By Richard Marshall.
Paul Holman Tara Morgana, Scarlet Imprint, 2014.
I had no choice but to undo the spell which language had cast upon me when, in the days of autonomia, I first met one by whom I was to be consumed and then made afresh: she taught me that an operation performed upon the tongue must transform the world.’
What if we extend the claim of Richard Rorty – who said that to deny Platonism is to deny philosophy – to the realm of poetics so we deny a poetics without Platonic esotericism (however this is elaborated)? Once poetry is Platonic then we need to understand the role of the Demiurge, who produces a cosmos out of chaos. And from the Demiurge other supernatural elements flow. The Demiurge is part of a top-down metaphysics which has to be supernatural because it is the principle by which nature is to be understood. No principle can invoke that which it seeks to explain as part of its explanation. So goes the reasoning for Platonism (understood as any top down metaphysics of this kind).
The Demiurge invoked may or may not be associated with the monotheistic religious figures of Yahweh or Allah or God. The Renaissance was the last time a dizzyingly productive occult poetics flourished. It is the heart of Ted Hughes’ work on Shakespeare, of Eliot’s reading of the so-called ‘metaphysical poets’ of that time – Spencer, Donne, Marvell et al – and of course is the time when interest in the Cabala and sacred geometry produced occult knowledge for modern explorers such as contemporaries Alan Moore, Stewart Home and Paul Holman who follow in the wake of the likes of Milton and Blake. This Platonism was what the naturalistic, materialist modernity of Descartes and Spinoza is supposed to have replaced. Leibniz is perhaps the last and the greatest philosopher working in this pre-modern tradition. Holman is an activity in the long grass.
As poet and craftsman of this sequence of esoterica Holman’s interest in the Demiurge is best taken as an efflorescence from Plutarch. The chaos and disorder of the world is Holman’s primary reality, its demonstrable incoherence and madness is what lies all around us shrieking to an abyss of ‘ not a person but a nuance, visible by effect , … the horror of the petrified witch, the ends of her fingers eroded too sadly […] to identify the mudra they formed, the wreckage of her hair massed in heavy clumps…’ as he witnesses it. Morgana is a world soul, a vast principle, or else Morgana is a world soul daemon, ‘… flat nosed and translucent green eyed, armed with the shadow of her power… not Morgana herself but a shadow she had cast.’Her role is ‘the protection of those who practice her rituals and the guarding of the books in which they are recorded.’ As Holman works he automatically snares her protection in an act of metaphysical reflexivity.
The Demiurge is understood here as a creative character with power and limits. The first myth is in Plato’s Timaeus where the Demiurge is the creator of the world and is a craftsman, an artisan, the kind of poet who works at her material. According to this the sensible world is generated, in contrast to a world of Divine Forms which isn’t. This world has an origin in time. Material nature is matter, but the world is not exhausted by this: for Plato there is also God and the Forms. Plato talks of a receptacle not matter. And this receptacle is turbulent and resistant to the Forms. Perfection lies elsewhere in God and the Forms. The created world struggles against this elsewhere, is a constant rebellion. As Leibniz famously said, this is the best of all possible worlds but only the best in its medium. Compared to the perfect world of the Forms it is terrible. Answering Aristotle’s complaint that the world having a beginning made no sense, seeing no reason why God would decide to create the world at one time rather than another the answer came that it wasn’t that the world had an origin but rather the objects of this world were subjected to time, change and death.
But Plutarch, commenting on the Platonic myth of the Demiurge, kicked back against trying to reconcile Plato with Aristotle. The world does have an origin. Further he said that the receptacle has a malign soul, contentiously finding evidence for this in Plato’s Laws. There is an evil world soul alongside a good world soul. The world created by the Demiurge is an imitation of the paradigmatic world of the Forms. In the Timaeus the Forms are separate and maybe superior to the Demiurge. The Demiurge decides to create and the Forms dictate what he will create. In this manner the Demiurge is constrained. Alternatively, the Demiurge is not constrained because the Forms are his thoughts. Plutarch’s not easily pinned down on this point!
Later the knowledge of the Demiurge changed. A first, supreme God was thought of as being in a state of eternal divine repose. This was not the Demiurge. A second God contemplated this first one. The world of Forms comes from this contemplation. This second mind becomes forgetful of himself and looks away from the first mind and down to the receptacle, the world of matter. Out of this rupture is created the world soul, a third deity. Plutarch has this splicing into two world souls, one good and one evil. It is the second God who is the Demiurge. Morgana is a deity of the world soul who, mysteriously in Holman, ‘… merges uncannily with Rosa Luxeburg (who, after all, wrote: I too understand the language of the birds, and of all the animals), signals the presence of Tara.’
This induces an ultimately pessimistic Platonism. The world soul is created by a mind that is not true to himself nor is he the first and absolute God. There can be no promissory note of divine providence, secure ultimate poetic victory over evil. For example, although the philosopher Galen sees the Demiurge as being responsible for the natural order he is not sure how far his providence extends. There are evils in the world and he wonders whether the Demiurge can control and defeat evil, or even if evils are evil from his point of view. The world is a creation of a benevolent and powerful deity who is not entirely in control. Evil doesn’t defeat belief in God but does defeat omnipotence of God. Holman’s tonal bleakness honours this.
Divine providence for Galen is limited so fate is a possibility at a level below the moon. Bodies are available to a mechanical chain of forces but souls are not. A naturalistic, materialistic mechanism is linked to fate, and if universalised would rule out freewill. But freewill exists because souls are free of fate. Final causes are affirmed even as the corruption of the material realm is recognized. The Gnostics adopted this view that the world is metaphysically tragic. Gnostics saw the world as a divine error. Their version told of how Divine wisdom, Sophia, fell away from the Godhead, a victim of arrogance. It tried to search the High God and failed. In falling away she created a deformed child, the Demiurge, who from tears created a world he thought was copy of divine Forms but wasn’t. Instead he had created a prison with the planets as the jailors. Sophia in her repentance sows seeds of repentance in this world and anyone born with these seeds are to be saved. Everyone else, including the Demiurge, will perish. The Demiurge has soul but not spirit and so is not truly divine. There is something wildly entropic about this and Holman superbly captures it in his book, recognizing that ‘… the only necessity was that it should diminish into the mundane…’
Another version of the Demiurge story is that of the Ophites who, as their name suggests, were snake worshippers. Little is known about them except for a diagram which shows a ladder of ten runs, of which seven, guarded by the planets, are heavenly gates. The seven planets are both malevolent and also gateways to heaven and the divine. The snake is a symbol of the journey from the lowest to the highest place for the soul. At the top is the Demiurge – an accursed God who may be a shadowing of the atoning, accursed God of Christianity, Christ). Snakes and ladders has this ancient pedigree. Galen contrasts his own understanding of the Demiurge based on rationality with Christian faith based belief and contrasts the way the Judaeo/Christian/Islamic Demiurge creates by just speaking with the ideas of the Demiurge creating like a craftsman, using the materials and tools at hand. Holman is alert to the two processes in his approach. he mixes both the notion of the word with the craft; of his last section ‘A call to spirits’ he explains: ‘ The ground rules for its composition are the same as those for A New Walking Age proper: each line is assembled from an array of twenty two words drawn from twenty two feeds of material derived from two (initially three, but I found I could simplify the process) successive operations using tarot trumps – or, if the necessary space is not available, a shell script on my laptop, which does the job just as well…’ This is Holman as Demiurge, mixing and matching, crafting a way, doing the job but at the same time opening his mouth to a word.
Holman’s writing is all about esoteric power except when he specifies the power – then it’s about being solitary. So does a reader of Holman need to take the esoterica (Gods, daemons, oracles etc) literally? Holman is asking that we recognize those deeper, magical roots of writing that modern poetic literature has always recognized – think of Yeats, mystical Eliot, Ted Hughes. He’s working to unfreeze a secular cultural cringe that blushes embarrassment at the supernatural, mystical, occult elements and can’t engage with that vast content. Galen Strawson recently accused Thomas Nagel, having tried to mix naturalism with Platonism’s final causes in his latest book, as being a ‘false naturalist’. It seems we have to ask whether a reader who doesn’t accept supernaturalism equally ‘false’ if she doesn’t go the whole hog, and this will be something discussed briefly at the end of all this.
Holman is certainly working to receive occult forces where ‘… each dreamed text is a terma in the mind, treasure best left to be forgotten and then discovered anew.’ And as with Yates and Eliot it’s right to ask: what happens to the reader who has no occult intuitions, and who denies the esoteric? Well, recognizing that there’s nothing strange in using sentences that include falsehoods necessary to express an otherwise concealed, inaccessible or too difficult-to-express-otherwise truth – think of the non-Platonist who says numbers don’t exist but who nevertheless still talks about them – perhaps talk of daemons, Gods, and all the magical, religious worlds can be thought of like that. Let’s see.
Of course those insisting on literalist readings can take another route and insist that anti-esoterics will be shut out. Or they may insist that when read carefully a literalist reading won’t require us to accept the esoteric on supernatural terms. But this last option seems disingenuous and an invitation to the kind of unsatisfactory false reading we hinted at above.
The Afterword says what Holman is doing:
‘Tara Morgana is a work of pure magical writing. The title comes from the fusion of the Tibetan devi with Morgan Le Fay who is pursued as a mirage throughout this haunting text.
Part magical diary, part dreamscape, part Situationist dérive through the landscape, Tara Morgana is an enigmatic record of ritual practice from the poet, whose work has been described as: indefinable … laconic, occultist, and attached to the line of revolutionary and subversive yearnings. This is not a book about magic, rather, it is a magical book. Contemplation of the work reveals a wealth of hidden treasures, or as Holman says: each dreamed text is a terma in the mind.
Paul Holman is a lucid poet whose writing, with its concise yet elusive energy, takes us down into the tunnels, ghosts broken urban spaces where decay is overwritten with the ingress of the wild. He encounters denizens of the underworld, the magical subculture and down and outs. It is a work of echoes and memories whose reflections coalesce in dreams that can be recovered and manifest in the present. In his Afterword, Holman spells out aspects of the artistic and magical method he employs.
The book is splintered by a sequence of photographic images: glimpsed spirit portraits, apparitions captured in the play and decay of light, giving it an otherworldly aspect. Tara Morgana is a truly esoteric and numinous text, a beautifully realised work that leads us on two parallel journeys of poetry and image, through the world and work of living magical artists. Both poet and photographer are engaged in games of chance and fate, applied as a discipline to the creative process. It is precisely this rigour that gives both an intensity and a gnomic quality to their respective works.
This is a text to be spoken aloud. Mystical conjunction of word and image are resolved in the alchemy of breath. The act of anagnosis opens the reader to the magical operation through the transformative medium of sound, and returns us to the mystery of beginning(s) and becoming(s).’
The book is splintered into sections, just as it is itself a part of a larger whole. The parts are held together by their awareness of each other in a kind of poetic Leibnizian monadology. In that spirit of poetic awareness where the poetic world is held together by the constructive activities of each of its parts I’m approaching it as something objectively true and mind-independent where the poems work through the poet rather than being dependent on his subjectivity. It’s not clear to me how it actually works however.
1. Magnetic sword
Deathless Ones came out of chaos and bring, as Stephen R.L. Clark recounts, ‘…increasing complexity and darker implications.’ Eros is one of them, she ‘…who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise councils of all gods and all men within them.’ Earth stretches from snowy Olympus to dim Tartarus. Earth gives birth to Heaven/Ouranus for the Gods and Pontus, a fruitless deep ‘without sweet union of love.’ Earth and Heaven fuck and from this sweetness come Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe and Tethys. And then comes Cronos, ‘… the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children.’ Hesiod of Boeotia gives the first classical account of this history in the late eighth century. His ‘Theogony’ says these terrible Deathless Ones instantiate endless chaos and upheaval. The progeny of Ouranus are glorious and frighteningly seething and only Zeus can check their horrors.
Years ago, with this stuff fizzing in the undergrowth, I read Holman writing; ‘Her stomach crammed with nettles, she drew a picture in which various kinds of thoughts left her head in the form of birds, clouds or stars. She met with some of them again later, snagged upon the branches of trees in the grove she entered in the course of her tunnel work.’
He asks for a mystical reading that includes, for instance, all that runs out from there to whatever follows. So I find this connects to the wise virgin who came out of the Godly conscience, deaf, dumb and blind in Laughton. It is an echo of Martha Hatfield the Puritan child-prophet who felt the Second Coming coming. She saw Raw Head and Bloody Bones, Nelly Long Arms and Awd Goggie, Black Parr and the low black sow who carries off kiddies. She was afraid of fires especially those bonfires on the wastelands of the city blazing with a dim constancy and smoke curling into night fogs across everywhere.
In Manchester, Swan St & the cholera hospital in 1832 there were riots where a dead child’s head was cut off & substituted in its coffin by a brick . There were rumours that the child had been murdered. The decapitated corpse was lifted over the heads of the angry crowd to drum up support. Bonfires were lit. A cholera van was destroyed. A Dr. Lynch was attacked. Eventually the missing head was found in the apothecary’s lodgings after a Catholic defied the riot and calmed it. The head was sewn back onto the body;
‘… a decided proof that all was not right at the Swan Street hospital …The law is not open to the people who may have their relatives carried away and cut up by surgeons.’ [The Poor Man’s Advocate]’
Which just reminds us that the death of children is always on our minds. Manchester is a different part of the country from where Holman’s poem shimmers. But esoterics like himself, Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, for example, will dream out these strange horrors even if they say nothing. When you pick up Tara Morgana you’ll recognize the same dread and wonder.
2. And in all armour on her bed she lies
In that first section we confront; ‘Two beaked men raised a severed head between them: their hands looked elegant but each stick leg terminated in claws.’
In this we can recall that Egyptians say Atum came from nothing. Atum generated Shu and Tefnut and from them come Isis, Osiris and their deadly enemy Set. Babylonians say Apsu is destroyed by Ea for plotting against younger Gods. Ea stands down to Marduk who fights the grandmother Tiamat and her kids. Clark explains the pattern: ‘ In each case complexity and personality gradually emerge from Chaos (which is not confusion but a void), younger Gods inherit power from the older, and peace is established after some catastrophe. Or rather, Law is established: ‘Peace’ is projected back into the rule of Cronos, or of Osiris before his murder.’ But whereas these are told by priests the Greek story isn’t. Greeks displayed gods as families and rooted in here and now. Histories were gossip. Gods were deathless and unavoidable.
They were worlds of meaning. Aphrodite is the sex drive born from the severed penis of Ouranus and from Zeus and Dione. Athena comes out of Zeus’s head. Zeus has eaten the mother to prevent her progeny overcoming him. Dionysus comes from Zeus’s thigh after his mother has been burnt by Zeus’s self-revelation about male progeny. Zeus holds men to their oaths and punishes those who dare break them. Zeus forbids people eating people and the Flood is the punishment for disobeying this.
‘Lay up these things within your heart and listen now to right, ceasing altogether to think of violence. For the sons of Cronos has ordained this law for men, that fishes and beasts and winged fowls should devour one another, for right is not in them, but to mankind he gave right which proves far best.’ So writes Hesiod. ‘A shadow in a dream is man, but when God sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is sweet as honey’, writes Pindar. All this within the shine of Holman’s Brighton pier or pushed back onto the South Downs.
Holman writes: ‘In the secret marketplace of the woods, I give the tawny headed girl more than she asks, still less than she is due. Her companion is a coarser thief than I, too coarse to be entitled to the patronage he claims: it pisses me off that I have entered into discussion with him, stopped to argue about the rubbish he offers with such arrogance.’ I’m thinking the thief companion is of Cronos somehow. A twisty version.
[Photo: Gordon White]
3. Hours, clouds , ghosts.
When Holman writes about ghosts, he writes;
‘Each name a ghost
we raise: its roadside
legend marks the edge
of hell, as plough
enclosed a diurnal city.
We find the common
shape of flower, star,
Medusa’s head; the last
tool used to cut
the tomb, itself sacred’
So there’s always Blake, who is the constant companion when we’re out with the occultists. Tony White’s recent book is just the latest reminder of this truth. Iain Sinclair is haunted by that particular daemon. You can see it in his eyes. Stewart Home bare-knuckle fights the ghost of the flea every Friday in secret locations across London to equally secretive punters. Holman describes these events, which are a type of fraught ceremony that accumulate forgotten meanings : ‘ The fire spirit appears with his beasts. The spectator herself/ stood discovered, a furious statue resolved/on vain efforts of radicalism.’
Whispering into the foul air, ‘anatomy/Horrible, ghast and deadly’ whilst dreaming of Infant Joy, Holman is seeing something luminously dark pitching up. The more I read Holman, the more Swedenborg’s event time – 1757 – straps up the writing. But Holman may be walking with Blake or maybe is arm in arm with Parmenides. Holman’s zone is of a ‘…twilight language in which they come to me, having lost hope in a conspiracy of understanding which merely fed a critical elite: world formed of speech, world formed of thought, world formed of dreams.’
Parmenides says reason to all conclusions and deny contradiction. Our senses are liars. But it was a strange muse that brought him to these conclusions. ‘The Goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and addressed me with these words:
‘Young man, you who come to my house in the company of immortal charioteers with the mares which bear you, greetings. No ill fate has sent you to travel this road – far indeed does lie from the steps of men – but right and justice. It is proper that you should learn all things, both the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, and the opinions of mortals, in which there is no true reliance.’
Hesiod is backed by revelation too:
‘ Be careful to avoid the anger of the deathless gods. Do not make a friend equal to a brother; but if you do, do not wrong him first… But if he wrongs you first, offending in either word or in deed, remember to repay him double; but if he ask you to be his friend again and be ready to give you satisfaction, welcome him.’
Rather than this sheer tit-for-tat Parmenides was given something else:
‘ I will tell you the only ways of enquiry that are to be thought of. The one, that it is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the path of Persuasion (for she attends upon Truth); the other , that it is not and that it is needful that it is not be, that I declare to you is an altogether indiscernible track; for you could not know what is not.’
Parmenides contradicts the Hesiod and the Egyptians: nothing could come from nothing. ‘It never was nor will be, since it is now, all together, one, continuous.’ There are no gaps. ‘It all exists alike; nor is it more here and less there, which would prevent it holding it together but it is all full of being.’ But lies and falsehoods, fantasies and differences are thought all the time. Logicians (of a certain stripe) say they are functions of thought rather than ontological guides. Concrete reality is all there is, some say. Nothing is really distant, no one is really mortal.
Parmenides fuses a philosophy of reason with a mystic theology. So in this respect he lines up with Empodocles of Acragas:
‘Of all mortal things none has birth, nor any end in accursed death, but only mingling and interchange of what is mingled – birth is the name given to these by men … Fools, since they think that what they did before did not exist comes into being, or that a thing dies and is completely destroyed … For it is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about or heard of that what is should be utterly destroyed; for wherever one may ever set it, there indeed it will always be.’
Holman stands around in his poem with all the anxiety of a demiurge wondering about how he’ll hold it all together. It’s a question, in the end, of taking responsibility. If there is a lonelier place to be than this sort of writing I have yet to imagine it. Holman looks back at the girl/Goddess again, writes;
‘Her fingertip scratches a diagram into the dirt on the floor, upon which is set a piece of quartz, a feather, the slender bone of a cat or hare, and a squat figure of black stone. With the quartz in position at one end of the diagram and the statue at the other, she transfers the other items between them in such a manner that they must bypass a number of small obstacles. This section of her play completed, she posts the feather through the entrance to the chamber beyond: little more than a slit in the rock, rimmed with bitter water.
My operator’s attention is no longer directed toward her. I am hurried across the threshold in pursuit of the feather, only to be summoned back to the terrace with an urgency that makes my shape buckle and flatten in the air, for my operator has reached ahead of me and found that other who twisted a leash for him out of boredom and a melancholy recognition: the child left to prophesy in darkness.’
[Photo: Gordon White]
4. Births give cataclysms.
So Holman confronts the great decision and knows he can’t do this without, you know, being willing.
‘How could I not waste myself,
not willing to turn into fire,
to join those I glimpsed
mustering in the heat.
So tired of being their medium.
How the fuck am I to offer myself,
In my head there’s a contemporary landscape smearing like a scuddy mark between derelict warehouses. Skinheads emerging to kick a lager can into a bleak tangle of trees and shrubs and hiding places. Even their eyes shrink away from the light and with nazi insignia tattooed across their foreheads, they play owls, wishing everything white, worshipping Teutates, god of the tribe as they go. Teutates demanded drowning. This recalls the Celtic godheads and their ritual of death by water.
‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’ That’s Blake . Holman is vomiting at the other side of that pitch like Empedocles. Empedocles is a banished god, punished for some cannibalistic error. He is running with Strife.; ‘… an exile from the gods and a wanderer, having put my trust in raving Strife’ he says, and ‘… has been a bush, a bird, and a boy and a girl, and a dumb fish in the sea’. He’s an immortal god, describing a proto-evolutionary theory whereby some but only some creatures emerging out of primal stuff breed. As Aristotle reports it this is a theory: ‘ wherever everything turned as it would have if it were happening for a purpose, there the creatures survived, being accidently compounded in a suitable way, but where this did not happen, the creatures perished and are perishing still, as Empedocles says of his man-faced ox-progeny.’ Sextus Empiricus makes our collective sin, cannibalism, clear: ‘ will you not cease from the din of slaughter? Do you not see you are devouring each other in the heedlessness of your minds?’
All this and Holman moving to make and follow signs and signals, understanding that what he’s bringing into purview is what is astonishing, both new and supernaturally ancient.
a cross upon the tablecloth, then
added four dots at the intercardinal
points, connecting them with the looping
walls of that labyrinth through which
I follow him now.’
What is the girl? Maybe she’s the poem, maybe the poet, but whatever, Holman says:
‘She vanished among men of unguessable
temper, always older, who made no
remark about the tremble of the
skeleton at the foot of her
Blake in heaven and hell.
Lindow man, found in Lindow moss, victim of a triple death – the knife, the noose, the pool.
The body in a glass case, the clean dark I have to leave as the noises of the secret Gods seep up out of the ground, the head of the child in Swan Street, the cult of the severed head of the celts; history half memorialised, half seen. Where Holman is writing the Romans couldn’t drive out the old Gods, so Esus became identified with Mercury, Brigantia with Minerva and of course, as we’ve already noted, she was born out of the head of Zeus. Here, heads hold the spirit and the soul. What this world says is: if you want to control your enemy cut off the head. It’s in the skull. It’s all in there.
There are strange histories of carved heads from Glossop, Cheedle, Taxal, Ribchester, Chapel-en-le-Frith taken from the site of Roman Mithraeum at Hulme. A dead man in the Manchester museum, Lindow Man, was found on Lindow Moss between Mobberly and Winslow in the peat layers on 1st August 1984 not too long after the event time of Holman’s poem. And it wasn’t the first either. An ancient woman was found up there in 1983. When the head was found some man came forward confessing the murder of his wife but the head was of a woman over 1500 years old. They put him away and never found the remains of his wife … she’s still out there. All this is in the atmosphere of Holman’s work. They’re like images smoked out in intestines.
Empodocles’ world is a dynamic but changeless one. It is a ‘wonder to behold.’ How both? The four elements, love and strife and other things. What is the metaphysical status of the four elements? They are primitively qualified stuff. Not stuff having qualities but stuff unalterably qualified. What is their nature? Is it inert or causally powerful, and if powerful is that exhaustively accounted for by what it can do? If inert they would require external causes. Anna Marmodoro says they are ways in which they are, but they are also things they can do and have powers bestowed on them. Love and Strife may be divine agents. But perhaps they are laws of nature. Empodocles didn’t have the term, but Holman does.
5. Daisy and Mollie
Neoplatonic ears interpreted ‘Cronos eating his children’ as ‘Intellect filling up with intelligible reality whereby Soul emerges from that fullness.’
6. The memory of a bewildering romance.
‘…his tongue has turned white, the
ugly flight jacket bought the day
before had suffered a three cornered
The grungy detail collides with the spectral glow throughout, so Holman is ‘building upon a gap’, stitching together ‘fissures and interconnected lakes’. It shows the way poetry can concretise the occult and vice versa.
Existence is no part of my essence – but is it of the occult? Intrinsic properties of occult objects look like they’re essential. Esoterica seemingly have more essence than concreta. They ought to be harder to exist because they can’t be merely accidental but oddly they exist easier. But only if they exist! Once existing, they are necessary – you can’t have Gods going missing, just as Yablo the philosopher says you can’t have the number seven go missing. Even Nietzsche said God had died, not that he wasn’t existing! Do numberless worlds seem more impossible than worlds without esoterica? Are they both equally modally inflexible?
So now we’re asking whether I have to accept the supernatural to read Holman.
7. In a dead tone
It seems that with these sets of questions we are wearing our clothes inside out – which is where Holman starts buzzing ‘In a dead Tone.’
Lessons learned from philosopher Yablo.
Epistemology – abstracts are a priori, concreta a posteriori. Knowledge can’t entail existence – knowing conditions for existence doesn’t tell us whether we have them. Mr Kant.
Cogito argument asks us to know we exist because we think , but that depends on experiencing ourselves. Mr Descartes.
Maybe logic presupposes all sorts of higher-type objects. But that just presupposes that these things exist from the start. Mr Frege.
This may be where Holman is standing, where ‘every stall is a hedge school of Mercury.’ Brilliant that – Mercury the deity of interpretation and hedge a matter of getting by, sitting on a vaguely defined fence, of not committing, but also a piece of tamed nature with pragmatic aims of concealing, dividing, civilising, taming chaos, creating Frosty neighbours… and also a financial ruse, a smart corruption … like these lower Gods…
When we’re dealing with Gods we’re dealing with absoluteness. Weak-assed relativism doesn’t have a chance of gripping that. And here’s a sociological fact; we know the Gods before we have theories about them. So it seems that any talk about the necessary existence of gods is more than a learned etiquette code.
Therefore the esoteric raises puzzlers about necessity, a priority and absoluteness. Which is perhaps why Holman, amidst ‘various passers – by’ takes time before realizing ‘… that I also was nothing more than one of the wandering skins they had shed.’ Holman works to an agenda that Eliot understood, that all the early modernists did, that his poetry requires a ‘tearless, mineral’ language which has the hard beauty of necessity. And that’s why we ask – do they seem necessary because these esoterica have always existed? Is it that they are brute? Or does the concept of any esoterica contain necessity? Could there be Gods that don’t exist in every possible world? If we say there’s something that precludes this – well, what? If there are things like Gods but with the ability to disappear from some possible worlds, why do we prefer the world with Gods? Is this just a random taste? Perhaps this is just to say that to have the esoteric in the poetry it must feel objective.
Holman is working with oracles and that rebuffs any idea that this writing is just contingent and accidental. The fact that it’s a precise set of messages and a reality he can pinpoint merely emphasizes this. What we have here is something being …
to completion a gesture
initiated in 1981.’
Holman is clear headed and sharp, a classical recorder of these ‘oracular days’, working like his ‘… muscled drunk who attempted to cast his shirt over a kestrel.’
8. Worn out, washed out, clouds
And what, Holman’s next phase provokes us to ask, if our taste for esoterica is outflanked by our lack of belief in the supernatural? This is where, as he puts it, ‘The history of great deeds is superseded.’ How then do we explain our taste for supernatural necessity, the goddess, the oracle, the fire spirit, the stare of the Thessalian? We might fall back, finding our ‘efforts of radicalism’ all vain, as Holman nervously admits. We may think of falling back onto something which will endorse any and all theories compatible and consistent with all theories about the non-supernatural. In this way the conservative theory will strike us as necessary because it fits the physical world in every way even if the theory isn’t true. This answers the question – why call up all those Gods, daemons, spirits and oracles etc? It contends: the necessity is just how this conservativity strikes us. So the necessity of Gods etc is just us intuiting conservativity.
But this is not really an adequate answer. We can counter: why not have the contrary intuition – if every natural world can add supernaturals, why not also subtract them? When faced with Holman’s: ‘ The fire spirit appears with his beasts’ why don’t we divide away the supernatural somehow? It’s because there’s a sense that the fire spirit isn’t contingent but necessary. And our feeling of necessity isn’t at all about theories but rather the individual spirit there, confronted: it’s about the particular god, particular spirit, particular oracle. As Holman recalls, it’s about something completed in 1981. And anyway, as philosopher Yablo makes clear in a vastly different context, conservative theories can also be inconsistent with each other whils’t necessity doesn’t have inconsistency. Think about it – theories that are inconsistent can’t be necessary – unless relativised to a background theory. But then you lose the brute rightness of your Gods etc and that brute whatever just is its necessity. Anything too friendly to relativism erodes how we experience, know, and give status to supernaturals. This poem isn’t about Holman, but about some things as solid as fire spirits and their beasts.
But now we go back to the issue at the start: can we read Holman without presupposing the reality of the gods and such? Can there be a non-occult reading of the occult, something akin to a solution that delivers non-real necessity plus absoluteness. As Yablo the philosopher says – Sentences can be absolute without being true eg chips on the shoulder can’t migrate elsewhere. Some may think the same about Gods etc. They may be taken to work as representational props as when we say Italy is a boot or we talk about the saddle of a mountain. These props are used figuratively and contain necessity and in doing so ’ boost language’s expressive power’ explains Yablo.
Something difficult to say, or boring, or impossible (it needs an infinite representational system) takes this approach. Where a real world content makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to say something about the mountain, using ‘saddle’ falsely allows me to pick out something true about the mountain. These props first time round rely on the world (the first use of saddle is to talk about saddles) and that’s how they seem necessary (the chip must always be on the shoulder). The prop is used to tell us something about itself like tautologies that give us a necessity that nevertheless says nothing about the world.
9. A call of spirits
If this is right then esoterica work without representing anything that has to exist – they just as easily might not. They elicit effects as if they exist. If you are literally pouring your heart out what we have is a terrible messy death. The thought here, cribbed shamelessly from Yablo of course, is that we use language all the time without knowing what is meant and not caring. A literal content of e.g. 7> 11 is no more on the mind of people using it than blood on the minds of those using ‘heart pouring’. So talk of Gods etc help us say things about the actual world we would find difficult or impossible to say without them, just as people who don’t think numbers exist can still find them fruitful to use.
10. Dustless and space pervading
Holman’s occult beings and dramas are all analogous in that they don’t depend on what is happening with the materials, their relations and properties. Crudely denying their truth means you don’t know how the expressions work. He’s using words that can jump invisibly from a material world to the supernatural (and back). They are all words used to say something about the contingent facts about our world. They are all words that don’t depend on their literal actuality to do this. (Leaving it open that they may be literally true.)
The expressions that involve the occult are thought of as being necessarily so. The content expresses a tautology so they are necessary. But expressions that assert there is a daemon, say, seem to assert the existence of something and so seem to go further and don’t seem like tautologies. And doing that pulls us away from necessity – as Yablo asks about abstracts we wonder about esoterica – ‘how anything could cling to existence that tightly.’
Why might Holman put in the effort to pretend there are esoterica? Easy answer. He ain’t pretending nothing mister! But for the esoterica skeptic, what answer might be given? Expressive power. They expedite.
The real content of any arithmetical truth is a logical truth. Sets do the same as numbers – they extend our expressive power but in the case of sets they help when we want to deal with truths got when we combine objects in various ways. Without them even pretty simple logical truths would defeat us. So the real content of esoterica talk is…? Esoterica talk warns us, tells us what not to defy and what to be impressed by, what we ought to do and what we ought to be, what’s going to be found and what’s being lost, where we’re going to end up and how it’s always been – and where imitation is right and where it’s not even a starting point, where courage gets screwed and where love is just a different way of getting your own way after nerves fail. Holman is working in a situation where his language is, as he says, in a ‘… process that has quite evidently decayed, producing more feedback than information… Although much of the meaning has been hollowed from the phrase now, this is of course a psychogeographical text.’ I guess that’s what this ‘review’ has been trying to say but taking in angles. Philosopher Yablo calls all this ‘Kantian logicism’. Kant thought the spectacles needed to represent the world have certain things inscribed: numbers and sets are part of the spectacles. Or it’s ‘anti-Kantian logicism’ – its not like Kant in that Kant says the necessity is imposed by our representations, but Yablo is saying necessity is imposed on our representations via the logical truths encoded.
Holman’s esoterica seem necessary because their contents express truths that are necessary. And a priori. They are as absolute as forgiving your enemies to annoy them. Like contemporaries Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Mike Mignola, Jeremy Reed, Bridget Penney, and Tony White, Holman is producing the kind of work that maps out esoteric fields extending expressive powers in a decisive solitary commitment.
Lars Iyer wrote recently that “A kitschified realism mirrors the old stabilities, an older world, now disappearing. A kitschified modernism mirrors the old instabilities, the cracks in the old bowl of culture. But the bowl has shattered… So what does that mean for our arts? What would a genuine post-modernism look like? Can there be such thing?” Perhaps the resurgence of a modern esotericism, especially in the hands of the likes of Holman, may yet have something to add to this discussion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 26th, 2014.