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DM talks ‘Godless Mysticism’ with John Gray, the world’s Greatest Living Philosopher
02.15.2013
05:29 am

Topics:
Literature

Tags:
John Gray


 
A review of John Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Myths (interview below)

I remember reading John Gray’s epochal Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals sometime in 2004, and occasionally laughing out loud at the sheer misery and horror presented therein. Indubitably the book—one of those you’re likely to read not only without putting it down but without blinking—made an exceptional case for the human animal being frail, amoral, savage, irrational and (last but not least) collectively and individually doomed, but as such reading it felt vaguely masochistic, and reading its brilliant successors—from the happy-go-lucky Black Mass to the laugh-a-minute Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern—frankly perverse (like philosophical self-flagellation). One persisted because Gray was so obviously among the finest writers alive—the nearest thing we have to a Nietzsche by a country mile.

Well as it happens, Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths is not merely an exercise in iconoclasm, and finds the author in an altogether different mood, exploring what might be advisable to the human animal whose precarious existence is compounded by an indifferent universe.

An important thing to note here is that Gray’s books were never meant to revel in pessimism, but to warn us away from reckless delusion. Were fatuous optimism harmless, then maybe we would all do well strolling about looking forward to an eternity in heaven, or, alternatively, anticipating the imminent defeat of death, as did some Bolsheviks (which Gray investigated in his last book, The Immortalization Commission). Such giddy dreams, however, tend to come at quite a frightening price, and the Inquisition or Stalin’s terror represent the respective and bloody tips of those particular icebergs.

Furthermore, although he must have savaged a few thousand modern myths in his time, Gray’s objection is not with myth per se. How else, after all, could he or we hope to grasp his work’s guiding equation—in which to attempt to impose or even seriously imagine an existence without suffering and death exponentially multiplies their influence? The myths of Prometheus or the myth Genesis, Gray suggests in The Silence of Animals, are the very medicines needed to treat those modern myths fathered by Socrates and Christ, two martyrs who chucked caution to the wind… and inspired the rest of the species to follow suit.

Now, if we subsequently see Prometheus or Genesis as being “true”—what do we mean by this? Not that they actually occurred, that’s for sure (Gray has pointed out before that it was only recently that Christians started to consider Genesis as being a literal account of human origins). But this eschewal of literalism is not necessarily an eschewal of mysticism. When we use myth as we have done here, we are trying to access something beyond language and even science—story and symbol are all we have.

For the so-called “New Atheists,” on the other hands, nothing exists you can’t just slap a word on, so their “disbelief” is a matter of having the word “God,” but not having an entity to affix it to (they’ve looked everywhere). Gray suggests an altogether more elevated position:

“Atheism does not mean rejecting ‘belief in God.’ It means giving up belief in language as anything other than a practical convenience. The world is not a creation of language, but something that – like the God of the negative theologians – escapes language. Atheism is only a stage on the way to a more far-reaching scepticism.”

The Silence of Animals is a profound exploration of this “far-reaching scepticism”—or “Godless mysticism.” It is also one of Gray’s best books. No mean feat.
 
An interview with John Gray

Thomas McGrath: John, how did you conceive of The Silence of Animals? Penguin are calling it “the successor to Straw Dogs”—was this your own conception of the book?

John Gray: I do think of The Silence of Animals as a successor to Straw Dogs, though that only became clear to me as I wrote the book. I began it as an exploration of secular myth, especially the variety in which meaning is embodied in cumulative advance in time, but it soon became an attempt to dig deeper into the themes of the earlier book—in particular the idea of contemplation. The chief difference between the two books, from my point of view, is that by presenting contemplation as correlative to a life of action. The Silence of Animals is more positive in tone.

TM: Your The Immortalization Commission is pervaded by the fascinating spectre of the subliminal self - to what extend do you feel something like this guides your own work?

JG: I wrote The Immortalization Commission for three reasons. First, to show how bizarre the history of ideas actually is—and how different from the cleaned-up version that is commonly accepted. Second, to show how the most far-fetched ideas can become an integral part of life as it’s actually lived. How many people know that Arthur Balfour entered into an imagined posthumous correspondence with someone he may have loved? How many that the embalming of Lenin was part of a larger attempt to conquer death? For the people whose stories are told in the book, overcoming death through science wasn’t just an abstract notion. Thirdly, I wanted to tell a story—two stories in fact, though they overlap and interlink—rather than just set out another argument.

Again, these reasons only became clear while writing the book, so I suppose it is true that my writing is in some degree guided by a subliminal thought-process. Maybe this is true of all writers, whether or not they recognize the fact.

TM: The Silence of Animals seems to me your least iconoclastic work. For the first time, you seem to be exploring how the individual might approach the world as it’s presented in your other books. Is this an accurate interpretation?

JG: The Silence of Animals does flow from my earlier work, and you’re right to say that it tries to show how someone who accepted the view of things presented in my other books might approach the world. I’m not sure it will be seen as less iconoclastic—those who hated my earlier work will also hate this, I’m sure, because it too refuses to take seriously the faith in action and progress that they think they live by.

TM: From The Silence of Animals: “By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs, Christianity—the religion that St Paul invented from Jesus’ life and sayings—founded the modern world.” Given that this “expectation” is the very thing you diagnose as lying behind all the Utopian mythologies you attack, to what extent do you view Christianity as a pivotal and essentially detrimental emergence in the history of humankind?

JG: I think of Christianity as being like many world-transforming movements—at once extremely harmful and highly beneficial. Either way it marks what you call a pivotal point in history. Christian myth seems to me deep and interesting, at times also beautiful, whereas the myths of its secular successors strike me as shallow, banal and ugly.

TM: This critique of Christianity’s influence on humanity resembles Nietzsche’s—especially since you see its influence as allied with Socrates’. I’m interested in your relationship to Nietzsche. It’s obvious how you differ, but was he quite formative to your worldview?

JG: Nietzsche was a gifted moral psychologist from whose writings I’ve learnt a great deal. As you can see from my response above, I don’t share his outright condemnation of Christianity. He was in fact much more confined by a Christian world-view than Schopenhauer, an early and powerful influence on him. The later Nietzsche—who became a sort of hyper-humanist—I find absurd, though still more interesting than the dull, respectable, neo-Christian humanists of today.

TM: One way you distinctly differ from Nietzsche is on the matter of morality. Indeed, in The Silence of Animals you describe slavery and torture as “universal evils.” As a reader, however, I feel I know very little about your views on ethics and morality, or the philosophical foundation for such a statement.  How would you define your moral philosophy? Do you, perhaps, have this in mind for a future work?

JG: You are right that I differ from Nietzsche in thinking there are universal evils such as slavery and torture. You’re also right that I intend to focus on ethics in future work—more specifically, I’m thinking of writing a post-Nietzschean genealogy of morals.

TM: You like telling stories about intellectuals. What events in your own life were pivotal to your worldview?

JG: I don’t think any single event has shaped my thinking. I was influenced by the collapse of communism—a development viewed by mainstream opinion as beyond the realm of reasonable probability, but which I thought quite likely from the early eighties onwards. The financial crisis of the past few years has also been formative, in that it has reinforced my view that the near future is often far more discontinuous with the present than is commonly imagined.

Posted by Thomas McGrath | Discussion
‘Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead’: Nick Cave’s psychotic cameo in harrowing 1989 Aussie prison drama
02.12.2013
10:58 am

Topics:
Movies
Music

Tags:
Nick Cave
John Hillcoat


 
Last week I blogged about “Jubilee Street,” the new Nick Cave video directed by John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless, The Proposition) and in that post I mentioned that Cave had appeared, in an extremely striking cameo role, in Hillcoate’s 1989 feature debut, the gripping prison drama Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead.

It’s a really amazing film, but one that is sadly little-known outside of Australia (and extreme Nick Cave fanboys—admittedly I saw Ghosts…, alone, at a midnight screening in NYC—I think it was the only one there was—back in 1989.)

Perhaps it is a misconception, but due to the worldwide popularity of films like Chopper and the classic camp TV of the 1980s women-in-prison soap opera Prisoner: Cell Block H,  I can be forgiven, I hope, for assuming that Australians, on the whole, are a bit obsessed with criminals, violent crime and incarceration. I guess it’s in their blood, so to speak. (I kid, I kid, Aussie readers! Please don’t kill me!) Loosely based on the life and writing of Jack Henry Abbott, the psychotic murderer turned literary protégé of Normain Mailer turned psychotic murderer once again, Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead features an ensemble cast of real-life ex-convicts, former prison guards and tough-looking motherfuckers they found in local Melbourne gyms. This film is realistic. Scary realistic.

Narrated by a (fictional) former prison guard, Ghosts… takes place deep in within the bowels of a maximum security prison, somewhere in the Australian outback. The place is an incessantly humming, fluorescent-lit nightmare. There has been a three-year lockdown that is still ongoing. The tension is palpable, the place is a claustrophobic, concrete Hell that no sunlight penetrates, a hatred and resentment-fueled timebomb waiting to go off.

As events transpire, the viewer begins to see that the prison authorities are actively trying to provoke the prison population, and that they are pitting the guards against the inmates, preying on both to escalate the violence in order to crack down on the prisoners ever harder and to justify building a fortress even more fearsome, inescapable and “secure.”

Ghosts… has layers of unexpected meaning. Although the script (co-written by Hillcoat, Cave, one-time Bad Seeds guitarist Hugo Race, Gene Conkie and producer Evan English) tells a reasonably straightforward tale of the prisoners—captive in a high security fortress that escape from seems impossible—versus the authorities who manipulate them into chaos, there’s a wider allegorical message of the power dynamic inherent in Western capitalism: Conform. Do exactly what we tell you to do, or there will be consequences. Like this high security Hell on Earth.

Michel Foucault would have most certainly approved of Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead, I should think.

Although contrary to the way Ghosts… was marketed, Nick Cave is onscreen for just a short appearance, but having said that, it is a cinematic moment of pure genius. Cave plays “Maynard,” a violent psychotic who paints with his own blood. Maynard is an absolute fucking lunatic deliberately brought in by the prison authorities to make an already bad situation much, much worse. His psychotic ranting and raving riles up the situation into complete murderous chaos. Although he is seen just briefly in the film, it is Cave’s Maynard who lights the bomb’s ever present fuse.

Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead is extraordinary film, as as bleak and as uncompromising a work of art as I have ever experienced. Unforgettable, really, but perhaps difficult for the squeamish to sit through. Once seen, it can never be forgotten.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
David Mercer: The socialist playwright behind ‘Morgan’ and ‘Providence’

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The playwright David Mercer was born in 1928, in a working class district of Wakefield, in the north of England. He was raised amid the poverty and hardship that bred the instinctual Socialism of his father and uncles, which they had learned from experience, and gathered from books by Wells, Shaw, Lenin and Marx. This was Mercer’s first taste of the politics, handed-down, father-to-son, which was to influence all of his writing.

He quit school at 14, and worked as an apprentice technician, before he signed-on for 4-years with the Royal Navy. He went on to study at King’s College, Newcastle, then married and moved to Paris, where he tried his hand as an artist, before deciding he was best suited at being a writer. He wrote long, rambling novels influenced by Wyndham-Lewis. The practice taught him he could writer, but his novels were too abstract and had no relation to how he truly felt. This taught him that he could write but was not a novelist, he therefore started writing plays.

His first Where the Difference Begins (1961) was originally intended for the stage, but was produced for television by the BBC. The play was a valediction to the old men of Socialism, the Keir Hardie inspired patriarchical socialism being left behind by the active Marxism of a younger generation. The play reflected the difference between his father’s beliefs and Mercer’s own—though Mercer was smart enough to be critical of his own ideals.

The play was successful and he followed it with A Climate of Fear (1962), which dealt with conscience under the threat of a possible nuclear war, and The Birth of a Private Man (1963), concerning the problems of maintaining strong political conscience within an affluent environment.

Mercer brought a naturalism to the theater of ideas—he discussed issues of Empire, politics and patriarchy in plays such as, The Governor’s Lady (1965) and After Haggerty (1970), while his television plays, The Parachute (1968), which starred fellow playwright John Osborne, and On The Eve of Publication (1969) with an incredible central performance by Leo McKern, and Shooting the Chandelier (1977) with Alun Armstrong and Edward Fox, which have shaped TV drama right through to present day (in particular the works of Stephen Poliakoff or David Hare), though David Mercer himself is all too often forgotten.

Though a Socialist, Mercer was never blinkered to the follies and mistakes of Socialism, Communism and the politics of the Left. He was aware that the aim of political revolution was often frustrated by the inherited conventions of society, and by the frailty of human emotion and mind. This was shown to it great effect in the film version of his play, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), in which David Warner, had an obsessional relationship with Marxism, apes, and his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave), that led him to (literally) become a revolutionary “gorilla” determined to derail his ex-wife’s new relationship. 
 

 
With thanks to NellyM
 
More from David Mercer and the theater of politics, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Andy Kershaw: The Rolling Stones Guide to Painting & Decorating

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Andy Kershaw is a writer, a multi-award-winning broadcaster (he once shared an office with John Peel for 12 years, and has won more Sony Radio Awards than any other broadcaster, and was one of the presenters on Live Aid). He is also a foreign correspondent, who eye-witnessed and reported on the Rwandan genocide. His fearlessness as a reporter saw him banned from Malawi under the dictatorship of Dr Hastings Banda.

But that’s only part of this Lancastrian’s incredible story.

Kershaw has worked for Bruce Springsteen; was Billy Bragg’s driver, roadie and tour manager; went on a blind date with a then unknown Courtney Love (to see Motorhead); was propositioned by both Little Richard and Frankie Howerd; spent a week riding out with Sonny Barger and the Oakland Hell’s Angels; went with Red Adair and Boots Hansen to the burning oil well-heads in Kuwait in 1991; and was immortalised by Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, which was later filmed with John Cusack.

This has made Andy Kershaw a bit of a legendary figure—a kind of distant British relative to Hunter S Thompson. This and much more can be found in Kershaw’s excellent autobiography No Off Switch, which I can thoroughly recommend.

But let’s go back to 1982, when Kershaw was working for The Rolling Stones, as Andy explains by way of introduction to this extract from No Off Switch:

I had been, for the past two years, the Entertainments Secretary of Leeds University, booking all the bands and organising and running the concerts, at the largest college venue in the UK. Although non sabbatical and unpaid, I devoted all my time and energies to the job. We enjoyed a reputation - among bands, booking agents and management companies - as a highly professional operation with a long and rich history of running prestigious gigs. I had built up a good working relationship with the major UK concert promoters and, with my Leeds University stage crew, I was often hired by those companies to work on big concerts elsewhere. In the spring of 1982, I took a call in the Ents Office in the Students’ Union, from Andrew Zweck, right-hand man to Harvey Goldsmith, the UK’s biggest concert promoter at the time. “Andy,” said Andrew. “Would you like to work for the Rolling Stones this summer? And could you bring Leeds Uni’s stage crew with you?” Al, referred to in this extract, is Al Thompson, my friend and right-hand man in running the Leeds University concerts. Now read on…

The Rolling Stones Guide to Painting & Decorating

Already the size of an aircraft carrier, the stage was only partially built when we arrived.

Members of Stage Crew, like the remnants of a rebel patrol, were threading their way down through the trees, into the natural bowl of Roundhay Park, and gathering behind the vast scaffolding framework.

A couple of dozen articulated lorries, and a similar number of empty flat-beds were parked up in neat lines. More were rumbling into the park.

We squinted up at the riggers, chatting and clanking, swinging and building, climbing higher on their Meccano as they worked.

“Fuck,” said Al. And we all concurred with his expert analysis.

It was an impressive erection, even for Mick Jagger. And, at that time, the biggest stage that had ever been built, anywhere in the world.

Roundhay, in Leeds, in front of 120,000 fans, was to be the final date on the Rolling Stones European Tour, 1982, which broke records, set standards and established precedents on a scale never seen before. The logistics alone were mind-boggling.

If the scale of the infrastructure being unloaded before our eyes in Roundhay was extraordinary, there had to be - for the Stones to play a handful of consecutive dates in new locations - three of these set-ups on the road, and leap-frogging each other, at the same time: one under construction, a second ready for the gig; and a third being dismantled following the previous performance. We were just a fraction of the total operation.

To meet the backstage requirements at Roundhay, I was to be in charge of those logistics and grandly titled, for the next three weeks, Backstage Labour Co-ordinator.

It was reassuring to find a couple of familiar and friendly faces in the Portakabin offices which had been plonked down overlooking the grassy slope of what would become the backstage area. Andrew Zweck from Goldsmith’s office, and Harvey’s earthly representative during the build-up at Leeds, is a bluff, blond Australian with a reputation for getting things done. Uncommonly, for the music business, Andrew is good-humoured and devoid of self-importance. Similarly, Paul Crockford – Andrew’s assistant for the Roundhay gig.

Dear old Crockers was about the only bloke in the music industry that I actually considered to be a pal. Just a few years old than me, and a former Ents Sec at Southampton, he was now working in a freelance capacity for Harvey Goldsmith’s concert promotion company.

A tour of the Rolling Stones magnitude had required the UK’s biggest promoter to be co-opted as the British servant of the the overall mastermind of the enterprise, the legendary hippy impresario and pioneer, Bill Graham. In fact, this Rolling Stones adventure – taking in Europe and the States over two years - was the first time one promoter had staged a whole tour, globally. Graham’s experiment with the Stones, in 1981-2, would become the model for the industry in years to come. For the moment, however, in this previously uncharted territory, Graham and Goldsmith were making it up as they went along.

Crockers - even when he was ripping me off, selling me bands for the University - is always huge fun. Like Andrew Zweck, he doesn’t know how to be pompous. And like me, Crockers is amused most by the ridiculous and the absurd. This was to be a quality we would find indispensable over the following couple of weeks.

“That’s your desk,” said Andrew, pointing to a freshly-acquired bargain, in simulated teak finish, from some second-hand office supplies outlet. My position was in the middle of our HQ, handily by the door, and with a window overlooking the side of the stage and the slope leading down to where the dressing rooms and band’s hospitality area hadn’t yet been built. I could keep an eye on everything.

Crockers dumped in front me a telephone, a heavy new ledger and a cash box containing five hundred pounds before briefly outlining the mysteries of double-entry book keeping.

It started to rain.

A stocky, bearded little bloke soon popped up at the door.

“Hey, you,” he said. “Who’s the guy around here in charge of all the purchases.” The accent was American.

“Me,” I said. “Mine name’s Andy. Who are you?”

“Magruder,” he snapped, as though he was a brand. And one that I should recognise.

“What’s your job here?” I asked.

“Site Co-ordinator, Rolling Stones.” It crossed my mind it was unlikely he’d have been there for The Tremeloes. “Get me fifty pairs of Hunter’s boots and fifty waterproof capes,” he snapped.

And he was gone.

 
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More from The Rolling Stones Guide to Painting & Decorating, after the jump…
 
With kind thanks to Andy Kershaw
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
I Am The Cosmos: Listen to the whole of their superb debut album ‘Monochrome’

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I Am The Cosmos was the title of a beautiful and groundbreaking album by Chris Bell, originally recorded in the mid-1970s, but not released until 1992 - fourteen years after Bell’s death in a freak automobile accident. While I Am The Cosmos is now recognized as a cult classic - the name I Am The Cosmos is now fast becoming more associated with a brilliantly talented duo from Dublin, Ross Turner and Cian Murphy.

Since their formation in 2010, I Am The Cosmos have been making considerable impression with their music. From their first release “Dislocate”, they have been cautiously producing material of such quality and originality that it promised I Am The Cosmos would one day release a masterwork. And now it would appear this day has come early, with the release of their sublime debut album Monochrome. I contacted I Am The Cosmos to find out more about Ross and Cian, theri backgrounds, what brought them together, and how they wrote and recorded their brilliant debut Monochrome.

Paul Gallagher:  How did you first meet and what drew you together as musicians?

Cian Murphy: ‘Ross [Turner] is a drummer by trade and was involved in the Dublin music scene from quite an early age, so I was a fan of bands he played with long before we started making music together. We would meet at gigs, or he would come into where I worked and buy records and we would talk about music. There was always a mutual interest in what the other was up to musically.

‘When it comes to making music, I think even though the desired outcome is the same, we do have different approaches. I would tend to be a little more gung-ho with my ideas while Ross is more restrained. There are times when Ross will tell me to keep it simple and not throw so much at a song, and he’s always right! Wherever that balance is struck - that’s usually where the good ideas are. There are similarities too though - we both love a good melody and wanted to explore the notion of songs being quite melodic while still being something people can dance to.’

Ross Turner: ‘Cian [Murphy] and I had mutual friends growing up when we were teenagers - we lived pretty close to each other on the outskirts of Dublin. Usually bumping into each other at parties or in “discos”, spending most of our time talking about very similar tastes in music.  Time passed along and some growing up took place before we actually did anything together, although I think we had always wanted to do something together musically. I was gifted the amazing opportunity to work out of and run a great studio space in Dublin, the owners had moved away for a short spell. When this came up I got in touch with Cian straight away to see if he wanted to come along and mess around with some music I was working on. Just previous to this Cian had done a remix of a very early version of “Look Me In The Eye” under the name Leisure Wear. I really liked what he did with the song, so I was eager to develop something after that.

‘The fact that our tastes are so similar we moved quite quickly into a process of putting tracks together.’
 

 
Previously on Dangerous MInds

I Am The Cosmos: EXCLUSIVE premiere of their album track ‘Lost Rhythm’


 
With thanks to I Am The Cosmos and John Kowalski
 
More from I Am The Cosmos and ‘Monochrome’, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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