:: Article

Thieves in the Night

By Oscar Mardell.

 

Lee Rourke, Vantablack (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2020)
Steven J Fowler, I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs) (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2020)

Preface

The last film I went to see (I mean, in a proper cinema) was The Colour Out of Space — Richard Stanley’s recent adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story of the same name. Things were starting to get weird in the world, and I was hoping that the spectacle might prepare me, somehow, for the weeks, the months — who knows how long — to come.

I went, though I’m often sceptical about filmic takes on Lovecraft, if only for his habit of declaring his horrors ‘indescribable’. Perhaps we shouldn’t take these declarations at face value: they’re typically succeeded by detailed descriptions of the horrors in question. But often these descriptions are succeeded in turn by what Mark Fisher called the ‘unvisualisable’. As Fisher explained in The Weird and The Eerie:

For all their detail or perhaps because of it, Lovecraft’s descriptions do not allow the reader to synthesise the logorrheic symphony of adjectives into a mental image.
If a reader cannot synthesise a ‘mental image’, what hope does a director stand of forging a visual one?

Stanley’s film, I think, is plagued by this question. In the original story, we know this much about the eponymous ‘Colour’:

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.

Never were things of such size seen before, and they held strange colours that could not be put into any words.

But in Stanley’s film, the colour isn’t ‘indescribable’: it’s purple. Sometimes, it’s a pinkish purple, sometimes it’s bluish purple, sometimes it’s a very light purple, but it can always be put into words — just one word, even: purple. And so the whole thing seems to fall apart: this isn’t a colour ‘Out of Space’ — it’s a colour out of a Ribena advert.

Still, the failing is a productive one and raises questions. Is any colour indescribable? Is there a hue we cannot represent? One which exists beyond language? Beyond the imagination altogether?

On the face of it, we seem to have the opposite problem: more names for colours than colours to name. A cursory glance through the off-white section of a Resene catalogue will confirm this. Who among us, hand on heart, can honestly discern between Acadia and Ivory? Chantilly Lace and Alabaster?

Weirdly, the opposite is true of black, which has fewer than twenty official shades. In theory, there ought to be as many variations on that theme, just as many off-blacks as there are off-whites, yet only a handful of the possible gradients have been assigned names. The void, it seems, has not yet had its Adam.

The obvious explanation is that no one paints their walls black. This, of course is chiefly for practical reasons: a black room is a dark room, which inevitably feels like a cramped or an oppressive room. But no one paints their walls black for symbolic reasons, too: because colour is largely absent from black, black has long served as the colour of absence. Black stands in for the absence of ornamentation and pretence (the little black dress); of gaiety and joy (the garb of funeral goers); of frivolity (the robes of judges); of life (the Black Death); of law and regulation (the black market); of knowledge (the dark ages); of countless others. But a living space should always be a site of presence. How can we be truly ‘home’ when ‘the lights aren’t on’? At the very least, our walls ought to reflect the brighter parts of the chromatic spectrum.

Vantablack is a shade of black for which we do have a name — and a proper noun, at that (from Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays). Strictly speaking it’s not a shade at all but a material. It was developed by Surrey NanoSystems and is one of the darkest substances known to us, absorbing up to 99.965% of visible light (that is, when the light source is perpendicular to the material).

It might not be ‘unnameable’, but Vantablack is, in a manner of speaking, unrepresentable. Type ‘Vantablack’ into a search engine and you’ll be presented with thousands of images of objects — tin foil, BMWs, death masks, etc. — coated in the material. But these are merely images of Vantablack, they are not Vantablack. They are the best your monitor can do to represent the stuff, which at best is a dark grey. You can try printing an image — but even then, the blackest inks will reflect as much as 0.5% of the visible spectrum. Even if you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Vantablack, you have no idea what Vantablack actually looks like.

But Vantablack is unrepresentable in another way. No matter how hard you squint at an object coated in Vantablack, you cannot perceive that object’s corners, its folds, its depths. You cannot figure out what space it occupies; in fact, it seems to transcend space altogether. For this reason, no doubt, Vantablack is often described in quasi-Lovecraftian terms: not as a material fashioned in some earth-bound laboratory, but as a gaping hole in the very fabric of the cosmos, a traumatic rupture in reality itself; as something so exterior to subjective experience, it cannot be represented within the mind at all. ‘Vantablack’ really just feels like a placeholder: a silly acronym we hang above an otherwise unrepresentable phenomenon; an exit sign above a portal leading straight out of the Euclidean space and consciousness itself. For a director to do justice to ‘The Colour out of Space’, they’d have to coat the screen — at least, some of it — in Vantablack.

1. Vantablack

There’s another, more prosaic, reason that Vantablack is unrepresentable — or at least, unreproducible: Anish Kapoor has copyrighted it. Hence, its ‘possibilities’, as Jason Chase explained at the first showing of Singularity Black, ‘have been stunted by not being able to experiment with’. But Lee Rourke has devised a brilliant circumvention: Vantablack is a detailed examination of that substance’s ‘possibilities’; but, because Rourke’s medium is literary and not visual, it doesn’t actually require the use of Vantablack.

The collection begins with a not-so-discreet allusion to Kapoor:

The moment that you attempt to own a colour as a thing, no mater how new it seems, art dies a little and becomes a little bit more uninteresting and meaningless because of it.

What follows is the good kind of cultural theft: a re-appropriation of private property; a revival of art where monopoly threatened to kill it, and a work which succeeds in making Vantablack interesting and meaningful once more. But what are its meanings? What might this unrepresentable substance actually represent?

An awful lot, as it turns out. On the one hand, Vantablack is an unflinching exploration of extreme absence: of total decay, absolute loss, and utter melancholy. On the other, it’s also a daring experiment in textual absence — in the amount of negative space that can be left on a page, and in the amount of formal punctuation and grammatical sense that can be done away with, without the page becoming meaningless. And in this, Vantablack achieves the impossible, yielding meaning where signification fails, depicting the depths of subjective experience for which the usual means of representation are simply inadequate.

But more than this, Vantablack, like is eponymous subject, is a portal to the exterior, a traumatic rupture in subjectivity itself, and an encounter, then, not just with extreme absence but with total otherness. And in this, Vantablack succeeds in being properly weird — far more so than another alien arrival.

2. I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs)

To some extent, SJ Fowler’s latest book is precisely what its title would have us expect: on the one hand, a catalogue of the medications typically prescribed to treat mental illness, and the side effects of taking them (or not taking them, as the case may be); on the other, an illustration of the subjective states which those medications variously or collectively induce. And what is particularly brilliant, in this latter respect, is that the book parodies the structure of a choose-your-own-adventure story, with passages offering mock-choices such as:

do you

A) Leave the doctor’s office, and never pick up the prescription
Shut the book, throw it away

or

B) Shamble to the pharmacy. Turn the page.

It’s a darkly comic nod to the fact that, for many users of prescription drugs, the first thing to go is our ability to make choices — or, more accurately, the feeling that our choices are worth making.

But I will show you is far more than, say, Gonzo-meets-Goosebumps. Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, sometimes diagram, often a combination of the three, Fowler’s text is another brilliant example of the good kind of cultural theft: this time, a brazen re-appropriation of the rhetoric surrounding mental health — one which steals its language from the discourses of the medical profession, the pharmaceutical industry, hospital and government bureaucracy, self-help guides, mindfulness and new-age spiritualism, psychiatry and neurology. The result is an unsettling ventriloquism, wherein the language of our appointed curers comes pouring from the mouth of a patient, distorted and strangely repurposed.

But what do those discourses have in common? The idea that an ill mind is something to be cured presupposes that mind to be an object of sorts, a thing-in-the-world — something seated in a physical brain perhaps, and cured, probably, by altering the physical or chemical structures of the brain. This might not be wrong as such, but nor is it the way the mind experiences itself. To itself, the mind is not object but subject, not a thing-in-the-world but the source and limitation of the world, beyond which we can know nothing of the world. It is indeed impossible for our minds to imagine their own materiality; only the mind of another can do that for us. Contrary to its title, then, I will show you is equally concerned with what cannot be shown, with what even a perfectly typical mind will fail to see — itself.

Among its other uses, I will show you is an effort to do exactly that: a record of one mind’s attempt to imagine its own materiality, and to discover, thereby, something of the world which exists beyond itself. And while this attempt ought to be doomed from the outset, I will show you, like Vantablack, achieves the impossible. By documenting the illnesses of the mind, the errors in cognition, Fowler’s book succeeds in tracing a world which exists beyond consciousness and subjectivity, a world which makes itself known by means of the traumatic ruptures in their fabric. It too is an encounter with total otherness, and it too succeeds in being properly weird — far more so than another alien arrival.

 

 

Oscar Mardell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 17th, 2020.