Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism — to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea. Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality
For some time I have been thinking of mermaids. These alluring creatures embody many aspects of the current which animates the Haunted Shoreline, and there is also a strong local connection: the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones lived on this stretch of coastline, at Rottingdean, for the last 18 years of his life, and while residing here he seems to have been rather preoccupied (perhaps even haunted) by sea sirens, which appear in many of his paintings of this period (the wonderfully named blog The Kissed Mouth has an excellent post on this topic).
However, in order to be faithful to the spirit(s) of this adventure, I decided to delay writing about mermaids until such time as the Shoreline itself gave me a sign to proceed. And so it came to pass: I did not, alas, find an actual mermaid washed ashore, but I did find this:
This is an egg case, probably from a dogfish or ray (anyone able to identify the precise species is invited to get in touch through the comments), but the relevance here comes from the name given to such egg cases in folklore: mermaid’s purses.
The Shoreline having spoken, I headed into Rottingdean village, to St Margaret’s Church, which has a number of stained glass windows by Burne Jones (more on these in a future post) and memorial stones for the artist and his wife Georgiana set into the church wall:
I was told that nobody is sure whether Burne Jones is actually buried in the graveyard there- “probably his ashes” said the vicar. What is not in doubt is where he lived: he and his wife purchased two adjoining houses, Prospect Cottage and Aubrey Cottage, and subsequently also acquired the next building along, at the time named Gothic House but renamed North End House by the painter (apparently in reference to North End Road in Fulham, where the couple had lived prior to their move to the coast- the house is also the most northerly of the three). All these buildings still stand:
The blue plaque on Prospect Cottage:
So what it is about mermaids? Of course there is an erotic element, but it is an ambiguous eroticism: the mermaid, after all, is sexually unattainable, for obvious anatomical reasons. As such, she may be the epitome of the goddess/temptress dichotomy: able to drive men mad with a desire that can never be sated. But more than this, she is a liminal creature, simultaneously of both the visible human world and the unknowable occult depths (for previous consideration of liminal creatures- that is, Shoreline creatures, see here and here).
Regular readers will know that Surrealist, rather than pre-Rapaelite, art is the house style here at the Shoreline- there are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Surrealism was explicitly concerned with the threshold between the seen and unseen, the daytime world of waking consciousness and the dark dreamzone of the Unconscious, the land and the sea… the Shoreline. So here I present a few Surrealist mermaids. The first, by Andre Masson, is particularly apposite, as it was produced by the process of automatic drawing, one of the key Surrealist techniques for allowing the contents of the Unconscious to cross the liminal threshold and emerge into daylight:
That scoundrel Salvador Dali, meanwhile, painted illustrations for a 1966 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, including this idiosyncratic vision of The Little Mermaid , which I haven’t included it here as it seems such an inferior example of his work, and in any case I much prefer this, from 1939, in which Dali’s depiction of the mermaid’s dangerous eroticism appears to anticipate future trends in fetishwear:
Finally something from one of the Shoreline’s presiding goddesses, Leonora Carrington – in fact I have posted this painting before, when I mused on the fact that the progression of colours, black-white-red, refers to the three stages of alchemy. But some things bear repeating:
Now returning, like the Fools we are, to where we began- it may be of note that another folkloric name for a dogfish egg case, a mermaid’s purse, is devil’s purse. For not only can the mermaid torment a man with impossible desire, she may drag him down to a watery grave. Plunging into the hazardous waters of love, a man may be utterly undone, as Burne Jones’ most famous mermaid image, The Depths of the Sea (1881) illustrates – I leave you to ponder it, and ponder it well.
After the previous post I hadn’t planned to write anything more regarding Easter this year, but the Shoreline had other ideas: during a short, bracing walk on Saltdean beach on Easter Sunday (short and bracing because it was the coldest Easter day ever recorded in the UK), my 8 year old daughter found this impressive greyish pink stone ‘egg’. The biting cold defeated my attempts to photograph it in situ on the beach- by the time I’d taken my gloves off and stabbed at my cameraphone with frozen fingers, the resulting image was more in the realm of ‘abstract art’ than anything else- but we brought it home to add to the ever-growing Haunted Shoreline Cabinet of Curiosities, and here it is. Not for the first time, an image alone cannot quite do it justice, as the ovoid appearance is accentuated by its remarkable smoothness, but until such time as this blog is available in sensurround format (in glorious Psychedelic Omnivision, of course), you’ll have to take my word for that.
For obvious reasons, eggs are symbols of fertility, but their esoteric symbology goes well beyond that. We have previously considered the egg of Ouroboros, the cosmic serpent, while in alchemical texts the term Philosophic Egg, or similar, is used as a kind of shorthand for the physical vessels (flasks, alembics) within which the alchemical process unfolds: the container within which the Philosopher’s Stone is gestated.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, eggs appear frequently in Surrealist artworks. They are a recurring trope in Dali’s work (see also here), appearing in many of his paintings, and the Dali Museum-Theatre in Figueres, Spain, is festooned with giant eggs. For the purposes of this post, the Dalinian image which seems to me most relevant is his 1943 painting Geopoliticus Child Watching The Birth of the New Man:
Painted during WWII while Dali was living in the USA, it is commonly interpreted as a representation of the growing strength of the US as a new world power- certainly this seems to fit, although the esoterically-minded will also note the appearance of a World Egg. To what extent Dali was deliberately referencing alchemical imagery is unclear, but it is a device that recurs in his work- indeed here you can see Dali himself, together with his wife and Muse Gala, being ‘birthed’ from a large egg in a typically outlandish piece of… well, let’s just call it performance art. I am unsure of the date of this film but it is clearly a lot later than the painting above- I would guess it is from the late 1960s, well into Dali’s self-promotion period (see my previous thoughts on that here) and, to me at least, of considerably lesser interest, but the near-identical symbolism is nevertheless worth noting.
Two Surrealist artists who were more explicitly informed by alchemy were Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. In her essay Down Below, Leonora Carrington describes the egg as “..the dividing line between Great and Small, which makes it impossible to see everything at once“. The dividing line- that is, the liminal threshold, akin to my interpretation of the Shoreline.
Here are a couple of striking egg-related works by Leonora Carrington; firstly Ab Eo Quod, from 1956:
The magnificent golden egg is the centrepiece here, but as usual with Leonora, the whole canvas bursts with enigmatic imagery. The Latin inscription on the chair back reads Ab eo, quod nigram caudam habet abstine terrestrium enim decorum est. I am indebted to Susan Aberth’s book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art for the information that this is excerpted from a 14th century alchemical text known as the Ascensus Nigrum,which by my reckoning translates as the “the ascent of blackness”, presumably a reference to the transmutation of base matter which is the heart of the alchemical process. The inscription itself translates as something along the lines of “Keep away from that with a black tail; this is the beauty of the Earth”. Whatever this may mean, it seems to relate to the bizarre creature that lurks beneath the table, its black, frond-like tail curling around the room.
In The Giantess, or Guardian of the Egg (1947), the egg is, by contrast, rather small..
.. but then, so is everything else in comparison with the towering central figure, which can be readily interpreted as a goddess form, guarding the more usually male-dominated Hermetic mysteries.
Leonora’s sometime lover Max Ernst, meanwhile, was infused and informed by esotericism throughout his life, and this early work of his, The Inner Vision: The Egg (1929) appears to make direct reference to the Philosophic Egg:
…and the birds preparing to hatch from it are readily recognisable as representations of Loplop, Ernst’s oft-depicted avian familiar and totemic guide. So this image would appear to refer to Ernst’s own creative processes: his inner alchemy.
But returning to where we started- while my daughter was certainly rather proud of her discovery of the stone egg, it would probably be fair to say that, for her, the egg that held the most fascination this Easter was this one:
As parents out there will be aware, Kinder Surprise eggs are chocolate eggs that contain small plastic toys- often of a pleasingly bizarre nature. By now, my mind whirling with alchemico-surrealist egg images, I was almost as anxious as her to see what would hatch from this particular egg. And once the chocolate shell was breached, this is what we found within:
I wasn’t immediately sure what it was (although she knew straight away)- but it came with a nametag, in Latin, no less: Vulpes lagopus, and a quick Google confirmed her insistence that it was, therefore, an Arctic fox.
Which, in view of the extreme cold, seemed to make perfect sense.
It is Easter, and while I am not a Christian, the symbolism of the resurrection (for I cannot take it literally) appeals to me greatly, as I see it as a particularly potent myth of cyclic renewal. At this time last year, events on the Shoreline led me to write about self-resurrecting mudfish deities, and to photograph the golden thread linking Heaven and Earth (more on that below). This year, I simply present a couple of images by way of Easter blessings.
The photo above is the “Christ of the Abyss”, a bronze statue of Christ that stands on the seafloor at San Fruttuoso, Italy, in commemoration of a pioneering Italian diver named Dario Gonzatti. Aside from its obvious topicality at this time of year, the image seems to me to resonate very well with the strange vibrations of the Shoreline current- as here we see Jesus coming up from the depths, in more ways than one. The starfish making itself at home in Christ’s left hand is particularly apposite, and even the name, “Christ of the Abyss”, carries the frisson of paradox, which animates much of what is written here, given that the Shoreline is itself a zone of paradox and uncertainty, a liminal threshold.
The photo below, meanwhile, was taken on the Shoreline itself earlier today. As I mentioned, last Easter I photographed a pillar of sunlight linking the celestial and earthly realms, so I was both cheered and humbled to see the same phenomenon recurring this Eastertide. If anything, the divine radiance appears rather more powerful this year- and surely that can only be Good News?
On April 27th I’ll be speaking at this free event hosted by Goldsmiths College, University of London. The day will bring together a range of artists, writers, and performers, including old friends of the Shoreline English Heretic and Mark O Pilkington, writer Ken Hollings, artists Dean Kenning, John Cussans, and Lisa Cradduck, and writer and activist Mark Fisher. The loose theme of the day will be that of a documentary format for the performances and presentations, alluding to a (now largely defunct) style of high quality investigative reporting exemplified by 1970s TV current affairs shows such as Weekend World or World in Action (Channel 4’s Dispatches might be the closest thing we have to this today). It remains to be seen how the various participants will interpret this remit, although don’t necessarily expect them to take it too literally.
Your correspondent will be speaking early on in the day, which starts at 1pm (so get there early, ya slackers). My talk will present a potted summary of my Shoreline perambulations and investigations, showcasing the mysterious forces swirling around the stretch of the East Sussex coastline that I choose to call the Haunted Shoreline. And there’s a nice thematic link with another scheduled talk: writer, historian and all-round good egg Antony Clayton will also be talking about events on the Sussex coast – his most recent book Netherwood details the last days of that dastardly fellow Aleister Crowley, which were spent at a Hastings guesthouse called, you guessed it, Netherwood- Tony’s meticulous research into the story of the house itself is interwoven with, and is every bit as interesting as, his recounting of the Beast’s twilight years there (I’m not an admirer of Crowley, though he is undoubtedly an intriguing and thought-provoking figure, and some engagement with his life and work is pretty much unavoidable for anyone interested in esotericism).
There are more details of the event here and here. In my ‘day job’, which I don’t write about here, it is not unusual for me to give talks in an academic setting, but this will be the first time that the liminal tides of the Shoreline have rolled into academia’s hallowed halls. Hope to see some of you there.