Lost and Found Times
By Richard Marshall.
Loose Watch: Lost and Found Times Anthology (Invisible Books)
So one evening I sat drinking a cup of coffee in London with a couple of pals and one of them gave me a large grey paperback book called Loose Watch. Later on I had a black Labrador somewhere, but we’ll ignore that for a time. Loose Watch is an anthology of texts and graphics from issues 1-39 of the Lost and Found Times (LAFT). It features the work of 170 contributors from North and South America. John M. Bennett and Douglas C. Landies founded the magazine in 1975, the very year that the word ‘fractal’ was first used. Landies died in 1978.
Landies was a painter. The LAFT started as what Bennett calls a ‘conceptual stunt’ in 1975 when he and Landies started placing fake lost and found notices on the windscreens of cars in the parking lot of a nearby shopping centre. They were also both involved in mail art and so they sent out some in the mail. Returns came in the mail too where correspondents sent back their own notices. The second issue of LAFT was born out of these responses. A third issue used literary and graphic work. A fourth issue saw the two collaborate, Landies doing the graphics and calligraphy and Bennett doing poems. The fifth was a response to the shocking sadness of the death of Landies felt by Bennett.
Since then Bennett continued to edit LAFT and the number of collaborators/contributors has expanded. In May 1998 he published this anthology of LAFT’s ‘strange and dynamic culture’ on Invisible Books. The website for LAFT is itself an exciting trove of Bennett and his co-workers’ energies. The link with Ray Johnson’s Mail Art pioneer work is obvious from LAFT’s genesis. Johnson started his Mail Art work in the early sixties. Fluxus had also been around with Johnson in the beginning.
Three years before Harrison’s anthology Johnson drowned in Sag Harbour Cove, Long Island, a beauty spot that is now suffering from polluted water and a decline in its oyster population, which would have in the past filtered the water at least once a day but now takes 135 days because of this decline. It’s an old place, dating back to the early seventeenth century and way before that, in nearby Noyack, a place inhabited by the Wickatuck people.
Herman Melville refers to Sag Harbour Cove in four chapters of Moby Dick. In one of these chapters, Chapter 12, is the remarkable line: “It is not down on any map; true places never are” (My emphasis). John Steinbeck, James Fennimore Cooper and Truman Capote are also linked with the place and EL Doctorow lived there. HP Lovecraft haunts the whalers’ church and whips back to haunt Johnson and LAFT’s curious angles. After all, brain fevers and strange almost hypnotic effects advanced out of their cultural interventions. Where life had become an almost insistent and unendurable cacophony then the requirement of a constant, often terrifying – mostly funny – impression of other sounds from regions beyond, trembling on the very brink of audibility, sometimes only scratchings, furtive maybe but definitely deliberate, well, the engulfing work went wholly beyond the pale of the ordinary. The sort of involuntary madness and hysteria that Lovecraft again and again imagines, which I’m here linking to the LAFT project, also connects to the surrealists’’ fascination with the patients of Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris in the 1870’s and 1880’s whose Dionysian fervour and delirium centred on the women there. Their ‘hysterio-epilepsy’ would be a central theme of the surrealists. In 1928 the connection between eroticism and madness would become a defining obsession of the movement, the ‘uncanny effect of epileptic fits, and of manifestations of epilepsy’ becoming signs of an orgiastic mood that I connect with the LAFT project. The explicit link between Charcot and Hans Bellmer will, I hope, make this connection clear, Bellmer being a sort of bridge between LAFT and Coleridgian jouissance, to recontextualise Julia Kristeva’s notion of ‘a time of oblivion and thunder… where the subject is swallowed up.’ One of the on-line articles about Johnson asked what Johnson had been doing in Sag Harbour Cove the night he died as if there was a potboiled half-hatted mystery to be made. I let it go.
So anyway I picked through the anthology whilst reading a disturbing essay about the weirdness of a Manet painting, Bar at Foiles-Bergere, of 1881-2. Manet was dying when he did the painting and preoccupied with that. He was painting flowers. The painting is of a barmaid staring out of the picture from behind a bar in nineteenth century Paris. Behind her is a mirror and in front of her a vase of flowers. The essayist points out that the mirror is all wrong. It doesn’t reflect what should be there. The reflected image of the woman is too plump and other objects are in the wrong place. But the strangest thing is that in the mirror there is a top-hatted gentleman alarmingly leering over the barmaid. For him to be there in the mirror would mean that the observer outside the painting would have to be where he was on the other side of the mirror. To the side of the barmaid, to her left as we face her, the same man stares out of the mirror and out of the picture. So he’s there as a doppelganger, he’s there twice, and he’s our, the spectator’s, doppelganger, our double.
The effect is that rather than having us stare at the picture, the picture is staring at us. And the flowers are painted in such a way that, like the hidden anamorphic skull in Holbein’s painting ‘The Ambassadors’, they are not part of the painting but rather ‘…their meaning….is not being communicated … by what is in the painting, but by the painting.’ What the writer is getting at is that the eye looking at the painting is being warned by the painting itself that death – the man in the hat – is right where we are when looking at the painting. So the mirror won’t comply to any requirement that art has to show, to reveal, to represent. Rather, Manet’s frightening painting contends that what art can do is look back. Death creeps out of the painting like the death girl with its epileptic jerky movements coming out of the well in The Ring. It is a scary picture.
Francis Gooding wrote this essay, ‘The Shield Of Perseus’, in his new brilliant book Black Light. It mixes in the Medusa myth – all about eyes and blindness and gazing and mirrors and castration – to establish the corrosive, disconcerting and uncanny conclusion of the critique. Anyway, I then happened to pick up Loose Watch and carelessly flipped to a page where one of the lost adds read ‘Rubber doll head, r. eye crushed. Sentimental value. Reward. 724-8670 after 3’ which threw me back to think about all the erudite scholarly references to eyes in the essay and then from the deformed doll to the unsettling anti-fascist surrealism of Hans Bellmer.
This then reminded me that Bridget Penney had mentioned the writer Unica Zurn in a recent interview. Zurn had lived with Bellmer until her suicide. This in turn got all tangled up in my mind with the Sarah Walters novel I’d just read, The Little Stranger, a terrifying haunted house story whose bluff, no nonsense, philistine narrator cannot make the narrative right either. Just like the Manet painting, he can’t make his representation of the house and its inhabitants fit his conventional, sober view of reality. It’s an unreliable narration in the end where the reader is confronted with more than the narrator seems to know.
In the dull perspective of the doctor the incomprehensible malevolence of the house is never understood and yet the end leaves us with the definite impression that the source of the evil emanates as much from his unremitting lack of imagination and his own cowardice than anything else. It watches our own intelligence, stares out of the narration in an uncanny act of fear. Which threw me back to the Loose Watch anthology again and its strange subversive art and writing, the whole disruptive project which made the envelope and the screen of an anonymous car the art gallery, which severed the settled understandings and received notions of what should be revealed and instead came hunting you down with the frightening warning, ‘watch your eyes’. You aren’t reading this stuff, it’s reading you. It stares back. With one eye missing maybe, lost like a severed head, like Bellmer’s frightening dolls, the uncanny winds out around you like your own spooky hysteria.
LAFT vibrates strangely and curiously with the real ‘lost and found’ story of Japanese soldier Teruo Nakamura who surrendered in the very year LAFT was founded, 1975. This strange find happened on the Indonesian island of Morota, Nakamura having been wrongly declared dead in 1945. Strangely, Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese army intelligence officer, had continued to fight the second world war until March 1974, the year before, even though leaflets and search parties had communicated to him that the war was over. He distrusted the intelligence. In 1952 pictures of his family had been dropped from aircraft asking him to surrender but he treated all this as a hoax. His two companions were killed, one in 1954 by a search party, one in 1972 by local police. During the time between the end of the war in 1945 and his capture in 1974 he killed thirty Philippine inhabitants and was engaged in numerous shoot-outs with local police but was pardoned by President Marcos. The following year Marcos would preside over the ‘thriller in Manila’ heavyweight boxing fight between Ali and Frazier. And this was the same year that Bobby Fischer, the chess genius, refused to play against Karpov and started to go missing. All this crowded in to me as I read the LAFT anthology as if they were all strange correlatives of the curious texts.
In the LAFT of 1983 there’s the Al Ackerman piece, ‘Andy Jaws and the Gump’ which discusses ‘The New Dummyism’ whereby performers were having themselves surgically altered to resemble Elvis, Janis Joplin and Jackie Kennedy. One performer, a ventriloquist called Andy Jaws ‘had one of his hands surgically altered into a tiny head, complete with face… his hand-head, built mostly out of hip fat, sports an especially mobile mouth, sockets for glass eyes, even moveable skin flaps for eye-lids.’ This is the Gump. There’s another piece about a married man who liked to eat at a restaurant with women strangers. He only ever ate once with them and his only interest was in the eating of food. That was all that happened. It is by Francis Poole. They both seemed to be uncanny, deranged disorderings of the logic of reality, surreal ruptures in the surface of normality’s boxed up logic.
The ventriloquist story reminded me of the severed head of Bran that is the mythological Godhead of London, buried in a shrine on Lud Hill which could be seen from where I was drinking coffee when I was presented with Loose Watch, across the river and upstream on the opposite shore. In such a scenario the Thames becomes the roaring cauldron Hvergelmir, the frozen water of Hel’s underground, subterranean world, home of Nidhogg, gobbler of corpses and gnawer of the roots of the ash tree that holds the worlds together and on which Odin hanged for nine days in supplication to himself, a deep mysterious prefiguring of the Christ figure on the cross that bound the wild, pagan imagination for a moment in the eruption of Coleridge’s’ three great poems, Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. So suddenly the under river momentum of Loose Texts was being redreamed, or was at least floating back into a space of visionary eruption from a century earlier.
It is worth recalling that it was Wordsworth who first realized that this magical, mythical eruption had taken place in Coleridge and it was he who closed it down, refusing to acknowledge the genius of The Ancient Mariner even though he didn’t throw it out of the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads of 1830. He did refuse Christabel. His refusal destroyed Coleridge as a poet. Coleridge worshipped Wordsworth and was crushed by the dismissal. Christabel scared Wordsworth. For the great Romantic, about to turn High Tory, the poem reeked of something disgusting, immoral, and wicked. Coleridge took to drugs and brilliant conversation and collapsed forever.
Coleridge’s brief and momentous glimpse of possibilities that wouldn’t be squared with the rational mirror, wouldn’t reflect back the squared and polished logic of the day was the Atlantic Celt mythos of Abyssinian maids singing of Mount Abora, playing on her dulcimer ‘… Her symphony and song/To such a deep delight ‘twoud win me,/That with music loud and long,/I would build that dome in air,/That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!/And all who heard should see them there? And all should cry, Beware, Beware!/ His flashing eyes, his floating hair!/weave a circle round him thrice,/And close your eyes with holy dread,/For he on honey-dew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise.’ What you get is the visionary moment of underworld beauty, the passionate moment of realization and uncovering of beauty and freedom through the release of the senses. This is what the surrealists recognized in the uncontrolled eroticism of Charcot’s studies from the Salpetriere. This is a key moment of Eros that underground presses such as LAFT bravely continued to explore, despite the failure of nerve of the Lake poet crew.
All this also reminded me that the person who gave me the anthology, Stewart Home, was also a ventriloquist. He bought his dummy on the Internet. In Loose Watch there is a cartoon where Snowhite Young makes clear just what ventriloquism reveals. ‘I am not your puppet. Take your hand from up my skirt. There is no welcome there for you grim ventriloquist’ says the puppet. Ventriloquism is both play and also anti play. Its projection of the uncanny onto the ventriloquist doll is like a child playing. In this there is a central image of free play, of liberation and the subterranean spirit of the Coleridgean river seen as positive and divine. Yet the cartoon reminds us of its opposite, the controlling power of the human over the doll that reconfigures the relationship into a negative form. Thus within itself the idea of the ventriloquist art can be seen as both positive and negative. This marries with the way in Coleridge the underworld can be seen as both positive and negative.
In Home this duality is explicitly continuous. I like to comment about him as having a mouth rather than a voice which is a distinction that appears to work like the Manet painting and might, in a moment of the higher pretentiousness, be theorized out of Bataille. It’s an art that opens up a space for interrogating the listener rather than au contraire. So there are weird connections between Home and the dissenting romantic voices of the early nineteenth century. Home’s current role is rather like that of Hazlitt’s back then, interrogating the ‘spirit of the age’ in a mode of serious ‘mischief’, despising the hapless authors of authenticity on the one hand just as Hazlitt scorned Coleridge yet at the same time signaling something like a return to the authentic in his valorizing of the Black Atlantic Celtic motif. This kind of mirrors a deep ambiguity found in the relationship between Hazlitt and Coleridge.
Hazlitt recognized ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as his great poem and though in his momentously damning and hostile, crushing and even mean-spirited portrayals of Coleridge, especially his portrait in his Spirit Of The Age in 1823 where Hazlitt seems implacably opposed to the doomed poet there are also glimpses, in his memories of his early meeting with the poet when all was promise (promise unfulfilled as it transpired) but also much later, when supposedly the admiration was all burned out, when Hazlitt writes with affection and admiration of Coleridge’s great talk. Similarly with Home then, who though opposed to authenticity has developed admiring and sophisticated understanding even of writers within the subterranean publishing community who do not shy away from authentic expression and who will at times even align himself with a kind of authenticity.
And again, the dummy thing recalled Hans Bellmer to me, who wrote in Memories of a Doll Theme that “Pulp writers, conjurers and confectioners shared an air of mystery, a sweetly beautiful something which people thought was nonsense but promised joy. They dispelled those feelings of discontent which, in my experience, were normally linked with some useful purpose, and opened up more wayward paths to my curiosity.” This triple idea of a confectioner, conjurer and pulp writer captures Home’s articulation of his present day elaboration of a demential delirium that reaches back to Charcot, the surrealists and Coleridge.
What Coleridge drew out from spectacular nightmares of grotesque women (possibly begun in Wordsworth’s house a month or so after Wordsworth had rejected Christabel and so rejected Coleridge from any further to do with the Lyrical Ballads and preceding only by a few days Coleridge’s letter renouncing poetry) was ‘reEbon Ebon Thalud, the nightmare Life-In-Death vision in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ who is the High Goddess of Britain in her Black (here signifying Arabic sacred Wisdom), rejected phase and incidentally picking up the connection with the Celtic British God LLud, the God King of London also known as Lear.
So too Home, our eponymous London Atlantic Celt pulp conjurer of dissent is woven through associations that are made explicit and implicit in his anthology Mind Invaders in many, many guises, and who is, like London journalist Hazlitt, both attracted and repulsed by the authentic and mystical. It is through the vernacular hard-core of his mischievous style that Home attempts to live with this tension, just as Hazlitt tried through his brilliant clarity to live with his attraction to the mythical, cloudy mysteriousness of Coleridge.
Bellmer is more than just an aside in all this though. Bellmer was a serious dissenter whose remarkable Doll project was a direct challenge to the fascist politics of the day. This political context is something that can’t be ignored when we look at when the LAFT project was born, just as it is hopeless to try and comprehend Hazlitt, Coleridge et al without considering the political situation of the day and in particular the peculiar reactions of the players to the French Revolution. 1975, the year of the launch of LAFT was a full dangerous, soul-destroying and politically nightmarish moment. The Watergate scandal was raveling out the deep right-wing corruption at the heart of a US Imperial war machine. In the UK Mrs. Thatcher was becoming the leader of a new kind of Toryism that can be likened to a model of total politics. Responses to the rise of the right were themselves psychotic and violent, proving the stupidity of anarchism and iconoclastic vanguardism. The antics in the Swedish Embassy siege and of Carlos the Jackal, for example, seemed to coalesce with the murderous, psychotic activities of Dennis Nilsen. The response of underground cultural articulations of the situation were what LAFT was part of, linking with a contestation of musical, artistic and written forms that involved attempted renegotiations of gender, ethnicity, class and power relationships.
But of course Bellmer, who I am using as a sort of emblematic bridge between earlier manifestations of dissent and that of LAFT, started his dissent in the 1930’s in Germany as Hitler rose to power. His dad would leave him notes on his bedroom door asking him whether he had joined the fascists yet. Rebellion against both parents and fascism were therefore literally joined in this nightmare situation. Bellmer’s articulation of his rebellion through his doll project was a direct and explicit response to the fascists. When in 1937 Paris hosted a huge exhibition of national cultural artifacts on the banks of the Seine, overlooked by the Eiffel Tower it included a German fascist exhibition. The nightmarish exhibition of Degenerate Art hosted in Berlin which over a soundtrack of Hitler’s racist ravings showed over two million visitors the ‘corruption’ that was modern art required a response that the political classes seemed incapable of making. Bellmer and fellow surrealists in the following year mounted the incredible surrealism exhibition as a counter-blast.
How interesting it is to note that this seminal art exhibition emphasized everything that the right wing racist ant-democratic thugs hated. It dissolved the usual white cube exhibition space, replacing it with an intra-uterine darkness, where playful sex and death mystery replaced the lunatic irrationality of the right wing national politics. Ceilings were covered in Duchampian coal sacks, lights were dimmed to blackness, strange sounds permeated the total enveloping experience, hysterical women exposed their sexual desires, men dripped with snails, fetishised objects of desire and refound the childhood zone of linguistic game. And Bellmer’s influence was tangible beyond the photographs of his strange cephalopod women in the lined up street of mannequins composed by fellow surrealists.
Recall that Bellmer had illustrated Bataille’s History of the Eye back in 1928 who in the 1950’s commented on Manet’s art as being, in the words of Gooding, “the coming of ‘that moulting time’ for painting, its cracked and rigid casing dramatically sloughing off in his work.” This breaking out of the old skin picks up what we have noted earlier in the Gooding essay on Manet when he notes that the discovery of the arbitrariness of the sign (as opposed to that of the symbol) leaves us wondering what any sign, for example the sign of the eye, can represent. Gooding remarks on the implication of this conclusion when he writes: “This arbitrariness indicates something further and more frightening: for if the representative sign is arbitrary, then what it denotes cannot be grasped, and is finally unknowable… Manet shows us… a glimpse of the gap between our world of signs and representations and the vast cosmos.” Bellmer’s childish, playful resistance to the Nazis, constructing his first doll in 1933 and his second in 1937, requires us to understand that we know he was creating ‘poetic stimulators’ to generate new sentences, new poetry, new texts, a sentence “…that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meaning may be revealed ever anew through an endless stream of anagrams.”
This is clearly understood by his partner Unica Zurn who linked the anatomical distortions of the doll to psychic realities of disruption and intense disturbance. Zurn describes the poetic subterranean currents when she likened the project, in her Obliques, to that of a “mentally ill woman who yielded in an erotic crisis to her partner.” This links us with both the madhouse world of Charcot’s hysterical women and the poetic language of Coleridge’s Christabel as well as the cut-up poetics of William Burroughs who said that “Cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one’s range of vision consequently expands.”
So just as it would be superficial to respond to Bellmer in terms of seeing him as merely expressing the desire to butcher women, as it would be to read Christabel in terms of lesbian rape pornography (which is how Wordsworth read it) we are invited instead to play with the uncontrolled wonders that lie beyond the stiff boxed-in surfaces of mere realism, to enter into the anagrammatical wonderland of Zurn’s Hexentetexte of 1954 who therein invites us to ‘Glide, silk ring, close/to the loin. Brain spirit/of the swift stone hand/sings to three healers:/straits, here is your land,/cortical guest, heal envy; it lies in your hand’.
LAFT plays with the idea of cephalopodic distortion, amputation and perversity. Art text and image are taken out of the site of usual encounters – the book and the gallery – and placed instead into compulsive and convulsive vehicles of transmission. The post. The advert. The note. The reply. The response. These work in the same way Bellmer’s doll works. A kind of traumatized, perverse, hallucination of art and text is produced. The works anthologized in Loose Watch are outward projections of compulsive abnormal scripts of pleasure texts. Through their disembodiment a sort of reversal takes place, the sort of reversal noted in the study of the Manet painting, whereby the art stares at the reader rather than the other way round.
The disembodied, severed texts, shorn of full anatomical realty, of Gooding’s full-mirrored reality, can now serve to produce in us, the reader, the sense of play, of unpredictable, unfinishable behavior, uncontrollable and freely orientated towards the perversity of pure pleasure. This is the spirit of play that, for example, Billy Childish employs in his aesthetic and of which Bellmer brilliantly describes when he writes: “The best sort of game does not aim so much as a specific goal but draws its excitement from the thought of its own unforeseeable goal – as if spurred on by an enticing promise.” This is the Blakean vernacular freedom of the every day observed whenever you see, for example, children playing with their own toys. It is a notion that links (at a strange angle) with Tom Hodginson’s notion of Idling that his Idler magazine exemplifies that in turn roots back to Dr Johnson. It also connects up with Bellmer’s references to children’s literature, Cardano’s playful universal ball joint and the bristling breasts of a spinning top and a whip and of course the aforementioned anagram poems which, as Bellmer himself wrote of Zorn’s, “…demands the greatest tension from the formative will, accompanied by the elimination of all preconceived design… Somewhat uncannily the result admits to being due more to the assistance of an ‘other’ consciousness than one’s own… Chance seems to play a large part in the solution… for only at the end, afterwards, it becomes surprisingly obvious that the solution was obvious.” The DIY ethos of punk is surely to be understood as partaking of this spirit.
The idea of toys generating possibilities of poetic provocation through an attitude to unrepressed, uncensored play is what Loose Watch both celebrates and instantiates. Bellmer, coincidentally, died the same year LAFT began. And so what are we to make of this fine, anthologised edition put out by Invisible Books? The instability of our times is broader, as always, than merely artistic solipsism. The rise of the political right again begins to trouble horizons in Europe. In the UK the fascist racist party the BNP is gaining political support. Extremist bigotry begins to encroach and threaten. It is for this reason that Bellmer’s example is instructive and inspiring. The thirties saw the very same atavistic political impulses as now convulse frightened cowardly and greedy political elites who seemed incapable and unwilling to confront the threat of these right wing bigots. Jews, communists, homosexuals, non-whites, foreigners, the insane, Dadaists, freemasons et al were then all categorized as deviant and degenerate.
Even when Hitler rose to power and started his fascist war Bellmer refused to compromise his dedication to play, to that sort of divine uselessness that spat back into the leprous eye of the fetid politics of his day. Living in France at the time war broke out he, unlike many, was unable to leave France and spent his war years in Castres. Even when interned he continued to play. He was actively engaged in the Resistance (just like Beckett) and fought for three years with the maquis of Sidobre.
The spirit of playfulness, its combination of open-endedness, its ability to call out the uncanny, the doppelganger, the subterranean desire that brings the supposedly inanimate to life, so that the playfully dying Manet gives us the supernatural painting which gazes at us (decidedly not, note, the barmaid in the picture), as does the call and response nature of the LAFT oeuvre of the Loose Watch anthology, which is the sacred river Alph of that underworld Coleridge for a brief moment envisioned, and the mischievous ventriloquence of the writer Stewart Home, it is this that is identified as of the essence to this reviewer.
Loose Watch reminds us that we must start to play now with more urgency than ever, infuse all our activities with the wonderful energies of desire that deforms both expectations and the very object and purpose of those expectations. So Loose Watch is a handbook of this ethos, this necessary spirit. Its critical mirror refuses to throw back anything that can fix, pin down and reveal purely, cleanly, clearly, actually. Each time there is a direction that the reader grasps and is prepared to follow there is something odd, something not quite right, that leaves the reader baffled, thrown off the trail, perhaps maybe a little annoyed, certainly abandoned, definitely aroused. And no matter how often the reader seems to find a way forward, begins to take something up and out, so that the supposedly reviewed text is finally honestly revealed, some weird perspective, some unamiable detail interrupts and leaves us disconsolate, frustrated, unappeased.
The idea that a book like Loose Watch would want a banal panel of applause or some dogged critical validation is laughable. Its vitality lasts in so far as we watch our own eyes and oppose all kinds of fascist. Now and then I recall that I never ever had a dog, not once in all my life, let alone a black Labrador. It was called Gyp.
All this is basically about clearing one’s throat to speak Melville’s occult mischievous anti-fascist line over and over, lest we forget: “It is not down on any map. True places never are.” So let’s go there and play. Let’s do it to kill all fascists.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Richard Marshall is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009.