Heavy Metal

Here is the latest object of wonder to wash up from the depths at the psycho-alchemical arena of Saltdean beach – a large lump of oxidised iron ore embedded in stone, which I found at the edge of the tide, right on the very cusp of the Shoreline. I say ‘lump’- as far as I can ascertain the correct geological term is ‘nodule‘- any geologists reading are welcome to confirm or correct this. The whole thing is about the size of a tennis ball cut in half, but what the picture can’t communicate is the weight, the impressive heft of it. That will have to wait for such time as technology permits an immersive virtual reality version of the blog. In the meantime, just know that it’s heavy.

Here’s the other side of it…

.. and from this angle you can see that it is partially pyritised – that is, iron pyrite, a sulfide of iron commonly known as ‘fool’s gold’, has formed. There are little speckles of this ‘gold’ over the lower part of the nodule, and in the lower right-hand part it has formed distinctive ‘rays’, like a nascent version of the ‘pyrite suns’ sold by fossil and gemstone stores – see below for an example.

pyrite_sun1

Now, iron is one of the ‘base metals’ of alchemy, and here we have iron in the process of turning to ‘gold’. So, an example of the transmutation of metals? Come off it, you say- it’s fool’s gold. Isn’t it meant to be, you know, actual gold? In fact, couldn’t we interpret this find as a damning indictment of all this alchemical shenanigans, this quixotic quest for transformation and truth? Doesn’t our iron nodule seem to say- yeah, there’s gold at the end of that cosmic rainbow, alright.. but it’s the gold of fools… so if you’re a seeker, you’re a sucker.

However, as we noted before, in esoteric (as opposed to exoteric) alchemy, the goal is nothing so vulgar as material wealth- rather, the ‘gold’ that the alchemist seeks is a metaphor for some inner transformation. The words used to express what this is will vary between times and cultures and need not detain us- what interests me here is the symbolism of fool’s gold itself. Specifically, the figure of the fool.

The Fool is the first Major Arcanum of the Tarot, and is numbered 0 (not 1 – we’ll come back to that). If the Major Arcana represent a journey, then the Fool is its protagonist and starting point, and here we see him embarking on his quest. In fact it appears he is about to step off a precipice, oblivious to the danger of being dashed on the rocks below. The usual interpretation is that this represents the leaving of the terra firma of Reason, and with it the step into the unknown that begins the Fool’s adventure. Foolhardy indeed it may be, but without this step, there can be no journey through the spiritual realm (or the labyrinth of Being, or the levels of consciousness, or whatever form of words you want to use).

But while the journey may have a starting point, it has no end- because the Fool’s path will eventually lead him back to the beginning. He may be wiser, but he he is still a Fool, and must undertake his quest again, and again, and again…

Here there are obvious parallels with the Ouroboros, symbol of renewal and recurrence. As we noted above, the Fool is said to correspond to the number 0 – and what better symbol for this circular path? Indeed, what better symbol for the beginning of things- the Void from which Manifestation arises.

Standing on the precipice of the clifftop at Saltdean, looking out to the seas that call my name, I have often felt like the Fool I undoubtedly am…

.. . and this being the Haunted Shoreline, there was a strange synchronicitous twist to this remarkable find. Walking back from the beach, my eye was caught by another gleaming piece of metal, lying on the pavement as I neared home:

A squarish piece of metal, about the size of a postage stamp, with some frayed black rubber hanging off it. It looks like it might have come from a tyre – franky, I have no idea what it is. But note the letters ‘Fe’ embossed on the corners. Fe, of course, is the chemical symbol for iron. As I turned the strange silver square around in my fingers, the iron nodule seemed to burn in my jacket pocket, and the wind whispered a song of the Uncanny.

Indeed this little metal square looks rather like the images typically used to illustrate the elements of the periodic table- see here, for example. However, the other characters embossed upon it do not accord with this: 10 is not the atomic number of iron (that would be 26), and then there is the large ‘X’ in the centre- although this could just be another rendering of 10, X being the Roman numeral for 10. But ten what? The ten magical grades… the ten spheres of the Tree of Life.. the ten green bottles hanging on the wall?

Who knows? A man can drive himself mad trying too hard to extract meaning from (or impose meaning upon) the matrix of strangeness that causes things like this to wash up, and after a while I stopped racking my brains over it, and simply acknowledged that this particular Mystery was too baffling for this particular Fool.

But I can, I think, suggest a meaning for the iron nodule with which we began.

If the Fool is the perennial seeker, then we might feel able to say that fool’s gold is, paradoxically, the true alchemical ‘gold’ of inner attainment, thus turning the earlier interpretation on its head. Certainly anyone approaching our nodule of pyrite in a spirit of worldly avarice will be disappointed: its ‘gold’ is worth little in material terms, and will indeed make a fool of anyone who tries to become rich from it. But when the Shoreline Wanderer turns the hallucinated gaze of psychedelic omnivision upon this latest find, he seems to see, through veils of Mystery, glimmerings of Truth – sparkling and radiant like the stars.

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.

Vampire Squid From Hell

These things are called Silly Bandz. They are dayglo elastic bands that stay put in a particular shape –  when not being stretched, obviously- but that stretchability means they can also be worn as bracelets. And in this fact lies their extraordinary popularity with children, or at least with my observational sample (my 7 year old daughter and her -mostly female- friends).

In researching this post I visited the official Silly Bandz website and was part-appalled, part-dazzled by the company’s ability to think of so many ways of persuading young children that their lives will be enriched by novelty rubber bands.

The Bandz pictured above are sea creatures, obviously, but I wasn’t quite sure what the yellow fellow in the centre of the picture was meant to be. I asked my daughter.

“Either a jellyfish, or a vampire squid,” she asserted.

A vampire squid?

“Yes, really Daddy, we did it at school”.

“A vampire squid? Does it drink blood?”

“No, it just looks like a vampire”.

Pause.

I was baffled.

“Are you sure you didn’t see it on Scooby Doo?” I asked. (She is a big fan of Scoob).

She tutted. “No, Daddy, it’s real“.

Another pause.

“Scooby Doo’s a cartoon“, she added helpfully.

I made a mental note to check up on this ‘vampire squid’ thing next time I was online.

Later, at the PC, I logged in to Gmail and WordPress, as I always do at the start of an online session. As many readers will know, the front page of WordPress is dominated by a feature called “Freshly Pressed”, which showcases a selection of current blog posts, and is presented as a kind of day-to-day ‘best of’ the nearly half a million blogs that WordPress currently hosts. Things that seem to get featured a lot on Freshly Pressed include: travel blogs, visual arts blogs, food blogs, blogs about blogging, pet blogs, and “10 Sayings My Irish Grandmother Taught Me”-type blogs. I usually scan this selection briefly before going into my own account, but I rarely click any of the links.

On this occasion, however, my eye was drawn to a striking thumbnail image of an octopus. Clicking it, I found myself on an art blog showcasing the work of one Mark Penxa, and from there I went to the artist’s own site – which, as you’ll see if you follow that link, has a number of menu options. For no reason I can identify- not even a hunch- I chose ‘Sketches’, then ‘Sketchbook 2009-2010‘. There, among other creatures, was the octopus I’d seen earlier- and next to it was…

…some sort of squid…

…that looked oddly like…

… a vampire.

In fact it looked like this:

As you can see  the artist has rendered its body as a heart. A terrific image. I googled the equally juicy Latin name: Vampyroteuthis infernalis (‘vampire squid from Hell’). And yes, it’s a real creature.

Some facts about the vampire squid:

1. It owes its barbarous name to an unusual webbing that connects its ‘arms’, which gives it the appearance of wearing a Dracula-style cape. That, and its reddish-black colour. (Slightly disappointingly, it doesn’t actually drink blood.)

2. It is thought to be the only surviving member of an ancient Order. A taxonomical Order, that is. The other creatures that have been classified as belonging to this group are all extinct, and known to us only from fossils.

3. It lives in the murky depths. In fact the depths it inhabits aren’t just murky, they’re pitch-black: it spends its time 2000-3000 metres below the surface, where no light penetrates at all. No other cephalopod is found at such depths.

So while this particular synchronicity was of the offbeat, almost comedic variety, there were nevertheless obvious resonances with the Shoreline current. But there was something else too. I’d recently been taking an interest in the work of the British occultist Kenneth Grant, someone I’d previously dismissed as a wild fantasist, perhaps even psychotic. Discussions with Dr Champagne of English Heretic, exposure to the English Heretic album Tales of the New Isis Lodge (based on Grant’s life and writings), and this typically passionate and brilliant piece by Alan Moore all combined to make me take a second look.

Dissecting the vampire squid

I had originally planned to write a potted biography of Grant here, but I am no expert on him and would simply be recycling information readily available elsewhere (you could start with this sympathetic obituary, or this drily sceptical one). Regarding his writing, there is an informative primer available as a free pdf from Starfire Publishing, custodians of his work and legacy. But the appeal of his written work is summed up beautifully by Alan Moore:

As fascinating and as ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic, each entirely disconnected from the morsel which preceded it… The onslaught of compulsive weirdness in Grant’s work is unrelenting… a hot shrapnel of ideas, intense and indiscriminate. A shotgun full of snails and amethysts discharged point blank into the reader’s face.

So much of this article cries out to be quoted- read the whole thing. And note that “..giant squid in a cocktail dress..” line. That is what made me think Kenneth Grant! when the vampire squid coincidence/synchronicity occurred.

In fact, it may not have been that specific line that caused that inner bell to ring (despite its similarity to the actuality of the squid in the billowing cape), because I’ve been reading a fair bit about Grant recently, and almost invariably there is mention of slithering tentacled creatures and the like, Grantworld being very much that kind of place. “The tentacled face is a typically Grantian motif” notes this excellent piece by Phil Legard, which also mentions one of Grant’s most celebrated/notorious passages, from his book Hecate’s Fountain, an apparently straight-faced account of bizarre goings-on in a derelict Welsh chapel:

…  one of Grant’s most memorable rituals, culminating as it did with a priestess dressed as a butterfly giving oral sex to the priapic manifestation of a Mayan bat god… and whatever you may think about Grant’s work, that’s a pretty striking image.

Quite.

It’s hard to know how to follow that, but in all the excitement I mustn’t forget to show you the octopus picture that led me to the squid. This is also by Mark Penxa, and as well as the image itself, I very much like the phrase that floats around it…

… which, in both its intensity and its paradox, could almost be a slogan for the Shoreline itself.

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.

Love in a Void

I am indebted to the erudite Dr Champagne, leading occult psychogeographer and English Heretic, for pointing out to me the resemblance between the seed pod found recently on Peacehaven beach, and Dali’s 1929 painting Accommodations Of Desire, reproduced above. The Doc has been an enthusiastic email correspondent and supporter of this blog, and it was a pleasure to meet him in the living flesh at the recent GHostings 7 event at Senate House, London, where we discussed this painting and other matters of mutual interest.

Dali was only 25 when he painted this (strictly speaking, a mixture of painting and collage, as the lion heads are cut from a picture book rather than painted), supposedly commencing work on it after returning home from a walk with Gala, the woman who would become his partner, Muse, and surrogate mother figure, but who at this time was still married to Paul Eluard. Dali knew his infatuation with her was indeed a kind of seed pod: all kinds of future complications were gestating in the fertile ground of amour fou.

The painting is commonly interpreted as a pictorial itemisation of Dali’s anxieties about this future, though one could in fact see it as embodying a ritual practice through which the artist attempts to take possession of his fears and master them by the very act of depicting them- thus giving them form– and then taking charge of these forms (artistically, psychologically, magically) by containment, in the strange white seed-stone-egg vessels of the painting. Either way, it is notable that the title refers to accommodations of desire, rather than of fear. The suggestion is that Dali, who at this time was enamoured of Freudian ideas, suspects that while he fears the oncoming storms, he also desires them. Or, at least, his desires are such that he must accept the turmoil they will inevitably bring.

The desire thus accommodated has something in common with the seed pod and the womb, the vessels of gestation and creation. Desire, after all, is crucially involved in the creation of new life (perhaps not in plants, but the messy drama of the human condition is what concerns us here). More generally, we can say that desire is implicated in manifestation- because desire, in this context, implies absence: a yearning for that which is not here, not manifest. The wish for presence from absence, and the calling forth of that presence.

Yet this is the essence of of any creative act: the summoning and shaping of new forms. Words made flesh.

It was thus entirely fitting that the tagline of the GHostings event was:

An evening of interdisciplinary talks and presentations exploring the desire to materialise what is absent.

The forces of synchronicity continue to crackle around the Shoreline, of course, and the day after my conversation with Dr Champagne, my daughter brought home this picture from school… apparently it shows a lily pond…

Consider the lilies: the synchronistic pond

Jump right in.. the water’s lovely…