Author Archives: Matt Cardin
Essayist Tim Parks and philosopher, psychologist, and AI expert Riccardo Manzotti in Aeon, in an excerpt from their new book, Dialogues on Consciousness:
Parks: I see what you’re saying: my experience, which is none other than the accumulation of all the objects my body has encountered, eventually determines my actions. But I’m not altogether convinced. And my problem is this: not only do I have the impression of making decisions, cogitating, not just acting, but I also believe that I ‘organise’ experience. That I see the world in a certain way. I hold a system of political opinions, of aesthetic preferences, and so on. So I feel that, rather than being a world of objects coming together over time to determine an action, I have an inner world that determines how I organise the outer world. I don’t just act as consequence; I decide how to act, coherently.
Manzotti: Let me offer an analogy to suggest the fallacy behind your conception. We’ll stay with cars. When you drive, you turn the steering wheel and, thanks to a complex yet easily understandable coupling of cogs and drive shafts, the vehicle’s front wheels turn accordingly. Is there anything mysterious between the steering wheel and the two wheels that turn? No. Just a chain of cause and effect such that, given the turn of the driving wheel, the front wheels have to turn.
Okay, now imagine an infinitely more complex object, a human body. The world acts on the body, but before the body is going to translate that cause into an effect, an action, a simply enormous, though of course necessarily finite, number of causal events may take place, inside the body and outside. What’s more, unlike the car, which is a fixed object when it comes out of the factory, your wonderful body can change in response to the world, it is teleologically open — so that, to give the simplest example, when you see a face a second time, the experience is different from the first time, because the first experience is still causally active in your brain, hence we have the sensation of recognition. So with this fantastically complex object, the body, we cannot conceive the whole causal chain that precedes an action (this was a favourite observation of Baruch Spinoza’s) and hence we cannot predict what action will be taken. As a result of this conceptual impossibility, we slip into the habit of inventing an intermediate entity, the self, to which we attribute a causal power. We say that I, or my self, caused this to happen. But as David Hume said, we never meet or see a self; we meet ideas, or, as I would say, objects. The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action, is a shortcut, an invention, a convenient narrative to explain our complex experience.
Parks: To wind up then; as you see it: experience, mind, is the world relative to the body, but a world, or an I, that accumulates over the years, that continues to act long after the moment of immediate proximity, creating an ever-changing agglomeration so complex that it becomes impossible to predict how, in the face of a new situation, a new experience, we will behave. And all the tensions we experience, that we call decision-making, or the exercise of freewill, are the ongoing evolution of this agglomeration of world, which is ourselves.
Manzotti: Right. And you don’t need to feel alienated by being at the mercy of a blind material world; you are the world.
More: “You Are the World“
During this present moment of breathtaking global turmoil that’s characterized by crumbling foundational assumptions and free-falling civilizational presuppositions, the above video, published at BoingBoing, may constitute the most necessary viewing on the entire internet. Words and narration by long-time Teeming Brain friend Erik Davis. Card manipulation by renowned magician and “magic experience designer” Ferdinando Buscema. Musical soundscape by Bluetech. Overall production and direction by Italian mentalist Francesco Tesei. All of it focused on the matter of “the ongoing pandemic, disorder, and the opportunity emerging from the entropy.” (Thank you, btw, to Teem member David Metcalfe for alerting me to the video’s existence with a tweet.)
The first part of Erik’s narration sets the philosophical scene:
Everyone knows what a house of cards is. But until recently, you probably didn’t realize you actually lived in one. Normally, we ignore the complexity of the human world around us, this network of unstable structures propped up through improvised designs and just-in-time responses. But the pandemic has now shown us just how flimsy these structures are. Now we can all sense the fragility of our institutions, especially for the most vulnerable. The mask is off. From financial markets to health care, from jobs to the food supply, from debt to news, we can feel the rickety edifice of civilization begin to wobble and crack. The rug, it seems, is being pulled out from under us. And as we hunker down, anxious and isolated, our own personal realities begin to disintegrate as well.
Erik goes on to point out that such periods of crumbling structures and their accompanying apocalyptic anxieties, which have erupted into human affairs throughout history, bring with them an unexpectedly salubrious result and a major opportunity as they deliver us from the unacknowledged prison of what we have mistakenly thought of as solid, permanent arrangements, and toss us right into the heart of “the chaos that precedes all creation.”
That particular wording brings to mind the theologian Catherine Keller and her article “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” a portion of which I used nearly 20 years ago, with her permission, as the closing epigraph to my Divinations of the Deep. More recently, in fact just last month, she and her fellow theologian John J. Thatamanil wrote an op-ed for the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal titled “Is this an Apocalypse? We certainly hope so — and you should too.” Their point, which they built around the original and profound meaning of the word “apocalypse” (something I’ve talked about here many times in the past), resonates warmly with the house of cards illustration above:
Contemporaries keep using the term “apocalypse,” but literalist biblical interpretation notwithstanding, the term doesn’t mean what many think it means. Deriving from the Greek apokalypsis, the word means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Hence, the title given to the final book of the Christian Bible, “The Apocalypse of John,” is accurately translated “Revelation” not “Cataclysm.” Not “The End.” Unfortunately, this root meaning has been forgotten in popular circles.
When the term is understood as “unveiling,” we can then ask the right questions: What does this pandemic unveil? What have we refused to see about ourselves and the precarious world we’ve built, a world that now stands exposed and tottering in the harsh light of this unasked-for revelation? If we permit this crisis to expose the fissures of our failing world, this pandemic will have served as properly apocalyptic. If instead, despite its devastating toll, we return to an obsolete and unsustainable world, nothing meaningful will have been revealed. . . .
So what might coronavirus “reveal” to us? Is it at once our inescapable interdependence with an earth-full of humans and nonhumans? Does that entanglement turn deadly when we repress it? When we think we can control, commodify and consume the matter of the world, does it bite back at our own mattering bodies? . . .
Perhaps, if we are able to awaken to what is unveiled in this apocalyptic moment, we will make our way forward into a new world rather than shore up the old one. . . .
[W]hat are the chances for a habitable and hospitably shared future? Close to none, if responsibility for the damage remains concealed. Which is why, even in the midst of flood, fire, or pandemic — a way, a wisdom, can get revealed. Apocalypse after all? May it be so!
As I myself argued here some seven years ago, apocalypse, rightly regarded, is a path of spiritual awakening. You walk it when you deliberately allow and encourage the crumbling of surface appearances and seemingly solid structures around you, and even within you, to serve as spurs to awakening. When you let the death of the false, which you had formerly and mistakenly regarded as the true, wake you up to the real. When you embrace the exit from Plato’s Cave because somebody blew it up around you. When you embrace the desert of the real that came into view when you woke up from the Matrix because somebody pulled the plug.
As I said seven years ago, like any real spiritual path, this is ultimately not something that you choose but something that chooses you. And as it so happens, with the advent of the Coronacene, the Way of Apocalypse has apparently chosen all of us at once. It remains to be seen how many of us will prove to be like Cypher, who begged to be plugged back into the Matrix, to reenter the dream because he hated reality. How many of us will be like the prisoners in the cave who didn’t want to leave because they loved their imprisonment. We’re seeing aspects of that particular psychological and cultural tension beginning play out right now. The quote from Philip K. Dick that rounds out the house of cards video (drawn from his 1978 speech/essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” whose title helps to explain the title of the video) supplies a necessary and steadying insight for such things:
Do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.
Mark Bauerlein in Claremont Review of Books, in a perceptive review essay on Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, with additional consideration of Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading:
It won’t be long before all living memory of a time before the personal computer is gone. People will no longer address the meaning of screens from the remembered background of a computer-free life. Leah Price and Maryanne Wolf grew up with books; they had a print childhood, not a digital one. Price aims to soften the impact of the Digital Revolution, I suspect, because of a liberal impulse to accept cultural change with an urbane smile. That’s the going etiquette. I have witnessed many times my humanities colleagues receive news of popular culture drifting ever farther from their intellectual interests with a shrug. It is unseemly to them to criticize people for their cultural choices. But with every survey showing meager reading time and massive screen time in the leisure hours of the young, it is increasingly difficult not to share Wolf’s dismay.
More: “Our Bookless Future“
Poet and essayist Chris Martin works with autistic writers to help them transform their lives through their art. In a positively riveting recent essay at Literary Hub, he reflects on the critical — and rising — value of the autistic perspective at a time when our relationship to “the more-than-human world” has entered an acute crisis:
Neurotypical brains, which prioritize human content, zero in on the complex dance of social life unfolding around us, alert at all times to a change in the established choreography. A great poet, however, must ground their work in sensory observations that move past the often transactional nature of human experiences to get at the vast “real world” going on all around. We too often miss or overlook what’s really going on around us. And that’s what autistic writers do naturally. . . .
When we think of unique and caring individuals like [my autistic student] Bill as a collection of deficits, we not only risk alienating them, but we also put in jeopardy the parts of ourselves that exist necessarily outside the so-called norm. In life, as in poetry, we must remain open and assume ability, so we don’t miss out on crucial lessons like the one Bill taught us that day at Hallam Lake, as he deftly tapped into the vicarious life of a crippled bird. And we must learn, like Bill, to hear the hurt and yearning of the more-than-human world and cultivate the rich, layered, and autistic attention our planet desperately requires. . . .
Autistic thinkers habitually see and hear with an environmental bandwidth that dwarfs their neurotypical counterparts. They perceive widely, warmly, and with an earnest curiosity that treats the more-than-human world as a phenomenal network to be engaged, not a menu of resources to be exploited. . . . Where others perceive nothing but a mute backdrop to their busy human affairs, these autistic thinkers comprehend a bustling chorus of more-than-human voices accompanied by a dense dance of more-than-human forms. . . .
Gonzalo Bernard, an autistic artist and shaman, has written about autism as “the shaman’s disease.” He points to the oracular within the echolalic, the dervish inside the stim. To Bernard, [my student] Hannah’s song is no different from his om, giving the contemplative mind a root from which to bloom. It is this mixture of truth, connection, and contemplation that endows the autistic thinker with transformative abilities. They can see what others can’t, because their eyes are wide open to the more-than-human world, preferring the periphery to direct contact. They not only hear with greater acuity than their neurotypical counterparts, but also hear more widely, more deeply. The strength of their empathy for the more-than-human world leads autistic thinkers to completely transform the way we talk about environmental crisis. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that autistic voices are among our best resources for facing climate change. We, as a species, need to enter a stage of deep listening if we are to survive. Our listening must grow, as Hannah wrote, ever deeper.
With my long-running investigations into the experience of inspired creativity in the mode of the muse, the daimon/daemon, and the genius, I was interested to see this theme getting a big shout-out in the mainstream press in connection with the publication of Tori Amos’s new memoir, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage.
Here’s Brian Gresko in Literary Hub:
Throughout Resistance runs the idea that the artist exists to serve; not just her audience, but the creative force that speaks through her, The Muses. “There are some people who think that they write their songs, and you know what, maybe they do,” Amos says. “But I don’t. I co-create.”
The Muses gift her with bits and pieces of a song—“usually only eight bars at a time”—and she works with that to develop the whole. Her writing process, as she describes it in the book, involves travel and research, word maps and free association, and most of all, listening, paying close heed to people oppressed, and critical attention to those in power. This too grew out of her time in the piano bar, when she witnessed senators sharing drinks and handshakes with lobbyists, Big Oil, and corporations.
“The Muses are quite something,” she tells me. “They’ve been with me since I was a tiny little girl, and they are real. Even my husband, who is a cynic, and an agonistic [sic; I think the writer means agnostic]—he doesn’t believe in things unless they make sense—has seen it happen. I’ll be ready to record a song that’s written and all of a sudden something I’ve never heard before comes out. For example, “Marianne,” on the album Boys for Pele, was written as you hear it on the record. And I feel I’ve never really learned how to play it properly, because when a song just downloads like that, I’m left thinking, ‘What in the world was that?’”
Under The Muses’s influence, Amos develops a Song Being, a musical form with its own soul and essence. The relationship she forges with that Being is personal and intense. Handing them off to the label, at the end of the recording process, is tough for her, and she marks it with a glass of champagne or, “when I really need it,” tequila, and a few hours alone in the studio.
“It’s not a private conversation once they leave the control room.” The Muses, she says, have made clear to her: she doesn’t own the songs or control what they mean. “What somebody thinks of a song is just as valid as what I think of it. You have to accept that, I think, as an artist.”More: “Tori Amos Is Always Listening to the Muses“
And here’s Amanda Petrusich interviewing Amos in The New Yorker:
The book is, in many ways, also a treatise on the nature of creation—on how to remain open enough to the world that you can document something true about it.
It’s about taking in, and it’s about trusting that the muses will come when they come. They don’t always come on your schedule.
Did the muses operate differently for you with the book, versus the writing of a new album?
They began to operate in a similar way. My work—on songs, as well as the book—is very much based in research. Sometimes the muses would be pushing me to research World War I, and I’d be asking them, Why? Sometimes I don’t know where they’re taking me. . . .
When I was really little, these muses would just come. It always feels bigger than me as a person. I step into my art form, and I serve. You really have to do that. The muses know if you don’t.
When you say the word “serve,” I think of religion, or the idea of serving God. It’s obviously different, what you’re describing, but it still seems to involve humbling yourself before something bigger than you. It also makes me think of your father, who was a pastor.
Yes, but maybe it’s more of an aboriginal or a native perspective. If you’re serving Mother Earth, there’s interconnectivity. You have to get yourself out of the way. Let the muses take over. . . .
You do have to be ready when they show up, and that’s not an easy task. I think it sounds easier than it is. Other artists have talked about it—the idea of pulling aside on the freeway. I know that I’ve had to just stop conversations, because I’m not going to get it if I don’t quickly write it down, or record it. People who know you get that that’s kind of how it is, but people that don’t know you can think it’s kind of dramatic. But I find that if I don’t write it down, then I just can’t remember it, not in the form that it’s being given.More: “Tori Amos Believes the Muses Can Help“
For those who find such thoughts and insights to be interesting — or maybe even, like me, fiercely gripping — be advised that they pair ever so nicely with Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the genius, Steven Pressfield’s insights into the muses (and their battle with Resistance) in The War of Art, Victoria Nelson’s sage advice on learning to work harmoniously with your unconscious writer’s mind in On Writer’s Block, Dorothea Brande’s sage advice on the very same thing in Becoming a Writer, Ray Bradbury’s “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” in Zen in the Art of Writing, and my own A Course in Demonic Creativity (which is the only one of these titles that you’re likely to find for free outside of a lending library).
Photo by Indolent Dandy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
From a review of two new books (A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti and A History of Solitude by David Vincent) in The Economist:
The history of solitude is thus partly a history of extremes—of people who have willingly sat on top of pillars for decades and of prison reformers who aim to use loneliness to break men’s souls. But it is also a history of the quest for balance.
The healthiest form of solitude is a flexible kind that combines it with sociability as necessary. Modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand, it has introduced what Mr Vincent calls “networked solitude”. Just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away. And the same technology that allows the solitary individual to engage remotely with society also allows society to engage remotely—and sometimes secretly—with the individual. Giant companies watch over you whether you are alone or in a crowd.
There is also something disturbing about the way the boundaries between solitude and sociability are blurring. Visit a gym and you see sweaty solipsists performing private workouts in public. On a train many of your fellow passengers will be insulated by headphones. Those ubiquitous devices are double-edged: they can fill your head with babble or, thanks to noise-cancelling, leave you in Trappist silence. As the two categories mingle, so the quest for balance becomes more intense. Popular modern fads offer a reacquaintance with the virtues of solitude: mindfulness provides access to peace and silence; some of the most popular pastimes in Silicon Valley, the source of so much noise and distraction, are hiking, yoga and meditation.
The lockdown has put the question of solitude at the heart of politics. Social distancing has been a tragedy for those living and, in some cases, dying alone. But for others it has proved a strange blessing. Overworked people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting. Many have picked up long-abandoned hobbies, such as tending the garden or playing bridge. Solitude is both one of mankind’s greatest blessings and greatest curses—and thanks to a virus that has been carried across the world by human sociability, more people than ever are getting the chance to experience both.
More: “Solitude Has Always Been Both a Blessing and a Curse” (paywall)
From an interview with Franzen by Jianan Qian in The Millions:
TM: You also mentioned on a number of occasions that literature saved you. Could you elaborate on the notion of literary salvation?
JF: What would I have meant by that? I don’t think it literally saved my life.
TM: I suppose it’s not that we take refuge in the beauty of literature?
JF: Not so much. The moment I come back to is when I was 21 and went home to St. Louis. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family for two years, and suddenly the literature I’d been reading at college made sense. It wasn’t just something you studied at school. It was a way to understand what was happening in real life. I could suddenly see the levels of meaning in a simple sentence that my mother uttered. I’d been listening to her all my life, but now I could construct a story about where the words were coming from. I could read the coded messages, and I’d been given that key by reading literature. Did it “save” me? No, but it gave me a way forward. Part of it was trying to be a writer myself, because I was grateful to the authors who’d given me the key and I wanted to give something back. But it was also a way of being in the world—of being attentive to the hidden levels, of not being so quick to judge other people. Maybe that’s what I meant by being saved.
Apparently, working from home during the current disruption and suspension of all normal activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving me too much time and mental space for reflection. Please pardon me while I ill-advisedly correlate some contents and piece together some dissociated knowledge.
Bernardo Kastrup in Scientific American:
[A]s Kuhn pointed out, when enough “anomalies”—empirically undeniable observations that cannot be accommodated by the reigning belief system — accumulate over time and reach critical mass, paradigms change. We may be close to one such a defining moment today, as an increasing body of evidence from quantum mechanics (QM) renders the current paradigm [which holds that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind] untenable. . . .
To reconcile [recent experimental] results with the current paradigm would require a profoundly counterintuitive redefinition of what we call “objectivity.” And since contemporary culture has come to associate objectivity with reality itself, the science press felt compelled to report on this by pronouncing, “Quantum physics says goodbye to reality.”
The tension between the anomalies and the current paradigm can only be tolerated by ignoring the anomalies. This has been possible so far because the anomalies are only observed in laboratories. Yet we know that they are there, for their existence has been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, when we believe that we see objects and events outside and independent of mind, we are wrong in at least some essential sense. A new paradigm is needed to accommodate and make sense of the anomalies; one wherein mind itself is understood to be the essence — cognitively but also physically — of what we perceive when we look at the world around ourselves.More: “Should Quantum Anomalies Make Us Rethink Reality?“
H. P. Lovecraft in “The Dreams in the Witch House”:
Possibly Gilman ought not to have studied so hard. Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension.More: “The Dreams in the Witch House“
Lovecraft in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:
There were, in such voyages, incalculable local dangers; as well as that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity — the boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes; to which detestable pounding and piping dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic ultimate gods, the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other Gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.More: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
Me in “Teeth”:
On the subatomic level, I read, particles flash into and out of existence for no discernible reason, and the behavior of any single particle is apparently arbitrary and usually unpredictable. If there is a cause or “purpose” behind this behavior, then it is one that the human mind is, to all appearances, structurally prevented from comprehending. In other words, for all we know, the fundamental ruling principles at the most basic level of physical reality may well be what our minds and languages must necessarily label as “chaos” and “madness” . . . .
[W]hat is happening is in fact a profound and far-reaching reordering of reality itself — societal, cultural, personal, and even physical. In essence, the prophecies of Lovecraft and Nietzsche are coming true right before our eyes, with effects that are not only personal and cultural but ontological. Our excess of vast scientific knowledge and technological prowess has proceeded in lockstep with a collective descent into species-level insanity. You only have to watch two minutes of television, glance at a headline, or eavesdrop on a random conversation to learn of it. Ignorance and idiocy. Riots and revolutions. These and a thousand other signposts like them are only the most pointed and obvious manifestations of the all-pervasive malaise that has come to define us. And since, as Sankara observed, we are nothing but particularized manifestations of the Ground of Being itself, we are not only witnesses to this breakdown but participants in it, enablers of the transformation of the world into a vale of horror through the metaphysical potency of our very witnessing. God looks our through each of our eyes, an abyss of insatiable hunger and infinite teeth, and the dark light of His consciousness makes each of a lamp that illuminates a new and terrible truth.More: To Rouse Leviathan
The current dawning of the Coronacene reframes and underscores an always-salient truth: Real success in writing is just doing it. Just inhabiting the act itself. Just seeing new words appear on the page. “The search for meaning distilled in an act . . . an act of meditation, an act of prayer . . . giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life,” as Adam O’Fallon Price lucidly and movingly puts it in an essay at The Millions:
Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case. . . .
Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.
We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.
Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.
More: “Our Work and Why We Do It“
I was saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Joe Pulver. Mike Davis, publisher of Lovecraft eZine, tweeted a link to a deeply moving Facebook update from Katrin Pulver, Joe’s wife, in which she had shared the news. Word of his passing has now circulated throughout the fairly close-knit community of horror readers, writers, and publishers. Joe was a singular presence in that community, and especially in the Lovecraftian end of it, where he earned a lasting name for himself as both an author and an editor with a distinct passion for Lovecraftian horror, the weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers, and the work of Thomas Ligotti.
I never met him in person, but we did know each other online, and I did write the introduction to his 2012 fiction collection Portraits of Ruin. And in my infrequent contact with him, he always seemed like the gentlest of souls. Many other people have been sharing similar thoughts and impressions over the past 24 hours.
In retrospect, that intro for Portraits of Ruin feels kind of like my own personal tribute to Joe’s idiosyncratic authorial genius. With the permission of both him and Hippocampus Press, I published the full text of it here some years ago. Now seems like a good time to go back and revisit it.
I began the intro by saying this:
Plato once wrote, “But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.” This is a sentence rich with, and in fact threaded and structured along, a succession of deeply striking and evocative phrases and images: “the door of poetry . . . the madness of the Muses . . . sane companions . . . utterly eclipsed . . . the inspired madman.” They’re like a collage of implied spiritual-artistic meaning, a chant whose very intonation is at least as important as, and probably more than, its conceptual content. In other words, they gesture toward something, some transcendent reality they can’t quite articulate. Or at least that’s the way I like to take them, regardless of dear old Plato’s intentions.
And this, I think — both my fixation on this quote, which is talismanic for me, and my preferred way of reading it — is one of the main reasons why I find Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin to be so deeply disquieting. Reading it, I begin to wonder, inadvertently, inexorably, about the name and nature of the particular door that he may have passed through in the pursuit of his art. I wonder about the identity of the particular Muse — dark, wild, daimonic — that may have maddened him. And wondering these things, I’m driven to doubt whether we, his sane companions, can ever really comprehend him, and I suspect that we must instead resign ourselves to having our understanding utterly eclipsed by the performances of this inspired madman.
And I ended it by saying this:
The final word can go to Joe himself. Back when he and I were communicating about the possibility of my writing this introduction, he told me, “I never know what to make of my stuff.”
This, above all, is what you might want to bear in mind as you turn the page and proceed to immerse yourself in what follows. The author himself does not know what to make of these writings. Neither do I. Nor, I daresay, will you. But the very attempt to do so, to “make something” of them — an interpretive activity that the work itself incites because of its native grippingness and stylistic brilliance (that surrealist’s flood of unconscious inspiration is channeled, mind you, through a finely honed and tuned set of conscious literary skills, just like [John] Cage’s pianistic training) — this very attempt at finding some sort of meaning is, in the end, the point. Because the meaning is really and truly there. You can sense it in every line and phrase, grinning darkly at you through the interstices of the words and images. It just happens to be a meaning that you can only “understand” by allowing it to speak to your own deep self, to your — dare I say it? — daimonic Muse.
So don’t ask what Joe is doing; that approach only closes it off. Instead, rely on the coherence of your deep self to understand the coherence of his. In learning to do this, to resonate with this book of impossible imaginings presented in improbable forms, you may well find that you’re being altered and enlightened in ways that are truly transformative.
After all, only an inspired madman can understand an inspired madman.“Horror, the Muse, and Inspired Madmen: My Full Introduction to Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin“
Between that intro and conclusion, I recounted and reflected on my unfolding experience of realizing that Joe’s book, which (like all of his work) is rich with bizarre and surreal imagery, language, and narrative contortions and disruptions, had basically taught me how to read itself. Engaging with those seemingly impenetrable stories in an attempt to figure out how best to introduce them to other readers generated a kind of readerly epiphany about the necessity of sometimes setting aside my rational, linear sense of comprehension, and simply surrendering to the midnight flow. I can’t imagine a more instructive or rewarding literary experience.
That’s how I’ll remember Joe. As a gentle soul and a valued colleague whose “inspired madman” literary voice and vision expanded my private horizon as a reader. I treasure that. And I remain grateful to him.