Friday, 5 February 2016


(This, I'll have you know, is Lucid Frenzy's five hundredth post! Don't you get a telegram from the Queen for that? Perspective paradoxes may make it appear to go up after the exhibition has closed)

“I cannot help mocking all our unwavering certainties... Are you sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are you absolutely certain that you go up when you walk up a staircase. Can you be definite that it is impossible to eat your cake and have it?”

Compelling impossibility

It may be fitting that the first time I encountered Dutch artist MC Escher was through a popularised, bastardised copy. As a child I won a drawing competition in a comic. And unbeknownst to my young mind the poster prize, which soon adorned my bedroom wall, ripped off his images wholesale. Their compelling impossibility fascinated me. If you looked at them hard and long enough, surely they resolved back again into something resembling the laws of physics. My unwavering certainties were well and truly mocked.

But here's the real thing. This being the first major British exhibition devoted to Escher, its like Lowry all over again. With it's audience-attracting adjective “amazing” the show sold so well I was lucky to get a ticket. While the critics proved once more that the corollary of popularity is critical disdain. In the Telegraph Alistair Smart dismissed him as “the sort of artist you leave behind in your twenties… offering nothing in the way of emotion, expression or depth – just little games that grow tiresome when seen together on a large scale.” While Ben Luke, taking up Brian Sewell’s mantle in the Standard, scoffed “a great illustrator? Perhaps, if you like this kind of thing. But a great artist? Not on your life.”

You can particularly hear his lofty disregard in the use of the lowly i-word. In fact Escher may attract a perfect storm of critical antipathy. He mostly worked with prints, and while he limited his editions that wasn't enough for an art scene so fixated upon the original. Plus, as the show states he had “little to do with the main thrust of Modernism”, which makes him hard to fit into the neat lineages they so dutifully curate. And like Lowry the feeling may well have been mutual. Escher's standard response to critical analysis was to rebuff it. His motifs, he insisted, contained “no symbolic meaning whatsoever. I put them there only because I like them”.

Yet if popularity keeps the critics at bay, it can bring its own problems. Wikipedia has a well-populated page devoted to uses of Escher in popular culture. But these homages often do the opposite of my bedroom poster, invoking his name but reproducing him in at best a reduced format. Major elements of his art are often entirely absent, he becomes simply a shorthand for gravity being applied locally to different planes. In short Escher means walking the walls, which confuses him with Spider-Man. We think we get Escher. When the very point is not to.

He's most often associated with the Surrealists, who were his contemporaries. Yet like Joseph Cornell this misunderstands his art. Perhaps even more so for, unlike Cornell, he didn’t even associate with the group - corresponding not with British Surrealist Roland Penrose but his mathematician nephew Roger. In fact he isn’t a Surrealist for reasons very similar to Cornell. As said of the Cornell show:

“Surrealist artworks tend to be about bursting the barriers between dream and wakefulness, between the conscious and the unconscious, so have a tendency to erupt with lurid and provocative imagery.”

Which isn't Escher at all. Even 'Dream' (1935, above), perhaps his most Surrealist work, has arches and avenues which reflect the moonlight calm of de Chirico rather than the mad mid-day sun of Dali. (Overall, the nearest Surrealist to him was probably Magritte. Their work shares a deadpan quality which provides a pseudo-seamlessness, delivering the impossible as though it was the everyday. And both men topped that off by cultivating a staid, anti-bohemian persona. But more of that anon.)

And all that separated him from Surrealism became twice as true for the later psychedelic generation. Escher’s reaction to hippie adulation was roughly similar to Tolkien’s, and went along the lines of “you damn kids get off my lawn”. In the now much-traded story, he refused the Stones permission to use his art for an album cover because Mick Jagger's letter had improperly addressed him by his first name. That may well have been not just an anecdote but a rescue. His art didn't belong there, and perhaps when seizing on that surface detail he intuitively sensed it didn't.

In fact, in one of the biggest surprises of the show, Escher's nearest relations were the Cubists, even if he doesn't fully imitate their crazy paving. The early 'Portrait of Pieter Jan Zutphen' (1920, above), combines the Cubist fracturing of an image into planes with the poster artist's building of object up from blocks of colour and shade. 'Other Worlds' (1947) superimposes different views of a single scene (above, straight on and below) into one. Much like Cubism, Escher's art is about art, about how we depict and how we see things.

But the show makes a convincing argument that his chief influence was not an art school but a place - the landscape and architecture of the Mediterranean world. First visiting there at the turn of the Twenties and living in Italy from '23 he at first faithfully delineated the views he found, fully obedient to all known laws of physics and gravity. Some works from this era even stray into folk art, for example 'Corte, Corsica' (1928) with it's vertical arrangement of fields in the background.

Despite the critics, like many of his prints Escher was multi-faceted, and to see him you need to take in them all. His art, so much about metamorphosis, metamorphoses itself between various themes, and looks at things from different angles without ever finally settling on anything. Trying to capture him isn't really so different from trying to resolve one of his warped perspectives, and as you struggle with it you can hear his mockingly straight-faced insistence there's nothing to see. I'm going to say here he had five faces, in increasing order of importance, but as everything shifts and overlaps in practice you might see more or even less.

The Great Architect

With the well-known 'Tower of Babel' (1928, above) Escher took what he called a “bird's eye view” of the subject. However in an old post I saw a different set of eyes at work:

“The crest of the Tower is looked down upon, an impossible angle for any human which suggests God’s perspective. God is not just the only named character in the Genesis passage, there’s even the suggestion he one day comes across the Tower. (‘Then the Lord came down to see the city and tower which mortal men had built.’) …Escher’s etching could therefore be of the moment in Genesis where God spies the Tower and, in a mixture of outrage and alarm, sabotages its builders by tying their tongues.

In short, Escher is seeing things from God's perspective. And when he draws himself he dominates his environments, while almost all his other figures are diminutively placed in a habitat. For 'Self Portrait' (1923, above) he was still a young man but a combination of style and medium make him look older, more authoritative. It could almost be a Bible illo of Abraham or Moses. Those staring eyes, which the radiating linework emphasises, often recur in his owls - another frequent motif of his.

We should notice how recurrent the paraphernalia of religion is in his work, how often we come across monks and temples. And we should remember that Escher originally studied to be an architect, while God is often referred to as “the Great Architect”. He often puts himself into what are virtually creator poses. 'Hand With Reflecting Sphere' (1935, used as the poster image of the show, seen up top), can be read both as the Earth in the creator's hand and Escher at home in his study. He holds the world up while he's at the centre of it. It reflects chiefly his face - monarch of all he surveys. After those early years the only fully realised figures in his work are himself and, occasionally, his wife. The others are little more than ciphers, a depersonalised populace for his environments.

This of course risks banality. All artists make stuff, and they frequently depict themselves at work as artists. But its not just the frequency of the images. This combines with the way he isn't arranging scenes but constructing worlds. The word “world” is almost as important in the show's title as “amazing”. He builds as much as he delineates. These works have their own reality, even down to their own rules of geometry. Escher is creating his own reality systems. If he is to be a deranged God of his private realm, one who cries “let vanishing points be bendy” then so be it. It's his world and anything he says goes.

The Escape Artist

Though apolitical by nature Escher came to distrust the increasing conformity of fascism and in 1935 he left Mussolini's Italy. From there, deprived of the Mediterranean scenes from which he drew inspiration, he started to invent his own - in his words - “mental imagery”. He was, in short, thrown back on his mind's eye. (Though he did produce fantastical images before then, the show suggests this as a spur which pushed him further in that direction.) And what better way to elude your enemies than tangle the rules of perspective after you? Perhaps his insoluble puzzles were his priest holes and escape hatches.

While this might seem to contradict Escher as the Great Architect, in many ways the two fit together neatly. It's often being out of place in this world that leads an artist to create their own. Escher was even less of an outsider artist than Cornell or Edward Burra, a tag which fits neither of them to start with. In a career sense, he was a successful commercial artist. But he kept at a remove from the art world, rigorously ploughing his furrow with total disregard for its fads and fashions. He meticulously built up his works, and pursued a private image repository over many years. That hermeticism makes him something like an outsider artist with a bank account.

Yet taken too far, this might suggest someone pushed out of the world, an exile from reality. It doesn't explain why, after the War, he didn't return to the Med or at least resume his travels. More importantly, despite their undoubted otherwordliness its inadequate to see his works purely in terms of escapism. For all his feigned innocence and deflection of attempts to analyse him, he said this quite explicitly:

“The primary purpose of all art forms… is to say something to the outside world; in other words, to make a personal thought, a striking idea, an inner emotion perceptible to other people’s senses in such a way that there is no uncertainty about the maker's intentions.”

The Cartographer of Transformation

Even if they don't make his greatest hits, Escher's works frequently featured tessellating forms. These forms by their nature made up each other’s outlines, like countries sharing borders. Breaking from the art convention that objects are discrete from one another, from the “my outline belongs to me” rule which can feel a basic presumption of art. (Portraiture, for example, is dependent upon it.)

While he often made repeating tessellations such as 'Regular Division of the Plane With Reptiles' (1942), let's focus here on those that morphed. Let’s remember that Cubism was the sole Modernist movement to catch Escher’s attention, and that Cubism associated itself with Relativity and other scientific developments. (Even if the connections they made were more poetic than actual.) Similarly there may be a general association between Escher and the less solid, more uncertain world being discovered by developments in physics. (He even called a print 'Relativity', one we'll look at in more detail later.) But in particular, he became more and more interested in morphology. (Chameleons became a common motif.)

'Encounter' (1944, above) is almost the opposite of of the dumbstruck workmen in 'Tower of Babel' - here two figures come to life and meet. The black figure in particular rises progressively from all fours with each iteration, like the famous evolution diagram of a monkey becoming a man.

And evolution became a recurrent theme. Evolution is often popularly supposed to be teleological, like a gradualist method of assembly. And as in the example above Escher can conforms to this. It's also true of 'Development II' (1939, above) which uses abstraction as a kind of primordial soup from which form emerges, the fully realised lizards seemingly walking off the edge of the print. But its a reversal of this which wins out, such as the 'Circle Limit' series of the late Fifties and early Sixties, where the realised figure is at the cente of the image and shrinks in size towards the edge, like a pattern on a ball.

And with this his streets became two way. Or in the case of 'Verbum (Earth, Sky and Water)' (1942), three-way. In a composition almost like a chart or table, you can read outwards, the rays of creation building for example into a frog. Yet you can as easily read sideways, so that frog might morph into a fish or bird. While 'Metamorphosis II' (1939/40), were it not more than four metres long, could be displayed in a loop.

Escher articulated this cross traffic: 

“We can think in terms of an interplay between the stiff, crystallised two-dimensional figures of a regular pattern and the individual freedom of three-dimensional creatures capable of moving about in space without hindrance. On the one hand, the members of planes of collectivity come to life in space; on the other, the free individuals sink back and lose themselves in the community.”

The Cartographer of Cosmic Balance

Alistair Smart sees Escher as “unquestionably pessimistic – or, if you prefer, absurdist – his figures not so much individuals as clones, usually trapped in nightmarish scenarios.” And it’s true that there's little to distinguish the faceless drones of'Relativity' (1953) from the centipede creatures of 'House of Stairs' (1951), displayed adjacently in the show (and here, as above). The moss garden of 'Waterfall' (1961) suggests diminutive micro-worlds, adding to insect associations.

And with that comes a definite ordering to things. As said of Lowry, he “painted environments then placed his figures within them… like animals in a habitat, like flocks of birds in trees”. And this makes his creatures inscrutable. He wrote that the figures in 'Ascending and Descending' (1960) “appear to be monks, adherents of some unknown sect” - as if he has no more clue than the rest of us. When his work is duplicated in film, animation or computer games, when characters or game-players have to be beamed from our world into one of his environments, this distancing is shattered and something vital is lost. We need to stand outside his prints, looking across an uncrossable threshold, as much as we did Cornell's shadow boxes.

Plus, Smart's does seem to be a common reaction. I overheard one attendee confessing she found Escher nightmarish as a child. And yet many others had purposefully brought their children, and were exultantly pointing out the logic puzzles to them. Perhaps Escher is simply Marimitey. And perhaps my reaction was set at an early age, by that poster on my bedroom wall. But while, as with any artist everyone has their right to their own Escher, I claim my Escher to be closer to Escher’s Escher.

For those figures never seem lost inside their environments, like Harry Potter befuddled on the stairs on his first day at Hogwarts. Instead they belong in them, are able to navigate them. It's our separation from them which makes the experience absurd, the way our perplexity contrasts with their ease. Our world makes sense to us, and theirs to them. How can this be reconciled?

If absurdism is at root the denial of inherent meaning in the universe, Escher could by contrast sound very much the optimist. He said “the desire for simplicity and order helps us to endure and inspire us in the midst of chaos. Chaos is the beginning, order is the conclusion.” Or, perhaps less certainly “Chaos is present everywhere in countless shapes and forms, while Order remains an impossible ideal, the exceptionally beautiful fusion of cube and octahedron doesn't exist. Nevertheless, we can always hope.”

As ever in art, order is associated with symmetry. And there's a kind of thwarted symmetry to 'Tower of Babel' with the two matching black-and-white harbours in the upper background, which then triumphs in the handshake of 'Encounter'. (Which Escher described as “a black pessimist and white optimist shaking hands with one another”.) And this yin/yang of black and white recurs quite frequently, for example in 'Day and Night' (1938, below.)

And this is visible in some of his more cosmological prints, for example 'Double Planetoid' (1949, below) which shown the human and animal worlds co-existing, towers and dinosaurs side by side. 'Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell)' (1960) is perhaps the pinnacle of this tendency, showing an angel and devil perpetually interlocked.

And in his art the “exceptionally beautiful fusion of cube and octahedron” did exist. This seems to have been a totem of Order for him, the hexagon and square polyhedral presented as a kind of ur-shape, a universal template out of which all else can emerge. It's visible in 'Crystal' (1947, below) or topping the towers in 'Waterfall' (1961). In the last example he specifically warned the viewer against any attaching any significance to them, surely enough to pique interest in itself.

The Slayer of Perspective

With really effective art it's often impossible to separate form and content – and Escher confirms this. His prints look 'clean', like architects' plans. His preparatory sketches were often made on graph paper, while his favoured print-making method was lithography - allowing for greater detail. The accumulation of this detail reassures the eye, lulls it. This is the solid, dependable stuff we rely on, that places the floor at our feet and keeps the ceiling up. It's like a joke told deadpan. It all looks so plausible you take a while to notice the impossibility, and even afterwards you still strain to reconcile the two.

'Belvedere' (1958, above) looks like an instructive diagram, detailed enough in its workings to be used as a plan. It even contains a diagrammatic map analogous to its main tower, then a man grasping a model frame beneath the finished thing. Yet it also has enough incidental detail to feel like a real place. And it's significant that among this detail Escher drapes his figures in Renaissance costumes.

There was no particular geographic reason why perspective was first devised in Italy, Florence did not contain more vanishing points than other places in the world. It came about for social reasons, in effect 'bundled in' with other Renaissance developments. Nevertheless the effect was to create an association. In the same back-of-the-brain way we assume the Thirties happened in black-and-white, we imagine the Renaissance was the time spatial depth first opened up. And with his Renaissance imagery Escher is exploiting this, in a way which wouldn't work had he used contemporary dress.

We've all become used to Post-Modern art, which displays the tropes of Modernism while denying them their meaning. In a similar way Escher is Post-Renaissance, pulling the rug from under conventions so long taken for granted they seemed a kind of natural law. “Surely its a bit absurd”, he wrote, “to draw a few lines and then claim it is a house.” Modernism, inasmuch as it had a relationship with the Renaissance, was anti-Renaissance, aiming to supplant it by replacing its pictorial devices, or to look back to times before it, or quite often both at the same time. But it didn't subvert it from within in the same way as Escher.

This isn't just true of his warped perspectives. Staircases and ladders, frequent images, are associated with hierarchy and with it order. A phrase such as “upstairs downstairs” suggests everything being in its place in the world. Escher's impossible staircases screw with this notion. A similar thing could be said of his play with levels of reality, such as 'Reptiles' (1943, above) is which modelling is used to make the reptiles appear in relief then revert to two dimensions. Or his breaking down of inside/outside distinctions, such as in 'Print Gallery' (1956). And yet his warped perspectives seem to have hit home the hardest. As the most counter-Renaissance bow in his quiver, they became his twisted Rosebud.

And Escher had one final twist to play on perspective – he bent it back into shape. There are more 'straight' prints than you'd expect, but when he returns to them late in his career it still pulls almost the same trick in reverse. In for example 'Three Worlds' (1956, below), you can take a while to realise its actually entirely possible. By the end the presence of genuine perspective and actual levels seems as strange as their absence. Even normal has stopped looking normal. Who could ask for anything more than that?

Now the alert reader has probably spotted what's going to be said next. Escher's fascination with transformation and systematic distorting of standard pictorial devices are undermining of the Renaissance. They cause attention to and thereby question those devices, like a magic trick being exposed by being done wrong. Yet his attempt to achieve order and cosmic balance through art, his evoking of some kind of supreme geometry could not be closer to a Renaissance mindset. Da Vinci for example often made geometric sketches (compare this to 'Crystal'), and used geometric forms in his compositions. Escher is the renaissance's successor and its saboteur. These two things do not fit together. Just like one of Escher's works, they make less sense the more you look at them. But the paradox you get when you put them together – that's Escher. That's who he is. Compellingly impossible.

Saturday, 30 January 2016


”He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being... He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned for ever to be free.”

'The Age of Reason' was an early novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, first published just after the Second World War, and described as “a fictional reprise of some of the main themes in his major philosophical study 'Being and Nothingness'”. It's the first part of a trilogy commonly dubbed 'The Road of Freedom', though I'm yet to read the later books.

The way Sartre structures the novel may be as important as its contents. We're plunged into events. Though the plot is precipitated by Mathieu being told by his lover Marcelle of her unintended pregnancy almost all the characters have already met before the book starts. And yet at the very beginning Mathieu encounters a stranger on the street. It might seem mere context-setting or even extraneous, but in fact its things starting as they're meant to go on. Here “met before” or even “are involved” doesn't equate to “know one another”. Relations come less advanced than ready-entangled. When a waiter tries to second-guess Daniel's drinks order, provoking a flash of temper, its virtually the whole thing in microcosm. Characters who presume to know one another are merely projecting their own prejudices.

Hence the novel's a series of dialogues. Sartre becomes a serial monogamist of narrative perspective, switching from the viewpoint of one character in one chapter to their being framed by the viewpoint of another in the next. One of the few times three characters are present the situation quickly becomes awkward and one has to leave. Two already being a crowd, three becomes an unbearable cacophony. The nightclub scene, occurring two-thirds through is as fulsomely foreshowed as the shootout in 'High Noon', and comes as thick with conflict. (“There will be bloodshed”, predicts Matthieu, prophetically enough.)

While all this might sound fearfully Modernist, concerned with the inner life, the novel also follows the dramatic unities as faithfully as any classical play. It a clock strikes two in one chapter, you can be sure there'll be another one hitting three in the next. It finds it impossible to be in two places at once, any more than it's possible to be in two heads at once. Events are often reported to us, as if we were with others elsewhere. It then takes this fixed time period and sets it against a ticking clock - the only competent abortionist for Marcelle is shortly leaving France, leaving Mathieu scrabbling to raise the cash for his fee. 

As if that’s not enough a subplot then sets off a second clock, Ivich must pass an exam if she is to stay in Paris. And yet this race against time is frequently interrupted by digressions – visits to art exhibitions, nights out at clubs, debates over politics. However, what sounds screwy actually works to the novel’s advantage – the characters do inhabit this world, a strange mix of urgency and drift, of significance and inconsequence.

Political commitment prowls the book, as if looking for a way in, without ever succeeding. (A sense intensified by the copy I read being literally wrapped in Picasso's 'Guernica', see illo.) The stranger that Matthieu meets at the beginning hands him a stamp printed by the anarchists in Spain. Yet asked if he wants to go and fight there, he replies “yes, but not enough”. One character who has taken up the fight is conspicuous by his absence throughout, thought of but never seen, as if taking up a different role in a different book.

Yet, even if these events were recent history, Sartre's including them is a choice. Though begun in '38, he could have as easily made the setting either the peaceful Twenties or post-war Paris. But he prefers the period where to fight in Spain was a choice - it involved getting up and crossing a border. Once France became occupied, choice was less on the agenda.

Characters in fiction often have an internal life as a consequence of their eternal actions. Heroes need to think noble thoughts that they might perform heroic deeds, and so on. Here it's almost precisely the reverse, the external is almost a function of the internal. Both big and small decisions attach to themselves an intensity, as if their primary function is to define the self. Actions are at root gestures, attached not to a purpose but a statement. We see, for example, Daniel debating with himself whether to shave around a pimple or lop it off. But it's perhaps at its clearest in Boris's shoplifting escapades:

“He had drawn no profit from his enterprises: he attached no importance to possessing seventeen tooth-brushes, some twenty ash-trays, a compass, a poker and a darning-mushroom. What he took into consideration in each case was the technical difficulty... The benefit of the theft was entirely moral... it was a test of character. And there was indeed a delicious moment when you said to yourself: I shall count up to five, and at five the tooth-brush must be in my pocket: you caught your breath and and were conscious of an extraordinary sensation of clarity and power.”

And this is set up in pointed contrast to the war in Spain. When Matthieu and lvich deliberately cut their palms in the nightclub scene, we can't forget they could at that moment be firing at Francoists. Characters are often presented as at the mercy of their own idle whims, particularly the compulsive and child-like Ivich with her capricious changes of mood.

And if that seems a rather adolescent perspective on the world, its probably intended to be. Age is a feature of the novel. It’s full of characters who are older than they look, doing things others are telling them they should have grown out of by now. With its fetishisation of the self, there’s no denying it is really quite adolescent. With the era evoked so vividly, the temptation is to read the title as a reference to it, like a variant on “the jazz age”. In fact like everything else its individualised, to do with the ages in Matthieu's life. The age of reason is what he's stumbling towards.

But to critique the novel from this perspective is not only too easy, it seems to miss the point. There’s no particular attempt to dress the characters up as sympathetic, in fact pretty much everybody commits some slapable action at some point. But its less that the novel is told through unsympathetic characters than it creates such characters as a form of self-critique. The choice of the pregnancy plot-line is surely embarked on to enforce on Mathieu that he now needs to take up a man's responsibilities, that his only other choice is that of an utter bastard. When Mathieu's brother Jacques tells him that he's merely living the life of a perpetual student...

”you condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself, you have never voted. You despise the bourgeois class, and yet you are bourgeois, son and brother of a bourgeois, and you live like a bourgeois.”

...its a rare scene where one character's perception of another has traction. In fact Jacques isn't really much of a character, he seems inserted specifically to say those lines. Mathieu protests, but goes away reflecting “I'm a grown-up child”.

However, if we don't require a novel to be stuffed with sympathetic audience identification figures, Sartre does come close to countenancing their actions through his own inaction. Perhaps we're not likely to get all that worked up over Boris nicking the odd toothbrush. But anyone looking for a work that's politically progressive would be lining themselves up for disappointment. There isn't really much getting round this being a novel about abortion and a man's right to choose. Marcelle's pregnancy is really there to catalyse Mathieu's existential crisis; if he all but ignores how she feels about it, then the novel doesn't do much better. Daniel's sadism may stem from his being gay in a homophobic era, having internalised society's loathing of his sexuality he's forever trying to displace it on others. (At one point he hits a gay cruising spot purely to scupper others' pick-ups.) But when the only other gay characters are sleazy low-lives, its unclear whether we're supposed to see this as a social problem or an inescapable fact of the gay mind.

And things get worse with the more incidental characters. Though the abortionist has a name, he is mostly referred to merely as “the Jew”. He never appears but then we don’t need him described to know what he looks like - the over-familiar grasping Fagan stereotype. (Its bizarre to think Sartre may simultaneously have been at work on his critique of anti-semitism, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’, 1946). Meanwhile 'negroes' hang around the periphery of scenes, emitting jazz, producing literal and metaphorical colour in equal measure. Perhaps trying to disentangle author form characters may be the wrong thing altogether, as some have seen strong autobiographical elements in the novel.

Yet when Sartre said “my intention was to write a novel about freedom,” from that decision these became the characters he needed. Not because they are free or unfree, but because they are the only ones to have any hope of freedom. For there is an upside to youth, for all their fixations with their pimples. Their moulds are not yet set, they still have potential. Perceiving society to be an outside force exerting its gravity upon you is wrongheaded but can grant perspective. It’s like striding boldly out of your home town, climbing a hill and looking down on it. It takes effort and you’re probably just going to go back home at the end of it. But at the same time it shows things from a different perspective, however temporarily. As Sartre himself said “only the guy who isn’t rowing has the time to rock the boat”.

And this is particularly true for Sartre's definition of freedom - a very particular one, meaning something like “unattached”. Freedom to choose is spent as soon as you've chosen, so you must keep yourself in a kind of stasis. Freedom for Mathieu is defined as staying in a hotel room, with the possibility always open of moving to another. And marriage to Marcelle is defined as having a permanent address, a place in society, a fixed point to the world. Should he ever move into that flat, to leave it again would merely be stretching a chain that cannot be broken. (You can read some of this, perhaps the novel's most famous passage, here.)

Its notable that he refers to his freedom in terms of association with objects. When he feels free the objects in his flat are “no longer his accomplices” but “anonymous objects... mere utensils”. For objects are always taking on some approximation of life. When he is first told by Marcelle of her pregnancy “the lamp, the mirror with its leaders reflections, the clock on the mantlepiece, the armchair, the half-opened wardrobe, suddenly appeared to him like pitiless mechanisms, adrift and pursuing their tenuous existences in the void, rigidly insistent, like the underside of a gramophone record obstinately grinding out its tune. Matthieu shook himself, but could not detach himself from that sinister, raucous world.” While people, for their part, are frequently compared to objects. (“They have lives. All of them. Lives that reach through the walls of the dancing-hall, along the streets of Paris, across France, they interlace and intersect, and they remain as vigorously personal as a tooth-brush, a razor, and toilet objects that are never loaned.”)

Freedom for Mathieu involves grappling with his bad faith - Sartre's term for the pretence we lack free will, the passive acceptance of our social roles. Accept that domestic life and you may as well be a furnishing. Struggle against it and people must become discrete, separate. Freedom is a function of separation, hence Sartre's recurrent conjoining of “free and alone”. To pursue our freedom we must by necessity instrumentalise others, effectively turn them into objects. We are the objects in each other's lives, capable of offering function but at the same time risking associations. Matthieu states boldly “I recognise no allegiance except to myself.” (This may have worked more powerfully in Sartre's era, when very few objects were disposable and many were held as heirlooms. Objects would more readily have taken on associations for them than for us.)

Yet at least to my mind this borders on conceiving freedom as a kind of quarantine from social contact, or at least meaningful social contact. Which was refuted long before Sartre was born, by the poet John Donne in ‘Meditation XVII’:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

Marx went on to elaborate the point. Freedom “is not possible without the community. Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible…. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.” Others don’t restrict your freedom. They enable it.

The self does lie outside the world, then come up against a social context like a fiery comet getting caught in its orbit. It’s quite the opposite, the self is a social construct to begin with. Had we been brought up by apes or wolves in a world of apes and wolves, it seems likely we would behave more like apes and wolves than we do now. Sartre himself famously said existence precedes essence, but he never really took his own argument all the way.

Danny S Byrne has warned that “the ‘philosophical novel’ always walks a perilous tightrope between fiction and argument, and there are undoubtedly times in 'The Age of Reason' when the characters’ status as pawns on Sartre’s dialectical chessboard – each an embodiment of an idea, their every action, thought and gesture driven by a predetermined logic – threatens to rip the fictional fabric of the novel apart at the seams.”

Well, others are welcome to head straight to the horse's mouth of 'Being And Nothingness' should they choose. But I think the opposite. This novel seems to me the more palatable way to take Sartre, through dialogue and description rather than dense jargon-peppered prose. Reading the novel forearmed by his philosophical treatises probably gives you the key to the colour scheme before its filled in, and when you know how it will all shape up you start to wish it could just get there.

Furthermore, Sartre may well have been a skilled writer but the work's effectiveness is due to more than that. What doesn't necessarily convince as a social philosophy may work well as an organising principle of a novel. Characters are not only driven but built to inscribe their every action, even shaving off a pimple, with the most heightened significance. Characters who bump into one another and spark, generating reactions like Newtonian particles. Irrespective of whether Freudianism seems valid or correct, I naturally distinguish between Freud and Hollywood Freud. I'm not sure I do the same with Existentialism. Ultimately, its tempting to see it more as an artistic than a philosophical movement, and one laid out in this novel.

Saturday, 23 January 2016


Okay, 'Bowie still dead' may not seem an obvious news item. But its still hard to think of much else. So here's something about one of my favourite tracks of his...

”It's too late to be late again
”It's too late to be hateful
”The European canon is here”

Picture this... an album that acts as a transition between two seemingly incompatible styles, laid down quickly by a singer so strung out he later couldn't even remember anything involved. Actually, scratch that... it’s not so much in transition as occupying a kind of schizoid state, it’s rigidly black-and-white colour scheme as indicative as the jagged stripe of the now-iconic ‘Aladdin Sane’ cover.

Not, perhaps, the most promising of starts...

Bowie recorded ‘Station to Station’ late in 1975, between the Philadelphia Soul of ‘Young Americans’ and the Krautrock-influenced “Berlin trilogy” of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. The title suggests some kind of transference between the two places; and indeed, shortly after it was made Bowie abandoned Los Angeles for Europe. However, the album rarely bridges those styles, it mostly alternates between them – the white-boy funk of ‘Golden Years’, ‘TVC 15’ and ‘Stay’, American as eggs over easy, intercut with the Europe-inclined ‘Word On A Wing’ and the Nina Simone cover ‘Wild Is the Wind’.

Yet with the opening, title track the trains collide head-on. And “collide” is the operative word; at over ten minutes, twice the length of most of the other numbers, its construction is basically the two styles, the American and the European, crashing into one another. Surely this becomes the point where the centre cannot hold and all this falls apart? The point where the drug-addled, has-been star finally crashes and sinks somewhere mid-Atlantic.

But its the opposite. By bringing together white and black, it gives the album it's key, rending the rest of it (kind of) comprehensible. More than that, it creates one of Bowie’s finest tracks. As Benjamin Aspray has commented at PopMatters: “If Station to Station’ boils a career down to an album, then ‘Station to Station’ boils an album down to a song.” From hereon in, we can focus on this track alone and miss almost nothing.

Though joined only at the edges, the two sections oppose and mirror one other. In the lyrics you can almost match the antonyms off like a game of anti-snap; “lost in my circle” versus “I must become one in a million”; “dredging the oceans” versus “mountains on mountains”; and (most prosaic-sounding, but actually most important of all), “here am I” versus “here are we”.

This album is held to herald Bowie’s Krautrock era, and he said himself “’Low’
and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track”. Indeed, once in Berlin, Bowie would hang out with Harmonia until he'd absorbed their influence wholesale. But that came later... While still in LA, the yet-unseen Berlin came from films and other received images. As exmplified by the name of a predecessor band to Harmonia, Neu!, Krautrock took as its mission to break all connections with what had gone before. The emphasis here is all on the past - on German Expressionism, or the ‘Cabaret’ shtick of decadent Weimar. (That stark black-and-white aesthetic, for example, came from Expressionist cinema, to which he'd become almost as addicted as the drugs.) While once he'd mythologised America from Europe, now it's the reverse, and that past being his past just makes the images shine brighter:

”Once there were mountains on mountains
”And once there were sun-birds to soar with
”And once I could never be down”

It also revived Bowie’s earlier interest in the pre-rock world of chanson and cabaret music, which had already run to the extent of covering Jacques Brel and Kurl Weill songs. Hence the reference to “the European canon”, a classical term which seems strangely archaic applied to modern music. (Some internet discussion boards struggle valiantly to explain why cannons are suddenly being fired.)

The style is measured and almost intonatory, sounding almost restrained when set against the orgiastic excess of rock music. Though no more repetitive than most other kinds of popular music, its downtempo beat and lack of release makes it feel repetitive - glowering and oppressive, as if the music is stalking you.

When words are set to this, the result is imagery that accumulates rather than progresses; “here am I, flashing no colour, tall in this room overlooking the ocean”. Images are clipped and precise, too composed to sound like a rock song, too stark to sound like poetry. They build into the picture of a solitary figure, trapped within its own grandeur, a prisoner of his own device.

Then, just as you think the song must surely be over, it bursts into the euphoric funky soul of the final section, a juxtaposition about as arresting as seeing a statue suddenly break into dance. Live clips of the time show a stage sparsely lit, which then explodes with brightness as it reaches this half-way point. The words lose their composure and take on the rush of conversation – “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” is less Brechtian bon mot and more like something you might have burbled in your ear at a nightclub.

And the two sections combine into something so much more than the sum of their parts. Like a sweet and sour, each taste is richer through being juxtaposed with the other. Some call it transitional, some call it completely unique in Bowie’s repertoire. Some call it commercial and some experimental. Quite often, the same people call it all those things at the very same time...

It’s often a few listens in before you realise, in a perfect irony, the words to the two halves are effectively swapped – like an exchange of prisoners. It’s the stark ‘European’ section in which Bowie describes his situation in LA, then its the funk which arrives to announce “the European canon is here!”

Indeed, for much of the first half, Bowie is simply reporting the facts of his life in LA. He really did live alone in a big house overlooking the ocean. Heavy cocaine use had driven him to a state of near-complete psychosis and paranoia. (One of his delusions being that witches were breaking in to steal his urine. Or, according to others, his semen. Perhaps the witches weren't that choosy.)

The key to the song is perhaps in the opening line (and original title) “the return of the Thin White Duke”. This was of course Bowie’s latest character, to replace and supplant Ziggy and Major Tom. But this is the first we have heard of him - how can he be returning? In the sense of coming around, rejoining the world, escaping the prison his life in LA had become.

Bowie was at the time obsessed with occultism, and the line “from Kether to Malkuth” relates to sephiroths (to you and me, points) on the Kaballic tree of life. (He can be seen sketching this out on the original back cover.) Kether, which translates to ‘Crown’, is the apex of Kaballa, the divine essence transcending the merely human - just as the crown goes above the head. Malkuth means ‘Kingdom’ and occupies the base of the tree; relating to matter or Earth. It’s the only sephiroth held to not directly emanate from God.

Yet in which direction is this “magical movement”? The Kaballa is based on the expectation the adherent will attempt to climb the tree, in the quest for divinity. Bowie is doing it the other way around, reversing down a one-way street, descending to Malkuth. This is the inverse of what he sung about in ‘Space Oddity’ – the journey of a man back from beyond, into the arms of ground control. Live,he would often accompany the line with a downward hand movement. “I must be only one in a million” means “I must become only one in a million” – end my splendid isolation.

And what’s bringing him back is the power of love – but love in a strangely pure sense. Love songs tend to be descriptive (“and then she kissed me”) or seductive (“love, love me do”). But when Bowie sings “I won’t let the day pass without her” there’s one slight snag - as yet, there’s no actual herLike Berlin, she’s a creation of his imagination he’s hoping will manifest itself. Still stuck up the Kaballic tree, he is only able to conceive of the Earth he wants to rejoin. He wonders “who will connect me with love?”, as if love comes before the lover - a mental state which then needs a physical person to connect to, like lightning aiming at a rod. (Ironically, in telephony a station-to-station call is one where “the caller is willing to talk to anyone who answers”.)

Bowie is tapping into an ancient idea of art, that it is not a device for recording events but an act of sympathetic magic which aims to change the life of the artist. (“Such is the stuff from which dreams are woven.”) He is singing not to any lover, hoping to enchant them. The Thin White Duke is throwing darts in his own eyes. He hopes to reacquaint himself with love, to emerge from his drug-induced stupor, simply by singing about himself as a lover, inventing a character which he can them inhabit. (Compare to ‘Soul Love’, “all I have is my love of love.”)

Bowie once wrote a song called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. We tend to want rock stars to follow the road of excess, crash their cars and generally sacrifice themselves, become beautiful corpses to look good on our posters. It’s a salacious tabloid desire, to see them burn up for our entertainment, so we might feel a bit better about sticking with our moribund day jobs. Yet what if they pass through that road of excess, make it out the other side? Even in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, death is ultimately rejected.

‘Station to Station’ came out of a direct and personal need, a missing person notice written about it's own author, a spell cast over himself that might lead to his return. That urgency, that compulsion, is a large part of its appeal. Yet if it’s a spell he wrote for himself, it’s not a spell that need just be applied to himself. It’s quite genuinely life-affirming. I have never, you understand, found myself trapped in a big house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a life of coke-addled paranoia. Witches are not, to the best of my knowledge, after my semen. But I like the idea that, were I ever in such a place, there’s a magic spell waiting to free me.

Let's drink to the men who protect you and I.

Saturday, 16 January 2016


I can vividly recall seeing David Bowie on 'Top of the Pops' for the first time. As he sang 'Starman', he put his arm around Mick Ronson and pointed out of the telly straight at..., actually that wasn't it at all. It was 1979 and it was 'Boys Keep Swinging'. At which point I had absolutely no idea who he was. The track sounding vaguely new wavey, I probably assumed it was a debut single. Yet it was not the music but the video which so beset my young mind.

While in Berlin he'd often gone to see drag queens, and been taken by the way they'd 'break out' at the end of their act, sweeping off their wigs and smearing away their make-up. So he made a video which went like that.

I don't think I even got it was the same guy each time. But then I didn't get much. Were these the “poofters” which playground bullies accused you of being before shoving you, but of who no-one else seemed keen to speak? But then they were singing jubilantly about being a boy, while pulling off all that stuff. But then they were wearing it in the first place... It seemed impossible to parse. Besides, are they actually allowed to broadcast this? And why isn't my Dad slamming off the telly in a fit of rage, like he normally is? This is all really strange.

'Scary Monsters' was only a year later. But a year's a long time at that age. And that was my Bowie album, the one that happened for me in real time, the one through which I found out who Bowie was. The impact of the video of 'Ashes To Ashes' and the others was immense, but that's been covered enough elsewhere. And besides this time the music mattered too. And 'Ashes To Ashes', despite its hit status, was atypical of the irreverent playfulness of the album. It seemed thrown together with cavalier disregard for the way music had always been made, with Bowie intoning “beep beep” over the top like Road Runner. It still made no sense. Songs came with sense-defying titles like 'Up the Hill Backwards'. Was 'Fashion' a critique or celebration of the fashion industry? Beep beep. But what had been befuddling now felt beguiling. Somehow, it made my sort of no sense.

But if one year was a long time, then try three...

By 'Let's Dance' Bowie was performing dance music in big suits and arenas. He played the nearby and newly opened Milton Keynes Bowl, and many of my schoolmates went. If I say I tried to stop them I'm not really exaggerating. The fervour with which I reviled and denounced it all seems somewhat ludicrous looking back. Martin Luther had a softer reaction to Papal indulgences. The night of that gig, I'm sure I must have placed myself in a chair and deliberately not gone.

(Besides, what was to follow suggested I should really have held onto my ire. 'Tonight' made 'Let's Dance' sound a whole lot better in retrospect. In the Seventies Bowie had used music as a bridgehead for everything he wanted to do. By the Eighties it had become a day job he was stuck with. He later called the period a “netherworld of commercial acceptance”.)

But however absurd and self-righteous I was being, isn't that what popular music is for? Not chin-stroking connoisseurship but the chance to assert your own identity via the positive and negative reflections of album covers?

And Bowie knew that more than most. Even if I wasn't in the first audience for 'Starman', even if I didn't get the full force of the thing, I got enough of a deflected blow to get it. Bowie wasn't doing it for you, like a car-crashing rock star you could live through vicariously. (Even if he did all that too.) He was doing it so you could too. You didn't have to be the person everyone had always told you that you were. You could create your own self and then inhabit it. When I asked my workmates for their favourite Bowie era everyone said their era. Even when that meant dates in the Eighties or early Nineties. Which is crazy talk. But only if you're doing it by assessing the music.

That's why it was so fitting his best-of album was called 'Changesonebowie', particularly the audacious use of “one”. That's why the standard press reaction of asking everyone their favourite track doesn't cover it. That's why the cliché of his being a “musical chameleon”, trotted back out so many times in recent days by know-nothings, is so inadequate. Bowie was a musical shaman. The changes were the crux of the thing. He didn't just change, he represented change. As he sang, “I could make a transformation as a rock 'n' roll star”.

Coming soon: More Bowie stuff. What else?

Friday, 8 January 2016


It's been a while since we had a Spotify playlist around here. This offering starts off with some seasonal winter wine served up by laid-back Canterbury-dwellers Caravan, but be warned things don't stay chilled for long.

You'll encounter along the way the soaring organ of Brighton's own Electrelane, Bob Dylan getting dissy (hard to believe I know), Sun Kil Moon ruminating on how it feels to have outlive death, GZA dropping the G-word and Rydell chronicling how easily Saturday night hedonism slips into outright nihilism – plus more!

Caravan: Winter Wine
The Fugs: The Garden Is Open (Album Version)
Electrelane: Many Peaks
Richard Thompson: Stumble On
Gomez: In Our Gun
Gorillaz: Tomorrow Comes Today
Bob Dylan & the Band: Dirge
Sun Kil Moon: Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes
Tricky: Tear Out My Eyes
GZA: Swordsman
Swans: My Birth
Melvins: Joan Of Arc
Hey Colossus: Numbed Out
The Pop Group: Sense of Purpose
Paul Weller: Brushed
Rydell: Ghost Culture

”Faces from your past
Flashing backwards
Do they still call you?
Calls cut off
Now you have no basis
In other people
Your life is weightless"