Monday, December 13, 2010

The Nowhere People.

I’m what they used to call a magazine writer. Back in the seventies and eighties, you could earn a decent living, because there was a hell of lot magazines back then. It was a good lifestyle. You just had to keep moving, and you’d always find something to sell. Travel up and down the length and breadth of these United States, just following your nose, and you’d find something. You see, back then, there was a magazine for just about every variety of story you could possibly imagine, so anywhere you might be, at any given time, some kind of story was more or less bound to be in progress. In theory, at any rate. When things dried up, you could always take a holiday to South America; there was always something political happening down there. That was the ideology back then. Everything that happened in South America was political; whereas up here nothing was political. We lived the life that nature and God intended, and only ever had to resort to politics in order to insure that things stayed that way. And people believed that, too.

Anyway, I don’t know if a magazine exists today for the story I’m about to tell. It started when I was hanging out with my nephew Lucas, kind of house- and baby-sitting for my brother and his wife Teresa. We were talking about television, and he was saying how television was better today than it ever was before. And I said “Yeah, maybe so, but the problem with television today is that people don’t believe in it anymore.” Now that’s a statement that requires some qualification. I’m not saying that there was ever a time when people believed everything they saw on television was literally true. There was a time, however, when television was so new, and so vital, that people just didn’t have a vocabulary to describe the experience. You believed in the sense of being overwhelmed, of being mesmerized, because you didn’t know the precise angles of what was happening, and neither did the people who were making the shows. That’s when something is vital, when it’s alive, when people haven’t quite figured out the angles yet. Nowadays, people use the television mostly as a punch bag for their intellects; something to second-guess, to poke fun at, like an opponent in chess whose strategies are transparent from a mile away.

Anyway, my nephew asked me what TV show had the biggest impact on me when I was growing up, and something came back to me that I hadn’t thought about for a long time. I remembered sitting in our den with his father back when we kids, watching some show that just scared the living daylights out of both of us. But I couldn’t put a name on it, no matter how hard I tried. I remembered the first episode: some handsome young guy, some drifter, arrives in a small town. He’s on route to New York City, and he has to wait a couple of hours for the next Greyhound out of town. So he wanders into the local diner and orders a coffee and a steak sandwich. The guy behind the counter is an overweight, droll, likable everyman type. There is one other person in the diner: an ethereal, pretty blonde woman in her mid-twenties. The blonde girl is stirring her coffee with a peculiar intensity, and glancing furtively out the window. Her skin is preternaturally pale, and her manner oddly distant, detached, and uncomfortable. She wears a tight mackintosh buttoned all the way up, and her hair in a severe bun, which gives her the look of an alien detective. The slob behind the counter is cooking the hero’s steak, and reading a magazine with the headline: ARE THE FLYING SAUCERS REAL? He says “Boy, I sure wish those flying disks would take my little missus on trip into Outer Space!”

So the young guy goes over and tries to make some chat with the girl, but she just blanks him out, completely ignores him. Eventually the guy puts on a mock-indignant routine, the way they always do in these old pictures. The girl gets up abruptly, and exits the diner in a hurry, pausing at the door to look back with a puzzled, deer in the headlights kind of expression. The good-natured slob behind the counter laughs merrily: “You’re barking up the wrong tree there, son. She’s a strange one, yessir. She’s been around town these past few days, and if you asked me where she was from, I would have to say Mars. She came in on Wednesday first, I think. Pointed at a blue-berry muffin. So I gave it to her, and she hands me a big wad of notes. So anyway I asked a couple of questions, you know, just bein’ polite and suchlike. She just looks at me like I’m speaking Dutch, so I leave her to it. And she just kinda prods the muffin, and looks at it for about ten minutes, and then walks out of the place, just like she did right there: LIKE SOME VOICE IN HER HEAD HAD COMMANDED HER TO LEAVE. I tell ya, son, that one came down on the Sputnik, no doubt about it”

Anyway, owing to some inevitable complication, the hero winds up missing his bus, and has to spend a night in the town. We see him checking into a motel, one of those eerie Psycho/Touch of Evil numbers on the outskirts of the town. The guy at the counter is a typical squirming, paranoid puritan. “You’re not one of those strange ones, are you?” “Excuse me?” our boy says. “There’s a lot of strange ones passing through these past few days. We run a business here, you know? We cater to all sorts, long as they’re decent coming in, and polite going out. But there are some strange ones abroad these days, people I can’t rightly place in any category. Like last Wednesday, I had a couple of gentlemen come in, very severe, very serious looking gentleman in immaculately pressed suits, with big, shiny brown suitcases. It seemed as though they were foreigners, you understand, but didn’t want to give that impression. They were talking well enough, but it didn’t seem to come natural to them. They were putting a lot of effort into appearing effortless, you know that way? Like some drunks act sometimes. So I asked them what they did, and the first gentleman says “We’re Bible salesmen” and the second feller says “That’s what we are.” Well, on Thursday night, those two gentlemen left very suddenly, as though some voice had popped into their heads and told ‘em to get out of dodge. They ran off in such a hurry that they left their suitcases after them; I saw them striding off in the direction of the woods. Well, I opened up them suitcases, and let me tell you confidentially, it wasn’t any kind of bibles that was in them.”

“What was it?” our boy says. “It wasn’t any kind of bibles I ever saw. It was a bunch of them portable transistor radios, you know the kind? A bunch of them portable transistor radios, and strange plans for radio antennas. And when I turned on one of them trannies, it played the most godawful static sound I ever heard. I mean you just couldn’t listen to it. You’re not one of them strange ones, are you?” “Mister, I don’t own a transistor radio. I’m just looking to trouble you for a room until it gets light.”

Then we cut to a motel room, illuminated by a tall, flashing neon masthead outside the window. The hero paces around the room, seemingly unable to sleep. He pauses by the window, and we a get an evocative exterior shot, probably a studio lot. Beneath the window a narrow path runs out onto the main road. In the left of the shot we see a matte painting of the town off in the distance; to the right the road winds up into dark, densely wooded hills. We cut back to a close-up of the hero, with the neon illuminating his face like a flashing metronome. His brain is replaying pieces of dialogue from earlier in the programme: “AND she just kinda prods the muffin, and looks at it for about ten minutes, and then walks out of the place, just like she did right there: LIKE SOME VOICE IN HER HEAD HAD COMMANDED HER TO LEAVE.” “A bunch of them portable transistor radios, AND STRANGE PLANS FOR RADIO ANTENNAS. “A bunch of them portable transistor radios, AND STRANGE PLANS FOR RADIO ANTENNAS. “A bunch of them portable transistor radios, AND STRANGE PLANS FOR RADIO ANTENNAS”.

Suddenly, we cut back to the driveway, where the blonde girl has appeared, walking towards the woods with the same distracted, otherworldly expression from earlier in the diner. The hero bounds out of the room. We see him walking briskly through the foyer. “I knew it”, says the guy at the counter “one of the strange ones.”

So the guy follows the girl at a distance, and she eventually cuts off the road, and goes into the woods. I recall that this part was where my brother and I started to get really spooked. The girl goes deeper and deeper into the woods, with the guy following her, hiding behind trees whenever she looks back. This sequence was very long, and very effectively done, very hypnotic. At first you could hear the sounds from the highway, but they gradually fade out, and it gets really quiet. You hear nothing except the muffled footfalls of the two characters, and maybe an owl hooting from time to time. I recall when I was young, I’d often look into an open field, or a patch of woodland, and wonder to myself where you’d end up if you went into the field and just kept walking in a straight line. Course, nowadays, I know that you’d wind up at the other end of the field, or the other end of a bunch of fields after it, and there’d just be cars and roads and houses like everywhere else. But when I was a kid, I half figured that if you kept walking long enough you’d wind up in this whole other country, a whole other strange world where the sun set in the sky backwards and everything was somehow different from here.

So I guess I figured that’s where the hero was going, past some invisible point where ordinary reality ceases, into the strange country on the other side of the horizon. Eventually the girl stops in a clearing in the middle of the woods. Nothing happens for a moment; she just stands there waiting. Then these figures begin to emerge from different parts of the wood, converging slowing on the clearing where the woman waits. They look pretty much like ordinary people, all immaculately dressed, very neat and tidy, but their movements are slow and eerily mechanical. They all take their places in the clearing, without once making eye-contact or showing a trace of emotion. Then they begin to communicate with one another, but it’s very weird. Without making eye-contact, their mouths begin to move very rapidly, as though talking silently to themselves. Gradually, a sound begins to develop: a steadily increasing chorus of guttural clicking sounds, a little like a buzzing colony of insects.

At this point our hero inadvertently snags a branch on the tree he’s hiding behind, and all holy hell breaks loose. The people in the clearing bristle and bolt like wild horses. We last see the hero tearing for dear life through the woods, the soundtrack laying some heavy, brooding chords over the show’s signature Theremin and guitar theme. Then it cuts to a drab looking kitchen, and we hear this booming voice: IS YOUR KITCHEN AN AIRPORT THAT CAN TRANSPORT YOU AND THE GANG TO ANY DESTINATION IN THE WORLD, IN THE BLINKING OF AN EYE? The kitchen dissolves in one of those magical old-fashioned wipes, WELL, WHY SHOULDN’T IT BE?, it’s atoms then reassembling themselves as a resplendent jewel of its former self, crowded to the rafters with smiling air hostesses, and heavily stereotyped representatives of various exotic locations, each standing to attention in their allotted portion of the kitchen-plan…..

“What?” Lucas snapped. “Oh, yeah, it went into a commercial break right there…” “And what happened then? Who were the people in the woods?” “Jeez, I can’t really remember.” “Well, what was the show called then?” No good. I just couldn’t place it. We tried a few key-words on the google, but it was no good. After that, we watched a bit of a True Blood box-set. Let me tell you, there are things in that show you wouldn’t have seen in a stag-picture, back when I was a kid. “Don’t worry, Lucas” I says, “it’s all made up, just like the vampire stuff.”

Continued shortly.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Puharich Nexus Interlude: television is the retina of the mind's eye

When we last ventured into the Puharich Nexus, we had established the portentous arrival of the UFO in 1947; the serendipitous discovery three years earlier of LSD in Basel, and the rediscovery of the sacred mushroom and cacti by western seekers in Mexico and California. We had essayed the idea of haunted technologies, hunting for ghosts and preternatural messengers flitting through the radio waves; therein we found the Influencing Machines of the schizophrenic imagination, the strange voices of John Keel's haunted West Virginian phone-lines, and the very real presence of NSA/FBI spooks hovering in the spaces between transmitter and receiver.

We hesitated to suggest that these things were connected in any significant conventional sense, but our methodology nevertheless implied that each separate jigsaw piece might constitute points or nodes in a deeper pattern or nexus. We begged your patience in accepting this particular nexus as having no clear distinction between its central and peripheral acts and players, but established nevertheless a mysterious master node in the figure of Andrija Puharich. Mr. Puharich we have established as a centre of innumerable puzzling connections: he has been a doctor, a military officer, and a scientist/inventor of sorts, but his real passion seems to lie in the pursuit of exotic mental talents and occult gnosis. To this end, he has found an early protege in the psychic Peter Hurkos. His quest for the sacred mushroom has brought him in contact with Huxley, while his work in parapsychology has elicited the incongruous attention of the US military.

Our tale is moving briskly into the sixties, and the magical, mysterious contours of the Space Age. To the grim, despondent moods prevalent in our times, the Space Age is itself a journey to a distant planet. Swaying fronds of bossa nova, purring organs and harps adumbrate a hermetic lounge instrumental landscape of ultimate bliss and languor. The future is a palpable Utopian presence, a giddy expectation of fulfilment that animates the architecture and ambience of the present tense. The television, increasingly affordable in colour by the end of the decade, is becoming the retina of the mind's eye, activating for the first time the communal, globalized media landscape familiar to all of us today. Huxley's The Doors of Perception would become a significant text in the later part of the decade, but it is arguably another of his Californian visions that casts the larger shadow: Brave New World's society of soma-dazed acquiescence and conspicuous consumption.

Every era evolves a technological medium of communication that transcends its role as a simple method of exchange, and becomes instead an instrument of authority, of trance, ritual, and metaphor. It becomes a presiding metaphor, and as such, informs the imaginative consciousness of its period, and begins to alter and even determine the information that passes through its auspices. At an earlier stage, this presiding metaphor must have been language itself; over time language evolved increasingly complex adjuncts to itself, and with the arrival of cinema and television, it has accrued methods of representation that increasingly mimic the human nervous system in full kinesthetic apprehension of the world.

In the Space Age, the television was the presiding medium of cultural exchange and transformation. Its transformative power was so stark and endemic that it required a spokesman, translator, and intermediary, all of which it promptly found in the form of academic, apocalypticist, and dead-pan stand-up Marshal McLuhan. The television, like all communication technologies, was deeply paradoxical in character and effect. It stultified the imagination, while simultaneously invigorating it to a degree that literature no longer could; it propagandised shamelessly, and yet in so doing could not but reveal the true nature of its cultural values and designs; it initiated a global connectivity of shared experience, and yet, as in the Brave New World, it served to further maroon individuals within the flashing synapses of their own nervous systems.

As it was a paradoxical entity, so the world it revealed was a most incongruous collage of disparate elements: overweening consumption expressed and enacted in sexual signifiers; political assassinations and technological utopia enacted in kitchenettes and automobile curves; soap operas, commercials, and Vietnam footage spliced together as an on-going art installation by the ubiquitous door in the wall. (It was the peculiar genius of JG Ballard to recognize this world of inviolate celebrity, anti-gravity, and napalm for the Dali-esque canvass that it was, and he produced the greatest novel of the Space Age in his remarkable experimental classic The Atrocity Exhibition). The primary signifying events of the new global consciousness were the slaying of Kennedy in Dallas, and the successful landing of the Apollo Eagle on the moon. These bookending chapters of the Space Age bore the distinct imprimatur of mystery ritual: sacrifice and apotheosis. In an echo of 2001's juxtaposition of primate aggression and futuristic space exploration, both were products of ballistics.

Perhaps the most characteristic and revelatory US television serials of the Space Age were the sci-if/fantasy anthologies The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Both shows, as well as their less illustrious predecessor One Step Beyond, utilize in their titles a spatial metaphor in order to establish the idea of a particular locus where all the normal lineaments of reality break down. On the one hand, the idea underlining each show might appear comforting: the ordinary world inhabited by the viewer was intrinsically safe and secure, and he or she would have to travel into the twilight zone in order to have the rug pulled out from under them. (During the Cold War, intelligence agencies labelled a country a "twilight zone" if the US had no definite policy regarding intervention in the event of Communism assuming power. The term was also used by the US Air Force to denote the terminator, the notional hinterland between the night and day sides of a planetary body.)

Herein, however, lay the strange subversive quality which was probably unintentional in the Twilight Zone, and became more pronounced in the Outer Limits. The twilight zone was indistinguishable from the ordinary, mundane world. Both worlds are contained within one another; there is no solid line of demarcation between the safe, predictable day-side of experience, and its strange, threatening, irrational night-side. This point is expressed most explicitly in the Outer Limits episode A Feasibility Study, in which a suburban neighbourhood is transported, people, homes, and picket fences, to another planet overnight. This unsettling conjunction of the mundane and the otherworldly gets to the core of the UFO phenomenon. A perusal of contemporaneous UFO witness accounts reveals a striking continuity in the metaphors employed to describe the mysterious crafts. Appearing in the midst of the most ordinary of locations and lives, they are described as being like "saucers", "platters", and "hamburgers", among other everyday household provisions. The UFO phenomenon, like the fantasy anthology serials, seemed to represent the point where ordinary reality breaks down, and its everyday constitute elements became immense, disembodied, and alien, in something similar to the way any word begins to sound meaningless and nonsensical if you repeat it enough times.

Wherein Andrija Puharich in all this? Aloca Presents: One Step Beyond was the most significant precursor to The Twilight Zone. Introduced by host John Newland ("Our Guide into the World of the Unknown"), One Step featured half-hour dramatisations of ostensibly real and inexplicable stories, including subjects such as precognition, astral projection, and wildly unlikely coincidence. However, by taking that one tentative step outside the pale of ordinary reality, Newland and his crew found themselves firmly in the Puharich Nexus. The most remarkable episode in the series was a departure from the normal format; in 1961 the show adopted a radical documentary/drama approach, and Newman and crew travel to a village in the Mexican mountains to sample a mysterious indigenous mushroom which apparently heightens extra-sensory perception. The Sacred Mushroom is a remarkable relic and document of the all too brief period between the discovery of psychedelics in the west and their subsequent demonisation in public discourse and legislature. Its mind-blowing today to see a show in which the host ingests magic mushrooms, and allows his reactions to be filmed. More mind-blowing for our current purposes, however, is the very visible presence of Andrija Puharich as an ESP consultant throughout the proceedings. Indeed, according to Newman, the on-camera mushroom-taking was largely at Puharich's behest.

Strange as it is to report, The Sacred Mushroom was not Puharich's only appearance on mainstream television in 1961. In a episode of the popular legal drama Perry Mason entitled The Case of the Meddling Medium, Raymond Burr's titular hero becomes involved in court proceedings surrounding the murder of a phony medium. Called to appear as an expert witness is none other than Andrija Puharich, playing himself, and armed with his trusty Faraday Cage. As usual, make of all this what you will.

"End of Transmission."
The last words of the Galaxy Being, in the first episode of The Outer Limits.

Found Object: The Coming of the Cybermen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crossover - i know your face (Mater Suspiria Vision Ghostdrone Edit.)

This collaboration between visual artist Cosmotropia de Xam and enigmatic Kabul resident(s?) Mater Suspiria Vision is a beautiful, scary trip into Lynch/Eyes Wide Shut/Kenneth Anger territory:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Letters from Uqbar: The Castle, the Garden, and the Books. (Part 2)

The emblem book was form of illustrated manuscript which was very popular in Continental Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The appeal of these books was predicated on their evocative combinations of illustrations, usually woodcuts or engravings, with short accompanying texts. The imagery of the emblem books often evoked a timeless classicism of idyllic pastorals, eternal childhood, and seasonal/astrological symbolism. Reminiscent of heraldry and the rich pictorial world of the tarot, they possess a strange magic which is difficult to properly quantify; perhaps it may relate to some mode of thinking in pictures that we experience as children, and retain in adulthood only as a ghostly trace haunting the edge of our awareness.

The emblem book was a natural medium for expressing the ideas of the Renaissance Hermetic underground, and a series of remarkable esoteric manuscripts emerged during the period of the Rosicrucian furore. These books espoused the same philosophical preoccupations as the Rosicrucian manifestos (macro-microcosmic harmony, alchemy, Cabala, mathematics, a fabled “Pansophy” of antiquated Egyptian origin); some expressed sympathy with the elusive fraternity, while others went so far as to claim an outright affiliation to the group. It is extremely difficult to ascertain just who was really involved in the Rosicrucian movement, or if such a movement even existed prior to the publication of the manifestos. The goal of the authors seems to have been to establish an idea in the consciousness of the world; to create a code, a template, a kind of esoteric franchise that would allow any sufficiently initiated individual to adopt the Rosie Cross mantle.

Regardless, the works of the alchemical emblem school stand up today as truly remarkable cultural artefacts, as indelible expressions of a sensibility that seems both alien and familiar at once. The world of the Hermeticists was one of manifold correspondence and hyper-symbolism. Rendered in pictures, this landscape is an uncanny prefiguring of the Dadaist/Surrealist art movements of the modern period: ideas, allegories, and abstractions present themselves as free-standing figures that jostle together in a single frame; vast zodiacal processions wheel across the heavens, and interpenetrate the sinews of human anatomy; in various laboratories, the hooded figure of the alchemist, a model of the obsessive tinkerer and magi-scientist, plunges deeper in the pliable world of matter and spirit.

The most significant authors of the alchemical emblem movement were Robert Fludd, Michael Maier, and Heinrich Khunrath. Many of these figures gravitated towards the Prague court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and Member of the House Hapsburg. History has judged Rudolf to have been an unmitigated disaster in the practical, political arena; however, he is highly regarded as a patron of Northern Mannerist art, and an obsessive devotee of the occult sciences. In this regard, he was no stranger to mysterious books, and is said to have been in possession of the preternaturally indecipherable Voynich manuscript for a time. Of the alchemical emblem manuscripts, perhaps the most remarkable is the Atalanta Fulgiens of Michael Maier: a genuine multi-media installation, the Atalanta featured not only engravings and text, but several accompanying fugues, believed to have been composed by Maier himself:

Atalanta fulgiens

The popularity of the emblem book gradually faded away, just as the passion of the Renaissance magi to read the secret language of nature went increasingly into the province of a more sober, Baconian brand of natural scientist. Something of the strange ambience of the emblem tradition, its suggestion of fluid, pictorial, pre-lapsarian consciousness, persisted in the illustrations of children’s books, and in two noteworthy works of latter day magi: the conceptual illuminated manuscripts of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and the prodigious and recently exhumed secret labour of Jung’s Red Book:

Continued shortly.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Found Object: The Halt Tape.

Why really happened in Rendlesham Forest?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Found Imagery: The Invisible College.

These oil paintings by Stephen Appleby-Bar, part of series inspired by "Fraternity, alchemy, history", remind me a little of the work of comic book genius Mike Mignola:

Voyage into the Antartic Unconscious (Not sure of the source for this one):

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letters from Uqbar: The Castle, the Garden, and the Books. (Part 1)

On the 24th of February, 1613, Frederick V, who would become the Elector of the Rhineland Palatinate on his 18th birthday, was married to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I of England. The marriage, celebrated with the performance of two lavish masques, was largely one of political calculation and expediency - James I sought a strong Protestant union between England, the Palatinate, the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau, and Denmark. Nevertheless, a warm, affectionate relationship developed between the young couple; he was a Calvinist and mystic, and she an ardent admirer of the theatre, which could still claim a largely retired William Shakespeare among its living practitioners.

In June of that year, Elizabeth travelled with Frederick to Heidelberg Castle in the Palatinate. A year later, in honour of his new bride, Frederick commissioned the construction of a Baroque garden on the grounds of the castle, which came to be known as the Hortus Palatinus. This extraordinary and ambitious project was undertaken by two men - the British architect and stage designer Inigo Jones, who had conducted the first serious survey of Stonehenge, and the French engineer Salomon de Caus, a prodigious figure who is sometimes credited with the invention of the steam engine, and was reputed to be steeped in the Hermetic, alchemical underground of the period.

Bare descriptions of the garden and its contents suffice to engender a reverie, to evoke a strange but familiar dream. Situated on a large, multi-level terrace that formed a L-shape around the castle, and surrounded on its exterior by woodland, the garden was a labyrinthine masterpiece of horticultural design, architecture, and mechanical engineering. There were mazes, grottos, and statues, including an animated statue of Memnon designed to emit a mechanical sound when the sun's rays struck it; there was a water organ modelled on that of the classical Roman author Vitruvius, coupled with exotic fauna imported from the freshly discovered tropics; the songs of nightingales and cuckcoo's joined the garden's uncanny chorus of sound, emitted by clockwork automata birds. Writing in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Francis Yates suggests that the Hortus "must have made Heidelberg as 'full of noises' as Prospero's island."

The intuition of the Gothic literary school is inescapable: all landscapes are mental landscapes. All environments are mediated through our subjective mental processes. The landscape informs our thoughts and moods, and in a subtle, indivisible act of reciprocity, our thoughts and moods inform our experience of the landscape. This process becomes more pronounced and complex in relation to man-made environments; these we can envision as the externalisation of interior mental states, as an architecture of ideas, moods, and unrealized desires and dreams.

Such ideas would have appeared perfectly natural and sound to the consciousness of the late Renaissance period in which the Hortus Palatinus was constructed. This was a consciousness which was steeped in allegory, in the visual embodiment of ideas and mental states as symbols and avatars, and in the notion of the world itself as a carefully designed allegorical landscape. It has been widely theorized that the gardens of Heidelberg were conceived as a grand hermetic treatise, a "botanical cosmos" into whose architecture had been coded the emblems of an ancient tradition of hidden knowledge. By this logic, the Hortus Palatinus was an attempt to emulate the harmony believed to pertain between macrocosm and microcosm, to map out the contours of the cosmos and its mirror image in the divine spark of human imagination. Time has rendered the garden, its mechanical marvels and mathematical harmonies largely a creature of the imagination, and it is there we will leave it for the moment, to consider other matters.

Between the years of 1607 and 1616, there appeared in Germany two anonymous pamphlets which have cast minor but persistent ripples ever since: the Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis and the Confessio Fraternitatis. These manifestos expressed themselves for the most part in a mode of strident Protestant apocalyptic, calling for a "Universal Reformation of Mankind". Underlying their political message, however, the manifestos claimed to derive from a secret fraternity of illuminated philosopher/mystic/doctors. This tiny band of illuminates claimed to possess a "Pansophia", or universal, all-encompassing wisdom, which they had derived from their founder Frater C.R.C. (Christian Rosenkreutz), and passed on from generation to generation. In 1616, the two manifestos were joined by an allegorical romance called the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, which details the events of a heavily symbolic wedding in a castle of mazes, miracles, and wonders. Thus, while Jones and de Caus were overseeing the construction of the Heidelberg gardens, somebody was trying to propagate a belief in the existence of an Invisible College of alchemists and social reformers.

To understood the substance of the Rosicrucian manifestos, one must conceive of a period where the sciences as we understand them today were emerging in tandem with a massive resurgence of antique, esoteric traditions. Though always constituting a small minority, a recognisable type had emerged: a Christian mystic with an obsessive, all-consuming passion for esoteric knowledge. The esoteric aspect of his mental existence constituted those disciplines and habits of mind which are now called occult: alchemy, Cabala, the magical Hermetic texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and, underlying all else, an incorrigible belief in a perennial wisdom transmitted through the ages by a tiny band of initiates. This great tradition of Renaissance syncretism was palpably on the wane in the period we are discussing, but in its twilight years it had become an underground network. The primary fruits of this network were a series of illustrated manuscripts, whose enigmatic texts and alchemical emblems and iconography form a landscape as evocative and uncanny as the groves of the Hortus Palatinus.

Continued shortly.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Outsider Art from the Cryptonomicon: Toynbee Tiles

The third key can be found under the soles of your shoes....
Varelli, in Dario Argento's Inferno (1980).

We owe our scientific knowledge of the world to certain habits, predilections, and assumptions which are hard-wired into the human psyche. These include the recognition of patterns, an acute sensitivity to structure, order, and harmony, and an utterly incorrigible addiction to mysteries and puzzles of every kind. Paradoxically, these same intuitions and habits of mind underlie the kind of ideas that are most repugnant to contemporary rationalists and practitioners of scientism. The mainstream of rational discourse espouses the particular varieties of pattern recognition which have been sanctioned by the scientific method. Meanwhile, just as individuals ascribe mystical properties to personal experience of coincidence, the folk/pop culture imagination revels in the contraband logics offered by conspiracy theories and cabalistic codes of every imaginable kind. Though these divergent ways of viewing the world appear antithetical to one another, they arise out of the same essential wellsprings.

Conventionally, it is reasoned that while scientific theory and paranoid delusion do indeed emerge from the same source, the former is measured for accuracy against evidence, while the latter remain faulty products of an excess in the human proclivity to connect and organise disparate phenomena. The scientist is a moderate drinker, carefully selecting the wines that accompany his wholesome repast; the paranoid seer, on the other hand, is completely intoxicated by a sea of connections and patterns that are all of his own invention.

It seems like a clear, easy distinction to make, but in practise the line between healthy moderation and inebriation is ever a fine one to traverse. Johannes Kepler once famously described the rapture he felt at the development of his theories regarding planetary motion: "I yield freely to the sacred frenzy; I dare frankly to confess that I have stolen the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle for my God far the bounds of Egypt. If you pardon me, I shall rejoice; if you reproach me, I shall endure. The die is cast, and I am writing the book - to be read either now or by prosperity, it matters not. It can wait a century for a reader, as God himself has waited six thousand years for a witness."

Kepler's notion of "sacred frenzy" alerts us to the ever close proximity pertaining between illumination and mental collapse, between the refinement of logic and hermeneutics on the one hand, and their implosion into paranoiac excess on the other. These states of mind appear to occupy adjourning buildings in the same district, which Robert Anton Wilson has labelled the Chapel Perilous, and the popular imagination often visualizes as the tumble down Carroll's Rabbit Hole. The following are some cryptic street-signs that may guide the unwary traveller on his way to this eclectic district.....

Toynbee Tiles.
Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 basically charts the initiation of its protagonist Opedia Mass into the existence of a possibly all-encompassing, possibly delusionary conspiracy. The chief spur to her initiation is the discovery of a symbol - the iconic muted post horn with one loop - literally everywhere in the Californian landscape through which she moves. We find a fascinating real-world analogue to Pynchon's post horn in the form of the Toynbee tile. Roughly the size of an American license plate, and thought to be made of linoleum and asphalt crack-filling compound, Toynbee tiles have been discovered underfoot in two dozen major cities in the US, as well as four capitals in South America. In some respects, these mysterious tiles might qualify as a modest urban equivalent to the crop circle, albeit with a major difference both in scale and focus. While the circles have alluded to a whole slew of concepts and ideas, Toynbee tiles simply reiterate slight variations of the following cryptic expression: TOYNBEE'S IDEA, in Kubrick's (or Movie) 2001, RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.

On the face of it, the tiles don't seem either miraculous or even particularly mysterious. They would appear to be the work of either a marginal crackpot, who genuinely believes that some correspondence between the works of historian Arnold J. Toynbee and the movie 2001 allows for the possibility of mass resurrection of the dead on Jupiter; or the work of a more self-conscious, surrealist street artist who composed the odd juxtaposition of elements merely to screw with our heads. However, an attempt to discover the elusive author of the tiles, and the specific origin of the Kubrick/Toynbee/Jupiter juxtaposition, leads us into a very puzzling hall of mirrors indeed. Enter dramatist, film-maker, and Zen master of muscular, stylized dialogue, Mr. David Mamet.

Speaking to the website Suicide Girls in 2007, Mamet had the following to say about curious instances of flattery:
"This is the weirdest thing that ever happened. I wrote this play about a million years ago that was a homage to Larry King when he was a late night talk show host on the radio in the 70s. A guy calls in and he's talking about the film 2001 based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee. The Larry King character says I think you'll find that 2001 is based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke. The guy says No Larry, I believe you're wrong there. 2001 based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee tells us that all human life will be reconstituted on the planet Jupiter. They had this rather silly conversation for about ten minutes. It turns out that now you can go on the internet and look up Toynbee tiles. There are these tiles that are showing up all over the country that say in mosaic: Toynbee says all life reconstituted on Jupiter".

It is clear from the interview that Mamet believes that he originated the Kubrick/Toynbee idea (in his short vignette 4 A.M. written in 1983, and published in the collection Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues in 1985), and the tiles themselves constitute a bizarre tribute to his imagination. Which would, once again, all make perfect sense - except that, under closer analysis, the existence of 4 A.M. only complicates the mystery further.

James Morasco and the Minority Association.
In March of 1983, the same year Mamet wrote 4 A.M., a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer named Clark DeLeon penned a short human-interest piece about one James Morasco, a local eccentric who headed up a Philly-based organisation called the Minority Association. The piece, entitled Theories: Wanna Run That One By Me Again?, begins:
"Call me skeptical, but I had a hard time buying James Morasco's concept that the planet Jupiter would be colonized by bringing all the people of Earth who had ever died back to life and then changing Jupiter's atmosphere to allow them to live. Is this just me, or does that strike you as hard to swallow too? Morasco says he is a social worker in Philadelphia and came across this idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee, who's theory on bringing dead molecules back to life was depicted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey".

So, if this second datum is correct, and Mamet is sincere in the interview, then we have the peculiar presentiment of two individuals, one an established playwright and the other an obscure eccentric, both hitting in 1983 on the idea of combining Toynbee, 2001, and Jupiter into a conspiracy theory. We have a playwright creating a fictional crank with a particularly incongruous and unlikely belief system, and an actual crank in Philadelphia espousing that very belief system to a journalist. There is something distinctly tricksterish in this whole business. Recently, researchers who are putting together the "Resurrect Dead" film about the phenomenon have added yet another layer to the onion, claiming to have uncovered evidence that in 1980 the elusive Tiler made a late night phone call to - you guessed it, Larry King. Tentatively ruling out (for the moment) some exotic Jungian explanation, it would seem that the tiles, play, and idea all derive from a common source. But where?

The only James Morasco in the Philly phone book turned out to be a carpenter from the Chestnut Hill district. He passed away in 2003, and his wife insists that he had nothing to do with the tiles. Some rumblings have been heard of an unnamed "Street Prophet" who hung around the Centre City district in the 80s, frequently heard to "babble" about Kubrick, Toynbee, Clarke, and the promise of resurrection on Jupiter. Coincidences continue to swirl around the Toynbee tiles. Arthur C. Clarke published a short story in 1953 called Jupiter Five, which involves one of the Jovian moons turning out to be an artificial construct created by reptilian aliens; it contains several references to Arnold Toynbee. Among the more recent fever dreams of the Posthumanists is the "Jupiter Brain": "a brain approximately the size of Jupiter. The Transhumanist Terminology defines a Jupiter Brain as A posthuman being of extremely high computational power and size. The term supposedly originated due to an idea by Keith Henson that nanomachines could be used to turn the mass of Jupiter into computers running an upgraded version of himself." I only raise this because one of the wilder ideas mooted in Posthumanism is that super-computers such as the Jupiter Brain could potentially resurrect every human who has every lived, and allow them to live forever in a simulated environment.

So what really gives with the Toynbee tiles? Did Mamet consciously poach the idea from the Philadelphia Inquirer? Or did he hear the Tiler call Larry King back in 1980, forget about it, and subsequently incorporate the main ideas into his tribute to King without remembering the source? Did Mamet walk over a Toynbee tile and unconsciously record its contents, thus becoming an unintentional spokesman for the bizarre ideas of the Tiler? Or was some beacon in the Collective Unconscious beaming out a signal in 1983.....Toynbee......Kubrick.....Jupiter......a message that found a home, as in the stories of Lovecraft, in the dreams of the creative and the unhinged? Keep watching the skies.......and the ground.

(The full text of Mamet's very brief 4 A.M. can be found here, and is well worth a look.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Addendum to The Strange Life and Times of Gustav Meyrink:

While searching for Austin Osman Spare artwork for the previous post, I discovered the work of Fredrik Soderberg, a contemporary occult-themed artist based in Stockholm. The following are examples of his work, and you can find more at his website here.

The Strange Demise of James Webb.

I found much of the background material for the Meyrink post in James Webb's book The Occult Establishment. Webb was a brilliant Scottish historian who developed an exhaustive study of the occult revival of the late 19th and 20th centuries over the course of two books: The Occult Underground (also known as The Flight from Reason) 1971 and Establishment 1976. Though completely lacking the truculence of much of the contemporary sceptic movement, Webb's attitude towards the occult was clearly that of the sociological interest of a confirmed rationalist. The penultimate paragraph of Establishment sums up the attitude he maintained towards the occult throughout most of his life: "The flight from reason, by departing from certain fixed categories and opening the floodgates of the imagination, may contain within itself the potential for expanding the limits of human existence. It is more likely that it will, instead - as has happened in the past - shipwreck man on a desert island separated form all that is humanly satisifying by an ocean of illusion. Unreason exists to be made reasonable, and reason is to be extended by the discovery of possibilites initially outside its comprehension." Later in life, however, his thinking about the supernatural experienced a dramatic and tragic reversal. The strange and unsettling tale of this reversal can be read here.

Literature and the Occult: The Strange Life and Times of Gustav Meyrink.

The relationship between art and occultism is a varied, deep-rooted, and fascinating subject. Many artists have professed a interest in the occult, and flavoured their artworks with the peculiar ambience and iconography of the Art. Of these, some were actual practitioners of magic, some armchair dabblers, and others outright sceptics who merely adopted esoteric emblems for aesthetic effect. Aleister Crowley was a poet, and occasionally wrote novels, such as the Moonchild, which expounded various aspects of his doctrine. Austin Osman Spare, whose pastel The Vampires are Coming is pictured above, was a remarkable artist and magician for whom both activities were complimentary aspects of the same essential process. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whom we encountered before in relation to The Coming Race and the Vril craze, published a novel called Zononi in 1842 which was essentially an allegory of Rosicrucian initiation. The Welch author and mystic Arthur Machen's anti-modernism and belief in esoteric doctrines produced a small body of highly influential weird fiction, including the Great God Pan and the almost grimoire-like The White People.

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft produced an enduring vision of Occult forces flowing into our world from Outside which has influenced generations of occultists and practitioners of rejected knowledge. But Lovecraft himself was an avowed rational sceptic and materialist. WB Yeats famously threw himself into the shenanigans of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but turn of the century Theosophy and occultic revivalism receive a more sardonic treatment in Eliot's Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses.

Nevertheless, even where no explicit or conscious connection exists, the artist and magician are bound together by a persistent congruence that is suggestive of shared origins. The classical poetic tradition of invoking the aid of the muses reflects the essential character of unfathomably ancient ceremonial magic: the summoning of supernatural entities and familiars to provide the magician or poet with extraordinary knowledge and abilities. (Though we have now largely replaced the idea of the muses with that of individual genius, the principal of inspiration remains a very mysterious force. Writers and artists in general feel the greatest sense of satisfaction and creativity when they have stopped trying; when some voice in the head or divinely inspired autopilot takes over the reins.) Further to this, the fictional world that emerges in artistic creation bears many similarities to the real world as experienced by the occultist.

The various worlds that emerge from literature and the arts are symbolical landscapes and products of a grand underlying design; they are places where no accidents ever occur, where correspondence and coincidence abound, and the artifice and intentions of the author provide a kind of Cabalistic code underlying the surface of the text. In this sense, Joyce's Ulysses is a supreme work of literary Cabala and occult imagination, a imaginary universe whose apparently quotidian and random character betrays endless interconnection, and the working of a grand, intricate design. ( Ulysses contains the following passage, one of my favourite in all of literature, which is distinctly occult in character: "He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible. Maerlinck says: If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on is doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves".)

Gustav Meyrink was assuredly no stranger to wondering strange mental topographies and urban labyrinths, only to find his own reflection gazing back at every turn. Born the illegitimate son of a Baron and actress in Vienna in 1868, Meyrink spent most of his life in Prague, that grand miasmal mindscape of literary disorientation and angst. He was a contemporary of Kafka who was much admired by Max Brod, having achieved a considerable fame with his early novels of the uncanny The Golem and The Green Face. It has often been said that the prodigious strangeness of Meyrink's novels is eclipsed only by the details of his own life. A brief biographical abstract should leave the reader in no doubt of the validity of this claim.

Meyrink actually started out in life as banker, a profession wherein he enjoyed considerable early success. Between the years of 1882 and 1902, he was a director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague, and enjoyed an extravagant reputation as a bon vivant and fashionable man about town. All, however, was not quite well behind the glittering fa├žade. Meyrink suffered from severe depression which ultimately culminated in nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

On Assumption Eve, 1891, Meyrink was twenty four years old. He stood by the table in his apartment, holding a revolver in his hand, ready to end his life. Suddenly, he heard a rustling noise coming from the door. Upon investigation, Meyrink discovers that somebody has shoved an occultic pamphlet through the door. It is entitled "Afterlife."

This bizarre coincidence understandably set Meyrink off on a prodigious, life-long quest for occult knowledge and spiritual awakening. Later in the same year of his aborted suicide attempt, Meyrink became a founding member of the Theosophical Lodge of the Blue Star. He was "put to sea" in an endless tide of esoteric books and philosophies, studying and experimenting avidly with Cabalism, Freemasonry, yoga, alchemy, and hashish. There seems to have been no extreme to which he would not go in order to induce visions of the Other World. According to James Webb's book The Occult Establishment, "during the period of his strictest regimen - which probably coincided with his contact with the headquarters of the Theosophists - he took only three hours sleep a night, observed a strict vegetarian diet, performed arduous exercises, and drank gum-arabic twice a day in order to induce clairvoyance. At the end of these privations he had a vision like that of the Emperor Constantine and of abstract geometrical designs."

There was no stone Meyrink would leave unturned in his valiant attempt to attain the Great Work of spiritual transcendence. At one point, his practical experiments in alchemy lead to the shit quite literally hitting the fan: "All the necessary conditions for the alchemical "first matter" as he thought, were fulfilled by an element called "Struvit" or "Ulex" which had only been discovered in Germany, and always in ancient sewers. It therefore arose, argued Meyrink, in human excrement; and the substance fulfilled all the conditions laid down in alchemical texts. So from a "primaeval cess-pit" in Prague, he took a lump of excrement about the size of a nut and followed the instructions of his textbooks. The necessary color changes took place, but at a crucial point of the process his retort burst and the half-transformed prima materia hit the aspiring alchemist in the face."

In 1902, Lady Fortune gave a sharp turn to the wheel of Meyrink's destiny. He was about to get married for the second time, but severe disagreements with his future brother in law lead to him fighting an interminable series of duels with various officers of a Prague regiment. Worse still, rumours were swirling around Prague that Meyrink was running the affairs of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank according to advice from the spirit world. In the ensuing scandal, he was thrown in jail, wherein he is thought to have broken his spine, and temporarily lost the power of his legs. Meyrink spent just two and a half months in prison, but it had left him financially ruined, and requiring all his reserves of yoga training to heal his shattered body. It was during this period of recuperation that he began writing, and embarked upon an initially successful career as a novelist.

This is only really scraping the surface of Meyrink's adventures in the occult. Another fascinating story suggests that in 1917, agents of the German government encouraged him to write a novel suggesting that the First World War was started by the Freemasons. He later backed away from the project, apparently under pressure from high-ranking Freemasons. Ill-fortune and eerie coincidence seemed to remain constants in his life. In the winter of 1933, Meyrink's son Harro (or "Fortunat" according to the wikipedia entry, which would make the tale even more bizarre if true) injured his backbone while skiing. The injury would effectively have confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. However, he committed suicide at the age of 24; the same age his father would have gone, had the "Afterlife" pamphlet not came rustling through the door. Less than a year later, Meyrink himself passed away, in the villa in Starnberg, Bavaria, known, after a hunted building in The Golem, as "The House at the Last Lantern."

More on Meyrink's Writing Shortly.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The Patterson/Gimlin film appears to show a large, broad-shouldered, hairy bipedal creature. The creature is walking away into the tree-line, back into the wilderness from which it has been disturbed. The walk is distinctive, a legend in its right: purposeful, but somehow unhurried, with feet straight and arms swinging; majestic, though at times redolent of Groucho Marx in ambling retreat. Like, as the man says, a big man in no hurry. Patterson's extraordinary good fortune held out one more time: the creature turns its head back to look directly at the camera for about a second or two. It doesn't appear at all as interested in us as we are in it.

Proponents of the movie claim that it captures a real mystery, a Great Unknown of the biological kingdom; critics avow that it is not only a hoax, but the corniest of all illusions: a guy in a monkey suit. No one can deny, however, that lightning of certain kind struck in Bluff Creek that day. The PG Bigfoot film became a pop culture icon, and probably the most thoroughly and obsessively analysed piece of amateur celluloid after the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. (It is possible that in some distant future era, these strangely compulsive vignettes of recorded time will begin to bleed into one another, as old tales and legends were apt to assimilate and blend together with frequent re-telling. One day perhaps, Sasquatch will haunt Dealy Plaza, and look with brief, inhuman disinterest on the horror of the motorcade, her presence generating yet another vector in the already dense undergrowth of associations swirling around that mysterious event. The strange ritual of the Apollo moon landing might acquire an extra degree of eerie portent, an increased sense of man stepping cautiously onto the soil of another world, if Sasquatch were to glance briefly at the astronauts and their fragile craft, before receding and finally vanishing into the blackness of space. All significant events of twentieth century history may conceivably become contaminated by memories of the PG Bigfoot film; and our descendants, saddled with the world we have made for them, may well resolve that Bigfoot bailed out at exactly the right moment.)

The Cottingley Fairies.

The activity of the Enfield Poltergeist - David Soul looks on.

Viewed today, the film remains a strange artefact. For many of us, it is a potent reminder of childhood, and of the unusual fascination and idealism that young children seem to possess with regard to wild beasts and mythical creatures. Like so many anachronisms of paranormal pop culture, it feels both corny and numinous. This is an aesthetic quality I have discovered with many hoaxes; even as they aspire to the miraculous by the most threadbare and tawdry means, they cannot help but directly evoke the quality of the miraculous. Like the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies, they arrest that mysterious part of the mind that generates these archetypes in the first place, even while the rational mind rejects their imposture on the spot. In Diamonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, Patrick Harpur writes: "We watch the famous film of Bigfoot. It is both impressive and absurd. It looks like a man dressed up, and yet it doesn't. Its strides are too long, its arms hang or move inhumanly. It pauses, turns, looks at the camera. It is a chilling moment. We imagine a penetrating, intelligent gaze, but its face is too distant to be sure. It ambles off. We are left not knowing what we have seen. We believe it is a Bigfoot, whatever that is; or we don't believe it. The film compounds, highlights, intensifies the mystery, but nothing is resolved. Cameras may not lie, but neither are they suitable for telling the truth. Photos can be blown up or analysed until we're blue in the face; but the process turns the image into something else."

Weirdly enough, Greg Long, the author of a massive hit-piece against both Patterson and Bigfoot believers in general, writes very eloquently on the appeal of the film: "But there is more that compels the viewer. The creature's motions project a strangely familiar, yet elusive and unachievable idea. The idea points to something that is like us, but not us, both man and ape but actually neither. The ambling, androgynous creature suggests a living, breathing being that is utterly untouchable and free of man and the tyranny of his cities and the prison of his mass communications that shape our perceptions of reality, free from the fear of sudden violence coming from the hands of strangers or from a hidden, unknowable terror, walking away calmly, completely fearless in the face of the two hunters who could shatter its skull in an instant with a well-placed bullet. In the film, the creature is escaping, quietly stepping back inside the woods from which it came. And because it is freely escaping, it is undiscovered, never to be found, catalogued, recorded, numbered, or named. It is a powerful, American image, I thought. It's out-sized. It's strong. It's daring. It's confidence has a touch of sublime arrogance."

I have relatively little to say here as to whether the film is genuine or not. The circumstances surrounding it certainly evince extreme unlikelihood - the good fortune of Patterson and Gimlin beggars belief. Personally, I believe that if people really do see Bigfoot they are experiencing something more akin to the Ultraterrestrial hypothesis of John Keel - a kind of puzzling flashpoint where the creatures of the unconscious briefly manifest themselves as solid objects, and then vanish back into the ether like hallucinations. Which they may very well be - we have yet to even begin to understand the stranger vagaries of perception. But the movie itself offers little of conclusive import on either side. Some scientists have argued that aspects of the creature's anatomy, physical proportions, and movement make the man in a suit hypothesis virtually impossible. A greater majority have convincingly rubbished these claims. If Patterson's footage is hoaxed, then it remains one of the finer examples of the hoax genre - though generally discredited, it has never been conclusively debunked.

What interests me about the PG film is the degree to which it illustrates a point I was discussing earlier in relation to the Moon Landing hoax theories. One of the great tenets of belief underlining the early modern period was the notion that as our technological methods of recording, representing, and transmitting information become ever more accomplished, we leave behind forever the fuzzy imprecisions of an oral or essentially mythological culture. If information is only transmitted by means of the human voice, a vast space is opened up in the margins of error wherein mythologies can flourish. But if the recording/representational techniques are precise, then it should be possible to establish an objective record of the facts. However, the swirling seas of analysis, interpretation, and argument that surround movies like Zapruder, Apollo, and the PG Bigfoot film suggest instead that this never became the case. The visionary imprecision of the oral culture persists into the technological era, in the very technologies that should ideally have vanquished it. There is a brilliant cycle of movies that explore the haunted, elusive quality of modern recording technologies: Antonioni's Blow-Up (pictured above), Cappola's The Conversation, and de Palma's Blow Out.

Over the years, many people have emerged out of the shadows claiming to have worn the Bigfoot costume in Roger Patterson's film. The most prominent of these was Bob Heironimus, a Pepsi cola bottler from Yakima, Washington. Many sceptics have accepted his story, though it is as riven with inconsistency and dubious motivation as that of the original encounter. For years, rumours swirled around Hollywood's small, closely knit make-up effects community that the great John Chambers ( Planet of the Apes, The Outer Limits) was involved in the construction of the suit, but Chambers himself denies it, and the lead goes pretty cold after that. Roger Patterson died of cancer in 1972, swearing on his deathbed that the footage was genuine. Patterson was a strange man who seemed to live according to the very American ideals of freedom that Greg Long saw in the movie's bold Sasquatch stride. He was a tough, wiry fighter who lived by his own laws, especially as regards business and money; like the creature he allegedly captured on film, Patterson stepped briefly out of the margins into the limelight, and retreated back just as quickly. The following is his legacy:

Monday, August 30, 2010


1968 was a record year for men in ape suits. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, an aggressive primate hurled a bone into the sky which famously morphed into a space satellite. In the same year's Planet of the Apes, a space ship containing a cargo of pure Charlton Heston crash-landed on an eerily familiar planet dominated by intelligent apes. The prosthetic make-up effects in the latter were the work of television veteran John Chambers, and earned him a special Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up. (Chambers was the man who famously gave Leonard Nimoy his iconic Vulcan ears in Star Trek, which then cost the show's notoriously strained budget 25 bucks each. We will encounter Chambers again in the course of this strange tale.) It was a year earlier, however, that saw the release of perhaps the most iconic and enduring man in a monkey suit movie of all - but we cannot emphasize the "perhaps" enough.

Roger Patterson was a resident of Yakima, Washington, a former rodeo rider and, by some debatable later accounts, a conman who exhibited a considerable reluctance when it came to paying his dues. Sometime between '55 and '59, Patterson encountered the Yakima man who would play the role of his side-kick in the strange adventure of '67. Robert Emory Gimlin was a mild-mannered rancher of Chiricahua Apache Indian decent. The two men were drawn together by a very strange mutual passion. Many indigenous peoples around the globe possess a lively folk tradition regarding the existence of creatures that fall into some intermediate category between man and beast. These wildmen of ancient legendry are usually giant in stature, and highly elusive, mysterious creatures. They live somewhere out in the wilderness, but nobody knows quite where. Like the faeries, the wildmen are encountered only occasionally, by solitary travellers who have often lost their way. These chance meetings are brief, gnomic affairs that usually engender feelings of fear and awe - a sense of encountering an alternate order of being, of threading into a hermetically sealed world that human eyes were not meant to see. The wildmen rarely harm their inadvertent witnesses, but appear largely indifferent to the human world - they soon saunter back into the deep wilderness, and whatever strange spaces they inhabit at the edge of reality. In the Australian outback, they are called the Yowie; in South America, Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the first Westerners to record local tales of the Mono Grande, or Large Monkey; and of course, the snowy wastes of Nepal and Tibet are scattered with eldritch footprints, said to mark the passing of the Yeti.

In the increasingly technologized frontier of North America in the twentieth century, this type of mythical beast came to be called Bigfoot. While traditional societies have always taken the existence of otherworldly beings and realms for granted, modern Western culture has never known quite what to do with the denizens of its particular twilight zone. Hence the birth of the supremely paradoxical "science" of crytozoology, an earnest and often impassioned attempt to capture and classify the creatures of folklore's ever teeming bestiary. Crytozoology is a paradoxical endeavour indeed - for any potential victory for the field is also intrinsically a defeat. Once a fabled species had been definitively documented, it has lost the qualities that made it so alluring in the first place - its liminal status as an entity poised between reality and rumour, and the exciting jeopardy of committing one's self wholly to the pursuit of something that may, after all, be nothing more than a mirage of whispers and shadows. (Ufology similarly derives much of its appeal, it's raison d'etre, from information of an inherently ambiguous character. All impassioned dreams require, to a greater or lesser degree, the jeopardy of unreality and impossibility.)

Crytozoology emerged in large part from the surreal landscape of pulp magazine publication in post-war America - a scene dominated by titles like Raymond Palmer's FATE and Frank Munsey's Argosy, and populated by a menagerie of serious-minded monster-hunters and dimestore journalists, men in every regard as marginal and bizarre as the phantoms they pursued. (This is the unique, long vanished netherworld of print journalism that the great John A. Keel made his own.) The pulp magazines can actually be seen as torch bearers for a certain tendency that was very widespread in American newspaper journalism around the turn of the century - a streak of PT Barnum-like showmanship that was not at all adverse to occasionally outrageous crytozoological hoaxes. For example, on August 25, 1835, the New York Sun ran a story with the headline "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel L.L.D, F. R. S." The piece attributed to a real astronomer the discovery on the moon of trees, beaches, rivers, and a variety of lifeforms including unicorns, two-legged beavers, and a species of furry, winged, bat-like humanoid.

In 1961, Ivan T. Sanderson, the originator of the word "crytozoology", wrote a book called Snowmen: Legends Come to Life, which somehow fell into the hands of rodeo rider and lean roughneck Roger Patterson. The book had a strangely powerful effect on Patterson's imagination: he corresponded with Sanderson for six years, and self-published his own contribution to the genre, Do Abominable Snowmen of North America Really Exist?, in 1966. Patterson's chaotic life discovered a sense of purpose, an ordering principle, in the myth of the unclassified, unfettered beast-man roaming the wilds of an increasingly civilised and tame nation. He had similarly inflamed Bob Gimlin's imagination with tales of terrifying sightings and mysterious tracks, and 1967 the pair were working on an ambitious pseudo-documentary called "Bigfoot: Americas Abominable Snowman." The movie's proposed storyline involved Patterson, a wise Indian tracker (Gimlin wearing a wig), and a trope of cowboys setting off on the trail of Bigfoot. ( The project was later realized, under the alternative title of Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot, by Ron Olson of ANE studios.) The adventure had a touch of vaudeville from the onset.

Following reports of intermittent sightings and tracks, the pair made their way to Six Rivers National Forest in North California, armed with a couple of rifles and a 16 mm camera which had been officially classified as stolen until Patterson later returned it in perfect working order. They were wandering through an area portentously named Bluff Creek in the early afternoon of October the 20th, when sheer, fortuitous lightning struck. As Roger would later tell Ivan T. Sanderson and the readers of Argosy magazine: "Gosh darn it, Ivan, right there was a Bigfoot, and, fer pity's sake, she was a female! I don't think you'll see it in the film, but she walked like a big man in no hurry, and the soles of her feet were definitely light in color."