Writing itself

We use words like a tree uses light:
there is a process we don’t see but do.
— Jennifer Kronovet, With the boy, with myself

I need to be discovering it as I am writing it.
— Paul Auster interviewed at Senate House

When something assembles itself that fast, it’s clear that it’s been composing itself somewhere in the unknowable back of the mind for a long time. It wanted to be written; it was restless for the racetrack; it galloped along once I sat down at the computer.
— Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

The ride passed in a blur. Clearly, I had been functioning at some conscious level, aware of traffic, stopping at lights and junctions, checking over my shoulder before manoeuvring. But the details were instantly lost. I had arranged to meet my family at a country house in the Cheshire countryside but had opted to ride my bike there rather than pile into the car with the rest of them.

The ride, however, turned out not to be one of natural appreciation and contemplation but of rapid, free-flowing composition. As I left the Manchester suburbs, words and sentences bubbled up from hidden depths. I engaged in a form of mental moulding, crafting paragraphs, revising and editing, frequently delighted by the mash-up of long-standing thematic interest and the recently read or experienced.

It was a process of creation, fuelled by memory fragments. An assembly of disparate pieces, and their shaping into something coherent. By the clock, the ride did not take long, perhaps 30-40 minutes. But as a writing experience it was timeless, unquantifiable. As soon as I had located the family car, I leant my bike against it and fished out my smartphone. I needed to catch the butterfly of this fully formed blog post before it flew away and was lost to me for good.

I spent several minutes typing on the phone’s screen, further editing and refining, but making minimal changes to what had taken shape in my head during the ride. When we returned to Manchester later in the day, I topped-and-tailed the piece, as is my wont, with some relevant quotes and posted Knowledge horizons to this site. It is a post that has woven through it motifs about knowledge, sense-making and detection, identity, and the distrust of expertise; the subjects of numerous conversations and research, feeding a book project that I was then beginning to work on.

Changes of scene, pauses, cycling or walking, switching from non-fiction to fiction or poetry, re-familiarising myself with an old film or book… all of these can have an uncorking effect either alone or in conjunction. The experience of this particular bike ride was unique in that I captured a complete blog post during it. But both before and since that day, I frequently have had to punctuate bike rides and walks with sudden stops to capture notes and ideas. I have also experienced the benefits of a two-week holiday as the prelude to an immersive writing experience that produced the bulk of my first book.

What I tend to find, however, is that I truly discover what I want to say in the act of writing. That writing itself can be relatively quick, albeit the end product is slowed a little by the subsequent editorial and review process. However, the really hard yards are made in the research period. Everything I read, everything I watch, every conversation I have, therefore, is work – most of it of a highly pleasurable variety. At the initial point of consumption, I rarely know when or where it will come in useful. Which is why, for example, over the past few years, I have taken notes on all the books I have read.

Art in its broadest sense – painting, poems, plays, films, songs, novels – provides a sense-making lens, helping me, with a few twists and turns, to make kaleidoscopic pictures of my own. I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for pleasure on holiday, having read it for the first time in the 1980s. I had no clue when I picked it up again that it would unlock so much, that it would give shape to a blog post that would suddenly emerge from the mist during a bike ride. A past artefact released memories, which intertwined with and shed light on recent ideas.

The seed planting and cultivation happened subconsciously. But it was writing, even writing in my mind while astride a bike, that allowed me to harvest what had subsequently grown.

It may simply be that artists know they don’t control their work. When you paint or write or compose, things happen that you don’t understand. I have often felt that writing fiction is connected to dreaming, a state of altered consciousness, during which material I didn’t know was there begins to assert itself, to take over, which may explain the bizarre feeling I have had on occasion that a text is writing itself.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The insight presumably occurs when a subconscious connection between ideas fits so well that it is forced to pop out into awareness, like a cork held underwater breaking out into the air after it is released.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity

In that state, I do not know what I am doing, I do not know where I am going, but I do know that I have to take the journey and follow wherever it goes.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

Ambiguity detected

The appeal of the detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists, are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the ‘one good purposeful person’ even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.
— Simon Terry, Blog comment

Desire is the engine of life, the yearning that goads us forward with stops along the way, but it has no destination, no final stop, except death.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

In Together, his study of cooperation, Richard Sennett highlights a transformation in sociable behaviour that characterised the medieval era. Education and commerce witnessed the emergence of the professional, and with it a shift in ethics and behaviour from chivalry to civility. The aristocratic knight was usurped by the lawyer, the doctor, the banker, the merchant, as the Renaissance paved the way for our modern world.

Even as the relevance of the knight and his chivalric code faded, though, the figure persisted as a cultural archetype. Tales of King Arthur’s court, for example, and the legendary adventures of its knights, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail, endure today both overtly and covertly. The ethics and philosophy of the early middle ages are not entirely lost, for they remain packaged in narrative form. The myth of the solitary hero is maintained even in an age where collaboration and cooperation are the norm.

Interestingly, concurrent with the shift from chivalry to civility was the democratisation of words. No longer was the written text the preserve of Latin speakers, monks and the clergy. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas to a wider readership. With the printed book, knowledge could be quickly codified and shared at an unprecedented scale, and in contemporary as well as archaic languages. Stories, like genes, had always been carriers of culture. Now, though, they could be written down and read by many people in diverse locations, not just verbalised and heard in communal assemblies.

In the middle of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler was a purveyor of words whose interests straddled the boundaries between the chivalric and the prosaic, whose hardboiled narratives exposed the darkness and corruption hiding behind civilised veneers. In his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Chandler focuses on a particular type of modern professional: the private investigator. Like Arthur’s knights, this is a figure who constantly embarks upon quests, for missing items, more often for missing people, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, murderers.

‘The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Chandler sets out the template for his own series of Philip Marlowe novels, in which the intrepid detective, time and again, ventures into the mean streets in service of both client and a personal sense of honour and morality. Yet, for all of Chandler’s protestations, there remains a sense that the detective is themself tainted, their heroism a deceit, self-perceived and projected for consumption by others.

Detection

The lineage, extending back through Arthurian legend and on to Ancient Greece, does little to dispel this unease regarding the ‘heroic’ detective. Whether it is the myth of Oedipus, the first detective, the tale of the Fisher King or the story of Jake Gittes in Chinatown, there are shared motifs, common themes. The realm is corrupted, a wasteland requiring regeneration, with the central figure either implicated in its decline or impotent to effect change. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, but commits the crimes of patricide and incest. Gittes uncovers Noah Cross’s criminality but is unable to bring him to justice, a passive bystander to the death of the woman he loves, herself the victim of Cross’s incestuous abuse.

Joseph Campbell’s hero adventure model, with its foundations in Jungian theory, suggests that each journey is one of self-discovery. We venture into the labyrinth and find ourselves at its centre. The Minotaur is our shadow, part of our identity. This applies equally to the knight’s quest as to the detective’s investigation; their curious pursuit, assimilation and assessment of clues.

Sometimes the Minotaur, the darkness, triumphs. In Angel Heart, for example, Harry Angel discovers that it is himself he has been seeking, that he is responsible for the horrific crimes he investigates. Similarly, in Memento, Leonard Shelby is the true object of his own search, his memories conveniently corrupted or discarded as he transforms into serial executioner. In Blood Simple, the venal private investigator Visser, enacts and fabricates crimes, falsely apportioning blame, murdering at will.

Even Chandler’s own creation, Philip Marlowe, becomes executioner in Robert Altman’s 1970s reworking of The Long Goodbye. His personal code of ethics have become so skewed, his sense of betrayal so intense, that he feels able to take the law into his own hands. A move echoed by Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way, even if he holds his friend’s dead hand to the pistol that murders the corrupt patriarch.

In many respects, the 1960s and 1970s shifted the game. Chandler’s knightly detective was shown to be out of time, an anachronism unsuited to a context of political intrigue and investigation, public inquiries, impeachment proceedings and warmongering. The establishment was rotten at its core, and the true detectives were shown to be investigative journalists, like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, wielding typewriters and pens rather than guns.

A new pattern was revealed that continued through the subsequent decades, amplified in recent times by cyberleaks and whistleblowers. The more that is revealed, the more new questions arise. Answers obfuscate rather than illuminate. The simple is rendered complex. The detective is as ill-defined, as difficult to pin down as the mysteries they investigate. Lew Griffin both writes and is written, a fiction within a fiction. In Pynchon’s novels, his male detectives lose themselves in drug-induced hazes while his female investigators lead themselves to the edge of paranoia.

Yet, for all that, there is something appealing about this investigative figure. Or at least those who have ventured into the labyrinth and either conquered or integrated the Minotaur. Their thirst for knowledge, inherent curiosity, pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities, as well as their aptitude for narration, for working out loud, have much to commend them. What they lead us to in most cases, though, is not resolution of ambiguity but rather an acceptance of and comfort with it. They are not heroes, just regular folk, like you and me, deriving temporary and contextually convenient understanding of an ever-changing world. Civilians retaining a hint of the chivalric, the romantic, in the modern day. As ambiguous as the ambiguities they detect.

Ambiguity asks: Where is the border between this and that? … But ambiguity is inherently contradictory and insoluble, a bewildering truth of fogs and mists and the unrecognizable figure or phantom or memory or dream that can’t be contained or held in my hands or kept because it is always flying away, and I cannot tell what it is or if it is anything at all.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The immediate result of this formal change is that the detective no longer inhabits the atmosphere of pure thought, of puzzle-solving and the resolution of a set of given elements. On the contrary, he is propelled outwards into the space of his world and obliged to move from one kind of social reality to another incessantly, trying to find clues to his client’s whereabouts.
— Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler

There’s no completion in patterns,
For patterns are constantly restitched in new patterns.
There’s no completion in history, which kneels
bare and mute at the feet of the future.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

This post was written in response to the challenge laid down by Simon Terry in the blog comment cited at the top of the page. I picked up his gauntlet and enjoyed the provocation. It continues a conversation we started a few years ago, which initially resulted in The detective. The topic is also central to chapter 9 of The Neo-Generalist.

What are you reading?

Hello, he said. What are you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.
— Ali Smith, Artful

What are you reading? The question Daniel poses, the elucidation he supplies, to the youthful Elisabeth in Ali Smith’s latest novel brought a smile to my face. The smile of the serial book reader, film viewer, sports fan and flâneur, that wandering observer of people and environment.

As I have aged, as my interests have broadened and diversified, my own reading habits have evolved. Gone are the days when I would dedicate myself to one book at a time. Now I have several on the go simultaneously. A constant game of hopscotch, jumping back and forth, left and right, from one text to another. This apparently random pattern punctuated by the occasional serendipitous delight; one book of poetry, for example, offering an insight that enriches my understanding of the thesis of a nonfiction tome.

Daniel’s question made me wonder about the reading habits of other people. So I Tweeted: What are you reading? One book? Several simultaneously? None? Interested for a possible blog post. A few generous people spared their time to respond. Some in writing, some with photographs. A shared moment of bibliophilia, new discoveries and recommendations. The online conversations that ensued were numerous, which made a pleasant change from the broadcast-and-run fare that pervades many digital timelines.

One striking thing about the responses was the commentary regarding book piles waiting to be read. There was an intimation that some people queued books in the same way that others might organise the songs they are about to listen to on Spotify. It reminded me of Umberto Eco’s notion of an anti-library, of the reader surrounding themselves with a large number of unread books, constantly anticipating new knowledge, new pleasures.

ali-smith-books
[Photo: What am I reading? Ali Smith. Often and in volume.]

What soon became evident was that I am not alone in my reading habits. The majority of respondents also appeared to be juggling multiple volumes at once, some mixing paper and digital, others veering more towards the physical book. The breadth of subjects covered was breathtaking.

Fiction was a mainstay: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Pedro Páramo, Snow, A Breath of Life, The Circle, Roadside Picnic, Autumn, The Hours, Dhalgren and The Break, among others.

I was gratified to find that poetry appeared more frequently than I had anticipated, in several cases introducing me to new books to track down over the coming months. Collections by Rumi, Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds, Jo Shapcott, Andrew Greig, W. S. Merwin, Lynette Roberts and Kate Tempest were mentioned.

Nonfiction books were numerous, some selected simply out of curiosity, others relevant to workplace interests or academic research, others still as a source of culinary inspiration. This included Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, The Craftsman and Together by Richard Sennett, several biographies (Bruce Springsteeen, David Bowie, F. W. Taylor), and assorted books on science, technology, neo-generalism and business.

Many people professed that they tackled some books at speed, racing from cover to cover, whereas others they lingered over for months, dipping in, reflecting, putting to one side again. Essay, poetry and short story collections appear to lend themselves particularly well to the latter tendency. What is clear, though, is that many of us read both fast and slow, our consumption of a book determined not only by context and preference, but also by genre and how the book is written.

A detective novel, for example, regardless of its length, draws the reader in and accelerates them towards the final page and resolution of the mystery. Sennett’s homo faber books, on the other hand, are opaque and challenging, requiring protracted engagement with his ideas. They are not quick reads. Some books nourish over an expanse of time, others offer the quick fix of a fast-food snack. Both have a purpose, meet a need.

What united us all, in this momentary reflection on reading habits, was a love of the written the word. An appreciation of its capacity to entertain, enlighten and enthuse us in the pursuit of yet more books to read. As Daniel suggests, books provide a lens through which we make meaning of the world that surrounds us. We are always reading, with or without a book in our hands.

I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Giving and sharing books became a system for putting ideas out into the world.
— Michael Pye, The Edge of the World

All bookshops are compasses: when you study them they offer you interpretations of the contemporary world that are more finely tuned than those provided by other icons or spaces.
— Jorge Carrión, Bookshops

I am grateful to the following people for their Twitter responses: Mark Gould, Mike Cosgrove, Maggie MacDonald, Patricia Sutherland, Jono Byrne, Sarah Storm, Meg Peppin, Tom Graves, Tony Jackson, Simon Heath, Sharon Richardson, Mark Storm, Simon Terry, Helen Tracey and Erik Meyers.

Collage

Humanities? Law? Tourism? Zoology? Politics? History? Art? Maths? Philosophy? Music? Languages? Classics? Engineering? Architecture? Economics? Medicine? Psychology? Daniel said.

All of the above, Elisabeth said.

That’s why you need to go to collage, Daniel said.
— Ali Smith Autumn

Collage is an institute of education where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.
— Ali Smith, Autumn

Who am I? Where am I? What am I?
— Ali Smith, Autumn

As the stumblings of the Trump press office have demonstrated repeatedly, words matter. They are both imbued with meaning and open to interpretation. Any crossword enthusiast will recognise that a single word can be burdened with an array of definitions even before their metaphorical usage is taken into consideration. They are pregnant with possibility, adapted to nuance, context and inflection.

Novelist Ali Smith captures this beautifully in her most recent novel Autumn. We time travel with her protagonists Elisabeth and Daniel backwards and forwards through various moments in their respective lives. As Elisabeth blossoms into her early teens, the eighty-something Daniel assumes the role of mentor and guide, questioning, challenging, having a catalytic effect on his protégée’s future.

Walking and talking together, they paint with words. Smith is an extraordinarily visual writer, often incorporating the description of photographs, paintings and film scenes into her narratives. Sometimes, as is the case with How to be Both and Artful, the images which adorn the covers of her books are reconstructed through her prose. With Autumn, the work of pop artist Pauline Boty is significant to the lives of each of the two protagonists, one of the many connections that bind their lives together.

my-colouring-book
[Picture credit: My Colouring Book by Pauline Boty]

Boty often made use of collage techniques in her artworks. Daniel’s word play with the term establishes a bridge between the paintings he describes to the young Elisabeth and their conversation about her future education. Elisabeth speaks of going to college when she is older. Daniel, a trickster and neo-generalist, urges her to go to collage instead, where she can combine multiple interests and embrace multidisciplinarity.

Having so recently published The Neo-Generalist, reading these passages had a visceral effect on me. In the chapters titled ‘Provincial Punk’ and ‘Shoring Fragments’, borrowing from punk culture, the Modernists, a variety of writers, artists and interviewees, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how our lives, our identities, are an accumulation, remix and mash-up of interactions, lessons, memories and roles, characterised by fluidity and adaptiveness. In ‘Picaresque Tales’, we examine alternatives to established 21st-century education practices.

Smith distils all these ideas into a single word. Collage. An artwork. A descriptor. A place, an experience, of learning for us all.

Maybe “self” was a free variable with no bounded value.
— Michael Chabon, Moonglow

She didn’t truck much with conventional ways of dividing up the world—black/white, male/female, gay/straight, abnormal/normal—none of these boundaries convinced her. These were impositions, defining categories that failed to recognize the muddle that is us, us human beings. “Reductionism!” She used to shout this out every now and then.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Punk, in turn, celebrated the fragment and the conjuncture. Torn clothing, for example, reassembled with electrical tape, chains, or safety pins, privileged the collage, rather than the seamless whole. Contrary to the alleged timelessness of artistic truth, punks celebrated the ephemeral quality of the commodity. Contrary to the rectitude of virtuosity, punk bands openly flaunted their haphazard musical skills.
— Randall Doane, Stealing All Transmissions

Time capsule

All songs involve time, because music depends on time. Time’s a song against the clock.
— Ali Smith, Artful

The mind tends to find congruencies and links where none previously existed—not just in music, but in everything.
— David Byrne, How Music Works

We can also appreciate why pop music is time-bound and an occasion for nostalgia … Hearing a pop tune can take you back to a summer, or an evening, or an emotional state … Pop music, even the best and most enduring, dates itself, not just in the sense that you can read off its date, but in the sense that pop music directly engages sounds, looks, attitudes that are specific to a time and place.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

In the 1980s of my mid-to-late teens, there was a surge of interest in the music of my infancy spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s. This extended well beyond the Motown revival fuelled by Levi’s advertisements. My friends and I were discovering the music of The Doors and The Velvet Underground, albums like Hunky Dory and Sgt. Pepper’s, songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

This is all music I still listen to on occasion, but to do so is not only to experience pleasure in the moment but also a double form of time travel. On the one hand, I am transported back to a period I can recall in only the most fragmentary of ways, the snippets of toddlerdom, which in the living I failed to entwine with music. On the other, to hear a particular song can carry with it a rich assembly of schoolboy era information about time, place and people: the context in which I first heard the song, the people who I enjoyed it with, films seen, gigs attended, appreciative discussions.

Re-hearing later music is more fixed in the personal timeline that takes shape in my mind. A song may draw to it an accumulation of subsequent memories, orbiting around it like electrons circling a nucleus. But there tends to be a primal association too. To hear Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is to return to my pre-teen self pulling those first vinyl purchases from their sleeves. To hear New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ is to find myself circumnavigating a sports hall wearing roller boots, whereas U2’s ‘Bad’ is a passport back to Live Aid and a post-examination summer.

blue-monday

It was novelist Michael Chabon who prompted these reflections. At a Guardian Live event earlier this month, Chabon spoke of the importance of both popular music and the senses to him, on a personal level and in the fictional worlds he creates. This is overt in the record-store setting of his 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue, but equally relevant to books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Moonglow, his latest publication. Chabon described his favourite songs as a form of time capsule, the music and lyrics contributing but a part of the overall experience.

In Time Travel, James Gleick dedicates a chapter to the popular practice of burying time capsules. The interment of vessels containing contemporary items, artefacts and knowledge are intended for future discovery. It is considered a method for transmitting culture and historical traces into the future, a form of time travel that enables great expanses of time to be bridged.

This is Chabon’s contention for the song and other art forms. We bury packages in the recesses of our minds, comprised not only of impressions caused by sound, images and words but emotions and environment too. Hearing a song again, rediscovering a long-forgotten photograph, returning decades later to a favourite novel, all can have the effect of digging up those time capsules. They open up a treasure chest of memories. A starburst of sensations and recall.

The memories themselves are impressionistic, of course, a fusion of fact and fiction. They are samples rewritten, remixed to fit the story of our ever-evolving selves, our edited and polished personal narratives.

This can happen too with new encounters with cultural artefacts. For example, when I first read David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, I was immediately transported back to the period of my early teens. I was born in the same year as Mitchell, and his description of a thirteen-year-old’s life in 1982-83 felt close to the bone. Not because of the main narrative, but because of the background detail concerning Thatcher’s Britain, the Falklands War and, above all, the soundtrack.

Mitchell’s fiction is filled with temporal motifs and characters who time travel, hopping from one novel to another, from one era to another. In terms of generic hybridisation and formal play, Black Swan Green appears the least experimental of Mitchell’s novels. Yet, for this reader at least, it still has the ability to open up pathways to other time zones entirely. The novelist as DJ, let loose in the archive of the reader’s memories.

When it works, what you get is not a collection of references, quotes, allusions, and cribs but a whole, seamless thing, both familiar and new: a record of the consciousness that was busy falling in love with those moments in the first place.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Addendum: David Mitchell is himself a participant in a literary time capsule project. He has buried an unpublished manuscript in Oslo’s Nordmarka Forest. It will not be retrieved until 2114.

Time, please

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near
— Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Is it time that translates our lives into sequence, into meaning?
— Ali Smith, Artful

Multifaceted as my academic and work experiences have been, a constant throughout has been a fascination with concepts relating to time and memory. This was ignited, in particular, when studying the modernists. The early artists, authors, composers and filmmakers of the twentieth-century wove the scientific discoveries of their age into their own work. Theoretical studies of time, space and the mind were filtered and found expression in abstract art and formally challenging poetry and novels.

An appreciation of time and form was essential to my own study of film noir, which preoccupied me in the mid-1990s. Noir is a genre of editing. Time is fragmented and mixed up, the sequence of events varied and, on occasion, reimagined. Voiceover narrations and flashbacks proliferate. Dream sequences, blackouts, and alcohol- or drug-induced hallucinations are not uncommon. Amnesia is a recurrent theme.

Time, in fact, was a dominant motif in much of the ‘literary’ and genre fiction and film that I found most appealing. Those that were inclined, in neo-generalist style, to transcend and blur neat categorical boundaries often served up the most intriguing works. Towards the end of the 1990s, I wrote an article on the fiction of James Sallis, titled ‘Memories of Things Past and Yet to Come’, barely scratching the surface regarding an ongoing interest in temporal themes and my appreciation of his assorted literary output.

I have long harboured an ambition to return to both. In the interim, I discovered new voices whose work demands closer examination in relation to the topic: notably, David Mitchell and Ali Smith in literature, and Richard Linklater in film. I began to pay more attention to time in relation to sport too, not just in a quantitative sense (How fast was the distance covered? How long until the final whistle?), but in the way sport is televised and experienced: slowed-down, repeated, recalled through anecdote, mythologised.

Then there are the technologically-fuelled societal and workplace approaches to time. The primacy of now, of present shock. The ‘post-’ meme, suggestive that something has stopped, that a new age has begun. The hollow ‘future of work’ concept, which always leaves me wondering When does the future actually begin? On whose clock? Who decides and why? Which frequently leads me to abandon the business gurus and TV talking heads in exasperation, turning again to the poets, musicians and filmmakers. Art is about human understanding, about grappling with big themes. It has depth. It is difficult. It requires your involvement, not simple, passive receptivity.

time

So I find myself, at the start of a new year, contemplating an intermittent series of posts on literature and film, exploring time and memory. It is not a new idea, but one that holds me in its thrall, one I cannot let go. Recently, Eddie Harran asked me to make a short contribution to his #humantime project. This is what I wrote:

Time stretches into the distance, measured linearly by the athlete’s progress along the track; reflected too by the metamorphosis and decline of our own bodies from cradle to grave.

Time circles around the clock, advancing and repeating with the seasons, the ripening of crops, tidal surges and changes of the moon.

Time experienced in flow or memory can be unquantifiable, linked to the senses, elided or expanded, sped up or slowed down.

Time fragmented is the thing of art and poetry, captured on canvas, celluloid and page. It is constantly revisited in an eternal present. To quote, to recall, is to collapse the artificial markers between past, present and future.

These are ideas I wish to mine further throughout the year, the literary and cinematic analysis amplified by reference to sport, music art, television and anecdote. The cultural emphasis does not negate the relevance to the domains of politics, society or the workplace. It is just that our art makers tend to be a few steps ahead, trendsetters and zeitgeist surfers, telling us today what the business gurus will discover years hence. Paying attention to the artists just feels like a more pleasurable, fulfilling experience and use of time.

I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.
— Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?
— Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

We meld memories from the past to imagine the future. This memory remix allows us extensive imagination, but it causes us to base our ideas of the future on the past without any evidence that it will be the same.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

Ready to jump

This article was commissioned by Haydn Shaughnessy and published on the Hack & Craft News site on 2 November 2016. The challenge was to explore what happens when people take advantage of opportunities. My thanks to Haydn for permission to reproduce it here. The article forms part of my ongoing research into #pelotonformations. This is a metaphor for responsive, adaptive organisations, characterised by fluid leadership, agility and personal autonomy in service of the collective.

Treating an uncertain world as if it is predictable is for charlatans. Long-term planning is just a waste of resources and brain power. The surest route to castrophic failure is not to act and not to take any risks.
— James Watt, Business for Punks

Distributed doesn’t simply mean decentralized; it’s not the principle through which alternative power centers emerge on the periphery of a system. Rather, when power is distributed, it is available thought the network. It is everywhere at once.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom.
— E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Sunday 11 September 2016. A diminutive professional road cyclist, Nairo Quintana, takes his place on the top step of the podium in the centre of Madrid. He has just secured overall victory in a Grand Tour race for the second time in his career. But things could have turned out so differently were it not for the spirit of adventure that Quintana and his teammates had demonstrated the previous Sunday…

Peloton formations
For all the focus on the individual, winning unique stages, overall races, classification jerseys and intermediate sprints, road racing is in fact a team event. It is played out against a backdrop of numerous interacting systems – competing teams, event organisation, municipal authorities for the host towns, policing, media embedded within the race, team cars, support vehicles, spectators on the roadside, weather, terrain, course routes and road furniture. The passage of the cycling peloton itself – that swarming mass of lycra-clad teammates and competitors – is complex and adaptive. The peloton formation, in its responsiveness and fluidity, serves as a useful metaphor for an aspirational modern organisation.

The peloton is characterised by constant shifts between competition, collaboration and cooperation. Leadership is always in motion rather than remaining static, a baton that is passed off and handed back again, determined by day-to-day and overall objectives for the team. Leaders become followers, servants become leaders, as the road flattens or climbs, as the wind strengthens or tarmac gives way to cobblestones. Emphasis is placed on time-bound actions and relationships; forming or chasing down a breakaway, setting up a sprint finish, helping a teammate make their way back to the main group after a mechanical failure.

Alliances of mutual convenience take shape and then shatter as competitors accommodate contextual shifts. Teams operate within loose frameworks, exercising personal and collective autonomy, as they amend their plans. Decisions are made on the fly, in recognition of changes in weather, incidents on the road, the health and form of colleagues, as well as in response to the actions of riders from other teams. The roles an individual fulfils are in a constant state of flux.

Members of a nine-man Grand Tour team, assembled for the annual editions of the three-week Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will assume a variety of responsibilities. Some will defend against breakaway attempts. Others will collect water bottles from the team cars. Some will shelter the day’s designated leader from the wind, while that leader will aim to conserve energy for the final sprint or climb, or for key stages later in the week. All, though, are alert to opportunities to break free from the peloton’s grip and enjoy a day in front of the television cameras. For several teams, lacking the personnel for overall victory, exposing your corporate sponsor’s logo to a global audience is the ultimate objective. Brand awareness leads to revenue; a sponsor’s income can translate into ongoing financial viability for the team.

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[Photo credit: Quintana ahead of Froome, Stage 20 of La Vuelta, José Jordan]

Serial masters
An effective road racer, with aspirations to win a Grand Tour, tends to master several disciplines. Invariably, they are extremely competent climbers, often to be seen at the front of the race as it reaches its highest slopes. Often they are highly proficient against the time trial clock too, the ultimate test in performance measurement. The very best are also characterised by their inner strength, their responsiveness and occasional opportunism.

Being serial masters, the Grand Tour contenders seem better able to play what is in front of them, rewriting the day’s plans when necessary, gambling where they believe the calculated reward will outweigh the potential risk. Without that mastery and responsiveness, it is difficult to adapt to and rectify major problems. Even more so to take advantage of the serendipitous opportunity. Individual initiative will often be amplified and consolidated by the supporting actions of teammates.

At the start of the 2016 Tour de France, three riders were considered potential winners: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. This was founded in part on their own form and palmarès and, in particular, on the collective abilities of their respective Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff teams. It was expected that the big three would mark each other closely, with only injury, illness or individual opportunism likely to differentiate before their rivalry was played out on the most vertiginous of the Tour’s ascents.

As things transpired, all three came into play. Contador succumbed to the effects of crashes early in the race, while Quintana’s own performance was inhibited throughout by illness. This was exacerbated by Froome’s willingness to do the unexpected; to go against the unfair stereotype he bears of being a robotic rider in thrall to the data available on his cycling computer and the instructions received from sporting directors through his earpiece.

Froome is renowned for his sudden accelerations on the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs. Rival teams watch closely, preparing to respond, either accompanying him as he breaks away from the peloton, or neutralising his efforts. On stage 8 of the Tour, there was some relief as the summit of the Col de Peyresourde was attained with the leading group intact.

As Quintana reached for his water bottle, however, Froome attacked as the road dropped downhill, assuming an ungainly and uncomfortable position on the crossbar of his road bike. It proved to be a turning point in the race, laying the foundations for Froome’s overall victory, expertly marshalled and supported by his teammates over the remaining thirteen stages.

Vuelta a Espana - Stage 21
[Photo credit: Quintana takes the honours, Stage 21 of La Vuelta, Graham Watson]

Seize the day
At the start of the Vuelta a España in mid-August, the names of the same three contenders for overall victory were on everyone’s lips. New variables were in play. How well had Contador recovered from his injuries, Quintana from illness, Froome from his efforts at both the Tour and the Olympics, where he had medalled in the time trial event? How would the apparently weaker Tinkoff and Sky teams respond to the collective strength of the Movistar squad? How would Froome cope without his Tour wingman Wout Poels?

In recent editions, the Vuelta has become known for its challenging climbs and searing heat. The 2016 race had been designed with several mountain-top finishes that would serve as enticing canvases for the climbing artists. One stage, though, stood out in the final week: an individual time trial, which many believed favoured Froome. If other aspirants to overall victory wished to take the sting out of that particular day, then they would need to accumulate a significant time advantage.

In the Vuelta, time can be gained in two ways. First, by finishing ahead of your competitors, thereby securing a time gap over them. Second, by winning the stage or finishing high up on it, particularly on the more difficult climbs, thereby earning time bonuses. The rider who has the lowest overall time after three weeks is declared the winner of the race.

Teamwork becomes essential, therefore, as members of a squad sacrifice their own prospects of finishing high up on the general classification in order to ensure that a colleague does. Trust-based relationships and collaboration informed by a shared purpose define the dynamics of the team. Often, however, there is a need for this to be supplemented by cooperation with riders from rival teams. These temporary alliances are mutually convenient as the pursuit of distinct goals are benefited by working together.

The Vuelta started with a team time trial, which immediately disadvantaged Contador, as his underperforming team lost time to the other overall contenders. This recast him in the role of agitator, of opportunistic forager, seeking out ways to regain time and a spot on the podium, if not overall victory. His actions later in the race would benefit Quintana, who soon established himself as the rider to watch on the steepest of slopes, assuming race leadership by the midpoint of the Vuelta.

On paper, stage 15 looked like it would be a short but explosive stage. Only 118km in length, from Sabiñánigo to Aramon Formigal, it had a lumpy profile, with three classified climbs, culminating in a mountain-top finish. With 112km still to race, and the peloton already on the first of the day’s ramps, Contador made the jump. His attack was marked by Quintana, and together they formed an alliance, each with two teammates alongside them, as they pulled away as part of the day’s breakaway. A gamble was rapidly translated into a race-transforming opportunity.

Froome was left behind, and as the day progressed found himself isolated without teammates from Sky. Meanwhile, Quintana’s own Movistar colleagues expertly disrupted attempts to chase down the breakaway. The events of the day were as much about Quintana’s own seizing of it as the work of his team behind him. Second place on the stage, a time bonus and Froome’s loss of over two-and-a-half minutes secured the temporal buffer Quintana required prior to the time trial. Froome’s phenomenal performance in the latter suggested what might have been, with the Sky rider clawing back two-and-a-quarter minutes from Quintana. But the latter and his Movistar team had effectively won the race on 4 September.

Peloton lessons
Stories from the peloton frequently demonstrate that it is about so much more than the individual. Network effects are key, both within the clearly delimited organisation of the team, and in the messier relationships and alliances with others in the peloton. The technical policies, rules and regulations of governing bodies and event organisers give a semblance of structure to the races. But the teams use them as creative constraints, operating more under flexible frameworks than rigid plans. Without responsiveness and autonomy, without the willingness to experiment, these teams would experience little success, letting one opportunity after another pass them by.

Paradoxically, life in the peloton is about both preparing and being willing to discard a plan at a moment’s notice. It is what Harold Jarche refers to as life in perpetual beta. Complexity cannot be dealt with in simplistic terms, uncertainty is a constant, and individuals have to be willing to respond to momentary context and trust their colleagues to follow their lead. How many organisations in the private and not-for-profit sectors do you know that operate like this?

Pelotons are able to operate in the way that they do because learning and experience is embedded within them. Young riders are mentored by seasoned professionals. They learn through imitation, trial and error, developing both instinct and intuition, daring to experiment when the occasion presents itself. The sport is all about life lessons acquired on the road, the knowledge gained from numerous failures as relevant as that acquired through the occasional success. Teamwork provides firm foundations. But autonomy within loose frameworks, decision-making and accountability are all encouraged from early on. It is this crucial combination – individual action contextualised in relation to the collective – that the modern corporation, government agency and charity now need to learn.

Further Reading

Goldin, Ian, and Chris Kutarna. Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Jarche, Harold. Working in Perpetual Beta (Tantramar Interactive, 2016).

Martin, Richard. ‘Peloton Formations: The Responsive, Adaptive Organisation’, in Jon Husband, et al, Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work (Wirearchy Commons, 2015).

Mikkelsen, Kenneth, and Richard Martin. The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are (LID, 2016).

Millar, David. The Racer: Life on the Road as a Pro Cyclist (Yellow Jersey Press, 2015).

The poem defines

This week (7-13 November 2016), it is International Working Out Loud Week. Simon Terry kindly invited Kenneth Mikkelsen and I to be interviewed about neo-generalism and working out loud. As a companion piece to that interview, the following post retrospectively shares ideas that went into one aspect of our book.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest—
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

He will be more than the sum of his parts.
— Kate Tempest, Tiresias

Tiresias who sees what only a child could see
— Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament

At the centre of The Neo-Generalist can be found the chapter ‘Shoring Fragments’. In it Kenneth and I observe, ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’

In speaking for ourselves, in telling our own stories in the book, we discovered that we were simultaneously telling those of other people too. In recounting fragments of their stories, or highlighting examples from popular culture, we found again that we were telling our own stories.

Our ever evolving selves, our sense of identity, are made up of these shored fragments. On a personal level, there are certain cultural artefacts that anchor me. These are my touchstones. The art through which I make meaning, and with which I gauge and assess other art and the broader world around me.

From poetry, there is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which shoring fragments alludes. From fiction, there is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which gave us another chapter title. From film, there is Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the screenwriter’s masterful script darkened and enriched by the director’s cinematic vision. From television, there is Northern Exposure, the subject of my last blog post and another cultural reference to find its way into our book. In painting, there is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

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[Book covers and poster art: The inspiration for our chapter titles]

The touchstone of touchstones for me is The Waste Land. I can build a case for how each of the other works cited borrows from and is influenced by it. So too other novels, films and visual art. This goes far beyond shared motifs and a thematic interest in all things Modernist.

The Waste Land has long tentacles. In 2018, its legacy will be the subject of an art exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery. It also lingers below the surface of the work of contemporary poets, as witness Sean Bonney’s searing Letters Against the Firmament and Kate Tempest’s brilliant Let Them Eat Chaos.

With The Neo-Generalist, Eliot’s poem proved to be a gift that kept on giving. Beyond the title of and opening to chapter 7, it gave us an organising principle (shoring the narrative fragments) and an architecture too. Some of this was addressed overtly, some of it happened unconsciously, influenced by constant reference to the poem while we were researching and writing.

For example, in the book we deliberately draw attention to the fact that both The Waste Land and The Crying of Lot 49 highlight their own artifice in the way they close. In the poem, Eliot concludes with his carefully crafted notes ending with the word word; in the novella, Pynchon closes with the book’s title. We opted to follow the latter in The Neo-Generalist. It was an in-joke, much like some of the images that adorn the book’s cover.

At the centre of The Waste Land can be found the mythological figure of Tiresias. Tiresias experiences life as both a man and a woman, is blinded by a goddess and given the gift of foresight by a god. In Tiresias, as I have previously outlined in the The Eye of I, polarities between masculinity and femininity collapse, while time and place become one. Tiresias embodies the continuum of our infinite loop. In Eliot’s poem, then, Tiresias becomes the vortex around which other characters and voices spin kaleidoscopically. Everything converges and collapses into the singularity of this man–woman.

It is a notion, consciously or not, that we borrow in telling the stories of our interviewees. One story bleeds into another. Boundaries are blurred. Delineation fades. Because our argument is that anyone can be a neo-generalist. No matter what you are doing now, no matter your educational background, no matter where you currently find yourself. We all carry the potential to both specialise and generalise. So the stories we tell, in the end, are our stories and your stories too. The names are just labels for ease of understanding.

The shored fragments an indication that where you go is who you are; always beginning, always learning, always adapting.

Metamorphosis is generally more creative than that, not echoing but erasing forms and inventing other ones from the material, a kaleidoscope of atoms and molecules tumbling into new formations over and over.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

In every piece we write, we contemplate a world; and as that world would not otherwise exist, we create it even as we discover it.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

Northern Exposure

A shorter, tighter version of this post appeared in chapter 8 of The Neo-Generalist. There it serves to illustrate the importance of empathy and reframing from the perspective of other people. The post pre-dates the book. I have opted to re-publish it here as a form of working out loud. In the late 1990s, I delivered a presentation on Northern Exposure when applying for an academic post. I have been returning to the television series as a source of inspiration ever since. Polishing, adding to, tweaking my writing about it. The framing quotes are new additions for this publication.

The days go past like pictures on a screen.
Sometimes I feel like my life
is someone else’s dream.
— Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos

No, they were
the scenery of the play now closing,
lengthy run it had.
— Sharon Olds, Object Loss

Broadcast over six seasons by CBS between 1990 and 1995, Northern Exposure follows the lives and communal interactions of a small group of people living in Cicely, Alaska; the North American equivalent of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is neo-modern television with Northern Exposure exploring issues relating to the breakdown of human interaction, the fragmentation of identity in the modern world, the debasement of love, and the beguiling power of wealth. The series indulges in extended philosophical musings through the mouthpieces of the ex-con DJ Chris Stevens (John Corbett) and his brother Bernard (Richard Cummings, Jr.), also offering a critique of capitalist ideology through the characterisation of former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin).

Northern Exposure constantly plays with audience expectations. It hybridises genres, borrowing from both comic and dramatic traditions, variously combining elements of romantic comedy and soap opera with aspects of the western and period drama. The series explores, undermines and collapses the distinctions between East and West, frontier and civilisation, science and mysticism, male and female, past and present. Like Macondo, Cicely becomes a mythical space; a repository of all human experiences, philosophies and civilisations.

This is a place where different cultures, religions, ideologies, even psychic spaces become shared. Cicely is where temporal, spatial and personal divisions can be elided. Various episodes concern the town’s founding as a haven of social and sexual freedom by two lesbians in the 1890s (‘Cicely’, third season, final episode), Joel Fleischman’s (Rob Morrow) dream of New York high society (‘Dinner at Seven-Thirty’, sixth season, first episode) and Marilyn Whirlwind’s (Elaine Miles) story of the visit of a Russian princess to the town (‘Zarya’, sixth season, sixth episode). In Cicely, the eternal present reigns, and the discovery of Napoleonic warriors and mammoths, visitations from ghosts and Green Men, or characters sharing or exchanging dreams are treated as commonplace.

The manner in which Northern Exposure subtly and overtly challenges our preconceptions is strengthened by the way in which it promotes its own status as a cultural artefact. It frequently draws attention to communication technology, artistic creativity and cultural consumption through Chris’s learned radio show and his avant-garde sculptures, Ed Chigliak’s (Darren E. Burrows) cinemania and the visitations to Cicely by a variety of artists, filmmakers and performers. The dialogue is also packed with knowing references to famous historical figures, writers, filmmakers, philosophers and scientists.

The episode titles, too, are richly allusive, as witness ‘Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes’ (first season, sixth episode), ‘War and Peace’ (second season, sixth episode), ‘Jules et Joel’ (third season, fifth episode), ‘Crime and Punishment’ (fourth season, tenth episode), and ‘A River Doesn’t Run Through It’ (fifth season, fifth episode). At times, as in the opening to ‘Up River’, broadcast in the sixth and final season, Northern Exposure also parodies famous literary passages and film scenes. In this case, the protagonist’s river voyage of both Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of it, the film Apocalypse Now.

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[Picture: Title card from the credit sequence of Northern Exposure]

Through its six-season run, Northern Exposure frequently tackles the topic of mythology. This is achieved through characters referencing theoretical studies of myth such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman. It is also done through narrative structure. Campbell’s hero adventure, for example, serves as the model for one of the key episodes of the sixth season, ‘The Quest’. In this episode Joel and Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) seek out the Jewelled City of the North, culminating with Joel’s return to New York City, his personal grail ever since he was first posted to the remote Alaskan outpost of Cicely in the series’ pilot episode.

Beyond this fantasy, myth, and dreamworlds permeate all 110 episodes of Northern Exposure, serving to create a magical-realist universe in which the fantastic and the commonplace are treated equally. Joel, Maggie, Chris, Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips), and Holling Vincoeur’s (John Cullum) daily activities catering to their community as doctor, pilot, DJ, general store owner and bar proprietor respectively, are juxtaposed with explorations of magic, myth, ritual, shamanism and dreamworlds.

In many episodes, the Native American characters become associated with these more magical and mythical elements. The differences between their worldview and that of city characters like Joel is eloquently suggested, for example, in their alternative approaches to medicine. Episodes such as ‘Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence’ (first season, second episode), ‘Russian Flu’ (first season, fifth episode), ‘Wake Up Call’ (third season, nineteenth episode) and ‘Three Doctors’ (fifth season, first episode) juxtapose, often to comic effect, Joel’s scientific approach to medicine with the magic of his Native American counterparts. It is the industrial world and its practices butting up against traditions drawn from the nomadic and agricultural eras.

The fantastic, however, is not the exclusive domain of the Native Americans. Chris, for one, actively seeks out fantastic experiences, and they also become part of the Cicely lifestyle for many of the other characters. Ed, for example, is hounded by a dwarf-like demon known as the Green Man (Phil Fondacaro) whenever he experiences self-doubt. Many of the town’s inhabitants are constantly dreaming, blurring fantasy and reality, and, at times, even experiencing one another’s dreamworlds, as in ‘Aurora Borealis’ (first season, eighth episode) and ‘Mr. Sandman’ (fifth season, twelfth episode).

Joel, on two occasions, in ‘Fish Story’ (fifth season, eighteenth episode) and ‘Shofar, So Good’ (sixth season, third episode), is visited by the ghost of Rabbi Schulman (Jerry Adler), who, in the latter episode is accompanied by the ghosts of Yom Kippur past, present, and future. Fantastic communal events, also occur with some regularity. In ‘Horns’ (sixth season, thirteenth episode), for example, bottled Cicely water has the effect of reversing gender behaviour in the community.

As with so much art, Northern Exposure captures the zeitgeist of its time. Its revisiting of themes that obsessed the Modernists of the pre-WWII era is not coincidental. History has a tendency to both progress and echo. Artists are often part of the advance party, gauging the temperature, spotting trends. A couple of decades on from Northern Exposure and we have witnessed a period of financial boom and bust, the revival of extremist political ideologies, unpleasant rhetoric about nationalism and migration, land grabs and military muscle-flexing, dramatic and accelerated advancement in our communication technology, as well as in our governments’ monitoring of it.

During this period, we have also seen an increasing number of people challenge the status quo, questioning our leadership models, our social structures, our approaches to education and work, our rampant disregard for the environment, our very purpose on this planet. Surely there is a better way, they ask. Surely we can make a difference together rather pursuing the path of increased fragmentation, of separation by borders and walls, of differentiation through race, belief, gender and age.

One of the most fascinating things about Northern Exposure is its portrait of community. Cicely is a small town that celebrates diversity, that welcomes in, adapts to and absorbs outsiders – with key characters like Joel, Chris, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) and Mike Monroe (Anthony Edwards) among them. It is a community that functions both as macrocosm and microcosm in the shape of smaller groupings centred around the bar, grocery store, radio studio and medical practice. This is a collaborative, cooperative community, made up of interactive cells of people, with several individuals flowing freely between them, sharing ideas, inspiring others to action.

We have to keep reminding ourselves of the stories we told ourselves in the past. Our myths, fables, poems, histories, novels, films, paintings, sculptures, music, television series and games. All this culture is not purely for the sake of entertainment. It is a source of inspiration and learning too. It helps build understanding of both ourselves and our communities. It reminds us how we dealt with the problems of the past, and provides the scaffolding for how we will address the future too.

It would be a scrapbook, a collage, a graphic novel, a dissolving of the boundaries between forms because Crow is a trickster, he is ancient and post-modern, illustrator, editor, vandal.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Cat People

Something of the abysmal darkness of the world has broken in on us, poisoning the very air we breathe and befouling the pure water with the stale, nauseating taste of blood.
— C. G. Jung, Essays on Contemporary Events

In movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast, the Damned Thing, that stalks around and bends the grass as we look in vain for shade of hide or hair.
— Alexander Nemerov, Icons of Grief

Cat People (1942) was a landmark film in the history of American horror cinema. It was the first in a series of low-budget feature films to be produced by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO with the aim of competing with the horror productions from other big studios such as Universal. While borrowing favoured archetypes from the Universal films of the 1930s and early 1940s, in particular that of the shapeshifting protagonist, Cat People was notable for its mise-en-scène, inventive use of sound, and its stylistic visual effects.

The latter was principally the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, putting into effect the desire of Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to play with shadows, engaging the imagination of the movie-going public by means of suggestion. The lighting, which at times recalled Musuraca’s earlier work on the atmospheric Stranger on the Third Floor, was to influence the evolution of film noir as much as it was the 1940s horror film.

Cat People was also innovative as an example of the latter genre in locating the bulk of its narrative in a recognisably contemporary US setting, focusing on a story populated largely by everyman US citizens who are threatened by the duality and otherness of the Serbian immigrant to New York City, female protagonist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon).

The film opens in the Central Park Zoo with Irena, a fashion artist by trade, sketching in front of the panther cage. A chance encounter with ‘good old Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), following Irena’s clumsy attempt to dispose of her first drawing, soon leads to friendship and romantic interest. Irena reveals her loneliness and sense of isolation to Oliver, while also disclosing an obsession with a mysterious cultural heritage evidenced by the many images of cats in her apartment and a statue of the Serbian King John with a cat-like figure impaled on his sword.

It becomes evident that Irena believes that she is descended from a line of devil-worshipping, lycanthropic witches who have the power to transform themselves into large predatory cats when aroused to sexual passion, jealousy or rage. She tells Oliver that she has ‘fled from the past, from things that you could never know or understand – evil things.’

An encounter with a feline-looking woman in a Serbian restaurant on the night of Irena’s and Oliver’s wedding, who addresses Irena in their native tongue as ‘my sister’, fills Irena with terror. As a result, she refuses to consummate her marriage. Oliver, despite his apparent understanding, is dismissive of Irena’s beliefs and, as his frustration mounts at the unfulfilled relationship, he increasingly seeks solace in the companionship of his work colleague and fellow draftsman Alice Moore (Jane Randolph).

Addressing their failing marriage, Irena and Oliver decide that it would be best if she undergo treatment with a psychiatrist. Irena is not convinced by the Freudian approach adopted by the predatory Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Under hypnosis, however, she does reveal to him the history of the Serbian cat women and the fact that she appears to suffer from intermittent amnesia. Her unwillingness to revisit Judd causes further tension between Oliver and herself, and fuels Irena’s suspicions about the burgeoning relationship between him and Alice.

In two celebrated sequences, Irena in panther form (although this is not seen on screen) terrorises Alice, first as she travels home through Central Park, then at the swimming pool in her YWCA building. When Oliver finally professes his love for Alice to Irena, and offers her a divorce, Irena again assumes panther form (this time explicitly shown on screen). She is on the point of attacking the couple at their workplace when Oliver, using an architect’s T-square as an improvised crucifix, beseeches her to leave them alone.

Returning home, Irena finds Judd waiting for her. While Oliver now believes all that Irena has told him regarding her shapeshifting capabilities, Judd remains entirely dismissive of her story. His interest in Irena is wholly sexual rather than pastoral. Irena willingly submits to a kiss in the knowledge that this will trigger another transformation. In the ensuing struggle, although Judd is killed, he wounds Irena with his sword-cane, a weapon that aligns him with the statue of King John and all that that symbolises.

Irena makes her way again to the site of frequent visits – the panther’s cage at the zoo. Using the key that she has stolen from the zookeeper earlier in the film, she opens the cage in a suicidal gesture, allowing the panther to attack and kill her before it is itself run over by a police car. The film ends with all-American couple, Oliver and Alice, walking away from the Serbian cat woman’s corpse. Normality and the patriarchal order are apparently restored.

catpeople
[Picture credit: Poster from the 1942 film Cat People]

For a 70-minute B film, Cat People is an incredibly rich cinematic experience. The film has lent itself to interpretation under a variety of critical methodologies. Genre theorists, for example, have made a case for Cat People as a horror film, a film noir, and a hybrid of the two. Auteurists have argued both in favour of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The film has also been subjected to psycholoanalytical interrogation drawing variously on the theories of Freud, Jung and Fromm; to feminist, queer and race analysis; and to interpretation in terms of the mythical and the fantastic.

Popular with film audiences of the forties, it subsequently was held in high esteem by a generation of film-school-educated critics, academics and filmmakers in Europe and the USA. This resulted in a remake by Paul Schrader in 1982, as well as extensive references in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. Its commercial and critical success, its enduring legacy, is suggestive of an ongoing cultural fascination with the notion of shapeshifting.

This is a tradition that includes figures like Dracula, the werewolf, Kafka’s Gregory Samsa and several characters in the Harry Potter series. In this sense, Cat People is both timeless and very much of its time, tapping into WWII-period anxieties about otherness, dislocation, exile and the rise of Fascism in Europe (panther as panzer), the self-sufficiency of women in the workforce during male absence in overseas conflicts, and the tension between tradition and modernity. All themes that we encounter still bubbling below the surface in 2016.

In his The Myth of the Eternal Return, philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade counterpoints archaic humans, who build their understanding of the world through magic and mythology, with modern people, who experience their lives as a linear sequence of events through historical time. In Eliade’s view, one of the contributory factors to humankind’s anxiety and existential angst is this acceptance of linearity, the abandonment of mythical thought and the resulting ‘terror of history’. Yet our popular culture ensures that myth, fable and a very different conception of time is never far away. Our archaic roots are entwined with our modern sensibilities, tapped with regularity by culture makers.

Little wonder, then, as we continue to develop understanding of the world we inhabit, that people remain so dependent on myth and fable to accommodate and assimilate the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain. The resurgence in popularity of the vampire film as we first learned of and came to terms with HIV/AIDS, for example, was far from coincidental. In Cat People, the cat women of a magical past become incorporated into the tapestry of the most modern of modern cities. In Dracula, the vampire of a mythical landscape has the effect of a deadly virus in the industrialised communities he visits.

With stories – horror stories, love stories, detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy stories – we unlock our understanding of the human condition. Stories, whether in oral, theatrical, written, cinematic or televisual form, provide both lessons and escape. Stories like that of Cat People evidence something ancient, primal and enduring.

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing … If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Suppose you see yourself as a citizen of the world, and you have a grip on the vastness, the diversity of the human experience, as well as the problems, the horrors, the sheer scale of such things as poverty, global warming, terrorism, war and hunger. If you see yourself as a citizen of the world and recognise that the world’s problems are your problems too, what can you be but paralyzed by that realisation? What can a citizen of the world do about the world’s troubles?
— James Garvey & Martha Nussbaum, The End of the Humanities?