Saturday, 19 January 2019

De Profundis

I came across the unfinished picture above yesterday, while looking for something else. I appear to have been putting it together in January 2017 and, when I look at it in context, it seems it's not untypical of the sort of thing I was doing two years ago, as I was consolidating my move away from "straight" photography into construction and collage. And yet it seems to me now that it was made by someone else; I recognise, but don't "own" the characteristic moves and judgements made by this person, and I'm pretty sure that even if I were to take the exact same raw material now I'd end up somewhere completely different. It's not an experiment I'm likely to try, though: most of those elements no longer really speak to me. Submarines are so 2017.

Mind you, I think I do now know from where at least part of the impulse behind this picture came. I was looking for something to watch on Netflix recently, and came across the condensed, cinematic version of Wolfgang Petersen's enthralling U-boat drama, Das Boot. I had watched and admired the original miniseries on my little 8" screen portable TV when it was first broadcast in 1984, and it's clear that U-96 and its crew must have made a deep, deep dive into my subconscious and stayed lurking down there. Watching it again condensed into 149 minutes – and on an 18" computer screen! – was peculiarly vivid: it was as if I was recalling an actual lived experience involving those people and that series of events. Yes, yes, that's exactly how it happened! I remember it so well! In particular, there were two contrasting scenes which must have made a strong impression on me. The first is when U-96 surfaces at night in Vigo, Spain, in order to make a clandestine rendezvous with German officials on board an impounded but well-supplied ship ("Frische Feigen! Hab' ich noch nie gegessen..." [1]), and must quietly manoeuvre through the dark waters and moored boats, fitfully illuminated by the twinkling lights of the harbour. The second being when the submarine is surprised and attacked on the surface by a British aircraft while attempting to pass undetected through the Strait of Gibraltar. My unfinished picture is clearly a sort of synthesis of the two.

These false or borrowed memories, if we can call them that, are the persistent afterimage of the true lies of art, particularly those of narrative fiction. In time they become part of the sediment at the bottom of our minds, pretty much indistinguishable from the wreckage of the "real" stuff that has actually impacted our lives. In fact, because of its artfully-contrived nature, the detritus of art can seem even more compelling than proper, real-life junk. With any luck, none of us will ever have to experience such a perfect storm of tragedy as that forced upon King Lear by Shakespeare, and I'm pretty sure that if we did, in real life we'd shut down emotionally and submit willingly to whatever medication or counselling we were prescribed. We would avoid feeling the pain at all costs, choosing "comfortably numb" over agony. What we would absolutely not do is head for the nearest heath, rip off our clothes in a violent storm, and rave quotable profundities about the human condition. No, that way sectioning lies... Similarly, I fully expect never to find myself in a disabled, depth-charged submarine, sinking uncontrollably to the bottom of the Mediterranean, as the rivets pop like bullets and men's nerves are tested to destruction under the excruciating physical and psychological pressure. Even if the crew are just actors, and the sub a stage-set.  But, in an important, if vicarious way, I have "been there, done that". Sure, I will never actually have to reap the consequences of unwisely dividing my kingdom between Cinderella's wicked step-sisters [2], or really have to devise a cunning, it-might-just-work plan to rescue my comrades from certain death (though my work life did often feel like that). But, in something like a more practical, bodger's version of Platonic anamnesis ("learning is remembering"), I may well find that bits salvaged from those intense but unreal experiences will come in very handy when lashing up a fix for some more mundane crisis. Or even just making a picture.

Some would go further and say that, like artificially exercising a muscle, our understanding and sympathies can be enlarged by the willing suspension of disbelief in convincing, artfully-told untruths. That, unlike a pumped-up gym-bunny physique, an augmented ability to empathise is a real strength, and an asset to ourselves and those around us. Certainly, that's the official, critical line: art is good for you. Which, of course, it can be. Not all of it, not all the time, and not for everybody. Anyone who has attempted to ease their inner turmoil by listening to Harrison Birtwistle or reading Samuel Beckett really should have tried paracetamol or even something a little stronger first. The spectrum that goes from "mindless entertainment" to "ascetic self-flagellation" is very broad indeed, and the benefits of any particular point on it are rarely predictable, consistent, or immediate (unlike paracetamol). But, when it comes to art making, this allegedly wholesome, therapeutic aspect is not really a factor, unless you regard creativity as a form of occupational therapy, harmlessly channelling impulses that would otherwise be a social nuisance [3]. I mean, let's be honest, most top-flight artists and performers are also first-rate monsters of ego; it's pretty much part of the job description. Their art may be good for you, but it hasn't done much for them. Although who knows what perverted criminal masterminds they might otherwise have become?

Mental well-being aside, it's that curiosity shop at the bottom of your mind that interests me. I think one indication you may be destined for a life afflicted by creativity is this: you tend to be less concerned with the overall shape and message of an experience ("the moral of this story is...") than with the shiny bits and pieces that can be prised off it, stolen, and recycled. Yeah, yeah, nice car, but look at those fancy hubcaps! Would they make great flying saucers or what? Unlike normal people, you just need to be constantly restocking those basement shelves with random psychic bric-a-brac, whether acquired by real experience, imitation, theft, or bought second-hand. The truly amazing thing, though, is how the subconscious mind is able to descend into the depths and fetch up exactly the right bit of junk at the appropriate moment [4]. Pretty much everyone will have been startled at some time by some cutting or hilarious remark that popped unbidden from their own mouth. Where did that come from? But only a few of us have the magic combination of a well-stocked, constantly replenished mental cellar and free and immediate access to its contents, which is what gives the sparkle to, say, a brilliant comedian's repartee. It's the opposite of l'esprit de l'escalier: to be able to produce, with a magician's flourish, the most unexpected but apposite response, instantly, as if prompted by an unseen team of script-writing angels.

Mind you, few things will kill a lively party situation quicker than having some would-be Oscar Wilde constantly trying to top everyone else's jokes or feeble pleasantries. Look, it doesn't matter how damned witty you are, Oscar, after a while this becomes as aggressive as offering to arm-wrestle everyone in the room, and about as attractive. (Um, please don't ask me how I know this). The art of art, like the art of conversation, is precisely not spilling the contents of your subconscious over everyone at every opportunity, but knowing when to speak, when to at least pretend to listen, and above all when to shut up. Which is what I'm going to do now.

1. "Fresh figs! I've never eaten 'em before..."
2. Oh, come on, don't say the similarities have never struck you...
3. Look at the sheer perverse creative inventiveness that goes into most fraud, for example. Somebody should give those guys a useful problem to work on, or some paints.
4. That is, "right" as defined by the subconscious, which can be embarrassingly like having a speech bubble over your head saying what you really think.

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