Saturday, 1 October 2011

Homage to Victor Carroon

A few days ago, I went to the Poetry Library and borrowed a copy of 'A Book of Herne' (subtitled ‘1975-81'), by Eric Mottram. I noticed an illustration showing a drawing of a cave relief made by the Abbe Breuil. The previous day I had seen a version of the same drawing appearing as part of the decor of a laboratory in 'Quatermass and the Pit', a 1958 TV serial. Reaching page 93 of 'Herne', still on the train back to Nottingham, I discovered a reference to another Quatermass serial: the original of 1953, 'The Quatermass Experiment'. Mottram says 'Victor Caroon'. He offers no further illumination, but the context is one of pagan re-enactments and Carroon's fate was to become like a piece of fungus inhabiting Westminster Abbey, a recollection of 'Green Man' images carved in stone inside churches, representing human figures given over to vegetation. The coincidence justifies me in writing about Mottram in connection with Nigel Kneale, an author who I greatly admire.

The basic story of the film is that three astronauts go up into outer space in a rocket. The base loses control of it, and loses its signals. When it returns to earth, the hatch has not been opened but there is only one man inside it. He has the memories of one of the missing men. (I was told this part of the story in about 1961 and never forgot it.) He is Victor Carroon.

The first ‘possessed’ character in ‘The Pit’ takes up a weird and distinctive shambling posture and gait which are based on the ‘sorcerer’ as recovered by Breuil. In the Hammer film version, he is played by Duncan Lamont who, confusingly, played Victor Carroon in the 1953 BBC serial. The 'Sorcerer' drawing is one everybody must be familiar with. It is supposedly a reproduction of a really existing engraving/relief inside the Grotte des Trois Freres, near Foix, France. It shows a human figure disguised as a horned creature, either wearing a costume and mask or really being transformed into their animal equivalent, reared up on two legs in what may be a dance. It is half-crouched, adorned with big antlers and a human penis. It is the conventional 'proof' that there was shamanism in the old Stone Age and one of the most widely reproduced of all prehistoric images. Other people have examined the relief and found no antlers. Yet the drawing was produced by tracing. It is fair to say that the critique is itself controversial. Other images resembling Breuil's re-creation have not been found.

'Herne' is based on the idea that archetypal mythic images are important to our psyche and that they can be re-animated to form the central narrative of works of art. It does not work very well. 'Quatermass and the Pit' is based on a similar idea. It shows us humans as the descendants of a Martian breeding programme, in which our deepest impulses were programmed by the Martians and are ready to be amplified and brought to frightening intensity by the radiant powers invested in the semi-alive hull of an ancient space-craft, the one dug up from the 'pit' of the title. The archetypal rite in question is a 'Wild Hunt' in which human beings, losing all inhibitions, run around in troops destroying people who are 'different'. This was a feature of the Martian hive-society. Kneale built his story from the image of the Notting Hill race riots, in which for example 400 people chased one black man into a shop, threatening his life. Kneale started from the news story and from there spun his tale of the evil pooled at the base of our psyches and how it wanted to seize control. The climax of 'The Pit' shows as fantasy what had really been seen on the streets of Notting Hill, a few months before. He in fact is with the writers who saw the archetypal as evil and recognised in 'the urge to repeat' the origin of war, tyranny, totalitarian states and prison camps. Another wing saw the archetypal as liberation, and believed that the goal of art was to elicit these primal narratives and causes us to re-enact them. Posing a question - of hidden sources of actions - in this way was a feature of the cultural scene of the time.

David Mellor also draws a comparison between Victor Carroon and the Green Man (or the Burry Man), in his 1986 exhibition at the Barbican, 'Paradise Lost?", about the Neo-Romantic movement. He showed an image of Carroon at an earlier stage of his metamorphosis, when he still had the shape of a man, although the texture of his flesh had become like a plant.

Mottram as a matter of fact cites the 1956 Hammer film, 'The Quatermass Experiment', as his source, which was presumably more available than the TV series when he was writing in the 1970s. Only two of the episodes were on film, the others went out live on camera and so do not exist today. However the DVD package of the three Quatermass serials for the BBC includes the scripts of the 'lost' episodes.

The problem with it is less that the poetry is bad than that it runs out of breath too quickly:

tines/ shivered by impact and scarved neck
his feet lift lightly/ with mere memory
of gentler seasons. Lungs full of the drug, antlers
rake back, he halts the herd, his voice filled
with custom of combat and unslaked lust
Victor Caroon
(‘Notebook 3‘)

This is quite interesting but it’s just a blip, the character does not have enough substance to continue after a few lines, and the poem jumps to another theme. I do not really get a lift out of this. The moment of cut/splice, the engine room of montage, is so delicate to manage. You can jump into another dimension of analogy and higher pattern, or you can lose the thread. It is hard to catch the transition, however you try to slow it down it’s over in a flash - of failure or brilliance. (‘Scarved neck’ might be ‘scarred neck’? The ‘drug’ might be the hormone which governs the ‘rut’ which causes fighting behaviour between stags?)

If you look at a range of Mottram's work (I am slowly working through it), 'Herne' sticks out as distinctively worse than adjacent books: worse than '1922 Earth Raids', than 'Local Movement' or 'Peace Projects'. The date 1975-81 includes a period which was notably low in Eric's existence, according to the testimony of his friends. Further the subject matter of 'Herne' is almost over-ripe, romantic and barbaric, breaking out into areas of mythic liberation. The contrast with the behaviour expected of a professor and someone whose opinion was taken seriously in forming policy, academic or cultural, was too severe. 'Herne' appears more as a schematic describing an unwritten work than as a work on its own. The time inside it is crushed down, dissected into fragments, unable to move or to flow. He recognises a number of sources for a postulated romantic-mythic poem about a Stag God, but at each point the source overwhelms him and leaves him weaker. The citation of Ferenc Juhasz, whose great 1955 poem about 'The Boy Transformed into a Stag at the Gate of Secrets' appeared in 'Modern Poetry in Translation' around this time, identifies where greatness is but lacks any creative impetus of its own. Eric liked to compile reading lists and 'Herne' spends too much time acting like a reading list.

In ‘Pit’, there is a passage where Quatermass is researching the history of the area (Hobb’s Lane) where the still mysterious hull or shell has been discovered, and tracing a history of disturbances, apparitions, ghost stories, and mass fear, going back to the Middle Ages. It is a ‘ghost story’ in that the evil spirit is tied to a place. The cumulative force of the stories going back deep in time is part of the eeriness which Kneale manipulates so brilliantly. This is a short passage carried off with great precision. It resembles Mottram’s bibliophile accumulation of sources for the great poem he is unable to write. But Mottram’s rambling listings are not part of a coherent dramatic context. Another passage has Matthew Roney, the archaeologist, defining the ‘insect’ figures discovered inside a compartment in the hull in terms of visual comparisons to gargoyles, demons, and of course the horned figure in Breuil’s fanciful drawing. Roney has a frieze of cave paintings running round the walls of his laboratory. He evokes an archetype by demonstrating the common points between dozens of disparate visual creations. This also is what Mottram is trying to do, but without the dramatist’s flair for making ideas exciting. The resemblances he picks up are real but they are not exciting. The Canadian actor Cec Linder is wonderfully warm, sweepingly enthusiastic, as Roney. Kneale repeated the effect in his ‘The Stone Tape’ (1973), and dozens, possibly hundreds, of authors, have tried to repeat the effect in the decades since. ‘Herne’ quite closely resembles Roney’s montage, the pin-up board of an art historian: an excitable spill of images, a pattern to release the imagination. It has a static quality: the bits do not go in a direction, their order is irrelevant because there is no narrative line or argument. This might be true of a pin-up board or an archive. In a book-length poem it is a sign of muddle, of a design phase that has been missed out.

The Danish painter and theorist Asger Jorn was also interested in the Green Man, the stone head with leaves and branches radiating out of it. He saw this as a pagan image which had been taken over by Christian sculptors. He saw this as an example of a whole group of images: a significant cluster of elements was assembled into a binding image, once, and was then reproduced many times. The meaning could be re-invented to suit the audience, but the ‘craft expertise’ of the sculptor was retained with obstinate persistence. Arguably, the real meaning was the very first one, which had inspired the moment of origin. This re-use of images led him to invent ‘detournement’, which he imparted to the Situationists, a group he co-founded.

In the Green Man passages Mottram mentions RILKO, which is too romantic to be true. I discussed the Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation in ‘Council of Heresy’. His interest in them suggests once more that Eric was too involved in lush and romantic territory for the tastes of the formalists he hung out with. If we revisit the terrain of ‘poetic theory’ (a move which unfortunately may take us back into an era of trench warfare, but let’s just try it), the failings of ’Herne’ do not invalidate the theory he was using. Other works based on much the same theory worked much better. However, because ’Herne’ is a bad example it is obvious and undeniable that the theory does not inevitably work and so is incomplete and fragmentary in itself. This makes it doubtful that we would want to do battle for it. Conversely, the reasons why a book of poetry is bad may have to do with more subtle and uncontrollable psychological qualities like depression and desensitisation, even lack of inspiration. The idea that a set of theoretical decisions, logical and fully controllable, can solve your problems may be an act of psychic self-defence which is actually tragic. The next poem may only be reachable by forgetting the decisions that made the last one succeed.

Another step of comparison. ‘Herne’ is noticeably similar to ‘Crow’ and ‘Gaudete’. It is a march deeper into Hughes territory. It is also close to ‘Ranter’, but both follow Hughes.

The guides I used did not guide me to other 'man-stag' images from the Palaeolithic but the German archaeologist Nicholas Conard has claimed that 'the transformation between man and animal, and especially between man and felines, was part of the Aurignacian system of beliefs'. In a cave, Hohlenstein-Stadel, in the Lone Valley was found ''One such ivory figurine just a few inches long" which "depicts the hybrid features of a man and a lion'. The new ‘Lowenmensch’ figurine was not quite ‘found’ but assembled in the museum from fragments found in 1939. It was only ‘recognised‘ in 1969 by Joachim Hahn. A similar figurine was found nearby, in the Ach Valley, in 2004 (by a group led by Claus-Joachim Kind). So the class of man-animal hybrids does exist and the 'stag-man' belongs to that class. (The Lone and Ach valleys are in Swabia. One quote I found has it that ...."Figurative art began in Swabia, music began in Swabia," but we really have to move on.) ( , also  )

A cave nearby, still in the Lone Valley, is called Vogelherd and Thomas Kling wrote a poem about it.

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