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The Minotaur & the Maze #2 – The Pathology of Night

By Darran Anderson.

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It is 1892 and dusk on the hill of Ekeberg, looking down on the city of Christiania. Edvard Munch, visionary painter of sickbeds, deathly madonnas, hysterics and succubi, haunted by the inherited spectre of insanity and having to watch his entire family slowly succumb to tuberculosis, is out for a stroll through the grounds of the asylum where his sister is sectioned. In his diary he would later revisit the scene, “I was out walking along the road with two friends. The sun began to set, and I began to be filled with an overbearing sense of melancholy. Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped and steadied myself against a fence, feeling utterly drained, and gazed at the flaming clouds that hung, like blood and tongues of fire, over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on but I stood frozen, trembling with fright. And I felt the vast, piercing shriek of nature pass through everything.”

In these woefully smart-arse times when the charlatan likes of Jeff Koons can be elevated to the artistic aristocracy (and not deservedly pelted with rotten vegetables), The Scream has become kitsch, notable only for its endless reproductions in all manner of cheap shit (exit through the gift shop) and for being one of the world’s most frequently stolen paintings. But see through its ubiquity, free ourselves from the sneering vacuous post whatever-ism that’s fashionable and we can still experience something of what Munch felt in that moment. This is the very image, not of madness but the fear of madness, the terror of impending breakdown that obliterates all around it, that ripples out so catastrophically it changes the entire world. It is the supreme Expressionist moment when the vagaries of the nervous system explode outwards changing the weather, the atmosphere, the physiognomy of spectators. If the world is experienced by us simply through electrical impulses in our brain coming from our eyes, ears and hands, this is what happens when the human machine breaks down. The whole world is engulfed and changed into something terrible. Like the irradiated flash of x-ray, man is stripped of sex, of individuality, and left almost skeletal, utterly vulnerable at the centre of a world that has turned to a maelstrom. Seen in the right light, it remains a truly beautiful and terrifying painting, the pose inspired by the death-mask of an ancient Peruvian mummy Munch had viewed in a Florentine (or Parisian, there’s some debate) museum, the sky stained red as European skies were for months by the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa which reverberated around the globe (the explosion was so violent it was the loudest noise ever heard by human beings, being audible 2000 miles away in Australia). The feeling is first-hand. It is the physical manifestation of the threat of death that hung over Munch or worse the torture of madness. It is the end of the world, taking place fittingly in the hour before nightfall, the sun already in retreat. Ending not in a bang, not in a whimper but in a shriek that ignites the very atmosphere.

Munch painted night again and again (“that pause when the world stops in its course” as he called it); moonlight dancing on silent fjords, the solitude of a fisherman’s hut, ghost silhouettes in the deep murk of pine forests, all of them either unearthly still or else warped by the night and its native anxiety, the faces of the inhabitants of the paintings blurred and morphing into one another. Perhaps the obsession was partly a cultural and geographic one; in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway far north of where Munch stood, there is continuous polar night for almost three months and midnight sun for over four with sometimes catastrophic effects on mental health. He never lost his morbid attraction to night, “I go out walking in the moonlight… and I am terrified of my own shadow… I see myself, my own ghostly face. And I lead my life in the company of the dead – my mother, my sister, my grandfather and my father – all my memories, the smallest of details, return to me…” Munch kept coming back to the night compulsively (as he did The Scream, creating over fifty versions in all), whether it was detrimental to his well-being or not, he could not resist. “I was on the brink of insanity – it was touch and go…” he’d later admit. Here we will consider night as the time when there is nothing to place between the mind and the dark thoughts, and night as the cloak that is needed for even darker deeds.

In the West, many of our views of night come originally through the cracked prism of Christianity. In the Bible, night is a setting of terror and is invoked as an elemental threat. It is there in the abyssal depths that existed before the light of Genesis (“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”). It is the plague which came to the cruel Pharaoh after the frogs and locusts (“Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt. So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days”). It is the hour when the Archangel of Death passed over the Jewish houses marked with newborn lamb’s blood and spared them from annihilation.

Again and again it is included within the threat of exile, effectively a death sentence in a nomadic desert culture like the early Jews, “the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Isaiah warned, “We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.” Toe the line or you’ll be sent into it, never to return. Yet even banishment will be no refuge from the vengeful jealous Abrahamic God of the Old Testament, for He according to the Book of Samuel created the night of his own accord, he “made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies” and there is no hiding place. This is his territory as much as the dawn is. He is the All-Seeing-Eye, Number Two, Big Brother, the Watcher from the old Marvel comics. In Exodus, there is an eerie but intriguing encounter, “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was,” intriguing because it subtly raises the theological question of God being an entity of day and night, good and evil (omnipotent, omnibenevolent but apparently acquiescent in the existence of evil), a heretical duality that theologians have tied themselves in knots over addressing and avoiding from Augustine of Hippo onwards. Usually some kind of riddle or double-think is employed or, in the old days, they’d just set fire to whoever it was who raised the topic (the Cathars for example). Failing that, the blame is heaped upon Lucifer the ultimate scapegoat and a man bereft of good PR. Though he labelled him the “Prince of Darkness” in Paradise Lost, John Milton was astute enough to recognise Lucifer the rebel-angel as a misunderstood anti-hero, arguably the anti-hero, a dissenter who quite admirably stood up to a tyrannical God and who was demonised, literally, for his audacity (far from something terrible, the name Lucifer means “light-bringer” or “morning-star”).

Yet the traditional view has prevailed. In Dante’s Inferno, the very architecture of Hell is built from night, it’s halls and plains drained of colour, where the pilgrims Dante and Virgil struggle to peer through the shadows to see shades eternally fumbling and wailing, all manner of torture gardens and ingenious mechanisms of suffering and lost souls “falling like dead leaves.” By contrast, Paradiso is a realm of dazzling light, colour, vitality. And yet in the Bible, the sinful plains cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were alive at night with drinking, whoring and ribaldry before the kill-joy Hebrew God wiped them from the map and they remain attractive lights on the horizon for some of us. Would you prefer to spend eternity amongt the hesitant, fearful, boring and pious (intolerable in life) or spend it amongst the revelries of the damned? H.L. Mencken once wrote, “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” and he was not wrong. It’s a fear and loathing that warps the mind and when institutionalised or enshrined in dogma corrodes the mind absolutely. You get the lunatic proclamations of the Daily Mail. You get Islamists seeking to ban music, idolatrous art, the sight of the female face whilst salivating over imaginary afterlife harems. Or, closer to home, the Catholic hell-fire sermons of a figure like Father Arnall in James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which begins in stern reproach and ends in drooling hysteria, “And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus… and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell” (you can almost picture his eyes rolling in his head). All of them locked in loops of their own making, the vicious circle of bitterness, denial and envy, driving themselves mad and trying to drag the rest of us with them into the vortex. If this is the day then by Christ give us the night…

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Heretics and night-bearers could exist though even under the vigilant ruthless gaze of the Church. Take Caravaggio, now rightly recognised, after many years overshadowed by lesser more conventional lights, as one of the greatest painters of all time, an artist who relied on commissions from the Holy Orders and the aristocracy. And yet young Michelangelo Merisi was very much a creature of the night. He drunkenly brawled with the police of the day, whom he delighted insulting and throwing rocks at, and was frequently busted out of jail by fellow undesirables. He painted the Virgin Mary using a drowned prostitute as a model and used street alcoholics and rentboys for the apostles. Once he was arrested for hurling a tray of fried artichokes at a waiter’s head over a mixup with the order. Such was his temper that eventually he ran a sword through a friend’s chest (one Ranuccio Tomassoni) over the disputed score of a tennis match they’d just played and, branded a murderer, was forced to go on the run for the rest of his life. Even then he failed to change his ways, savaging beating a Maltese Knight in his own home (causing the knight’s allies to try and hunt him down), before having his face sliced up in another drunken confrontation in a bar. All along he sent paintings back to the scene of former crimes, begging a pardon (if not forgiveness) that would never come. “Vulgarity, sacrilege, impiousness and disgust…One would say it is a work made by a painter that can paint well, but of a dark spirit, and who has been for a lot of time far from God, from His adoration, and from any good thought…” was the Church’s verdict and he remained unforgiven, doomed to walk the earth in exile. No-one thought that in leading his ruinously-flawed but full and repentful life, Caravaggio was arguably closer to Christ than the Church could ever be, if you consider Christ as a revolutionary (as the Liberation Theologists did) who came “not to bring peace but the sword”, a man more Kinski than Ratzinger, who lashed the merchants in the temple, who hung around with whores and thieves, Galilean peasants and assassins (the “Iscariot” in the apostle Judas’ name deriving from his membership of the Sicarii zealot group, terrorist “dagger-men” opposed to the Roman occupation of the land). Fittingly, Caravaggio’s art reflected his tempestuous life, the typically-dark abundantly-violent themes (the Flagellation of Christ, Judith Beheading Holofernes (below), The Martyrdom of Saints Ursula, Matthew, Andrew and John the Baptist) being rendered unmistakably in the setting of night or Chiaroscuro as the style became known (incredibly life-like figures bathed in the deepest pockets of light cast by candle, torch or moon and simultaneously swathed in near-planetary darkness). There’s a symmetry in his life, the young Caravaggio relishing the squalid madness of night, the orgies, fights and bacchanalia, and the old, scarred, prematurely-aged (he died at the age of 38) Caravaggio choosing night as simply somewhere to hide from his pursuers, all framed in these remarkable paintings. It was cinematography before the invention of cinema and we would have to wait 300 years to see its likes again.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to feel the fear Caravaggio felt, the eternal exile with a death warrant on his head, cast away from home and kin because of his reckless violent impulses and the relative puritanism of his age. Yet spend a night, even a single one, lost in the countryside or even merely on the streets of a city, waiting for the first train, fearfully sobering by the hour and everything seems changed, the familiar takes on a malevolence. Perhaps it’s in our genes, the evolutionary fears we carry subconsciously from our times in the caves and forests when the night-earth was lit only by bushfire, lightning, the moon and stars. How dark, silent and terrifying it must have been then, perhaps explaining why the fear of darkness is one of the most common fears. Maybe it comes from that age when man was prey, the ancestral memory, a fear of hidden precipice and predators, a fear of what was out there waiting for us that has stayed deep in the marrow of our bones.

Urban myth has it that the time you’re most likely to die is 3am (giving an unintended resonance to the name of this site). Some academics have attributed this to the slowing of cardiac function during unconsciousness (3am supposedly being the deepest point of most people’s sleep). In several Eastern European cultures the hour beginning at 3 has been named “the devil’s hour”, in others “the hour of the wolf” precisely because of its calamitous connotations. Others theorists have speculated that it was traditionally the time when early man would wake and refuel the campfire with more wood, stock up food and scout the perimeter for anything lurking out there, explaining why we are sometimes roused around this time and lie prone to the bed with fear that the shirt you’ve left hanging on the wardrobe is a maniac watching you sleep. Whether its bullshit, valid scientific conjecture or a mixture of both as most things are, we’ll probably never know. What’s certain is that danger hides in the night; in the overloaded electricity socket, on the streets outside the emptying bars, in the common and the obscure routes to A&E. On any walk through the city at that hour you might encounter this; watching firefighters head-lamps shining eerily through the smoke of a burning building, looking for survivors, the routine sight of walking wounded staggering out of bars with bust heads and shattered fists or coming across the scene of a crash on a country road, already lit up like a nativity play with floodlights, the tyre-tracks marking where the car and its driver lost control, heading for the border with the cops in high-speed pursuit, and skidding off the road into the trees and from this world into the next.

Underestimate the night beyond the confines of civilisation and it will exact a heavy price. To select an exotic example, one of the greatest hazards of climbing the world’s highest mountains is staying too long in the death zone, where the temperature and oxygen-thin altitude are insufficient to survive in for long. On May the 10th, 1996, this happened catastrophically en masse on the slopes of Mount Everest resulting in the deaths of eight climbers and horrifying injuies to the rest. Such incidents can be put down to the Nietzschean ego of climbers (rarely the sanest or most cautious of individuals), the temptation to push for the top when sense and self-preservation tells them to turn back. Added to this is the increasing commercialisation of such endeavours (guides have been sued by wealthy clients for turning expeditions back within sight of the summit even when it undoubtedly has saved their lives), familiarity resulting in an underestimation of the treachery and danger of the mountain and also the fact that human critical faculties are invariably hampered by the conditions (this is a place where even experienced mountaineers, starved of oxygen, can be suddenly struck down by the brain-damage of hypoxia and fatal cerebral edema). Most often it is a series of small events and delays, decisions and indecisions which silently and unseen accumulate until they reach critical mass. In his gripping account of the disaster Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer outlined the perils of the death zone, “a human plucked from sea level and dropped on the summit of Everest would lose consciousness within minutes and quickly die” and then goes on to give an eye-witness account of the debacle and deaths that followed. If night comes and the weather turns during descent (as it did then), Everest is unforgiving; the hurricane winds, the incessant snow and darkness cloak the enigmatically-named deathtraps of the Hilary Step, the Cornice Traverse (with it’s colossal drops on both sides), the Geneva Spur, the Yellow Band, not to mention much further down the Valley of Silence and the dreaded Khumbu Icefall with its shifting chasms and precarious towers of ice. One of the challenges and glories of Everest is the thought of conquering somewhere humans manifestly should not be. Night is the means by which Everest reminds the individual of this fact. Krakauer barely made it back alive while above him his “compadres were dallying, memorializing their arrival at the apex of the planet with photos and high-fives-and using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. None of them suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter…”

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Understandably, night is associated with death. It is also, in something of a cliché, associated with insanity. Everyone knows the apparent link between the full moon and madness, lunatic deriving from lunar and phrases such as “howling at the moon” seeing widespread use. The murder rate, casino payouts, fertility, epileptic fits and admissions to psychiatric wards all supposedly peak when the moon is at its brightest. All bollocks of course, statistically speaking. Just because none of it is true doesn’t mean it can be dismissed though. The belief that the moon has an bearing on human behaviour, like a placebo, has a potency. In Buñuel and Dali‘s masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, a man famously takes a straight-edge razor and slices a woman’s eye open (a still-shocking scene which incited riots on its first showing, Buñuel standing behind the curtain playing the soaring Tristan and Isolde soundtrack on a gramophone with his pockets full of stones in anticipation). Less noted is the fact that a sliver of cloud first passes across the moon as he stands on his balcony. There is a connection. It was the moon (representing the subconscious, the id, the sinister influence of dreamtime) that suggested the deed and it is the ancient unchanging moon representing the vast expanse of time, which makes human endeavours, fair or foul, insignificant, that will absolve such an act. After all, the moon shines on murderer and victim alike.

The link between a culpable moon and evil in the heart of man finds its most blatant expression in the lycanthorpe or werewolf, a myth that has surfaced in a vast array of societies (originating from a fairly rational fear of wolves, “those children of the night” in the words of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). We find it in Navajo accounts of shape-shifting skin-walkers and African bush-ghost fables. In Germany, werewolves needed the flayed skin of hanged men to swathe themselves in, in Greece they scavenged the aftermath of battles, feasting on the maimed. There were medieval werewolf show trials from Estonia to France in which the unfortunate parties were tortured, tried and executed on charges of sorcery and witchcraft. Often it was just an excuse to burn a load of old women, get rid of troublemakers and outsiders and confiscate property. The myth also likely arose to explain the then unexplainable; bouts of serial killing, rabies, schizophrenia, porphyria, hallucinations through the ingestion of magic mushrooms or the LSD-related ergot mould that grew on stale bread (an experience referred to as St Anthony’s Fire) or to reinforce cultural taboos such as cannibalism (as noted in the cases of Peter Stubbe the Werewolf of Bedburg or Gilles Garnier the Hermit of St. Bonnot, two examples where the punishment was at least as nightmarish as the original crimes, as Foucault would later explore in his critical work Discipline and Punish). The most surprising factor is that the moon connection was only added as late as 1935 with the early, and entertainingly camp, horror film Werewolf Of London (“A man-beast prowls the night… as DEATH rides the moonbeams.”) being the first to attribute the Jekyll and Hyde-esque metamorphisis from man to beast to the presence of a full moon. What we take for an ancient folkloric belief, wrapped up with associations of Celtic berserkers and midnight covens is actually a modern cinematic invention.

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Whether or not werewolves stalk the earth or the moon really does drive us mad is incidental. The important thing is it’s all linked in our minds, it’s become part of our collective consciousness, the shared repository of myth that the psychologist Carl Jung placed such importance on. When we stare up at the moon, the same old moon that man has dreamt about, serenaded and cursed at for tens of thousands of years, the same one that Li Po drowned trying to drunkenly embrace, we don’t just see a cold dead sphere of rock and dust fastened in the earth’s orbit, with its waterless seas and its scent of gunpowder. Instead we see something invested with a strange power (no doubt partly due to the centuries of culture it has inspired). We can call it magical or mystical but those words have been cheapened to the point they’re worthless. It’s enough that you feel something nameless but tangible. “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day” wrote the great Vincent Van Gogh and he should know, a rare seer who looked at the night, the flat blank night that most of us ignore as something to sleep through, and he saw this.

In a more practical way, night saves us. Sleeping gives our immune systems time to repair the body, rest the mind and process information from the day (the demented cinema of dreams). For a modern world which holds 18-hour working days up as something to aspire to, sleep has been relegated to an inconvenience, an obstacle to productivity. It’s a sign of the increasingly totalitarian incipient nature of the corporatism that our lives, even our sleep, are no longer are own. The work-life balance is being eroded. In every aspect (pay, rights, individualism), it’s a race to the bottom. Thatcher slept four hours, Gordon Brown between two and three hours. The troubling thing is that this is held in some admiration rather than sensibly thinking how can we trust these sleepless inhuman freaks to be competent in charge of anything let alone a country? Albert Einstein had the right approach insisting on a healthy twelve hours as a bare minimum. Sleep less, produce more. Not better, just less and more, less and more. It’s the reductionist mantra of the modern world and it’s increasingly where we’re headed. We shall be haunted by the digits 24/7.

In the US army, the use of Dexedrine amphetamine tablets to keep soldiers awake and hyper-alert is now wide-spread and, more or less, officially encouraged particularly amongst marines, infantry and air-force personnel. It’s been that way since the Second World War right through Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War to the present day (alongside prodigious amounts of Prozac anti-depressants to bring the soldiers back down). The proliferation of go-pills, as they’re known, has been cited as a contributing factor to so-called friendly-fire killings in both the current Iraq and Afghan debacles. Questions of addiction, paranoia and the wisdom of pumping trigger-happy soldiers full of uppers are quickly skirted over. The long-term health effects of prescribing drugs such as Provigil to soldiers across the board (enabling them to stay awake for almost three days straight) hasn’t been entirely established nor have the effects on co-ordination, judgement, morality. Nevertheless the US Government is ploughing ahead funding research into the stimulation areas of the brain with electricity to combat natural, even healthy, fatigue.

It’s not a new development; the use of the methamphetamine Pervitin was rife amongst the SS and Wehrmacht forces during their Blitzkrieg across Eastern Europe. In fact, one of the primary beneficiaries of the invention of speed were Nazi bombers who needed to stay awake for long overnight trips to England during the Blitz (something to ponder if you find yourself rubbing it into your gums before dawn in some hellish unfamiliar bathroom somewhere). On the other side of the Axis, the Japanese authorities went a step further, extending the use of amphetamines from the military to the general populace to boost the war effort (picture a boyless nation of wild-eyed factory workers), fuelling a largely-secretive post-War epidemic of addicts. Sleep was abolished. It was unpatriotic. Treason. It’s as if the architects of the modern world have examined the shark, that vicious unflinching predator which never sleeps and thought here was not some terrible dead-eyed leviathan of the deep, no here was something to aspire to.

We take the importance of sleep for granted at our peril. In the 1970’s, the genetic disease Fatal familial insomnia came to prominence when it was identified as a spectacular blight in the lineage of a Venetian family. Passed genetically down through the generations, it would suddenly strike in mid-life, causing the patient in question to suffer from absolute insomnia. The victims would physically waste away, develop paranoid delusions and slip into a coma and death within as little as seven months. Without sleep, we simply die and die horribly. The Romans knew this when during the Punic Wars and their battles in the Teutonic forests of the north, they sliced the eyelids off their captured enemies who would die tormented, having lost their minds weeks later (this enforced state of wake-torture calls to mind the sinister phenomena of the Haitian zombies, with the victim being kept in a form of suspended animation, denied waking as the Roman POW’s were denied rest). Which brings us to the curious case of the sleepless monk. Most religions, whilst universally professing peace, harmony and the emancipation of the poor, have been forces for division, repression and paradoxically the reinforcement of the power of the haves over the have nots. Buddhism purports to be the noble exception, the do-gooder pacifist amidst the baying nutjobs that are the other world religions. In the Battle of Chumik Shenko in 1904, a ragged Tibetan army, following their philosophy of Ahimsa (meaning do no harm), attempted to scare away the advancing British army by banging pots and pans, ringing bells and setting off fireworks. The British with their plucky sense of fair play turned their maxim guns and shrapnel-filled mortars on them killing 500 as they skipped serenely away from the battlefield. Yet in a way the violence so evident when the Church brought syphilis and the sword to Latin America is merely turned inward in certain annals of Buddhism. Consider the Sokushinbutsu monks of Japan, locked in their lightless tombs, slowly mummifying themselves as an example of this discipline as self-violence or the tale of Bodhidharma, the preacher who introduced Zen to China. Known as “the blue-eyed barbarian” and a kungfu master of the Shaolin Fist (beloved of the Wu Tang Clan), this monk’s tale, even by the standards of Oriental myth, is a strange one. In a cave retreat in the mountains above the Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma stared at a wall for nine years, not speaking a single word during that time. An impressive seven years into his remarkable act of self-discipline, he nodded off and upon awakening was so disgusted with himself that he cut off his own eyelids and threw them away. Enlightenment in this case appearing akin to madness.

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Few figures brought the taboo of madness (a taboo still prevalent) into the light in the modern age more than Sigmund Freud. Freud’s work is far too complex to be glibly summarised here but one of his supreme achievements (more than likely discredited and rehabilitated by the psychology community in the space of reading this article) was forcing humanity to know itself. Freud was the excavator of the sewer of human sub-thought. In fact he showed that it was not a sewer but rather a force that made and makes us who we are. You are your sex drive, your guilt, your impulses, your mistakes, your shame as much as you are your achievements, if not more so. Believing humans to be “ethical and moral imbeciles”, Freud, arguably an artist as much as a scientist in hindsight, sought to delve through the deception of consciousness into something deeper and more truthful. Freud wished to unearth the very things we dread to unearth (the problematic figures of Oedipus and Electra being, in his eyes, as relevant to modern man as the long-toiling worker Sisyphus or the fire-stealing innovator Prometheus) because only then would we know ourselves and perhaps expel the issues that were disrupting our lives back on the surface. He demanded that we consider issues that were taboo; sexual deviance, incest, bodily functions. Nothing should be sacred because the very idea of sacredness was an unnatural form of repression. To be fucked up was to be human.

For Freud and his followers, there were various ways into the depths of the subconscious, there were small channels and boreholes in the form of puns and jokes (the famous involuntary Freudian slip in which we said the unsayable and which showed we weren’t in control of our actions or language but rather they controlled us), small fractures of significance to be interpreted from apparent accidents, coincidences, irrationalities and spontaneous interpretations (Rorschach inkblots for example). For Freud’s acolytes, all the hang-ups and traumas you buried were the cause of mental illness and emotional instability. This explains the reason why he paid so much attention to infancy, believing it to be the brutally-authentic time before we learned how to lie to ourselves and others, before we begin to bury these things. By letting some of these accumulated pent-up traumas out through the “talking cure,” psychoanalysis, drug use, hypnotism even, you could release the pressure, achieve some catharsis. For Freud, the dysfunction that comes from repression of thought and desire can result not just in the breakdown of an individual but in a wider context in the construction of life-negating religions, churches, empires and mosques built to police the soul. We need only to look at the state of the Catholic Church in recent times to realise that the burying of legitimate human urges is a very bad idea and one that can result in some very warped unintended resurfacings. To say so then was even more radical than today. Freud demonstrated that whilst civilisations, like the Hapsburg Empire under which he languished, were vast powerful constructs built according to age-old traditions and economic mechanics, the fact that they were all founded, as everything is, on a flawed, riven human psyche, that did not even know itself, threw everything into question. No matter how lofty the construct (whether it be upon faith or reason) it’s foundations were laid on a churning quagmire. According to Peter Conrad (in his parachute through 20th century culture Modern Times, Modern Places), Freud “damaged the upright moral conceit of humanism by demonstrating the intimate collusion of mind and body.” In doing so he not only laid the path for the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties but also threatened to spark a profound change in how we viewed politics and authority. By challenging humanism, he was challenging Judeo-Christianity from which humanism was born and through that the divine of kings, the aristocracy, the political classes even the idea of nation-hood. There were many father figures to be slain.

Dreams were another route into the hidden mind and one which Freud attributed great significance to (inspiring the Surrealists, who recognised the radical side of Freud and sought to marry it to Marx, in the process). In dreams, there were no accidents for Freud. Everything meant something. When he studied Da Vinci he did so by focusing on a dream the great man had as a child in which he was attacked in his cradle by a vulture. Another route in was peculiar forms of neurosis and there is rarely a shortage of those. Freud set to study the disturbed first-hand, selecting the most extreme, or at least immediate, he could find in fin-de-siècle Vienna (not a difficult task when you consider the likes of Hitler were knocking about the dosshouses, painting postcards on street corners). And he assembled a remarkable portfolio of patients. There was Little Hans who was stricken with phobias after seeing a carthorse fall over in the street. There was Dora who lost the power of speech during catatonic episodes. There was Sergei Pankejeff the Imperial Russian with his dreams of trees filled with white wolves (“I dreamed that it was night and I was lying in my bed. Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window”) and Emma Eckstein the hysteric who Freud and a colleague Fleiss accidentally disfigured following a crackpot surgery to combat theoretical “nasal reflex neurosis”. Anna O. with her split personalities and hallucinatory “naughty states,” Dr Schreber, author of the remarkable Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, who believed that God was transforming him into a woman, had conversations with the Sun and was beset by thousands of millimetre high space-men, the morphine addict Cäcilie M. with her fear of witches at night and the Rat Man who became sexually fixated on rodents gnawing their way into the bowels of his loved ones. Freud was able to help some of these afflicted people and cast light on what had previously been shrouded in darkness. Sometimes he even turned his gaze inwards. Freud was personally haunted by one recurring dream in particular in which he visited the setting of Böcklin‘s macabre painting The Isle of the Dead (below), a fixation shared by the aforementioned young postcard-painter Adolf who would one day obliterate the 1000 year-old Ashkenazim Jewish culture from which Freud came in the murder-camps of the East.

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Freud just about made it into exile in London before the Nazi assumption of power and earned the dubious honour of featuring in their special black book of intelligentsia notables (alongside the likes of Noel Coward, Paul Robeson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and various others). They would be among the first to be dispatched to the torture chambers and firing squads when the invasion finally came (Operation Unternehmen Seelöwe or Sealion). As it happened, when the Germans made their hit-list Freud was already dead, having smoked his jaw to a cancerous ruin and then the rest of himself into an early grave. He left behind several generations of pupils and deniers and as many questions as answers.

One of Freud’s protégés was the Swiss psychologist Jung who had soon deviated from his mentor’s school of thought moving into even more esoteric areas of myth and collective reservoirs of thought. Renowned as a psychoanalyst who dealt with cases that mainstream psychology wrote off as lost causes, Jung was contacted by another leading cultural colossus of the time, in the shape of a drunken half-blind Dubliner by the name of James Joyce. On the occasion of his 52nd birthday, Joyce’s daughter Lucia, former beau of Samuel Beckett and an aspiring dancer, had suffered one of a series of increasingly-frequent psychotic episodes, cutting their phone line and attacking her mother Nora. Having exhausted the remedies of doctors in a succession of asylums, Joyce turned to Jung in desperation to cure his daughter. At the time Joyce was working on his longest (and last) book then entitled simply Work in Progress, a book which would eventually see the light of day as Finnegans Wake, a gargantuan work that has delighted the few and eluded the many ever since.

Finnegans Wake is many things depending on your patience and your view of literature. It has been compared to a sustained act of radical Irish vandalism on the sacrosanct English language, the point of no return in terms of literary intelligibility, an experiment in which language is set to fission, the world’s largest cryptic crossword puzzle (Joyce sadistically boasted it’d keep the critics going for 300 years), a “colossal leg pull” (according to Joyce’s peer Oliver St John Gogarty) and recently “a diamond-mine” and “the conscience of the 21st century.” It took 17 years to write. Joyce believed it to be the end of literature, the last book (reading it a fair question springs to mind, what the fuck could you write that would go beyond this?) whereas Tom McCarthy has argued it’s “actually the first book. It is the source code of the novel. It contains everything from the picaresque Spanish, to the Anglo-Saxon novel, through Shakespeare and everything else. It eviscerates them and lays them open, but doesn’t resolve anything.” Few are as perceptive and articulate as McCarthy. Indeed many articles have been written on the book without the theorists having actually bothered to read the fuckin’ thing. What it seems closest to is a vast episodic poem, sustained and undercut by myriad themes that run simultaneously, intermingling and cyclical like beguiling currents through the work and ultimately standing as a testament to the power, beauty, madness and inventiveness of language. Whereas his earlier epic Ulysses is seen almost as a mountain to be penitentially conquered or at least endured (it’s nothing of the sort when you read it and find it contains long passages of some of the finest, most poetic and enjoyable writing you’ll ever read – the drama of the opening Telemachus in the Martello Tower, the hypnotic Proteus chapter on Sandymount Strand, Bloom’s traipse through the city that would do Freud proud in terms of the honesty of thought and body, the elaborate blazing satire of the Cyclops bar scene, the Circe phantasmagoria of “nighttown,” Molly’s self-pleasuring monologue – Roddy Doyle did have a point that some more editing may not have hurt though), Finnegans Wake defeats you almost before you’ve begun, the impossibly intricate web of portmanteau words, obscure imagery and arcane references being impenetrable and strength-sapping.

Or at least it’s supposed to by most accounts. Just as Theseus conquered the Labyrinth with nothing greater than a ball of string so too there are simple tools to aid the reader. A new version edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon promises to be the clearest map we’ve had so far, if you’ve several hundred euros to part with. Joyce advised reading it aloud (in a Dublin accent) and it would make more sense. That and dedicate the rest of your life to it. Somewhat understandably, it’s very impenetrability has become its defining characteristic rather than the sublime intricacies of what it actually says (particularly the Anna Livia Plurabelle section with its gossiping washerwomen by the Liffey). Yet it’s very mysteriousness and apparent insensibility makes a certain sense as Joyce explained, “They say it’s obscure. They compare it with Ulysses. But the action of Ulysses was chiefly in the daytime. The action of my new work takes place at night. It’s natural things should not be so clear at night, isn’t it now?” The critics, worse haggling gossips than any Dublin washerwoman, ignored his advice and proclaimed him instead “a lunatic writing for lunatics.” Accusations of mental illness or at the very least a condition like Asperger’s Syndrome have followed Joyce since. It was a theme that Jung considered, comparing Joyce and his daughter Lucia and concluding, “You are like two people going to the bottom of a river, but whereas she is drowning you sir are diving.” Alas Jung could offer no solution for the former and Lucia would spend the rest of her life in mental institutions. Joyce was destined to be institutionalised posthumously, on the backs of banknotes and tourist brochures, his lips locked by copyright, a dubious unwanted sainthood with his writing still ticking away for those who care about such matters.

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Whether it is a trick of the mind or not, even in the most mundane of minds, the night can be a place of constantly shifting uncertainties. “A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snib of the window, the latch rises. Ghosts were created when the first man awoke in the night,” J.M. Barrie once wrote and he was right. The human capacity for self-torture should never be underestimated. The house I grew up in, a crumbling terraced house in the Angela’s Ashes fashion that was all the rage at the time, had a landing with a solitary darkened window which always filled me with dread, always expecting a face to appear in it, even though it was on the first floor and any face would have to be levitating which even in the shallow depths of my brain I knew to be unlikely. But still I’d rush past it, never giving it a glimpse for fear I’d see something. Looking back I can see that I was merely a shrunken version of the inveterate coward that I remain to this day but there still seems to be great currency in the deceptively throwaway phrase of Brendan Behan‘s that he was “a daylight atheist”. The night is an ambiguous thing and in being so allows endless interpretations, where the certainities, the solidness of day reveals itself to be illusory and a person is at the mercy of their own sadistic imagination. Is it any wonder the night has given rise to vampires, to banshees, headless horsemen, things that are banished by sunrise but who seem to have greater sovereignty of the night than we do. We can seek some form of protection, install Motion Activated Lights the way they paint eyes on Venetian gondolas or carve African masks to ward off evil intent. We are modern, rational. And yet the gap between us and the night is only the thickness of the glass in our windows and our confidence that the electricity will always seep from the stations to the wires within our walls. When the power is cut, you’re forced to consider how precarious the footing of civilisation really is.

Nevertheless the “badness” of night became old hat. We grew familiar and tired of it. Gothic literature is the literary genre traditionally most associated with night and it’s tempting to see it’s origins not just in the ruins of medieval architecture but in sullen villagers drinking in the local tavern, trying to incite each other with diabolical tales, to gather their pitchforks and burning torches and finally do away with the hated local aristocrat/landlord. What better spark to ignite the settling of debts, some mob justice and a healthy redistribution of wealth than to spread dark rumours of devil worship, Pit and Pendulum-style secret torture chambers, Nero-like excesses and tyrannical legends like droit de seigneur, all taking place on the castle on the hill? Sometimes the peasants were right. The early antics of the lovable Marquis De Sade may pale in comparison to his later fevered prison-musings of 120 Days of Sodom but he still enjoyed more than his fair share of debauchery at the expense of several poor servant-girls. He was one of many such “libertines,” as a well-to-do rapist was known then, in the decaying end days of nobility. The most notorious such case in history is that of the serial-killing Slovakian Countess Erzsébet Báthory who was walled up alive in her castle for torturing and butchering hundreds of young women. Given the corpses and still-living victims that were found on her property and the eye-witness accounts of her activities (cutting arteries with scissors and forcing victims to consume their own flesh) it seems highly likely that she was a genuine psychopath. The later myths that arose, that she was seen in sexual congress with Satan and that she bathed in virgin blood to keep her skin forever youthful were no doubt hearsay but they’ve proved remarkably durable (a Báthory-style murderess of the same name appearing in the horror film Hostel II). It’s seemingly not enough to be a serial killer, other myths grow up and most disturbingly they grow because people want them to. The more illogical, dramatic and bloodthirsty the better.

The problem with inflating myths is that drama soon turns into melodrama. Gothic fictions, initially thrilling and lucrative, were soon spun out by every literary hack who could conjure up mountain crags, demented overlords, bound maidens and crumbling castles. Gothic became passé and ripe for parody (Jane Austen did so as early as 1798 with Northanger Abbey). Characters like Volkert the Necromancer of the Black Forest or Count Wolfenbach (from the popular novels of the same name) seem in hindsight to be parodies of themselves and represent a dead-end (though sometimes a tweaking of the fomula could resurrect the genre’s original power as in Ridley’s Scott’s “haunted house movie in space” Alien). Even real-life horrors would soon glaze over, genuine feeling gives way to sensationalism which in turn gives rise to any number of fates; the commodification of grief and horror, the second death of kitsch or the obliteration of amnesia. It’s not simply a question of should we remember or not but how we remember that is crucial. You can get guided tours of Himmler’s Wewelsburg Castle, a day ticket around a Lithuanian Gulag Theme Park, package holidays to Auschwitz. But then what are the alternatives? To bulldoze these places, cursed by what transpired there, into the soil (as they did the addresses of 25 Cromwell Street, 10050 Cielo Drive and 5 College Close in Soham) or maintain them as a shrine and warning of man’s inhumanity to man, knowing that neither will do anything to change a second of what happened and risking that their intention be warped by voyeurs, grief tourists and fetishists?

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The power of night then has never truly abated. Having spent his life painting magnificent courtly paintings, late in life shaken by witnessing the genocides of the Peninsular War and enduring a nervous breakdown, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya began his profoundly pessimistic Black Paintings, capturing first The Third of May 1808, an indictment of the invading Napoleonic death-squads. Goya would go on to paint many macabre works, his Disasters of War series of prints demonstrated the flip side of the supposed Enlightenment in the rape, firing squads and mutilated corpses, all given potency by the eternal cry, “I saw this…” Wracked by deafness, vertigo and voices in his head, Goya turned his hand from the witty satirical prints of his Los Caprichos sequence to the crafting of pictorial nightmares. He painted a dog sinking in quicksand. A demented Saturn devouring his children. And he painted the works not onto canvas but onto the very walls of his house. He lived amongst these. It must have looked like the dwelling place of a lunatic rather than the artistically-rendered torment of a sane man in the midst of an insane world.

One of Goya’s most powerful works is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (below) with it’s depiction of the slumbering artist being assailed with bats and owls representing ignorance and folly but also the sheer unhinged force of the creative will. It is a sentiment we’ve denied completely. Reason, today, is logic and logic is mathematics, budgets, cold hard economics. In the last century, the first apparently rational one, we were supposed to cast aside the old sectarian feuds of religion and superstition (Nietzsche who’d read God’s death sentence died in the first year of the new century he’d help create) and solely embrace science and humanism and yet there were more (vastly more) people killed than in any dark age before. If it’s proved anything the last century confirms that we have enough real manmade horrors without distracting ourselves with fictions. What is the cell of Kaspar Hauser or the Black Hole of Calcutta now that we have Josef Fritzl or Abu Gharib (pre and post invasion)? Why visit a chamber of waxwork horrors or watch Saw 47 when the real torture cells of Campo de Mayo, the Lubyanka, Tuol Sleng have existed in living memory and still do in secret black ops sites propagated in the name of our security?

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“The sunlight bores the daylight out of me” goes the song, unintentionally highlighting a particularly modern malaise. The Hikikomori, an entire caste of young Japanese people (20% of middle-class male teenagers it’s estimated), have shut themselves away from normal human interaction and daylight, in fear or rejection of modern society, dealing with the world only online. The outlandish predictions of futurists who predicted that people would log onto virtual reality systems and neglect reality to the point they died have even been partially realised when this year a South Korean couple let their three month old baby starve to death whilst obsessively raising a virtual child on the role-playing game Prius Online. The young have always been disaffected, that’s what they’re good at. It acts as a dynamo of culture. The difference is dropping out was once a vocation, the artistic underground was full of like-minded oddballs kicking against the pricks, a genuine counterculture could forment with the alliances of those who were thrown together by their misanthropy and societal ineptitude. Now there is the perilous option of dropping out without leaving your room. Just close the blinds, disconnect your calls and log on and out of life, choosing the limitless potentials of the net whilst stagnating in the real one. Neither Thoreau‘s cabin nor Genet‘s cell, the existence of the Hikikomori nevertheless has elements of both. Paradoxically, these recluses can communicate and interact online with more people in the space of one month than their grandparents did in their entire lives. Yet all that power does not change the dimensions of their self-imposed prison nor their physical or mental frailities. You can never run away from yourself and the real world is always waiting. From even the vast web of information as from the deepest opium revery, man must return to his mortal bounds. There is only one real exit sign.

“All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre / The feast is over and the lamps expire” went the writer Robert E Howard‘s suicide note, one of the deluge. Suicide is as old as the human race. And though every single one has its own story to tell (or stories), in a wider context it takes on peculiar characteristics. There have been epidemics of it at certain times and localities for all manner of reasons; desperation, unemployment, fanaticism, misdirected rage, peer-pressure (from propaganda of the deed young Russian anarchists to the recent doomed wave of youth of Bridgend, Wales).

At the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, there is a secluded forest known as Aokigahara. This “black sea of trees” is the second-most populous setting for suicides in the world after the Golden Gate Bridge. They disappear into the forest not because of the expediency of it (it takes some getting to) but because of the weight of their troubles and the magnetism of the place. Not just its natural beauty or the inherent eeriness of forests but its history as a place of ghost-hauntings and Ubasute , that ancient tradition of leaving the old and infirm for the elements to take. Then there is the book Kuroi Jukai by Seichō Matsumoto which romanticised the place as the setting for the suicide pact of two star-crossed lovers, the book pointing the way just as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had supposedly lead to mass suicides amongst troubled young Byronic men in the Germany of the time or Kurt Cobain’s example briefly did in our time.

South-east of Mount Fuji, across the Sagami-nada Sea, there is the tiny island of Oshima and on it the volcano Mount Mihara. In the winter of 1933, the 21-year-old student Kiyoko Matsumoto came here on a steamboat with a friend, she stood enjoying the view and then almost as an afterthought ran off the rim and plunged down into the lava. In her letters she had written, “Dearest, I am bewildered to distraction by the perplexities of maturing womanhood. I can stand the strain no longer. What shall I do? I should like to jump into a volcano”. Little did she know she would become a cult figure, a fashion icon in her afterlife, somewhere between matinée idol and saint (reminiscent of the Inconnue de la Seine whose serene post-suicide deathmask set the fashion trend in Europe for half a century). Kiyoko only chose the location because a raft of suicides had caused the authorities to close down and guard the rooftops of Tokyo’s towers. Thousands followed in Matsumoto’s wake, a deep river of unhappiness and narcissism (in love with the thought of leaving a beautiful corpse), youthful righteousness and naivety that the authorities would later tap into and redirect with the Kamikaze movement. Several thousand young Japanese men were thrown into hell by cynical aging generals debasing the Bushido tradition of old and exploiting their adolescent fervour. What’s evident reading back is how much of the Kamikaze cause was infused with romanticism designed to appeal to youth, the operations had names like Floating Chrysanthemums (Kamikaze itself means “divine wind”), the participants were dressed in ritual fashion akin to Samurai with a rising sun headband, a belt sown by a thousand women and a self-penned written requiem in the Samurai Seppuku fashion like children playing as heroes. They were given a ‘kamikaze handbook’ to study, ingraining the deed as some kind of higher spiritual act (“Transcend life and death. When you eliminate all thoughts about life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your earthly life”) and were exhorted to their deaths with stirring patriotic poetry (“the soul of Japan is the flowering of mountain cherry blossoms that are fragrant in the rising sun”). The same mix of cynical exploitation, desperation, mythology and egotism can be seen in the proclamations of the Hitler Youth (who even adopted a Samurai motto, “through the door of death we enter the door of true life”) sent out to fight the tsunami of the advancing Red Army with rusting rifles and shotguns, the Iranian child conscripts ordered across Iraqi minefields bearing only “keys to paradise” or the Islamist suicide bombers blessed by fat old clerics in madrasahs (“We are going to win because they love life and we love death”). What was once the decision of a lone troubled individual has been manipulated by ideologues and profiteers. It begins in a solitary long dark night of the soul and ends with the night-messages of Mumbai.

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Music has long been a medium that has echoed the night, captured it, enriched it, haunted it and been haunted by it. There are songs that seem destined to be listening to during their natural realm of the night, which would wilt in the dry light of day. Is it the iconic black and white Anton Corbijn photos of the band in the rain-decaying industrial Manchester of the 70’s, the monochrome Peter Saville-covers of their albums (the first radiowaves from a dying star, the second the baroque stone interior of a Genoese tomb, the Martin Hannett-produced atmosphere of their music that recalled dub and the finer elements of goth, the rich bleakness of the lyrics with its atrocity exhibitions and dead souls, the references to Kafka, Ballard, Burroughs or the House of Dolls origin of their name that make Joy Division seem so wrapped up with night-time? Or is it the fact that you know that Ian Curtis hung himself in the early hours after watching Werner Herzog’s Strozek, with another night album Iggy Pop’s The Idiot still revolving on the record player.

Others have plumbed the deathly aspect of night in song, the stark beauty of Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate, the self-proclaimed wake for his departed addict friends that is Neil Young’s doom trilogy (Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On The Beach), the desolate meditation on death that is I See A Darkness by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

For some it’s all about mood; Yo La Tengo’s “Night Falls On Hoboken,” Eno’s ode to the moon landings Apollo, Richard D. James’ dream-inspired Selected Ambient Works, Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, si-cut.db’s Offices at Night, Max Richter’s Kafka-inspired The Blue Notebooks, “Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall”. For others specific nocturnal stories; Arcade Fire’s beyond superlatives Funeral album with its power-outs, requiems and blissful insomnia, Tom Wait’s Alice (“Along an icy pond with a frozen moon / A murder of silhouette crows I saw”), Richmond Fontaine’s chilling tale of things gone wrong “Wellhorn Yards,” or the even more disturbing real-life late night talk-show claustrophobia of the Butthole Surfer’s “22 Going On 23” or those who reconnect us back to the hymns of old.

Outside the artistic planes, it’s worth examining how the modern world has adapted to night. The invasion of Iraq (originally called Operation Iraqi Liberation or OIL for short – pun presumably unintended) was initiated with the so-called Shock and Awe bombardment of Baghdad and other major cities, the theatrical destruction of freshly-emptied Ba’athist headquarters, the prog-rock of military interventions carried out and cinematically-directed at night for maximum fireworks. Roll back the years and there’s the dress-rehearsal massacre that was the Highway of Death, as it became known, like some straight-to-video Steven Seagal film (the phrase “turkey shoot” was also often used in media reports at the time). One fateful night, on the strip of road that runs from Kuwait city to Basra, the USAF hemmed in the fleeing Iraqi army by dropping cluster bombs on the front and tail-ends of the convoy (98% of the vehicles were conscripts driving hijacked cars filled with Kuwaiti loot) and proceeded to systemically annihilate them all. The modern innovation of night-vision onboard Apache helicopter gunships and F22 bombers aids the butchery. It also enables technicians on satellite computers a thousand miles away to control drones or laser-guided missiles to pick off insurgents/enemy combatants (type infrared Iraq or helicopter kills into any video hosting site to see a plethora of what basically amounts to glorified snuff movies, complete with goofy slacker commentary by pilots dropping incendiary devices onto wedding parties or allied soldiers as much as jihadists).

What it amounts to is not just a case of reducing casualties or waging war with surgical precision but rather a blurring of the links between cause and effect, between deed and the consequence. Everything is geared to the obliteration of guilt and culpability from the process; from the language (“engage” rather than kill) to conscience-abating drugs that are in early development under the humanitarian auspices of reducing post-traumatic stress (or, as it could be argued, the pharmaceutical production of sociopaths). Of course “it’s war, where’s the need for humanity?” many would argue which is why the subsequent occupations, democratisation and rebuilding of the countries involved have been such a fuckin’ shambles. Or you get incidences like this somewhat inevitably caused by the blurring of culpability, the severing of cause and effect, murder as something as detached and unaccountable as a computer game. What is more obscene in this debacle, the unquestioning obliteration of lives, the Reuters journalists and civilians torn apart, the child now brain damaged in that truck or the jovial macho peer-pressure mood that precipitates and follows it, the flippancy with which the pilots act, the lacks of any checks and balances? On such evidence, the Western powers are in the process of sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind as we’ve seen (or should have seen) from Ireland to Algiers to Vietnam.

Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires”, has been the latest testing ground for the popular idea that you can simply defeat your enemy with superior technology, not accounting for the fact that sometimes war is at its most effective at its most brutally simplistic. All the technological advances of the First World have run aground against the primitive Blue Peter-style mechanics of the roadside bomb (all that’s needed in some cases is modified fertliser, a detonator and a mobile phone) and the suicide bomber almost impossible to locate, wandering freely in the packed market. Yet the latest stage in the war is a departure from the past and has been called in some quarters “Obama’s War.” The masterplan is the employment of appropriately-named Reaper drones, unmanned remotely-piloted aircraft armed with thermobaric Hellfire missiles which can stay in flight for up to 14 hours tracking enemy movements before deploying their laser-guided cargo directly onto them. It’s a strategy that has apparently succeeded in taking out key Taliban figures in the mountainous tribal borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan and also of liberating several hundred unsuspecting civilians from their lives. The use of the drones which run day and night, haunting the skies of the tribal borderlands, raises all kinds of issues in terms of competence, accountability and national sovereignty but it also suggests a more fundamental issue; that of the moral responsibility of the scientist, the inventor, the production line. Bertolt Brecht in his play the Life of Galileo called on the scientific community to adopt a form of the Hippocratic oath that doctors are subject to, to only use their knowledge and developments for the good of humanity, to force a social conscience on them. He was ignored of course and the most lucrative seams of scientific funding inevitably come from the various branches of the military-industrial complex (NASA for one was initially set up as a “military necessity” with crucial assistance from pardoned Nazi rocket scientists such as Wernher von Braun, the real-life Dr Strangelove). Some would argue you need to acquire these methods, these inventions before the bad guys do, to outflank them, to stay one step ahead. The problem is, how do you know you’re not one of the bad guys? Or by acquiring and using such a thing you don’t become one? Hence the questionable legacies of ‘Bomber’ Harris or Harry S Truman. As Camus posed, do the ends justify the means or are the ends inevitably corrupted by the means? All the bad guys inherently think they’re good guys, they are convinced and convinced utterly that they are justified. Perhaps modernity is not a move away from barbarism but rather the increasing disguise and perfection of it, technology the means not just of refining comfort but also savagery. The darkness remains in the heart of man and always will. All you can hope to do is bring out into the light, as Wiki-leaks have in this earlier case (and which thanks to recent government legislation probably won’t happen again). If it isn’t seen, if it isn’t reported did it ever happen at all? Like when the city of Fallujah was sealed off and no one escaped once the battle had begun, to bear witness to what happened there. What’s to stop the night swallowing the truth up forever?

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There are other forms of dystopia available to us. A labyrinth shantytown with 35,000 squatter inhabitants thrown up on the outskirts of Hong Kong, Kowloon Walled City looks now, following it’s demolition in 1993 as a deathtrap and criminal sanctuary (or more importantly an defiant affront to the authorities), like the blueprint for the decaying futurism of Blade Runner. Ruled over in the ’50s by the Triads, with it’s own shadow industries (much publicised brothels, gambling opium dens but also schools, temples and makeshift hospitals), Kowloon was a place so confined that the sun never reached entire sections of it, earning it the alternative name “Hak Nam” meaning City of Darkness. Whereas in the Third World poverty is unavoidable, in the West the illusions of meritocracy and civility are full-scale enterprises to maintain, they require not just the concealment of cronyism, the glass ceiling and the old boy’s network, the truly mindblowing level of parasitism, sociopathic greed even treason of the highest ranking, most respectable financial institutions, the lack of any true level-playing field (Professor Danny Dorling, author of the recent Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists Britain, has established that wage inequality was last this extreme when Charles Dickens was writing Hard Times in the 1850s) but also the consequences of the system, the end products. Destitution is best forced out of sight and out of mind. Rather than the obscenity of a sprawling favela or township (which might after all spook the tourists or spoil the view for the property developers), they’ll settle for the odd cardboard city provided its under a viaduct somewhere, maybe a ghetto or neglected towerblock or given the right racial make-up there’ll be the odd town left to rot like say Detroit or New Orleans. When it happens in major cities, the ones that can’t be cut adrift, it’s buried and in some places buried further than others.

As sprawling metropolises expand in constricting space, they do so not just outwards but also upwards, over and beneath. This has lead to entire lost worlds beneath the ones we operate in day to day. In London alone, you have not only a vast maze of used and unused railway tunnels beneath the streets but entire rivers (the Effra, Fleet, Tyburn), war bunkers, tombs, plague pits and catacombs. The existence of these shadow cities has fuelled urban exploration in which intrepid souls venture down manholes, abandoned lift shafts and derelict sidings and photograph what they find there. One of the real surprises of their explorations was the discovery that some of these hidden worlds were not empty. People actually live there. “Terrifying monsters from another age, The Mole People!” goes the B-movie tagline from 1956. The reality seems almost as improbable but in Jennifer Toth‘s 1993 book of the same name The Mole People the journalist recounted meeting whole communities who lived in the derelict subways and vast den of tunnels beneath New York City, rarely coming up to the surface. This was a subterranean society subsisting on rats, siphoned water and electricity and in a few cases funds from hired killings carried out on rare excursions to the surface. It raised some unsettling questions, was there the possibility of children who’ve never seen the surface? What would such an existence do to the human psyche? Or evolve into? And what kind of society on the surface leads to people choosing this? How bad does it have to get for the life of a troglodyte to be preferable? Whilst some experts in the field poured scorn on the full veracity of her claims and urban myth sites like the Straight Dope have argued inconclusively back and forth, it wasn’t the first time such claims were made. Ralph Ellison‘s classic Invisible Man alluded to life underground over half a century ago (the unforgettable image of a lair illuminated by 1369 lightbulbs) while Marc Singer made a pioneering documentary following the inhabitants of Freedom Tunnel (a setting that has a graffiti reconstruction of the earlier-mentioned painting The Third of May by Goya) beneath the New York subways entitled Dark Days.

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The plentiful misery of the West pales compared to the systemised misery of some of the alternatives elsewhere from the boil-in-the-bag regime of Emomalii Rahmon’s Tajikistan to the warlords of the failed Somalian state. The common denominator of such regimes seems to be a characteristic mix of utter uselessness (famine, poverty, piracy, rife opium trade and addiction) and State terror to perpetuate the position of the elite. And of all of them there’s no more terrifying farce than the hermit state of North Korea, a curious botched Frankenstein’s Monster cobbled together from Stalinism, hereditary royalty and their own half-baked “self-reliant” philosophy of Juche. When you consider the grim absurdity of North Korea, a number of images spring to mind (mainly ones that have seeped out of the hermetically-sealed State); Kjong-dong the Potemkin village built just beyond the DMZ zone that is virtually a cardboard facade of a Utopian city (no-one lives there), the endless military show parades and the loudspeakers heralding the imaginary successes of the regime (“tractor production has increased tenfold”) and damning their imperialist enemies to the South, the obligatory beautiful traffic wardens and the ludicrously-trained maestro-children (their equivalent of America’s child beauty pageants), the grotesque Castle Greyskull-style Ryungyong Hotel built in Pyongyang to accommodate foreign journalists and dignitaries who never come, the absurd “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, a jumpsuit-wearing, director-kidnapping diminutive madman addicted to porn, James Bond and Daffy Duck cartoons. No, these are merely glimpses of the malaise, to truly capture the all-encompassing lunacy of the place and the suffering of its people you need a wider scale, something that would represent not only what little we can see from their propaganda channels, cartoons, posters (“The World turns with Korea as its axis!” “Let’s take revenge a thousand times on the US Imperialist wolves!” “Produce more high-yielding fish!”) or accounts from those who manage to escape into China but also what we cannot see; the ‘rehabilitation’ camps, the unreported executions and industrial accidents, the starvation at biblical levels. The image came when satellites passing overheard captured the planet at night, all the cities and settlements lit up by electricity. And there in the gap between Seoul and Siberia, the entire country of, to give it its full title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), ‘land of the morning calm’, is swathed completely in darkness, a throwback to a pre-industrial time. You can cite Kafka or Orwell or Koestler for what is going on there but maybe Beckett is closest, his recurring themes of night-time, blindness, death as a cosmic joke at man’s expense. There’s something of the Beckett about this place, the grimmest example of gallows humour on the face of the earth, a worker’s paradise where the workers starve, a professed people’s democracy where democrats end in concentration camps, a ‘self-reliant’ industrialised nation where lights don’t work and which cannot provide enough food for itself. Beckett wrote once that man is as free as a slave crawling east across the deck of a ship sailing west. In North Korea, even that would be an ideologically-unsound act of individualism.

We’re in land of liberty now. It’s the archetypal American inner-city night, the car park of a 7-11, a displaced shopping trolley. A place where great swathes of boredom and silence are punctuated only by the occasional act of sudden violence captured on CCTV. But that will not be the case here. This is an artificial America. Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth. Where the real and the artificial America(s) begin and end are anyone’s guess. For it’s much more than a place, America is an idea, a culture, a prevailing ideology or even perhaps a pathological syndrome as we’ve learnt in the past fifty years for good and for ill.

The photos of the master photojournalist Weegee, the finest documentarian of the great American night, have a certain unreality to them now, the outdated fashions of the citizens, the Cadillacs and Times Square advertisements place them firmly in their times (largely the 1930s). Yet reality suddenly asserts itself, not through the manic grins of glittering starlets in ermine furs falling out of limousines but more, much more through the violence that both erupts and is frozen on his film, which rings through his contact sheets like a gunshot. Spying in on police and ambulance transmissions, Weegee would make it to crime-scenes at high speed where he’d capture mobsters sprawled in pools of blood and vomit, some of them not quite dead yet. This was America as much as Grant Wood’s American Gothic or the pictures of Norman Rockwell (in fact more so). Down the street from the alienated nighthawks of Hopper’s diner, Sonny Boy Williamson is being stabbed to death in an alley, in a courtyard Kitty Genovese is being raped and murdered in front of dozens of witnesses, in a side-street Batman’s parents are shot dead by a mugger. All hail the American night said Jim Morrison once and it’s a diabolical thing to bask in. From the Hollywood sign that the aspiring actress Peg Entwhistle leapt from to her death to the mad hallucination of light in the desert that is Las Vegas and onwards east past the Nebraska highways and the badlands where Springsteen set his hypnotic night-hymns following in the wake of the killer Charles Starkweather.

You could travel that country at night and find it mapped in song, dark songs, murder ballads and odes to betrayal, Nick Cave’s Tupelo, where in rumbling storms one night the antichrist nativity of Elvis takes place. The undisclosed location 24 Hours From Tulsa where Burt Bacharach’s uncharacteristically-dark scene of infidelity takes place, ending not so much in regret as a form of damnation (“I saw a welcoming light and stopped to rest for the night… now I can never never never go home again”). When you reach the Deep South, you hit the incomparably-rich seam of country blues (and from the great migration north to Chicago its electric descendant), an entire myriad folk history, a form of oral tradition to mourn, celebrate, mock or simply bear witness to ten thousand and one real dastardly events (for a visual equivalent see the astonishing book and film Wisconsin Death Trip). There’s the foreboding archetype of mean ol’ Staggerlee who really did shoot a man to death for his hat. The damned lovers Frankie and Johnny which originated in 1899 when Frankie Baker burst into the St Louis boarding-house where she lived and after announcing, according to the song, “Stand back, all you livin’ women, I’m a lookin’ for my gambling man,” shot her boyfriend Albert Britt dead for infidelity. Frankie lived for another fifty years and grew tormented by the song and the legend, filing lawsuits against film studios and fleeing cities each time it caught up with her.

Up in the Appalachians the inhabitants had a similar musical oral tradition, forging songs about the murder of the Lawson Family (on Christmas Day 1929, the tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson had taken his wife and 7 children to have their photographs taken and then bludgeoned and shot them all to death that same day), Tom Dooley (wrongfully hung as a knife-killer in 1868) and the highwayman and Confederate guerrilla Cole Younger. The legendary Leadbelly, a killer himself, made the haunting dirge Where Did You Sleep Last Night? but the song preceeded him, called as it was In The Pines (“where the sun don’t ever shine / I will shiver the whole night through”) and most likely originating with a decapitated body found on coalmine railway tracks in the mountains of Georgia in the 1870s.

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These songs seem to coalesce in every culture; Gaelic ballads in Ireland, Cantastoria in Italy, Retablo de las Maravillas in Spain, Kramářská Píseň in former Czechoslovakia. They were sung in drinking dens, by travelling minstrels, in village squares like Punch and Judy shows. They were used to spread news in a time when travelling between settlements could take weeks and often, like the jesters of old, satirically hold authority to account. In Germany, it came in the form of “Bänkelsang” (bench songs) and more specifically “moritat,” the Deutschland’s own murder ballad (Brecht and Weill‘s Mack the Knife being a late example – the next time you see some young X Factor prick in a suit singing the song it’s worth remembering it’s about the sex-crimes and murders of a German pimp-rapist). Fittingly for an oral tradition of song, a considerable number of the songs came with the immigrants arriving to the US from overseas and are centuries-old, indeed no-one knows who wrote many of them. The timeless St James Infirmary Blues and The Streets of Laredo which both evolved from the dying syphilitic-sailor sea shanty The Unfortunate Rake. Henry Lee, on the other hand, evolved from the English ballad Young Hunting in which a spurned woman kills the father of her child, drags his body to the river and is mocked by ravens until her capture and burning. Sometimes the lineage is an intricate one, the tune Knoxville Girl comes from the Irish Wexford Murder which had come from the Waxweed Girl and before that the superbly named real-life account of William Grismond’s Downfall, or A Lamentable Murther by Him Committed at Lainterdine in the County of Hereford on March 12th 1650. In an example of how the lineage is by no means a thing of the past nor has necessarily come to an end, the country song Pretty Polly was originally conceived as The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter based on a true murder of a pregnant woman carried out in the harbour-town of Gosport, Hampshire. Centuries later, Kurt Cobain, a fan of Leadbelly’s murder ballads, wrote a track entitled Polly as an indirect descendant of Pretty Polly. Just as the true origin of Pretty Polly is veiled from those who sing it and listen to it so too is the meaning of the Nirvana offshoot. In one of those eerie echoes that seem to travel down through history (history appearing to be an infinite series of interconnecting mobius strips rather than a lineage or cycles), Cobain reputedly wrote it following the rape, torture and eventual escape of an unnamed local Washington girl one night by a psychopath called Gerald Friend, who was armed with knives and a blowtorch (a horrific event only loosely fictionalised in the song’s lyrics).

Maybe in a way the murder ballad is a form of not only remembering or bearing witness (appealing against massacres like Ludlow, illness and mortality as keened in Reverend Gary Davies’ Death Don’t Have No Mercy and Leadbelly’s Little Children’s Blues or poverty as in Skip James’ Hard Time Killing Floor Blues) but also a psychological means of absorbing the shock of terrible events, a certain distancing so that people can somehow fathom the act, the intentions, the aftermath and still carry on. An exorcism. Even after all these years, you can feel the chill in the air when you listen to Where Did You Sleep…? or Hard Time Killing Floor, as if not just the sorrow has manifested itself in the notes and the long-dead voices or even the crackle of the vinyl but a sense of the evil has too, the musician as a kind of sin-eater, the trauma and beauty waiting to be unlocked with each listen.

It wasn’t always misery being commemorated. The lively dangerous juke-joints and piano clubs might have spelled the end of Robert Johnson (who in an echo of Faustus supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads at midnight for his guitar-playing prowess and died poisoned by a cuckolded husband) or the wonderful Leroy Carr who drank himself to death at 30 but they were also places of ribald excess and thriving music. In the ragtime, piedmont blues and folk played there (and the so-called race records that spread the word) are the entire foundation of rock n’ roll and virtually everything that developed from it. It was also a remarkably progressive environment. In the early hours of the juke-joints there was a temporary escape from the Jim Crow Laws, from toil and conservative religious and sexual strictures (it’s worth checking out the licentious origins of some of the most popular terms of the day; jelly roll, honey-dripper, even rock ‘n’ roll ). Another side to the music of the time was the celebration of folk heroes, who got one up against the banks and bosses who tormented the working folk (the bankrobbing outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, the trainrobber Jesse James and the presidential assassin Charles Guiteau) or who committed great feats of renown (John Henry who died from exhaustion after a Herculean effort laying down railroad tracks). When their heroes died, as was inevitable, they were mourned not with some but in song from Jesus down to Sacco and Vanzetti as much an act of defiance as remembrance, a Tom Joad-esque defeat of the finality of death, the spirit living on.

In the blues songs, death came first then the art followed. Sometimes art precedes the act. “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That’s the mild-mannered Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese and Paul Schrader‘s masterpiece Taxi Driver. If ever there’s been a cinematic indictment of the night it’s this. Simultaneously it is the ultimate rhapsody of night. When the sun goes down, this New York may show itself as a sick city, more beast than location but with the stirring Bernard Hermann score (his last remarkable flourish, dying before it was released) and the incredible painterly cinematography of Michael Chapman, you see the exquisite depravity of the place, the neon colours bleeding into steaming gutters like a watercolour in the rain. The screenwriter Schrader has since spoken of it as a personal exorcism, written while he was sleeping his car, destitute and self-destructive, influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground (this is a film that old Feodor would have liked).

One of the greatest films of existential alienation, punk in its accessibility and viscerality, Taxi Driver is often remembered for the wrong, or at least most obvious, reasons. De Niro’s performance is, of course, a career-best (of anyone’s career for that matter) but the most-quoted line, hastily ad-libbed by the actor “You talkin’ to me?” is relatively unimportant. The line after that, nearly always forgotten, is the most crucial of the film as the movie critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, “’cause I’m the only one here.” It’s this loneliness and failure to connect that haunts Travis and drives him over the edge. Every attempt to engage is either thrown back in his face or sabotaged by Travis’ inarticulacy. He tries to talk to the ticket girl in the cinema who treats him like just another pervert customer, he asks Wizard, the elder taxi-driver who’s been on the job for years, for advice and recieves only platitudes, he meets the intriguing tease that is Betsy and fucks it up by taking her to a jazz-flick (interestingly this is the only point at which Bickle could be conceivably redeemed, if Betsy enjoyed the porno, all would be saved – alas she did not). Though Schrader cited Dostoyevsky, Bickle seems closer to Meursault from Camus’ masterful L’etranger. Bickle is not a conscious outsider (despite the mistranslation that has blighted Camus book) or rebel instead like Meursault he is a genuine stranger, he simply cannot connect, he cannot relate, he wants to, desperately so but cannot. In the end, all the paths to a stable functional life, nevermind happiness, are blocked to him. He is an innocent in a savage society and his disappointment and frustration soon turns (as these things do if unresolved) into nihilism. This film is as much about the night as one individual, about the denizens that owned it and who in turn were owned by the night in all it’s horror and beauty. It is also about America. If the white-picket fences of Middle America are the day (or the squeaky-clean campaign offices of Palantine), the rain-drenched riotous streets of NYC are the night. Bickle is cast into this, the subconscious of a civilisation. He works at night, unable to sleep, haunted perhaps by what he saw or did in Vietnam (he states he is a veteran, if he is to be believed). Yet as much as he is disgusted by the dregs of night, he is more deeply tormented by the tantalising false promises of the day.

As Bickle is night, Senator Palpatine is day, order, aspiration, eveything in it’s right place and yet, as most politicians are, he is a liar and hypocrite in contrast to Bickle’s ruthless unsparing honesty. This is suggestive of the wider scope of Taxi Driver. It is an exorcism of an entire age, a purging of the corruption and moral cancer of Richard Nixon‘s America post-Watergate. The very lofty idea of America had become soiled, they had thrown their youth into the threshing machines of Vietnam (to say nothing of what they did to the Vietnamese people) and had hung the survivors out to dry (more veterans committed suicide returning home than were killed in action, numbering in the tens of thousands) whilst all the while lying, shilling and hollowing out everything admirable the founding fathers had stood for. Yet looking back it’s clear Nixon was not the aberration many believed him to be, indeed he’s probably just the default President but one unfortunate enough to be caught out (the amount of Presidents who seem to have been the genuine article can probably be counted on one hand; Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington). But maybe Nixon is so emotive a figure, even now, because he represents us more than the great men do; here is a flawed, lying, cheating shifty bastard. Ecce homo, behold the man! Nixon, in other words is one of us and the setting of Taxi Driver is a construct of our making. Taxi Driver was inspired by the diaries of Arthur Bremmer, a lone obsessive headcase who shot and paralysed George Wallace, the Democratic Presidential candidate, after failing to shoot Nixon. “A penny for your thoughts” went the line he intended to shout at his victim as he pulled the trigger. In one of those curious cases of history as a mobius strip that we’ve spoken of previously, Taxi Driver would go on to inspire John Hinckley Jnr to ape Bickle by first stalking Jodie Foster (who played the pre-teen prostitute Iris in the film) and then almost killing President Ronald Reagan (the president’s throwaway quip “Honey, I forgot to duck” masking how close he actually came to death). Caught forever in the axis of these events, the film now seems charged with a remarkable prophetic power, a black mirror held up to society. They cleaned up New York later with “three strikes and you’re out” and Zero Tolerance, making the ugly side disappear but as every magician can tell you, nothing really disappears. It just goes elsewhere. No rain ever came. At the end of the film, Travis the timebomb is still ticking, in that moment at the end when the music raises again and he gives a sharp half-mad panicked glance in his rear-view mirror. You can clean it up or hide it but the fundamentals will remain the same. This is who we are.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer from Derry. He is the author of the poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost and the forthcoming novel The Ship is Sinking. He is currently working on a second novel and a non-fiction book on the culture of night from which this is excerpted. He will be reading at the upcoming Degenerate Sweethearts and Rebel Scum in Soho. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, gin and regret.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 27th, 2010.