Saturday, 15 August 2009

Death Cult and Dog Star

(Note. This is based on part of the material for ‘Origins’, and was expanded for a talk at Cambridge. I can’t remember the details. 2003? Origins was published in 2008, after many years.)

Death Cult and Dog Star

This talk starts with the prevalence of long poems in the 1970s. I made a list of 50 significant long poems published and written in that decade, see Long poems. A lot of them came out as A4 stapled photocopies - the long poem strained the capacity of a trade adjusted to magazines, anthologies, and short books. The current which swept poets away from the market, and into these uncharted waters, must have been strong. The long poem is a vote against the common stock of knowledge. It allows the poet to seize the context. It allows the construction of a whole new space, with its own rules. We are curious whether the modern and newly permitted poetic material was about intellectual ideas, or about personal myth. If it has to do with ideas, necessarily unfamiliar if new, then we can see it as the tip of a kind of cone; few people read it because it belongs in an area of high uncertainty, and the writing helps to acquire this new territory for the common stock of knowledge. One can explicate such poetry by clear exposition of the uncommon, print-mediated, ideas which they draw on. But if the precious wares of poetry are personal myth, the atmosphere is much less austere, the benefits more subjective, and the small size of the audience has to do with the fission of a possessive individualist society, and the aftermath of the collapse of a set of shared myths. This variant does not oblige poets and readers of poetry to be intellectuals - the price of entry is something different.

The formula for the 1970s was, crudely, to imagine the surface of society to be blasted away, the top thousand metres or so broken off to shows something deeper, which was the raw material for a New Society. The interest was not in the deep past for its own sake, but in the nature of the raw material out of which the new society was to be constructed. This 'deep' study was parallel to the exploration of a new consciousness and new social arrangements, which was too new at that time but has become more substantial since.

Richard Aldington published a major poem in 1935, which is a pioneering effort to bring archaeology and anthropology within the boundaries of poetry and so provides a starting-point for thinking about the 1970s. We should start by mentioning something forgotten, the school of cultural diffusionism. This was an object based group of scholars who collected objects, arranged them in series, and then hypothesized that the idea for the objects started at a centre, a Great Culture, and then radiated out to areas of lower culture. Thus the ‘high spots’ were surrounded by series of circles at various distances from the point of origin, very easy to draw on a map. The attenuation of the ideas as they travelled accounted for the variation of cultures. Because the culture came in packages, single objects were seen as evidence of the transmission of entire cultural systems, which did not need to be demonstrated. This favoured acts of recognition by connoisseurs, which were the point scoring moments: recognition over long distances scored even more points. The method saw a process like radio waves diffusing out from a broadcasting tower, and liked to use maps of Europe and the Mediterranean lands on which the waves could be tracked. The idea of the poem, Life Quest, is like this:

It seemed I was not on the world's edge
But in the real centre of the earth
Between Egypt and the Western isles
Feeling in a flash the long generations
From the first of the husbandmen
To the last of the machine men.

The Life Quest is a phrase from Grafton Elliot Smith, whose idea was that "Though the sacred literature of every country... mythology and folklore, persistently make the search for life or the elixir of life... the essential motive of human behaviour, students... ignore it." When we look for "the constituent elements of civilisation", […] "the search almost invariably leads us back to Egypt as the place of origin, and to the Life Quest as the motive that inspired the... custom." The search for immortality, for substances sympathetically charged with life-giving magic, "was responsible for the creation of civilisation, with most of its arts and crafts." The Egyptians had a high culture and travelled great distances because their country's alluvial terrain lacked minerals; these expeditions were really the start of culture in Western Europe. The megaliths are 'degraded mastabas' and their distribution along the Atlantic littoral as far as the Orkneys traces the diffusion of Egyptian cultural ideas, rendered without detail because of the limited expertise of native workmen. The principle of imitation is built into this: the founding point is a place of high prestige, and the imperative to imitate is what the history of art recovers. Beyond that is the self-aggrandizement of the patrons of the original projects. Aldington's poem shows

Grimaldi bones smeared with red ochre
That apes bright blood the life-giver
Conjured in vain as age by age
Rubble and drift and ashes built a tomb
A stiff and rocky shroud
but saved no soul
More splendid fantasy robed Osiris dead
In gold and natron under pyramids,
Furnished the palace-grave for an eternity
The Ka has never entered.

The ochre of the Palaeolithic tomb in a cave at Grimaldi (in Liguria, near Ventimiglia, and circa 26,000 BC) is red to symbolise blood, playing a part in Smith’s system: the whole purpose of culture is to achieve immortality, not only art and medicine but also mining, chemistry and engineering are products of this primal drive among the wealthy. Aldington is saying the Life Quest failed, it saved no soul. After 28,000 years, the Palaeolithic skeleton was covered in six feet of debris, rubble and drift and ashes, but was still there, as deposed. The Ka never comes back to the body. Aldington therefore wants to re-orient culture towards Life: "You are rotten with death-worship!" The original thematic material in his poem includes a fierce criticism of the culture of contemporary Britain, close to Lawrence but also perhaps to George Orwell, researching in Wigan at this date -

In misery have I walked the London streets
That rich proud city
Of the penurious and humiliated

An Etruscan tomb is gayer than London streets.

Sharp-lined and glinting
The traffic clots go curdling
Through the dark veins of the town
In sharp mechanistic spasms
Like the fierce bleeding of a great machine,
Breaking the rhythm of our blood
Until the soft swirl and lapse of Thames
Alone seem unreal.

If you delete the original imperative to imitate, the 2nd imperative to aggrandize the mighty egotist, you have a Pristine Blank in which you can start culture afresh. This is a life raft project. Aldington came out of the trenches of the Great War as a revolutionary, someone who wanted to overthrow and re-found Western culture. The poem goes immediately on to mention the obelisk of Thuthmoses, erected on the bank of the Thames, as a link to Egypt; he is attacking the whole Death Cult of inherited wealth, inherited cultural imperatives, as it has thrived since Thuthmoses. For Smith, the tombs are also part of the Life Quest – and the "death cults" were also the great creative cultures. Aldington took the idea that ‘the gods’ were deified ancestors, went on to destroy the contents of traditional religion, and goes on to demand a new worship of natural forces, Earth Sun and Sea. He identifies the founding of culture by the powerful in Egypt with the failure of leadership by the governments and aristocracy of Europe in 1914 to 1918, and demands the start of a new culture:

You are building up the world with prisons
For yourselves and your children,
You are rotten with death-worship.

He is launching an attack on authority and on all the ossified imperatives of authority, in order to lead life as a carrying-out of innate and vital imperatives: it’s life and life only. This is what is happening in Life Quest. It follows on directly from Lawrence’s Apocalypse, with its demand for a return to worship of the sun, and the Elliot Smith material is just the illustrations. The people are 'the last of the machine men' because the next generation is going to abandon the machine and go back to organic life, under Earth Sea and Sun (like life at Ascona maybe?).

Smith says that Egyptians used malachite as eye makeup because of the life symbolism of its green colour. Then, they discovered that you could smelt it, and began making copper chisels- just in time, as they needed them to make wooden coffins, the forerunners of sarcophagi. The concrete detail is genuinely Holmesian, though the whole chain of deduction which follows is nonsense. The idea that metallurgy is an offshoot of cosmetics is precious. Another source I read says that the malachite killed insects and so protected your eyes - so this could be primary, with the cosmetic effect secondary.

Smith started from anatomy, which has a basic conservatism due to the stability of the gestation process: as we know, some genes to do with foetal development are the same in flies and humans, and we can quite rightly compare the limbs of insects with those of vertebrates. Culture is not governed by genetics, and the whole 19th century efficiency of darwinism does not apply there. The idea that you can set a large number of objects in a series, as if in a glass case in the Natural History Museum, and read off from the comparison which ones are old, which late, and which ones are related to each other, is intoxicating in the same way that Conan Doyle's stories are. The people who really bought into diffusionism as a theory didn’t give it up when the rest of the scholarly world abandoned it; they died without recanting. It just gave too many moments of glory: the professor picks up one single artefact and reads the most amazing things from it. Too many Sherlock Holmes moments. Of course diffusionism continued as a marginal and amateur stream, preparing the way for the Pseudohistory of the 1960s and later. The other main school of diffusionism was in Germany, and both Germany and Britain were very interested in the imperial idea at that time. Diffusionism shows one culture transmitting itself across the world, and transforming the lives of peoples who were living in a backward and conservative state until then. It is hard not to see this as a kind of projection of the British Empire. I read a book on ethnography published in Germany in 1940, which was not a peak year for intellectual endeavour in central Europe. However, Dr Bernatzik did manage to demolish the diffusionist school, what was known as Kulturkreislehre, pointing out that they were museum directors or, like Frobenius, plunderers of objects to ship home and stuff in museums. They did absolutely no fieldwork. Didn't see the point of talking to non-Europeans. They just weren't interested in how objects or buildings fit into cultures. Smith, depressingly, talks about how culture is transmitted through language, not heredity, but tells us that culture is wholly conservative. Innovation is impossible - thus he saves diffusionism. To revive the psychological structure of diffusionism would be to revive imperialism. This isn't the main reason why anthropologists in the 1920s rejected Smith's ideas, but it does prohibit a revival. Having got that out of the way, we can admit that it would be worth looking for traces of Egyptian influence in cultures of the Upper Nile, at the relevant period, or also for traits spreading west across North Africa and into Spain, and from there into Atlantic Britain. Great cultures do radiate and ships do cross the seas.

Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat is partly about the effect of watching two films by Stan Brakhage, one being ‘Dog Star Man’. He links this to the Egyptian architectural forms of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s East End churches via the Dog Star Sirius – whose rising allowed priests to predict the Summer floods of the Nile and so led to the invention of arithmetic, astronomy, and the calendar, in Egypt. Lud Heat is also based on Brakhage's autopsy film "The act of seeing with one's own eyes", filmed in a morgue in Pittsburgh; Elliot Smith, in his capacity as a medical officer working for the Egyptian Government, dissected many mummies. Sinclair: "These acts are close to the Egyptian autoptic rites that set free the Soul Bird and preserve the body shell. Anubis weighs the death upon his scales. He supervises the measurement. The hands of the practitioner are his, as they slice up the dead shape. ‘The knife manifesting upon incision the signature of a Starre.' But if they bottle the removed organs it is only to fill up a police report. They are scribes of the book of the city, which remains unread." ‘Autopsy’ is also a technical term from divination: the chosen person ‘sees with their own eyes’ a god, and this is the source of the knowledge which is recorded in their text. The word has special connections with a custom in Egypt, Greek Egypt by now, of incubatio, sleeping in a shrine so as to gain insight into an illness and how it could be healed. The solution was expected to come in a dream via an ‘autopsy‘. (Richard Reitzenstein wrote about this.)

There is a direct link between 'Life Quest' and parts of Lud Heat, although Sinclair probably got his Egyptian diffusionist material from marginal occultist magazines. H.J. Massingham’s 1926 work Downland Man offers a significant parallel to Lawrence. Massingham started from a similar position of radical politics, in relation to the war, to Aldington. He rejected the Celts as militaristic barbarians, going back emotionally to the non-metal using Neolithic cultures, in an obvious reaction to war trauma. His idea of the Neolithics as very wise, peaceful, rich, harmonious, etc., was influential on the 1960s; he was one of the people who codified the Imaginary Village, in a long series of books. He also says that the Neolithics, i.e. English village culture, took their culture from Egypt; 'this English poem, English to the tip of every grass-blade, bears the water-mark of Egypt' (Downland Man). His Merlin was an Egyptian, one of the ‘children of the sun’ (cf. Heliopolis). He says that the long barrows are imitations of mastabas, a kind of Egyptian tomb. As the chief among many writers on “the countryside” of mid-century Britain, he adopted Perry’s theories – and spread diffusionist ideas to a generation of ill-informed writers on British antiquity. When seekers after lost knowledge set out in the 1960s, they carried a baggage of romantic diffusionist ideas. Massingham made the key link between megalithic tombs and Pyramids; it was only necessary to add to this another stream of pathological Egyptology, the one starting with John Taylor in 1859 which saw the secrets of the cosmos as encoded in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, to produce the ley-hunters, who saw the megaliths as beacons for flying saucers. The attribution of special virtue to the geometry of buildings is a legacy of diffusionism. It builds one story for the species and so drops someone standing by an English megalith right into the middle of early Egyptian history. That's me in the picture. They extended the analysis to churches - bringing us back to Hawksmoor. Diffusionism is the ancestor of sacred geometry. In Lud Heat, the Egyptian motifs in Hawksmoor churches in the East End are used as the anchor points of a weird geometrical transform, turning parts of London into a re-enactment of the Nile as the highway of the dead and the Isle of Dogs into the lair of Anubis: "St Anne, in plan, is seen to be closely related to the horned scorpion gate form, described by GR Levy in The Graves of the Giants. And this goes back, once more, to Egypt.... not by direct route, carried by migration - the plodding cultural-transfer theory - but by sap connection... archetypal expression of common needs. It is the essential shape of a peculiar kind of fear. Hathor, the Moon goddess, whose horns hold up the moon disk... contains Osiris, by assimilation. Our rapid spirits trace out a moving cage of paths and tracks around the pyramid... are bees, pieces of the sun. (...) The church is a mummified bee surrounded by water." If you look at Massingham's original diagram of how megaliths evolved from Egyptian rock tombs, reproduced by Elliot Smith, you see the same Sardinian design: the Graves of the Giants. The diagrams of sacred geometry, with their curving lines of force, bear a odd resemblance to the radial ripples of diffusionist maps.

Philip Jenkins, too, wrote about water and Egypt, and both works have themes in common with Life Quest. Book 1 of Cairo was published by X Press, which published another extreme, elaborate, mythical-psychoanalytical long poem - The Accident Adventure (by Paul Gogarty, 1979). Both bear some resemblances to Martin Thom's masterpiece The Bloodshed the Shaking House - published by X Press. This was a marginal operation even among 70s underground presses. They seemed to have no demands beyond the A4 typed photocopied stapled sheaf, and I don't either. Cairo is based on a stripping-down of the self to its ancient irreducible parts. Egypt features as the origin of farming, the source of European myth, kingship, of the peasant social order. The primal is seen as a visual order which recedes before reason but is always there as the basis of rational sight:

the thin line ties
the neck of the bottle
to the edge of the table

the line is heavy: it bows

that small hominoidal face
brush strokes define a vigour
mark the movements that will
obscure, eventually obliterate

the passage from the fingertips
the outstretched arm
follows through

Jenkins starts out from ways of seeing, from cognitive orders for recovering information from the visual plane. This is different from the project of getting behind the ‘hegemony’ through archaeology or anthropology, but is perhaps equally important. Egyptian art has very different rules for organising visual space than what we are familiar with, showing the arbitrary nature of rules in visual recording. Their rules seemed normal to them. Eric Mottram says in his 1973 book Local Movement:

after coffee in the Heliopolis Hotel 1955
under dome and propeller out to Giza
crawling night into the Great Pyramid
down the stone tube to a centre

thunder of beaten sarcophagus weight of stone measures
in that night a terror of ignorance I should have quieted
meditated on measure but framed by knowledge I lived blind
old untouched by harmonia mundi and magic techne

('Homage to Denis Saurat')

Mottram's problems with montage seem directly related to Aldington's. The habit of super-vivid isolated images came from Imagism, which is where Aldington started as a poet; the transition to long forms produced the montage effect quite naturally. Continuous treatment of complexes of ideas is just not possible in poetry; radical cutting back gives a satisfactory pace, and yields a pattern of high points separated by violent discontinuities, which is a good description of Aldington's poems from 1920 on. Denis Saurat was an early theorist of ‘lost knowledge’, and wrote notably on heretical, Gnostic themes which he found in Milton; Milton as a forerunner of Blake. Heliopolis means city of the sun, and features in relation to Campanella's 17th century socialist utopia, the city of the sun. This really was based on Heliopolis in Egypt, because of his sources in Hermetic writings, as explained by Frances Yates in her work on Giordano Bruno and Renaissance magic. This is where the harmonia mundi comes from. Hermes Trismegistus is, however, one Egyptian too many for us.

So, various 70s poets were preoccupied with Egypt, and use its role as the origin of civilisation as a jumping-off point to explore the origins of personal identity. Is it too mean of me to say that fortune-telling is associated with Gypsies, whose name is a memory of Egyptian? The thematic rhymes do allow us to relate Aldington to the modern thing. Anatomy, archaeology, the invention of technology, do offer glimpses of the origins of human nature - allowing us glimpses of the planes in which we are free and the rigid planes which are the limits of our freedom.

I read Aldington because Macleod said in a 1930 essay that he was most influenced by Aldington, Lawrence, and Walter James Turner. Was this the underground line of English modernism? I am wondering if there may be an alternative view of the 30s via books like The Ecliptic, Foray of Centaurs, We The River, Petron, Canons of Giant Art, Gold Coast Customs, Variations on a Time Theme.

The aerial view is the regard of Sirius. Aerial photography revealed many features of the countryside invisible on the ground, and stimulated the search for ancient structures. English artists of the 1930s, according to a current display (2003?) in the Tate Gallery, saw aerial photography as akin to modern art, because of its flattening quality and the loss of the horizon line. From above, the earth is the horizon line as well as the plane of the image. Aldington has come pretty close to disappearing, which is perhaps going to be the fate of the underground of the 60s and 70s. Aldington is a buried monument, an anomaly of the countryside showing up in photo analysis.

The use of Elliot Smith is booby-trapped. He was one of the most respected scientists of his day. His ideas were apparently narrowly scientific, Positivist, respectable. But on closer examination they turn into vapour and waft away to the realm of the crackpot, the conjectural amateur, the system-builder. Research into the history of ideas in contemporary poetry has shown, repeatedly, recursion to the marginal, unedited, primal stratum of ideas, for example occultism or theory about myth, where the indigestible rational shell is discarded to get at the soft pulp of mythic rules, the circular and the archaic. Where reality testing is suspended. What Smith provides us with is a wonderful myth about the saturation and occupation of thousands of tons of rock by a projection of human organs and vitality. He shows the cosmos as hidden behind the imperious projections of tyrants, of their viscera, musculature, dream appetites.

I read a book about the Piltdown Man hoax which fingered Elliot Smith as the hoaxer. The evidence was all circumstantial. Of course he knew about brain and skull anatomy. He published on the evolution of the brain. Smith had a powerful brain and lacked respect for the conventional thinkers he found in England. The painting recording the accession of the Piltdown skulls (one of the two, sad to say) shows the scientists ritually welcoming it; Smith is in the painting. Supposedly his expression of triumph is proof of guilt, but this is totally speculative.

Bringing myth and the body together has certain resemblances to the development of painting in the 1940s, the realisation that abstraction made the canvas the arena for a direct depiction of the artist's body via its movements, that the destruction of spatial scale opened up the canvas to let it swallow the viewer's body, deprived of reference and quantity in a state akin to myth. Unsurprising that mythical animals appeared in the paintings, and that these were linked to the objectless depths of the unconscious. Elliot Smith appears to be translating the Great Pyramid into an expression of life force 481 feet high. I think this is just a coincidence. Remove the surface appearance of things to show something unresisting to disembodied forces, which become visible through it, apparently independent of location. This is analogous to diffusionism, where stone monuments on islands off Scotland are appearances of the idea of the pyramid.

Life Quest frames the questions - about the link between anatomy and behaviour, about the story of civilisation in other countries, about archaeology and deep time - which we recognise in the poetry of the 1970s, and which took it outside the common stock of knowledge and of reactions. Like other investments, ideas about archaeology can go down as well as up.

I don't have a problem in finding links between 'Life Quest' and the new poetry of the 1970s. Where I do have trouble explaining the gap between 1935 and circa 1974. One can measure every poet by their relationship to myth, it is always a interesting question. The mid-century had urgent items on its agenda that led it away from the deep questions of myth. Perhaps the fad for psychoanalysis distracted it, before slowly giving way to creative versions of myth.


1. a revolutionary impetus is coded in the interest in archaeology and anthropology
2. this is found already in DH Lawrence and in his ideas about cultures peripheral to the West, and the refounding of Western culture. Getting away from the line of (Christianity + science + the Classical civilisations + the mainstream history of Western Europe) was the vital first step.
3. A deep critique could not be carried out in short poems
4. long poems converge on myth as they get back to the origin of meanings
5. the Imagined Village was an anti-urban critique that paralleled the Left critique of modern capitalism. The hippy movement was an offshoot of, or incorporated, the Imagined Village and its besotted interest in the Neolithic.
6. the study of visual representation is an important parallel line. Archaic means of organising space correspond to mythical thinking.
7. the interest in archaeology and anthropology gets away from the State to centre interest in the family. It followed in fact a loss of interest in party politics and in industrial relations.
8. poetry of this kind needed montage in order to avoid getting bogged down in paraphrase of very complex factual arguments

The discipline of archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge began as an offshoot of the Classics faculty and had a lot to do with one person, Walter Ridgway, the teacher of Jane Ellen Harrison. Its early history was filled with imperatives derived from the early Greek world and it was designed to fill holes left by an intense emotional relationship with the Classical world. The interest in Arch and Anth may have begun with a feeling of a hole where myth had died. Structurally, we can imagine a hole opening up where poets stopped believing in Christianity. Then there was a hole beside it as they stopped being able to use Classical myth, too. But there was a phase in an interim where Classical interests were turned into paganism and sensuality, a belief in instinct.

An Edwardian paganism preceded the pagan myths of the 1930s. The worship of earth invoked in Life Quest leads unmistakably back to Swinburne's great poem 'Hertha'. Swinburne and a belief in ‘pagan sensuality’ were the predecessor of 'critical myth' in Lawrence and Aldington. Lawrence began in the wake of Swinburne, in the swathe of energy left behind by that great poetry. Aldington's idea of a rotten religion being torn down continues Swinburne even if it also takes on the revolutionary atmosphere induced by the failure of civilisation in the Great War. Aldington was still a classicist, and started (around 1912) with Greek lyrics.

I have discussed Egypt here, but anthropology went off in a hundred different directions, and in the 1970s poets could be classified according to the tribal culture they chose as their 'special place' - for example the Hopi for David Wevill, Inner Asia for Prynne in 'Aristeas', shamanism of roughly Siberian nature for a range of poets, Dark Age Western Europe for others. This was prefigured in Lawrence's patronage of the Etruscans, limited as his scholarship was.

1 comment: