The critic Denis Donoghue gives a lecture he calls 'The Arts Without Mystery'. He's been giving it for twenty years or so. In the early 1980s he delivered it in the form of the Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 3. That's when I heard it, and it made quite an impression on me.
The title is a trick. Posing as the sort of educator who can teach you 'French without tears' or untangle the 'problem plays' of Shakespeare, Donoghue turns out to be making a case for the irreducible mystery of art. Far from joining the ranks of democratisers and explicators of art, he's asking us to set aside our neurotic compulsion to 'understand' everything. Art, says Donoghue, has its origins in shamanistic rite and ancient religious ritual. It has been weird and otherworldly from day one. Art comes out of the Dark Ages, the Neanderthal slime. Explication, on the other hand, comes out of the 18th century, the age of encyclopaedias and dictionaries.
Jacques Attali wrote an interesting book about musicians in which he said that we have an oddly ambiguous role in most cultures. The African 'griot' and the Western 'rock star' have the same dual role in their very different cultures: each is simultaneously outsider and demi-god. And it's true that, no matter how professionalised and industrialsed the role of musician becomes in the west, there's still an attitude to musicians which goes directly back to our most primitive origins.
Being a musician is like being a jobless, homeless bum half the time, and a god the rest. People often laugh at me on the street because I look 'different'; thin, otherworldly, obviously unemployed, a misfit, a low-status citizen, some sort of busker or beggar. To people who haven't heard or don't like my music, I'm just a problematic citizen who seems to give himself airs, to dress with uncommon license, to deviate with impunity. But to those under my spell I'm charged with mysterious power, as though I exist half in the world of mundane reality and half in some other world, a place of occult power and mysterious magic. These people often want to touch the hem of my garment -- they do, really! -- or keep something I've used. They want me to write some message on their body somewhere, or sleep with them.
There's a residual shamanism that comes with my job that doesn't come with being a jet pilot or a management consultant. I'm not complaining. Not only am I, normally a rather shy and isolated person, happy to become, from time to time, some sort of Pied Piper of Hamlyn to a troupe of adoring acolytes, I also buy into the mythology of occult power. I was born Nick Currie, but by esoteric study, slow refinement and sudden alchemical conversion I have become Momus. And, as Momus, I really do tap into power and energy which comes from another world.
For instance, last week a song came to me in a dream. It was called 'Lovely Tree'. It sounded like the great missing track from Nico's 'Desertshore' album or a lyric by Blake. In my dream I was listening to the new Kahimi Karie cover versions album and this track came on. I was instantly jealous and wished I had written the song. Then I woke up and realised that I had. I scrabbled down my loftbed ladder, started up my sequencer and transcribed the melody. Then I wrote down the words I had been hearing in my dream:
Keep, lovely tree, your leaves in wintertime
Stand strongly in your bark of love
Make shelter for the lion and the lamb
Keep every beast safe from the butcher's knife
It seems clear to me that this song 'came' to me complete and finished. I didn't need to work on it. I didn't compose it, it just arrived 'from another realm'. Musicians often say this. In an interview in today's Japan Times entitled 'Melody of the Inexpressible', Kazu of Blonde Redhead says: 'It's not so much in your control. You never feel like it's your creation. You happened to walk by and pick it up.'
Without positing the existence of deities or demons, I think we could say that when songs just appear like this, they are coming into being in the same way as religious 'songs' like the Bible and the Koran do. I'm not claiming to be Moses or Mohammed when I say this, just pointing to the mystery inherent in the creation of certain kinds of 'song'. That might be one reason that some people, people unable to be indifferent to the beauty of song, hold people like me, the mailmen or messengers of mystery, in such oddly high esteem, higher than golf stars or television repairmen.
'It seems to me that the whole point about the idea of the bad, different, amoral, outsider kind of creative figure is that he stands as a substitution for the notion of the religious prophet. And increasingly, as we move into more and more secular, more and more materialist cultural confluences, so that kind of creative figure takes on more and more of the appurtenances and the garb of this kind of prophetic figure. It becomes a quasi-religious role.'
Will Self, interviewed for 'Hello Culture' by Matthew Collings
Thinking about Denis Donoghue and his theme of the inexplicability of art, I think automatically of Dostoyevsky too. Dostoyevsky saw Russia as a country caught between its own mysterious spirituality -- the Slavic soul -- and the encroaching techno-rationalism of Europe. Like Tarkovsky, he thought that a surrender to the instrumental rationality of the west would mean the loss of the distinctive spirituality of the Russian soul. Like Muslims today, Russians in the 19th century saw themselves as the sole remaining repositories of the soul's 'otherness'. Given the choice of 'catching up' with the west or embodying some stubborn, spiritual nemesis to it, they chose to become the enemy, the other. I think every musician has made this choice at some point in his life too.
I've always preferred visual people to literary people, and I think this is something to do with mystery.
When I went to Aberdeen University I completely failed to befriend anybody in my literature lectures, although it was my major subject. But I got on well with the painting students at the art school. I would point my rusty blue Wolseley 1100 away from the ancient, ivy-covered gothic university campus on the north-east edge of the oil boom city and head to Gray's, a crisp glass and steel box set in a little river gulley amidst the woods and fields of the city's south-west fringes.
The contrast was more than geographical or architectural: whereas university students listened to Simple Minds and Blondie, art students were into The Fall and weird Wire side projects like Dome. University students would be reading Mrs Gaskell and writing about the 19th century novel as reformist plea, but their small talk would be about relationships and how they really needed to 'get organised'. In contrast, my friends at Gray's didn't seem to draw any line between the stuff they were encountering in books and lectures and their own lives. There was no sense of 9 to 5, no sense that 'they' controlled the knowledge and that 'we' had to submit to the discipline of mental organisation to receive it. Uni students segmented themselves into id (drink, drugs, the weekend), ego (friends, compromises, good self-image, the working week) and superego (internalised tutor saying, every fortnight, 'Where's that essay?'). Uni students were already, in a sense, employees. Art students, on the other hand, were undivided. They were, and would remain, unemployable.
My friend Keith Grant would rave to me about Philip Guston's odd chunky painted cartoons or the strange tableaux, sharp-edged, realist yet mythical, of Max Beckmann. There was nothing more real than that in his life, no relationships or organisational hassles to distract him. Beckmann and Guston were restructuring Keith by symbiosis, by charisma. Something in him was hearing their 'songs'. They were his Pied Pipers, fluting him to mystery.
I remember being shown round Gray's studios once by Keith, Keith and Graham, my friends there. I just couldn't believe that anything as wonderful as art school existed. 'It really feels like a place for self-actualisation,' I said. I don't know if they knew quite what I meant. I'd probably been reading too much Abraham Maslow at the time. But there were stark contrasts with what people were doing back at the English department. In EngLit we parsed well-worn fossils, the shrapnel of LitCrit's 'canon fodder' of dead geniuses. At our most daring we would debate their role in the pantheon, their right to a place in the canon. (Hello Leavis! Hello Kermode!) If the texts presented problems we teased sensible meanings out of them, and our tutors sat in judicious gravitas, assessing whether our explanations of the reasonableness of, say, Matthew Arnold were, in themselves, reasonable. To better survive their scrutiny we'd learn to say 'It might be suggested that...' rather than 'I think'. It sounded less personal, less subjective, less arrogant.
Whatever we were doing, though, it seems clear that we were trying, by exhaustive technical analysis and historical background research, to clear up the mysteries surrounding texts. When we weren't switching the lights on with a big flourish, we were poking around with a torch, scraping the dust off inscriptions, restoring with a footnote a Shakespearean nuance in danger of falling into obscurity for a modern audience.
At Gray's, meanwhile, they were painting. On a weekly basis my friend Keith added to the sum total of cultural objects in the world, and with each canvas he added to the sum total of useless mystery in the world.
Unlike a literary text, which is made of the same material (language) as the explications and commentaries surrounding it, a painting is irreducible. You can say what you like about a painting, but your words don't stick to it in the form of footnotes and introductions. (Well, okay, a painting might have a label stuck to the wall beside it and a little text in the catalogue, but it suffers no serious damage from them. The label probably says 'Untitled' or some random combination of words, the essay is destined never to be read, and can't diminish the sovereign power of the image itself.) Paintings are irreducibly mysterious, and seem happy that way.
(I pause here to mark a small query to this argument about the irreducibility of images. In a world which really moved from verbal culture to visual culture, and in which MTV and advertising cannibalised every visual invention made by artists almost the moment they hit the streets, would images still be 'irreducible' and mysterious? Wouldn't text become the 'other', the mysterious medium in such a world? I think the answer is probably yes, but we don't yet live in a world like that. Let's wait until lawyers and politicians carry sketchpads and act out their briefs and briefings mute like Marcel Marceau before we say we live in a world ruled by images.)
Whether you are adding to or subtracting from the sum total of mystery in the world obviously has a bearing on your afterlife. Not life after death, I mean, but life after graduation. The LitCrit nerd parsing authoritative texts created by some dead genius moves on to work on something a little more contemporary. Maybe he parses society itself and becomes an advertising man. Maybe he comes to treat living writers like dead geniuses when he gets a job in publishing. Maybe he turns his command of sentence structure to good use as a journalist. Or maybe he does something completely unrelated, but using the basic analytical skills he's learned dissecting the pinned frog of the dead genius' thoughts. I mean, that scalpel will work on just about any kind of membrane if it works on the gnarled hide of George Eliot, won't it?
As time goes by, the art student has far fewer opportunities for compromise. He (and of course I also mean she) must either become a 'celebrity of otherness', indulged and patronised and collected for the charm of the useless mystery he brings into the world, or he must give it all up and get a job driving a routemaster bus. Of course, there are compromises. You can become a graphic designer or some other type of commercial artist. You can teach art, which is what my friend Keith Grant ended up doing. Back at Gray's. Or you can become Henry Darger: get a job as a school janitor, create a neurotic private mythology in thousands of drawings and writings set in a strange parallel world, get discovered after you die, or, if you're discovered before you die, get arrested.
Without wishing to sound too 'Mein Kampf' about it, it made sense that I would befriend the art students. Because essentially I had set up in my own life the same big gamble they faced in theirs. It was all or nothing. I would embrace my unemployability. I would add to the sum total of mystery in the world. I would build up a personal mythology, useless for all practical purposes and yet obscurely charismatic. I would dress like a gay blade. My work and my life would offer succour to a tiny band of troubled souls who would, for reasons known only to themselves, seek me out. I would become a minor Greek god or I would die in the attempt, with the sound of the world's mocking laughter ringing in my ears as I plummeted like Icarus to the rocky sea below.
My vill vould triumph! Or I vould bekomm ein laughingstock, gotterdammerung!
In fact both would happen. I would be both god and idiot, insider and outsider, shaman and sham.
In 1975 I was at high school in Montreal. In biology class we were shown how to make an 'ecosystem' in a perspex box. The biology teacher put together some mutually dependent life forms -- moss, flies, flowers, a lizard -- and let them settle into a sustainable relationship. When you added water and sunshine from the classroom window, this perspex box became a self-contained microcosm, another green world.
But, even within the transparency of perspex, your ecosystem remained mysterious. You'd set it up, but you didn't control it. You never knew which of the actors in your mini-drama would get eaten, which would die, or whether some undetected rogue spore would take root and come to dominate the box. You made a set of rules for starting your sim-world, but there were other, unknown rules in the DNA of the animals and plants you had included which made the final outcome obscure. Maybe it wasn't what the biology teacher had in mind, but this was what you liked about the experiment. The systems took you to a place you could never have predicted in advance. Apparently systems and mystery were not incompatible.
The same year 'the scaramouche of the synthesiser', Brian Eno, made an album called Another Green World. On this record songs drift into instrumentals, cloudlike synthesisers are incised by lightning flashes of tangled electric guitar, precise click-clacking metronomes crawl over igneous rock like sombre robotic reptiles, and artificial processes, set up by humans, slowly decay towards random patterns resembling nature.
The 'green world' of the title suggests nature, but the word 'another' leads us away from the world we know and out towards space and science fiction, or perhaps the parallel worlds proposed by art or quantum physics. Perhaps Eno is enjoying relinquishing conscious control over the music. Perhaps he feels -- like John Cage when he abandons conscious compositional choice, or God when he abandons the world -- that his absence only makes the creator's presence stronger.
When, in 1985, Eno and John Cage were talking about their shared distaste for music that comes too heavily laden with intentions, Eno said 'I have the same feeling about lyrics. I just don't want to hear them most of the time. They always impose something that is so unmysterious compared to the sound of the music, they debase the music for me.' From the tape loops of 'Discreet Music' to his current experiments with Koan software, Eno has always tried to make music that somehow goes beyond his conscious intentions. Music he could listen to as if it were made by someone else.
It's said that Kandinsky invented abstract art when, coming into his studio one day, he saw a beautiful but incoherent canvas propped against the wall. In fact it was one of his own representational pictures turned on its side, but for a precious few seconds Kandinsky failed to recognise it. Not only did he fail to recognise it, but he noticed that he enjoyed not recognising it more than he enjoyed recognising it right side up. This fateful 'perceptual mistake' upped the level of mystery in painting by removing its pretense to represent the world. From this point on, as Klee would famously say, 'art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible'. Picasso put it even more pithily: 'I do not seek, I find'. For Eno, this moment came when, hearing doo-wop on short wave radio as a child, he assumed that such strange sounds could only come from space. You could say he's spent the rest of his career trying to recapture that crucial moment of delicious non-comprehension.
I have not always been true to mystery, though mystery has been true to me. For instance, my last album Folktronic attacks and debunks the mystery of folk music, at least until the mysterious Paul Klee song 'Going For A Walk With A Line', at which point the album crowds with half-lit medieval obscurities.
I have some worries about mystery. I'm worried that, as Matthew Collings points out in his book Hello Culture, talk of mystery is just part of the baggage of Romanticism, part of its exoticist, orientalist tendency to find other grass greener (the past, the orient, the art of children, madmen and outsiders, rebels and visionaries, even death itself).
I'm attracted to artists like Brecht, who tried to achieve the quality of Chinese sages or lucid latterday luminaries from the Age of Reason. (Ironically Brecht used this image, together with the ersatz scientism of Marxism, to promote his own shamanistic charisma.) Or I simply take the shamanistic role of the musician so much for granted that I feel it can be counterbalanced by any amount of novelty capers, advertising, epigrammatic clarity or simple tomfoolery, and still survive intact.
I'm like a man so convinced of his own charismatic power that he feels he can dress up as Donald Duck and still be accepted, by those in the know, as a mystick priest of Otherness. Actually, I think real shamen in Africa probably do the same thing. They probably dress up as Pokemon characters or something, and it doesn't hurt their image a bit. It's the people who dress up as shamen who are the fakers. Watch out for fuckers who demand to be taken seriously and claim to have intimate knowledge of other realms. They're lying. They're trying too hard. They don't have the gift. They don't carry the voices. They don't wake up in the night with entire songs in their head, and they don't take dictation from God (and God... God is a concept by which we measure the strange).
Ah, but there I go myself, claiming to be a true shaman, calling all the others quacks. And since my argument is that a true shaman never claims to be one, I must be a quack myself. Or am I so confident of your belief in me that I'm just saying any old thing that comes into my head, knowing that my power will remain intact as long as I continue to amuse and amaze you with my songs, little glimpses of greater worlds? Who knows?
Orson Welles is silhouetted in a mirror. The film is called 'F For Fake'. He's dressed in a poncho, he's the portly black trademark of Sandeman port. Is he visionary or advertising man? Is he shaman or sham? Or is he perhaps the sandman? The camera zooms out to find that the reflection in the mirror is of another reflection in another mirror. Orson Welles laughs a hearty, pitying laugh. Are extra-terrestrials really landing or is the news broadcast just part of a radio play? The plot thickens. The mystery continues. Thank God.