Friday, 23 October 2009

Book Review: Endless Things: A Part of Aegypt by John Crowley

Endless Things is the fourth and final part of John Crowley's Aegypt sequence. I wrote in my review of Daemonomania (the third novel in the sequence) that a short review can never do justice to this breathtakingly complex series of novels. At one level it's a domestic drama set in the Faraway Hills, a rural area of north eastern America, at another a metaphysical interpretation of history, humanity and the universe, combining theological speculation and Gnostic philosophy, and at an even more subtle level an occultist fantasy-so subtle in fact it's difficult to label the sequence as fantasy. Endless Things is an epilogue (it's shorter then the previous novels) and a tying up of ends; we uncover the fate of the emotionally tormented main character-Pierce Moffett, taking the reader by surprise and the significance of Fellowes Kraft's unpublished and supposedly unfinished novel-the book within a book at the centre of the Aegypt sequence.

The first half of Endless Things is fiendishly complex as the dispirited historian Pierce Moffett travels to Europe following in the footsteps of Fellowes Kraft, who journeyed to the region in 1968. It's interspersed with the last section of Kraft's 'unfinished' historical novel concerning early 17th century philosopher and heretic Giordano Bruno and the origins of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, an influential occult society. Dense with magical symbolism and Gnostic metaphysics as well as humour, this first part of the novel merges into the more realistic second half as the unexpected future of our forlorn hero is revealed. Pierce experiences a spiritual epiphany outside a roadhouse strip-club.

He stopped, in the cold spring air of the parking lot, with his car keys in his hand, in the chartreuse light of the Paradise Lounge girl.

And yet there is a realm outside.

There is a realm outside.

It wasn't a thought or a notion arising in his heart or head, it was as though presented to or inserted within him, something that wasn't of or from himself at all. He had never felt even the possibility of it before, and yet he knew it now with absolute plain certainty. It wasn't even a surprise.

There is an enveloping realm, beyond everything that is and everything that might be or can be imagined to be. It was so.

Not Heaven, where the Logus lives, where everything is made of meaning, or better say, where meanings are the only things. That realm, of any, is deep deep within. But beyond the realms of meaning; beyond even any possible author of all this, if there was one, which there was not; outside or beyond even Bruno's infinities, outside of which there could be nothing; outside all possibility, lay the realm in which all is contained.

It was so. He knew it, without any wonderment. he knew it by its total usefulness.

It answered.

This is not the finale. The novel ends on the summit of a small mountain in the Faraway Hills over a decade after the events encountered in the previous books, with most of the main characters present. It's a wonderful ending, one of the best I've read. The Aegypt sequence as a whole is a masterpiece that you can read over and over again, enabling you to discover new resonances. All lovers of visionary literature should check out these novels as they celebrate the alchemy of the imagination itself; a sacred spring gushing between the covers of all great books.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Dystopia Now: The Only Hope is Resistance From Below

I began Underground Man last year when the banking system was in meltdown. Since then Neoliberalism and market orthodoxy have emerged unscathed from its most serious crisis since the Wall Street Crash, arguably strengthened. Because of the recession and a national debt that beggars believe, an excuse with a very rational seeming underpinning has now been found to launch more attacks on what remains of the ailing post WWII top down social democratic model-NHS, welfare state, worker and employer co-operation et al. All mainstream parties (and let's face it these are the only ones that matter) in this country are calling for massive spending cuts-it's clearly a choice between a quick death with the Tories or a slow one with NuLabour. The blame has shifted from the greedy bankers to the public sector, while the City and big business grows ever more hopeful of larger profits and a smaller but more disciplined work force, cowled into an acceptance of reduced pay, stressful working conditions and longer hours by fear of unemployment. Correspondingly over the decades local and municipal institutions from independent shops, through to trade union branches to community organisations, which people felt part of and contributed too, have mostly disappeared, replaced by a shopping mall culture constantly watched by the steely gaze of the CCTV camera. A sense of powerlessness in most people is almost palpable.

There is a very good case to be made that the dystopian visions of science fiction are not waiting to happen in the future but exist in the here and now. Our present is not the austere Stalinist/Fascist nightmare of Orwell's 1984 but close to the gaudy hyper-capitalism and corporation dominated LA of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Franz Kafka's surreal faceless bureaucracies. Never before in the developed world have we been so inundated with consumer choice. There is no real limit to freedom of speech either; on the net we can read the obscure writings of the anarchists and the ultra left and at the same time the rantings of the extreme right and the insane ramblings of religious fanatics. We can vote once every four or five years for a government of our choice (the party that wins is always the one that most closely obeys the logic of capitalism) and we can say, write and get anything that money can buy. But at the most basic level no one has power or control over their lives or the real world outside the TV or computer screen.

Any form of dissent that's not the virtual, both political and cultural, peaceful or not, is safely controlled or hindered and if that fails legislated out of existence-see what happened to something as innocuous as the Big Green Gathering. Working class power residing in wildcat strikes, mass picketing and secondary action was the first to go, then the anarchic free festival and rave scene in the 80's and 90's. A burst of innovative anti-capitalist direct action in the mid and late 90's has faded after the police caught on to their tactics and began kettling demonstrators. As shopping malls and private corporate run spaces spread even the once ubiquitous left wing and single-issue campaigning stalls and leaflet drops are thinning out. Add on new anti-terrorist laws and health and safety regulations, and any semblance of popular participation or people power that does not have the approval of the authorities is made impossible without breaking some kind of law.

Clearly the idea of 'western democracy' cherished by so many is in crisis. You don't have to be an anarchist to see that voting does not work-go back to the euphoria of Tony Blair's victory in 97' and look around at the political and economic ruins surrounding us now. These days it does not take too much of a leap into the radical imagination to see that the concept of 'liberal western democracy' and the almost ritualised fetish for voting in parliamentary elections is an ideological construct keeping us chained to capitalism and neo-liberalism, making sure the complex machine ticks over nicely. Social Democracy (Old Labour, New Deals, green or otherwise) is as unrealistically Utopian as the most outrageous leftism in the brave new world of hyper-capitalism.

Rather naively I have always voted in general elections-I believed I was contributing to keeping the Tories out and just maybe as a result we would get some mild reforms in return. I had never grasped the anarchist insistence on non-voting-after all it does not take too much time or energy to put a cross on a piece of paper and scrawling some anarcho slogan on your ballet paper was to me mere gesture politics, to be read only by some bored counter of votes. At the end of the day voting did not stop you engaging in the real meaningful struggle taking place at the grass roots. But now due to the financial crisis and its fall-out, complete disillusionment even with this limited criteria for voting has set in.

Is there an alternative? I think so-the more non-voters , the more apathy there is, the clearer the message of disengagement and alienation. Negative most certainly, but all social movements and revolts start from the bed rock of disenchantment, even despair at political and economic realities. More positively we must be thinking about the coming resistance after the election as building blocks for a new left libertarian politics, one based on horizontal networks of struggle. If the cuts in the public sector (meaning also attacks on the working class in general, the unemployed and the poor, who rely on the public sector in some form to make life even marginally decent) are as bad as everyone says there going to be, resistance is guaranteed. What form or direction it will take of course cannot come with a guarantee.

But what about voting for left wing parties, Respect or Socialist Labour Party, etc or The Green Party? My views on Respect, et al can be read here. There might be a case to be made for voting for the Green Party as a protest vote, (this is academic in my case, I doubt if a Green Party candidate will be standing in my area) but for complex reasons concerning Parliamentary power and the forces of day to day conventional politics, reasons I have no time to go into in this posting, the Green Party are not a real solution purely on its own. One occupied work place or community action group are worth a thousand Green Party votes.