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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Dazed and confused by Star Wars

Dazed and confused. Details falling back to earth. It was like Hawkwind' s Space Ritual circa 1973. Overpowering maelstrom of sound and images. Still a bit deafened and my eyeballs feel bruised. But was it any good? Who knows? Who cares? I just grokked on it as Spectacle..

It being Star Wars Episode III. Seen on a big screen very/ too close up and very/ too loud. But then if it hadn't been so close up and so loud the critical faculties would not have been so totally overwhelmed, and the experience would have been one of watching a movie not having acid flash backs and feeling like I was catapulted into William Gibson's cyberspace.

Saw the movie in Glasgow, but to get there had to take train from Dumfries along what was main route of Glasgow and South Western Railway. A route which runs up through Nithsdale following a Roman road. It was, as the railway and road are, a secondary route. The main one ran up through Annandale as the main railway and road do today. The physical barrier the Romans and everyone else since had to cross is the Southern Uplands.

Just been re-reading Nikolai Tolstoy's book The Quest for Merlin, where he places Merlin in these Southern Uplands - at Hart Fell on the Annandale side. Book plays the shamanic card heavily, Hart Fell as mystic/ sacred mountain in the midst of a primal forest beyond the Wall (Hadrian's). Even today the Southern Uplands have strong psychogeography. Most people in Scotland live in a lowland central belt which runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Southern Uplands are a kind of dead zone between 'Scotland' and 'England' - an empty space of bleak moorland and modern Sitka spruce forestry which takes an hour or so to pass through.

So to reach the future/ distant past ('long ago in a galaxy far away'?)/ modern world had to traverse a seemingly empty space - but one filled with historical meaning for me. Sanquhar may meaning nothing to you but evokes tragic memories. Richard Cameron and the Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 which declared war against Charles II in the name of Jesus Christ. Cameron was hunted down and killed a month later. A heap of spoil near the station, all that remains of 100 years of coal mining - but see below. All this and Merlin too!

Hell planet

In Episode III, Anakin becomes Darth on an industrial hell planet. Rivers of molten rock/ metal flow through it, as if it was some giant iron foundry. Between the north west edge of the Southern Uplands and Glasgow once lay a region of such a hell. Coal mines and iron works, knitted together by a maze of railways. All gone green now. Only here and there can be seen great heaps of waste, from the mines and iron works. There is still some open cast mining, saw train of trucks plus class 66 being loaded with coal in a siding and south of Kilmarnock, the railway has been upgraded to carry coal freight trains - mostly imported coal to fuel English power stations. Global warming? But then saw a whole line of giant windmills slowly turning along the horizon.

The world turns. The world changes. "Did you like Star Wars as a kid?" my teenagers asked. "Not really a kid in 1977" I replied " I was 19 and into punk, never noticed Star Wars.". And I didn't. Never saw the first one until on tv years later. Science fiction. J. G. Ballard. Terminal Beach. First read it in 71 amongst a collection of sf short stories . It haunted me. Still does. Post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear but nothing dramatic happens. A man arrives on a Pacific island, site of nuclear bomb tests. He wanders amongst the cyclopean ruins - a circular grid of concrete blocks around ground zero. An inversion of Robinson Crusoe, civilisation and its destructive powers drives him mad in his self imposed isolation. Or is he already mad? He seems to be trying to make sense of the death of his wife and daughter.. but cannot. Instead of finding liberation on the island, he becomes trapped, unable to escape from a nuclear nightmare. A nightmare which has ended - the island no longer used for nuclear tests and abandoned to nature- but which still haunts him.

Heart of Darkness

The Ballard story hit me in the same way that reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness did. And Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah and... a few other stories. There is no direct connection. It is more to do with a sense of 'dislocation' which occurred on first readings. I read Herbert’s Dune Messiah before reading his original Dune and so became lost in a universe which only later made sense.

Heart of Darkness had the same effect. It jumped from the Thames to the Congo and back again in a subtle shift which I missed on first reading. Once there is a context, then 'it' starts to make sense, but first impressions count. Familiarisation is the enemy. The trick is to accept every experience as new and strange and unknown. Not easy. Easy is to slot everything back into the known and familiar, into the taken for granted and the dismissive. "Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt to prove it". As old age creeps up, harder and harder not to do so. A new Star Wars movie? How boring. Seen 'em all before. Simplistic science fiction.

My plan had been to dump the teenagers at the cinema and gone off to do something more interesting. Didn't happen. Instead I got zapped by a bit of popular culture. Huge spaceships crashing, entire planets digitally constructed pixel by pixel ... the fabrication of a reality which is for the duration vastly more powerful and impressive than actual reality. Real reality. All Power to the Imagination! The imagination has seized control...but whose imagination? And where does this all leave physical change - history ?

Glasgow is Scotland's biggest city (although Edinburgh is growing fast). The Clyde no less than the Thames or the Congo was a river flowing out into the heart of darkness. James Watt had his flash of inspiration there (which led to his invention of a more efficient steam engine) - in a city which had already grown and prospered through the tobacco trade. A drug crop grown by slaves in a new world stolen from its original inhabitants. "He who controls the Spice, controls the universe. The Spice must flow..." [sample taken from film Dune used on Eon's acid house record 'Spice' circa 1990].

James Neilson worked for the Glasgow Gas Company and invented the hot blast process of iron smelting. This revolutionised the iron industry in the UK - and when exported to the USA, laid the foundations for the US emergence as an industrial power by allowing anthracite coal from the Appalachians to be used to smelt iron. Hell Planet again. Anakin physically becomes Darth Vader after his body burns on the edge of a river of molten lava/ iron. It is an equivalent to the shaman's dismemberment and re-construction in overtly magickal narratives.

Body of the Goddess

Way back at the dawn of civilisation in what is now Iraq, as the Akkadians/ Babylonians took over from the Sumerians, they created a creation myth. In this Enuma Elish, the hero Marduk made the world, this world, out world, out of the dismembered body of the primal goddess Tiamat. Tiamat is linked with ideas about a 'primal chaos' which has to be destroyed/ subdued before our ordered human world can be established. This same myth can be read as the foundation myth of patriarchy and phallogocentrism, where the 'God' (Man) makes the world as it is out of the prior state of confusion. A central pillar of this new world was 'marriage'. The ability to construct a known and direct line of descent from father to son which in turn required strict limits to be placed on women's sexuality.

This was necessary if 'property' was to exist. Property here being a substitute for immortality. In the Gilgamesh cycle of myths, which runs (from this distance) parallel with the Marduk ones, the hero is on a search for immortality, he wants to bring his friend Enkindu back to life. It gets complicated, but there is a evolutionary psychology argument which suggests that the origin of the self can be located back then. Maybe linked to writing. Earliest writing from Sumerian city of Uruk about 4500 years ago -temple records of food stores.

By writing on clay tablets which were then baked , words became eternal - can still be read now. But the speaker/ writer of the words is mortal. Hence the quest for something which will endure, which says "Look upon my works ye mighty and despair"... great statues, massive buildings, empires are the signs of this birth of the male ego. The inheritance of private property allowed lesser mortals to stake their claim on the future. To subdivide and carve up the body of the goddess slain by Marduk into bite sized chunks. The origins of history ( anything before writing is pre-history) and so of historical consciousness.

As an aside, as a local historian, I recognise the influence of the Bible on many aspects of Scottish / European/ North American history. Yet the Bible itself contains much that can be traced back to historical texts from the ancient near/ middle east. The story of Noah and the Flood for example is first found in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh...

With 5000 years or so of writing/ history behind us, our ideas about self and identity are shaped and structured by historical consciousness/ the consciousness of history/ the history of consciousness. Pre-historic and pre-literate cultures are part of our cultural unconscious. Their world is that of the dreamtime, of myth. This Otherworld of dream and myth is not far away, not long ago. Physically it is present in the soil beneath our feet, as archaeology. Psychically - it is all around us. In adverts and movies, in music, in politics, in our sense perceptions of the world, in our nightly dreams. In our waking nightmares.

Tiamat is constantly and continually trying to re-member her self.


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