Really Wyrd


Nick Cave responded to a Red Hand Files question, “Is shitty art worth making?”

As for shitty art, all art is perfectly imperfect — like the world itself — and to some extent value judgments on art are largely subjective and beside the point. Creating art is about growing the world and increasing its reach, and it has more to do with the act of creation itself than what is actually made. Anything that animates us creatively in a positive way — be it the grand design of a great architectural wonder or the Big Bang of a child’s drawing — is a re-enactment of the original creation story. Whether we realize it or not, making art is a religious encounter as it is our attempts to grow beyond ourselves that energize the soul of the universe.

A religious encounter. Our attempts to grow beyond ourselves. I identify with both of these sentiments. I would of course prefer the idea of a mythological encounter rather than something specifically religious and the devoted reader will understand why, religion being a subset of mythology and all that according to my perspective. But Nick’s cultural and personal mythological references, his affecting images, appear to indeed be essentially Christian: Christ, Mary and the Biblical creation story that he references, this time in response to the fraught declaration from a man in Chicago, “The world is shit.” Despondency and frustration at our predicament, short and long term, being the shared theme here as I see it.

Creation – anything that, as Nick suggests, “animates us creatively in a positive way” functioning as a kind of origin reenactment, a creation story ritual of sorts – creation-as-ritual or the ritual-of-creation – is referencing the divine nature of coming to be in the manner that it may transcend the play of opposites, hence our own ability to rationalize it.

Not everyone, and especially not every Occidental, recognizes imperfection as at all divine; rather, to be imperfect is to be of this world and to create imperfect things is the curse of being human and also that of the devil. Original sin and banishment from the Garden and all that nonsense.

I was surprised, actually, to see Nick referencing William Blake via one of the man’s paintings, namely, The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass to Earth. Here, Urizen, fingers spread in a weird mudra (that isn’t), applies the architectural tool, as it were, of conventional reason and law to the world, thereby also constraining Man within, in my interpretation, our predicament within the play of opposites: good and evil, virtue and sin, dark and light, and so on. Urizen apparently builds into this world that which makes us human in all our imperfection. In this sense Urizen symbolizes the Christina creation story. Which may be what Nick is referencing.

Blakean mythology is a crazy mash-up of Occidental symbology that, frankly, I find impossibly tedious. The man was a mystic and, while perhaps influenced by Christianity, he seemed keen to inject or reinject into his spirituality and to encompass (pun intended!) the weird and wyrd in all the semantic variations implied by this variously spelled term, namely, that of the enthralling fringe experience as well as that of fate or destiny. And, generally, he himself seemed continually enthralled by the untamed supernaturalness that pervaded his experience of life. As opposed to perhaps the psychological limits imposed by orthodox Christianity, if there is such a thing (Catholicism gets pretty out there in terms of symbology and legitimizing miracles and sanctifying everyday people into sainthood, for example). Otherwise, in typically impenetrably dense, convoluted and in my opinion neurotic Blakean fashion, Urizen isn’t God but rather an aspect of a fourfold (depending upon the particular Blakean variation referenced) divinity that at times includes positioning Urizen himself as satanic. But I’m no expert on Blake, so take all this only as a starting point.

I’m all for the crazily overamped within mythology. In fact, I would use the absence of it as an indicator that any so-called myth or mythology isn’t one. But not psychosis. Neurosis means that you’ve maintained a self-awareness of your condition, whatever it may be; that you’re capable of an outside-in perspective. You can tell yourself, I’m acting crazy. Psychosis means you have become trapped within your neurosis; that you’re looking inside out at a world completely defined by your neurotic influence. You’re convinced, “I’m Jesus Christ.” As such, I don’t think metaphors, to say nothing of similes (“I’m Christlike”) exist for psychotics – the symbols really are the way things are and there is no other perspective that can penetrate this veil of lunacy.

It gets tricky, of course, especially regarding mystics and the mystical experience. As a brilliant fictionalization of the condition I recommend one of my favorite films, Carl Theodor Dryer’s  Ordet (1955). If you have an inkling for comparative mythology, mythography and the psychology of religion then this is quite a film to behold. For film buffs, it also contains accomplished and influential cinematography. Here’s a scene demonstrating all the weird and wyrd of mythology (and a deftly delivered hint or undercurrent of the spiritually erotic, too, which only enhances my point):

One cannot reference Dryer without of course mentioning The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a silent film which Criterion does well to present in its various combinations of frame rate and scores. But I would not begin with this film for two reasons: (1) it’s indeed an interpretation of an historical event, hence, one is forced to contemplate an overwhelmingly shocking reality that precludes the mythologization, and (2) Renée Falconetti’s performance, so tied, perhaps, to the curious spookiness of silent film, is also so singularly gripping that it threatens to appropriate the impact of the mythological study. But watch it. Knowing that, according to some reports of the film’s initial release in theaters it was claimed that more than one viewer was so traumatized they died in their seats. I personally don’t find this too outlandish an idea. Scroll down within this link for the trailer from Criterion:

There is also Day of Wrath (1943) where we witness the 17th century version of mytho-religious persecution and hypocrisy but also Dryer’s heavy handedness as a director seeking to make too obvious a point, in this case, besides the hypocrisy, the absurd tragedy of medieval witch-hunting. His insight into the intuitive, earthy value within pagan belief, at least within the opening scenes, I find compelling (the accused woman hides in the pig stie, for example, the pig being a powerful symbol of the chthonic, the occult and the death/rebirth/labyrinth/goddess tropes), but there’s not enough between the lines in this film to invite repeated viewings.

Whereas Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, then, project a certain horror film “wyrdness” that indeed enthralls in the manner that I think Hitchcock at his best also achieved (horror as opposed to mere gore being a valuable mythological ingredient), I point to Ordet as a masterpiece of what is termed mystical realism in film. Though I recall having to introduce Jeffrey Kripal to Dryer as he and Michael Murphy (the co-founder) and company at Esalen first seemed keen, apparently, to only focus on recent films (as far as the results of their introductory seminar with filmmakers), I see now that a seminar was hosted in July 2019 by Francis Lu that indeed included not only Dryer but referenced the insights of Joseph Campbell – hooray!

Meanwhile, Blakean mythology suffers from a baroque level of ornateness that renders the whole thing absurd. I haven’t studied Blake at all Nick also references, akin to Paul Coelho within The Alchemist, “the soul of the world.” Which is a spiritual generality implying and attributing an aspect of what I would interpret as intention or awareness to both the material universe and our sense of something Other existing within or outside of it, take your pick. For Nick, who clearly has been advancing mythology through his work for decades, I’d consider this a little wishy washy; that is, a little flabby and indefinite in terms of a personal mythology intended to define or at least reference one’s particular cultural mythological vision – the mythology we choose to live by.

I have name dropped many names here and referenced much imagery, arguably disparate but to me acutely mythologically apt and potent. With the exception perhaps of Blake whose tenacious appeal baffles me. Hey, everyone has their quirks which include likes and dislikes, but it’s these mythologically loaded, psychological fugues that energize my own zeal which oftentimes, akin to myth itself, thrusts itself wildly this way and that in its seeking. We can’t help it, that which seizes us. Meanwhile, when Nick Cave suggests, “Creating art is about growing the world and increasing its reach” he must mean both within and without, which furthermore expresses a compelling, evocative declaration of the unsettling nature of the mytho-genesis encounter.