Interview with Quentin S. Crisp
I Have a Buddhist Voice in My Head
Conducted by Matt Cardin, October 2010
Over the past ten and fifteen years, dating from my first entry into the world of Internet communication circa 1996, I’ve made a lot of friends and met a lot of colleagues. Some of these I have gone on to meet in person — “IRL,” as the hoary Internet initialism has it. Others I continue to know only from a distance, by electronic means.
Quentin S. Crisp is one of the longest-surviving figures in the latter category. He and I first met in the late 1990s thanks to our mutual presence in the online community centered around Thomas Ligotti that sprang up with the launch of the alt.books.thomas-ligotti newsgroup circa 1997 and then Thomas Ligotti Online in 1998. Thus, he’s always been a background presence for me, and sometimes a foreground one, during my travels through the horror-and-dark fiction byways of the cyberspace matrix.
So isn’t it about time I picked his brain here for an installment in my occasional series of conversations with my fellow horror writers?
For the uninitiated, the Wikipedia article about Quentin provides a nicely concise compendium of Basic Facts:
Quentin S. Crisp (born 1972) is a British writer of supernatural fiction. Unlike the better-known personality of the same name, this Quentin Crisp was given the name at birth but, being younger, must use his middle initial to disambiguate. Originally from North Devon, Crisp now lives in South Devon in Totnes. He has a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Durham, has spent two periods living in Japan and Japanese literature is a significant influence in his work.
For more info and illumination, you can visit him at his long-running blog, Directory of Lost Causes, to find him talking about everything from supernatural horror fiction to Japanese literature to modern music to writing and publishing to the foibles of Western and global culture and more.
Quentin’s literary output includes:
- Morbid Tales (2003), which led prolific reviewer Mario Guslandi to effuse that “I don’t recall being so impressed with a short story collection by a new (to me) writer since I first read, in my youth, the works of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.”
- Shrike (2009), a novel about a white Westerner who stays with an elderly married couple in Japan and encounters spiritual-existential oddities and grimness galore.
- Remember You’re a One-Ball! (2010), his newest novel, which tells a horrific story of childhood cruelty and suffering, and which is pulling high praise out of people everywhere. None other than the formidable Mark Samuels — a mutual friend of Quentin’s and mine — has said of this one that it “confirms me in my belief that Crisp is the most important writer of his generation.” Tom Ligotti, speaking (I think) in regard to Quentin’s performance in this novel specifically, is on record with the statement that “Quentin Crisp’s work belongs to a tradition of horror literature that both defines the genre and justifies it as a worthy form of artistic expression.”
For this interview, or at least for parts of it, I decided to take a more oblique and circuitous approach than is my wont, punctuated by periods of harsh directness. Happily, Quentin did a great job of running with it.
(On a procedural note, I’ve left the typical British conventions of orthography intact in Quentin’s responses. Maybe this will allow you, our reader, to hear our respective accents contrasting with each other in charming ways. I just ask you to please forgive me the flatness of my American Midwestern accent, overlaid with a definitive patina of Network Standard.)
MATT CARDIN: Welcome to The Teeming Brain, Quentin. To begin with, who are you?
QUENTIN S. CRISP: That’s a good question, and reminds me a bit of Advaita Vedanta meditation. In the meditation, of course, the question is repeated and repeated until you run out of answers — or so I hear. I haven’t tried it in an official Vedanta setting. I am free, of course, in this interview, to answer with a very flimsy mask, as I don’t expect you’ll be repeating this question Vedanta-style. So…
More or less the first thing that comes into my head is that some people are always looking for what they want to do in life and never finding it. I’m not one of those people. It has been very obvious to me from an early age who I am, and this has been tied up with creativity, and, specifically, with writing. People often refer to a creative ability as a ‘gift’, and, of course, it is, in that, if I had sat down and logically tried to work out who I was and what I should do, I would never have come up with the idea of writing. It was already there, gratis, a given — a gift.
The weird thing is, I’m not entirely sure that I am meant to think that such a gift is who I am according to the philosophy underlying Vedanta. But I have long been stubborn like that, for some reason. It’s a gift, as I say.
So, this strong sense of who I am that I’ve always had, since I was very young, is what makes me write. The quality of that ‘who I am’, is what I hope comes out in the writing.
MATT: This is all excellent. Now let’s push the issue and ask it again: Who are you? Are there any other elements that come into the question?
QUENTIN: Indeed there are. When we fail to live up to our ideals, for instance, we might begin to wonder who we are — most people are aware of a discrepancy, I think. There are idiosyncrasies and foibles, but we’re not sure if these are essential. Some people think they are the most essential things of all.
MATT: A minute ago you indicated that being a writer is foundational to your sense of self. Where does this leave off — if indeed it does?
QUENTIN: I would say that, apart from being a writer, I have also always been very conscious of the idea of a ‘world elsewhere’.
And beyond that I can situate myself by saying I was born in the seventies, age of bad haircuts and grainy colour photos. That I grew up in North Devon, by the sea, and feel a special affinity for the landscape there, despite a lack of actual ancestry. That I was in just the right generation to have taken feminism seriously by osmosis — also the generation when the breakdown of the family really began and for whom The Smiths were something new and essential. I grew up with tarot cards and the reading of tea leaves. I’ve never been baptised. My favourite tea is lapsang souchong. I’m more a dog person than a cat person. I can’t drive. I don’t believe in sexual love. I’ve drifted in and out of vegetarianism for years. I seem to be less depressed but also less hopeful now in my thirties. My widow’s peak bothers me. I think a lot about the end of the human race. And so on.
“I feel almost as if I had been born in a vacuum of innocence, and then had to come to terms with the fact that actually, I was born into the middle of history — the rather grimy normality of the 70s, which did, indeed, retain some traces of human innocence, but were also girded about by the demons of experience.”
MATT: Like you, I’m a child of the seventies. Born in 1970, to be exact. Things from that era therefore assume a kind of mythic or numinous aspect in my sensibility. Which all leads me to ask you: What the hell was up with that decade?
QUENTIN: I think I’m probably too close to the seventies to be able to analyse them (it?) effectively. By which I mean, in 1979 I was seven. I do remember punk, though, as a playground phenomenon, and remember that it was exciting to us. It really was, to a five- or six-year-old, quite a thrilling enticement to revolt. The anarchy sign scratched in desk tops, and so on.
To me the seventies represent normality, and, of course, it is a normality that is now anachronistic. This is the strange thing about existing in time. As Larkin puts it, “truly, though our element is time, we are not used to the strange perspectives open at each moment of our lives” — something like that.
Anyway, yes, telephones but not mobile phones, fish and chips still wrapped in actual newspaper and still with some kind of flavour, people visiting each other without having to consult their appointment diaries, not being able to record anything from the television; if you missed it you missed it — these were all the kinds of thing that made up the normality of the seventies. When I think back on it, I have a sense of relaxation, as if in the seventies no one had to try to be anyone other than who they were. I’m sure that’s not really true, but that’s how I remember it, and I suppose it might be relatively true.
On the other hand, the seventies were drab. That is, I am utterly fascinated by the fifties and sixties. We’re all more or less interested in the ‘swinging sixties’, of course, but that’s not what I mean. I’m interested in the particular naive glamour that clings to the post-war and pre-Hendrix era. I think things were a little different in Britain, actually, and I don’t know if Britain ever really achieved that much glamour. We had post-war austerity rather than post-war prosperity, and our cultural products of the time include some pretty dour kitchen-sink dramas of the A Kind of Loving variety. (This kind of film seems disillusioned with the sixties before they’ve even really begun.) But the cultural products of America from this period are like a vision of paradise or something. I find it utterly intoxicating. Speaking of Larkin again, in his poem about the First World War he wrote something like, “Never such innocence, before or since, that turned itself to past without a word” (I’m not checking the accuracy of these quotes).
But I feel, at least in terms of what the cultural products express, there was a greater innocence in that era of the fifties and early sixties. I can’t imagine anyone ever again being able to make a film like, say, Summer Holiday, for instance, to give a British example, actually. And there will never be another Annette Funicello. I suppose it’s the slight starchiness of the innocence that makes it unrepeatable. If there is innocence on Earth again, I tend to imagine it in more Thoreau sort of terms.
Anyway, I think the seventies caught the last red rays of the dying sun of this innocence, but were already a little cold and drab.
MATT: Here you are talking about a kind of basic cultural innocence in relation to the period right before and after your birth — and yet your latest book is the much-lauded Remember You’re a One-Ball!, which my investigations tell me is devoted to portraying a — how to put it? — not-so-innocent vision of “childhood and the long shadow it casts over adulthood” (to steal Mark Samuels’ words). To put the question in the broadest possible terms: What?
QUENTIN: I actually feel a little caught off-guard by this question, which is probably a good thing. There is a date referenced in the novel, and that date is 1977. I don’t want to give too much away, but something horrible happens in 1977. That was also the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I remember this jubilee. I remember receiving a commemorative coin from the school. I think it was a fifty pence piece. That was its monetary value, but it was not a normal fifty pence piece, and it would have been strange to try and use it in a shop. It came in its own little box. It was like this:
But mine had a green background. I think I still have it somewhere. Why was this given to me? I think every child in the country must have received one. That’s the last time that I recall something of an innocent, more-or-less unquestioning monarchist patriotism in Britain. It’s true there was all that kerfuffle when Diana died, but that seems like a different kind of thing.
1977 was also, of course, the year that Derek Jarman made his iconoclastic film Jubilee, which was so much part of the punk movement.
I’m not sure this really answers the question, but perhaps it gives some indication of the ways in which that decade was full of things ending and beginning. And I did choose the year 1977 for obscure symbolic reasons.
MATT: I’m still wondering about that bridge between innocence and experience, innocence and a shocking disillusionment, that seems to show up in your words about the 1970s as cross-referenced against the patent grimness of your new novel.
QUENTIN: To try and answer the question more directly, I suppose I could say that to be interested in innocence already suggests a remove from innocence, perhaps a longing for something that is lost. I’m not sure if there is a cultural loss of innocence specifically associated with the seventies. The oil crisis? The Watergate scandal? I really don’t know. There’s nothing there on the scale of Hiroshima. I feel like the seventies was a decade where things ran out, and where other things set in. There was just a lurking graininess and seediness about the decade, a slight grogginess of the hangover from the sixties. It’s like this public information film for children:
People didn’t talk about paedophiles in the seventies, I don’t think. As children in the seventies we were told about nebulous ‘strangers’. By definition, we didn’t know who these strangers were, and we didn’t know what they wanted to do, but only that they were sinister. I think that was the stage the seventies were at. Lots of things were there, in the social experience, but not quite named, lurking like a stranger on the edge of the playground.
Perhaps I can also add something about the rural setting of Remember You’re a One-Ball! The countryside is a place — in mythological and perhaps in very real terms — of mixed innocence and sin. It is seen by townsfolk as idyllic, lazy, free of urban crime and social problems. But those who grow up in the country can tell stories that often surprise those who grow up in the towns. We all know about the car breaking down on a deserted road scenario. That’s cliché. I’m thinking more of Cider with Rosie, as in, the dark side. I also remember a line from a song by Smog, which seems to describe the experience of a town-dweller moving to the country: “I was raised in a pit of snakes/Blink your eyes — I was raised on cake.”
MATT: That cartoon has to be one of the most grotesque things, both visually and ideologically, that I’ve seen in quite some time. Obviously, this impression hinges hugely on my contextualized historical perspective.
Speaking of which, your observation about the awareness of innocence implying its loss leads to the wider subject of self-awareness in general, which leads to a subject that I know is central for you. I might call it “Zen etc.,” meaning the whole nexus of philosophical and spiritual interests that informs your writing and your worldview. Is it possible for you to move from talking about the symbolic significance, both overt and hidden, of 1977 for you, and thoughts about lost innocence in the grainy 1970s, and country-vs.-city issues, and all that, to Zen etc. in a way that’s organic? Somehow I’m sensing that the non sequitur-type nature of the train track jump in subjects might reveal a hidden unity. In other words, how does any or all of what we’re talking about relate to Zen etc.?
QUENTIN: I associate my childhood with two things, mainly: the North Devon countryside and a sense of connection to another world. It’s interesting, the sense of pastoral utopia that exists in so much fantasy — in Dunsany, Tolkien and so on. I think the natural is, for many people, the gateway to something supernatural or otherworldly. The urban, on the other hand, is often seen as more real and mundane, even though it is obviously far more recent in terms of planetary development. I think this might be because nature corresponds to the unconscious and the artificial world of the city and human culture to the conscious mind.
I have a bit of a struggle with some aspects of or forms of Buddhism, but Zen I find to be mainly congenial. And I think that this is because Zen is influenced by Daoism, which is not so much a nature-religion in the animistic sense as a nature-philosophy in a cosmic sense. Some people have described Daoism as pantheist, and although there’s something in me that resists this designation, I can see that Daoism is consistent with pantheism. If there is any way in which pantheism makes sense and is not redundant, then it is the way (or ‘the Way’) presented in Daoism.
And I have to add that if there is ‘a god’, rather than ‘gods’, then non-pantheist models for this god seem almost completely untenable to me, though not without interest. There’s a possible qualification I can make here about a non-pantheist god that is in some way tenable, and that is the idea of a god that has in some way discharged the universe from its own substance (I associate this with the word ‘tzimtzum’), possibly even by a form of suicide — a suicide that might have been the Big Bang.
But to get back to Buddhism. What I find difficult about Buddhism, though it is also one of its significant fascinations, is the focus on what is immediately and physically present. To me, this seems a denial of the imagination, and the imagination is very important to me. I think this very austere element of Buddhism is also linked with a strong antinatalist strain in the philosophy. The Buddha was enlightened when he destroyed the house of body and soul into which he would otherwise have been forever reborn. This is clearly antinatalism.
The peculiar thing is that, in focusing only on the here and now, Buddhism seems to despise the world. You focus on the here and now in order to escape existence forever and vanish into Nirvana. There is another religious impulse that is the opposite of this. It uses a world elsewhere in order to affirm life and give a reason to “go forth and multiply”. The imagination is fertile. From seeds of the imagination, much is made manifest. It is sexual. There’s a strong aspect of Buddhism which is geared towards ending all fertility. Zen, on the other hand, is not so dogmatically sterile, though there are certainly traces and more than traces of this austerity. However, with Zen we have not only the void, but the fertile void. The ink lines in a sumi-e painting show this fertility of the void ever ready to brim over into existence.
Now, I think there’s a good case for antinatalism. Stephen Hawking has told us recently that we must colonise space to survive, not long after telling us to beware of aliens because they’ll probably just do to us as the conquistadors did to the native peoples of the Americas. So . . . exactly why do we want to go on and on, to go forth and multiply in a hostile final frontier? Why?
On the other hand, if we do want to do that, then vacuous materialism is not going to be enough for us.
This may be glib, but if future history is not to be just one damned thing after another in space, then what we really have to do is in some way overcome this linear experience of time that makes all existence a quest for something that will never be found.
And philosophies such as Zen seem to hint that this is possible.
If we do overcome linear time, I would hope this means dwelling more directly in the fertility of the imagination rather than denying it, as some aspects of Buddhism seem to. If you look at the ox-herding pictures — specifically the newer set of ten pictures rather than the older set of eight — you see that after the blank circle of the void, the cycle comes back to a river flowing by the roots of a tree (both strong symbols of nature, the life-force, the unconscious) and to the wanderer returning to the market place, which is the realm of human society and activity. Some Buddhists, however, never seem to get past the void, and I suppose I view this as a kind of Buddhist ‘Old Testament’ that I don’t especially like.
MATT: You’re sparking thoughts within me like mad. But to remain disciplined, I’ll ask you to relate this all explicitly back to your childhood, the 70s, and so on.
QUENTIN: I suppose what I can say is that I do feel I have a natural spiritual sensibility. I’m aware of the dangers of saying such a thing. I’m not claiming anything like sainthood — merely a native perception. I never went to church as a child. I did not understand the differences between Catholic and Protestant until I was an adult. I do not think that my spiritual apprehensions are as dogmatically cultural as those of many people who have been brought up strictly in a particular tradition. You might call this innocence. I had a sense of another world that had not been spoken of to me. It was very much my own, which may account for the very strong sense of destiny I had as a child. Naturally, I was not born in a vacuum, and there have been cultural influences on me. However, I do feel almost as if I had been born in a vacuum of innocence, and then had to come to terms with the fact that actually, I was born into the middle of history — the rather grimy normality of the 70s, which did, indeed, retain some traces of human innocence, but were also girded about by the demons of experience.
Apart from the underlying mystery of all things, there is also another possible specific mystery in this situation: Why did I become so interested in Buddhism, Zen and so on? I seem to have a Buddhist voice in my head, and someone asked me about this recently, saying he was intrigued. He said that what I described as the Buddhist voice — the life-denying voice of censure and guilt — sounded to him very much like a Catholic voice. This is, indeed, a mystery, and it intrigues me, too.
It’s true that Eastern philosophy and religion were not unknown to me as a child, since my father has explored much in that area, and written books more or less in that area, too. Nonetheless, I’m not sure this entirely accounts for my Buddhist voice, which tells me forever to give up writing, to give up on relationships, simply to give up. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to me to be the voice of innocence.
MATT: When you call out and criticize the anti-imaginal orientation of most Buddhism, and then start talking about an innate spiritual sensibility that manifests at least in part as “a Buddhist voice in your head,” my thoughts naturally turn toward questions of art, inspiration, the unconscious mind, and the muse/genius/daimon, and their relation to the sorts of things we’re talking about. Of course, it doesn’t take much to get me going down that path.
Do you have a muse? Do you feel/think in terms of a muse as you pursue your authorial work? If so, does she sound like a Buddhist?
QUENTIN: Last year I went on a meditation retreat. In 10 or so days, I spent about a hundred hours meditating, observing ‘noble silence’ the whole time, and so on. This was an interesting experience, which has had some beneficial effects for me. One result of this retreat was that, shortly after I came back from it, I began researching and writing what I intended as a book-length essay entitled Fascination and Liberation, exploring the question of whether there is a conflict between creativity and the Eastern form of enlightenment. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish that essay, because I had an experience, after I’d written two or three chapters, in which it seemed to me that my psychic antibodies decisively rejected Buddhism. Interestingly, the rejection felt as if it happened in Zen terms. I seemed to recall some words from an old Zen master, something like, “My Zen cuts down mountains.” My rejection of Buddhism was a cutting down of mountains; that is precisely how it felt to me.
Now I feel a little as if the Buddhism is creeping back, but I mention all this simply in order to illustrate that there is, in my life, a fundamental sense of conflict between something that I am calling ‘Buddhism’ and my creative impulse. People may wish to say that the thing that is in conflict with my creativity is not Buddhism — that’s fine. I understand that words can mean different things to different people, and, further, that people can have different relationships with complex abstract entities such as Buddhism. To me, anyway, the entity in my life that conflicts with my creativity is Buddhism.
Another part of the rejection I mention was the realisation that Buddhism quite simply ignores or dismisses a whole hemisphere of human experience that finds expression in and is enshrined by the mystery religions. Now, I’m not an expert here. I’m talking about an experience I had rather than something I intellectually worked out. From what I can gather, the original mystery religions are still, largely, as the name suggests, mysterious. But they are associated with intoxication, fertility and resurrection. I have a sense of them being Easter religions, for some reason. Christianity, of course, is a mystery religion, too, and I believe that Arthur Machen was one of those especially interested in the link between the pagan mysteries and the Christian ones. So, my experience was also a Machenesque experience.
“I like the concept of an anti-muse, though I’m not quite sure what that is. If there is such a thing in my life, I suppose it is just this weariness, this sense that it is more fulfilling not to exist, to efface all traces, than to limit oneself to the determined expression of manifestation.”
MATT: And your muse? Is she there? Is she real?
QUENTIN: I do have a muse. I am not sure how to describe her. She can be very elusive. She was born in England but has Mediterranean ancestry. She feels nostalgic for Japan, and, perhaps strangely, for the pioneer days of America. She is, in fact, a woman of the world, and precisely because of this, hopes that a diversity of cultures will endure, and that one bland monoculture does not swamp everything. In the same way, although she feels most at home in autumn, nonetheless, she is glad of the other seasons and loves them all. Without the others she would be unable to feel most at home in autumn, besides which, she almost feels most at home in all of them.
She can take the form of a landscape, an era, a style of writing, a piece of music, and, perhaps that which I find strangest of all for a muse, a human female. Of course, she’s also adept at taking the form of toothless old Japanese men or young English lads with tattoos. She likes to inhabit tea leaves, sunlight filtered through bamboo, melancholy clouds over the Devon coastline, a weedy railroad crossing in the Southern States, bubblegum pop from the sixties, torch songs from the forties, undersea caves where B-movie octopi grapple with men in loincloths, sacred groves of pink anime dryads, Victorian fairy paintings executed by gentlemen in lunatic asylums, the annual world convention of cryptozoologists, Morrissey B-sides, Jim Silke’s Bettie Page, Nagai Kafu’s love of ukiyo-e, David Bowie before he was human and sane, parasexuality, tobacco, everything about Dare Wright, and so on.
I think one thing that is key here is dreams, both in the literal and the figurative sense, which seem linked. The research reading I did for Fascination and Liberation included some Jung, and I noticed that he had a similar impression of Buddhism to myself, that, if it weren’t for certain qualifying clauses, the philosophy would be downright suicidal. (This was in his section in Man and His Symbols.) There was also a passage where he talks about a dream significance that goes beyond the Freudian, and unfortunately I don’t remember it well enough to paraphrase with confidence, but he did mention, in listing people dismissive of this aspect of dreams, that the Buddhist would say that any dream meaning is irrelevant since all it does is distract one from the goal of Nirvana. This is part of the fundamental character of Buddhism that I find problematic — that it is not interested in anything. Hence the ‘Fascination’ in the title of the essay, the fascination of art and creativity, stands in opposition to what is called ‘Liberation’.
Anyway, to cut off one’s biological dreams seems to me the most fundamental form of psychic castration that you could imagine. I really think Burroughs was onto something here, when he said, “Dreams are a biologic necessity and your lifeline into space.” Burroughs, incidentally, took up the slogan that we are “Here to go”, which contradicts the tendency in Eastern mysticism to advocate staying where you are because there’s nowhere to go anyway. I feel conflicted on this one. We’ve touched on this already in this interview. Western progress (from one damned thing to another) seems to be essentially the MO of nowhere fast. But, on the other hand, the don’t-set-foot-outside-your-own-village/cave ideal or injunction that you find in Buddhism and even in the Daoism of which I’m fonder, seems . . . defeatist. And more than that, it is in contradiction to what nature actually does. Somewhere, somehow, I feel as if these two opposing principles have to be reconciled.
MATT: I’m curious: You’ve described some places where your muse shows up. I’m presuming this makes itself known as a creative stirring, an attraction on the “fascination” end of the polar spectrum you’ve identified. But here it sounds like your creativity is also bound up with the pole of liberation, quietism, sit-and-do-nothing-ism. So is your muse perhaps bound up with this end of things, too? Is she perhaps, at least to some degree or in some fashion, an antinatalist?
QUENTIN: It would be hard to say that exactly, but antinatalism is a reality in my life, not just an interesting idea. I can feel it in the chilled and weary marrow of my bones. This is another one of those mysteries I mentioned. In terms of what is expressed, antinatalism is a strong presence, not always explicit, in what I write. And yet, it seems to oppose the idea of writing anything at all. To reproduce is to pass on genes. To write is to pass on memes. In that sense, it really is a kind of reproduction, which antinatalism should, theoretically, oppose, or at least which I feel that it opposes emotionally in my own experience. How does this work? I don’t know, but that’s the way it seems to be for me. I’m constantly struggling with the futility and even sinfulness, from an antinatalist point of view, of creativity. And that struggle itself seems part of the creativity, though I sometimes suspect that it’s nothing but a burden and an obstacle.
Incidentally — I mentioned women as muses. I think this really does work for me in a mythological way. I keep meaning to read The White Goddess by Robert Graves, as I think it will probably be especially fascinating to me, though perhaps not liberating. Who knows, maybe the bondage is better. Some people, after all, quite enjoy bondage.
MATT: I can’t convey to you the depth of my personal identification with the struggle you describe between the creative impulse and that Buddhist or “Buddhist” quietism or antinatalism or whatever we might call it. This is a living, vital, agonizing, ongoing reality for me as well.
Could you maybe give a few more examples of where and how this tension, this cyclical give-and-take between fascination and liberation, plays out and shows up in your life? Starting with the fascination end.
QUENTIN: Earlier today, I went for a walk in the rain. Recently, whenever it rains, I feel like I want to go for a walk. I never seem to find what I’m looking for, though. I suppose I feel, these days, too aware of schedules and things, to let myself get lost in the rain. Anyway, I came back home, and it was still raining, and as I was approaching the driveway of the house, and the front garden with its bushy flower bed, I caught a cooking smell from somewhere on the air. I don’t know why, exactly, but it appealed to me as a Nagai Kafu moment. I feel that Nagai Kafu was a writer who cold stitch together apparently meaningless moments like these into a lyrical whole, and has enhanced my ability to do the same with my own life. I can call that moment a ‘Nagai Kafu moment’ — other people might have different terms for the same thing — but if I were not able to conceptualise the aesthetic experience of something meaningless like a cooking smell at the front of a rained-on garden then, well, life would be pretty unbearable, I think. Even without reproduction, fascination can have what might be called the elegiac function of consolation. I realise elegies are for lost things, but the Kafu form of fascination validates the present through a form or lyrical nostalgia, I think, a nostalgia which mirrors with the past the sense of fatalism for the future that allows one to come to terms with death.
This is one form of fascination that keeps me alive without giving me quite an Iggy Pop lust for life.
As to what most magnetises me towards life, perhaps most of all, there is a disappearingly faint memory of a dream. It’s really quite ineffable. I watched part of Gentlemen Broncos this evening, and the main character, the young boy — I forget his name — has written a beautifully ridiculous sci-fi novel called The Yeast Wars or something. He has written it in longhand in a writing pad with a picture of a deer on the front. I remember the excitement of writing in similar pads as a child, of total immersion in one’s own imaginary world. In some way, the essential spirit or atmosphere of such worlds seems unrelated to the details of the worlds themselves, although in another way the atmosphere is entirely immanent in the details. But ultimately, perhaps, the atmosphere is a separate thing, because I notice the same atmosphere — the same sehnsucht — can be evoked by the details of very different worlds. What is it? I don’t know. It only seems to me that I have spent my entire life in pursuing in, but also most of my life in forgetting that I am pursuing it — in losing sight of it.
Does this vivify me? Sometimes it does; other times it makes me wistful.
The truth is there’s very little that really vivifies me these days, but there are fascinations which at least make the world appear a vividly fertile place. Too many to list, in fact. I can demonstrate the fascinations of this world simply by uttering two words — as an example — that to some will be meaningless, and to others will be a kind of universe of their own: Ruth Gemmell.
You can do the same with almost any name. Just utter it, and watch a whole universe of associations form around it.
“Mainstream literature is dead. The sooner people realise that this is where it’s at, the better.”
MATT: Speaking of words and their power to create associations, I had meant to ask you about your thoughts on current trends and events in the literary world. I know you read my recent article about a possible new golden age of horror fiction, and I gather that literary matters still rank among the few things that can vivify you. What are your thoughts on the various convulsions wracking the literary and publishing worlds right now?
QUENTIN: I haven’t really done any deep research here, but I think that you may be right in your “new golden age” assessment. At the very least, there are a helluva lot of really great writers around at the moment. I got an e-mail from Ligotti a while back in which he said that although he’s not reading much these days, he knows enough to know that there are a far greater number of good writers out there now than when he started writing.
As I said, I haven’t done a survey on this, but my feeling is basically this: that the best writers in the entire world, or at least the English language, are all currently circling around the kind of scene represented by the likes of PS Publishing, Tartarus, Mythos and so on. It’s not necessarily horror, but what it is, is that area where imagination leads to true speculation and true ‘experiment’. Mainstream literature is dead. The sooner people realise that this is where it’s at, the better. This, at least, is my current feeling. And I’ll mention that I very much want Chomu Press, the new publishing venture that my brother has started, and that published Remember You’re a One-Ball!, to be a part of that, and even to take a leading role.
MATT: In turning now to a bit more elaboration on the subject of the “dark” side, the liberation side, I have a specific question I’d like to frame it around: Have you ever sensed the presence or (anti)inspiration of what might be considered a separate muse, one that draws all inward like a black hole? Have you ever sensed, or even merely considered, the possibility of an anti-muse whose domain is life itself?
QUENTIN: Let me start addressing this by way of a detour. It seems to me at the moment that ‘liberation’ might be a red-herring. That is, there is freedom from — apparently — and freedom to. I think the former is possibly a more Eastern form of freedom and the latter a more Western form. The idea of liberation being a kind of non-existence is obviously freedom from. Freedom from everything. But there’s no reason why liberation shouldn’t be freedom to. Freedom to do anything, at least in the sense of not having to choose one attitude or position over another.
My impression is that most people think of enlightenment as freedom from, which is rather dreary. And, the fact is, the longing for this kind of freedom weighs heavily on me. I really have very little energy. When it comes right down to it everything just seems pointless. I’m probably over halfway through my life, and what I have learnt is that nothing makes any ultimate difference. It’s as if the human race consists of solitary castaways on billions of desert islands. Every action, word and thought is a message in a bottle, tossed into the waves. Now, someone else on another desert island may, in fact, pick up one of your messages in a bottle, but the best they can do is throw another message in a bottle back, and hope it gets to you. And if it does? Well, you’re still as you were, trapped on a desert island. I mentioned earlier having no hope these days. What I mean is I have absolutely no hope of this situation ever changing. So, this rather drains my energy.
Some people, in this kind of hopelessness, feel a tension, and that tension can make Buddhism attractive to them, as it has been to me. But I think this tension is based on the fear of death. I’ve been through very extreme fear of death in my life. I’m not exaggerating when I say that throughout my twenties, and longer, I thought about death every waking minute of my life.
For some reason, I am no longer afraid of death in the way I was. And this is especially true very recently. Now, I know some joker will read this and decide to waylay me and lock me in the same room as a crazed chimpanzee with a machete, and jeer through the keyhole, “You’re bloody-well afraid of death now, aren’t you?”, but compared to my twenties, well, there’s really no comparison. And my guess is that I am now probably less afraid of death than the average first-world Westerner. Dying, I’m not so keen on, but being dead is fine by me. Why? Because I have no hope. And so the tension of having to turn to Buddhism etc. is also somewhat relaxed for me. I just don’t care. Is it right? Is it wrong? If my choice of punishments are being reborn or not being reborn, I laugh at them both.
“What I find difficult about Buddhism is the focus on what is immediately and physically present. To me, this seems a denial of the imagination, and the imagination is very important to me. To cut off one’s biological dreams seems to me the most fundamental form of psychic castration that you could imagine.”
It will be a relief not to exist any more. I am very, very tired. I wake up each day very, very tired.
There’s a lot I could say about this, but yes, to be finally free of all particularities, to be free of people — what bliss.
So, to circle around to the question proper, I like the concept of an anti-muse, though I’m not quite sure what that is. If there is such a thing in my life, I suppose it is just this weariness, this sense that it is more fulfilling not to exist, to efface all traces, than to limit oneself to the determined expression of manifestation.
I know that there is a sense in which I have parted company from the majority of the human race. Whatever I can theoretically understand about the fascinations of life, which lead to desire, which leads to more life, the fact is, the most fundamental form of fascination — what Kahlil Gibran, I think, called “life’s longing for itself” — is reproduction. And reproduction is entirely and increasingly incomprehensible to me. This is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ on my part. It’s not theoretical, either. It’s not that I would like to pass on my genes but think doing so would be cruel, although I do think that. It’s simply that the whole thing — “that thing”, as it’s sometimes called — that the birds and the bees and so on do, and that people write songs and make rom-coms about, is not alive in me.
Is that a black hole? Interestingly, at least one person I know has described me as a black hole.
But as to what I was saying about red herrings – perhaps, just perhaps, freedom from represents one of these red herrings. Perhaps, if people are ever truly liberated, they will find that it is freedom to. That is what I would prefer, though clearly I am not there.
Until I am there, whatever it is that ordinary people have as their own ‘Zuzu’s petals’ — to invoke the Frank Capra-fied metaphor for that which magnetises them absolutely to life and energises them to live — will remain a kind of mystery to me. I would like to understand, though. All messages in bottles to be sent to my desert island, please, at the following address . . .
MATT: I can’t think of a more appropriate cue to draw down the curtain on this conversation. Thank you, Quentin.