric earthquakes in the web strata. And the trampolining becomes rythmic and sickening as the figure in the trenchcoat writhes and gibbers in the hardening swamp of sugar. Old wooden cupboards clatter and trampoline as the walls are explored by an anemone of shiny stylus points and icy limbs. The spider licks tiny Tiffany lips, which are cusped by razor cheekbones. A crown of tiny eyes is set in her head. The spider gets in and taps the insect because that’s just what always spiders do, with a languid and mindless prescision. But spiders don’t eat Candy so I always just stand there watching, while the legs stilt and rearrange about me. Spiders don’t need sweets to catch things. Spiders are born without teeth. Mandibles give you fingertips in your mouth. And everything the spider say’s is in fact a hand, reaching out slowly to pull you in. And the mouth that the spider speaks through is mine.

I intercepted this broken English email which one of the Eastern European Sisters sent to a fellow Scalpel Valentine :

‘I witness another sigil ritual for the Sister I was telling you about last week. I think she is feeding her imp so much vital jism that it makes me concern. I worry she might be possesed by it. There is always such danger when dealing with helper’s and shadow people. I prefer to practise dreaming navigations rather than to toy with things from other worlds. These things come to you as your sweetest friend and then turn you to the food-finder, like cats. I don’t know maybe if I should talk to the Scalpel Superior about it. Maybe I’m just being paranoia, you know how much gossip there is in the House. I’m just a bit concern that she might be demon sleeper. What you think?’

Paranoia is like an infectious disease. And the message made me nervous for a number of reasons. Superficially, I couldn’t have any rumours circulating about me at the House. If anyone found out about my Candy Glass routine, I would be subjected to all manner of occultish punishments which would no doubt result in some form of horrific exile or termination. Secondly, I had to admit that she had a point. Before Etienne came along I was balanced in my witchiness. But Candy had thrown a real Stegosaurus bone in the soup. Was I really being manipulated by Tiffany? Was Candy really Tiffany running wild, acting through my weakness for Etienne, compelling me to acts of wanton degradation? Knowing Daemon’s, I could only assume that this probably was the case. The only problem was that I was loving every minute of it. I had stockpiled a nebula of vital energy and was luxuriating in secret meltdown. I had become a delicious liability, a hidden cancer, a Wicked Witch of the West! I decided to threaten the letter writer, whose name was Nadia.

I found Nadia in the sprawling gardens behind the House of Scalpel Valentine’s. It was near evening and she was gathering herbs in the nursery behind the poplar grove. It was a habit of hers to gather herbs at this time each day for the evening broth she drank. I slipped off my shoes and walked barefoot through the trees. I was ‘walking cat’ and she didn’t notice me at all until I was right behind her. She got a shock and dropped her sheaves of greenery. ‘Cat walking’ always gives one a magical advantage when stalking prey (I highly recommend it).

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“It’s fine,” she mumbled, kneeling to gather the delicate, fallen fronds. She was wearing a long black cape which pooled around her as she stooped. I squatted, in a feline fashion, and helped her to gather them up.

“So you think I’m a demon?” I asked casually.

She froze in the gloaming light, blinking at me in stuttering succesions. It was growing darker in the gardens, a thin mist forming in the shadowy masses of foliage. A bird called from somewhere in the Heath and I could feel time slow as our awarenesses altered into a vaguely predatorial gear. It was the state of two animals who sight each other in a wood, unsure who will attack first.

“Are you reading my mind?” she asked quietly.

She had a musky, Slovak accent which somehow lent a murderous gravity to her question.

“No,” I smiled. “I just hacked your mail.”

“Why you do that?”

“I heard you were starting rumours about me, I just wanted to make sure.”

We stared at each other as the light got dimmer, glazing the contours of our faces and eyelashes in a smouldering amber.

“I’m not sure about you,” she said frankly. “Maybe I go tell Scalpel Superior what I think.”

“Well, what can I do to convince you of my innocence,” I smiled breezily.

She snorted, a little like a horse. My element of surprise was wearing off, but she still had not noticed the little bundle of stalks which I had slipped into her fallen items.

“Maybe not to hack into my message box,” she muttered.

“You don’t work with familiars darling,” I replied. “Whereas I do, and furthermore, I’m perfectly in control of mine.”

We both stood slowly in the shadowy light.

“I’ll walk you back,” I said.

We strolled through the grove of poplars and I absent-mindedly plucked a small green apple from a familiar tree. After a moment’s hesitation I picked another and offered it to her. She hesitated for a moment, eyeing me in the chilly gloom.


“I can’t stand gossip,” I said wearily.

She nodded and took the apple which I held out to her. We munched our way across the long lawns. At the top of the slope, the House of Scalpel Valentine’s stood like a Roman ruin pierced by glowing, church-like windows.

“Maybe I am being, how you explain; paranoid,” she mumbled, chewing thoughtfully. “I have not left House for three months and jump at shadows.”

“Cabin fever is a terrible enemy,” I reciprocated, slinking over the cropped turf.

Her apple was down to the core now and we were in near darkness. Her face was a grey smudge of confusion when she found a length of cotton unravelling from the core and in between her teeth. She stopped abruptly, swiping at the strand which was jammed between her molars and incisors. I was giggling now. She swore under her breath, her cloak swishing to and fro like the wings of a trapped raven.

“Let me illuminate you little Sister,” I smiled, flicking open my slim gold lighter. The buttery flame caught on the sallow ovals of our faces, casting us against the night like forms in an old oil painting. There was crimson smudged all over her mouth and fingers. She gazed down at the blood soaked core of the apple in terror, fingering the black and red cotton threads which sewed up the interior of the fruit.

“Demon!” She choked, unable to bring her voice above a whisper.

She was clearly unaware of my careful timing and studious observation of her daily routines.

“You know what that blood is don’t you little Sister,” I whispered, flicking us back into blackness and squatting down to where she had sunk to her knees.

She was scuffling at her face, trying desperately to untangle the bloodied cotton from her teeth.

“It’s my Menstruum,” I smiled, stroking her scalp.

She coughed and spluttered under my fingers, like a troubled pet.

“I have bound you Nadia,” I whispered viciously into her ear. “And you shall comply with my will.”

She whimpered beneath me, sinking against the grass, seeming to have lost all inner firmamnent. I could feel the breeze sifting through the trees, as it had done around noon when I had climbed into the apple tree to inject my menstrual fluid into the fruit of my choice before binding my will into it with needle and thread (oldest trick in the book really). I stroked her hair heavily, as though she were a sick dog, reaching under her cloak to clutch her sex like a ripe fruit. She flinched, but did not resist. I held her like that while I spoke.


“Don’t worry,” I whispered soothingly. “I’m not a demon, though I can’t have you tarnishing my good standing now can I?”

She quivered in assent, head on knees against the grass, while I coiled warmly up against her from behind. Trees bristled darkly overhead as a car passed in the road beyond the ageing stone wall.

“I will call on you if I have need,” I smiled, kissing her back lightly whilst squeezing my false nails into her tenderest of flesh. A strangled sob escaped her, diffusing into the damp grass. Ants scurried across the pale of my arm, made vivid by the darkness.

“Meanwhile…” I added. “You keep nice and quiet about my private life, understand?”

She nodded furiously and I released her, wafting soundlessly back through the trees up to the house. In my pocket was a slim loop of black and red cotton, twined. All I had to do was slip it on to affect her. I left, fully aware of her movements. She would cry for awhile, out there on the dark grass. Then she would pull herself up and rush back to wash the blood from her mouth and hands. She would make her nightly healing broth and, in her nervous state, overlook the bundle of herbs which I had mixed in with hers. The herbs would cause her to sleep and their fragrance would create an atmosphere which would lead her to specific dreams. Much as the sound of an alarm clock is incorporated into a waking dream. She would drift unmoored into this place I had prepared, unaware that Tiffany would be waiting, poised like an enormous, glassy spider, waiting to encapsulate her in a specially constructed cocoon.

Dark sides are a little like old black nail polish. The bottle should have run dry ages ago; but there always seems to be enough to cover all your fingernails…One last time.

September 25, 2008

The Optical Bomber

Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 2:04 pm

I have listened at the windows. And I have heard the stories of wreckage. I have become haunted by the notion of places which do not truly exist. It was almost as if I awoke one day to find my life cluttered with the presence of these places. I watch them fleuroesce like bleak Christmas lights. The passive nullity of petrol stations shining bright as open fridges in the night. The infinity of a highway in darkness. The pressure tube of television. All these forms, locked in plastic and shiny as tomorrow. They seem to have been constructed to take full advantage of the elasticity of my time. Their functioning seems to allow them to speed up existence by slowing my awareness of it down to a virtual standstill. Hence, when I am enclosed within the stasis of a non-place my perception homogenizes into a series of automatic, vegetative routines. Time speeds up and chunks of my life are amputated in the painless stupor of repetition.


Once, aboard an airplane, I suddenly became aware that I was above the Sahara desert. The enormous immediacy of it became suddenly monstrous against the stasis of the long cabin and its capsuled food. A vast ocean of winds was roaring outside the pressure seals. Out there in the actual world, I was falling across the sky. But the desert had effectively been amputated from my perception. I must have in fact visited many countries which I have not even seen. Countries across whose skies I have slept, like a ghost or a drowsing god. I started to nurture secret dreams. In my dreams I will be on an airplane with every person I have ever met. And we will crash in the dunes of the Sahara as I drink my cocktail. Then I will watch all these ghosts come sickeningly and slowly to life. And I will play flute for them as the ragged hostesses scavenge for supplies in the merciless winds. We will share spoiled food and hitch lifts from passing Tuareg caravans. And watch the sun rise in a real world.

It is a still grey morning, laden with all the prickly tension of a corporate take-over. The first thing I notice are the dense nodes of people clustered around the blaring radios of parked cars. The foreigners are nervous. I pick catpaths through the backstreets as the orange-link security barriers start to clog up the alleyways like cobwebs. Everyone’s on a phone muttering tactics and looking for the nearest station. And as the helicopters multiply like carrion insects, the street energy begins to wasphive toward a sort of overload. I dip in and out of the camera crews as the troop carriers come into veiw. Time is slowing down, condensing as the mood intensifies. Luminous crowd control spill like white blood cells down the wide and sloping perspectives. Everyone is expecting another bomb.


There is a tarot card called the Tower. It is the sixteenth card of the Major Arcana and is related to the fiery Mars. It is represented in the Hermetic Qabala as a manifestation of the twenty seventh path of the Tree of Life, the path of Peh. That which connects the Sephiroth’s Hod (splendour) and Netzach (victory). It is in some aspects the worst single card a person can draw in their future sphere, as it indicates an unexpected and negative transmogrification with devastating consequences. The imagery on the card indicates a tower whose crown has been struck off by an unanticipated bolt of lightening. The tower stands in a desolate and forbidding landscape. A man and woman fall from the tower toward an ambiguous fate. The card foretells destruction and calamity. But it is a card of initiation. And its original title was The House of God.

I once spent a year in the sweat lodge of an actor’s life. This gruelling year culminated in a series of performances in an airless basement theatre sequestered below the city’s grand opera house. One facet of the performances which struck me resoundingly was the experience of being backstage. The backstage area was dusty and hung with endless reams of faded black cloth. These created that sound-dampened hotzone peculiar to the theatre. Large, formless chambers adjoined the dressing rooms. These were mostly used for the storage of disused props and partially dismantled sets which were left to gather dust in the convoluted bowels of the great theatre. I found solace in these shapeless rooms, in the intense silences between scenes. The claustrophobic stairwell offered little relief and all too soon became hazed with the cigarette smoke of nerve-stricken actors. I could not concentrate there. I had constructed the characters which I had to play as painstakingly as one might erect a house of cards. And after endless rehearsals, these characters began to refine themselves and become as familiar to me as neighbourhood cats. Their existence, freed from the constraints of chance and free will, became sharply defined against the dictates of their scripted fates. They existed as a sort of sentient sculpture of space and time. A construction of carefully orchestrated emotional patterns. Forms which I reconstituted each night and inhabited against the spotlit ground zero beyond the faded drapes. By the third performance, these characters were as easy to slip on and off as items of clothing. I noticed a curious detatchment filter over me as I stepped into livid glare that night. I receded and allowed the character and pre-ordained situatoin to completely govern my material existence. I hovered beyond this, shifting and tweaking my sculpture, but transient as thought. I expected this detatchment to lift as I exited the stage, but instead it intensified. Backstage I was freed momentarily from the confines of my character and its repetitive segments of mock-fate. Here I realized that I was also temporarily released from my own fate, held in a sort of stasis by the infinity of crystallized time in which the backstage continuum existed. Here I was no longer an actor. I was merely waiting to be an actor until I was back under the lights, or until the performance was over. Reality consented that I was here waiting to act and thusly ignored my existence. Here I simply existed, liberated from the constraints of fate and choice until time shuffled me relentlessly toward the vast arena beyond the drapes. Backstage I could do or be anything. Here was a realm of limitless possibility. Here were the bars of the cage of time. And it was through those bars that I glimpsed the strata of the Gods.


Nine hours after the tower collapses and the media is already waving around their chosen scapegoat. The news machine unreels its brain tape and the button-pusher programming with surgical timing. I fade in and out of the gigantic tributaries of human existence. And I hear the stories of wreckage. Ebbing and flowing on crowd energy, I watch every fainling heart pilot us all to a distant neurocropolis of crystallized time. And everyone down in the arcades and the chain stores and the cinema queus and rush hour clog-ups is spluttering within their precise conversation parameters. The Non-places hum like so many neon obelisks against the darkness of the world. The riot squads form impermeable membranes around the roiling masses. Floodlights are mounted and counter-mounted. But no amount of showmanship can dissolve behaviour protocols, the deep set reflex of reality. The muses have drowned in an avenue of franchise soft drinks and halogen splendour. And the only poetry one can find is in the technicalities. An awe-inspiring nebula of infrastructure death and dust fountaining from a concrete suture like a biblical polaroid. The Tower of Babel loses its crown again as the ticker tape runs out.

I’ve been trying to leave the carnival for ages. But I seem to be drifting in circles. Its uncanny how easy it is to get lost in carnivals. The usual logic of lostness does not apply. I have to stop many times to catch myself. And in the midst of one such reprieve I glimpse a goat being led through the maddening vistas to a cooking tent. And I am reminded of the ancient rites performed of the Day of Atonement. The high priest ritually confessed the sins of the people and then transferred them to a goat. The goat was then driven out into the wilderness to die. i can envisage carnivals where one goat wouldn’t be enough to carry all the sins of the people. And these carnivals are coming. And we will witness men of power put on their brightest plumage to drive their chosen scapegoats into an information wilderness. And then cheer when the applauseisigns flash. And we will applaud as the congregation arranges hunts to see who can bring back the heads. But there will be no walls to nail these heads to. Because by then our ivory tower would have fallen by the wayside. And we’ll all be lost in the wilderness.

Passengers gaze at my reflections in the mazy trains. And when the train grinds inexplicably to a standstill in the blackness of a pipe-ridden tunnel, everyone begins to come slowly and sickeningly to life. I’ve noticed whole stations, whole airports being shut down for alleged refurbishments and reconstruction. But there is no smell of concrete dust and ozone. No orange-suited, faceless construction drones. No sound of discontinuince. No evidence of hardhat zones.


When I was in another country, I thought I heard a bomb go off in the city once. Lucid blue forevers and then an implosion of sound which rang through the corridors of buildings. A blanket of psychic shock descended, and then nothing but morning again. Distant racing cars, sirens and bad signals in my solar plexus. Someone mentioned later that it was not a bomb at all. They told me that it was simply a demolition downtown. But this fact was sour and insubstantial for me. I felt that it was some kind of red herring from God. A bomb had detonated somewhere in time and I had felt it in my stomach and ribs. The echo of an explosion had co-incided with my morning. The time was different, but the moment was still the same.

I built my first bomb when I was in school. I had no illusions of putting it to use though. It was an experiment I was conducting on myself. I had made sure that the bomb was lethal to as large a radius as the componants would allow. And I fashioned a one second fuse out of a pocket torch with a cracked bulb. The trigger was a little silver switch. The very notion of a bomb in your pocket while you drift through a crowd floods the nervous system with a fire of thorns and gasoline. A thousand empty speeches flash and fade along your neural pathways. Religion appears like a fantastic ghost. A catastrophic high begins to bloat around the bilious, brittle edges. Death becomes a little friend.

My reasons for performing this experiment are unclear to me, even in retrospect. Needless to say, my dreams in the following weeks were laced with high resolution scenes of time-freeze explosions. And I would be floating like an astronaught through the shatterings and the flexing walls and velocity objects. Everything was suspended within the deconstructing scenario in scalpel edged clarities too bright to crystallize into sentences.

My experiment left me with a relapsing condition which I have come to refer to as the Optical Bomb. The Optical Bomb is a reality filter which flickers through my sense of time and space whenever I am in airports or bullet trains or electric monorails or similar transit scenarios. I feel my entire being lighting up with alien electricity. (I become hideously aware of the structural spaces around me, feeling every rivet and support beam and hydraulic as though they were intergral to my being and body. I feel the passive nullity of someone who has willingly resigned themself to smoke drowned dismemberment. This detatches me from everything. And chilling futurist visions kaleidoscope conceptually through the optical centers of my brain. Freeze frame explosion scenes of high resolution destruction, scientifically and aesthetically precise. Veiwed from every conceivable angle.

People cluster like organs in the steel tubes that rocket and shuttle ceaselessly below the terminal cities. And each time someone leaves behind a suitcase or a brown paper bag, eyes fix upon it. And it lies temporarily out of synch with the flux and ebb of rush hour. And people sometimes find my nostalgic smile ominously jarring, like an empathic hiccup. And I watch them all from behind my sunglasses as the sound of atrophied machinary fills my head. And I see bowler hats dented in the delicate spikes of flamewhich corona from the ruptured steel floors. Four dimensional mosaics of crashing glass flowering glittering helixes down the yawning shadow drowned tunnells. Fractal arabesques of falling neon and distorted blast shadows. Zero gravity passengers suspended like ballerinas in the enclosed spaces. The vast silences of freeze-frame. Terminal Nebulosity.

I recently met an astrophysicist who told me that roughly one white dot in a hundred on a screen tuned to white noise is a residual signal from the Big Bang. An original signal. And if there is truth to this, then perhaps you can understand how everything you have ever seen and done has occurred within the quantum confines of an Optical Bomb. And how existence itself is just a partially realized footnote in an unimaginably vast and utterly inescapable freeze-frame explosion. And that although you are maintaining the illusion of keeping still to read these words, your body and the area you occupy are spinning through space at an obscene velocity. There is no stillness. There is no movement.

An explosion is a rip in time.

And there was no time before the Big Bang.

September 19, 2008


Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 9:20 am

(a prelude to THE DYING SWAN)

There was a plague in St Cecilia. It had not reached the city, but instead fermented in the outlying rural areas, breeding in pockets and occasionally claiming entire farms. Symptoms of the sickness included hallucinations and a swelling of the brain. These disturbances were followed by discolourations, fever and eventually madness. A dramatic scaling of the skin was also recorded. Coma descended quickly after these effects, followed in turn by slow deterioration and finally death. The sickness had been diagnosed as an obscure affliction familiar to certain jungle dwelling tribes. It was similar to malaria and could be treated with innoculations. Treatment was limited to the alleviation of certain symptoms after a certain period of infection, and the malady remained incurable once contamination had occured. The tribal people of the region saw the disease as an affliction of the spirit rather than the body. They believed that the material world was mirrored in an immaterial, dream realm. Their view was that this dream country had been invaded by demonic beings; creatures which had been allowed access by the strangers in the city. They felt that the disease was a scourge, the effects of a wounded dream. They bore it’s onslaught with quiet stoicism, carrying their afflicted to the rivers and abandoning them to the murky water. The crocodiles would not touch these carcasses, and the currents would often drag the corpses into the antiquated canal systems of the distant city. It was not unusual to wake in the slum regions and see deformed bodies drifting between the streets.


I live in the smoking ruins of myself. Eating memories till I’m sick. I lit another cigarette. The room was starting to get stale with them. I had been thinking about Vivienne. I got off the black leather couch and walked to the window wall. The blinds retracted like razors, and the large room filled with blue light. I depolarised the glass slowly and watched all the shadows change. The dark gardens seethed below, rich with blackness. I hadn’t left the apartment for three weeks and the walls were closing in on me. I had decided to finish the triptych I had been working on, but my energy was fading. The first panel of the piece was a crucifixion scene, like the other two. It was of a thin figure, nailed to a Moorish cross of arabesqued bronze. The figure still needed a face, and I had not found an appropriate one for it yet, despite my searching. The cross was hung high, along the vast and shadowed walls of an underground vault, deep beneath the earth. The vault was depthless and the crucifix appeared a small and desolate ornament in all that featurelessness. I had put the paint on thin at first hoping to get the necessary depth with a series of glazes. But by the time the first coat dried, I was feeling bored and restless with the entire project. That had been two days ago. My satellite aerials have malfunctioned. I had recently discovered an icebox filled with dusty video tapes. A previous tenant must have left them behind. They were wedged next to the geyser, behind a mess of pipes. It took a week to find a machine old enough to play them. Most of them were permanently damaged, others grainy and indecipherable, blurred by time and neglect. The tapes which functioned were in languages I couldn’t understand; dialects sibilant and guttural, made even more distorted by the bad dubbing/playback quality and the condition of the actual tape. They sounded like dead languages. My attention was abstracted by confusion, drawn instead to random sequences of images and visual symbols. The lack of context gave these tapes a haunting, dream-like quality. I had been watching them for the last couple of days. Some were outtakes from propaganda reels and ancient pornographic material. Others were random clips, taken out of context and edited roughly together on outdated equipment. I had difficulty watching them. And it was a difficulty I was not able to define. Being alone for so long affected the way I handled my emotions. I noticed that things, which wouldn’t normally concern me, were starting to get me on edge. I had been in and out of a succession of gradually thickening depressions. Thick like tasteless syrup, like fog. They came episodically and without much warning. The slightest, most unanticipated things set them off. Often they were blurred around the edges, so I had difficulty telling whether they had actually ended or not. I finished the cigarette and decided to try get started on the glazing. After about half an hour of staring at the eight foot painting, I gave up and went and lay down on the couch. I didn’t notice I’d fallen asleep till the buzzer woke me up. I stumbled to the intercom and answered it, trying to shake the sleep out of my head. It was Elusina.

I buzzed her in and cocked the front door. The wafting corridor outside was silent. I hadn’t seen Elusina Elseware for over three months. In the distance, far below me I could suddenly hear the sharp, languid clicks of her needle heels. They came to me through the intercom, as she walked across the featureless lobby toward the antiquated lift. The building was over a hundred years old and wore it’s acoustics like hidden jewellry. One became attuned to them only by touch. I heard the distant depression of the button through the intercom and felt a heavy electric hum. Faraway clanking resounded as mechanisms activated in the structures above. The elevator had begun its slow and measured descent. I knew that she was aware of my eavesdropping, but she always maintained a pretence of unawareness. It was a private, unspoken ritual of ours. I never failed to gauge her mood by listening to every nuance of her entrance. This way I had always been able to prepare a strategy of defense. I knew that she hated that I had the advantage. But that was the way it would always be when she visited. I was up here and she was down there. The lift began its ascent. I closed the door and waited on the couch. After a while, I heard her knocking. I got up, walked back to the door and opened it. The first thing I noticed was that she’d cut her hair. It hung in a short black cleopatra bob, framing her eyes at the cheekbones and cutting darkly against a pale profile. Hairline cracks of jet sliced across her ears. The nape of an unnaturally long neck glowed under fleoroescents. She was carrying a battered black suitcase and a cigarette smouldered in her stained fingers. I noted these details clinically, automatically. I had grown accustomed to sketching her, and my eyes contained reflexes too deep-set to decode. She wore a frown which I had come to associate with states of desperate introspection.


“Iwy em hotep,” she muttered ironically.

I must have looked at her quizzically, but she simply brushed past, dropping her small, black suitcase in the hall. I automatically went to the kitchen to make espresso’s, while she collapsed across the couch.

“Cain please, no more coffee,” I heard her moan.

I abandoned the machine and opened the fridge. I retrieved a partially consumed pinotage and drifted back. There were no echoes in the lounge. The soft surfaces soaked them up like blotting paper. Her coat lay messily against a wall. She had made herself comfortable, with one needle heel trailing a lazy stylus across the floor. The shoes were brand new, expensive little devices which she would no doubt lose within a week. Camera poises still haunted her movements and expressions, fluttering half-on/half-off. It was like watching a moth struggle from its coccoon. She caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror across the room and changed her face immediately. Mirrors trapped Elusina’s attention like quicksand. Something definitive was always missing.

“You look dead,” I thought out loud.

She grunted concisely and I passed across the bottle of wine.

“How was your flight?” I asked conversationally, snagging a tiny, snakeskin purse from the floor. She had thrown it arbitrarily against the glass panels and it had landed messily. I was sensitive to things being out of place. I think it amused her. It was probably only due to the fact that I hadn’t slept for so long, but I already felt myself growing irritated for no definitive reason. She took a long swallow of wine.

“Eight hours on the plane,” she murmured, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.

“I lost my phone in the airport.” she added softly.

I opened her purse and found the light cigarettes she was smoking. I took one and lit it out of curiosity. I could hardly taste it.

“Have you run out of cigarettes?” I murmured.

“No,” she said through the painless smoke. “Just wanted something pale and Northern after all that good Arab shit.”

After a moment she slouched up. She abruptly drained more wine, reached over and extracted her cigarette from the ashtray. There was something quite out of place with her. Something I couldn’t put a finger on.

“How was the shoot?” I enquired, hoping to get something out of her.

She took a drag and sank slowly back.

“They are re-writing some scenes,” she frowned. “…I think I’m done though.”

She trailed off for a second. I took a drag of the airy cigarette and watched the smoke dissipate from my mouth like steam. I realized that she was looking at me with a dark and measured sneer playing across her wine stained lips.

“What is it Elusina? What’s wrong with you?”

But she just sat there staring, like a doll of herself. I reached over and took the bottle from her loose fingers. I drank a bit of the bitter, chilly wine, avoiding her gaze. She was still sort of sneering, like a teasing child.

“Things got out of control.” she said after awhile.

An ugly pause lay on the table between us. She turned away, picking at her eyes with an uncomfortable delicacy. She finished the wine and took another drag or two.

“You don’t have to be cruel,” I grumbled quietly.

Her eyes were red from staring. Her mouth was blue with wine.

“Lets go to the Quarter,” she suggested. “I’ve missed it.”

She began to pull on long, white satin gloves. But I was too busy studying her expression to answer immediately. The face she will wear when she is nailed to a cross. Somewhere in a void beneath the earth.

We take a taxi down into the Crocodile Quarter and cross familar alley’s to the Pandaemonium Cafe. We drink absinthe in the wine coloured booths and then stroll through the narrow cobbled streets of the Quarter. I walk her through the slum galleries, outside the smoke and the noise. She smiles in the dull neon glare and we sit at an outside cafe. She lights a cigarette with an elegant gesture and I sit beside her, in the shadow of the antique locomotive. Racks of pale neon flicker off into eternity. I first met her just a few streets from where we sit and smile now. Then she was just another schoolgirl who cut herself on week-ends and wore gypsey hair down to her hips. I still see her smiling wickedly, like she held all the cards over her dead-end friends who will probably all grow up to become travel agents. I’ve given her a thousand pet names, but I never speak her real name. The night we first met I was dressed androgynously. My face was cast in the grim monochromes of sexlessness. I still retain flashes of myself in that webby black; rubber boned as a cat, wearing girl’s shoes and brimming with bad intent. I caught her out of the crowd like a slippery fish, and dragged her laughing to the vast empty spaces which lay dead in the dimness beyond. Here, far from the storm of faces I pinioned her wrists to the rusty, barbed wire fences which slag and collapse all the way down to hell. I stared into those shining, shivering eyes and told her fortune while cameras shuttered and winked from the flytrap light. Her smile dissolved and we became lovers, much in the same way as insects hatch, or a finger breaks. Suddenly and vividly. A crystalline and yet somehow unhealthy reckoning that carried with it all the death and charm of wild youth. Rust flecks caught in her hair as I saw my face slipping like a fish across her eye. Now she sits gloved and elegant with her Cleopatra hair slicing at her cheekbones while the animals shriek and die at the plastic counters. Cages of oil soaked cake and food that no stomach can ever decode loom in the back of our conversation. Petals of ash flake from her and catch in her dark mascara. At one point during the conversation, I see that her hand is scribbling words onto a dirty napkin while she is talking to me. She seems somehow oblivious to this, speaking in soft, slow slurs while her hand goes over each letter two or three times, pressing the words almost through the paper. I ask her what she is doing and she glances down at her hand with something like shock. Then a wistful mood overcomes her and she stares out into space. Her hand continues to write, almost with a will of its own.

“Sometimes things speak through you,” she replies.

She tells me about the rape while we loiter in the slum galleries. We talk in the men’s bathroom of a cocktail bar while people cluster anonymously. I can’t help indulging in her new hair, black and shiny as a helmet. She’s drinking martinis and telling me about it in slow, orchestrated movements, like a snake swallowing a mouse. We chainsmoke in dirty mirrors. She says she has been working deep in the desert towns, in the wilderness. She say’s that that’s where it happened. She tells me that the stage-name she uses in the wilderness is Na’amah. She comes home with me and we drink in the darkness of the garden. She drinks a bottle of vodka with her gloves still on. Then she sheds all her clothing like a reptile and lies down on my bed like she is expecting something unforeseen, a child before a car crash. I can’t help noticing that parts of her body have become unnaturally disproportionate since I last saw her. I tell her and she agrees coldly. Yes she says, it is remarkable how much she has changed. I also notice that her eyes, which were once ice blue, are now vaguely yellow. Strangely enough, it is the first time I notice this anomaly. We are suddenly aware of how many months have passed since last we met. Time stutters and leaves us stranded in this moment of isolation. The obscene distortions of her body seem to have some sort of ominous significance for me. But I can’t say what exactly. I fill her a bath. I can’t stop staring at her hair. She falls asleep in the water, wakes up later and sleeps across my bed like an enormous reptile. I stay awake into the night. I have been working on a painting of a vast snake. It is dim and sunk deep into halls of mythological proportions, skeletal in places. It has a humanoid head. I make it all the way to a broken dawn and fall asleep beside her unmoving form. I wake to find her dressing against the television. Cartoons race across the screen. She puts on bright black lipstick. There is no-one available to give her a lift, so I walk her down to where the taxis nest. She walks barefoot, her heels dangling from her little finger. I can tell the rape has made her nervous about being alone in the street. Her unnatural body hangs from the creased evening dress. She is skirting the ice of a derelict universe. I watch her climb into a taxi and vanish off into the highways leading back down to into the city. Even now, I am remembering her wrong.

I went back to sleep with the windows open. The rich currents of air brought the dense smell of jasmine up from the gardens. When I woke up it was dusk. The light through the window’s lent the chamber the underwater atmosphere of a large tomb. I awoke in a profound state of anxiety, moving around in that cloying light. The television showed soft white noise and I turned it off. Elusina had left a pack of foriegn cigarettes on the coffee table. I weighed them in my hand, lost in ragged thoughts and a vague sense of undefineable loss. Her confessions had grown into me whilst I was sleeping, like the roots of a poisonous orchid. When I awoke I was thoroughly infected by what had happened to her, by the sight of her. I vomited bleakly and then found myself crying. The sun was dying in fire over the broken back of the city. I realised only later that she had taken several folders of my finest drawings. She must have hidden them in her briefcase while I was still asleep. I was about to call her when I remembered that her phone had been lost. The theft was very much out of character for her, and I couldn’t envisage what she was plotting.

I left my apartment at about seven, with a veiw to calling at Boris’s house. Boris lived a little out of town, in the wooded regions between St Cecilia and the neighbouring town of Ambarvalia. Public transport to his borough was a nightmare of rusty busses and it was far too expensive to take a taxi. My usual route was to jump the logging train which ran from Ambarvalia to the Quarter terminus. The tracks passed through the woods, several kilometers from his estate. From there I had a personal route through the forest to his garden. I walked North, skirting the city’s inner edge. I passed Florentine Square, where Svetlana Duprey the theatre critic lived. It was not known to me at the time, but it was to Svetlana’s apartment that Elusina had fled. She must have in fact been sleeping close by when I crossed the leaf swept square, heading for the Crocodile Quarter. I thought about Elusina when I entered the square, cheifly because I had noticed a large bill advertising a film she was in. The sight of her features was rather disorienting after the night before. The lurid bill was plastered across a wall, beyond the foliage of stately trees and large, airbrushed eyes followed me as I walked. As though trying to communicate something which could not be then verbalised. I ignored her, finning down well-worn routes, trying to get my head together. Svetlana’s apartment was situated one phonebooth east of Florentine square, a cosmopolitan district, where the avenues sweep with drowsy sycamores and plane trees. She calls it a ‘quartier’ apartment at all the right society functions because no-one with a good chaueffeur is likely notice the transgressions. In actual fact, the Quarter only starts to insinuate it’s peeling plaster plazas and wrought iron balconies some streets away. The beautiful shrub nested maisonettes and vane crowned tile of the Florentine neighbourhoods become gradually punctuated by mad angled alleyways. And the loomings of those inevitable quartier borderposts: the wild night bistros and bordellos, become apparent. You could glimpse their gaudy neons, tucked like spider’s nests in the innards of the side-streets. One begins to notice all the questionable cafes, which in the afternoon spill clusters of shiny black tables out onto the cobbled byways. From these shadow-eaten sidewalks at night, you might hear the distant tattoo of tom tom drums, or broken glass tinkling in the depths of an alley. The bubbling up of a faraway girl’s drunken giggles give way to the cough of an exhaust pipe. The roar and recession of engines. Here, in the hard honeyed noons, you will find the obligatory shaven waiters, skulking gaunt in doorways. With fouled napkins on strings and nicotine stains along their fate lines. You will see all the mulato fruit hawkers with their varicose calves, and the raggedy Pan children who kick pebbles down corners and chase pigeons into cul de sacs. Those drained vein side-streets where the sewers begin to open out like badly hidden knife wounds. Sinking beyond the fringe, the Quarter develops into a chaotic squalor of grimy merchant districts. These franchises multiply as heavily as scar tissue along the broken boulevards. Crumbling flights of stairs straddle antiquated canals. The thresh of detritus is foamed in by sewage, hemmed by the pig-iron teeth of tortured grates. Somewhere from the mess of rooftops, tin flutes cut clean across black widow fire escapes and chicken bone chimney stacks. Indecipherable voices drip in strands, from the countless cagey balconies all postage stamped one across another to the sky. Here the decayed labyrinth divides and subdivides, attatching it’s dense nodes of path and way to snakish canals, in the fashion of gut parasites. Dead ends and leaning roofs pile across each other like a thousand sagging cakes. Catchwire washing lines riddle the streets, all rotted and rained into indefinable silhoettes, choking the grumbled throat of perspective. And somewhere in all of this, toward the mangrove encroachment, is the old slaving ghetto. Sending out its precarious jetty’s into the swamp and squatting like a shrunken head on all the district maps; The Downtown Frown, Cecilia’s juju backyard, or as it is now known; The Crocodile Quarter, where the railways terminate. Many freight trains despatch regularly to and from this bleak terminus. And this is cheifly because a large and unsavoury portion of St Cecilia’s industrial district lies within the immediate vicinity of the Crocodile Quarter. When people talk about going to the Crocodile Quarter, they will often mean the cafe districts which border it. Very few people had business of a personal or recreational nature down in the old part of Quarter. All you could see were clanging factories, rising out of the swamp like strange, smoking fortresses. You could stand out on the rickety wharves, observing the batteries of barbed wire which ran all the way out to the lagoons. Heavy marsh birds circle endlesly in the rift above. Freight cars creak and rumble into the yawning concrete station regularly, often at ungodly hours, bearing strange cargoes for the smokestack bellies of these monsters. Startled, sickly horses bound for the glue works and dogfood slaughterhouses, lead in wooden crates for a pencil manufacturer, barrels of syrup for the flypaper factory, and of course, immense quantities of lumber to feed all the dingy furniture chopshops along the wharves. All these items would be offloaded onto filthy platforms by sour faced workmen who smoked hand rolled cigarettes in silence. The garble of radios leaked dismally out of the watchmen’s shacks as they worked. And once the freight cars had all been cleared, they would then be immediately restocked. It was the digestive system of St Cecilia at work. And I would watch it closely, waiting on the platform with the others, observing shiny packages of pencils and jars of cataract coloured glue. Counting the ballbearings and packaged flyswatters, the featureless tins of meat destined for inland label manufacturers. The hundreds of nameless cardboard boxes. The sickening endlessness of industry would sink into me, and I would smoke cigarettes with the vagabonds, waiting like the horses for my turn on the train. And when the loading process was finally complete, a steam whistle would blast. The box cars would be set upon by all the mangy vagrants hovering on the side of the tracks. Groups of boys would travel in packs, some returning home from work on the wharves. Security was so lax and the trains so slow that the cargo line proved a popular method of transport for the disenfranchised. Hundreds passengers rode the ‘Ambarvalia Express’ all the way to the mountains and back, huddled in coats and scarves and jackets pulled tight against the night. I would squat among them, between the cracked carriage doors, watching their clattering faces with a finger on my knife, watching the Quarter inch gradually past. Flurries of brake sparks would light our faces at intervals, as the train agonized onward like a bloated worm. Tattered figures would be dropping or attatching themselves like flies throughout the entire course of this laboured journey. I would wait, and the tracks would eventually scrawl out of the city. They would enter the woods, dipping through gloomy tunnels and between the trees. The tracks would skirt the affluent borough of Palmwhelm, where Boris kept his large and mysterious house. Billowy Palmwhelm, which lay just outside of St Cecilia, a stole shrugged from the shoulders of a jaded actress. Palmwhelm, with its many mansions secreted about its forest vista, like gaudy surprises in an Easter egg hunt. The train would chug quite indifferently past all of this, turning and crossing at some point, over a small elm encrusted bridge which spanned the highway. And it was at this point where I would ready myself and leap, landing in a flurry of gravel, stealing into the thin spires of the forest.

I crossed the river and entered the dark, nether regions of the garden. The house was large and boat-like against the velvety night. Dim paper lanterns were burning, and a faint tigerish glow laced the broad, waxy leaves outside the observation lounge. Boris had been relatively young when he inherited the house and the estate which came with it. His properties included a factory in town, some farmland and this estate. He was loathe to leave it, and it became a world all on it’s own. He had a sick aunt who kept a room in one of the turrets and almost never came down. The house had a dream-like, almost unreal atmosphere most of the time. A large pool brooded, dismal with fallen leaves. Roman statues lay where they had fallen, gorged by creepers. He staged seasonal art exhibitions in the halls and atriums of his abode, and had acquired, after a time, the reputation of being a tasteful patron. But I am of course biased when I say this. It was after all Boris who supplemented my income and funded a large number of my personal projects when no-one else would touch them. Perhaps it was his youth, or simply the disgust he harboured against the state endorsed ‘culture’ of the Mangrove Institute, which lent a certain cavalier edge to his endeavours. Whatever the case, he was passionate about this quiet rebellion of his, more often in speech and monetory support than action though. When it came to action, Boris was a habitual starter of projects. An infrequent opium eater, he haunted his habitat like a lanky black spider, leaving unfinished artefacts here and there, fretting constantly over misplaced, but somehow tragically vital baubles. He had studied electrical engineering for a spell and was obsessed with radio transmissions. He concieved devices which emitted the radio signals of distant stars. He was fidgety and sensitive to light. I had seen him become enraged at occurences others would deem arbitrary. He would come over to my apartment and loiter for hours, trying to remember where he was supposed to be. I would visit his house and we would drink cocktails all night. It was a friendship of desperate times.

He wasn’t in the downstairs lounge. The large sliding doors were open and a greenish smell of flowing water had invaded, nudging the crimson drapes with it’s breezes. Birds called from over the river. Low, inhuman sounds which penetrated the night. I found him in one of the garages, dragging a collection of rusted girders across the tiles. I helped him get them onto a shelf and we retired to the glass-roofed conservatory to drink a couple of White Lady’s. It was muggy, despite the chill. Autumn was on top of us.

“Elusina is back,” I mentioned, cracking an egg.

Boris had retrieved a half bottle of Cointreau and was busy unscrewing it.

“I know, ” he grumbled, pouring the liquor into two heavy tumblers. “She called me from the airport, mentioning something about an exhibition she was planning for you.”

“That would explain why she made off with all my drawings this morning….without asking I might add.”

Boris hovered without eye contact.

“Did she…stay over you mean?” he asked quietly.

I hesitated, overcome by a inexplicable sense of having said the wrong thing. I was secretive by nature, even paranoid, about the most trivial of things. This lent an unwarranted mystery to many of my relationships with people. It was not a quality I cherished, for it drew more attention to itself. It made me feel weak when people penetrated into the circles of my life. It threw entire orbits out of kilter.

“She did.” I replied awkwardly, unable to bring myself to explain further.

The admission somehow re-activated Elusina’s unspeakable confessions. It brought back the distortions of her body. I could tell that Boris had caught a fleeting, psychic impression of these abherrations. The bleakness of the morning suddenly found me again, cornering me as a cat corners an injured bird.

“What about Vivienne?” he asked weightily, crushing a lemon into a pewter bowl.

There were times when Boris displayed an aristocratic naivette, especially when it came to relations of a personal nature. There was a girlish curiosity in his observation of supposed amorous encounters. A curiousity which lay, clumsily stashed, behind the Nordic facade which he constantly maintained.

“It doesn’t matter,” I muttered, and we finished mixing the drinks in silence. We drank them in the garden, staring out across the river. Dark shapes brooded in sullen brown depths, hovering and darting beneath the waters. Large mangrove birds fluttered in the ragged tops of trees. Before I knew it, it was midnight.

I sat in one of the upper rooms, paging through a nineteenth century bestiary. The volume was an eccentric publication, printed in the monastic style favoured by the scholars of the Middle Ages, yet illustrated in a Rackham-esque fashion of the time. It had been ill cared for and was now utterly ravaged by the incessant dampness of the house. I had to turn the yellowed vellum pages with great care to avoid damaging them. Boris was working on some device in another part of the house. I could hear the occasional fizz and crackle of speaker cones as instruments attuned themselves in regular intervals. Despite the fascinating illustrations of the volume in my hands, I could not bring myself to concentrate. The mention of Elusina’s plans for an exhibition had come as a mild shock. Independently funded cultural events were rare in this city. The state endorsed Mangrove Institute was seen as the vanguard of culture, and the press and powers that be acknowledged it thus. Outsider creativity was generally frowned upon. I had visited the Institute’s Art section once or twice. It was housed in a large concrete keep on the edge of town. Racks of barbed wire and impenetrable walls gave it the atmosphere of a prison. I could not help but marvel at what grim dreams might gestate in it’s dismal hatcheries, but flights of fancy were not at a premium in the Mangrove Institute. It was a cold harbour of concept. And the conceptual notions it fostered had made an enemy of St Cecilia’s old legacies of craft. I knew that whatever Elusina was planning would involve the Institute. It was unavoidable, for Elusina only did things on a grand or semi-grand scale. And anything on such a scale would not escape the tentacles of the Institute. Yet her decision to involve me spoke against the doctrines of the Institute. What strange counter-terrorism was she planning? I felt trapped, and somehow, inexplicably guilty. There was a knife-edge to this guilt. The sickening experiences she had undergone made me feel as though I, and indeed the whole of mankind, were unavoidably indebted to her. The memory of the previous night still clung to me, like the insoluble odour of burned food. Elusina’s willpower was an overwhelming force, and I was very much afraid that I would be made to pay for her pain in some indefinable way. I needed to see Vivienne. Only the proximity of Vivienne could ease this black tide upon which I floated. I began to think again of the video tapes I had discovered. They spoke of a hidden symmetry to things, an unavoidable accidentalism which claimed everything into it’s weave. Elusina’s chaotic nature had always been finely tuned to these secret tides, and they had bourne her far. Was I now to be drowned in the churning wake she had created? The sense of darkness was like a stain. I felt the close sensation that she was standing in the room with me, smoking one of those invisible cigarettes of hers, naked and malformed. By some quirk, I opened the bestiary upon the very creature from which she had derived her name; Melusina, the Sometimes Siren. The drawing depicted a winged and shadowy girl, brooding beside the ruins of a fallen city. In myth, Melusina was a fairy who was said to scream three times before a great disaster. She would conjure up armies of faceless workers from nothing and then have them erect strange buildings overnight. These workers would dissipate like chaff at daybreak and the citizens of the town or village would be left to wander in awe amidst the enormous structures which had sprung up whilst they slept. She would sometimes foster illegitimite children. And these children would always be born deformed, or with some severe mishap. The same could be said of her buildings, which were always spoiled by a fatal defect of some kind. A defect which would inevitably cause great injury, when the magical structures collapsed.

I went down to the Red Room, where Boris was adjusting a fine spray of copper wiring.

“I need to borrow a car,” I announced.

He glanced up at me in a fidgety way.

“Where will you be taking it?” he enquired, fully aware of what I had in mind.

“Ambarvalia,” I admitted weakly. “I have to see Vivenne.”

He paused for a second before agreeing, stroking at a passing cat. I went back upstairs and eventually fell asleep on a faded chez longue. I awoke well after noon. Hard sunlight painted the room in livid stripes. It caught in the half eaten remains of a savaged cake. It was a repulsive, almost sexual sight. I awoke disgusted. Boris was nowhere to be found. I drank some tea, wrote a note and left the pack of Egyptian cigarettes which Elusina had supposedly forgotten at my house. The gesture was meant as a tribute of some kind – even magic castles needed upkeep. I took the brown Bentley, angling it down thin, forest roads, heading back for the highway.

The drive from Palmwhelm to Ambarvalia took just under an hour. The highway unribboned, spooling its curves into a wildly ascending woodland. Occasionally, the forest would thicken into dense wildernesses, and then break itself in the teeth of outcrops and wind splintered cliff faces. Animal haunted gullies ghosted by, clotted by dairy outposts, and parched dirtroads. The rusted nerve mesh of the railway dissected distance at times, passing close and then vanishing without a trace. I was almost calmed now, sedated by the grubbing of the engine and the rip of a chinked window. The sun was hazing the soft, nougat horizons like fresh, golden kettle steam. Blank eyed flashes of cow splattered meadows marked my passage, the jigsaw ravelling of fences in the slipstream. I adjust my sunglasses as I turned into this dusky light, flying west, cupped in the palm of the soft car. I had not spoken to Vivienne the entire week, and our last conversation had been remarkably unpleasant, even desperate on my part. I wished again that I could be rid of the spectre of her. But somehow, whenever I wished that, she would be drawing closer, as she was even now. Her cruelty was milk compared to the bare bones of silence. And I felt so much safer because of it. She was an addiction, and this I had come to understand and accept. She was a richly twisted lie, more a personal invention than a real person. I had made her into a crucifix dropped by a saint. And I clung to this remarkable effigy, as a sailor clings to wreckage. To the outside observer it is simply wreckage, dismal and shattered. To the sailor it is a whole world, the only possibility of salvation in the face of the raging sea. I may have been a deluded fool, but I was drowning. And a shattered piece of debris is better than a chartless ocean. I was able, for a moment, to reject my cup of fear and drift into the west like a swallow loosed. The empty worlds yawned passed without pause. The drowsy hollow of Ambarvalia formed across the faintly glowing distances. A signpost blur and a corner overlooking grain silos. An offramp peppered with jacaranda blossoms. And then, with almost no sense of transgression, the highway melds into quiet, mazy roads shrouded by sleepy trees and lit by old, clicking streetlamps. Petite little houses set together like teeth. Pretty, white verandas erasing into the oncoming evening. Jacaranda blossoms like blushes of lavender snowflakes on anonymous corners. The great, billowing plane trees heave their dry cargo of early winter above the nameless cul de sacs and endless parks. The hawking call of an ibis echoes in the worlds above them. Figures in coats bleach to beige, and then grey, as blue rumours of twilight melt the bands of salmon pink. Around the valley, dusk is falling. Mysterious little Ambarvalia and its galactic dimness. A town which has over the centuries become less of a town and more a half remembered story of one. An insubstantial place filled with a mythological quiet, and the tolling of distant bells.

September 12, 2008

Steve Biko’s paradise lost

Filed under: andile mngxitama,politics — ABRAXAS @ 9:57 am

This extract from Biko Lives! looks at early black consciousness and today’s South Africa

“This is one country where it would be possible to create a capitalist black society, if whites were intelligent, if the nationalists were intelligent. And that capitalist black society, black middle class, would be very effective … South Africa could succeed in putting across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs.” – Steve Biko (1972)


The 30th anniversary of Steve Biko’s murder in police custody (on September 12 1977) comes almost 15 years after the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa. This fact alone raises several fundamental questions: how do we remember Biko? What contributions did the black consciousness movement make to the course of black liberation in South Africa and the world? How does the conception of black liberation, as enunciated by Biko and his colleagues, square up against the realities of post-apartheid South Africa?

Indeed, Biko lives today in South Africa, but so do the material outcomes of colonialism, segregation, apartheid and – most recently – neo-liberal economic policies. South Africa continues to be characterised by sharply contrasting realities.

Under the terms of the negotiated settlement of the early 1990s, the ANC won political – but not economic – power. Less than 5 percent of the country’s land has changed hands from white to black since 1994 and four white-owned conglomerates continue to control 80 percent of the Johannesburg stock exchange.

Black economic empowerment (BEE) schemes have created black millionaires in the thousands, making South Africa the fourth-fastest growing location for millionaires after South Korea, India and Russia.

But the vast majority of South Africans remain at the other extreme – these are the 45 percent of South Africans who are unemployed; the one in four who live in shacks located in shantytowns without running water or electricity. This is the country Biko continues to haunt, and to inspire …


Rather than a stage of psychological liberation, Biko considered “real needs” – the experience of “our common plight and struggle” – the challenge for black consciousness philosophy. At the same time, he insisted that radical intellectuals not only reject the racist regime and its invention of “Bantustan” politics but play an important role by using what they have learnt in the apartheid schools and colleges against the regime itself.

Biko’s concept of black liberation anticipates the post-apartheid reality of black poverty and exclusion alongside white wealth, legitimised by a black presence in government.

It has often proven difficult to describe this phenomenon, especially since the 1994 “miracle” destabilised discourses and ways of seeing which were rooted in the black experience such as black consciousness. How do we name a social political formation that is managed by former liberation fighters, but remains in the service of the apartheid status quo?


When black consciousness appeared on the scene [in the mid-1960s] it loudly proclaimed its own name in its own language and created a new black whose raison d’être was the audacity to be, particularly, in the face of white supremacist power. When young activists of the black consciousness movement entered prison on Robben Island, they confronted the old political leaders who had been sitting in jail for decades with little hope and little fire for rebellion.

The new blacks appeared like a whirlwind, confounding the old leaders. Listen to Nelson Mandela recall the shock of this defiant quest to claim one’s right to be:

“These fellows refused to conform to even basic prison regulations. One day I was at head office conferring with the commanding officer. As I was walking out with the major, we came upon a young prisoner being interviewed by a prison official. The young man, who was no more than 18, was wearing his prison cap in the presence of senior officers, a violation of regulations. Nor did he stand up when the major entered the room, another violation. The major looked at him and said, ‘Please take off your cap.’ The prisoner ignored him. Then in an irritated tone, the major said, ‘Take off your cap.’ The prisoner turned and looked at the major and said, ‘What for?’ I could hardly believe what I had just heard. It was a revolutionary question: What for?”


There are at least three main memories of Biko contending in South Africa today. The first finds expression in the black business class, through its claim to be entitled to the white wealth created from the exploitation of colonialism and apartheid. The BEE programme mobilises the common historical experience of oppression and exclusion by black South Africans to carve for itself a slice in the white world. The 1994 political settlement made it possible for those blacks most prepared to occupy the position of the whites in society to do so in the name of transformation without transforming the very structures of accumulation, production and redistribution created by colonialism and apartheid.
Click here!

Biko advocated the rejection of such a scheme: “We believe that we have to reject their economic system, their political system and values that govern human relationships … We are not really fighting against the government; we are fighting the entire system.”

Biko had foreseen that an economic model which integrates blacks into the very structures of colonialism and apartheid would create an unhealthy and self-defeating competition among blacks: “It is an integration in which black will compete with black, using each other as rungs up a stepladder leading them to white values. It is an integration in which the black man will have to prove himself in terms of these values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation, and in which the poor will grow poorer and rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black.”

The second contestation of Biko’s memory comes from the state-linked political and bureaucratic classes. Their ascendance into the higher echelons of the post-apartheid bureaucracy has in practice also mobilised a version of black consciousness which, on the face of it, privileges blackness. The discourse of “transformation”, “representivity” “and reflecting the demographics” of society are the concepts employed in the process …

As a bureaucracy, this confronts the majority of blacks as a cold, arrogant, often violent and indifferent system. The Biko who these two main post-apartheid black classes have appropriated is a Biko who is mute in the face of continued black suffering, exclusion and humiliation.

The business and political classes have nothing to say to the multitudes who live in the shacks and the RDP [reconstruction and development programme] houses that have been described as dog kennels; who continue to suffer unacceptable infant mortality rates; whose hospitals are less than places of abandonment and death; who continue to die from Aids. In a sense, Biko’s thought has been reduced to slogans on T-shirts weaned of all its radical content as a philosophy of black liberation, and images of Biko have come to adorn glossy magazines.

The third contestation of Biko is the shout of the black majority for whom the formal ending of apartheid has not yet altered circumstances in any meaningful way.

This living Biko finds expression in the everyday struggles of the black masses for dignity and freedom. As Imraan Buccus writes, “Since 2004 an unprecedented wave of popular protest has ebbed and flowed across the country … This makes South Africa ‘the most protest-rich country in the world’.”

It is the explicit contention of the editors that Biko lives in these spaces of resistance which now appear and disappear and are revived in different forms and different parts of the post-apartheid society. The legacy carriers of the black consciousness philosophy are the excluded majority who continue to make life under extreme conditions and who, as Frantz Fanon once put it, cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a battle against exploitation, misery and hunger.

An array of movements and organisations are demanding a dignity and a recognition that fundamentally challenges neoliberal post-apartheid South Africa. Every election cycle since the 2004 national election has seen movements across the country lift cries of “No Land! No Vote!” or “No Housing! No Jobs! No Vote!” signalling their refusal to participate in an unsatisfying “ballot box democracy”.

Instead, they demand a genuine reciprocity, a different notion of politics, “a true humanity”, as Biko puts it “where power politics will have no place”.

If a politics that transcends the current reality is to emerge, it would in all likelihood emerge as these new movements and forms of self-activity continue to develop their own voice.

# Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko is edited by Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander and Nigel C Gibson and published by Palgrave Macmillan

this artixcle was first published by the sunday independent

September 10, 2008


Filed under: literature,nikhil singh — ABRAXAS @ 9:54 pm

It was because I knew Hitler you see. We frequented the same brothel, and at one stage had developed a minor, shall we say ‘artistic’ infatuation with one of the girls. A rather quiet, intense creature called Mima. Mima became quite good friends with him at a later stage and they used to compare sketches of bridges. Hers were quite polished as I recall and put me in mind of Piranesi’s early scribblings. But perhaps I am simply being kind. Youth tends to dull one’s sensitivity to aesthetic balances. I didn’t see her again and only visited Hitler’s mangy apartment once to see his paintings. We drank together a couple of times and I suppose we became friends in a way. I remember once we were crossing the city at night, through a warren of cobbled passages which led to the canal. There was a sound of glass breaking somewhere in the streets and Hitler stopped to listen. He had a mouse-like passion for details at times and I remember stopping too, trying to tune into the distant sounds.

“There are old one’s among us you know,” he muttered inexplicably.

I kept quiet, thinking that it was merely the hour and the wine which was speaking. Wine troubled his delicate stomach, often rendering him strange and somewhat unbearable.

“There are those who have kept this city even before it was a city.”

I began to grow cold and irritated at his eerie tone and ventured deeper into the muggy alley, trying to decipher the direction which we were to take.

“We are nothing but puppets to them you know,” he said, somewhat sadly.

I detested his obsession with the occult and decided to keep my mouth closed.


I married an English girl who I came to loathe and moved to London in my early twenties. We both had money, she family and I an unquenchable thirst for nothing. I say this because it was always in ‘nothing’ that I hoped to find ‘something’. There is an irony in this which makes me black and bitter now. I came to loathe England as I loathed my wife. For me, all it’s inaccuracies and petty middle-class attempts at industry seemed to coagulate in her. I saw the endless traffic of umbrellas and omnibuses and time-keepers and came only to associate it with her. I see now that I had no right to hate her, we were simply ill-matched. Nevertheless I took the first opportunity to leave and we spent a bitter week-end in Brighton discussing the terms of our separation. She could not understand and neither could I. I procured a modest flat in Highgate and England set in like a plague. I was working as a buyer for a small, but eclectic gallery in Mayfair and liked my work. I specialized for awhile in classic Italian Automata and Flemish tableau’s. One of the clocks I discovered in Luzerne even found its way to the vaults of the British museum. I came to miss Germany and often thought about returning. But it was the late thirties then, and with the economic situation being the way it was over there, it simply made no sense to give up my comfortable lifestyle in favour of nostalgic longings. London cast it’s blight of repetition and drossness upon me and I settled like sediment into a lifestyle which curried no feeling for me whatsoever.


I was taking lunch in my usual spot near the Heath when I realised that a man was observing me from another table. We were sitting outdoors and the day was bright and blustery, with a vague threat of rain. It was a small cafe, one of those with a striped awning, advertising sausages, eggs and ice-cream teas etc. The man seemed quite out of place in his well-cut suit and fine hat. He caught my eyes and shot me a brief smile. I realised then that he knew who I was. I mistook him for one of the customers of the gallery [almost all of whom were affluent and forgettable] and greeted him in a friendly way. He took this as an invitation to join me and walked over to my table. I realised that I was now under an obligation to invite him to sit and did so with a vague sense of annoyance. I did not like my lunches interrupted, for in truth my lunch hours were something of a respite to me. Even more so than my nights, which seemed always to be vacant and dreary. It was only when he spoke that I realized that he was German.

His name was Volker, though he encouraged me to call him Harrison for some reason. He smoked incessantly and apologised for it even more. He had impeccable taste in tailoring and I caught myself being envious of his ensemble more than a few times. He was friendly and detached that first time at the cafe. He said that he ‘recognised’ me and simply wanted to speak to another German. I accepted this, sensing that this was simply an overture to deeper dealings. We spoke of art and the weather, and all the while I could sense that he was observing me with an attention akin to that which I gave the items at the gallery. My idea was that he was simply a homosexual who was also nostalgic for his home country. I have always hated the senseless hedonism of homosexuality, but opted to be friendly to a fellow countryman. I was surprised to find myself enjoying his company. He asked if we could meet again and I agreed. He suggested a restaurant in Covent Garden the following day and I acquiesced. Perhaps it was boredom which made me agree, or the superior vanity some men feel when they feel they are being admired by the very things which they hate. We shook hands and I watched him disappear down an avenue lined with plane trees.


It was at the restaurant that he revealed his true intentions.

“We have a mutual friend,” he confided over his veal.

I did not ask who, and in truth did not much care at the time. He asked me if I was aware of the situation in Germany and probed for my loyalties in a very, polite and roundabout sort of way. My nihilism must have been very stark for he came to the point rather quickly.

“I understand that your gallery supplies artwork to many influential people,” he mentioned leadingly.

“That’s true,” I replied, refusing to play this inane game of show and tell.

“I understand that the wife of ____ is one of your personal clients, I am told that she buys and services her collection of clocks though your connexions?”

“Yes, she does.” I replied, recalling the grim-faced lady of which he spoke.

The conversation continued in this insipid vein for some time before he came to the point. I was asked if I would assist in placing listening devices in these and other clocks/artworks, a service which I would be recompensed generously for. I realised then that Hitler had remembered me.


I agreed, once again, out of sheer boredom and a general disgust for the country. I was not invited to dinner again and my following meetings with the Volker/Harrison entity were always in either art Galleries or museums. His manner also grew substantially more curt once a monetary transaction was formalised. I did not much care and went about the task in an off-hand way. He put me in touch with a creature called Fleming who took lodged in a repulsive apartment near Chancery Lane. I was to deliver the artworks to him and supervise the installation of the devices, ensuring that they remained undetected to the layman’s eye. I was dubious that this was even possible, considering the fine craftsmanship of the clocks. But then I had not reckoned with the almost inhuman skill of Fleming.

This agreement which I had entered into seemed to blossom like mould in a dark place. My professional abstraction was appreciated and I was asked to do more and more. I agreed and was shown how to transcribe the data received from the listening devices. The conversations all had to be transcribed in a form of code. No recordings were made to protect against discovery. Fleming was the builder and cipherman all in one, till his duties pulled him into other, more covert arenas. He was overweight and also smoked alot. His crowded flat was in a terrible state and always seemed to reek of metal parts and stale tea. He was always at a table with his tools, fixing things or scribbling furiously. He too came to enjoy my company for some reason. What is it about impervious nihilism and bitterness that is so comforting to the perverse? I disliked his character, but admired the genius he had for his craft. And what a dimly-lit, ill-founded genius it was. The devices he crafted were nothing less than the clocks I supplied. Delicate formations of hair-thin copper and inexplicable mechanisms. He asked me if I would like to earn some more money by learning how to encode the transmissions and I agreed. When the war broke I was one of the most trusted and active ciphermen the Nazi’s had behind enemy lines. This is what sympathy for struggling artists will bring. Those tacky paintings of Hitler’s…If only someone had bought them.

I spent more and more time with Fleming as the war intensified. I spent alot of time walking to and from his abode. You could feel the excitement in the city. The signs had gone up on every street corner and people were feeling wrathful and giddy with the prospect of divine retribution. It might be paradoxical to say that I felt this excitement too, but one must remember that I was not patriotic. My feelings for Germany were nostalgic. It’s true, I did want them to win. But these were simply selfish feelings which had to do with my sourness for Britain. The more I saw of Volker/Harrison the more I realized that Germany had become much the same as England in it’s obsessive expansions and industrialization’s. My Germany was a country of memory, an ill-founded place adrift somewhere in the reckoning of my youth. People were beginning to speak of the Jewish and Gypsy deaths. But they had not the elevated numbness of the historian who remembers the billions of slaves who died at the hands of British colonials. I saw no difference between the Nazi’s and the British. My allegiances were purely for my own entertainment. And in truth, I hated them all.


The war seemed to have little or no effect on Fleming, other than to make him more busy. He was always preoccupied and spoke in snatches of mumbled rhetoric and technical jargon. In the beginning, his methods of speech were irritating to me. But prolonged exposure to his company developed an unspoken simpatico between us. And it was this, I felt, which led to his trust in me. He was not a person who trusted easily and I could tell that his recruitment of me into the secret world of ciphers had impressed Volker/Harrison and his superiors. They now saw me as an operative who could be trusted. Indeed they had no reason to dispute my loyalties. I did not overreach myself or demand more money. I had no friends or social meetings with anyone save the odd harlot. I simply carried out my orders in a mechanistic, clinical fashion which they must have mistaken for unconditional servitude. I was also a former drinking chum of Der Fuhrer [however tenuous the link] and this must have also carried with it some unspoken weight. The secret, spider-like activities multiplied with the progression of the conflict. Everywhere and everything held a special tension, as in metal which is pummelled and stretched too far.

One day I discovered a strange implement in Fleming’s quarters. He had nipped off down the road to collect his tea and sugar rations and I was left alone with the cipher-board and a large pair of headphones. I stepped over to the grimy windows, which overlooked a bank of soot encrusted brickwork, for a cigarette. I noticed it hanging limply over a chair. I sauntered over and picked it up. It was a dark leather harness of some kind, inlaid with tiny clamps and studded shackles. My immediate realisation was that it was an instrument of torture; some kind of mutilating device designed to inflict discomfort and pain on another human being. A feeling of coldness crossed over me and I replaced it as quickly as I could. It had not crossed my mind that Fleming could ever be involved in any form of torture or physical injury. It was only then that I realised that there was a war going on and that we were, in effect, spies. Someone might have died in this very apartment at the hands of Fleming and his associates. I could not concentrate on my work and smoked cigarette after cigarette, waiting for Fleming to return. I decided that the best course of action would be to confront him about the implement and set my fears to rest. It was near dusk when he returned, filmed in the thin layer of sweat which physical exertion unfailingly produced on him. He entered quietly, like a fat dog, and wordlessly placed his cardboard box on the table in the small hall. He saw that I was glaring icily at him and paused, regarding me with sudden caution. I crossed the room and picked up the implement.

“What’s this supposed to be then?” I demanded.

His reaction was unexpected to say the least. He blushed a sallow shade of pink and sagged like a big, fleshy flower under immense heat.

“I…I’m sorry about that.” he gibbered and waddled over.

He snatched it out of my hand and disappeared into his dingy bedroom, slamming the door behind him. I was left baffled and oddly relieved. I went back to work and he appeared some time later. He pretended that nothing had happened and I played along, curious as to where this was all leading. It was only when I was walking home that I realize that it must have been an instrument of some private and unspeakable pleasure.

Around me London was being beaten like a woman. And yet it was I who was directing some of the blows. The sour fortitude of it all made me think of Mima. All the crowded underground platforms and shattered churches, all the buildings like broken teeth; they all seemed to collect in my memory of her. Hitler and I used to discuss our love for her, the degradation she was perpetually forced to undergo to sustain our private illusions and lusts. How many bitter men does it take to change the world?

One day I shall endeavour to write a memoir of the Devil. It will document a fascinating campaign of attrition. For despite what many think, the Devil cares not for glorious triumph. His war is an endless cabinet of minor victories, soon forgotten, long remembered.

August 25, 2008

Conflict, otherness, and the Afrikaner: an in-depth analysis of Sasol new signatures award winner richardt strydom’s work

Filed under: art — ABRAXAS @ 8:05 pm

Louisemarié Combrink, Vaal Triangle Technikon, South Africa

I would like to begin by quoting a modified graffiti slogan found in Sandton, an elite suburb of Johannesburg. The original slogan, chanted by black liberationists, went One settler, one bullet. Its contemporary version as noted in Sandton goes One settler, one Prozac.

Being a South African these days is not necessarily easy, no matter which side of the colour divide you find yourself. In particular, a great deal of water still needs to run into the sea before the Afrikaner can be said to have found peace with the past and can face up to the future. Rian Malan, confronting his own Afrikanerness in his unflinchingly honest book My traitor’s heart states unequivocally: “I am a white man born in Africa, and all else flows from there”. This confession is indicative of the inner conflict that is, I suggest, present in a more or less pronounced way in the minds of many Afrikaners.

Graham Leach asked in 1989, in a book entitled The Afrikaners: “Who are today’s Afrikaners – these stubborn and often infuriating people who defy the world? One hundred and fifty years after they mounted their journey (the Great Trek) in search of liberation, the Afrikaners are still in many ways a homeless people – still seeking that elusive final and secure resting-place which prompted their exodus from Europe and their flight from British rule” (1989:xii).

What is the Afrikaner? We can’t say for certain, since there are so many definitions of this term – based on language, race or personal preference, one could arrive at various possible groupings that would constitute the “Afrikaners”. In its more general usage, it could refer to white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, and this is where my focus today lies.

As early as 1992, Elsie Cloete has remarked in an article entitled “Afrikaner identity: culture, tradition and gender” that “Afrikaners had always been fairly certain of what they were. Nowadays, they are no longer so sure”. In fact, having recently relinquished its long-held position of power in South Africa towards a more democratic and independent situation, the Afrikaner’s position today has been complicated further. Richardt Strydom – the artist under discussion today – puts it thus: “By the summer of 1994, South Africa had seen the dawn of a new age. Under the glare of a democratic rainbow, huddled under a multicultural umbrella, South African society suddenly found itself to be post-everything: … post-modern, post-Apartheid and post-colonial”. The pertinent question is: what is then the position of the Afrikaner in contemporary South African society? In order to negotiate such a position, it would be necessary to address a number of issues, which will be some reference to the historical position of the Afrikaner and post-colonial re-positioning, with the resultant questions regarding settler/invader issues, the mutated nature of Afrikaner identity and otherising processes which result in a feeling of a loss of space. The position that I will postulate as a possible one for the Afrikaner would be that of a post-colonial cultural hybrid construction which negates simple binary positioning regarding coloniser/colonised and insider/outsider discourse. In a sense, the search for a new identity for the Afrikaner is inextricably bound by the confessional mode, which has emerged as a salient feature of recent white cultural production in South Africa, and particularly among Afrikaners, and which can be related to the confessional nature of the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many of the ideas presented here emerged as part of Richardt Strydom’s personal search for identity and should be read concurrently with his artworks, which I will discuss during the course of the presentation.

Some historical aspects

The construction of Afrikaner identity since the later half of the nineteenth century and particularly since turn of the twentieth century has been a conscious one which involved notions of Afrikaner homogeneity, unity and predestination, which would culminate during the later half of the twentieth century in a systematic attempt to claim a dominant position for the Afrikaner in the spirit of Afrikaner Nationalism. It has been postulated that the creation of the Afrikaner “volk” was an attempt to unify a large number of scattered non-English speaking European settlers who shared the Afrikaans language, previously referred to as “kitchen Dutch”. In this attempt to create a unified Afrikaner volk a number of historical events (such as battles) and figures have been rescued from historical obscurity and given mythological status in order to suggest a sense of predestination for the Afrikaner. This was further reinforced by notions that the Afrikaner was in some sense a chosen people, which resulted in a certain affinity with the Israelites of the Old Testament. Parallels were found between the Israelite’s epic journey through the desert towards the promised land and the Great Trek of 1838.

Further parallels with the Israelites can be found in the Afrikaners’ unshakeable obedience to its leaders (volksleiers) in their pursuit to defeat all that threatened them – the British, the threat of Roman Catholicism (Roomse gevaar), the black people of South Africa (swart gevaar) and communism (rooi gevaar). These echo the Israelites’ unrelenting resistance against Egyptians, Philistines and other threats to their nationhood.


The creation of the Afrikaner volk, despite popular myth, was not an instantaneous occurrence. In fact, so diverse were the social and political opinions and so large the gap between rich and impoverished white non-English speakers (especially after the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902), and so drastic the mass urbanisation of largely unskilled young Afrikaner men and women, that the path to volkskap was an erratic and often tempestuous one until well into the 1950’s (Cloete, 1992-46).

It could therefore be assumed that, based on a number of Afrikaner myths and the moulding of “distinctive features” of the volk, that the creation of the Afrikaner was by and large an ideological project. Its premises were based on three core beliefs: that there has always been a sense of belonging to a group since the earliest European settlement at the Cape; that this belonging would prove that the Afrikaner volk has been in existence for centuries, and that the volk has always existed because destiny or God willed it. This sense of a God-given task in Africa justified many of the questionable endeavours of the Afrikaner, most particularly Apartheid.

However, quoting Cloete, “the Afrikaner’s fears, anxieties, feelings of predestination, and the need to ‘bear the lighted torch of Christianity and European civilisation to the African continent” are not exclusive to the Afrikaner and echo directly the opinions and slogans of all Europe’s colonising nations, whether they were active in Africa, America or the orient” (1992:43-45). However, with the introduction of the discourse of colonialism and post-colonialism into the present discussion a rather complicated situation emerges, but more about that later.

From the settlement of the Dutch at the Cape in 1652 up to the nineteenth century the trekboers who would become the Afrikaners were mostly rural; scatterings of people based on a subsistence economy. As such their lifestyle tended to echo that of their indigenous co-habitants – they favoured pastoralism over agriculture in the fashion of semi-nomadic cattle herders. They tended to live in temporary dwellings similar to those of the black tribes of South Africa. The English explorer-artist Thomas Baines, who came to South Africa in 1842 bringing with him all the imperialist assumptions and self-righteousness of Victorian England despised the “Dutch” farmers or trekboers as much as the Africans – for their lack of education, for living in unpainted mud-walled houses or transportable reed huts and for drinking brandy at breakfast-time.

Sparks (1990:69) has suggested that the early trekboers became a “white tribe of Africa”, echoing the indigenous peoples of the country also in the sense that they for the most part lived in partnership with their environment rather than trying to tame it as British imperialism would. This process, which could be coined self-othering or self-deculturation, constituted a distancing process by the Afrikaner – a self-imposed difference from the European homeland that meant that the invaded land was embraced as the new home. The Afrikaner differed from most of the British colonists in that they could not go “home” – it is remarkable that generations of English South Africans would talk of England as “home”.

The trekboers’ association with their new country can be seen clearly in the words of the Xhosa war-prophet by the name of Makanda who stated the following after being captured by British forces during the fifth frontier war in 1819:

When our fathers, and the fathers of the Boers, first settled in the Suurveld, they dwelt together in peace. Their flocks grazed on the hills; their herdsmen smoked together out of the same pipes; they were brothers …

Having said this, however, the warming notion of brethren sharing a land in peace should be regarded also in light of the fact that the Boers viewed themselves as racially superior to the indigenous Africans, and that their identification with the African continent as such took precedence over the people of Africa. In any event, the numerous battles of the Great Trek and the slaughter of seventy-odd men – among whom Piet Retief – by the mighty Zulu King Dingaan while trying to negotiate land rights with the Zulus – testify to the fact that the peaceful co-habitation was always tainted by severe struggles for power and land.

These struggles were of course not limited to the indigenous peoples, but also included resistance against British colonisation of South Africa and the concomitant Anglicisation policies (the Afrikaans saying “nou is die Kaap weer Hollands” attests to this). One could suggest that the Afrikaner was occupying two positions: that of “the colonised” under British Imperialism (final independence was only attained in 1961 when the Republic was proclaimed) and that of “the coloniser” of the indigenous black population. Seeing the Afrikaner as colonised other complicates postcolonial discourse in which self/other and coloniser/colonised binaries are structured around the Manichean black/white division, and begs the question of the extent to which the Afrikaner had become fully “indigenous” to South Africa. The Afrikaner thus walked the almost impossible line of being both self and other, both insider and outsider. It could therefore be argued that it is precisely this position of uncertainty that sparked and fuelled the mobilisation of Afrikaner Nationalist ideologies and Grand Apartheid in order to proclaim a sense of space for the Afrikaner that would be more stable and secure.

Within this project, the homogeneity and unity of the Afrikaner were projected as truisms. However, this unity has long been contested – Afrikaners are, actually, a “bastard race” but it is proclaimed, rather ironically in the Groot Trek Gedenkboek (the Great Trek Memorial book) that “ons is trots op ons Hollandse, Duitse en Franse oorsprong, en wil hierdie bloed suiwer hou” (we are proud of our Dutch, German and French origins, and want to maintain this purity). Furthermore, as early as the Great Trek (1838) there are numerous accounts of fierce disagreements which resulted in trekker parties splitting off to pursue their own routes towards the promised land. More recently, the schism among Afrikaners is even more pronounced, with reformist, centrist and reactionary stances assumed by different elements within the larger Afrikaner contingent. Apartheid, and with that Afrikaner Nationalism had run out of currency, and this is where we find ourselves today – in search of a sense of space and identity.

This brings me to the particular position of Richardt Strydom and his search for identity as an Afrikaner. I will discuss a selection of his artworks from the early 1990’s to 1998 in order to demonstrate some of the questions, commentaries and negotiating stances that his works present as criticism from within. (Safari suit) – Untitled: Drag

Amblyopia (early 1990s) (Slide 1)

This work was executed in his first year at the Vaal Triangle Technikon. Amblyopia means “loss of vision in one eye”. It is a medical condition which is used to comment metaphorically on the loss of vision he associated with mainstream Afrikaner society and its nationalist preoccupations. The skyscraper represents high ideology – the toppling Afrikaner right wing – as opposed to the people in the street. He represents himself as the masked carnival figure in the background. The crudely fashioned “mythical” gun is an image of cultural and ideological weaponry – (as recently as 1998 a right wing political poster read: Afrikaners, olie ook julle geestelike wapens). The Afrikaner stereotype, used ironically and cynically, questions and challenges both the right wing Afrikaner and the commonly held stereotype of all Afrikaners being militant fascist clinging to the dregs of past ideologies.

Communist – 1994 (Slide 2)

In this photograph Strydom represents himself with red paint on his face, tongue literally in cheek. The work, which is presented as a pun, refers to an Afrikaner tendency, especially during the mid-eighties, to call anyone who questioned Afrikaner ideology a communist or a “pienk boetie”, referring directly to the “rooi gevaar” (pink being the colour one gets by mixing white with red). What is being addressed is not communism as such, but the issue of in-group self-othering. The individual who rejects the master-symbols and bastions of Afrikanerdom is sure to be exiled from the confines of the group.

Tweespalt – 1998

(Great discord over volkstaat) – the envisaged all-white state for Afrikaners – a right-wing project)

Strydom calls this an “appropriated newspaper poster” or a “found print” or a “stolen object” – he found it on a lamp-post. The poster in question is one of a Pretoria newspaper called “Afrikaner” and the caption refers to the long-standing inability of Afrikaners to be unified. The constant schisms opening up between the Afrikaners make it impossible to typecast them as a group, and as such it is liberating that one needs not identify with all aspects of Afrikaner culture in order to be an Afrikaner.

Born and Brewed in Africa (1997) (Slide 3)

(the slogan used to sell Lion Lager)

This is a digitally manipulated photograph where the dramatic background has been added to recreate the feel of gimmicky advertising photography. It is both an affirmation of the African identity to which many white people lay a claim, and an ironic reversal of what one would expect when reading the words “born and brewed in Africa”. Lion Lager is a popular South African brand aimed mostly but not exclusively at the white consumer.

Strydom consciously plays with notions of racial purity in this work. It has been noted that the Afrikaner has always been a bastard race – consisting of various European ancestries, and assimilating a number of other bloodlines into its present composition. Strydom therefore does not use models with racially pure Aryan features, but rather features himself (an Afrikaner with some Jewish ancestry), a Portuguese lesbian, a bilingual South African and an English South African who has strong ties with the English motherland to suggest hybridity. All this said, the rather lily-white complexions of the sitters comment on the absence of indigenous South Africans and invites the viewer to ask questions about the construction of an African identity. The absence of people of colour also comments on the attempts by the media and government to represent South Africa as a “rainbow nation”, in order to erase the old all-white images that were prevalent in the media and government organisations. Currently, one would often find advertisements for cigarettes, the post office or voter’s education which present a neat package of one or more blacks, an Indian, a white person and possibly a coloured person – the rainbow nation. Strydom subverts the new stereotype, and in so doing he reverts to the old one, to draw attention to the contrived nature of all image-making and to present his doubts as to how much has really changed since the advent of the rainbow nation.

WWJD (What would Jesus do) (Slide 4)

This work shows an image of yet another battle (an appropriated image referring to no particular battle) between indigenous Africans and white settlers with a found sticker superimposed upon it. The artist expresses his concern with the way in which religion has been used by the Afrikaner to justify oppression and Apartheid. Strydom questions whether anyone really asked what Jesus would do, and accuses his forefathers of having twisted religion to suit their purposes. He feels that religion had literally become, during the oppression years, an opium of the people, obliviating white guilt and justifying black subservience.

Surrogate (1996) (Slide 5)

This is the first work in which Strydom distances himself consciously from his own people’s Eurocentric ties. Africa as represented by the black woman becomes the surrogate for her white child. Like the embryo of a surrogate child invades the body of its mother, the white man in Africa has invaded the continent, grew in her and was reared by her, learning to love her as its own. The image above the mother figure shows the physical difficulties encountered by the trekboers in the process of entering the land and making it their own. Africa has become a surrogate continent with a hybrid child.

This painting is one of the last of its kind in terms of technique and process. Strydom would hereafter reject easel painting as a Western tradition in search of a more hybrid technique that would communicate his search for a hybrid identity more clearly.

The box paintings

This series of paintings were produced after “Surrogate”, and have become the signature style of Strydom. The artist’s desire to rid himself of the conventional European mode of easel painting lead him towards the exploration of an unconventional surface (boxes) on which he paints with oils, in order to achieve a hybrid superimposition of a high art medium on a crude throwaway everyday surface.

Whitewash (Slide 6)

While living in crime-ridden Brixton, a racially mixed suburb of Johannesburg, Strydom found the Omo box one evening lying in the street, after a rather windy Highveld afternoon. Realising that this box could have been a homeless person’s bed before, and seeing the traces of human contact in the form of footprints and smudges, he was confronted with his own rather cushy lifestyle as white South African. Having recently moved himself, he was reminded of the fact that he used boxes as containers for his possessions, after which they were discarded. It was the implication of rejection and litter that triggered in him the possibility of a new surface that would serve as a convening point for all classes in society. As such the box surface became a field for Afrikaner mythology to play itself out: both trashy and elevated, the surface embellished with oil paint seemed like a meaningful inroad towards his own construction as post-colonial hybrid.

The images he typically selected for the boxes were generic “precious” landscapes appropriated from anonymous artists. These landscapes portrayed the Afrikaner trekboers and their romantic sense of connectedness to the land; images that had indeed assumed a certain kind of “holy cow” status – which were newly interpreted by placing them onto a surface that alluded to the evanescent nature of both the surface and the ideological content of the images. As such his work approximates an iconoclastic dimension as it attacks not only Afrikaner imagery, but the notion of Afrikanerdom itself. This results in an othering process in which Strydom self-exiles himself ideologically from constricting notions of what it means to be an Afrikaner. His self-othering further implies a painful process of distancing himself from his roots in order to search for a new identity while coming to terms with his own history.

In terms of the surface Strydom employs one finds a number of clues regarding this process of facing up to his own demons. The box displays the name of Omo, perhaps the most frequently used detergent in South Africa which is promoted for its ability to make whites whiter – in fact, a recent advertisement on national television asserted that it would elevate your whites to new heights (related by a black woman). The superimposition of Afrikaner imagery opens numerous possibilities for an intertextual semiotic play which demands a great deal of participation from the viewer, and in fact requires that the viewer be knowledgeable about both Afrikaner culture and the social realities of contemporary South African society.

The work further demands a post-colonial reading, for the content and technique are informed by the discourse of postcolonialism. In the first instance, the hegemonic position of the English language in contemporary South Africa, at the expense of both the indigenous African languages and Afrikaans is reflected in the English type on the box. The text is manipulated in that bits are typed over, so instead of “micro powder” one reads “micro power”. Words like “brothers” were left to suggest both the patriarchal nature of Afrikaner culture and the difficulty in establishing a South African brotherhood of people. Certainly, an allusion to the clandestine Broederbond would also be appropriate. This could also be associated with the physical application of white paint in thin layers – a literal whitewashing that seeks to cover up the text beneath, much like many atrocities in the country’s history have been covered up, leaving only traces of untold stories behind. The ambiguity of this device of whitewashing could also be read as a pun on white trash, given the throwaway nature of the surface.

The play of type against image in “black” and “red” alludes to notions of binary opposites but also refers to the rooi and swart gevaar. Numbers were left on the box and are open to interpretation – they could refer to racial ratios or casualties in battles. By leaving unfixed interpretative clues, Strydom wishes to communicate his own unfixed position. As such, this highly wrought work is both confessional and confrontational.

To conclude, I would like to give Strydom the second last word: “No degree of second language academic muttering can explain the great sense of displacement, the careful tiptoeing as to avoid every utterance acquiring the ring of a victim cry. This makes the admission of guild seem like an easy politically correct manoeuvre to shortcut a self-proclaimed position of moral amnesty. The admission to inherited Apartheid privilege presents an essential starting point in the process of deconstructing my own past, present and future, but also threatens to present a quick exit or to become an emotional and spiritual endgame. In the absence of tenable answers, guilt melts into fear, insecurity mutates towards paranoia and honest sentiments tend to slip into cliché.

Having arrived at the realisation that the Afrikaner will have to redefine him and herself from within, the search begins in which a new identity needs to be negotiated; an identity that would resist hi-jacking postcolonial discourse for self-righteous purposes, but would transcend the Manichean divide of fixed boundaries between self and other. In so doing, the myth of the Afrikaner nation will have to be further deconstructed, so that individuals may begin to earn identities, that of Africans.

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