The Late Show: Thomas Pynchon

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Among other things, I’ll remember 2021 as the year of Too Much Work, but it’s also been the year of reading several thousand pages of Thomas Pynchon’s prose. After finally getting through Gravity’s Rainbow back in June (having also read V. and The Crying of Lot 49) I continued with the rest of the Pynchon oeuvre, working my way through Vineland, Mason & Dixon, and Inherent Vice. And after reading the latter I watched the film adaptation again which I found to be much more enjoyable and less confusing the second time round. (Moral: read the novel first). I’m currently ploughing through Against the Day, not worrying too much about how all the various episodes are supposed to join together.

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The commendable inaccessibility of Pynchon the man means that documentary features about his books are scarce. Television abhors an authorial vacuum which is why so many TV documentaries about long-dead or otherwise unavailable writers resort to the cliches of a silhouette hammering away at a typewriter, or an actor in period clothing scribbling in a dimly-lit room. The BBC, in the days when it still used to make programmes about books and writers, often evaded the absurdities of docu-drama by the simple expedient of having a suitable actor read portions of prose, which is what we have in this all-too-brief Pynchon feature from 1990. The Late Show was a nightly fixture on BBC 2 at this time, with a remit to cover anything newsworthy in the cultural sphere. Vineland was about to be published in Britain so editor David Gale was called upon to explain to viewers the lure of Pynchon’s novels and their mysterious author. It’s a fascinating piece which achieves in a mere 19 minutes what Thomas Pynchon – A Journey into the Mind of [P.] barely manages in an hour and a half. As with the Dubinis documentary, there’s some discussion of the authorial enigmas but Gale keeps the novels to the fore. It’s amusing with hindsight to hear about the critical disappointment that greeted the arrival of Vineland—Pynchon’s first novel after a silence of 17 years—knowing that the monumental Mason & Dixon would be published a few years later. Commentary is supplied by publishing heavyweights Tom Maschler, Dan Franklin and John Brown (two of whom describe their meetings with the elusive author), together with critic Rhoda Koenig and critic/poet Eric Mottram, here interviewed with a picture of one of his favourite authors, William Burroughs, peering over his shoulder.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Esoterica 49
Pynchonian cinema
Going beyond the zero
Pynchon and Varo
Thomas Pynchon – A Journey into the Mind of [P.]

Weekend links 590

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Understanding Mu (1970) by Hans Stefan Santesson. Cover art by Ron Walotsky. Via.

• “I have never believed Chariots of the Gods?—it takes faith, so what I mean is that I’ve never believed in it—but it has still held my affection for decades.” Patrick Allington on ancient aliens, unidentified aerial phenomena, and the unhinged pleasures of speculative nonfiction. I still have a stash of paperbacks in what I call “The Crank Box”, a collection of the more far-out titles that proliferated in the 1970s in the wake of the bestselling (and very egregious) Erich von Däniken. There aren’t many books about ancient astronauts or flying saucers in the box because they were so plentiful, I was always on the lookout for more outlandish volumes: lost continents, yes, but not the all-too-common Atlantis; Lemuria or Mu were more like it. So too with Hollow Earths and mysterious realms as detailed in Shambhala: Oasis of Light by Andrew Tomas, or The Lost World of Agharti: The Mystery of Vril Power by Alec MacLellan. The attraction wasn’t that any of this speculation might be true, more that these books operate as bargain-basement equivalents of the Borges conceit in which metaphysics is regarded as a branch of fantastic literature. Weird fiction by other means.

Collecting these books was a fun thing to do in the 1980s when the crank publications of the previous decade had washed up on the shelves of secondhand bookshops. The shine began to wear off in the 1990s when the emergence of the internet empowered a new breed of hucksters (and worse) pushing all of this stuff as though it was “hidden knowledge”. It’s hard to get excited about a battered paperback brimming with pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology when similar ideas proliferate on YouTube channels catering to credulous hordes.

• Absolutely elsewhere (and linked here on a regular basis): An archive of the endlessly fascinating Absolute Elsewhere, a website created by the late RT Gault in order to present “a bibliography of visionary, occult, new age, fringe science, strange and even crackpot works published between 1945 and 1988”. The listings are accompanied by an informed, sceptical and often enlightening commentary, and also include a fair amount of weird fiction. Mr Gault had the right attitude.

• New music: Raum by Tangerine Dream, a preview of the new album, Probe 6–8, which will be released next year; new/old music: a reissue of Marine Flowers (Science Fantasy) by Akira Ito.

• “He had been honest about himself, and shockingly honest about his parents, but about his work he had spun me a tale.” Carole Angier on the elusive WG Sebald.

• At The New Criterion: Two stray notes on Moby-Dick by William Logan; on contemporary reviews of Moby-Dick and Melville’s journey on the Acushnet.

• “Perhaps what’s most extraordinary about Kollaps is that it was made at all.” Jeremy Allen on Einstürzende Neubauten’s thrilling debut album.

• At Culture.pl: a podcast about Czech film director Vera Chytilová and her masterpiece of Surrealist anarchy, Daisies.

• At Perfect Sound Forever: Part 2 of a Jon Hassell tribute which talks to friends and musical collaborators.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded (1962).

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine unearths a medieval recipe for gingerbread.

• Mix of the week: Death’s Other Dominion by The Ephemeral Man.

MU-UR (2000) by Coil | Mu (2005) by Jah Wobble | Mu 1 (2015) by Acronym

Richard H. Kirk, 1956–2021

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Q: Was the initial idea to be a music group?

Richard H. Kirk: I suppose that depends on how you define “music”. No, the initial idea was to be more of a sound group, just putting sounds together like jigsaw pieces. If the result did sound like music then it was purely coincidental.

From Cabaret Voltaire: The Art of the Sixth Sense (1984) by M Fish & D Hallberry

This was a shock, in part because I tend to think of certain artists as perpetually young even when I’ve been following them for decades. In the case of the not-so-young Cabaret Voltaire it was an easy frame of mind to slip into when Kirk and Mallinder were only photographically visible up to about 1990. After this the group resumed their former obscurity, cloaked by abstract images and Designers Republic graphics.

Oddly enough I’d been running through the early Cabs albums only a couple of weeks ago, and wondering how long Kirk was going to keep the revived group going on his own. I suppose this means that Cabaret Voltaire is now definitely finished, in which case it’s a double RIP. And just a few days ago I was reading a Mark Fisher essay on Joy Division, feeling as frustrated as I always do when Curtis and co. are praised for “channelling” (or whatever) the spirit of William Burroughs when nobody would think to connect Burroughs and Joy Division if you changed the title of the song Interzone to something else. Throbbing Gristle were closer to Burroughs personally than were Cabaret Voltaire but the influence on TG only became really overt when Industrial Records released Nothing Here Now But The Recordings, an album of Burroughs’ tape experiments. The Cabs were more important to me as a youthful reader of Burroughs’ novels for seeming to be broadcasting from inside his texts. Their early albums were disturbed and disturbing (a friend once asked me to switch off their music for this very reason), an unwholesome amalgam of dialogue taped from TV and radio, crude electronics, threatening voices, and songs that were warped into strange new shapes. This is entertainment…this is fun… I’m still amazed that their first album included a cover of No Escape, a song by psychedelic group The Seeds, which didn’t sound out of place despite the weirdness surrounding it.

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William smiles. Left to right: John Giorno, William Burroughs, Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk. Photo by Sylvia Plachy from the gatefold interior of A Diamond In The Mouth Of A Corpse (1985), a compilation album released by Giorno Poetry Systems.

Cut-up theory was a constant in the Cabaret Voltaire discography, and in many of Richard Kirk’s solo recordings, with the group starting out as Dada-inspired tape collagists* before they found a way to present their experiments in a musical form. The concept is to the fore in the title of Cabaret Voltaire’s debut album, Mix-Up, and exemplified in the track that opens side two, Photophobia, a reworked version of a Surrealist monologue that dates from the group’s days making recordings in Chris Watson’s attic. Photophobia pulls you into the same queasy dreamspace in which you find yourself when reading Burroughs’ early cut-ups, a catalogue of oneiric splicings—”they’re injecting the rivers with stainless-steel fish…a coelacanth/a body with a shrunken head…”—the phrases being increasingly overwhelmed by rising synthesizer drones and Kirk’s squeaking clarinet. Kirk’s solo debut, Disposable Half-Truths, was a cassette-only release on Industrial Records infused with the Burroughs spirit in both technique and content, offering track titles such as Information Therapy and Insect Friends Of Allah. Cabaret Voltaire continually referred to Burroughs’ speculative essay collection The Electronic Revolution in interviews but it was Kirk who extended the group’s cut-up experiments to film and video. By 1982 they’d accumulated enough of their own video material to release a VHS collection on their own music and video label, Doublevision.

If I’ve concentrated on the early recordings it’s because the post-punk period continues to seem like a miraculous moment, a space of four years when anything was possible musically, a time when Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis could record an album as uncompromisingly strange as 3R4 then have it released on 4AD and sold in racks next to albums by label-mates Bauhaus and The Birthday Party. Cabaret Voltaire took advantage of this unique period to warp expectations in their own way, and to extend the boundaries of the possible. Richard H. Kirk’s subsequent career was prolific, releasing a blizzard of albums and singles under a variety of pseudonyms (Discogs lists 42 different Kirk aliases). One of my favourite pieces from his solo recordings is White Darkness from 1993, the last track on a 12-inch single, Digital Lifeforms, credited to Sandoz. There’s a mysterious quality here that I wish he’d explored more often on his later albums instead of letting the rhythms run their course for another seven or eight minutes. The sampled voice maintains a thread of continuity with Kirk’s music before and after, as does the reference to LSD in the Sandoz name, taking us back to Mix-Up and the mescaline experiments described on Heaven And Hell. Psychedelia by other means.

* For a taste of unadorned Cabs-related tape manipulation, see The Men With The Deadly Dreams, a cassette release compiled by Geoff Rushton/John Balance which features contributions from Chris Watson and Richard H. Kirk. Note that the blog post doesn’t give an accurate description of the tape contents.

• At Vinyl Factory: An introduction to Richard H. Kirk in 10 records.
• At The Wire: two interviews with Kirk from the magazine’s archives.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Recoil and Cabaret Voltaire
Pow-Wow by Stephen Mallinder
TV Wipeout revisited
Doublevision Presents Cabaret Voltaire
Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire
European Rendezvous by CTI
TV Wipeout
Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo
Elemental 7 by CTI
The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire
Neville Brody and Fetish Records

Howard/Seward

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Frank Belknap Long and HP Lovecraft, New York, 1931. Photo by WB Talman.

Two friends—HP Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long—visit the Egyptian antiquities in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s:

Tom Collins (for The Twilight Zone Magazine): I seem to recall a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that you two made together.

Frank Belknap Long: You mean the time we visited the Egyptian tomb? Well, the Metropolitan apparently still has it. This was way back in the 1920s. The tomb was on the main floor in the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and we both went inside to the inner burial chamber. Howard was fascinated by the somberness of the whole thing. He put his hand against the corrugated stone wall, just casually, and the next day he developed a pronounced but not too serious inflammation. There was no great pain involved, and the swelling went down in two or three days. But it seems as if some malign, supernatural influence still lingered in the burial chamber—The Curse of the Pharaohs—as if they resented the fact that Howard had entered this tomb and touched the wall. Perhaps they had singled him out because of his stories and feared he was getting too close to the Ancient Mysteries.

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William Burroughs, New York, 1953. Photo by Allen Ginsberg.

Two friends—William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg—visit the Egyptian antiquities in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1950s:

Allen Ginsberg: We went uptown to look at Mayan Codices at Museum of Natural History & Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Carlo Crivelli’s green-hued Christ-face with crown of thorns stuck symmetric in his skull — here Egyptian wing William Burroughs with a brother Sphinx, Fall 1953 Manhattan.

When I last wrote about the parallels between Lovecraft and Burroughs in a post from 2014 I wasn’t aware of Lovecraft and Long’s visit to the same museum exhibits that Burroughs and Ginsberg visited some 30 years later. I did, however, use the same photos which are posted here, a curious coincidence when Long wasn’t mentioned in the earlier post. This minor revelation is a result of reading the features in back issues of The Twilight Zone Magazine, one of which is an interview with an 81-year-old Frank Belknap Long. The coincidence is a trivial thing but it adds to the small number of connections between the two writers.

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A Cthulhu Sphinx from The Call of Cthulhu, 1988.

Lovecraft and Burroughs were both living in New York City at the time of their excursions, and both touched on Egyptian mythology in their writings, so their having viewed the same museum exhibits seems inevitable rather than surprising. A more tangible connection between the pair is alluded to in Ginsberg’s photograph note when he mentions the Mayan codices. A few years before the museum visit, Burroughs had been studying the Mayan language and the Mexican codices in Mexico City under the tutelage of Robert H. Barlow, the former literary executor of HP Lovecraft. Burroughs’ studies subsequently fueled the references to Mayan mythology that turn up repeatedly in his fiction, and he was still at Mexico City College in 1951 when Barlow killed himself with a barbiturate overdose, afraid that his homosexuality was about to be exposed by one of his students. Burroughs mentioned the suicide in a letter to Ginsberg. The connections don’t end there, however. After Barlow’s death the rights to Lovecraft’s writings passed, somewhat controversially, to August Derleth and Donald Wandrei at Arkham House, and in another curious coincidence Derleth happened to be one of the complainants against a literary journal, Big Table, in 1959, when the magazine ran Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch, and was subsequently prosecuted for sending obscene material through the US mail. Derleth and Arkham House are both mentioned in the court papers.

I’ve never seen any indication that Burroughs was aware of these connections but if he was I doubt he would have paid them much attention, he always seemed rather blasé about his intersections with popular culture. He did think well enough of Lovecraft (or at least the version of Lovecraft’s fiction as presented by the Simon Necronomicon) to invoke “Kutulu” along with the Great God Pan and the usual complement of Mayan deities in Cities of the Red Night. Years later I remember seeing something in a newspaper about him retiring to Lawrence, Kansas, where he was described as passing the time “reading HP Lovecraft”. (I wish I could give a reference for this but I don’t recall the source.) If so then I like to think he might have given Creation Books’ Starry Wisdom collection more than a passing glance when it turned up at his door.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Taking Tiger Mountain
The Big Fix!
Paging Doctor Benway
Birth of a Zimbu
Seward/Howard
Interzone: A William Burroughs Mix
Sine Fiction
The Ticket That Exploded: An Ongoing Opera
Burroughs: The Movie revisited
Zimbu Xolotl Time
Ah Pook Is Here
Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine
Looking for the Wild Boys
Wroblewski covers Burroughs
Mugwump jism
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
Burroughs in Paris
William Burroughs interviews
Soft machines
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Weekend links 559

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Cover art by Toshiyuki Fukuda for the Japanese edition of the new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

• “The story here is how between 1978 and 1982, this impulse shed its novelty genesis and its spoils were divvied up between gay producers making high-energy soundtracks for carnal abandon, and quiet Hawkwind fans smoking spliffs in Midlands bedrooms.…this excellent compilation offers fresh understandings of a period in sonic history where the future was up for grabs.” Fergal Kinney reviews Do You Have the Force? Jon Savage’s Alternate History of Electronic Music, 1978–82.

DJ Food continues his history of mini CDs with Oranges And Lemons, the 1989 album by XTC which was released in the usual formats together with a limited edition of three small discs in a flip-top box. The cover art by Dave Dragon is a good example of the resurrected groovy look.

• “If Austin Osman Spare, William Burroughs, Mary Butts and Kathy Acker got together for a séance, the transcript could well look like this.”

• How Leonora Carrington used Tarot to reach self-enlightenment: Gabriel Weisz Carrington on his mother’s quest for mythic revelations.

• Mixes of the week: Sounds Unsaid at Dublab with Tarotplane, and To Die & Live In San Veneficio by SeraphicManta.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: 5strings presents…Solve et Coagula: An introduction to Israel Regardie.

• The Joy of Silhouettes: Vyki Hendy chooses favourite shadow-throwing cover designs.

Emily Mortimer on how Lolita escaped obscenity laws and cancel culture.

Freddie deBoer has moved his writing to Substack.

• New music: Wirkung by Arovane.

• Children Of The Sun (1969) by The Misunderstood | Children Of The Sun (1971) by Hawkwind | Children Of The Sun (2010) by The Time And Space Machine