The Whitening Crow

NigredoAlbedoRubedo copia

Alas, January 2013 proved to be the first month without any postings since this blog’s inception in December 2011, so I hasten to write this now, before the January snows melt from memory entirely.

The turning of the year provoked thoughts of cyclic renewal and alchemical transmutation, familiar themes here on the Shoreline. Related to this, I had for some time been attempting (and mostly failing) to photograph the crows that frequent the clifftop at Saltdean, because the crow has always been linked with the beginnings of the psychonautical seascape adventure of which this blog is the ongoing document.

Before I began this project, I had been through a period of immense personal upheaval, and in its aftermath I entered a phase where nothing seemed to hold meaning or value: music, art, science, books…  all were dead to me, and I only began to emerge from this when I came across  Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’ poems, which I had never previously read.

Black was the without eye

Black the within tongue

Black was the heart

Black the liver, black the lungs

Unable to suck in light

Black the blood in its loud tunnel

Black the bowels packed in furnace

Black too the muscles

Striving to pull out into the light

Black the nerves, black the brain

With its tombed visions

Black also the soul, the huge stammer

Of the cry that, welling, could not

Pronounce its sun.

Thus begins “Two Legends”, the opening poem of the Crow sequence.

Here was an elemental darkness to which I could relate. In the messy, malevolent figure of Crow, with his grotesque yet comically futile acts of defiance against higher powers, I found a pulse, and through this, I slowly began to sense my own again.

th_crow

For a while, this slim black volume became something of a talisman, carried in the jacket pocket and consulted whenever circumstances allowed, a stimulus and sounding-board for my own tombed visions of that period.

Hughes’ ‘Crow’ cycle seems to be widely regarded as his foremost literary achievement – for some overview and context, go here and here, and I also want to mention Ann Skea, a Hughes scholar based in Sydney, whose website is a fascinating resource- I particularly recommend a reading of this piece, where Hughes’ mythopoesis in ‘Crow’ is linked to alchemical symbolism and Trickster folklore via Jungian analytic symbology. Indeed all those linked articles discuss ‘Crow’ in terms of the mythic, suggesting that Hughes was engaged in a kind of English shamanism:  a psychic cave-diving expedition, with the figure of Crow as an unruly and unreliable totemic guide.

Best of all, go here to listen to Hughes himself reading some of the ‘Crow’ poems, his incantatory delivery underscoring the magical, shamanic aspects of the writing (in fact, if you only ever click one link on this blog, click that one – here it is again).

Basilius-Valentinus-Azoth-Paris-1659

In alchemy, the crow (sometimes raven) is a frequent symbol of the nigredo, or ‘blackening’, the first stage of the alchemical transubstantiation. It represents the decay and putrefaction of the base matter, prima materia, which is the necessary beginning of the alchemical process. In time it is followed by the albedo (whitening) and rubedo (reddening). The albedo represents the stage of purification, resulting in the formation of two opposing aspects of the materia. These opposites will fuse in the next stage, rubedo, to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, the culmination of the alchemical process. The illustration at the top of this post depicts this tripartite process, or for a more recent representation, consider this work by the wonderful alchemico-surrealist artist Leonora Carrington:

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

When first reading ‘Crow’, I did not consider this alchemical significance of the central figure – only later, once I had embarked on the Shoreline project and begun to see it as a form of alchemical process in itself, did I see the obvious relevance of the nigredo to my own situation at that time. This, of course, begged the question of whether the other stages of the process, albedo and rubedo, might, in due course, become apparent.

During the recent snowfalls, I walked to my familiar stomping ground, Saltdean beach, to enjoy (and document) the snow-covered Shoreline. It struck me that this literal whitening of the beach suited my alchemically-informed Shoreline mythos rather well – perhaps this was the albedo for which I had been waiting.

snow_shoreline2

After drinking in the atmosphere and taking some pictures, with snow still falling I ascended to the clifftop to begin my walk home, and there I came across this solitary jackdaw, standing sentinel on a fencepost:

snow_jackdaw

Jackdaws and crows are close relatives (both members of the corvid family) and appear almost interchangeably in some strands of avian myth and folklore. I stood and watched as the black bird became progressively flecked with snow… as it underwent whitening. Here, surely, was the symbolic announcement of the Haunted Shoreline’s albedo.

It is said that the time between nigredo and albedo is generally much longer than that between albedo and rubedo, and as I finally turned away from the Shoreline to make my way home, the setting sun was hinting that the time of reddening may not be so far away. More news on that soon.. perhaps.

rubedo

Psychedelic Omnivision

For some time I’ve been considering saying more about the psychonautical method that lies behind many of the posts here. A recent exchange in the comments on this post touched on this, and stimulated me to say a little more. So here, for once, is some explanation, rather than the usual mystification.

So… what I do here is, I suppose, related to psychogeography, although that term is generally used with regard to the exploration of urban spaces, and the Shoreline is obviously not in that category. However, an old psychogeographical trick, originated (I think) by the Situationists, was to navigate through one place using a map of another. An example might be using a London street atlas to plan a route around, say, Edinburgh (or indeed any city other than London itself). There is more to this than mere pranksterism: this apparently perverse exercise disrupts the standard relationship between map and territory, and between the explorer and the space explored. It more or less forces one to look at one’s surroundings with fresh eyes and a mindset based on curiosity and possibility. It may also generate strange resonances or synchronicities between the “wrong” map and the environment, and in so doing open the channel to mystery and wonder. Thus the day-to-day drudgery of urban alienation may be temporarily transmuted into something altogether more joyous.

The Haunted Shoreline works on a similar principle, except the ‘map’ is not any kind of street atlas or ordnance survey. It is just a very simple model of the psyche, divided into conscious and unconscious aspects. Something like this:

.. although I should stress that there is no need whatsoever to buy into Freudian ideas/terms (id, ego, superego) to grasp what I am getting at here: a simple division of mind into conscious and unconscious is enough.

This ‘map’ is then applied to the beaches near where I live. The sea is the unconscious, the land is the conscious. The Shoreline is the liminal threshold between the two.

From this basic method, all else proceeds. The rocks, fossils, found objects, and sea creatures I encounter become signs and portents, loaded with symbolism as they wash up from the depths. By taking the concept seriously- some of the time, at least- I can pursue and decode this symbolism, and draw conclusions from it. Of course, sometimes the only conclusion is one of wonderment at the sheer exhilarating strangeness of it all – and that’s plenty good enough for me. At times, however, peculiar insights emerge, like pieces of pirate’s treasure. The thoughts at which I eventually arrived when considering this fossilised sea urchin, for example, were for me genuinely uplifting, and I revisit them sometimes when I need cheering up.

Not long after I started the blog, a friend got in touch and politely enquired about my mental health. I understand why: this commingling of inner and outer worlds is, indeed, a hallmark of psychosis. So I should emphasise that this approach requires that one be deadly serious about it, while simultaneously finding it inherently absurd. This peculiar liminal space between belief and unbelief is, in one sense, the very essence of what the Shoreline is all about.

To put it another way: a reader recently emailed me (that’s thehauntedshoreline@gmail.com if you want to do likewise, or search for ‘Haunted Shoreline’ on Facebook) to ask whether I ‘really believe’ some of the things I write here (in fact his specific question was whether I really believed that my discovery of the pebble I called ‘the Wombstone‘ was a sign that something was ‘about to be born’). I can answer this very easily: no, I do not believe these things… and neither do I disbelieve them. In fact the question of ‘belief’ is completely irrelevant to me here. I entertain possibilities, and sometimes I find that these possibilities entertain me in return.

As with the Situationists on their urban derives, there is a particular state of mind which comes upon me when I hit the beach. Recently I came up with the term Psychedelic Omnivision as an attempt to encapsulate it in a catchy phrase, and hopefully thus avoid any need to laboriously dissect or describe it further. The image at the top of this post was not created by me – it’s just a random piece of internet flotsam that turned up in my Facebook feed a couple of days after the phrase first occurred to me, and struck me as being as good a pictorialisation of ‘psychedelic omnivision’ as I would be likely to find anywhere (although the lady at the back appears to have totally lost her head).

In fact I’ve been building up something of an archive of arresting Shoreline-related images found online- here’s another:

The Victor Hugo quote below the picture translates as “Imagination is nothing other than the reflection of Nature in the soul of Man”. I can’t think of a better note on which to end.

A Helix Of Slime

Freud With A Snail Head (Salvador Dali, 1974)

I was in Paris recently, and while there visited Espace Dali, a collection of Dali’s works housed in the Montmartre district. It is very similar to the exhibition that used to be on show at the rather corny Dali Universe ‘attraction’ in London (which closed in 2010), but I much preferred the style of presentation in Paris, which allows the work to stand on its own merits, rather than trying to turn the whole gallery into an advertising exec’s idea of a ‘surreal space’, as was the case in London. The show features mostly later and lesser-known works, many of which were originally commissioned by the Spanish government (Dali’s support for Franco is well-known, and utterly indefensible) for an illustrated series of literary classics including Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland, and both the Old and New Testament.

Dali is, in some sense, one of this blog’s presiding spirits; another is Sigmund Freud, whom Dali greatly admired. In July 1938, the two men met for the only time. What took place at that meeting will be the subject of a future post, but for the purposes of this one, it is important to know that, even before meeting Freud, Dali had apparently formed (and found great significance in) the idea that the ageing doctor’s head resembled a snail. This idea, and its importance, was confirmed in Dali’s mind by a synchronicity that occurred when he went to meet Freud in London: as he waited for the door to be opened, he noticed a snail on the seat of a bicycle parked outside the house. His subsequent meeting with, and observations of, Freud seem to have then reinforced the idea still further.

The image stayed with him ever after: as late as 1974 he produced Freud With A Snail Head, shown above. Like many of his late works,  it was rolled out as a pricey limited edition run of coloured etchings (the spectre of Salvador’s legendary avarice looms large at Espace Dali), one of which is included in the Paris show. I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that it is among his best work. Nevertheless, it is quite a curio item.

So why a snail? What do snails signify?

Squishy. Slimy. Creatures of the damp and shade… of the undergrowth. Thus: avatars of the Unconscious, the erotic, the hidden. The fleshy ooze of sex and other physical taboos.

The picture below, which can also be seen at Espace Dali, is one of a series of works Dali produced for a 1967 illustrated edition of Casanova:

Here the erotic aspect of the snail is made explicit. The gallery notes allude to this, linking snails to lobsters and other sea creatures- another Dalinian trope. What all these have in common (along with eggs, another frequent Dali motif) is the combination of hard shell and soft, glutinous parts. When you think about it, though, almost any organism above a certain level of evolutionary complexity could be described as a melange of hard bits and squishy bits, so this symbolism might seem rather non-specific. Arguably, however, creatures such as snails and lobsters demonstrate this duality in its simplest and most obvious form, somewhat like living Yin/Yang symbols.

Back in Espace Dali, another of the illustrations for Casanova provides a striking demonstration of Dali’s use of crustacean imagery as erotic metaphor:

It is no coincidence that these hard/soft liminal creatures have also been prominent here on the Shoreline: consider the ammonites, the belemnites, the vampire squid, the cuttlefish (and for good measure the egg).

However, I suggest that it would be wrong to see the snail as simply one of a number of almost interchangeable animal symbols in Dali’s work. One senses that it has a particular significance that sets it apart from the lobsters and their ilk. Here, my speculative delvings into Dali’s psyche lean heavily on the central thesis of Ian Gibson’s 1997 book The Shameful Life of Salavdor Dali, by far the best book on him I have read. Gibson’s meticulous research supports an incredibly detailed chronology of Dali’s life (clarifying, correcting, and where necessary debunking the Dalinian myths)- a valuable enough resource in itself- but the book goes much further than this. It is a kind of psychological detective story based around Gibson’s key idea, which is that Dali was in thrall to shame. He was, Gibson contends, ashamed of his peculiarities, his social awkwardness and shyness as a youth, his emotions, his sexual quirks… he was ashamed of the physical grossness inherent in existing at all.. the bodily fluids and carnal slime… and ashamed yet further by his own fascinations with these things.

As Gibson elucidates, shame involves something doubly hidden: if a person is ashamed of, for example, a particular fetish, the fetish itself may well remain a secret, while the shame attached to it will also be hidden: thus we end up with a double secret. Feelings of shame can thus be associated with complex, multi-layered defences, and for this reason may prove particularly intractable.

Early in Dali’s artistic career, his association with Surrealism, immersion in Freudian theory, and the receptive socio-cultural conditions of the time all enabled him to explore his sexual paranoia and body horror in full public view. The Surrealists held that such explorations were liberating, but even as Dali spilled his darkest fantasies across his canvases, and in so doing secured the celebrity he craved, the hidden shame about what he was revealing tormented him more and more. He was, quite simply, ashamed of himself… ashamed of being Salvador Dali. Over time, and as his fame increased, he coped by retreating into the absurdist, and ultimately tedious, megalomania that became his trademark in later life. In short, he became a brand. He talked about ‘Dali’ in the third person, acknowledging that his public persona was a contrivance- but for him, perhaps, a necessary one.

And it is precisely this burning sense of shame which, I suggest, holds the key to Dali’s use of snail imagery.

As we noted, the snail can be readily interpreted as pertaining to the secret, the erotic, the taboo- and, therefore, the shameful. But Dali’s strange intuition that Freud somehow resembled a snail adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of the creature in the context of Dali’s personal mythos. The young Dali hero-worshipped Freud, attributing to him almost supernatural powers of insight, and believing that Freud’s theories were perhaps the first time in history that humanity had attained to certain insights about itself. Freud had penetrated the veils of normalcy and decency: he knew what lay beneath- the sex, violence, deviance… and, of course, the shame. Dali’s reverence for Freud reflected his view that Freud, in his writings, had exhibited a kind of X-ray vision of the psyche: he had described the problem of shame as it really was, as it afflicted him, Dali.  That Freud reminded him of a snail thus becomes enormously significant: the snail becomes symbolic not only of all the dirty slimy stuff down there in the psychic soil, but also of the knowledge of all this, and its revealing and, by extension, of Dali’s private losing battle with his demons of self-loathing.

In Dali’s highly idiosyncratic personal universe, then, the snail is a symbol of extraordinary resonance and power. And as I wandered Espace Dali and all this fell into place, it occurred to me that my being in Paris afforded me the opportunity to perform a ritual in which the power of the snail- now enshrined in my own personal gnosis through the process of seeing (or perhaps concocting) these connections, this psychic narrative- could be brought into my orbit, its potent energies absorbed into my very being.

And, sure enough, just a couple of minutes’ walk away, I found an establishment where I was able to undertake just such a ritual.

Bon appetit.

The Mudlark

On my most recent visit to Peacehaven, I came across the mysterious object pictured above, washed up in a rockpool.

Closer inspection…

…revealed it to be a length of weighty, heavy-duty metal pipe, closed at one end, encrusted with mud, pebbles, barnacles, wormcasts and discolouration. A synthetic-organic hybrid. One finds many such hybrid artefacts washed up on the beach… on the Shoreline… at the interface.

The pipe was packed full of mud and pebbles. I tipped it all out, a great thick clag of mud emerging in a slow, swampy ooze. And there in the middle of it, something stirred. Gingerly I probed the mud with a piece of driftwood- and this is what I found:

A mudfish (a live one) of some sort (what sort, exactly, I have no idea- any mudfish experts out there are cordially invited to share their expertise in the comments).

Readers should rest assured that, after a brief photo session, the mudfish was returned to its tubular home along with plenty of mud (I felt safe in assuming that mudfish like mud), though not enough to seal the pipe again, the whole then being replaced in the rockpool to prevent it drying out, and to await the incoming tide and fresh adventure. But what did it all mean?

Renewal has been a recurrent (appropriately enough) theme here on the Shoreline- see for example the discussion of Ouroboros. This latest beach find can also be seen as a symbol of rebirth. In some parts of the world, mudfish demonstrate an unusual behaviour termed aestivation (or estivation in American English). Aestivation is similar to hibernation, except that hibernation is a device for escaping the coldest season, whereas aestivation occurs in the warmest. In the case of the mudfish and its relatives, such as lungfish, the fish burrows into mud and there it hibernates.. sorry, aestivates… through the dry season, re-emerging when the weather is wetter and the conditions more suited to it.

Here are some lungfish demonstrating how it works (image from here):

Aestivating mudfish are found in Australia and New Zealand, and parts of West Africa- and in the ancient myths of  indigenous Australasians, as well as among the tribes of Togo and Benin, one finds that the mudfish was a potent symbol of rebirth: indeed it seems to have been believed that such fish were literally able to return from the dead. As such, when mudfish deities appear, they are accorded major cosmological significance. Art and Religion in Africa, by Rosalind Hackett (partly freely available on Google books), has this to say about the self-resurrecting mudfish deity Butan, venerated by the Batammaliba people of Benin:

The earth and the underworld.. not to mention pregnancyhow the Shoreline’s  music echoes, how resonant its crescendoes… and, of course, it is now Easter. Could there be a more appropriate time to contemplate the deep symbology of resurrection and rebirth?

But before we chalk up one more headpsinning synchronicity to the Shoreline, some caution may be indicated.

As far as I can ascertain, the only cultures that have adopted the mudfish as a symbol of rebirth are – unsurprisingly- those cultures arising in the geographical locations where mudfish do indeed aestivate. And- again as far as I can ascertain- the humble British mudfish does not. Why would it? It never gets hot and dry enough here to warrant it. So is it a leap too far to imagine that folk beliefs from Benin can relate to a creature washed ashore in East Sussex?

Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious might be called upon here, but it may not help us. The idea of the collective unconscious, in its simplest form, is that there is a collective wellspring, or reservoir, of concepts and their symbols or motifs, which recur across time and cultures. For example: the archetype of the Hero- it is easy to imagine that some concept of the Hero, and the Heroic, has existed in many times and places, and that we may find common features in the various cultural expressions of this archetype. But is is hard to apply this reasoning to myths or symbols which, by their nature, relate only to certain places (cultural memes can spread, of course, but I know of no reason to suppose that the mudfish myths have done so). Can the symbolism of the mudfish that is (or appears to be) reborn have any traction, hold any key to gnosis, in a place where mudfish do no such thing (and no such thing has ever been believed)?

Regardless of our answer to this, there are other meanings we may assign to this fish, and the manner of its finding. Given my recent comments regarding the Shoreline as liminal threshold, it is pertinent to mention that the mudfish is itself described as a liminal creature: not only because of the death-rebirth dynamic, but because it is a creature of both land and sea. But be warned. Our old friend The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art has this to say:

Admittedly, a Sussex mudfish is no more likely to bring death through electric shock than it is to be ‘reborn’ through aestivation. Yet there is a further meaning here, that relates more directly to the Shoreline. And it is simply that this lowly mudfish, dwelling in its canister of muck that washed up from the depths, was then brought to light, made visible, by the Shoreline (in the person of your correspondent, acting in accordance with the current).  Which is precisely what the Shoreline is all about- plumbing the depths and exploring the murk through underwater psychonautics, and keeping a keen eye on the creatures that wash up, blinking on the sunlit shore.

But let’s return to the resurrection theme. What if, by releasing the fish from its cylindrical prison, I saved it- brought it back from death? After all, it presumably isn’t meant to live in a metal tube- would it have been trapped in there, would it have been able to burrow through all those pebbles impacted in all that mud? Or not? Would the incoming tide have simply released it by washing out the pipe? Or not?

Walking home, I contemplated the magnitude of this. I looked to the heavens for answers, but the skies were inscrutable.

Traversing the clifftop, I paused, and slowly and deliberately drew sea air into my lungs, tasting the honeyed sweetness of Mystery.

Happy Easter from the Shoreline.

The Great Lamentation

 

Two nights ago the mists rolled in. Fog is a common occurrence here- this one particularly thick and eerie. Leaning out of my window I could not see the sea,which is only a few hundred yards from my house- indeed I could barely see beyond the house next door. But I could hear something instead- the long, low repeated blast from the fog horn located just up the coast.

This sombre sound always reminds me of a short story, titled simply The Fog Horn, written by Ray Bradbury in 1951. In the story (SPOILER ALERT) the sound of a fog horn, mounted on a remote lighthouse, attracts a giant sea monster, who responds to the horn with similar mournful cries of its own. We learn that the creature, something like a plesiosaur, swims to the lighthouse once a year, apparently in a doomed attempt to communicate with the fog horn, before vanishing back into the deep for another twelve months. The lighthouse operator speculates that it is the last of its kind, desperately lonely, and that the sound of the fog horn represents its final forlorn hope of companionship with another like it.

Like our old friend the sabre-tooth cat, this story evokes Bion’s nameless dread, the primal terror that accompanies abandonment. Solitude is a regular feature in descriptions of quests for self-transformation: the hermit in his cave, the monk in his cell, meditating on their gods with no human contact to distract them. But here is the most extreme example of loneliness- the dark side of solitude: a state of being completely alone in the world, perhaps for eons. The sea monster’s predicament speaks to deep fears of our own. How fitting that it should be depicted as a msyterious ancient creature, that spends most of its life hidden in fathomless depths.

Fog or mist itself is, according to Chevalier and Gheerbrant’s Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (a treasure trove of a book), symbolic of

a phase in development when shapes have yet to be defined or when old shapes are vanishing and have yet to be replaced by definite new shapes.

It is thus a

symbol of the indeterminate.

Much like the Shoreline itself, then, or like the surface of the water as it is breached by the creatures of the deep.