Marc Quinn’s seven sculptures that make up Emotional Detox (1995) occupy a white space. To walk amongst them is to encounter a Pompeii of torture, each body rendered not in volcanic residue but in the material of Roman curses, common lead. We intrude on physical pain, on torsos hacked from their lower halves, on hands hacked from their arms in the act of clawing their owner’s face, on heads detached and hastily placed back on (the right? the wrong?) neck and shoulders, where they threaten to topple.
They are casts from the artist’s own body, assembled deliberately flawed, seven to suggest the Deadly Sins – but if we stop before one and speculate “Is this Lust? Avarice?” it is because we want to divert our mind from the agony portrayed, put it to one side while we intellectualise. Far more honest to lose ourselves in the horror of coming back from an addiction that grips both the psyche and the body, to lose ourselves in each great pain that reminds us of, and calls up from the black well of memory, the ranks of pains great and small that we have been prey to. These pains could be natural, and thus forgiven, faced stoically, but for the fact that there are rectangular holes carved into the torsos. There is a four-square deliberation here! If there is catharsis here too, it is the fact that there seems to be no shame in the pain, it is not hidden, it is displayed in awful, blunt, beautiful candour.
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It’s gratifying to know that the British Society for Phenomenology decided to promote my recent article in Monatshefte, on using phenomenology as a tool for literary criticism when studying W.G. Sebald, on their website and via social media. Thanks!
It was in July of last year that I posted about how it felt to have an article accepted by an academic journal. It wasn’t until this week – two major re-writes and a long wait later – that the article actually saw the light of day. I didn’t hear from the Journal itself but rather by email from Dr. Uwe Schütte of Aston University, whom I have to thank very sincerely for his advice all the way through this process. He sent me this link to the abstract.
The title of my article is “A walker’s approach [. . .] is a phenomenological one”: W.G. Sebald and the Instant, in which I use the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard and others as a tool for appreciating Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz. In the article I have actually coined some new terms to use in phenomenology. This wasn’t actually planned, but I ended up needing them once I set off down a particular track.
I used my university’s library search facility to find the full article. It didn’t seem to be searchable by my own name, but the journal Monatshefte was, and once I had got that far, locating the new issue and then my article was easy. I noticed some typographical errors and glitches with hyperlinks, which rather took the shine off. Nothing major, though, and now I’m looking forward to receiving hard copy – the proofs I’ve already read through were error-free, as far as I could see.
Who knows whether I will manage to have another article published while I’m studying for my PhD. I’m not ruling it out, but on the other hand getting the thesis done is the main task. Just over a year has gone by since I started at St Andrews, probably the most unlikely PhD candidate ever, or at least that’s how it feels. I now have an article and two conference papers under my belt.
Meanwhile the world is suddenly a very different place. As Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic World, “Change is like death. You don’t know what it looks like until you’re standing at the gates.”
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There can be no doubt – can there? – that I experience life as a series of phenomena, each one with its resonances and repercussions, each one sparking ripples and bubbles of memory and imagination, some of which fade or pop, others of which sweep and float onward, as phenomena in their own right.
So when I come across the remnant of an old shoe at low-tide mark on the West Sands, what grips me is my own seeing, my own understanding, my own curiosity about who might have worn it, why it was discarded, where the other one might be. Already I have cursed it with a name – “shoe” – and have defined it by a purpose it no longer has, fitted it to an unknown foot that walked away long since. I have made it less real than its former wearer, and than that wearer’s naked footprints that the tide has washed away.
And yet, I am told by a friend when I bother to listen to him, things do not cease to exist when we discard them. What ceases to exist is only our narrow definition of them, and that only ceases because we plant ourselves at the centre of everything.
This shoe that I found may no longer fit a foot, but it has ineffable context in its own right. It shapes the whole landscape of this Scottish strand, because it exists in relation to it, and thus to all things touched by the strand – seawater and dunes – and onward to the whole of what is. It is important, it is vital, it is defining. In being less than the purposeful object which was fashioned and named, it is now somehow so much more.
If my definition is now worthless – and it was only ever a metaphor in the first place – then we are no longer looking at a meaningful world, but at the possibility of infinite meaningful worlds…
Today I dressed in my rain gear and set out from the student residence where I stay. I decided to go a back way from there to town, my goal being the West Sands. So I wandered along paved footpaths I had never set foot on before, past university buildings old and new that I had never seen before, in a general direction I was guessing at, navigating by a kind of urban dead reckoning. My route brought me out onto a street where the occasional urgent motor car buzzed past. “Where does this lead, I wonder?” I thought. When I had gone along this street for about one hundred and fifty metres, I suddenly realised I was actually on a street I walk along almost daily. Coming to it from an unexpected angle, on a journey of discovery, had made it so magically unfamiliar, that recognition was a similarly magical transformation.
It was a moment of intense joy – I can’t say why. But it struck me that moments like this are to be prized, treasured, stored in the memory to be brought out again in the future and brightened by imagination filing in the gaps. My advice to my readers is to look for things like this in your life. No matter what age you are, these brilliant moments are of such value. We live in tough times, and we need these occurrences of beauty. I hope they never cease to happen to me.
The tide was out on the West Sands, so it was a long walk to where the waves broke on the shore. The few figures on the beach – no, I did not ask for their consent to be photographed (see my last post) – only seemed to enhance the loneliness. I walked all the way to Out Head along the line of breaking waves, scattering flocks of oystercatchers as I went, and back along high tide mark.
I was lonely, I got soaked to the skin, and I didn’t care about either of those facts. It was a peaceful, natural kind of loneliness, so later when I bumped into two lovely friends in town, the natural loneliness and the serendipitous company enhanced each other.
There’s a meme going round social media – sorry, I have been unable to find a copy, so you’ll have to go by my description – it’s basically a cartoon of an art class, in which a group of students are sitting at their easels around a naked young woman. We are looking over the shoulder of one of the art students, and we can see that he is not drawing the model, but one of his fellow artists, a young woman, as she is engaged in her drawing. The message we are supposed to receive from this is that the naked model has given consent to be drawn, and the other young woman hasn’t.
The issue of consent is a serious one, and should be taken seriously. But is this a good analogy, this example of the art class?
I’m not going to write at length, I’m merely going to pose a question. Artists have, for a long time now, caught people unawares, unposed. It has allowed portraiture to escape the blank stare of the sitting subject, has allowed art to capture a kind of verité, a lack of self-consciousness in the subject.
I suppose that the artist over whose shoulder we are looking in the meme could have approached his colleague beforehand and asked, “Do you mind if I sketch you while you draw?” His colleague could have said “No!” or (worse?) could have sat self-consciously while he drew her.
There are areas of life and interaction with others where consent is not simply preferable, it is vital. I believe that is what the meme is trying to tell us. But the url of this blog contains the words “what the hell is art.” So I ask again, is the meme really a good analogy, if it seeks to set a boundary around art, saying art must not do such-and-such? Is it right to forbid art to capture the spontaneous?
I pose this as a question, and invite you to debate.
As a postscript to my recent post on movie actor and paperback author Lynton Wright Bent, my attention has been drawn to something that puts elements of the bibliography in some doubt.
There’s no copyright on names – I share one with the former drummer of Roxy Music, for example, and there’s an academic web site that keeps telling me I’ve been quoted in innumerable articles – and I’m well aware that The Hectic Headspace of Abigail Squall (2018) was not written by the same Scott O’Neill. So I wasn’t surprised when someone came up with information to suggest that at least one of the titles in the bibliography may not be by Lynton Wright Brent at all.
Martian Sexpot (Jade, 1963), according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, was authored by Peggy O’Neill Scott Fields. She and her husband Lynwood Paul Fields wrote together, as Barton Werper, and produced a notorious series of Tarzan novels, which were taken out of circulation when the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs sued the publisher.
If Martian Sexpot is now in doubt, then Profile of a Pervert (Jade, 1963) must be also. What does that say about the Gold Star titles? Well, difficult to say at this point, but I’m keeping the case file open…