Prose & cons of outsider status as a writer


The art world has a name for work produced outside the mainstream by untrained creators who conform to marginal norms (e.g. eccentric recluses, criminals, schizophrenics and visionaries). And, like most else under capitalism, Outsider Art has become an industry. You know the kind of thing: introverted, obsessive, repetitive, decorative yet subtly unsettling; cryptic words embedded in intricate images…

Writes Colin Rhodes, in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000): ‘The artist outsiders are, by definition, fundamentally different to their audience, often thought of as being dysfunctional in respect of the parameters for normality set by the dominant culture.’ Just how tricky it is, in some cases, to judge that goes without saying.

In today’s all-inclusive art world, work by ‘outsiders’ has become institutionalised (if not in the same way as were many of its initial producers), so it’s started to assume its, ahem, rightful place among major art movements, while not yet claiming comparable space (if any) in large public galleries. Yet now that Outsider Art is in, what sets it and its creators apart from other collectible brand names is no more than style (+ an apt bio). Because once you emerge from seclusion, prison, the asylum or anonymity, and take your wares to market, you’re arguably not so marginal. Besides, the ubiquity of digital culture is changing the meaning of marginal and continuing what postmodernism started by broadening definitions of artist. Is a rural-dwelling recluse whose DIY conspiracy videos on YouTube go viral an outsider or an insider?

And if Outsider Art had a literary equivalent – let’s say ‘Outsider Writing’ – what would it look or sound like? Where could it be found? How to identify it? Might bizarre grammar, punctuation and spelling repel the intelligentsia? According to anarchist poet Hakim Bey, in ‘Raw Vision’:

All art can be positioned or labelled in relation to [capitalist] “discourse.” And it is precisely & only in relation to this “metaphysical” commodity-spectacle that “outsider” art can be seen as marginal. […] It does not pass thru the paramedium of the spectacle. It is meant only for the artist & the artist’s ‘immediate entourage” (friends, family, neighbours, tribe); & it participates only in a “gift” economy of positive reciprocity.

For a writer to find a readership that extends beyond family, friends and acquaintances used to depend on major publication, which in Oz meant growing a CV from the baby steps favoured by publishers/agents: minor publication, prizes, grants, mentorships, writing degrees… but new options for exposure have appeared in recent years. Self-published authors have overcome stigma (and hack work) with entrepreneurship; new literary forms – like the humble blog – have taken our culture by storm.

In art-world discourse, outsider is synonymous with untrained or self-taught: true of two of my writer friends (in the UK and the US respectively), each of whom is, to quote Rhodes, ‘fundamentally different to [his] audience’, if not as ‘dysfunctional’ re the dominant culture’s norms as each might contend. The eccentric can work when forced to while the visionary earns a regular wage. In some ways I’m more dysfunctional than both these friends and yet, since wasting money and time on a creative writing MA, can’t pretend I’m untrained. Yet at heart I remain an outsider. And there’s the rub…

Like publishers, funding bodies for ‘emerging’ writers favour those whose work has appeared enough times in elite literary journals (they need to agree on some sort of benchmark). And your typical lit journal editor is a left-leaning, PC academic; political correctness implying awareness of and respect for unfairly disadvantaged (human) others – relative outsiders – so it’s cool to write on their behalf (PC-ness has yet to admit powerlessness over its addiction: ‘Hi, my name is P and I’m a co-dependent…’).

The thing is, PC-ness is a culture of guilt. Why else, during its heyday, could Christian Lander’s blog, Stuff White People Like, take the piss and yet be so popular? An insider teasing his own privileged kind about their fixations, like Grammar, Writers Workshops and Facebook, he’s eminently PC himself, and so presumably aware that people who feel guilty are easy to manipulate (as preachers, professional beggars/swindlers and partners of adulterers know). Guilt is an itch that needs scratching, a scab that seals in riskier feelings. Guilt will settle for pay-offs. Guilt resists change… a subject for a thesis?

In short, too much formal education, social mediation or both can narrow instead of expand understanding. So outsiders make insiders feel embarrassed, so we need gatekeepers. Speaking of which, the last time I submitted work to a certain journal, I noticed new questions on their cover sheet. What was the first issue I’d read? What was the most recent? And what pieces had I most enjoyed? Do the editors use this mini survey for market research (assuming would-be contributors comprise their customer base)… or to assist a preliminary cull (don’t expect us to read you unless you’ve read us)?

Market research makes sense, as the field grows ever more competitive: innovative lit journals springing up like mushrooms and publishers slashing their long-fiction lists – as if the decay of one form is fertilising the rise of another. But I digress. Several journals that publish short fiction also require contributors to disclose whether or not they’re subscribers. Work by some of the authors they publish appears in diverse journals (in the Oz small publishing scene, ‘diverse’ is relative). But wouldn’t subscribing to all of those journals cost authors more than they’d earn from them?

And while some brilliant, diligent writers with something pressing to say can lack the social skill it takes to break into the locally published club, similar laws govern success in the blogosphere, on Facebook etc. To be PC is not enough; you must also show others you’re someone with whom it’s safe to be seen associating; ergo, the more ‘followers’ or ‘friends’, the better. So bloggers solicit followers by following etc. OK, it’s time-consuming and fake. But hey, that’s the dark side of equality.

So I don’t read all the trendy PC Oz journals from front to back, every quarter; don’t aspire to write like their regulars, some of whom I respect and even admire. If I lost the outsider edge that gives me my perspective, I might become more palatable to insider editors and subscribers. But then I’d be domesticated rather than feral, mediated instead of rare, too processed and not raw enough… Yawn

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Challenging sacred cows

ice-cream cone

Humane is a confusingly versatile word. Lately, it’s featured in the Oz media, and beyond, with public outcries for humane treatment of refugees and our livestock exports. Re the former, just for starters, ‘humane’ would mean not incarcerating those who’ve chosen to throw themselves on our mercy, as if they were criminals (rather than victims) until proven innocent. But in the case of innocent creatures that are at our mercy to begin with, ‘humane’ means a bolt shot into the brain, a slit throat, and bleeding out, heart still pumping, so consumers can eat unspoiled meat.

How can we use one word for such different circumstances? The Macquarie Dictionary (2009) offers two definitions: 1. characterised by tenderness and compassion for the suffering or distressed: humane feelings. 2. (of branches of learning or literature): humane studies.

The first definition involves subjectivity; the second, objectivity – so #1 would apply to widespread sentiment re our government’s harsh stance towards refugees (both prior to and after arrival, if they survive their trial by sea). But what does ‘tenderness’ have to do with killing – unless it refers to the flesh consumed by carnivores harbouring qualms (whether of ethics or personal health or due to flashes of true compassion)?

In his profoundly provocative book about what we eat, The World Peace Diet (2004), Will Tuttle sets the bar for definition #1 far higher. And though I’d been warned before reading, I still find the title misleading. Tuttle offers scant guidance to anyone needing advice on balanced meat-freedom. Did he hope for a slice of the vast diet books market?

Tuttle firmly believes we can achieve world peace by going vegan; our animal-based diet is unnatural, a hangover from 8–10 millennia ago when a wrong turn in human culture gave rise to capitalism. But you don’t need to credit his uneven research, let alone agree world peace is possible, to see from the stats, now way out of date, that to eat meat, dairy products and eggs on a regular basis isn’t just cruel but self-defeating.

A heretic on a heroic mission, Tuttle exhorts us all to adopt a plant-based diet for ethical reasons. Yet he tells us that to do so first requires a ‘genuine spiritual breakthrough’. It did for him, as he recounts in the engaging penultimate chapter, but elsewhere, I found the loose language of his mysticism problematic. The word ‘sacred’ recurs in the text so often, it lost meaning for me, variously referring to life, feasts, the feminine, the masculine and work. The World Peace Diet doubles as religious treatise and scholarly thesis, mixing new-age rhetoric and hardcore vegan dogma with notable quotes, statistics, ethics, history, anthropology etc. I’m not saying Tuttle should have narrowed his focus. Readers quick to grasp his thesis may find some points repeated ad nauseam. Yet other points could have been explored in greater depth. The more simplistic his logic gets, the less Tuttle convinces. For instance, ‘to stop viewing animals as commodities,’ he says, ‘means we would have to stop viewing them as food.’ Then why, some readers may wonder, when some animals eat others, shouldn’t we, if we’re animals too? Because, Tuttle argues, we’re herbivores:

Could anyone, or would anyone chase down, say, a deer, cow, pig, sheep, goat, or rabbit in the wild and then, somehow catching her (highly unlikely) fall on her neck with our small, flat human mouth, tear through the fur and skin into the living flesh with our small human teeth, and fill our mouth with the fresh, hot blood of the unfortunate creature? This scenario shows the complete absurdity of what we humans are doing when we eat animal flesh (p. 68).

Does Tuttle likewise see the absurdity of driving (with his wife Madeleine, like a modern-day Jesus spreading the gospel) around the US in a solar-powered mobile home? Besides lacking long, sharp canines, we weren’t born on wheels. And how many herbivores work in auto plants (or Apple factories)? Presumably Tuttle doesn’t eat lentils or soybeans raw either. He makes a stronger case re the insane unsustainability of our uniquely human sense of entitlement:

A conservative estimate is that the amount of land, grain, water, petroleum, and pollution required to feed one of us the Standard American Diet could feed fifteen of us eating a plant-based diet (p. 185).

That alone should give any leftist pause if they aren’t yet vegan. And if it doesn’t: ‘[…] we have become agents of ugliness and death, serving the interests of enormous industrial conglomerates and corporations that exist primarily to maximize their own self-centered profits and power (p. 146).’ Or, for those who need it spelled out:

[…] to work for social justice and environmental protection while continuing to purchase the flesh, milk, and eggs of horribly abused animals exposes a disconnect that is so fundamental that it renders our efforts absurd, hypocritical, and doomed to certain failure (p. 133).

Tuttle also gently points out the hypocrisy of would-be Buddhists who regularly eat sentient beings, exercising especial tact with regard to the Dalai Lama (who’d cited his doctors’ advice as an excuse). And did I mention Tuttle’s feminist?

‘Like science, the religious establishment has tended to reinforce the domination of animals, women, and nature, and to further the interests of the ruling elite. Like science, it tends toward being hierarchical, patriarchal, and exclusivist…(p. 160)’.

Spiritual breakthrough or not, maybe what’s needed is some research and to stop distracting oneself long enough to let in some sobering facts. For instance, more than 70 billion land animals are killed for food each year: more than nine animals for each human on the planet? (Even if some folk are eating more than their share, there must be some gross waste somewhere. Oh yeah – more than a third of all food produced each year for human consumption?)

And ever wonder why politicians (and the media) fixate on the issue of CO2 emissions, forgetting the far more potent methane cattle emit? Tuttle’s metaphor, ‘eating animal foods is the elephant in our living room’, is apt. But even if so much crazy injustice remains ‘taboo to confront or discuss’, at the rate our species is breeding, soon we may all be forced towards veganism. To instead approach it voluntarily may be one of the few consequential choices left to most humans as corporate-ruled, increasingly dispensable consumers.

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Characters who identify with their authors


A writer friend who’d offered to read my second draft of a short novel recently gave me the following marginal feedback: ‘I’m having a little trouble sifting fiction from reality. I assume that won’t be a problem for most of your readers.’ And: ‘I suppose that’s one way to relieve a little stress over [X’s] behaviour – slightly mind bending trying to separate your emails from your story!’

The emails to which my friend refers were written more than a year before the comparable bit in my story, so the source of stress had long since been addressed. Though I’d hoped for more constructive comments, wouldn’t it be good if his confusion were due to my having achieved a seamless interweaving of what I’ve observed or experienced with what I could only imagine? But if he cared to read any contemporary literary fiction – or, like many writers pushed for time, a range of current reviews – he’d soon discover lots of writers borrow freely from their biographies. As Helen Elliott tells us, in her review of the novel Fever of Animals, ‘Portrait of the writer as an artist in search of himself’ (Spectrum SMH, 5 Sept 2015):

When Rachel Cusk, best-known for her unadorned autobiographical fiction, was interviewed last year about her new book she explained that making up characters was “fake and embarrassing”. She went on: “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

In an age of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, her words ring with truth. And this truth, about not making up things that are fake or embarrassing, is what gives authority to the voice of Miles Allinson. His central character is also called Miles and he shares a lot with the actual author.

Elliott could as well have said, ‘In an age of selfies…’ But Allinson is, as she indicates, following a trend, acclaimed examples of which include The Spare Room (2008) by Helen Garner, Summertime (2009) by J.M. Coetzee, and 10:04 (2014) by Ben Lerner. And my writer friend’s innocence of this trend adds to the irony that his own history, home environment, personal traits and significant relationships provide backstory, setting, style of narration and main characters in his latest thriller.

So, did I likewise have ‘trouble sifting fiction from reality’ when he asked me for feedback on multiple drafts? I don’t think so. It took no effort to tell or guess the difference. But that’s not what makes fiction – or nonfiction – interesting. After all, every story entails fabrication, because memory progressively rewrites history over time (with the help of an editing function Freudians call repression).

Obviously, some novels include more ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ than do others, while much nonfiction contains invented dialogue; and obviously, suppression of certain, often intriguing, facts is standard practice: to lower the risk of legal action. But the artificial distinction serves, above all, the purpose of marketing, so critics and even authors continue to think in terms of compartments. For, what is a compartment but a means of separating one type of person, place or thing from another (ally from antagonist; emails from a story; memoir from fantasy) for the sake of expedience, privacy or sanity?

Novelist Siri Hustvedt has astutely observed that sexism often underlies assumptions that her fiction is based on her life. (In contrast, her husband has had to deal with assumptions that even his memoirs are made up.) ‘The man is so clever everything is a kind of Derridean deconstruction and everything a woman writes is confessional?’ Hustvedt once said. And women, not just men, make that mistake; it’s natural enough. But other friends haven’t found my use of (modified) real-life facts distracting – unless they’ve recognised, rightly or wrongly, a character based on themselves. One friend – informed in advance that she’d inspired a (benevolent) character – complained that my portrayal of facts was inaccurate. Maybe her own desire to write a memoir had warped her perspective?

Would that friend, who took her own life before she managed to write about it, have felt encouraged if she’d known just how much the nonfiction market would grow? I doubt it – she’d made no concessions to trends as a brilliant, original artist. Be warned: attempting to write an authentic memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Meanwhile, as the line dividing autobiography from fiction gets blurrier (paralleling the line between the real and the virtual?), the boundary between novelistic and essay forms – strictest in genre fiction – is breaking down. According to Anna Hedigan, in her essay on true crime, ‘The Mechanics of Justice’ (Australian Author, Dec 2015): ‘The novel’s had a bit of a crisis lately. It’s arguably been displaced by non-fiction as the most prestigious form of writing.’ (Prestige, I’m guessing she means, as demonstrated by sales figures?)

The destabilising shock that 9/11 dealt the West has been cited as a major factor in nonfiction’s rapid rise. But of course it’s far more complex than that. There’ve never been so many humans inhabiting this planet, all of whom must increasingly compete for dwindling resources, while digital corporate surveillance reduces each individual to a statistic, his or her psychology to a formula. Meanwhile, more and more poor misguided souls want to be authors. Why wouldn’t these hordes seek to deny or resist the signs of their waning significance by re-imagining their unfulfilled lives as a hero’s (or heroine’s) journey? And for those loath to retreat into cosy egocentric fantasy, maybe our culture’s growing insulation from wild nature, extreme weather, poverty, ageing, death etc., incites us to engage with what feels real and immediate, however unromantic?

According to novelist Brian Castro, in his essay ‘Forgetting Paris’ (Australian Author, Aug 2003), ‘the French fortunately don’t have those false and infantilised categories of fiction and non-fiction’. The context is Castro’s account of being in ‘a place where ideas seemed to matter’ (a reference to French culture, not just the whole floor of books in an emporium where he’d sought warmth). Later in the essay, he writes:

Indeed, the novel sets itself apart by its uselessness. […] It is hopelessly irrelevant. If it is complex, it is unlikely to be noticed. But the novel may well provide a circularity to the moronic linearity of life.

Am I a writer who dreamed of being a character or a character dreaming that I’m a writer? The answer might depend on whether I write to escape or embrace real life.

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Google-gaga: the changing language of spiritual experience


At a recent poetry gig, I raved to an ageing poet about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an example of prose that’s more poetic than much current poetry. ‘Reading it is a spiritual experience,’ I said without irony – probably naïve of me in an academic environment. Yet I had no conscious desire to provoke her.

‘I have a problem with the word “spiritual”,’ she said.

My eyebrows rose in polite enquiry. She objected to the word’s ‘new-age’ connotations. Imagination means the same thing, she said. Not necessarily, I said, then clarified that I’d meant transcendent rather than religious.

Trans just means across,’ she said with obvious impatience.

Trans also means above,’ said the poet sitting between us.

Indeed. For me, McCarthy lends an exalted perspective to post-apocalyptic darkness – his biblical diction, stark imagery and mesmerising rhythms inducing a meditative state in which I can read undistracted in noisy, crowded places.

In a hearteningly radical work, What is Madness? (2011), psychoanalyst Darian Leader compares psychosis with neurosis: ‘The absence of doubt is the single clearest indicator of the presence of psychosis (p. 116).’ So someone with total – psychotic – conviction regarding some truly bizarre beliefs might still have the sense to keep them secret for fear of sounding crazy. As Leader explains:

Neurotic people, prone to doubt, are often impressed when they meet someone who seems sure of him or herself, convinced of their beliefs. This is why sects, cults and religious movements so often form around charismatic individuals who seem certain of their purpose in life (p. 118).

This kind of certainty is synonymous with faith. And Leader’s not the first theorist to note that questions of meaning feature in schizophrenia. As science or, more precisely, modern medicine has taken over the role religion once played in moderating society’s anxiety re mortality, the signs of a spiritual calling (visions, voices, speaking in tongues) have been pathologised – demonised, in a way. What once passed for angelic or demonic visitation has been localised, narrowed down to wonky brain chemistry. Divine inspiration, for the would-be ‘creative’ (creator), can be replicated through modelling of geniuses’ behaviours. No longer created or programmed by ‘God’, we’ve become our own makers, agents and sellers. Not content to depend, either, on artificial (external) intelligence, we can’t wait to incorporate its technology into our bodies – to negate the inner space that once enabled mystical states.

Reporting on biohacking, Gillian Terzis, who works in ‘an industry characterised by diminishing horizons – journalism’, reports that

Grinders make themselves the subject of scientific enquiry, hoping to elevate the human condition, override the limitations of their physiology, or augment their sensory perception through technology. An array of mild superpowers awaits the aspirational cyborg: people are already implanting magnets into their fingers to feel the push and pull of forcefields.

Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow, rising star of the biohacking firmament and co-founder of Oz’s first grassroots DIY science lab, tells Terzis he’s considering offering Sydney’s BioFoundry members lab access via a chip embedded in their hand ‘because it’s fucking cool’:

It’s good to be an early adopter and say, ‘I’m putting my body on the line and doing something cool and challenging.’ Even though it’s no more impressive than wearing a bracelet, it shows where things might go.

The mind boggles at such logic. Let’s hope Terzis has taken his quote out of context. Still, isn’t the merging of machine with flesh just a clumsily literal bid for transcendence?

A reporter on cutting-edge technology for decades, journalist and author John Markoff says the next global computing platform to come after the smartphone will be some form of ‘augmented reality’, with companies racing to develop

technology that causes the mouse to disappear, the keyboard to disappear, the smart phone disappear. You will interact with the computing resources that are all around you in the Cloud and wherever else by just speaking and looking through your glasses.

That should leave less room for doubt – and independent thought. We’re headed for a virtual womb. How fucking cool is that? According to Hegel (1770–1831), we can think and understand only in language: ‘It is in names that we think’. (Not unlike computers?) And now, more and more, we think in brand names: e.g., ‘google’ is a verb, a ‘doing word’ that’s used with increasing frequency (and sounds disturbingly like the nonsense words adults burble at babies). But what’s a verb for ‘spirituality’?

To paint might fit – in the case of what’s looking like an endangered breed of artist. In the ravishing monograph Roy Jackson: Hands On (2015), art critic Terence Maloon writes of the late great painter, ‘For Jackson, as for Tuckson, commitment to art was an all-consuming spiritual discipline (p. 23).’ It’s good to know that not all artists and critics have lost sight of where mark-making came from; haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Re discipline, Maloon quotes Simon Leys (The Hall of Uselessness, p. 298):

Through the ages, in the East as in the West, the great mystics who achieved complete obliteration of the self were also the most forceful and original personalities. In the art of calligraphy, as in spiritual life itself, when self-denial is complete, self-expression reaches its plenitude.

How much scope remains for such an approach to art (or poetry) today? If I might take the liberty of messing with Leys’s equation: In the virtual world, as in reality itself, when self-obsession is complete, self-expression reaches its nadir.

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Use It or Lose It: the intelligence that ‘difficult’ reading develops


My favourite event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘A Radical Rethink’, a discussion between three doctors: Karen Hitchcock, Norman Doidge and Ranjana Srivastaya. ‘Can we change our brains?’ asks the blurb. ‘How can we retain quality of life into old age?’ The discussion soon polarised, Srivastaya playing devil’s advocate and Doidge and Hitchcock, the radicals, challenging mindless assumptions.

In her superb Quarterly Essay 57, Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly, Hitchcock says (re the threat of the ‘grey tsunami’, a term often applied to baby boomers):

The real tsunami is not one of age per se, but of a population of increasingly poor, obese, diabetic, sedentary young and middle-aged who are the multi-morbid patients of the future and who will require many drugs, doctors, operations […] and hospitalisations (p. 30).

Taken out of context, this sounds as if our challenge is to deal with physical decay. But: ‘About a quarter of Australians over the age of eighty-five now live in care facilities. Dementia is the reason half of them have been institutionalised (p. 54).’

In his essay ‘Why Google is a Political Matter’ (Monthly, June 2015), John Keane says Julian Assange ‘understandably rejects the pre-political flavour of grandiose claims about the end of narrative intelligence.’ Dismissive of charges that Google (the net) is spreading ‘digital dementia’, Assange says ‘there’s something else going on’ and ‘we should pay attention to its novelty’.

Fair enough. Isn’t our collective docility less Google’s doing than its opportunity? If Google is truly making us stupid, TV paved the way, and before it, the information technology TV superseded: radio. Plenty of folk whose TV or radio drones all day will never progress to the mental effort of asking a search engine questions; though, as Assange says, Google is much more than that: ‘a type of private National Security Agency’, because ‘digital automation is inherently coupled with the efficiencies of integrated centralisation and control’. Why wouldn’t intelligent citizens seek to resist mass control? But hey, don’t get me started on history.

Right now, the incidence of dementia (Latin for madness) is on the rise. And so is human longevity everywhere. Hmm… Is dementia inevitable, given enough time? But depression, too, is on the rise, and much of it’s not age-related (try googling age-specific suicide rates). Yet, it can be. For example…

A healthy 93-year-old woman’s memory is deteriorating. She might recall the name of an acquaintance not seen for 70 years at the mere mention of a 21st birthday party, yet forget a phone conversation that occurred just hours earlier – or score 100% on a standard cognitive test, satisfying her GP that she’s free of dementia, while the GP’s receptionist calls a locksmith: the woman has left her house keys at home. A widow, she lives alone; has done for over a decade. Yet all her husband’s effects remain undisturbed – she doesn’t like change. Since his death she’s refused to learn anything new, shuns mobile phones and computers, and suffers depression and anxiety. Her friends and relatives have dwindled and she lacks any urge to seek new friends. Loneliness intensifies her depression, and vice versa. Too much of her social contact is reduced to transactions with relative strangers, purveyors of goods and services, not all of them scrupulous. Fat cheques get written yet receipts elude her.

Dementia, all who hear this story mutter, nodding. Alzheimer’s. Everyone’s an expert, often at firsthand. Power of Attorney, they say. Guardianship. Carer. Nursing home. But where’s the dividing line between forgetfulness and disease? Memories of times in her youth when she felt pleasure fill this woman’s mind before she falls asleep at night. But over the last decade – more, counting the years she nursed her dying spouse – she’s known only loss: the deaths of her contemporaries; failing sight, hearing and strength; the decline of optimism and confidence. Meanwhile, the civilised world has gone digital. The actual social fabric, not just the social contract, has changed.

Younger generations have adapted, as we do, but our society has never been more ageist – an attitude that militates against awareness of history. And the loss of a historical frame of reference promotes ageism. If we can no longer be bothered to flex the muscles of memory, since it’s quicker to access facts and records via Google, why should we value slow-moving folk who could tell us how the world once was? What use are these living fossils if technology can meet all our needs: quickly and cleanly, without scary previews of our own obsolescence?

And the digital revolution is bringing obsolescence in other ways. Take traditional publishing: it’s a dinosaur in our DIY culture. Last month, an aspiring author pushing seventy sent me the link to his blog. I scrolled down it, idly clicking on the rare comments. One post had attracted a record of three, but the first was just spam (from Free Google Adwords, incidentally). What blogger hasn’t seen its ilk? ‘Pretty nice post […] and I’m hoping you write once more very soon.’ Instead of trashing or marking it ‘spam’, though, this naïf had replied. Some wannabes can’t resist a compliment, however robotic – not Google’s fault. But like all parasites, it’s adapted to colonise the gaps: physical or mental space uninhabited by awareness. Could this be humanity’s fatal flaw – our increasing vacancy? Because addiction to entertainment is mainly, if not only, what too much fiction feeds. If the plot is complex enough – say, a convoluted whodunit – it exercises the reader’s brain, not unlike a cryptic crossword. But most popular fantasy and romance infantilises readers, recycling tropes imprinted in childhood.

To dement means to ‘deprive of mind’; to drive one out of one’s mind, to make mindless. Emptied of contents. Discontented. That’s how the madness gets in. Do someone’s thinking for them and they don’t need to think for themselves. Puree their food for thought and they needn’t chew it. Spoon-feed the consumer. Smartphones etc. don’t make us smart any more than Google makes us stupid. The smart folk might be those corporate tools (including many best-selling authors) busy devising thrills and apps that keep the hordes distracted. The more ‘choices’ we believe we have, the more we conform to market logic. In our increasingly atomised society – nuclear families make better consumers – we’ve grown so attached to the notion of our individuality that we can’t see how uniformly predictable we’re becoming as corporate interests use us.

As one of Haruki Murakami’s characters says: ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

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Writing from the margins

Dr C. Urchin

In his primer Astrologik (Vertical Pool, 1999), underground filmmaker and overall maverick Antero Alli argues against legitimising astrology. But not for the reasons you might expect. Astrology happens to be his profession. So it’s his peers who want to look more respectable, set a few standards. What could be wrong with that?

Let’s forget for a second that this is about astrology – a discipline dismissed by most ‘educated’ atheists, as if they’ve confused what they call belief in astrology with belief in God. (Religion’s age-old antagonism towards astrology seems to escape them.) The standard objection is that it’s unscientific.

Why, then, do I mention it? Well, Alli’s main concern is honesty. That his context is astrology is, for my purposes here, incidental. (Though if the topic interests you, I heartily recommend him.) The thing is, we live in a society (we in the West, an increasingly abstract location thanks to globalisation) where the truth (unlike crime on a corporate scale) doesn’t pay. And with the times a-changin’ – faster than when Alli made his case sixteen years ago – I dare say astrologers aren’t feeling any more secure.

But whether they crave more status, money, or just a more regular income, security symbolised in externals – assets, insurance – is illusory. And the more invested we are in illusions, the weaker our grasp of the truth. I use the word truth (so loaded, and much abused) somewhat loosely, to connote such qualities as emotional honesty. Not an absolute, Truth with a capital T, but openness to the moment in the opposite sense of opportunism – openness that admits immediacy, vulnerability and authenticity vs. repression, defensiveness and hidden terms and conditions; openness that dispenses with political correctness. My point is, Alli’s perspective applies not just to the art of astrology but to the arts and, in particular, literature. What happens, for example, when creative writing course graduates colonise the literary scene? Is this conducive to originality?

Most publishers and politicians aren’t so different at heart. Aiming to appeal to the mainstream, they follow sales rankings or polling, put fashion before quality or fishermen before sustainability – because our cultural climate has parallels in what’s left of the natural environment. Fail to protect the fish and rock lobsters that eat spiny sea urchins and the little critters overbreed – until swimmers have to be careful of where they put their feet. And in Oz, it’s getting that way with PhDs; they’re clustered wherever you look in the literary sea, bristling with scholarly research, comforting bourgeois values and PC morality. What could possibly be wrong with that?

There’s such a thing, though Alli doesn’t spell it out, as diversity – part of the logic of, say, setting up marine reserves (opposed by a government that cuts welfare and pays big polluters). If astrologers all become qualified – like the new breed of Oz author, who writes for similarly qualified readers (such as uni tutors), it’s a self-perpetuating loop – they end up catering only to clients who largely resemble themselves. And what’s lost is, for starters, perspective.

In Alli’s words:

What is meant by ‘oracular’ refers to the ageless archetype of the muse, a mythical and sometimes human figure who speaks and acts truthfully without any regard or consideration for social, economic or political consequences. For good reasons, a muse maintains a sociological posture at the fringe of any village or hub of mainstream values: the sage, the shaman, the witch, the crone.

If that archetype truly is ageless, it must have suffered an eclipse at this late stage in our present age of capitalism. Show me a consultant who can afford to tell the truth without any regard for the consequences. Tact is required if you rely on word of mouse to attract business. But I’m letting myself get distracted – Alli’s identifying an ideal, not an individual. He’s also defining the kind of astrology he practises. Perhaps he sounds slightly unschooled – like some sort of outsider? Hmm… I never used to think thoughts like that before I went to uni. Instead, I used to notice when people sounded pretentious and/or academic. Sometimes I still do. Which reminds me…

One of Astrologik’s reviewers, while also an admirer of Alli’s ‘creative and original writing’, frowns on his calling astrology a language: ‘Start with what linguists believe constitutes a language and then apply those criteria to astrology. Except he won’t, because astrology would fail to meet the criteria…’

Huh? A language isn’t defined only by what linguists believe. (And if mere belief underlies their criteria, what sets linguistics apart from religion?) Personally, I’m OK with the dictionary definition of ‘language’. Oh, wait – my dictionary offers more than one definition. Hmm – maybe that’s true of the field of linguistics, too. What would I know about language, though? I’m too busy using it; because, hey, for language to work – to make sense – takes practice, not just formal education. Yet, this confused-sounding reviewer objects to Alli’s illogicality:

Another primary flaw in hsi [sic] reasoning comes from his inconsistency between his statement that astrology is NOT a science, and therefore not subject to normal verification processes of science, and yet he uses it to make predictions.

So now I need a science degree to make valid guesses concerning the future? (Whatever happened to life experience?) That’s like saying the territory can’t exist without the map. (And don’t get me started on this amateur critic’s grammar.) It reminds me of a line from another of Alli’s books, Letters, Essays & Premonitions (Vigilantero Press, 1993): ‘I don’t believe in astrology but it works and that’s why I use it.’

And that reminds me of a well-known line from Jeanette Winterson’s second novel, The Passion (Bloomsbury, 1987): ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’

Maybe she’s not the best example: a graduate of Oxford? But I think she’s kept the outsider perspective that stems from her hard-up working-class origins. And she didn’t stick around to do a doctorate.

As Alli’s reviewer demonstrates, it’s not rocket science, learning to keep your mind closed. But groundbreaking art and ideas tend to come from minds independent enough to stay open.

Posted in the life of the writer, the sceptic's guide to astrology & more, use & abuse of language | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment