Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Last Will and Testament of Tillinghast Nebula (Part 1).


It would be one of those years where nobody could imagine what was going to happen next. There was a certain eeriness infusing everything, owing to the conjunction of two events, on the surface unrelated to one-another: the death of the Mars astronaut Gabriel Summers, and the sudden return from obscurity and subsequent death of the glam rock icon Tillinghast Nebula. These events we imagined to be unrelated on any kind of literal level; in a subterranean logic of symbol and coincidence, however, the conjunction was bizarre, and pregnant with troubling resonances. Tillinghast Nebula's first big hit Mission Command (Radio Silence from the American Capsule) was a moon-landing novelty record about a doomed astronaut. In fact, when the Martian mission fell apart, and it first became apparent that Gabriel Summers would be stranded alone on the Red Planet, many people evoked the memory of Mission Command and its powerful depiction of a sympathetic, almost umbilical connection between humanity and the astronaut which they are powerless to save.

The connections went deeper, however, as Tillinghast had always presented himself to some degree as an alien marooned on our planet, as isolated in his own way as Summers' was in the arid desolation and radio silence of Mars. Tillinghast, though he had referenced many cosmic locations, real and imaginary, during his sci-fi glam rock phase, would always be associated primarily with the Red Planet. Then there was the timing of the events. Elor Summers, the venture capitalist and space entrepreneur announced in August that the Mars colonisation project had suffered a series of tragic set-backs, which resulted in the death of fourteen of the colonialists, leaving only his own son Gabriel alive. It was surely around this time that rumours first began to circulate on Noosfeed that Tillinghast Nebula was emerging from nearly a decade of seclusion, putting the finishing touches to a new record that would be released early in the coming year.

All through September and October, the world watched Gabriel Summers, the loneliest man in the solar system, via the video feed from TOTO, the robot rover that followed his every move, beaming back his daily struggles to millions of tablets and phones across the earth. The signal was one way; owing to the disastrous malfunction of Elor Summers' experimental technologies, we could not communicate with Gabriel. We could not tell him how much love we had for him, how ardently we hoped that he would persevere, and find some measure of happiness and reward in his isolated existence on the Red Planet. We could only watch the TOTO feed, hoping perhaps, by the same implicit belief in sympathetic magic which prompts people to cheer at athletes on a television screen, that the global force of our emotional investment and concentration, the perfect synchronisation of our hopes and desires, might somehow travel the vast distance between earth and Mars, another signal bouncing invisibly across the blackness.

How was it that our emotional lives had became so entwined with the fortunes of the lonely astronaut? For years, it seems to me, all our minds had been blurring together, ever since Noosfeed superseded all the previous search engines and social networks, and gradually we spent more and more of our days scrolling through this vast, fragmentary hive mind. Though few of us cared to acknowledge it, we no longer consumed books, magazines, or news in any conventional sense of the term; rather we contributed our share to an endless stream of transitory points of emotional engagement that were always moving downstream, a ceaseless flow of ironic hieroglyphics, Pavlovian arguments, and conspiratorial rumours that moulded our minds, and melded them together until all experience seemed vacuous unless it could be shared on Noosfeed, and our private consciousness felt either valueless, or something precious which we could no longer regain. In this fashion, our minds had ebbed together in a communal retreat from a world which seemed beyond our ability to understand or exert any control over; a world which we all felt intuitively was falling apart and coming undone while we shared our piecemeal, opiated Noosfeed dreams.

It was a natural, then, that our emotional lives, already concretized as a single, amalgamated entity by Noosfeed, could become affixed to that of the lonely astronaut. Feeling subconsciously that society and culture had reached a dead-end spiral on planet earth, we could look to Gabriel Summers as an embodiment of our collective hope that mankind might perhaps succeed elsewhere in the universe. That we could start afresh; that we would not renew the same mistakes, the same interminable tragedies, which had marred our earthly cradle, and sapped our great promise. This was the scale of the burden we placed on the astronaut's shoulders; we had made him an every-man figure whose great ill-fortune and sufferings would be a test by which the whole worth of the species might be judged. Just as our own lives had become increasingly artificial and untethered from tangible reality, Gabriel Summers existed in world of hyper-reality: in the brooding, blasted landscape of the dead planet, and the daily struggle to survive and remain sane, there was no distraction of any kind from the sheer facts of his existence.

We watched him as he worked on the terraformed pavilion which would provide food when his supply of protein pills ran out. We shared his appalling loneliness, the deep troughs of his despair, the moments when he contemplated suicide. Our moods followed precisely after his in their every ebb and flow; you could feel it in the air when Gabriel smiled at TOTO, and faced the chores of his day with courage and equanimity. Market fluctuations, crime and suicide rates, the fashions and sexual currents of big cities, everything on earth became entwined with the distant activities of the lonely astronaut, with subtle nuances in the language of his space-suited body, with rocks and patterns glimpsed in the ochre dust of the dead planet. When Gabriel began to speak of a presence encountered out there in the brooding Martian valleys and desert expanses, even the world's most ardent atheists thrilled privately with the notion of experiencing the emergence of a new religious gnosis, specific to the Martian environment. The night that he told TOTO that Mars was thronged with ghosts, we wondered if his sanity was slipping away again.

In those same days when Gabriel Summers spoke in halting whispers of a host of Martian ghosts, the world was also stirring with the rumoured return of Tillinghast Nebula, the decadent glam rock icon from the Golden Age of Pop. Tillinghast had all but vanished for a decade; no records, no tours, even his sporadic acting career had dried up. Nevertheless, the mystique of the ageing pop star grew if anything more palpable in the years of his absence. The myths of his youth were renewed, and we almost began to believe again that he might really be an alien. Born in the same year as the flying saucer, and finding his first flush of fame in the shadow of the Apollo moon-landing, Nebula would always be identified with the complex web of anxieties and desires surrounding the figure of the extraterrestrial. Early on in his career, he found some happy serendipity in the double-meaning of the word star: the distant luminescences of the night sky, and the new type of humanity created by the mass media. The star in the sky was a vast thing rendered tiny by great gulfs of interstellar space; the star in the media landscape was a relatively insignificant thing (a person like any other) magnified to giant proportions by some alchemy of technology and fantasy.

Just as the journey to the stars had been regarded as an apotheosis in outer space, Tillinghast reasoned that the ascension to the status of an icon in the media age could be an apotheosis of inner space. The surrealists dreamed of collapsing the distinction between the unconscious and the world of everyday reality; the star achieved this by reifying his private fantasies, and making them the communal fantasy of his audience. Tillinghast was particularly obsessed with the archetypal story of a being who descends, either voluntarily or by misadventure, from a higher realm to a lower one. In the lower realm, he is a messianic figure, a teacher, and a subversive disruptor of social mores and conventions. Like all mystically-minded rockers, Tillinghast was particularly enamoured of the figure of Dionysus, the exotic outsider-god who foments an ecstatic, underground gnosis in woodland groves and hidden places, a new mystery cult whose sacraments are irresistible to women, hysterics, and other figures marginalized by the dominant society. In the twentieth century, this fallen god had to be an extraterrestrial; Superman had proved that. So Tillinghast created an image which was androgynous like Dionysus, but also bizarre and otherworldly, like a fashion-spread from some other dimension, normally only accessible via magic mushrooms or psychotic episode. The image was repellent and absurd to the middle-aged gate-keepers of dystopian orthodoxy, but held a instant, talismanic power over the still protean adolescents. 

For Tillinghast, the story of the rock star as alien messiah could only end in one of two ways. In some versions, the alien is destroyed by his own fans, dismembered and consumed as a transubstantiated body, a host or plasmate of some indecipherable future sexuality. In the other version, he is destroyed by his own ego, having become tainted by the lures and deceptions of the lower world. Lost in a stupor of satiation and boredom, he gazes forlornly at the stars he has lost, never to be regained. Working around variations of this basic mythic template, Nebula created a dizzying variety of science fictional personae during the height of his fame: Technical Tilly the Erotic Scientist from the Crab Nebula, Apollo Elsewhere and the Venusian Teddy Boys, the Diamond Android Geisha, and so on. After the glam boom faded, an increasingly cocaine-frazzled Tillinghast went through his “Germanic phase”, a period marked by his obsession with Wilhelm Reich, the “Odic Force” theorized by Baron Carl von Reichenback, Nazi occultism, and the so-called “Berlin school” of experimental electronic music. In a notoriously erratic Melody Maker interview, Nebula declared that the Apollo 11 Lunar Module was “clearly an Orgone Accumulator, part of some Masonic rite.”

In the late 70s, Nebula hired a crack team of Philadelphia soul session musicians to record The Unmoved Mover on the Dance Floor, a concept album that boldly mixed earthy disco grooves with Scholastic metaphysics. On that record, his persona was a mysterious Gatsby-like figure who haunts various discotheques, elegant but aloof, dancing without passion and seemingly enslaved by an elusive memory. Occasionally, he brings revellers back to an LA mansion where sombre cheetahs lounge by the swimming pool, and a sinister valet, stationed in the rest room, spooks revellers by declaiming in a neutral voice: “Welcome to the Villa of Ormen.” When the guests enquire as the whereabouts of the host, he replies: “You've swallowed it.” 

In the 80s, tapping into the new Zeitgeist of conspicuous consumption, Nebula reinvented himself once again as the Thin White Speculator (or the Tycoon Who Sold the World to Off-World Interests). A sinister, bespectacled figure clad in Armani, the Speculator amassed his vast fortune through a series of technologically advanced patents which transformed the world: a 3D Projector Hi-Fi System that rendered the Pop Star obsolete; Aseity, the lucid dreaming aid/anti-depressant drug that replaced film, television, video games, and even politics to a large extent; Impolex R, the new synthetic fabric whose colour changes in tandem with the mood of the wearer, leading to a post-privacy era in which monogamy is obsolete due to the immediate blatancy of sexual arousal. In this anaesthetized new culture inaugurated by the Speculator, everybody wears skin-tight Impolex R onesies, transforming the streets into an impressionistic riot of fluctuating mood-tones; people engage in open sexual encounters in office cubicles and sub-way trains, before retiring to the seclusion of their conapts, where they drift away on ultra-vivid Aseity trips, complex Choose Your Adventure psychodramas aided by New Age music and 3D Hi Fi visualizations.

The Speculator himself continues to wear Armani (on the few occasions where he had worn an Impolex R onesie, it remained stationary in an unearthly shade of deep purple, suggesting the presence of an emotion unknown and utterly indecipherable to other human beings.) He plays the market without passion, and sits at restaurant terraces, watching the sand fall through an hourglass which he carries at all times in his briefcase. Like all Nebula's latter personae, there is an air of abstraction and aloofness, a suggestion of an alien who has completed a fact-finding mission, and now longs to be repatriated back to his homeland. Earth time, however, is much slower, and the memory of his homeland is diminishing, day by day, becoming fragmentary, dreamlike, the subject for a work of art or a tremulous religious faith. At the end of the album, Tillinghast has come full-circle; the Speculator has resolved to become a cosmic glam rock star, in order to shake humanity out of the glazed stupor his off-world technologies have inaugurated, and to provide for himself a mythic record of his homeland which will survive his own forgetfulness.

Of all the personae Nebula adopted, perhaps the most bizarre and uncharacteristic was David Jones, the timid, unfulfilled working class youth he played in his film debut Looking Glass (1975). Written by Nebula in collaboration with its director, the ill-fated Kenneth Anger associate Chris Arlington, Looking Glass was a mediation on the nature of fame and the perennial theme of the doppelgänger. David Jones is the polar opposite of Tillinghast Nebula: a shy and repressed young Londoner who works as a night porter in a slightly seedy East End hotel called the Sheldrake Inn. David was raised by his over-bearing mother Janis (Diana Dors), his father having died in WW2. He has an older brother who has been hospitalized for some unspecified illness, probably schizophrenia, a tragedy which hovers unspoken over David's relationship with Janis.

At the start of the movie, David is twenty-six years old. He has just separated from his wife and young child, for reasons never clearly specified, although Janis harangues him for “not being a bloody man.” Becoming alienated from his boisterous, going nowhere friends, and crippled by shyness towards the opposite sex, David begins to slide into a depression. Suffering from insomnia, he works by night in the hotel, and by day walks the streets aimlessly, brooding over the apparently unending litany of humiliations that his life has become. One day, he wanders on a whim into an antique and curio store. Inside the shop, he pauses to look at his reflection in an art-Deco mirror. The image that greets him, though clearly that of his own face, is a completely different person in every other regard: a glamorous, otherworldly and androgynous figure, with long hair, elaborate make-up, and an expression of self-confidence bordering on mockery.

Alarmed by the apparition in the mirror, which seems to manifest his own latent potentialities and submerged desires, David runs out into the street, and finds himself in a London somehow different from the one he is familiar with. Hair and clothing styles have changed; news-paper headlines adopt a peculiar tone, and the billboards advertise unrecognisable products that appeal to desires more commonly suppressed. Many people stop and stare at David, and soon he realizes why: there are posters everywhere for the androgynous double he saw the mirror, who seems to be some kind of pop-star called Tillinghast Nebula. The attention from the pedestrians becomes more intense, and he hears their whispering voices amplified like the drone of an angry beehive:
“Is that him?”
“It can't be him, he looks normal.”
“It must be him, look at his eyes.”
“The hair is completely different.”
“He must be in disguise.”
“They do that sometimes, to see if they get noticed.”
“ that you?”
“He was a bloody poof on Top of the Tops.”
“It is him.”
“Tilly, over here!”
“Over here, Tilly!

Panicked, David starts running, and a sequence of rapid, jagged cuts suggest a nervous breakdown of some kind. He comes to back in the antique shop, looking at the mirror again, but now his reflection has returned to normal. The proprietor, a tall, elderly gentleman with a kindly, if distracted, expression, addresses him from the counter: “I check the looking glass myself, Sir, from time to time, just to make sure I haven't gone anywhere since the last time I looked! But there I be, always looking back at myself. You'd have to be quick on the draw, Sir, to beat the man in the mirror! It's a queer life for him, though, no? First thing in the morning and last thing at night, grooming and washing and shaving and squeezing spots and scrubbing and looking, Sir, looking very intently, as though either of you knew any better who the other really was. How does he occupy himself in-between times, that's what I wonder. Does he simply sleep all day, in a quiet, empty mirror world? Or does he have his freedom, Sir, while you're not at the mirror, his freedom to wander around in a empty world, all the while perhaps wondering why you get to live in the real world, and he only in the looking glass one? It occurs to me, Sir, that the man in the mirror must resent us bitterly, we who he must imitate in all our private moments, in our vanities and insecurities. It seems to me that sometimes people change, abruptly, without any apparent cause. Well, Sir, might it not be that their reflection found a way to take a hold of them, and swap places? What would a reflection do, I wonder, given autonomy over a real body? I think about these kinds of things, Sir, when the shop is quiet.”

A few years pass. David starts working as a clerk for a legal firm, and marries again, this time to art teacher Sara (Jane Asher). Bored and frustrated by his work, however, he continues to brood over a sense of missed opportunities and life passing him by. “I was meant to do something,” he tries to explain to Sara, “something else, and I was meant to be somebody else, but I missed the boat, somehow.” Sara, meanwhile, growing resentful of his passive, reclusive nature, begins an affair with older PE teacher Reggie (Stanley Baker). 

One day, while David is waiting to cross the street, an immaculate limousine pulls up alongside. The window rolls down, and once again he is presented with his double. The androgyne, looking frailer than before, is clad in a tuxedo, and rests his chin on a cane, cradled in brittle, twitching hands. He is accompanied by two women: an African with sharp cheekbones and large, limpid eyes, and a voluptuous red-head in witchy bohemian rags. The women point at David and laugh, but the androgyne regards him with a peculiar, quizzical expression. The window rolls back up, and the limo drifts out of view.

Over the course of the following weeks, he begins to see the androgyne more frequently. Passing by an art gallery with an all-glass facade, he sees his double holding court, surrounded by Japanese conceptual artists and beautiful, vacuum-eyed pleasure seekers. On another occasion, he chances on the androgyne scurrying with a group of revellers from a taxi to the foyer of a once elegant hotel. This time, he is disguised as a mime, and his entourage a boisterous group of medieval mummers; they sprint into the hotel like nocturnal creatures startled by the daylight. Each time their eyes met, the double regards him with the same puzzling expression: a look not quite of recognition, but more of one grappling with the elusive meaning of some anomalous presentiment like a deja vu. Bizarrely, the locations in which these encounters take place – the art gallery, the hotel, an apartment block – can never be found again, suggesting some kind of fleeting intersection between the real London and a phantasmal reflection of the city, a double like his own, alike and yet subject to an alternate destiny.

David returns to the antique shop where the first apparition of the double took place. “Yes, I remember you, Sir, indeed I do. You were quite taken with a looking glass, Sir, and stared into it for such a long while, as though you were are at the pictures! Where is the mirror now, Sir? Well, it was actually sold not long after the very day you yourself were admiring it, if you can believe that. One of my most esteemed customers, a visitor, Sir, a foreigner with very refined and unusual tastes.”

At this point, David's life is at its lowest ebb. His first wife is happily re-married, and his son, now six, barely recognises him. His own marriage is disintegrating into a nightmare of silence and recrimination. To add to his increasingly tenuous grip on his identity, Janis has started to confuse him with his mentally-ill older brother; “You should be more like your brother David,” she keeps telling him. While his own life falls apart, he becomes increasingly fixated on his double, and the idea that it is the mysterious androgyne who has stolen all the opportunities which should by right have been his. His double gets to live out all his dreams – his fantasies of sexual indulgence and wealth, fame, beauty and brilliance – while he is forced to endure only the grey daylight, the drudgery and disappointment by which such flights of appetite and imagination acquire their full lustre and intensity. He becomes obsessed by the notion that he must kill his double, and destroy the thief, the imposter, who had stolen his destiny.

One morning, David is seated at a bench in Hyde Park, and Tillinghast Nebula joins him, the pair sitting in silence for a moment before Tillinghast speaks:
“I first saw you many years ago, when my career was just taking off. I was on acid and made the terrible mistake of just wandering off down the street without anybody to mind me. People were staring at me, of course, and recognising me, and that felt good at first. But after awhile I started to hear their thoughts, buzzing in my head, and it was driving me crazy. Some of them wanted to fuck me and some of them wanted to be me and some of them wanted to kill me and some of them just wanted the frisson of interacting with a famous person. I had this utterly depressing realization that I was nobody, and the reason they reacted to me in that way had more to do with their own lives – with how some awful Machinery had narrowed the horizons of most people's lives down to such an extent that the celebrity – any celebrity - became a focal point for all their emotions, their fetishes, the commodity dreams that the Machinery had been beaming into their brains since they were children.”

“I had a panic attack, and I think I started running. When I came back to my senses, I'd taken refuge in an antique shop. I wandered over to this mirror, and when I looked in, I saw you, not myself, and yet I knew you were myself. I knew it was real, too, not the acid. So a few days later, I bought the mirror, because I knew it wasn't any ordinary mirror. Among dealers of antiques and rare books, you see, there are sometimes magicians, who hide magical objects among everyday things – cursed books, music boxes that induce somnambulism, puzzle boxes that summon demons, things like that – knowing that certain sensitive people will be drawn to them. That mirror, I eventually learned, was a gateway between worlds. You needed to position it in different places, and eventually you would notice one detail in the reflection that was different, one tiny detail that told you that you were looking into a different world. In time, you developed the capacity to pass through the looking glass, into the other world, taking parts of your world with you. But we had seen each other – that's why our different worlds became intertwined.”

“When you pass through the looking glass, you learn that there are a multitude of different worlds, each of which is essentially the same, but each of which actualizes different possibilities. In each of those worlds, there is a different you, experiencing an alternate destiny. All your dreams, nightmares, strange fugitive memories, sensations of deja vu, are all fragments of the other lives you are living concurrently in different dimensions. Another you endures your worst fears; another enjoys your keenest fantasies. There is a kind of economy, a balance, of destinies and desires, gratuities of fortune and grief, ranging across an infinity of forking paths and permutations. You and I make one-another, you see; I am a creature of your longings and fantasies, and you are a creature of my fears an insecurities. The star and his public. I know you feel that I have taken something from you, but in reality, we only give to one another. We weren't brought together to kill the other, but to take one-another's place.

It transpires that Nebula had been dreaming for years of a perfect escape from the chaotic and insular world he'd created around himself. Having become one of the most recognisable faces on his world, he grew obsessed with the now exotic and unattainable quality of anonymity. To walk down a street without exciting the drama and burden of people's expectations, projections and fantasies was a distant memory, an act of impossible magic like some conjuring trick he once knew but could never re-learn. Everything he'd achieved, in the end, had imprisoned him: consigned him for life to a cloistered world of sycophants and acolytes, mind-numbing and life-threatening indulgences, fame and drugs making his mind into an all-enveloping fishbowl, a mansion with sprawling, maddening corridors, mirrored walls, and no exit.

David returns to his wife, and tells her that he needs to go away for a short while to clear his head. He promises that things will be better when he returns. He visits Janis, joining her on the balcony of her flat. “I'm going away for a little while,” he says. “You'll not go anywhere”, she laughs, “too fragile you are, afraid of everything. You'll not go five metres from the door without needing somebody to hold your hand. You should be more like your brother David, you should.” He had Tillinghast then adjourn to a decrepit, shadowy Kensington town house, and we watch in a long, ingeniously edited sequence as they swap identities, David becoming the glam rock icon, and Tillignhast the shy, melancholy clerk and cuckold.

It's dawn when they've finished, and Tillinghast begins experimenting with the mirror, positioning it in different parts of the room. Finally placing it at a slant on front of the fireplace, his eyes dart rapidly from the reflection back to the room itself. “There we are,” he says finally, “look.” In the mirror, he shows David a narrow tracery of cracks on the reflected ceiling that aren't present on the ceiling above. “Focus on that detail,” he instructs, “look at it very carefully, and then look at your own reflection. If you do it properly you'll start to feel like you're actually in the mirror, not out here. Once that happens, it will be time to go through.” After performing this meditative exercise for some time, David begins to experience the vertiginous sensation of his point of view shifting from outside to inside the mirror; one moment he is looking at the reflection, and the next at Tillinghast and himself as though through a window from the outside. Eventually, he feels as though he has morphed fully into a reflection, a pristine creature of light that only attends upon a physical body. Tillinghast has his arms on his shoulders now, nudging him gently through the looking glass. “It's a little disorientating at first”, he whispers, “but there's only one way to learn how to swim.”

Through the looking glass, David Jones (now Tillinghast Nebula) experienced all his fantasies in a giddy rush, and died shortly thereafter, a glorious rock n' roll suicide. The real Tillinghast Nebula retired into the seclusion and anonymity of David Jones' life, eventually raising a family with Sara and living to old age. As he got older, the memory of his hedonistic adventures as the glam rock icon began to fade, remaining only as fragments of an otherworldly carnival, a free festival which he'd attended only his dreams, his youthful dreams of a golden age when high technology made stars and rockets, and new gospels that were written in radio signals and received by television antennas.

Late in November, the tragedy struck, throwing a pall over the world. Millions were watching the TOTO feed as Gabriel drove the Mars Buggy at a brisk clip along the edge of a very steep, rocky slope, faithful TOTO hurtling after him. Many people subsequently claimed that they felt a palpable tension, even before Gabriel parked the Mars Buggy, but I suspect that this was only with the benefit of hindsight. Why did the lonely astronaut stop the Buggy, and start clambering up the slope? We will never know. The most common theory is that he saw a metallic object glinting up there, and went to explore. Others have argued that the flickering light source on the slope is merely a camera artefact. Whatever the explanation, his behaviour becomes peculiarly rash. TOTO cranes his head upward, and we watch Gabriel clambering almost frantically up the cliff-face. He pauses from time to time to look back, and we can only read our own interpretations into the expression of the tiny, pixillated face in the space helmet. 

Then everything falls apart. A foothold crumbles beneath his feet, and Gabriel is tumbling back down in a hail of dust and stones, his arms failing and clutching the air. The millions watch, frozen, hapless. They are telling themselves that Gabriel will be okay, that he will pick himself off the ground and make some self-deprecating joke. When he is about half way down, however, we hear a sickening crack; his space helmet has struck a boulder. We hear those fast, heavy breaths; those dying breaths that filled the world, and haunt it ever after. Now he is on the ground, crawling towards the Buggy, a desperate bid to get to the spare breathing apparatus. He gets so close to salvation, so close it is almost a miracle. TOTO observes the struggle with a detachment that seems preternatural. Gabriel reaches the Buggy, but by then it is all over. He slumps against the vehicle, positioning himself so that his body, arms outstretched like a saviour, faces TOTO, and the eyes of the world. TOTO, following his programme to keep Gabriel in his sights at all times, has not moved since. Nobody wants to look, but nobody can turn their eyes away. We tuned in on a nightly basis, charting the rapid decay of our idol, the symbol of our hope. The scene was one of utter stillness, interrupted only now and then by older Martian rovers that sauntered eerily by, carrying out the functions of obsolete reconnaissance missions, programmes they would follow until their circuitry finally burns itself out. In that vast, lonely backdrop, we watched Gabriel's beautiful face become shrunken and discoloured.

One day, we tuned in, and the transformation was complete: only the skull remained inside the space helmet. The image was complete now, like a painting or a religious icon, which conjoined in the one crumpled figure the dream of the stars and end of all dreaming flesh. 

Continued shortly.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Michael Mann's Heat (1995).

To mark the 20th Anniversary of Heat, a re-posting of an essay I wrote back in 2009, originally here.)

Part 1: Both Sides of the Law.

While he was directing his debut Thief, and later producing Miami Vice and Crime Story for television, Michael Mann conducted on-going and in-depth research into the private and professional lives of law enforcement officers and criminals. As he put it himself: "I like to move through a subculture until I feel the colors and patterns and tones and rhythms of the lives of the people and place." Mann's hands on approach brought experienced operators from both sides of the law into the acting fold: Dennis Farina and John Santucci both had small parts in Thief, and larger roles in Crime Story. Farina had been a Chicago cop for eighteen years, and Santucci a skilled jewel thief. It was within this extended fraternization with the law's enforcers and truants that Mann discovered the genesis for Heat. Chuck Adamson, another veteran police officer, was an old friend of Mann whose experiences on the beat formed much of the template for Crime Story. During the sixties, Adamson had shared a coffee with a thief named McCauley; the pair enjoyed one another's company, despite an acute awareness that an encounter under different circumstances could prove fatal for one of the two men. Later on in '63, Adamson was called to the scene of an armed robbery, and shot McCauley six times.

This simple enough anecdote, an insight into the shades of grey that inevitably inhere into even the most adversarial relationships, seemed to haunt Mann, and gradually developed in his mind into what is for many people the quintessential Mann narrative: the story of two lonely, driven men who occupy opposing sides of the law, and who, despite extraordinary differences of character and temperament, recognise in one another both a mutual dependence and an essential similitude. Contrary to the interpretation of Heat frequently espoused by the critic David Thompson, the purpose of this dynamic was by no means to suggest an moral equivalence between the two characters, or even to suggest that they are particularly alike in most respects. Rather, as Mann said himself: "I heard that the detective had some kind of rapport with McCauley, and that was the kernel of the movie. It would be trite to say that they were the flip side of the same coin. McCauley and Hanna share a singularity of intelligence and drivennes, but everything else about their lives is different." Heat was thus about a rapport, an empathy, and a respect between two adversaries, predicated on a shared, perhaps emotionally debilitating commitment to their perspective vocations.

Again, as with Frank in Thief, we can read these characters in variety of ways. They share with Frank the same contradictory mixture of intense self-affirmation and self-abnegation and defeat. We can read them as expressions of the perennial American myth of rugged masculine individualism, transposed onto the complex, impersonal urban architecture of the postmodern world. We can see them as cops and robbers proxies for the experience of the artistic vocation, in a manner which explores the inherent alienation of artists and others who possess a particularly intense absorption in their work, and the close proximity of this absorption to forms of obsessive compulsion and autism. Mann has referred to McCauley as a "highly-organized sociopath", and Hanna as "extremely dysfunctional". Their relationship in Heat is a battle of prowess, a cat and mouse game, and, as Sergio Leone described Once Upon a Time in the West, a long and stately "dance of death."

Mann is known for working slowly and spending a long time in research, but of all his projects, Heat probably had the longest period of gestation. Some form of the script seems to have existed since 1986. In 1989, Mann shot a compressed version of the script in two weeks as the low budget television movie L.A. Takedown; it was a proposed pilot for an NBC series which never materialised. (I can never bring myself to watch L.A. Takedown, since it has been so thoroughly bettered by its later incarnation. The Al Pacino role is played by an actor called Scott Plank, who apparently gives a pretty decent performance, despite possessing the most unfortunate surname imaginable for a thespian.) The precise details of how the script evolved are unknown to me, but by the time it reached the big screen in 1995, Heat had blossomed into arguably Mann's most complex, ambitious, and nuanced script. Working within an elegantly precise three-act structure, Mann had branched out around his two central protagonists, weaving a complex tapestry of secondary characters and domestic sub-plots. He had done a stunning job of fleshing out close to twenty characters, and turning the typical prioritization of genre cinema towards plot mechanics and action on its head. In Mann's script, the characterization, the interaction of the secondary characters, and the languorous, contemplative moments, were as crucial as the action set-pieces, and the final film attains an extraordinary fluidity in the way it moves between alternately romantic, melancholy, and kinetically violent registers.

In its journey from NBC to Hollywood, Heat had also acquired an immense ensemble cast, and orchestrated an unprecedented casting coup: the first together on-screen pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The significance of this was two-fold. For movie lovers, De Niro and Pacino were emblematic, iconic figures of the extraordinary creativity and artistic integrity which had characterised the New Hollywood movement of the seventies. American cinema experienced something truly remarkable in that decade, which each successive generation has only served to render more unprecedented, and more worthy of our rueful nostalgia. Establishing themselves in roughly the same years as Nicholson, Hackman, Hoffman, Beatty, and Warren Oates, De Niro and Pacino had nevetheless carved out the greatest niche in the mythos of naturalistic American movie actors since Brando created the template in the fifties.

Pacino was a lean, slight, cherub-faced kid with an air of street-savvy; back then, he was as comfortable with composure and austerity (The Godfather Part 2) as he was with demonstrative physicality (Dog Day Afternoon). De Niro was harder to pin down. In his early years he appeared as a blank slate whose only common denominator was a certain air of purpose and drivenness in performance. He could do a kind of weedy klutziness very well, and also a quality of power, of suppressed ferocity, with an equal faculty. He combined these contradictory qualities as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, in what remains his most shattering performance. As the seventies passed into the eighties, he had gathered about himself a fearsome legend of obsessive dedication, of physical plasticity and protean disappearance into character. His stock-in-trade, as with the young Brando, became playing volatile, insecure, inarticulate men.

Also, as De Niro and Pacino possessed a special resonance to American cinema in its last truly robust and artistically rigorous period, they had also developed a mythic stature within the crime genre. A fresh-faced Pacino had played a hipster cop fresh out of the academy in Serpico (1973), and laterly the more wizened, world-weary variety in Sea of Love (1989). On the other side of the law, he had played Brian de Palma's cartoonish Cuban ubermench Tony Montana in Scarface, and his older, more contemplative and soulful Hispanic cousin in the same director's Carlito's Way. De Niro, unlike the majority of major American movie stars, tended to steer towards flawed, if not pungently unpleasant characters, and thus spent most of his time on the wrong side of the law. In the seventies, his star took flight as the small-time hoodlum and eternal hustler Johnny Boy in Mean Streets; he played a virile, brill-creamed Vito Corleone for Coppola, a paunchy, petulant Al Capone for de Palma, and also took the lead in Scorsese's nineties crime epics Goodfellas and Casino.

For these reasons, it was particularly apt that these two actors should embody Mann's battle of prowess between two aging, obsessive, and preeminent professionals. It added a charge to the eventual encounter in the diner which had a rich resonance outside the drama of the movie. As their characters circle around one throughout Heat, De Niro and Pacino had hovered about one another for years, both in terms of professional stature, and iconic roles in American cops and robbers movies. The eighties and the nineties were to a large degree a twilight of the idols for the seventies auteurs. When De Niro and Pacino made Heat, their titanic stature was still more or less intact, but both, also, were on the slide: Pacino into exaggerated self-parody, and De Niro into a perhaps more lamentable condition of sheer disinterest. The sly sparring and defiant expressions of dedication to vocation expressed in the diner scene are thus both "a mythic moment", as David Denby asserted, and a sad reminder of the many years yet to come between these great actors and the height of their prowess.

Part 2: Emotion and Detachment.

The Opening.

One the main pleasures of repeated viewings of Heat is the discovery of a variety of smaller, unobtrusive moments throughout the movie which possess a significance or beauty which was not apparent in an initial viewing. The movie's opening thirty seconds are a good case in point. On the face of it, there's very little to write home about. Eliot Goldenthal's haunting, ambient score wafts in very quietly over the studio title. We see a static shot of an incoming train moving slowly through a smoggy landscape of smoke, neon, and steel. (This is, of course, the same rail system which would provide Tom Cruise with his metaphor for the disconnectedness of LA life in Collateral, and later the scene of his own demise.) Over a black background, the movie's cool, minimalist title card shimmers into view. We are then introduced to DeNiro's character Neil as he alights from the train, both in a long and close shot.

It doesn't seem like much at all, but in actuality this short passage, by a mixture of composition, design, and scoring, establishes the whole tone of the movie, which might be best described as a mood of precision and detachment, with a deep undercurrent of melancholy and longing playing at its lower frequencies. Instrumental in achieving this effect is Goldenthal's theme: it is a perfect aural expression of a subtle, but no less intense longing for emotional spontaneity and connection in a landscape which is cold, metallic, and geometrically precise.

The physical landscape in which Heat takes place is Los Angeles, which Mann and his cinematographer Dante Spinotti evoke with an otherworldly, almost sci-fi ambience recalling Blade Runner. According to Empire's Ian Nathan, “this is an urban milieu almost space-age in its abstract beauty, but emotionally desolate, a blank canvass against which the dispossessed act out their desperate dreams. Nothing anchors people – all the houses are stunningly angular, magnificent architectural vacuums free of personality.” Jean-Baptiste Therot provides a brilliant description of Mann's mise en scene in his essay The Aquarium Syndrome, which is worth quoting at length:
“Today, Mann is one of those rare filmmakers whose films succeed in delivering a vision of modern, urban America: those impersonal places, the freeways, suburbs, uninterrupted traffic, the America that Baudrillard calls magnificent and sidereal. This is a world of railway yards, neon signs that flicker night and day, a world that seems resigned to the omnipresence of glass and concrete. Mann renews from film to film, with a rare obstinacy, this cold, blue, geometric aesthetic, although it is sometimes broken up by an unusual graininess, or lack of order that creeps into the system. Predominant here is the transformation of spaces into “no-places”: hospitals, hotel rooms, roadside cafes, vacant lots, airports, warehouses, empty apartments, are all subject to a sort of hyper-geometrization of the frame, inherited from the Don Siegel of The Killers (1964) and Dirty Harry (1972), and the formal experiments of Antonioni in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970).”

Case Study House 22, Los Angeles, 1960, photograhed by Julius Shulman.

To Therot's astute allusions to Baudrillard and Antonioni, you could also add the cold modernist sheen of J.G. Ballard's dystopian novels. With Antonioni and Ballard, Mann shares a deep-rooted attraction/repulsion towards the reflective surfaces and straight lines of contemporary urban architecture; with Baudrillard, a fascination with the contradictory qualities of artificiality and hyperrealism. (Mann's repeated foregrounding of transitory places and channels of conveyance, such as hospitals, hotels, warehouses, etc, reaches a greater extreme in Miami Vice, and is echoed in Olivier Assaya's criminally underrated Boarding Gate (2007), a film I would recommend for enthusiasts of Mann's films.) Later in The Aquarium Syndrome, Therot asks What kind of people live in these places? The answer provided by Heat's intro is Neil McCauley, and again after repeated viewing you begin to realize how much of Neil's character is already sketched out with remarkable economy in the opening.

Alighting from the train, DeNiro's body language expresses the essentials of McCauley's character. We see a figure that is polished, precise, methodical, and interior; a perfectly austere master criminal in the mould of Jean Pierre Melville. (Later we learn that the extent of his spartan fastidiousness; his minimalist apartment is barely furnished.) In this regard, McCauley seems perfectly attuned to the steely, impersonal terrain in which he moves; however, his expression in close-up, accentuated by the soundtrack, suggests a degree of weariness and sorrow. McCauley later describes himself as “alone, but not lonely”, a description which seems, in the light of his courtship of Eady, only partially true. In the course of the movie, Hanna is forced to acknowledge that he cannot lead a meaningful life outside of his work. McCauley, on the other hand, has reached a point where persistent vigilance and personal vocation are no longer meaningful; like Jeff in Melville's Le Samouri, and Cruise's similar assassin in Collateral, he has the air of a weary ghost in the shell.

Before leaving the intro, it is worth considering briefly the title itself: heat. Heat refers most explicitly to law enforcement, to the perennial threat around the corner in McCauley's oft quoted credo. But the word also evokes passion, heightened emotion, and the complications of the emotional life; things which, in Mann's noir-tinted world, almost invariably prove as fatal as bullets. Much of Heat's time is given over to the difficulty of maintaining relationships, or, in McCauley's case, the difficulty of being without one. As Mann puts it, once McCauley encounters Eady, he is “out there with the rest of us, in the realm where emotions become complex and motivation isn't simple.” The empathy between McCauley and Hanna is in part derived from the fact that they have both avoided the messy complications of emotional commitment throughout their lives, McCauley by way of spartan discipline, and Hanna by bulldozing his way through three marriages. Between themselves, they occupy a purely masculine order which eschews emotional complexity and vulnerability, but is nevertheless a cold world, characterised by conflict, fatalism, and dead bodies.


Anna Dzenis has called Heat an “epic crime film about two tribes and three couples.” Throughout its duration, Heat explores both the similarities, and conflicting demands, between membership of tribal and familial units. McCauley, for example, shows an interest in tight, cohesive family units when talking to Eady, and exercises a patriarchal role within his crew, being particularly paternal towards Chris (Val Kilmer). Hanna, on the other hand, succeeds in saving his step-daughter from an attempted suicide attempt. It is characteristic of him, however, that his proficiency is in precisely this kind of life-threatening crisis situation, the kind he encounters in work, but not in the everyday domestic activities of fatherhood. His allegiance is tribal, and orientated towards hunting, and the rest, as Diane Verona observes, “is the mess you leave behind as you pass through.”

In so far as Mann conceived Heat as a drama rather than a genre piece, its most dramatically significant moments are those in which the characters make choices. Some of the choices made in Heat are long meditated over, and clearly signposted as significant moments; others are brisk, spur of the moment, and not immediately resonant in a first viewing. In the first category, you think immediately of Hanna's decision, effectively the end of his third marriage, to answer the call in the hospital, or the split second pause later on when McCauley looks from Eady to Hanna coming around the corner. (This is the most mythically heightened moment in Heat, when McCauley looks in stunned disbelief at what had been an abstract code become a reality in every detail.) McCauley's real undoing occurs earlier, however, with a different choice. Driving away from the heist scot-free, he is informed by Nate that Waingro is still alive. According to Mann, this is the point where the action moves from probability to determinism. McCauley has his dream within his grasp, but also the opportunity to settle everything neatly, to avenge his crew. The car lurches under a tunnel, and for a split second the whole screen is bathed in a bluish white incandescence. He turns back. (The lighting effect was apparently accidental, but edited brilliantly to capture the lightening speed with which McCauley seals his fate.)

It is also worth noting the choices of some of the secondary characters. The storyline involving driver Donald Breeden (Dennis Haysbert) has significantly less screen time than most of the other characters, but it is movingly evoked and acted. Breeden's relationship, along with McCauley's, is one of the few in the movie which isn't deteriorating, and you really feel for his attempts to build a modest, stable existence away from criminality. Later on, McCauley appears unexpectedly at the diner where he works, and offers him a quick escape from the petty frustrations and small, incremental victories of the “normal-type” life. Once again, a lightning fast decision is made, and a few hours later, Breeden is dead.

One of my very favourite of Heat's smaller, more intimate moments is the last scene between Chris (Val Kilmer) and Charlene (Ashley Judd). At this point, their relationship seems all but over, and Charlene has been put in a position where betraying Chris to the police is an almost unavoidable moral imperative. When the moment comes, however, she finds to her own surprise that she cannot betray whatever tie remains between them. She makes a very slight gesture with her hand to indicate the trap. Kilmer's initial expression of exhilarated happiness becomes clouded and dazed, and without fully seeming to register what has has happened, he becomes, like so many other Mann protagonists, a solitary figure disappearing forever into the far distance. The scene is wonderfully played; the ability of Charlene to communicate something so succinctly with a gesture, and of Chris to respond so quickly and instinctively, tells you everything you need to know about the world they inhabit. It is also the sweetest, most hopeful moment in Heat's otherwise leaden atmosphere of steadily encroaching doom. Heat is often interpreted as a story of men who eschew emotional commitment to women in favour of masculine camaraderie, and games of skill and prowess which ultimately prove fatal and destructive to all connected with them. However, Chris' assertion “For me, the sun rises and sets with her” is a counter-argument, a rejection, of McCauley's credo of non-attachment: “Do not have anything in your life that you are not prepared to walk away from in thirty seconds flat, if you feel the heat around the corner.” In the end, it seems justified since theirs is the only relationship with any potential “future” after the end of the movie. (Of course, whether they do have a future together or not is rendered academic by the strange magic of cinematic closure. I love the scene precisely because this wordless, ambiguous exchange is the end of their story.)


Heat is awash with death and a sense of pathos from the very start. It is as if the end is already enacted at the beginning, and the characters are like ghosts that walk through this dream world.”
Anna Dzenis.

One of the things I admire most about Heat, and about Mann's work in general, is its particular sensitivity to mood and tone; its ability to create, by a combination of scoring, mise en scene, dialogue and performance, a very specific filmic world or universe. Anna Dzenis comments on this quality with relation to Heat:Heat is more than just a crime story. It is a dreamscape – a poetically rendered world.” This remains the most intriguing paradox about Mann's films – the obsession with realism, verisimilitude, and research, as against the sense, particularly in his crime films, that one is in, as Dzenis puts it, “a poetically rendered world.” This is particularly evident in Diane Verona's speech in Heat: “You don't live with me. You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus. You read the terrain. You search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're really committed to. The rest is the mess you leave behind as you pass through.” There is little attempt to capture the cadence of actual speech here; rather, the effect is poetic, and almost akin a piece of musical score, in way it contributes to/articulates the tone and mood of the film.

As much as Heat draws from real events, and specific, concrete things which Mann encountered in research, the movie is also a carefully modulated tone poem, an exploration of the perennial male anxiety with regard to emotional commitment; a noir world in which the heat around the corner is always complex, difficult emotions, and the real danger is perhaps derived from the unavoidable necessity to open one's self up, to become vulnerable, to acquire something in life that you cannot abandon, no matter what the consequences. Thematically and tonally, Heat moves between opposing poles of emotion and detachment, as all of Mann's major characters seem caught between the alternate pull of heat (passion, connection, life-force) and coldness (sterility, conflict, detachment, the dead bodies that haunt Hanna's dreams).

This dichotomy cuts through the whole of Heat; it is evident in the movie's tendency to view landscape from a wide, abstract vantage, and human faces and bodies in extreme, intimate close-up; in Mann's attitude towards his characters, which is at once one of complete emotional engagement, and cerebral detachment. Heat's conclusion, heavily redolent in its action of the similar airport chase that concludes Peter Yates's Bullitt, is no exception. McCauley and Hanna, both unable to attain the more rewarding existence offered by their domestic attachments, are finally drawn to their inevitable duel, to the testing of the principals each expressed earlier in the cafe scene. More than this, they are reabsorbed into the movie's steely, geometric terrain, McCauley back into the landscape from which he emerged at the beginning of the film. As foreshadowed in Diane Verona's speech, he is betrayed by a shadow cast by floodlights, a trace or a “sign of passing” rather than his own person. It is an overwhelmingly hollow victory for Hanna; for him, as for McCauley's crew, the “action is the juice”, the end an abstraction that facilitates the thrill of the chase. As J.A. Lindstrom points out in a fine essay Heat: Work and Genre, the ending of Heat leaves the quintessential Mann dichotomy between work and domesticity without any hope of resolution:

“The film's resolution offers us the grim notion that work requires abandoning those we care about; and then it will probably kill us. Choosing not to sacrifice home life will not, however, insulate a relationship from harm. Thus the accommodation to the status quo that the genre film normally offers to its audience is a bitter pill in Heat: work rules fatally, and proclaiming the importance of our personal lives will not rescue us from professional demands.”

If Heat refuses its audience a neat resolution to its thematic concerns, however, it attains near perfection in terms of aesthetic resolution. The final shot, echoing the first, is wide, equisitely composed shot of Hanna holding Vincent's hand, tempering the potential melodrama of the moment by viewing them from behind, in a pictorial, almost impersonal framing. The brilliant inclusion of Moby's God Moving Over the Face of the Waters feels like a final release of all the emotion that had been pent-up and submerged beneath Heat's polished and precise exterior; as an ending it is both melancholy and strangely exhilarating, such is its fine balance between emotive outpouring and abstract formal precision.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Infomercials of the Uncanny: Time-Life's "Mysteries of the Unknown."

"Mysteries of the Unknown" was a highly successful series of books dealing with paranormal subjects which Time-Life Books published from 1987 to 1991.  The format and presentation was similar to previous paranormal periodicals published in Britain in the 70s and early 80s, such as the legendary Man, Myth and Magic and the Unexplained magazine:

This irresistible 1988 commercial for the series captures the surreal joy of yesterday's mass market esotericism:

This other spot is less memorable, and probably only notable for an early Julianne Moore appearance: 

Mysteries of the Unknown from ODDS AND THENS
The Unexplained from THE TEAROOM OF DESPAIR.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Bird Out of Space and Time (Part 7).

He had watched me silently from the rocking chair and then moved with imperceptible briskness to my shoulder, like the spider that suddenly bolts into motion when his hapless prey has snared itself in the web. Nevertheless, I was indeed trapped. He'd priced the Pusey book at a fraction of its market value, so that even if I derived no pleasure from owning it, it would at least stave off my imminent poverty for close to a month when things got bad. I nodded ascent, trying not to betray too much enthusiasm. He smiled, took the book curtly out of my hand, and strode to the counter, the motion of his long, rigid joints having the character of a kick-started arthritic machinery. Seating himself, he glanced at the cover for the first time.

“Ah, this is an interesting one, yes. I haven't read it now, but the, ah, circumstances surrounding it, very interesting....”

I was starting to worry that the buffoon was wise to the book's real value.

“The mysterious circumstances surrounding the book, are you aware of them?”

I shook my head.

“Oh, extremely unusual. The author vanished, you know, off the face of the earth. He was never seen again. And the manuscript of this very book was found among his final possessions. Did you know that?”

“I didn't.”

“Yes, he had a tiny garret flat in a rather squalid lodging house. And all they found there were some books on heraldry, a hoard of peculiar trinkets and curios, and the manuscript of this book. But no Mr. Pusey, alas. So you could say that this book was his last will and testament, if you like! All his worldly goods, so speak, bequeathed to the world, or all them that might have care to read it. And there were apparently great rumours and a great intrigue surrounding the disappearance of this - ” he paused to consult the book cover “ - this Mr. Pusey. It was speculated that he'd discovered some kind of portal or door, though which he departed from all the privations and imperfections of this world, to some supernal realm outside of space and time. Not only that, mind you, but certain aficionados claim that he'd divulged the secret of finding that portal in the manuscript, albeit in the form of a code or series of riddles, such that only the most diligent and attentive reader might discover it.”

Although I hadn't intended to betray any knowledge on the subject, the dealer had snared me again.

“That's nonsense. Pusey was a failure from an industrious, well-to-do family, living in obscurity and poverty. He didn't discover any magic door – more likely he took his own life, probably dived into some lonely stretch of the Thames, and the body just never found.”

The antique dealer's face brightened, as though he had been waiting to have this discussion for some time. He had a tendency to discuss morbid subjects with a disconcerting buoyancy and giddiness, as though his mind were a dying hearth, fed by the kindling of a particular type of metaphysical horror.

“Well, now, that might be the case. Indeed, that may well be the truth of it, in the end. Isn't it possible, though, that what you're saying, and what I'm saying, might both be true? Might, in fact, essentially be the same thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, sir, the taking of one's life might in a sense be regarded as a kind of passing through a door out of time and space, might it not? And, as to the second part of the rumour, supposing that this Mr. Pusey discovered something in the course of his researches – some awful fact, if you will, about the fundamental nature of reality, the knowledge of which drove him to self-annihilation. Well, might it not be this awful fact which Pusey had coded into his book, such that the diligent reader would also discover that fact, and thus be likewise driven to self-annihilation?”

“Your idea is based on an absurd premise.”

“Which is that now, sir?”

“That there is any fact so universally appalling that anybody and everybody who learns it would immediately be driven to suicide.”

“I think that premise is defensible, sir.”

“Certainly not. The world, and the series of facts that constitute the world, affect people in a variety of different ways, according the disposition and history of the individual in question. There is no joke that everybody will find hilarious, no sunset everybody will find breath-taking, and certainly no fact so unfathomably bleak that it would render the mortal existence untenable to all who are made privy to it.”

“Well, now, you make a good point there, indeed, a good argument! But I've given some thought to this, you see. This old shop is rather quiet now, and I have lots of time to think while the old clocks tick tock. I have to entertain myself, you see, because nobody would ever play a radio in an antique shop. Have you ever heard the radio playing in an antique shop? No, it’s an unwritten rule of the profession that our premises must be as silent and sombre as a mortuary, as though the old items were laid out to their final rest, so to speak. So I've nothing to listen to most days, except the old clocks tick tock and my own thoughts, such as they are, and to pass long stretches I've often given my thoughts over to somewhat abstruse philosophical questions, such as the very one under current consideration: is it possible that there could be some fact or discovery pertaining the nature of ultimate reality, so utterly dreadful in its ramifications, that it would drive all men who learned it to certain self-annihilation? And, indeed, the first objection I've considered to the existence of such a fact is the very point you raise: the variability of human disposition and taste, such that some will enjoy getting stung by a nettle, or the taste of Brussels sprouts, against the better judgement of the majority.”

“However, consider this: the more something pertains to the ultimate core of reality, the greater the degree of homogeneity we encounter in the human response to it. Certainly, people can have this or that response to a book, a film, politician, dessert, or a new humanitarian cause. But these things, I would say, do not pertain to ultimate reality; they are the grit and the castles we have built in our little sandbox of language and culture to hide from ultimate reality. We can afford a variability of response to these things, because they are, in the end, matters of aesthetic taste and rhetorical plumage – negotiable shapes which we can mould and re-make in the grit and the sand. But the closer something comes to essential reality, I say, the less variable our response to it. Consider aging and death – yes, some put on a braver face than others, and some will eke from the manifold indignities of the corporeal process a certain kind of poetic grandeur, or gallows wit if that fails, but most of us, I think, are uniform in our response to aging and death. Think you of the palaver of a Sartre or Heidegger, and how a group of young men might while away hours in furious disagreement as to the virtue of one brand of philosophical cant as against another. But only saunter by a voluptuous and desirable woman, and the differences between those young men wash away in the undulant tide of her flesh.”

“But these things – desire, aging, and death – are only manifestations, minor quirks, if you will, of ultimate reality. They universalize us to the degree that we cannot quite avoid them, or neutralize their power over us with the shapes we mould in the sandbox. Our bodies are, I would say, little pieces of the grammar of ultimate reality, slotting together and parting away by punctuation and ellipsis, so as they must according to rules which ultimately elude us. But if our responses became more homogeneous by virtue of this grammar alone, how much then the same person would we all become, were we put face to face with the speaker of that grammar, the source of all our pains and pleasures, and the immensities through which their echoes weave and vanish, like peddles cast to a bottomless well?”

Although I had no greater desire at this point than to extricate myself from the company of this garrulous and disagreeable codger, I had to concede a certain rhetorical flair to his peculiarly elaborate patter.

“Now you can probably tell, sir, that I’m no scholar. I only had as much schooling when I was young as kept me out of the way until I was able to start earning. But I’ve always had my curiosity about the nature of things. Well, not quite always. In hindsight, I think that curiosity came over me only after a specific experience I had when was about twenty-seven odd. A peculiar experience I had, sir, with a certain tree. I was still living at home then, up on one those narrow housing estates that are all cobbled together on St. Michael’s Terrace, near the gasworks. But I worked in the old Hobbs Lane brewery on the quays then, before that fire that some said was started by “Dozy” Davy and the “Michelin Man” gutted the place in ’84. And every evening I walked back to the Terrace down Percy Road. Do you know Percy Road? A narrow street, very old, grand houses, very wealthy. Well, not awful wealthy, but affluent, if you know what I mean.”

“Right as you come on to Percy Road there are two bars on the corner of the t-junction, and every evening their terraces were full of young men in suits and well-dressed women. I was a little envious, I suppose, of people that had jobs you'd dress up for, and the leisure and purse to be enjoying a drink on the evening of a school night. But there was also this tree, on the left side of Percy Road, which always commanded my attention in some peculiar way. I couldn't tell you what kind of tree it was, to be honest, only that it was very tall, planted right on the edge of the footpath, and leaning in a slant towards the higher storeys of the houses.”

“What it was about this particular tree that was so arresting I cannot adequately define. Trees are in general an incongruous sight on a city street, if you give some thought to it. The natural and built environments, many have argued, reflect two fundamentally different orders of being, the natural world being characterized by a fecund, irregular complexity, and the built environment, in contrast, by a tendency towards geometric simplicity of form. So a tree in the midst of a city street represents, I would say, the juxtaposition of two different orders of material existence, in the same way that a traffic light planted in the midst of wild meadowland would strike us as peculiar.”

“But this one, I think, felt particularly out of place, as though it had stood in splendid natural isolation, and the city, with all its concrete and stone and bustle, had simply encircled it to its very roots, but never vanquished it, nor altered its essential connection to the soil and the primordial earth. As though – and I know this to be only my fancy – Percy Road and the city were simply an event which had grown up and would pass away while the tree remained, magnificent, unperturbed, and indifferent.”

“One day, these vague intimations which I felt in relation to the Percy Road tree cohered to form what I would call an epiphany. It was an evening in May, and the first sunshine of a dour, gloomy year, with everything giddy and astir and rushing back into bloom. But I was in a mood that day such that the buoyancy of the weather only made me feel more aggrieved with my lot in this world. My troubles then were typical of young men, I suppose – the feeling, as it were, that the world were something I could see, but never quite enter fully into. Well, I was sore oppressed that day, and the envy I felt towards the carefree and fortunate revellers at the terraces all the greater, the more undignified. But then I took in the full picture, so to speak: the intersection of the two streets, the happy folk milling about at either side, and in the middle, curving a little to the left, the great tree. And in an instant, I had the most peculiar presentiment that the tree was the only thing in the picture that was actually real. It felt as though everything else – the houses, cars, people – were an illusion, an insubstantial image projected over the true world, and the tree alone, like a sore thumb, belonged to the underlying, solid reality.”

Well, this presentiment put me in such a funk that I stopped in my tracks, and tried to figure out the source of such an impression. And it downed on me slowly that it had something to do with time – with how the human world, because of its awareness of time, was defined by and rooted in the temporal, in a way which the natural world was not. The movement and speech of the revellers appeared suddenly exaggerated and comical to me, as though speeded up. They – we – lived in an instant, and the awareness of that goes through us all like electricity, making us dance skittishly about, and perform such a febrile, frantic pantomime, as though it were actually real, and not simply such roles as children adopt in a game before rain or dinner calls them back inside. Even the houses, I thought, some a hundred or more years old, betrayed that uniquely human awareness of time, the energetic panic of it, followed by its exhausted pathos and humiliation.”

“Now, the tree, in contrast, appeared to me to partake in some fashion of the eternal rather than the temporal. Though it too had grown and would decay, it did so without panic or compulsion, without motion or discontent – its immobility and unperturbed mode of being perfectly attuned to the undifferentiated purity of the eternal, and the slight stirring of its boughs in the breeze like the lazy respirations of some god marking whole ages of human time in their falling away. It was a strange sensation that I felt in those few moments, and perhaps a little eerie and frightening, but it took me out of my present discontents, out of the whole stream of my identity in fact, while the May sun beat down on the junction.”

“Such things, of course, are fleeting, but the notion that the world which I took for granted might in some sense be unreal or illusory stayed with me. I come, as I said, from the Terrace, and such notions are not given much credence there. Over the years, I would occasionally have experiences similar to that engendered by the Percy Road tree – certain places, particularly near parks or bodies of water, certain conjurations of light, ivy-covered redbrick buildings, discovered streets or estates that give you the feeling you are no longer in your own familiar city – those things instilled in me a peculiar contemplative trance, where I began to have memories that belonged to strangers, intimations of the whole stream of separate identities, like diving into other minds for an instant, such that I occasionally felt as though I were not myself at all but everybody who would ever exist, and a great pall of dread and loneliness and nothingness with that realization, as though I lay beneath a thousand tombs, nourishing the soil of a thousand acres that would be visited only by the hollow reed of my own ghost, stirring the grasses and the foliage to a deeper gradation of the silence. And I thought for many years, sir, that it was some foible or malady of my brain that put these thoughts into my head, and I fretted about this in silence.”

“Years later, when my brother Morris and I were running this shop, I started to read books of philosophy, and I learned that the notion that everyday reality was an illusion – far from being an anomaly cooked up by some curdling of my brain matter – was in fact almost a commonplace among the learned, such that it seemed as though everyone who had ever given serious consideration to the nature of reality had arrived at some variation of the basic thesis that it was a counterfeit or mirage. Look to yon Hindoo sage of the antique Indies – he long ago proclaimed all things fair and foul but a veil of fantasy, and by thus reasoning does he display feats of contorted posture as could only be attained by regarding all cramps and palsies as afflict the body as but the minor threads of a tapestry of universal falsehood. Look to yon Plato, who saw all things as the etiolated shadows cast off by Perfect Forms, such that our world be like a ravaged face whose former beauty might yet be dimly read between the lines and creases. Or yon Parmenides, who reasoned that there was in fact but one single existing thing, such that anybody who counted more on his fingers had fallen into gross error. Or the Holy Roman Church, for whom this life and this world is but a paltry and backward hinterland to the Kingdom of God and the Life Eternal in the Hereafter. Did not Kant argue that we know things only such as our sensations make them appear to us, and what they are in actuality must remain forever a veritable mystery? Just so had Paul saith unto the Corinthians, that we see things here as through a glass darkly. Even today’s priestly caste, yon scientist, who prides himself as the supreme man of practical reality, saith that all this solid, variegated world which our senses perceive is but shoals of minuscule and maddening tadpoles swimming in seas of mathematical probability. ”

I could only gape at the dealer by this point, troubled by the paranoiac intimation which strikes many of us when we encounter the mad in public, that their monologues are somehow bizarrely synchronized replies to the train of our own private thoughts, if not our very thoughts themselves, spilling unceremoniously out into the world like a fold of flab through a loosened fabric.

“Well, what conclusion might one draw from all this? That – whether the supposition of the world’s unreality be a true intimation of the nature of things, or the product of a curdling of brain matter general throughout the species – men have, in all times and all places, resolved that that which they see directly is misleading, and thus sought to look through the world of appearances, and gaze directly upon ultimate reality, whether by contemplation, piety, or squinting into microscopes. Now, to bring us back to our initial theme, supposing this Pusey were consumed by that ambition – by this burning desire to pierce the veil, to see through the world – and further that he addressed himself to this task in a direct fashion, by looking very intently at things. He was, as I understand it, an inveterate street-walker, who always carried himself with an air of contemplative distraction. What else might he have been doing then, but trying to fix the world before him, as an object of contemplation, so that he could to see through it?”

“Let us imagine that his efforts slowly bore fruit over the years. First, the world began to soften around its edges. Its contents become liquid where previously they had been solid, and begin to flow into one another. The world becomes like its reflection on a body of water: protean, all straight lives curved, everything which was solid and fixed now undulant, everything which was rooted now cast off in a slow dance as the surface on which it rests stirs in its ceaseless interior motion. And he feels surely the beginning of a rapture, the sense of the imminence of his goal, the stirring of anticipatory bliss the lover feels as the object of their desire becomes, even if only notionally, attainable.”

“In time, the image of the world loses all its original contours – instead of the reflection on a watery surface, the motion of the surface has transformed it into a dancing figure of total abstraction – and each time Pusey goes into his trance, he travels further away from the everyday world. Thus, the nearer he attains to his goal, and the deeper his rapture grows, the more he is an isolated failure, an eccentric or madmen, in the world without.”

“One day, the world can persist no longer, even as an abstraction, and vanishes altogether. And now in turn, Pusey begins to see all those other things which mystics and philosophers have glimpsed beyond the veil: the Perfect Forms, the Unmoved Mover, the Pure White Light, mandalas and monads, mathematical tadpole swarms, they all pass before his eyes as in a parade, and each is revealed, like the world before them, to be an illusion, and like the world before them, they too collapse into abstraction and vanish away. And now, after a long period in a pure, milky void, a new picture begins to cohere, and Pusey knows that he has unwrapped the final Russian doll, pierced the last veil, and is presently to see ultimate reality, to know the final, unmediated truth which underlies all human illusions.”

“And he sees the slate grey sky of a cold desert, and beneath it a great wasteland of parched black soil stretches into infinity on all sides, an empty, uniform desolation with no beginning nor end, and no demarcation of one part of it from any other, a landscape through which one might walk for all eternity and maintain for all that time the same relationship with the horizon, and the same prospect ever before and behind. But as his vision of the wasteland becomes clearer, he sees that it is populated with objects that traverse its infinity, rising and falling, rising and falling, making the whole plane like a black ocean of steady undulation.”

“What are they?”

“Well, sir, they are jack-in-the-boxes.”


“Jack-in-the-boxes, sir. The alleged child’s toy composed of a box, from whence a sinister clown figure abruptly springs, so as to engender comedic shock, with the box sometimes disguised in the shape of the universally beloved and soothing music box, so as to intensify the discordant shock of the clown’s emergence.”

“No, I mean, I know what jack-in-the-boxes are, but… did they get there? Who made them?”

“Well, sir, since you ask that question, I see you haven’t understood aright. The jack-in-the-boxes were always there, and nobody made them. They are, so to speak, the necessary being from whence all merely contingent being derives. The malice of the jack-in-the-box implied the necessity for a dupe, for a conscious being to be taken in by the pleasant appearance of the box, and thus startled by the clown. The universe is engendered only so that its sentient beings are lead through all their delusions of grand, noble, or tragic things, back to the ultimate mockery and blind malignancy of leering clowns emerging infinitely out of their boxes...”

“But how can clowns and children's toys predate the existence of matter itself?”

“Well, sir, one might well ask where such things come from in the first place, no? We are surrounded by notional things – creatures, entities, and convoluted notions themselves – such as have no apparent physical existence, and I'd like to know where they come form. Perhaps these notional things came before us, and gave birth to us as we have done to adding machines? The very first man who donned the motley apparel of the clown must have had some prior inkling of what a clown was – and his audience likewise – otherwise, they surely would have had him locked up or dunked in a pond, and the practise never taken off. And, sir, the origins of the jack-in-the-box itself are shrouded in mystery. Some say it were the rector John Schorne, that pious healer and terror to the gout and the common sinner, who inspired the conceit when he incarcerated yon devil in his boot for a time. Well, I would say that Schorne were far too recent, and the jack has been a slumbering in some box since yon Pandora, at the very least.”

“But I make apology for the long-windedness of my discourse; I meant only to provide an hypothetical example of a truth so terrible that it's discovery would drive all men to self-annihilation, and I would make boast that I have done just that, for though there are some who might have a partiality for infinite grey wastelands, and others for row upon upon row of leering, exultantly evil jack-in-the-boxes, there wasn't any borned yet as would rejoice in the combination of the two constituting the ultimate, underlying reality.”

I handed him the money.

“Well, that's certainly very interesting, but I really need to be getting along..”
“Indeed, sir, and my apologies again. You know I must say I'm actually rather glad to have rid of this book. Oh, I'm sure it's all superstitious nonsense, but I've a fear that I would have read it sooner or later, and mayhap then vanished out of sight myself. I don't want to disappear, you see. It's just that at my age, you wind up with very little to look forward to – very little, sir, in the line of new experiences and novelties on the horizon. Well, what I look forward to most of all now is my funeral. I cannot wait to see what sort of weather I get for the big day, who comes along to squint at me in yon box, what the priest says, and so forth.”
It seemed that he was to detain me with one further lunacy.

“Eh, don't you think that.....your funeral might be the one thing which you almost certainly won't get to see?”

He smiled cannily.

“That is indeed the opinion must would venture on the subject, sir, but I happen to have some insider information which gives me every hope that I will see my own funeral, as sure as I'm seeing you now, looking at me as though I had two heads. Well, in fact, I had two heads once, after a fashion. I mentioned earlier that I used to run this business with my brother Morris. It was Morris, actually, who got the lease on this place – he won it in a game of cards with Ronnie Sullivan that went on for three days and three nights in the granny flat over Fagan's Drapery, while wives, childers, and assorted crones took turns mounting the stairs to try to rouse them from their collective lunacy with a wailing of entreaties and imprecations. They talked about that game of cards for years in the Terrace. Putting up the lease of a property on one hand, would you believe it? People lived shorter and wider in those days, if you know what I mean. Nobody worried about their health until they were dying, and they didn't really worry too much about it then because it was too late anyway.”

“Well, my brother Morris wasn't just my brother – we were identicals. Now, there are many popular notions regarding the uncanniness of identical twins which I can tell you from experience are spurious. For example, it's often held that one twin must be the good one, and the other the bad – well, I would say that most twins, like most people, are good some of the time, bad some of the time, and indifferent for most of it. Now, on the other hand, it's commonly believed that that the bond between identical twins is of a close, psychical nature, such that the twins are privy to knowledge about one another which confounds everyday notions of time, space, and the locality and interiority of the mental faculty. Well, I can tell you, sir, this queer supposition is entirely true. When I was a young child, I began to experience what I called “flashes.” The flashes were a queer thing. I would be doing any old thing, you know, walking home from the butchers, playing conkers with bigger lads, or taking a pinch of snuff with some bold lads behind the old concrete outhouse, when suddenly, just for the briefest instant, I would be seeing something else entirely. One second, I would be looking down a certain street, and the next thing, I would see a pair of feet bobbing at the bottom of a bath. Or I would be talking to somebody indoors, and the next thing, I'd be looking at a woman's backside sauntering down some nearby street! The sound of where I was would persist, but it was like, for a couple of seconds, I was seeing through somebody else's eyes. It were a strange thing, for example, to be entirely stationary, and yet to have one visual field in motion, as though one's eyes were a cinema screen.”

“Well, these flashes persisted intermittently as I grew up, and puzzled me greatly. It seemed to me that if one were to see things, they should be of a fantastical or bizarre nature, like row upon upon row of seaside chalets on the dark side of the moon, or perambulators scuttling around on spider's legs while mothers encased in tortoise shells tried vainly to catch after them – weird things such as that. But my flashes were of the most banal nature, and all took place in locations which were instantly recognisable to me. It as though as though I were going mad in a tiresomely ordinary fashion – a double blow to my pride.”

“One day, I was sitting on the couch reading an adventure of Torrace Manning, the Spy with the X-Ray Eyes, when suddenly the panel which I reading – in which Torrace was eyeing Esther St Claire, and saying “DON'T ASK HOW I KNOW, ESTHER, BUT MONDRAGOON IS ON HIS WAY UP THE STAIRS AS WE SPEAK – WITH SALINGER'S MANSCRIPT IN ONE-HAND AND A PISTOL IN THE OTHER” - vanished, and I saw my own face looking back at me from the bathroom mirror. So I ran up and went a banging on the bathroom door, and sure enough, Morris opens it and goes: “By Christ, I thought you were MONDRAGOON coming up with the stairs with his revolver!” Well, the mystery was solved. Morris, as it transpired, had also been having the flashes, and when we compared notes, it was readily apparent at our mental wires were crossed at brief, sporadic intervals such that we would see through the other's eyes for little fleeting moments here and there. And this was a very special thing, a secret bond between us, ever after. Oh, we had our rows and so forth, but there was always that thing between us – that our minds were interconnected, directly, without words - that they were, even if only for little flashes, not alone, not burrowed up inside the skull and needing stuttering words to try to dredge them out. When we were apart, we were always together in a sense, and when we were together, we'd have little jokes and knowing comments about the flashes. Women's hindquarters were the most frequent thing I'd see in the flashes, because Morris was a fierce divil who believed as an article of faith that a woman's legs and backside in ambulatory motion was the only thing on earth that justified the ways of God to man! He had a skill, sir, such that he would allow his shoelace to become untied, so as to crouch down at precisely the opportune moment to get an eyeful! The Gentleman's Periscope, he called it!”

The dealer laughed and slapped his thigh as this recollection of his twin's incorrigible piehawking.

“And the years went by, he used to complain to me that whenever he got flashes they were always of dull books, of yon Plato and so forth. Anyway, one day, Morris was standing at the Long Corner, talking to Michael Hobart and the Michelin Man, and he had a stroke. He was dead, sir, on arrival at the hospital. The Lord giveth and He taketh away, or so they say. I would say He might be less generous in the giving, or less capricious in the taking away, but such is not my place to say. Though we were so intertwined, I had no premonition or awareness of what had happened to Morris, until they came and told me in the shop. I couldn't believe them – I thought they were speaking in a foreign language, or just some figurines from a dream. And I was in such a shock and a panic that I couldn't even look at Morris to make the identification. I was down at the mortuary with my friend Peter and some guards and other fellas, but I kept getting feint and shaky, and eventually the guard puts me lying down and gets me to close my eyes, and he says: “Yes, it's him”, and that's how they made the identification. So I didn't actually get to see Morris until he was laid out for the removal, and I'll take this to my own grave, sir. I walked up towards the coffin, in that hushed little room, and I had the trepidations and fear, but I knew I had to look at him and say goodbye, so I kept going. And I got to the coffin, sir, and looked into it, and would you believe I saw the last person on earth I was expecting to see: myself!”

“You mean you saw your brother?”

“No, sir, I mean precisely what I said: I saw myself.”

“But he was identical to you...”

“Yes, but what I mean to say is that when I looked down, I didn't see yon fellow below in the coffin with his eyes closed, but rather I saw a fellow with his eyes open, squinting like a badger, looking down at me from above: it was myself I saw, sir, through Morris's eyes, looking down at himself!”

“I think that the became disorientated...”

“No, sir, not at all. It was the last of our flashes, clear as day. I looked up at my myself, looking down at myself, with the look of timid fear and shock on my face, and I said to myself: “My god, this is what I look like. This is what I have looked like all along.” And then the flash faded, sir, and my face became Morris's, down below in the coffin, eyes shut tight and not a stir on him.”

We fell silent then for a few seconds, and I heard the swing of the grandfather pendulum and the other clocks ticking, and ticking, the hushed flow of the river and of distant traffic, and in my imagination these sounds, and our voices before them, tickled the leaves of trees scattered across the city like tiny fingers striking piano keys.

“Have you had any flashes since?”

“I've seen things, sir, yes. But I can no longer be certain whether they are flashes from Morris, or just stirring of my own imagination, remembrances of dreams, and so forth.”

His face darkened palpably for an instant, and then resumed its former buoyancy.

“Well, sir, here is your Pusey. It has been a pleasure indeed, and if you'd permit me a parting piece of advice, I would say to thee that, when reading on this book, if you do begin to have some intimation of an awful fact hidden craftily in the prose, or even the mapping of the way to yon Door to the supernal realm outside of space and time, I would say, sir, simply put the book away, and cease reading on it! Mayhap the world of buttocks and brambles and Brussels sprouts and briers be the ultimate reality, after all, and all such contrary notions as the philosophers and sages avow are only a kind of mist or spume cast off by the churning turbulence of their brains; a misty spume, sir, wherein one might lose oneself and never find shore again; such is perhaps the true danger of such allegedly cursed books, sir, and the reality underlying the tales of disappearance that surround them.”

He eyed me in a peculiar and disquieting manner as he spoke, a look both conspiratorial and accusatory, like a kind of nod of recognition between two old war criminals which chance had reunited by a butcher's counter.  

Continued shortly.