A Coded Coda: Words Made Flesh

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The last post here was in July 2014, and represented the closing of a loop, a circle unbroken – an entirely appropriate way to bring it all to a close. As I wrote at the time, there was no clear resolution to the alchemical process that had unfolded over the previous two-and-a-half-years:

Was there a final culmination to the alchemical quest – did I find the Philosopher’s Stone? Well, no, and I don’t think it works quite like that. But I have completed quite a voyage, and stand now on the threshold of a new venture, a new alchemical process. Having pursued these threads through some intuitive stratagem positioned at the shoreline of art and occult practice, I will say only that the Shoreline, the Haunted Shoreline, made a believer out of me.

It is interesting to re-read these words and reflect on them today. Because throughout the Shoreline project, there was, in fact, a sense that it was leading somewhere – that there would be some kind of culmination. On one of the final beachcombing expeditions, I had found an unusual stone ‘cup’, photographed here in situ on the beach at Birling Gap:

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This find made quite an impression on me at the time, and I nearly used it as the basis for a final post, in which I would claim it to be the Holy Grail, or at least the Grail of the Shoreline. But this felt a little too glib: the idea was resonant, but seemed strangely incomplete.

Just over a year ago, I experienced a series of events which made the current – I might now say the prophecy – of the Shoreline manifest. These events are too personal to detail here – which may seem frustrating to those who followed the project throughout – how can I convince you that there was a magical fruition, one that arrived in a dizzying sunburst of synchronicities, if I do not detail it? Throughout the Shoreline venture, I tried to keep the question of ‘belief’ irrelevant (more on this here), so it is interesting to note that I nevertheless wrote, in the final post, that the Shoreline had “made a believer out of me”. But it does not concern me whether or not anyone else is persuaded – and in any event, whatever I were to write, there would of course be the usual rationalist refutations available: “these are just coincidences”, “you’re seeing patterns because you want to”, and so forth. Would these rebuttals be valid? Does it matter? Isn’t it like arguing that an extraordinary piece of music is merely a string of sounds: factually correct, but missing the point?

For some time I have been considering adding this coda, to mark the fact that everything did, in the end, reach a resolution, a culmination, a Revelation. I have been unsure how best to do it, or whether to do it at all. But in a week’s time – at Winter solstice- I will be moving house, away from the Shoreline (though I suspect I will be forever intertwined with it, and in any case I am only moving a few miles inland). Preparing to leave has brought things into focus and crystallised the need to document something of this. So here is a small mosaic of images, which if read in a certain way, will give a sense of what happened – but I do not invite you to decode them, rather to simply drink them in, and allow them to percolate through your own nervous system, in the hope they may bring you some measure of nourishment.

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Last Rites: An Unbroken Circle

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Having realised (see previous post) that the Shoreline project had come to an end, there was one final act I wished to perform to formally close the circle and mark the end of my two-and-half-year stint as Accursed Prophet of the Haunted Shoreline, or whatever it was exactly. It has taken longer than I anticipated for all the necessary conditions to be in place for these last rites, but they have at last been enacted, and I leave you now with the photographic evidence and some final thoughts.

This thing began in 2011, with the discovery of the flint ‘head of Anubis’, and as I have noted before this was a most appropriate symbolic initiation into the liminal world of the Shoreline. The theme of cyclic renewal has been a consistent one throughout, and I knew there was only one way to satisfactorily pay tribute to the Shoreline while respecting this principle. It was time for Anubis to go back to the Underworld. I took the flint head down to the water’s edge as the tide was coming in, and watched as the sea washed over it, knocking it onto its side before it disappeared, bobbing occasionally as I lingered, before finally I turned away and slowly walked home. I felt a sense of gratitude, but also of release.

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Thank you to all readers for your attention, with particular gratitude to those fellow bloggers who have checked in here regularly, offering comments and encouragement – they know who they are. In the previous post, I mentioned a new project that has started to take shape, and I was flattered when a number of readers contacted me to ask for more details of this. It is not, however, a project that will be publicly documented, at least not in the form that the Shoreline has been, and it is unlikely to have an internet presence. In the meantime, this site’s ‘about’ page has been updated to reflect the fact that the project has now ended.

There are a couple of other things to mention before signing off. ‘Underworld Service’, the new album from old friend of the Shoreline, Andy Sharp aka English Heretic, is out soon, and among other delights it will contain a few minutes of a lengthy conversation that Andy and I recorded some time back. Other parts of that recording may see the light of the day in due course. And on September 13th,  if you’re anywhere near the East Sussex coast, come to Fort Process – a day of talks and music in the splendidly atmospheric surroundings of Newhaven Fort. Some big names of improv and avant-garde music (Peter Brötzmann, Steve Noble, John Butcher, Max Eastley and Thomas Köner, just for starters) will be playing, and there will also be talks – including one by your correspondent, in which I will cast an eye over the Haunted Shoreline, now that it has been brought to a kind of completion.

What was it all about? Were all those signs and portents, gleaned from flotsam and pebbles, of any actual consequence in the end? Or was it all just an exercise in playing with symbols and meanings – an amusing enough diversion but, in the end, a frivolous one?

As I mentioned once before, the project initially took shape in the aftermath of drastic emotional upheavals and the ending of a previous cycle of my muddled progress through this predicament we call the human condition. For me, it has had a significance that may not be immediately obvious from the sometimes tongue-in-cheek style in which I have documented it here. Events on the Shoreline, and the themes and concepts to which they have persistently alluded, have mirrored events in my day-to-day life to an uncanny degree, in ways in which I would not dream of writing about here.

Was there a final culmination to the alchemical quest – did I find the Philosopher’s Stone? Well, no, and I don’t think it works quite like that. But I have completed quite a voyage, and stand now on the threshold of a new venture, a new alchemical process. Having pursued these threads through some intuitive stratagem positioned at the shoreline of art and occult practice, I will say only that the Shoreline, the Haunted Shoreline, made a believer out of me.

Thanks, and goodbye. And if you want to dive back in, and let the current take you round once more, go here.

An Easter Egg

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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, 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 Omnivisionof 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.

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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:

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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..

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.. 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:

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…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:

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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:

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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.

The Whitening Crow

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Deep Philosopher: Return of the Vampire Squid

The vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, is an old friend around these parts: besides featuring in a synchronicity, it has various attributes that make it a particularly Haunted Shoreline-type creature – for the details, see this previous post. One of its most notable characteristics is that it dwells in regions of the ocean far deeper than those inhabited by any similar creature – places where no light penetrates at all. In fact, until very recently, nobody knew how it managed to stay alive- because nobody knew what it ate. Other cephalopods live in shallower waters and are carnivorous, preying on fish, molluscs, and crustaceans. But none of these are present in significant quantities in the pitch-black regions where V. infernalis makes its home, so quite what it does for nourishment has been an enduring puzzle of marine biology.

So I was intrigued to read that a study team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, California, have solved the mystery. Their findings are presented in Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences), in a paper with the splendid title “Vampire Squid: Detritivores in the Oxygen Minimum Zone“, freely available here (link opens as .pdf). The work was also given considerable publicity beyond the rarefied realm of the academic press (see here and here, for example), the key finding being that V. infernalis sustains itself by feeding on ‘marine snow’, a picturesque term for the detritus of the ocean- dead plankton, algae, fragments of shells and carcasses, faecal matter, and the like.

In other words, the vampire squid survives by transmuting dead and decaying base matter into the very stuff of life itself.

It is therefore…  an alchemist.