‘Sequence Literature’ and Tradition

I use the term ‘sequence literature’ to denote two different types of literary output. The first and most obvious is that literature which is published in instalments such that one long narrative or argument is published in a sequential manner.  Usually, with this type of literature, one must have some idea of the content of past instalments to understand the current one. Perhaps the most famous example in this genre are some of the original fictional works of Charles Dickens which were published in this manner.

There is a second class of sequence literature where a particular work, though offering a complete account in itself, draws heavily on some earlier work such that a full understanding or appreciation of the work would require some familiarity with the predecessor upon which draws. This short essay is concerned with this second class of ‘sequence literature’. An example that springs to mind here is the well-known short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled The Celestial Railway.  The plot of this story and, indeed, the names of many of its characters, relies heavily on knowledge of another famous work, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are many other famous examples in this genre, one of the more obvious being the relationship between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, one could argue that a reading of Virgil’s Aeneid greatly benefits from a prior acquaintance with Homer’s Odyssey.

If one reflects further on this second ‘class’ of literature, then it becomes obvious that the general idea can be expanded greatly to cover all of the important literature of the past. That is to say, a full appreciation of any work of literature would require knowledge of all predecessor works in the same category. For, only then can the reader really assess the true value or import of the work under scrutiny. To come to any work, especially any current work, without such a background is akin, in a fashion, to listening to a single episode of Blue Hills, without having a knowledge of previous episodes.

This, in part, was the argument made by T.S. Eliot in a famous essay, published in 1921 (in The Sacred Wood).  Such background knowledge, Eliot said

cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Here, of course, Eliot was concerned mainly with poetry and with the producer of poetry, but the idea has much wider application. It can apply equally well to the reader, to the writer’s audience. I can give a good example from my own and very limited history as a reader of literature.  As a young schoolboy, I was introduced to the famous poem by Tennyson, Ulysses. There were a couple of lines in that poem which I found immensely appealing and memorable, but I had no idea of their full meaning:

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: …

I had a vague impression of a rainy day at sea and a vague sense of what might be meant by the words ‘scudding’ and ‘vext’. Only decades later, after having read the Odyssey and having some additional notion of the relationship between the various stellar constellations and their influence on earthly affairs, did any real understanding of Tennyson’s poem come to me.

Let me take another example from the area of philosophy.  I am not familiar with the content of modern university courses in this area of study but I suspect that there will be a substantial bias towards modern empiricist philosophy and very little at all on earlier philosophy. Perhaps a lecture or two on Plato and Aristotle, a mention of Descartes and a dismissive nod towards Aquinas and Augustine. After all, philosophy is now only a minor discipline in most universities – in order to follow the money, you must concentrate on STEM courses. But, in order to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of any of the more modern philosophies, one really needs a good grounding in the whole history of philosophy. The example I will use here is the work of Etienne Gilson. In his book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Gilson surveyed almost eight centuries of philosophical thought from Peter Abelard to Karl Marx and found one consistent theme: whenever philosophers use the techniques of disciplines other than philosophy to investigate philosophical questions, they inevitably fall into error and their theories are eventually abandoned or severely modified.  Thus, Abelard had recourse to logic alone, whilst Descartes employed mathematics and geometry.  With Kant, it was what Gilson calls ‘physicism’ and with Comte and his followers, ‘sociologism’.  These observations led Gilson to erect several ‘laws’ or principles pertaining to the philosophical method:

  • Philosophy always buries its undertakers.  By this he means that each new theory, hailed as the ‘solution’ to philosophical problems – i.e. the death of philosophy – is regularly attended by its later revival in some newer scheme which, in its turn, is superseded, and so on.  I recall reading, I think in Ben Rogers’ biography of A.J. Ayer, that Ayer himself, after publication of Language, Truth and Logic, had (only half-jokingly) talked of ‘the end of philosophy’.
  • By his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal.  By this, Gilson means that the failure of philosophical schemes invariably relates to their abandonment of basic metaphysical principles natural to human thought.  Discussing Hume and Kant, he puts this principle in perspective this way:

“Hume had destroyed both metaphysics and science {Humean scepticism}; in order to save science, Kant decided to sacrifice metaphysics.  Now it is the upshot of the Kantian experiment that, if metaphysics is arbitrary knowledge, science also is arbitrary knowledge; hence it follows that our belief in the objective validity of science itself stands or falls with our belief in the objective validity of metaphysics.  The new question then is no longer, why is metaphysics a necessary illusion, but rather: Why is metaphysics necessary, and how is it that it has given rise to so many illusions?”

Gilson answers this last question by developing a series of arguments leading to conclusions which comprise the remainder of his ‘laws’ or principles:

  • Metaphysics is the knowledge gathered by a naturally transcendent reason in its search for the first principles, or first causes, of what is given in sensible experience.
  • As metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.
  • The failures of metaphysicians flow from their unguarded use of a principle of unity present in the human mind.
  • Since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics
  • All failures of metaphysics should be traced to the fact that the first principle of human knowledge has been either overlooked or misused by the metaphysicians.

Moving back now to the relationship between literature and the Tradition, T.T. Eliot explains just how some new work is related to the past and becomes incorporated as it were, in that past:  

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity…

  The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

Bird Talk

Do birds sing, or do they just ‘vocalize’? To put it another way, can birds feel happy or sad and express such feelings by the sounds they make, or is it all down to instinctive behaviour? I suspect that animal behavior experts would opt for the latter.  Birds call, they say, because they wish to attract mates or defend a territory or keep in touch with the rest of their flock.

That’s the sort of world we live in now.  Magpies do not carol in the mornings because they are happy to see the sun rise.  It’s simply a vocalisation to reinforce territorial rights.  And kookaburras do not signal the end of the day to all the other creatures by giving their last laugh just at that moment when dusk turns to darkness.  They, again, are simply letting neighbouring kookaburras know who is in control of the local territory.  Creatures respond to external stimuli, or hormones, under a strict system of genetic coding. It’s the territorial imperative or the selfish gene as popularised by Robert Ardrey and Richard Dawkins, although to be fair, Descartes started the whole idea of the mechanical animal hundreds of years earlier. Animals are just glorified CD players where you shove in DNA instead of a disc.  Faced with this sort of bleakness, you can sympathize with Wordsworth:

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. – Great God!  I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

And Wordsworth is right. We have progressively isolated ourselves from the rest of the natural world.  Even as little as fifty years ago, we had a far closer relationship to the natural world than we do today.  And that’s despite all sorts of recent proclamations such as ‘ecologically sustainable development’, ‘maintenance of biodiversity’, ‘clean and green’ and all those other modern mantras.

Let me give you an example.  Most Bendigonians will have travelled through the district of Sutton Grange at some stage.  It lies just south of Bendigo and not far from Mount Alexandra.  For the locals, the most significant piece of history associated with Sutton Grange revolves about a particular schoolteacher at the little granite school, Albert Cox. He taught at the school from 1920 until 1961. As far as I am aware, this record has been topped by only one other Victorian schoolteacher.   Mind you, in other trades the service records can be far more impressive.  There is a story about a local man up here who started at an engineering works when he was fifteen and was given his gold watch and heavy handshake fifty years later.  Angry at his forced retirement, he began his farewell address with these words: ‘Had I known that this bloody job was only temporary, I would never have taken it in the first place’.

But it was not just his length of service at the little school that made Cox a remarkable schoolteacher.  It was what he taught his students.  In addition to the ‘three R’s’, the children learned a great deal of natural history, because Albert Cox was himself a keen amateur naturalist.  Each day, the children were encouraged to make a note of what birds or other animal and plant life they had seen on the way to school.  These observations were then written into the Observations Book, under the careful eye of the teacher. Records were entered into this book from 1926 through until 1960, with a break during the War years only.  The following entry, made by Cox himself, tells its own story of the man’s love of the natural world about him and, more especially, of the way he saw the relationship between wild creatures and humans:

On the morning of the 26th September, 1951 the thrush that had been for such a long period a friend of all at the Sutton Grange School was found dead beside the residence garden.  This bird was well over thirty years old and had nested around the school residence all these years, many seasons being spent in an old billy hanging under the verandah.  The bird had died of old age, being found lying with an insect still in its beak.  It died in the middle of the nesting season leaving a mate to hatch out, and rear a family.

Here was a man recording the death of an old friend. This friend and close neighbour had died at work.  It had performed its duty as a parent right to the very last.  The whole thing is intensely anthropomorphic and modern animal behaviour experts would scoff at it.

Have you ever wondered why Sir David Attenborough speaks in a whisper when he is describing the lives of creatures?  It’s because he is on the outside looking in and it is almost embarrassing.  He is a bit like a voyeur peeping through the keyhole.  And you will note, if you listen to his commentary carefully, that everything is down to scientific principles of behaviourism and genetics.  All is neatly packaged as cause and effect. His animals are glorified machines to be marveled at like the intricate, jeweled workings of a Swiss watch. Granted, there is some sense of wonder, but that wonder is built on the complexity of things, not simply on the existence of things.  Even Disney’s outrageously contrived world of nature was better.  His animals in the early TV nature shows, all decent, God-fearing American citizens circa 1960, at least had some sense of not being pre-programmed.

It’s almost as if the Fall of Man is still going on.  Christians tend to read the account of the Fall in Genesis as an historical event.  But part of it may not be.  One of the consequences of the Fall was a destruction of that harmony which previously existed between humans and all other life on earth.  Perhaps the process of estrangement is a long-term business and we are not at the end of it yet.   When you examine history, that proposition certainly seems to carry some weight.

Since we started this discussion with a quotation concerning a dead thrush, let us stick to the world of birds and to the history of their interactions with humans.  There is a name for that interaction. It is called birdlore.

For us in the West, the place to start is the Greece of Homer’s time.  Anything earlier is mere conjecture and anything later runs a poor second to the richness of Homer’s descriptions.  For him, birds are not only closely associated with humans, certain of them are also particular favourites of the gods. The scene at Calypso’s cave will suffice to make the point:

The cave was sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses, which was the roosting place of wide-winged birds, horned owls and falcons and cormorants with long tongues, birds of the coast, whose business takes them down to the sea.  … It was indeed a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight.

There is something of a parallel here with the situation for the Aranda Aborigines in Central Australia, early last century.  In their account of the Aranda (formerly known as Arunta), Balwyn Spencer and F.J. Gillen indicate that the sacred sites where the Spirit Ancestors live (the Ertnatulunga) are a haven for all sorts of wild animals, including birds. Spencer and Gillen would want us to believe that the birds and animals cluster around the sacred sites because they are not hunted at or near those spots. The Aranda would regard this as ridiculous.  The birds and animals are there simply because the sites are sacred – richness of fauna is one of the manifestations of sacrality.

But, going back to ancient Greece, the most important relation between birds and humans is one of language.  Humans who can understand the language of birds are seers. The birds have important things to tell us.  Indeed, one of the Greek words for divination is oionopolia or ornithomanteia – ‘bird language’ or augury.     Both Pliny the Elder and Aelian tell us that that the seers or augurs are not just skilled at interpreting the language or the actions of birds, they are also skilled in natural history.  So, for instance, Aelian says:

I have heard that some people practice divination by birds and devote themselves to their study and scrutinize their flight and quarters of the sky where they appear.  And seers like Teiresias, Polydamas, Polyeidus, Theoclymenus and many another are celebrated for their knowledge of this art …. . (On the Animals VIII.5).

Now, before you dismiss augury as so much nonsense, it pays to remember that this and other forms of divination were of the utmost importance to both the Greek and the Roman Empires at the height of their respective powers.  For instance, Pliny gives us this account of the importance of poultry in Imperial Rome:

These are the birds that give the Most-Favourable Omens; these birds daily control our officers of state, and shut or open to them their own homes; these send forward or hold back the Roman rods of office and order or forbid battle formation, being the auspices of all our victories won all over the world; these hold supreme empire over the empire of the world, being as acceptable to the gods with even their inward parts and vitals as are the costliest victims. (Natural History.  Book X. xxiv. 49)

But we should not suppose that divination of this sort was regarded as some species of magic or that it was necessarily divinely inspired.  Pausanias’ (2nd C. AD) view of Greek religious practice is that of a ‘moderate realist’.  That is to say, his criteria for what to believe and what not to believe concerning these matters certainly involved a notion of religious faith, but they largely involved human observation and human reason:

This poetry [that of Iophon of Knossos on Amphiaraos, the famous seer] of his had an intoxicating attraction to common people, but in fact apart from those who suffered Apollonian madness none of the soothsayers in antiquity was a prophet; they were good at exegesis of dreams, the diagnosis of flights of birds, the scrying of holy entrails.

Pausanias clearly believes that true prophesy is very limited and he makes a clear distinction between inspiration and exegesis. For him, there is no ‘magic’ or divine intervention in the case of augury – it is simply a matter of correct diagnosis. I should mention in passing that Pausanias himself was a great bird lover.  In his old age he took to bird watching and travelled far and wide to catch sight of different species.  No doubt, he kept a bird list like any modern ornithologist.

Mind you, in order to make the correct diagnosis, you need to understand the birds and the granting of that power is a much trickier business for us to understand.  For one thing, in ancient Greece, that power seems to have been often mediated by snakes!  The famous seer Melampus saved the young of two dead snakes. Later, when he was asleep, these young snakes licked his ears. When he awoke, he found he could understand the language of birds.  Snakes also licked the ears of Kassandra and Helenos, giving them the power of the seer.

In other cases, the gift of understanding birds seems to come by direct association with the gods.  Thus, Parnassos, the inventor of divination by birds, had the nymph Kleodora for his mother and Poseidon as his father.  Likewise, Teiresias was the son of the nymph Chariklo, and Phineus, another blind seer, was also the son of Poseidon.  One could quote many other examples from the ancient literature.

But why should birds be important as bringers of knowledge?  Part of the answer may have to do with their ancestry.  In ancient Greek mythology, birds often begin as humans transformed by gods. Perhaps the most famous example is Alcyone.  She was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “Halcyon Days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs. Pliny gives us a detailed account:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called ‘the kingfisher days’, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily.  They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it.  Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed ……  They lay five eggs. (Pliny, Natural History, X.xlv.90-91)

Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.  As far as I can ascertain, taxonomists still recognize both the genus Halcyon and the genus Ceyx amongst our kingfishers. In Australia, bird books still list Ceyx azureus as the Azure Kingfisher but our Sacred Kingfisher is no longer in the genus Halycon. In ancient times members of the two genera were commonly thought to fly together.  The story of Alcyone led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.  Perhaps we can take this as proof that birds continue to inspire us!

This early Greek notion of the human origin of many bird species has close parallels in other cultures.  The totemic spirit ancestors of the Aborigines, for instance, were often bird-men. In their study of the Aranda of central Australia, Spencer and Gillen report that the spirit ancestors are so intimately associated with plants and animals, the name of which they bear, that an Alcheringa (Dreamtime or primordial time) man of say, the Emu totem, may be spoken of either as a man-emu or emu-man.  One can begin to understand from this, just how close was the relationship between the Australian Aborigines and the world of nature around them.

By the time we get to Plato (circa 400 BCE), city folk are already losing interest in the bush and its denizens. As far as we know from Plato’s account, Socrates only went voluntarily outside the city wall on one occasion and even then, it was not to admire the birds (Phaedrus).  He seemed a lot more interested in a young boy (interestingly, Sixty Minutes has not followed up on this case). When he is asked about the spirits of nature, he gives this reply:

Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.  And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me …….  I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.

But, of course, Plato is by no means divorced from the world of birds.  Indeed, he supposes that the noblest of human souls can be re-incarnated in birds whereas less deserving souls will choose lower animals.

When we move into the Christian era, we can still find evidence of a close relationship between humans and birds.  Consider, for example, the enormous popularity of the medieval “Bestiary” (and the closely related “Aviary”).  These were collections of lore in animal allegory which serve to illustrate Christian ideas in a simple way such that they might have appeal (to those lower orders of the Church and the laity) where heavy theological treatises would not.  The common ancestor of these medieval bestiaries is thought to be the Physiologus – a text which may date back as early as the 2nd century AD and whose author is unknown. Here, each animal is given a chapter in which its physical and behavioral characteristics (real and imagined) are presented and moralized for a Christian audience.  The later bestiaries of the medieval period follow this model, often drawing from a wide range of sources including the Bible itself, Aristotle, Pliny, and other Greek and Roman authors of antiquity.

That these works were designed to give moral instruction to the unlettered is made abundantly clear in the Prologue to Book One of Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (circa 1150) where he says:

Desiring to fulfill your wishes, dearest friend, I decided to paint the dove … and by a picture to instruct the minds of simple folk, so that what the intellect of the simple folk could scarcely comprehend with the mind’s eye, it might at least discern with the physical eye; and what their hearing could scarcely perceive, their sight might do so.  I wished not only to paint the dove physically, but also to outline it verbally, so that by the text, I may represent a picture; for instance, whom the simplicity of the picture would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so.

In the Aviarium, some thirty bird species are presented and, for each, certain biological information is used to draw an analogy to the proper conduct of a Christian life.  Thus, for instance, part of the entry for ‘The Goose’ reads:

There are two varieties of geese, that is to say, the tame and the wild.  The wild ones fly aloft and in an order, and denote those who, far from worldly affairs, preserve an order of righteous living.  The domestic ones, however, live in villages; they cry out frequently; they tear at themselves with their beaks.  They signify those who, even though they love the monastery, have time nevertheless for loquaciousness and slander.

Whether these moralizing allegories had the effect of giving heightened respect for animals is a difficult question.  Certainly, many of the species chosen were farm animals, routinely slaughtered for food. It is difficult to imagine, however, that such a reverse anthropomorphism did not lead to some special consideration for the species involved.  When the medieval peasants saw in the great Cathedral or Church, an image of the Pelican (representing Christ – the Pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood), it is hard to imagine that they could not have some lingering association when the real Pelican was sighted on the lake.

In another sense, we know that the sort of associations given in these moralizing accounts went deeper than mere allegory.  Even in this writer’s memory of living in a small rural community in Victoria, it was considered improper (bringing bad luck at the very least) to destroy the nests of Swallows, even when such nests on house walls caused a good deal of fouling with faecal remains.  For a more powerful example, we need look no further than Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, where the killing of an Albatross has truly terrifying consequences.  Nor is this mere poetic fancy.  In Melville’s Moby Dick, the author gives us (in a footnote) his actual experience on first sighting an Albatross at close quarters:

 I remember the first Albatross I ever saw. … I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime.  At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark.  Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it.  Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress.  Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. … I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then.

What Melville attempts to express here is an experience of the Numinous – what Professor Rudolph Otto calls the ganz andere – the “totally other”.  We should not suppose that such experiences came only with Enlightenment learning or Romanticism.  It is much more likely that close encounters with living, wild animals have evoked these sorts of responses from time immemorial.

Not long ago, I read of a new report on the state of the environment in Australia.  The outlook is not good.  It is forecast that, by the end of this Century, Australia may have lost about half of the species of birds known to occur at the time of European settlement.  No doubt, all sorts of valid scientific reasons will be put forward in support of this bleak forecast.  Equally, the sorts of solutions proposed will be scientific solutions – ecosystem rehabilitation, and the like.  I cannot help but wonder, though, whether the first requirement might simply be a return to that earlier sense of awe that we had for the feathered world. Birds were not just sophisticated bio-mechanical machines whose behaviour was genetically controlled. In my youth, the Black-faced Cuckoo Shrike was called the “Summer Bird”, because when it appeared, you knew that summer had set in. Its appearance was a matter of good fortune, not of blind mechanical necessity.  Likewise, the Pallid Cuckoo was the welcome harbinger of spring. It need not have come. Indeed, spring need not have come. And birds sang (these days they only vocalize) because they were happy or sad, or grateful, not because of some theory of B.F. Skinner or E.O. Wilson. Like the ancient Greeks, we did feel that birds had something to tell us.  I suspect that, until we get back to such an understanding, none of the proposed scientific solutions will encourage the birds to return.

Bunyips and the World of Cryptozoology

The great thing about life is that you can discover something new every day.  Today I discovered cryptids.  Rather, I should say that I discovered the word, not what it signifies. For what it signifies is certain strange animals – Bigfoot, the Yowie, the Bunyip – and these are by no means new. Everyone has heard of them. As you might have guessed, there is now a special discipline called cryptozoology (there may be a uni degree to be had here, I must check it out) and lots of people with time on their hands but not much on their minds call themselves cryptozoologists. The main habitat of the cryptozoologists seems to be the world- wide web.

Cryptids are a species of strange natural phenomena awaiting full scientific description and the whole delicious experience for the cryptozoologists and students of the paranormal is in putting forward theories of explanation. In fact, a good working description of a cryptid would be of an animal that is often seen but never captured or quantified in any way.  Alternatively, you could think of cryptids in Aristotelian terms as ‘potentiality without actuality’ or, as the Schoolmen might put it, materia signata non quantitate.

The cryptids, of course, are not a modern phenomenon.  They have been around for millennia.  If you want a good account of early cryptifauna (if I may drop a neologism here) then you cannot go past Aelian’s On the Characteristics of Animals.  He wrote his treatise circa 200 AD and, in addition to straightforward descriptions of quite ordinary animals, there are some very interesting cryptids.  In fact, Aelian was a sort of forerunner to Ripley’s Believe it or Not and his book is a marvellous read. He has a very good account of fly fishing by the way and it appears that, in this sport, nothing much has changed over the last two thousand years.

Of all the ancient cryptifauna, my personal favourite is the halcyon bird.  In fact this bird, mentioned by both Pliny and Aelian, is a small kingfisher.  What makes the ancient halcyon something of a cryptid though is the early description of its nesting habits.  The bird was reputed to nest on the ocean during a period of calm weather around the winter solstice.  Here is Pliny’s description:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called ‘the kingfisher days’, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily.  They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it.  Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed …  They lay five eggs.

What is intriguing is Pliny’s very full description of the nest.  It has an authentic ring about it.  Our Sacred Kingfisher used to be called Halcyon sancta after the fabled bird mentioned by Pliny and Aelian, but the taxonomists changed it some years ago.  The account of the nesting habits has given us the term ‘halcyon days’ as describing calm and settled times. The origin of halcyon is in Greek mythology. Alcyone [Halcyon] was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, [See –ix] drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she too drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “halcyon days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs.  Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.  This is why both species of bird were commonly supposed to fly together. In Australia, our Azure Kingfisher used to be called Ceyx azurea but I think the taxonomists changed that too. You cannot really blame them though.  If they did not keep changing species names they would be out of a job. Anyway, it’s a pity we no longer have Halcyon because the link to mythology is lost. There were other connections too.  For instance, the original Greek account of the bird led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.

But do not be fooled into thinking that belief in cryptids has waned since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.  On the contrary, it is flourishing as never before.  It seems that as the ability of modern science to ‘explain’ the natural world around us increases, so too does our need for the inexplicable.  To put it another way, a world in which everything is ‘explained’ and familiarised becomes very boring, and people cast about for an experience of ‘strangeness’.

The other thing to notice about modern belief in this sort of stuff is the seemingly inverse relationship between education and credulity.  That is to say, as universal education has become a reality and university degrees for all is just around the corner, irrational beliefs seem to flourish as never before.  Think of witchcraft, for instance.  Recent television shows like Bewitched, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch were hugely popular and I’m told that covens are springing up all over the place.  Then there are the old comic book heroes – Batman, Superman, etc. – now turning up in serious movies for adults.

I suspect that if you studied the matter closely, you would find that nearly every country has its own endemic cryptifauna.  North America has Bigfoot.  In the Himalayas they have the Yeti. Australia is particularly well endowed because in addition to the yowie and the bunyip, we have the black panther, sometimes simply referred to as the ‘giant cat’. Again, there remains the last lingering hope for rediscovery of the thylacine in Tasmania and this animal has actually taken on the status of a cryptid.  Recent discussion of the possibility of ‘reconstituting’ the animal (so to speak) via genetic engineering technology only serves to add to interest in the beast.

Without question, the black panther or giant cat is now the most keenly discussed cryptid in Australia.  The poor old bunyip is only a memory, kept alive by a few ‘older Australians’ (there are no elderly folk these days) of the sort that wear peaked caps, sit on park benches, and menace passers-by with their walking sticks and other prosthetic devices.  The demise of the bunyip is particularly sad, made all the more so by the fact that its heritage is a very ancient one.  The Aborigines knew the bunyip long before Europeans came.  For a time after European settlement, the animal was an important part of our folk history.   John Shaw Nielson has a beautiful little reference to the Bunyip in the final stanza of The Sundowner:

Mid the dry leaves and silvery bark

Often at nightfall he will park

Close to a homeless creek, and hear

The Bunyip paddling in the dark.


I read somewhere that the boffins have recently decided that the bunyip of Aboriginal legend is merely the common seal which sometimes makes its way far inland along the waterways.  I’m not sure that I would trust this explanation.  Think what would happen if the platypus had remained undiscovered until just yesterday and you or I phoned up the boffins with a description of what we had seen. They would immediately send around a padded van with a couple of muscular gentleman to assist us to the nearest mental health facility.


But the Bunyip is a has-been. The cryptids of the moment are the giant cats. Of course, some of them have been around for a while too. The Tantanoola tiger, for instance, must be getting a bit grey around the chops now.  Perhaps he (or she) found a mate and brought up a family because these animals definitely seem to be on the increase. And not just down Tantanoola way.  The big cats are turning up all over the continent in increasing numbers.  I have even come across reports of giant cats with offspring in tow. The story of their origin is almost as well known as the Book of Genesis.  While there are some variant accounts, the main explanations lie with either the escape of a circus panther in the dim past, or of a straying Armed Forces mascot which fled its masters and ‘went bush’. The US Air Force (here during WW2) is commonly held responsible and, in this case, the animal in question is termed a cougar or mountain lion.


The way in which these animals operate is somewhat akin to the old ‘spontaneous generation’ theory. There is one important difference though. Our remote ancestors supposed that you needed the right conditions to generate say, mice – plenty of food and a nice pile of rubbish in the corner. With the giant cats though, the question of habitat suitability seems not to arise.  In my part of the world (north-central Victoria) for instance, the big cats show up in some pretty harsh bushland. It’s the type of country where even the lizards always carry a cut lunch and all the crows are just skin and bone. And yet, these very large felids, each requiring a kilo or more of good tucker daily, can live and breed quite happily.  What is even more remarkable, they can do so without leaving any hard evidence behind except the odd, indistinct footprint.


And so, typically, there is a single sighting reported in the local paper, followed in the matter of days by a whole rash of such events.  Sometimes, photos of indistinct footprints accompany the news items.  Invariably, the cats turn up when other news is scarce.  I can speak with some authority here because, as a former government zoologist, I was often approached by reporters and ‘cryptozoologists’ in search of a ‘scientific comment’.  Sadly, my comments rarely impressed and the enquirers moved on to that much more reliable and reasonable commentator, Mr A. Spokesman.


When we move away from the animal kingdom to the much more general area of ‘paranormal happenings’ the situation is somewhat more complex.  In Australia, at any rate, paranormal events seem to be on the wane.  It is decades since I’ve read of a flying saucer abduction or of crop circles.  However, judging by the volume of overseas material on the net, I’d say that paranormal happenings are in quite a healthy state in many countries.  Sadly, one of the victims of the situation in Australia is the Min Min Light(s).  You rarely hear of it these days, even though its credentials are far better than those of the Panthers.  To make matters worse, the boffins now think they have explained the phenomenon and this will mean that another venerable Australian legend, dating back to pre-European settlement, will become a mere fact and lose all its intrigue.  The people up Boulia way in central Queensland will be hit the hardest. Not long ago, they set up a ‘multimedia experience’, the Min Min Encounter, at considerable expense.

Apparently, it’s all down to refraction of light (vehicle headlights usually) from layers of air at different temperatures. ‘A cold, dense layer of air next to the ground carries light far over the horizon to a distant observer without the usual dissipation and radiation, to produce a vivid mirage that baffles and enchants because of its unfamiliar optical properties’. According to Pettigrew, who has reproduced the phenomenon using car headlights and observers at some distance, the unusual terrain of the Channel Country ‘makes the favourable atmospheric conditions more likely, while its isolation increase the impact of a single light source since the observer knows that it cannot be produced locally but sees it apparently there in front’.

I have to say that, as a result of this, I have lost interest in the Min Min Lights. Nothing so quickly reduces us to boredom than the recapitulation of solved mysteries.  Take the moon, for instance. There was a time when the very sight of it moved us in the most extraordinary ways – it was something at the same time totally familiar yet totally alien, totally beyond knowledge.  Nowadays, such a sight is likely to bring to the inward eye the vision of space junk strewn across some stony plain.  One expects to see empty Coke bottles and McDonald’s wrappers.

I used to enjoy listening to old timers recount their own experiences of the Min Min Lights and offer their own explanation (I know people from the outback who had seen it).  The explanation I liked most had the phenomenon down to owls!  This has been investigated to some extent, and it’s not as silly as you might think. Many years ago an article on this subject appeared in a journal called Australian Raptor Studies. Apparently, there have been many overseas reports – how reliable I know not – of luminosity in Barn Owls, the cause of which is unknown.  A common theory is that the owls roost in tree hollows where luminous bacteria or fungi grow. The birds are (supposedly) accidentally contaminated with this material and hence ‘glow’ at night.  There are those old timers who swear that the birds light themselves up deliberately to attract insects.  It’s a nice theory, but I’m afraid that Professor Pettigrew has blown it apart.  Or has he?  If it’s all down to the refraction of man-made lights (as he supposes) how come the sightings date back to well before the time of the motor car and the electric light?  It’s difficult to believe that firesticks, kero lamps, or candles could produce light of a sufficient intensity.  Despite this, Pettigrew’s explanation seems to be pretty generally accepted.  I note that even Pravda ran the story, so it must be true.

I think that we have probably not heard the end of this matter, nor of flying saucers, crop circles, giant cats, and alien abductions. Which is probably just as well.  Try to imagine yourself as a media reporter faced with the task of producing interesting copy each day!  In times of peace, economic prosperity, and relative social calm, what do you write about!  There comes a time when even the leadership blues in the Labour/Liberal Party die down for a period and the younger Royals take a break from their scandal-making activities. There are times when even pop stars behave like rational human beings.  It’s then that the cryptids come in handy. Everything under Heaven has its purpose.

The Language of Despair

For the thousands of city workers who routinely travel in from the suburbs by train the view from the carriage window is of little moment.  Such people will usually have a newspaper or book to occupy their minds.  The scenery, for the most part, consists of rusting tin fences, brick walls, weed-infested banks, and all the accumulated debris of a mechanical civilisation.  What you look at from the train window is the backside of a civilisation – the bared and ugly buttocks of an industrial society.  And those images of squalor never seem to change much.  The rusting signal boxes, the newspapers caught up in the rank vegetation, the piles of slowly-decaying iron, were all there when I was a child.  There is something timeless about suburban railway-line squalor.  Even those faded signs on the walls advertising “Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills” have survived several generations of travellers.  Likewise with some of the slogans:  “Don’t Get Yanked Into War” is still faintly visible on the brick wall, fifty years after I first saw it as a youngster.  Some might say that this particular slogan has maintained its relevance, the message outliving the medium!

Few people would find anything uplifting in such sights.  One who did was the late Michael Wharton, better known as Peter Simple, that eccentric columnist for the Sunday Telegraph in Britain.  During the 1970s) he wrote a little piece in his column regarding the conservation of suburban railway line squalor:

They are miniature wildernesses, places that men have made, certainly, but places which have the pathos of all things that have once been used but are now neglected and abandoned: tangled garden-plots, rusting springs, shattered bricks, shards, books sodden by the rain and, blistered by the sun, lumps of newspaper that no one will ever read again.

The train, held up by signals, slows down in the summer heat; the wondering eye looks through the glass into those suburban jungles and finds there, as in childhood, a mysterious poetry.  Who knows what strange flowers – moly, nepenthes – may grow among that unloved, grimy undergrowth?

Perhaps it is as well this has not occurred to the official mind.  Wouldn’t it wish to institutionalise this sense of wonder, to incorporate it into its official system: tidy up almost all the eyesores in its own image but leave, for recreational purposes, a few Protected Areas of Designated Suburban Railway Squalor?

This is marvellously rendered and the images are instantly familiar to us.  What Wharton does not mention is the sort of unnatural rankness of the vegetation.  The weeds seem to reach absurd heights.  It brings to mind a terrible image mentioned by Leszek Kolakowski in one of his books:

I was told that near a Nazi extermination camp, where the soil was superbly fertilized with the ashes of unaccountable cremated bodies of the victims, the cabbage grew so rapidly that it had no time to form a head and produced instead a stem with separate leaves; apparently it was not edible.

In this age of ecological sensitivity, I doubt that Peter Simple’s view would find many adherents.  And yet, there is one group of people (if one could really call them a group) which does have some real emotional connection with such railway squalor.  These are the graffiti producers.  In fact, when I supposed above that the environs of the suburban rail lines exhibited a sort of timeless character, the one exception would have to be the graffiti.  I speak here not of the scrawled political slogans or the dribbling obscenities (Peter Simple very tastefully described the subject matter of this latter category as “advice on human reproductive processes”).  Nor am I concerned with those outpourings of puppy love that one sees painted on hoardings or carved into trees and park benches, arrowed hearts with “Trevor loves Laura” or similar. Such little inscriptions are probably as old as writing itself. I have read somewhere that crude inscriptions have been found on the inner sides of certain pyramid stones presumably left by the citizens or their corvées. One of them reads: ‘the Pharaoh must be mad’!   I am concerned, rather, with those strange hieroglyphics which fall in a sort of no-mans-land between recognisable written characters and formless doodling, or between modern art and wholly randomised angular forms. Some of us, of course, would make no distinction between modern art and wholly randomised forms, but opinions differ on this matter and I refuse to be drawn into an argument. Whatever the case, the graffito producer of the latter categories – a sort of post literate language- seems to be a new development in the ancient ecosystem of the railway wilderness.  Here is a shining example of Darwinian evolution at work.

The more astute observer – a sort of railway siding ecologist – will be able to discern many other characteristics of this mode of human communication.  In the first place, one can quite properly speak of a demography of graffiti. Its presence and abundance is demonstrably correlated with urban wastelands such as rail corridors.  Furthermore, within its total range or territory, one can speak of trends in abundance or density.  It works something like this:  As you travel in from the most outer of the suburbs, the density of graffiti on available substrates (walls, tin fences, billboards, etc.) gradually increases until a maximum is reached in those industrial suburbs ringing the inner city. Thereafter, as one approaches the city centre itself, the density of graffiti tends to diminish.

One other characteristic in the demography of graffiti is clearly discernable.  Within its general habitat, a definite dominance hierarchy prevails.  The most favoured sites – large walls or fences in full view of the travelling public- tend to exhibit the most highly developed forms of the product.  These are often works on a massive scale, full of intricate detail and, usually, many-coloured.  Less favoured sites such as metal signal boxes, car bodies, posts, and small billboards, are colonised by more primitive forms of the work, often no more than a single scrawl made (one supposes) with a single movement of the hand.  A comparison with biological colonisation is not at all out of place. The most complex and well-developed species occupy the most fertile niches whilst the lowest-order colonisers are pushed to the marginal habitats.

We need to differentiate, too, between what I will call, for want of better terms, scriptorial graffiti and pictorial graffiti.   The former is related to written text, the latter is not.  There is, of course, a gradation from one to the other so that strict categorisation is not always possible.  As a rule though, the pictorial form is on a larger scale, occupies the better niches, and is usually multicoloured.  Moreover, the pictorial graffiti often shows signs of real artistic ability.  The colours are well chosen and well blended. The work shows some evidence of overall concept and of planning.  Remembering that these larger pictorial works are probably executed under the cover of darkness and in some haste (lest the offenders be observed and apprehended), we have to grudgingly admit that production in such circumstances requires real talent.

There are, in fact, several problems with the use of the ‘word ‘graffiti’ to cover such a range of defacing techniques.  In the first place, the origin of the word is from the Italian graffio – ‘a scratch’, and is this somewhat inappropriate for the larger, pictorial works. Again, the word graffiti is, strictly speaking, a plural noun in Italian and its singular is graffito.  However we now tend to use the word as a mass noun with a singular verb.  To add to the confusion, many people now regard pictorial graffiti as an art form, thereby blurring the distinction between art and vandalism.  Mind you, I would be the first to admit that some of the more complex graffiti designs are infinitely preferable to much of the rubbish that hangs in galleries of modern art.

We now come to the most difficult question of all.  Does an individual work of graffito have any meaning?  Let us leave aside, for the moment, the question of why it was produced.  Can it be read or deciphered in such a way as to deliver a common understanding to all who study it?  On first appraisal, that seems a silly notion.  The stuff seems to be simply some sort of doodling by minds which have no other purpose than to deface or to establish some sort of territorial conquest- “see that there; I did that”. One thinks of those Viking raiders of old who, having sacked some little village, were often wont to carve a rune or two on some imposing local monument.

And yet, I still have some lingering doubts.  Is it not the case that, when you look at scriptorial graffiti, certain shapes or certain strange hieroglyphs seem to show up wherever you go.  Sometimes, those strange scrawls seem maddeningly close to an English or Greek or Cyrillic character and yet, not quite the thing.  They are not quite intelligible, but yet not really to be classified as random movements of a marking pen or a paint brush.  A possibility begins to form in your mind.  Could those strange hieroglyphs really constitute some form of primitive written language?  If that were the case, then it would have to be some sort of unconscious action – a case of the writer being simply an unwitting intermediary allowing the unconscious mind to express itself. We must suppose it to be unconscious since to do otherwise would be to postulate some sort of underground “school” in graffiti, where the language is taught.

Now I am well aware of certain types of graffiti which are partially or fully legible to ordinary folk like us.  Recently, looking out from a train window over a vast demolition site, I saw a message scrawled on a single remaining brick wall.  It read “Power to the lonely”. In other cases, the letters are simply deformed English characters which probably could be recognised with a bit of practice.  Indeed, there are helpful sites on the World Wide Web which instruct the young criminal on how to produce such deformed letters with a single stroke of the spray can or marking pen.  These letters are not what I have in mind.  I am thinking, rather, of markings which cannot be associated with any recognisable characters in any language and yet seem to be reproduced, as the same shapes, in different places at different times.  It is a case of something “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken” as Shakespeare tells us in one of his sonnets.

I suppose we have a sort of precedent for graffiti as unconscious language in that strange case of William Butler Yeats and the “automatic writing” of his wife, which led to the publication of A Vision in 1926.  More pertinent, perhaps, is that scholarly work on cultural ethnology and mythology, Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (Nonpareil Books – D.R. Godine, New Hampshire, 1977).  Here the authors present some very interesting data on the unconscious transmission of certain universal elements of myth.   Meaning can be transmitted without understanding.  We have that on the good authority of Aristotle who defined an esoteric doctrine as one which is learned long before it is understood.

Here then is a golden opportunity for all those young and budding students of language and ethnology padding about the Groves of Academus. Get yourself a research grant to travel around the world, photographing graffiti.  When you get back home, compare all of your material and look for some common symbols.  If you are successful then, without doubt, you will achieve a status comparable to that of Sir James Frazer.  You will have discovered a new language and a new, universal tribe. You may even be able to translate this language.  The world will be your oyster. Mind you, I could be years behind the running with this suggestion.  Some American museum of modern art has probably commissioned such a study and, even while I write this, distinguished academic journals are probably moderating an intense debate in the “correspondence” columns.  After all, Peter Simple did briefly mention a rather shadowy figure called “The Master of Paddington” whose works in graffiti are avidly sought by just such museums.

But let us leave aside such matters of intrinsic meaning, interesting though they are. How is one to interpret all this graffiti stuff in terms of human behaviour?  I am not a psychologist or sociobiologist, but I do have a theory.  I propose that the occurrence and relative abundance of what  will call “traditional” or “old fashioned” graffiti is simply a direct and tangible manifestation of human anxiety, human frustration, and of a sense of hopelessness.  It is, in short, a sort of index of spiritual sickness.  I omit here the larger and more complex examples of graffiti “art” where the ‘artist’ might well be able to admire his or her own production and, indeed, entertain the idea that others might enjoy it too.  What I am referring to her is that graffiti which simply defaces without doing anything else.  I am aware that many scholarly papers have been written about the motivations associated with graffiti vandalism – protest, notoriety, challenge, and so on.  Many of these studies also suggest that the phenomenon is not limited to any particular social grouping but most seem to agree that the ‘traditional’ form is produced predominantly by young males.  This is apparently not the case with ‘stencilling” where young girls are often involved too.

In any age, it is reasonable to assume that the particular Weltanschauung expresses itself in different ways at different levels in society.  Our own age is characterized by a worldview which is actually a negation of that very concept.  There is no worldview, no meaning outside biological determinism, which might explain our existence.  Amongst the intellectuals this is characterized by the flight from metaphysics.  Reality is what you wish to make it in your particular ‘language game’. So it was that Nietzsche, the harbinger of the age of unreason, exhorted the Übermensch to throw of the shackles of reason and the slave mentality of religion to proclaim the individual will as supreme master. That’s fine if you have the wherewithal to maintain such a philosophy and still earn a quid and enjoy life. Nietzsche, it is true, went mad in the end but other apostles of meaninglessness, Freud for example, enjoyed huge success.  In our own time, Richard Rorty has made a very successful public lecture career promoting the idea that we should embrace meaninglessness as a way of ‘letting the fly out of the flybottle’ to quote Wittgenstein.

But philosophies, or should I say anti-philosophies, have a way of percolating downwards and they will invariably manifest themselves at other levels in society where they cannot be sustained. For some teenagers in industrial suburbia perhaps the hopelessness of a life without meaning expresses itself in the diseased art-form of graffiti. Maybe when human creativity is stifled in this way the artistic desire burns on but, finding itself thwarted at every natural opening, finally expresses itself in the diseased form of graffiti.  The crippled intellect, deformed by the blight of meaninglessness, slouches out under the cover of darkness to relieve itself in this manner.  It is a sort of defecation of the intellect.  This explanation may not apply to the larger, pictorial forms of graffiti whose production is associated with a quite separate and well-defined sub-culture.  But more of that shortly.

And so, getting back to my proposal for a world-wide study of graffiti script, there seems little doubt as to what those strange hieroglyphs will say if someone is fortunate enough to break to code.  It will be something like those penultimate words from the Cross – Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabactani – a cry of anguish from the heart.  But, unlike the Golgotha cry which led to a triumph of the spirit, the anguish of the graffiti producer remains unanswered by the thousands of commuters who glide past it every day, their minds firmly fixed on the Dow Jones Index or the latest Mills and Boon romance.  The traditional type of graffiti is not a species of art, nor a merely destructive by-product of a criminal mind.  It is a cry for help.

Now, as I have already indicated, this sort of explanation might do for the sorts of graffiti that I observed along suburban railway lines in former times.  But things have changed in the graffiti scene over the last two decades.  There is a new breed of graffiti and it is not necessarily produced by sick people.  It is more commonly produced by hip people.   According to numerous official reports on the problem, one type of graffiti has come to dominate the practice over the past twenty years.  This is the graffiti which “forms an integral part of an entrenched sub-culture called Hip Hop”.  It is difficult to give a brief summary of what Hip Hop entails.  One element consists of the “performance” of certain types of music where human voices talk over the beat of the music or where elaborate sound mixing is used to produce “stuttering” or “scratching effects.  This, then, is a sort of auditory, dithyrambic, graffiti.  Another element is break dancing where the participants engage in vigorous athletic movements and whose exponents, I am told, include Michael Jackson – an ‘apostasy of the dance’ perhaps, to misquote Wagner.  But “Spraycan Art” or “Writing”, (which is how these folk quaintly refer to graffiti), is also part of the Hip Hop culture.

The interesting thing about the Hip Hop scene is its mimicry of religion.  The three elements, dance, music and art are precisely what one finds in a huge range of tribal religions. In many cases, there is also some form of initiation and some type of ‘ordeal’ to be undergone.  Mircea Eliade, that renowned historian of religion, has suggested that even in wholly desacralised societies like our own, we carry within us a large stock of camouflaged religious myths and degenerated rituals.  The unconscious has a religious aura because its structure and contents are the result of immemorial existential situations.  For Eliade, every existential crisis once again puts into question both the reality of the world and human presence in the world and the crisis is ‘religious’ because “on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one”.

And so, what we are dealing with in the Hip Hop scene is no longer the sad product of tortured minds.  It is a well-organised counter-culture with sophisticated web sites.  “Folios” or collections of “railway carriage art” can be found at such sites.  The cult also has its own specialist language and I have in front of me a glossary of common terms used by the Hip Hop people. Some examples:

Throw-up:        A name painted quickly with one layer of spray paint

Bomb:              Prolific painting or marking with ink

Writer:             A practitioner of the art of graffiti

Tag:                 A writer’s signature with marker or spray paint

Public style:     Graffiti lettering which is legible to the general public

Hit:                  To tag up any surface with paint or ink

Kill:                 To hit or bomb excessively


The New South Wales Graffiti Information Service, which I consulted on the internet, also provides some information under the heading “Graffiti and Art”.  There is here an interesting sentence which goes; “It has been said that the only difference between vandalism and art may be permission”.  That is a fertile topic for another essay but I’m afraid I could not muster the necessary restraint to deal with such a statement in a cool, dispassionate and wholly objective manner.  Suffice to say that I can think of interesting and parallel analogies from other spheres of human activity:  “The only difference between suicide and murder is permission” or “The only difference between charity and robbery is permission”.  And so on.

What’s to be done about graffiti?  According to some published estimates, it costs Australia somewhere between $50 million and $100 million annually.  Like every other problem confronting us at the moment, the usual response from the authorities is to call for “public education” or “awareness programs” or “youth counselling”.  Certain concrete measures are being taken by some Councils and businesses.  Walls can be painted with special anti-graffiti paints or cleaned with special solvents.  But I cannot see this working for too long.  When sufficient walls, fences, etc. have been painted with anti-graffiti paint the “free market economy” will come into effect and certain paint companies will be able to exploit a new niche market opportunity by supplying anti-anti-graffiti paint to the Hip Hop client.  We don’t want any of this restrictive trade stuff.

Perhaps the way to solve the graffiti problem is to normalise it.  I note that some suburban schools have already moved in this direction by allowing large “murals” to be painted on school walls, fences, etc.  But we need to take it much further.  Promote it as a healthy leisure-time activity and provide suitable sites (at market rates per square metre) by way of blank billboards.  These “art sites” could be pre-sold to the client with a standard caveat so that any problems of pre-emptive strikes by freeloading Hip-Hoppers are the buyer’s responsibility.  Courses on graffiti composition, graffiti interpretation etc. could be offered at university level.  The new “privatised” sections of the major universities could very well turn a shilling or two here by joining forces with paint companies, billboard construction companies, etc.  Once all this happens, the whole scene will slowly lose its attraction.  We have a precedent in the case of faded jeans.  It was once de rigueur for the young rebel to wear tattered and faded jeans, preferably with large rips, etc.  Then, of course, the fashion companies lobbed on to this new market and soon everyone was wearing faded designer jeans. The young rebels gave up in disgust and began wearing baseball caps back the front. But this too, will no doubt be ‘normalised’.  And so, on it goes – a very material form of dialectical materialism.

Earlier in this essay, I made the assumption that graffiti of the unintelligible type is a relatively recent development.  That, of course, may not be true.  We must at least entertain the possibility that such a mode of expression – a protest or an attempted relief from intellectual despair – may be as old as human history.  We have an account in the ancient literature of the shipwrecked Aristippus and his men being swept up onto the Rhodian Shore. They have no idea where they are, and they are gripped by that fear associated with all unknown places – “here there be tygers”.  Then, in the sand, they see markings – unintelligible but clearly of human origin.  And so Aristippus delivered up a line which has now become a commonplace in the history books: “Let us be of good hope, for indeed, I see the traces of men”. I sometimes imagine that what he saw was an early example of graffiti.  Perhaps some outcast from the nearby city, some youth recently made jobless as a result of a new shipment of slave labour, had scrawled his frustration and sense of hopelessness upon the sand.  The New Testament, too, contains that famous incident where Jesus, having posed an awkward question to those who were about to stone the adulterous woman, bends down and writes in the sand.  Was he writing down the sins of the stone-throwers or was it just indecipherable doodling while he waited for an answer?  And, of course, I need to mention that famous incident of graffiti production given in Daniel in his account of Belshazzar’s Feast – Mene mene, tekel upharshin.  Well, it wasn’t really graffiti but it was rather difficult to interpret.  Could we not say that today’s writing on the wall is no less prophetic than that mentioned by Daniel?

Even more shocking thoughts come to mind.  Readers of this essay will no doubt recall a number of recent television programs dealing with the development of Homo sapiens.  It started with Jacob Bronowski and Sir Kenneth Clark, but then everyone else jumped on the bandwagon.  Certain cave paintings from whatever lithic period are given as evidence of our “coming of age’ as it were. We think immediately of Chauvet and Lascaux.  This interest in art, they suppose, really marks out the beginnings for civilised humankind.  I think you know what I am about to say, so I’ll just set the scene for you.   It is a starlight night sometime in the Neolithic era. The tribal elders are up on the hill with the young initiates.  They stand between two great rocks placed there in the dim past by their ancestors to mark the positions of the setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.  The lesson in astrogeography is about to begin and the chief teacher points to a constellation of stars we know as Ursa Major.  Tomorrow afternoon, it will be basic geometry.  Down below, meanwhile, two spotty-faced youths recently ejected from the class for sub-standard work, creep into a storage cave under the cover of darkness.  One holds aloft a sputtering torch.  The other carries a crude pot, possibly made from a Pterodactyl skull.  It contains red ochre and some lumps of charcoal.  They are clearly up to no good.  All this time, they are stuttering out some sort of litany but the words are unintelligible and appear to be repeated after the fashion of a record player stuck in the one groove.  Make of it what you will!

William Blake and Gender Studies

Jorge Louis Borges once wrote a little piece of fiction entitled On Exactitude in Science, where the story line pointed to an inverse relationship between scientific exactitude and utility. The fictional example was that of a map-making guild in some long-departed empire where, as the author supposed, the science improved by such rapid strides that a map was eventually produced to the scale of a mile to a mile. Its users, however, found it to be somewhat cumbersome and it was eventually abandoned.

In many modern departments of human knowledge, I want to propose quite the reverse sort of relationship between knowledge and utility. That is to say, the less we know about a particular entity, the greater is our certitude concerning its origins and its nature and, concomitantly, the more useful this lack of data becomes. By way of example, consider all those documentaries on television giving us, at long last, the ‘facts’ concerning such matters as the origin of the universe, the origins of life, how the Pyramids were built, and so on. How incredibly useful have these grand explanations been to the media programmers and producers! This phenomenon is by no means restricted to scientific knowledge. In almost every other department of modern knowledge, the same relationship seems to hold, viz. the fewer facts we have, the more detailed and final are our explanations. Indeed, if anything, the business is much further advanced in the humanities than in the sciences.  I have chosen, for the remainder of this essay, to give just one example from the former category, that of interpreting the life and artistic output of William Blake.

You will find Blake quoted with approval by Californian hippies, by advanced churchmen, by mad anarchists, by sober conservatives, and most especially, by militant feminists. Add to this a veritable army of Freudians and Jungians (especially the latter) with their deep, psychological insights and, inevitably, the gender studies crowd. In fact, modern commentaries on Blake have been almost entirely taken over by the gender studies crowd. Gender studies is where it is at.

And yet, we have very little detailed knowledge of Blake’s life. He was largely ignored or dismissed in his own lifetime. Nearly all our primary data comes from Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, first published in 1863. Blake had already been dead for forty years by this time, and largely forgotten. If he was remembered it was usually as ‘mad Blake’.

Anyone who has read Gilchrist’s Blake will realize that the compilers relied heavily on the reminiscences of others – the recollections of those of Blake’s friends still alive in the 1850s. If we add to Gilchrist’s Blake, any new information contained in Crabb Robinson’s Reminiscences, and in Geoffrey Keynes’ carefully collected Letters of William Blake and The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, we pretty much exhaust the primary records. It is the totality of these meagre gleanings which has provided the raw materials for a veritable Blake industry today. Of course it is not so much the facts concerning Blake and his life that provide grist for the mill but, rather, the content of the poetry and prose produced by the man. Here, the term ‘poetic licence’ takes on an entirely new meaning, and all of those strange visionary utterances that Blake gives us are  subjected to the most bizarre and fantastic interpretations, far outstripping the sometimes weird and incomprehensible productions of the original author. This is only possible, of course, because we know so little of what Blake said and did outside of his artistic productions and his largely business-like letters to friends and benefactors. When he did attempt to give some sort of exegesis regarding his symbolism, one has to say that it was rarely clear enough to give some unequivocal explanation.

Despite all this, it is the case that there is in Blake’s work some special quality which draws us to him. He will always be popular with people of a certain sensitivity. There is incredible beauty in some of the poetry, mixed with that childlike simplicity we more often associate with the great saints of the Church. There is also that prophetic edge to his work which, however strangely it may be presented, impresses itself upon us. We can understand why he railed against Bacon, Hume and Locke because, deep down, we know that their philosophies fail to assuage our spiritual hunger.

Among the first to adopt Blake as a true prophet was that super-aesthete of the Victorian era, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Christian-hater, promoter of sexual licence, and the Mr Naughty of his era, Swinburne found in Blake’s poetry a sort of apologia for his own views. Swinburne’s analysis of Blake, in fact, could well be regarded as the primogenitor of the modern plague of ‘gendered’ or ‘sexual’ analyses of Blake. Of course, not all Blake scholars of the last century or so have been of this mould. When Yeats and Ellis published their Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical in 1893, Yeats remonstrated with the earlier biographers and interpreters for having neglected the spiritual symbolism in Blake. But Yeats, too, had a tendency to regard all natural impulses as good, just like Swinburne. There are other Blake commentators who seek to place the artist firmly within an older tradition, but not necessarily the Christian tradition. Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) was such a one. For Raine, who published Blake and Tradition in 1969, Blake was the disciple of an Ur-religion – a timeless religion which, though set in a sort of Christianity, was in fact much wider in its scope and incorporated elements of Neo-Platonism and Greek Mystery Religions.

Many other Blake commentaries date from roughly the same time period as Raine, and operate within the same general framework  of sober scholarship ­– David Erdman’s William Blake: Prophet Against Empire (1954), Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), and S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary (1965). All of these, it may be said, are scholarly works with a particular interest in Blake’s use of symbols, his sources, and so on. Of course, they differ in their approach to Blake.  Erdman, for instance, concentrates on the social and political aspects of Blake’s work, whilst Damon is much more interested in Blake’s use of symbols, his allusions to Scripture, etc.

Despite all their shortcomings, most of the earlier commentaries on Blake (before his appropriation by the gender studies mob) shared at least one common belief. They did believe that Blake was a mystic, however differently they might have applied that term. But to say that Blake was a mystic raises two very large questions. Firstly, mysticism itself is one of the most abused words in our language, and we ought to clear what we mean when we employ the word. No-one has put it better than Evelyn Underhill in her Mysticism (1911), the standard work in this area:

Mysticism … has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every type of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics.

… Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.

Of particular importance in the above quotation is the term “theological formula” because the true mystic always operates within some religious tradition. There is no unmediated transcendental order.

The second difficulty relates to the incommunicability of the mystical experience. If Blake was a mystic, then he cannot properly communicate his visions to others because it is the unvarying mark of the true mystic that he or she is unable, in the final analysis, to convey their experiences in mere words. Of necessity, they are forced back to incomplete analogies and inadequate metaphors.

Now, when you read Underhill’s account of mysticism, it is clear that the principal concern of the mystic is to reveal or reflect the experience of union with the Divine, and that expression is almost always in terms of love. Invariably, the analogy used is the human love between a man and a woman.  As Underhill says:

It was natural and inevitable that the imagery of human love and marriage should have seemed to the mystic the best of all images of his own “fulfillment of life”; his soul’s surrender, first to the call, finally to the embrace of Perfect Love.  It lay ready to hand; it was understood of all men …

A great deal of the imagery in Blake revolves around this notion of a union made in love, and let us immediately add that Blake’s use of this imagery often takes him outside the bounds of that moral order traditionally associated with human sexuality. You have two alternatives to explain these excursions. The first, and traditional explanation is that Blake is simply using the imagery in much the same way as it has been used by the saints and mystics of the Church. We need to recall that Blake is striving, however inadequately, to represent the human body as Platonic Form or ‘Divine Idea’. That is to say, Blake strives to give us, in pictures or words, that intellectual idea by means of which we recognise ‘man-ness’ and ‘woman-ness’. If he tends to emphasise male musculature or the voluptuous curves of the female form, it is purely for this reason. It is the same with all of his imagery. As Chesterton says, Blake is an artist “of the solid line” whose images are super-real – there is no hint of vague impressionism in Blake.

But, of course, few would accept that explanation today. The second alternative is the one taken by most modern scholars of the ‘gender’ school – to regard Blake as a pioneer of the sexual revolution and to relate his poetry directly to those sorts of sexual images which present themselves to what Underhill calls “the prurient imagination”. And so we come to that vast army of modern Blake scholars, all rendering his output in terms of ‘gender analysis’, and luxuriating upon his images of male and female in much the same way as a pervert gazes on a clothesline of women’s underwear. Coventry Patmore once wrote of such people that “they often feed the swine of their lusts with the pearls of their perception; they look on the bared splendours of Purity with eyes of the untransfigured passions …”

Here, I must confess that my background reading has been limited. My shortfall here is not due to any laziness or desire to block out any views of Blake which I find contrary to my own.  Rather, it is one of sheer revulsion. Reading this stuff is a sort of literary coprophagy. This literature, as it seems to me, is entirely destructive and will have a malign influence on all who read it, especially young people.

In 1982, in a much-cited essay entitled “Dangerous Blake”, W.J.T. Mitchell supposed that the ‘old’ way of reading Blake – the way of Yeats, Raine, Frye, Erdman, etc. – might soon change. The assumption of a deep symbolism, of a real spirituality was, perhaps, a bit too sober and too ‘religious’ for the new-look humanities departments. He prophesied that “we are about to rediscover the dangerous Blake, the angry, flawed Blake, the crank … the sexist, the madman … the tyrannical husband …” etc. Perhaps there was a danger that, unless things were cranked up a little, the whole Blake studies scenario would run out of energy. More likely, I think, was the growing unpalatability of a Blake who showed real evidence of traditional religious belief (however unorthodox). A new-look Blake was needed. Well, regrettably, that prophecy of Mitchell’s came true with a vengeance.

The business seems to have kicked off with some of the earlier feminists who actually predated Mitchell’s piece, and may well have influenced him. In 1973, one Irene Tayler published an essay entitled “The Woman Scaly”. It begins by reproducing a little epigram from Blake’s note book:

A Woman scaly & a Man all Hairy

Is such a Match as he who dares

Will find the Woman’s Scales scrape off the Man’s Hairs.

Not really Blake at his best, but as the barber says in The Man from Ironbark, “’Twas just a little harmless joke, a trifle overdone”. Not so for Ms Tayler. The “hairy youth” is “a spirit of rejuvenating energy and revolution” whose dominion heralds the return of Adam into Paradise. The ‘woman scaly”, so we learn, is an obstacle to this end, producing henpecked husbands, oppressed peoples, and a fallen humanity. Her scales place her in company with the devil, and fishiness (scales–get it!) means that her home is the sea. Are you still with me?

As you might have predicted, certain other feminists took issue with Ms Tayler, and a rash of published material appeared. These ‘studies’ then gradually condensed around the newly emerging gender studies industry. Since then, the output has been prodigious. Let me allude to just a few titles: Blake and Homosexuality, Christopher Hobson (2000), William Blake and the Body, Tristanne Connelly (2002), William Blake and Gender, Magnus Anskarsjo (2006), William Blake and the Daughters of Albion, Helen Bruder (2007) [feminist analysis]. Here, I must not forget a particularly choice example, Why Mrs Blake Cried, by Marsha Schuchard (2006). She cried, you see, because of Blake’s desire to take concubines in sanctified sex, along the lines of the Patriarch Abraham (Blake was a bit early for Brigham Young). Just to bring you up to date, I should add a new title to this oeuvre, Sexy Blake, (2013), edited by the same Connelly and Bruder mentioned in my list above.

As I say above, my reading of this stuff has been limited but I did force myself to read one such volume, Magnus Anskarjo’s Blake and Religion, 2009. I had, of course, hoped to find there some treatment of Blake’s rather idiosyncratic treatment of Christianity. Not much of that I’m afraid.  Instead we get the sort of exegesis you might expect from people who are hell bent on finding, in every line of Blake, sexual imagery of the grossest kind. Even Swinburne was not guilty of this sort of thing.  I don’t wish to offend the sensitive natures of my readers with the earthy details, but I do need to show you just how far these people will go in pursuit of their mad obsessions. Many readers who admire Blake’s poetry will remember these lines:

 The sword sung on the barren heath

The sickle in the fruitful field

The sword he sung a song of death

But could not make the sickle yield.

Now, all you ignoramuses who are under the impression that this is Blake’s innocent re-modelling of the “swords into ploughshares” idea (Isaiah 2:3-4) or something similar, need to read Anskarjo. “The sword”, he tells us, “denotes the penis, and the sickle the vagina”. He goes on: “This piece is loaded with sexual frustration and unfulfilled desire; in spite of strong efforts the speaker is not allowed to make love with his fancied object”.


Reading Anskarjo, you immediately see what so excites the diseased imagination of these later Blake interpreters (I refuse to use the word scholar). A couple of decades ago it was discovered that Blake’s mother had earlier connections with the Moravian Church. Now the Moravian Church is a very old Protestant Church which came to England in the 18th C. For a short time in its history, a minority of its disciples held rather strange views on human sexuality, and these have been eagerly pounced on by the Blake gender studies crowd. Before this, they managed to get some mileage out of Swedenborgianism, but the Moravians offered a far more fertile (no pun intended) hunting ground. The possibility that Blake himself might have been influenced by the more extreme views of some of the Moravians opens enormous vistas of eroticism and uninhibited sexual activity. What a boon!

There are two ways of viewing the love between a man and a woman – spiritually and carnally.  The great theologians of the Western tradition managed a synthesis of these two aspects – the spiritual and the physical – which elevated the relationship to the sacramental level. The gender studies crowd are determined to destroy this image and to drag human sexuality down to the level of rutting animals. As you might imagine, nearly all the purveyors of this stuff are university lecturers and their mad theories are being force-fed into young people at that very time when the latter are most vulnerable. Millstones and deep water come to mind.

We have not seen the end of the modern Blake industry. There are many books yet to be written –Randy Blake, Transexual Blake, Blake and the Phallus, Blake and Satanism etc. Indeed, by the time you read this, some of them WILL have been published. Sooner or later, someone will discover that Blake had a dog, or cat, or pet sheep, and then you may expect even worse. When Blake spoke of “dark, satanic mills” perhaps he was delivering a prophecy and a judgement concerning the modern university. If you, like me, enjoy Blake’s poetry, then this stuff is likely to provoke a mood of helpless anger, for nothing much can be done to stem the tide. But then, perhaps it is simply enough to feel a sense of sorrow –

For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing

And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King.