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.

Dark Gods

Max Ernst, ‘The Dark Gods’, 1957

Despite being my favourite artist, Max Ernst hasn’t been a major presence on this blog to date (although he has made appearances here and here), and for some time I’ve been thinking that I ought to rectify that. On a recent excursion to Birling Gap I came across this piece of flint:

… which immediately put me in mind of Ernst’s painting The Dark Gods.

The figures in this painting have none of the baroque qualities of, for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, which might be a comparison (godforms embodying deep, primal forces). Ernst’s dark gods depend on simple geometric shapes, almost childlike circles and triangles, to give them life. In this, though, they are ultimately more compelling than the ornate, fantastical beings common to so much ‘fantasy art’. The projection of simple lines and forms onto the formless swirlings of Mystery surely describes the actual creation of the first gods, long ago in our species’ psychic prehistory: attempts to impose some simple structure on the existential darkness into which our ancestors stared as they first developed the double-edged human qualities of self-awareness and consciousness. In addition, if we interpret the figure in the foreground as some kind of priest or shaman, and the face that floats above him as the god he invokes, worships, creates– then it is notable that the god is created in the image of the man who dreams him- another important insight embedded in this deceptively simple painting. There’s a large, hi-res version of this painting here (click on the individual paintings to enlarge them).

Now that Ernst has made his presence felt on the Shoreline, I thought I’d also share an image I’ve been saving for an Ernst-related post, one of a series of collages he produced as illustrations for Leonora Carrington’s The House of Fear. This is more obviously Shoreline-related – and, perhaps, has a more Lovecraftian mien:

You can see more of Ernst’s House of Fear collages at the excellent Tigerloaf blog.

Fiery Beast of Heaven

Sunset on the Shoreline, 28th August.

Among the crowd that gathered to watch, there was agitation, and talk of a fiery sky-beast.

Some said it was a horse, and gripped with fear they scanned the contours of the flaming clouds, trying to discern a rider, their thoughts turning to the end of all things.

Some saw an insect: a blazing locust, obscenely giant, and surely soon to be joined by a host of others.

A fever of apocalyptic dread arose, and spread through the assembly like a miasma. Arguments broke out as to whether the portents were good or ill; it was observed that the sky-creature was both Heavenly and Infernal. The hubbub of debate subsided as the throng wrestled with this apparent paradox.

Some among the crowd saw no form of any animal, yet marvelled nonetheless at the interlocking of molecules and photons, and the play of these upon the retina.

Some saw a celestial salamander.

Some saw none of these things.

The Shaken Kaleidoscope

A witches’ brew of ideas and practises influence the overall approach here at the Haunted Shoreline, the main reference points being Hermetic and alchemical symbolism filtered through an idiosyncratic mesh of Surrealism and analytic psychology. But beyond, or underneath, all that is an attempt at a direct, gnostic engagement with place, a deliberate permeability between the actual, tangible shoreline and its representation in the imagination of the writer. This interaction is mediated by the sensorium, the physical Being, of your correspondent. The human nervous system is both the interface between inner and outer worlds, and the crucible in which their synergy ignites.

In this regard, there is a book that should be mentioned as an influence of sorts: “The Peregrine”, by J.A. Baker.

John Alec Baker was born in Essex in 1926, and lived for most of his life in Chelmsford- the same town, it so happens, in which I grew up. In fact, my copy of The Peregine came from the ‘local authors’ section of a bookshop in a small Essex coastal town where my parents would often take us for family holidays in the 1970s. I bought it there only last year, on a day charged with solemnity and deep reflection. My mother had recently died. My father, my sister, and I had returned to this old haunt for the day to scatter her ashes. This we did at the shoreline –  that location being a collective decision, I should add. Later that day I chanced upon the bookshop while meandering through the town.

The Peregrine was first published in 1967; there have been a number of new editions in recent years, including one introduced by Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways– you can read a terrific essay of his on Baker’s book here. My copy is the version shown above, the most recent edition, which also contains Baker’s other published writings (these are scanty) and some letters, as well as two cracking introductory pieces by Mark Cocker and the editor John Fanshawe- these are important, as they contain virtually all that is known about the life and personality of J.A.Baker.

Previously, Baker was invariably described (and at the time of writing this still is, on Wikipedia) as someone about whom “little is known”, save that he “worked for many years as a librarian”. In fact, this solitary morsel of biography turns out to be untrue: he was never a librarian. Instead he spent most of his working life in some managerial role at the Britvic soft drinks company, which has its headquarters in Chelmsford. He was married but childless, and was for many years the chairman of the local branch of the Automobile Association, despite never learning to drive. As far as I can ascertain there is only one extant photograph of him: it is on the back of the book, but appears not to be available anywhere online. It shows him aged about 30, round-faced, with 1950s-style Brylcreemed hair and thick, owlish glasses. This final detail is significant, as Baker’s poor eyesight is one of the factors that has led his readers to wonder just how factually accurate are his recorded observations of birds and animals.

The book is in the form of a journal, covering a period of half a year. Baker makes it clear, however, that this is a storyteller’s trick, and that in fact the material derives from numerous solitary journeys into the countryside around Chelmsford over the span of a decade or so- all this, or the edited highlights perhaps, has been telescoped into the timeframe of the book. Essex was far less urbanised then than now, although an interesting feature of the book is that many of Baker’s days out take him through agricultural landscapes- managed fields and woods- rather than the elemental wildernesses that are the more standard settings for ‘nature writing’.

He hops on his bike, cycles to these nearby rural locations (which are described, but not named), and once there this apparently quiet, conventional man seems to have entered into quite extraordinary states of mind. He immerses himself utterly in the world: his connection to his surroundings is not so much mystical as simply direct. He wrote up his impressions in the evenings, with a startling gift for phrasing, bending and moulding the language to the demands of whatever moment he sought to describe, to invoke.  The result was an astonishing prose-poetry that dares to tackle the vivid multiplicity of cross-sensory impressions that make up our experience of outdoors.

In his Introduction, Mark Cocker selects some wonderful examples of Baker’s style, which uses nouns as verbs and mixes the senses:

Quiet sunlight gleamed the falling tide

Gulls bone-white in ashes of sky

or his description of the song of a nightjar: “Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep end booming cask.”

Cocker also points out that Baker’s words can often be readily recast as poems; here is one of his examples:

Spring dusk;

Creak of bats wings

Over the steel river,

Curlew-call

Of the lemuring owls.

Baker’s central concern is, of course, the peregrine falcon. Early in the book, after one of his first encounters with the male of the pair of peregrines that he spends much of his time thereafter observing, he sets out his stall:

Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

And this is what happens. He watches the peregrines, records their habits, absorbs their world, and through some strange English shamanism, achieves knowledge (gnosis) of them. His account of it all is extraordinary- although the blazing intensity, and the torrent of images and impressions, require that it be read in short sections. Doubtless the circumstances in which I first encountered this book contributed to the potency of its effects on me. But even without those added layers of personal resonance, it’s heady stuff. Baker at times seems exalted, his language aflame with ecstatic poesy. That line in the quote above, My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, has stayed with me: often as I walk towards the beach I am visited by a mental image of submerging my own head in the pebbled, quaggy sands at the shoreline’s edge, and there being purified. And the phrase the shaken kaleidoscope chimes with me too: Baker uses it here to describe the peregrine’s eye; I have always liked the image of a kaleidoscope as a demonstration of the endlessly shifting Real: how basic elements, obeying physical laws, can be infinitely reconfigured so that they look a little different each time we gaze upon them.

And in speaking of how things seem, we once again find ourselves at the shoreline of imagination and the external world. The degree to which The Peregrine is an imaginal, as opposed to strictly factual, work has never been clear. Even the book’s central motif is uncertain. While peregrine falcons are indeed sometimes seen over the Essex countryside and marshes, even in Baker’s time they were not common, yet his exhaustive documentation of their kills suggests they must have been present in large numbers. Can this really have been the case? And there is the question of Baker’s eyesight- does the sharp detail of his observations owe a debt to imaginal reconstruction? A comment on this piece quotes an acquaintance of Baker’s as having said “the man was blind as a bat, all his peregrines were kestrels“. (Kestrels are smaller, rather less fabled birds of prey, and far more common than peregrines in the English countryside.) Further, the author of that comment describes themselves as someone who has worked in falcon conservation for many years, and finds that Baker’s account, the fierce brilliance of his prose notwithstanding, “simply does not ring true.”

So it may well be that the terrain Baker explores in The Peregrine is some alchemical fusion of the inner and outer worlds. His insistence on not naming or identifying his locations lends weight to the idea that the actual physical environments were a sounding board for something more deeply personal: his own private falcon-haunted mindscape. The ornithologists who have relied on his descriptions of peregrines and other birds may find this interpretation problematic, but, personally, I hope it is true. The Peregrine would thus become at once a document and an act of creation- an act of magic, one might say.

If the book is taken at face value, however, then to say that Baker does not impose himself on his material would be an understatement. The reader learns nothing whatsoever about him as regards the facts of his life.  Inasmuch as his personality can be read through his writing, he seems to combine a dry, at times obsessional, precision with a vividly hyperacute sensitivity. In this, he is perhaps what I might call a “Shoreline character”- a person in whom stark contrasts do battle, with something vital, alive, emerging at the interface.

The Haunted Shoreline, meanwhile, has been up to its usual tricks. I had planned this post for a while, finally writing it in dribs and drabs over the last week. Having made a start on it last weekend, I took an afternoon trip, daughter in tow, to Birling Gap (where the Ouroboros Egg was found), near Beachy Head. On arrival at Birling Gap we were greeted by the sight of the ‘spotters’ board’, on which recent wildlife encounters are recorded:

A closer look..

Peregrine falcons are uncommon here in Sussex (and at this point it seems appropriate to mention the work of the Sussex Peregrine Study, whom I came across in the course of researching this post). The appearance of a peregrine on the Shoreline, on the day I started writing about this book, is one of the more sonorous and resonant synchronicities this place has thrown up. And I would give a lot to know what John Alec Baker would have had to say about it.

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.