Placebo Blessings: A Long Goodbye to Mother Culture (Part 1)

The following piece was first written back in 2017 as an end to the still unpublished Kubrickon. When I reworked that book in 2018 I removed it as too loose and personal and fancied it would make a good afterword to a second edition of Seen and Not Seen, if there ever is one. As such, it might also be read as an unofficial (unincorporated, since at 600 pages the book is already fit to burst) intro to 16 Maps of Hell.

“I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs.” — Charles Fort

Back when I first quoted the Fort line above in The Lucid View, I was aware of consciously pretending not to believe many of the theories and interpretations I was presenting in that work. This was a conscious strategy to avoid discrediting myself—or more accurately, the ideas being presented, which were already pretty disreputable—with more skeptical readers. With The Kubrickon, things seem to have reversed themselves. Now I find myself in the odd position of not quite believing the things I am arguing for. This includes my own critical judgments about Kubrick. Not that I disbelieve them or hold contrary views; but nor can I quite get fully behind them. Like Fort, I can’t accept that the products of my own mind are subject matter for belief. I recognize and respect the power of belief, but because of that, I can’t fully believe in anything I believe in.

It ain’t over till it’s over. While I was finishing up The Kubrickon [or so I thought, back in 2017], I spontaneously remembered a line from a (highly critical) review of The Blood Poets and realized at once that it belonged in this current work (being written exactly twenty years later). The review was from Oliver Harris, of the University of Keele in the UK—a countryman—and came out in 2001. I don’t think I saw it until at least ten years later, as a result of—that most illicit of authorial pastimes—typing my name and the book title into Google. Happily, I managed to find it again by doing the same, in a PDF online, and I reproduce the quote that seems so significant to me now. The author of Blood Poets, Harris wrote, “hates Kubrick for gate-crashing the Hall of Fame, which always remains his abiding obsession.

It’s not clear whether Harris means my abiding obsession is for the Hall of Fame or for gate-crashing it; but either way, he not only scores a bullseye, he splits his first arrow with his second. Harris’ review is almost wholly excoriating and only half-insightful, however, the other half being more of an ideocratic attack than an analysis, as when he takes me to task for (of all things) lack of tokenism: “It almost goes without saying that Horsley’s gallery of ‘blood poets’ is . . . exclusively white and male.” (Talk about shooting the messenger!) But the insights Harris does provide are dandies—even if I was less than receptive to them when I first read it. (The truth, like medicine, often tastes bad.) Yet peer reviews are a time-honored tradition of academia, one that serves to hold researchers to an impersonal standard and let them know when they are in danger of “thesis creep” (or creepy theses). Harris upheld that tradition honorably, even if it has taken me almost twenty years to appreciate it.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

 

When The Thing Doesn’t Happen

Remember when your identity was still forming? How could you? More precisely, with what would you remember it? The lens the spectacle-maker uses to build a better lens, at a given point is tossed aside (or built into) the new lens. And so on. All our discernment and taste about movies is created by watching movies—what else can it come out of? The first ones that get to us, lay the foundations thereafter. There is nothing less objective than movie taste, and there is nothing objective about taste. Or, for that matter, about perception.

The author Joseph Chilton Pearce made a career out of writing books about the war between nature and culture. He described a classic battle between good and evil, complete with its own death-star and (life) force (guess which was which). The central premise to his thesis—which focused on brain development and biology—was something I call The Thing That Didn’t Happen. According to Pearce, the human brain is designed to develop in such a way that, during or just after adolescence (i.e., with the awakening of our libido), the frontal lobe of the brain becomes fully active and we enter into whole-brain functioning awareness. Spiritually-traditionally, this is called “enlightenment,” the arrival, emergence, or return to no-self selfness, to non-survival-oriented, non-mind-based, holistic consciousness that experiences itself as fully connected to and in harmony with its environment.

Due to the deleterious effects of an overly complex cultural environment, however, this Event never happens. Instead, we remain locked inside the self-protective, highly reactive, egocentric identity construction which characterizes the first stage of self-awareness. This constructed identity is what comes into being (it would be temporarily if all went well) between an identity-free child state and a potential, fully adapted and autonomous identity-free state of adulthood. In Pearce’s model (due to birth trauma and other early interference), we wind up stuck in adolescence. Pearce attributes the feeling of immense letdown which so many of us experience as we enter into adulthood—if not kicking and screaming then with massive reluctance—with this deep, biologically instilled sense that something epic, something life-changing, has failed to occur.

Naturally, we continue to seek this thing that didn’t happen, even long after the window of opportunity has closed (the brain has stopped developing). And naturally, we transpose our sense of that inner lack, that disappointment or need, outside ourselves, onto the things of the world. It’s usually at middle-age that the penny fully drops and we become conscious of the immense disappointment we are carrying around with us. As our options start to run out one by one, the likelihood of Some Big Event that will Transform Our Lives into something that matches our expectations is slowly whittled away to nothing. Think of all those characters in novels, movies, and TV shows (and our lives—and us), lamenting (to their children or their partners or whoever): “This isn’t how I thought it was going to be.” How could it be, when our life force got diverted from the get-go?

I tried to write about this in Seen and Not Seen (cf. “Peddlers of Astonishment”), referring to how I grew up (from age seven or so) with a profound attachment to Marvel super-heroes (Spiderman, Fantastic Four, X-Men, all currently becoming central to new generations via the bloated movie versions). A bit later (though I continued to read comic books into adulthood), it was Hammer horror movies, and then, finally, as I entered adolescence, Clint Eastwood and David Bowie stepped in, or up, to provide me with an adult-ified projection of self-liberation and empowerment. Culture had hijacked my development and coopted it for its own dark ends (building the Death Star); and then, over time, it became my friend, ally, and caretaker. It offered ever-new promises to fill the aching void left by biology’s failed ones. And so it went, or so I did, digging the hole of my premature burial, deeper and deeper with each wishful wave of my lightsaber (or fake 44. Magnum). Each artifact of fantasy I could amass helped buffer me from the formless phantom menace of an increasingly dark reality.

 

A Nightmare of Evidence, or: Why Movies? (The All-Important Capital A)

The key passage I found in Oliver Harris’ “take down” of me went as follows:

Loving Hollywood cinema by loving Pauline Kael, what Horsley really loves is, of course, Art with an old-fashioned capital A. Accordingly, The Blood Poets is a remarkably unapologetic work of evaluation and canonisation, committed to sacramental archetypes and individualist expression, while seemingly unaware of a mass of underpinning essentialist assumptions. . . . For Horsley, the film critic not only has to “assign credit and blame” but, more profoundly, aspires to be “an artist whose work depends wholly upon the art of others” (I: ix), which is to say, aspires to the same heroic individualism of his individual heroes–the pantheon of great directors. In this light, the foregrounded idiosyncratic agenda of The Blood Poets–quirky detours into pop-occult theory, asides on gnostic tradition, pearls of wisdom from Carlos Castaneda, Charles Fort, and sundry others–has to be read as Horsley’s own bid for that all-important capital A.

Of course (once again), Harris is 100% right: The Blood Poets was not an academic thesis about movie violence. It was many things (a love letter to Kael, a delivery device for paranoid awareness, a sustained rant against my father’s squeamishness, and a hopeless bid to gain the attention of Hollywood); but, while it was published by an academic press, it was not an academic work, not really. Above all, it was a sustained, wildly undisciplined, stream-of-consciousness exploration of a personal obsession; in other words, something that probably never should have been submitted for academic peer review. But c’est la guerre. If Icarus wants to fly that high, Icarus can expect to land with a thud. I didn’t gate-crash Hollywood, but I did gate-crash the halls of academia, and apparently Harris didn’t like it.

So why is it that I enjoy writing about movies so damn much? This is the question that pursued me in the last stages of writing The Kubrickon. The answer I found is that it takes me back. It takes me back to a time when I was first imprinted by these cultural artifacts—when they meant so much to me that it was as if my life depended on them. Movies (and comic books, and albums and songs, and yes, books) were objects of power animated by adolescent desire. By re-handling them, by turning them over and over in my writer-mind’s eye and hand, I am, I think, hoping to reclaim that power I lost to them. Or at least, to regain the experience of losing it, which is just close enough to having had it that it will have to do (you can’t lose what you never had).

I loved comic books and movies before I cared about art, with or without a capital “A.” It wasn’t that any dream would do; but as long as the dream was technicolor enough to coat my monochrome reality, then it would do—exactly what I needed it to do. And what I needed to do was escape.

Naturally, with time and maturation, learning to discern between dreamscapes (becoming a film critic) became part of the ritual of submitting to them. I wanted—needed—to be seduced, persuaded, even deceived, to succumb, to surrender my sense of reality to another. Like any game, to be meaningful it couldn’t be too easy. The measure of the seduction was art: how artfully could I be lured into an imitation of a no-self (childhood) existence, one that simultaneously offered the empowerment fantasy of a fully-functioning identity that matched how I wanted to be as an adult self? The more compelling it was to me, the more seductive, the more I could identify with it and use it to build my moving fortress in which to enter the world, without ever having to be really exposed to it.

To Kill a King (2003)

Lethem again (one last time, this from Ecstasy of Influence):

It may be latent in human psychology to model the world on a fall from innocence, since we each go through one. [A]s a culture we’re disastrously addicted to easy fantasies of a halcyon past, one always just fading from view, a land where things were more orderly and simple. . . . For that reason, so many really smashing cultural investigations open up a window onto the truly disordered and frequently degenerate origins of things we’ve sentimentalized as pure and whole and pat. [It is] a revelatory nightmare of evidence that the place we came from is as deep and strange as any place we might have been ourselves, or might imagine we are on the way to going. (p. 142.)

We all dream of being little children again, even the worst of us. Is that because we are still children, dreaming of being adults (often the worst kind)? To refer back to Kael again—one last time—this is from her closing statement from her career-making attack on Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory, “Circles and Squares”:

Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence—that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive feminine types? And is it perhaps also their way of making a comment on our civilization by their suggestion that trash is the true film art? I ask: I do not know.

It’s curious to note that, elsewhere, I have argued for pulp as the true film art as well as for the great importance of masculinity. Perhaps I have gone some ways to proving Harris wrong and I turned out to be a poor sort of Paulette after all? Yet Kael’s most interesting point in the above is the one that dovetails with my present argument, that all my own film theorizing has been revealed to me as an attempt to justify staying inside that small range of experience of my boyhood and adolescence—yet also, finally, an attempt to get free of it. (Can there be one without the other?)

Peckinpah’s assumption is that, as adult males, we all want to return to (relative) innocence; but why would we want that when we know, from a mix of experience (dim memories) and observation that with innocence came unbearable exposure, vulnerability, and pain? The answer I think is that we are trying to get back to a place and time before the thing that was supposed to happen didn’t happen, in the hope that, somehow, this time, it will. The tragedy of this unconscious reenactment compulsion is that, what most effectively transport us back to childhood are the very same artifacts and associations—those cultural power objects—that trapped our attention in the first place by providing a surrogate experience of The Thing we were waiting for, and so helped prevent it from happening (because our attention was elsewhere). In other words, by trying to follow my attachments to cultural objects and personalities (Art) back to the beginning so I can dis-identify with them and extricate myself from their illusory magic—drown out the serpent’s whisper—I may only be holding more tightly to them, like a drowning man clinging to a sinking ship.

Or like Pike and his bunch, cradling their rifles like babies, as they march inexorably towards the closest they can ever get to a true expression of adult masculinity.

 

Identities in Motion

The things you own, end up owning you (Tyler Durden). This is never truer than of what we believe. Opinions are not just like assholes: they make assholes of us all. Being right is only a state of mind.

I was always one to hold fast to my convictions, especially when it came to movies. Don’t even try to tell me K-Pax is a good movie, or Field of Dreams or Gravity or Silence or 12 Years a Slave. It won’t wash with me. I will end you. (Actually, it’s more likely I will avoid your eyes and change the subject. There are few experiences more uncomfortable than listening to people talk about bad movies they love.)

As much as my “aesthetic responses” feel like unquestionable facts of life, I know that, really, they can’t be much more than tricks of light. Why believe in my own judgments about movies when I doubt my ability to know what’s real? The answer may be: because it’s all I’ve got? So what happens if I let go of that “all,” and see that it’s really nothing much of anything? What then?

I am the unreliable narrator who can’t be trusted to represent the facts of the matter (facts all come with points of view), whose perspective just twists the truth around. But, my judgment about movies is impeccable, i.e., when it comes to discerning good illusion from bad illusion, I am a master of taste. Do these two facts go together? I am the unreliable narrator who reassures you, “It’s OK, you can trust me, I’m a critic.” Because if we aren’t able to tell what’s real, the need to choose a really good illusion becomes paramount.

The movies I love lie beautifully when they tell me who I am. I wrote The Blood Poets based on simple logic: I wanted to write a book about movies and focus on the movies I loved the most. Most of the movies I loved were violent, so I wrote a book about movie violence. The one question I never addressed was why? Why the love of violence? I skipped it by focusing on the world and not the self. I took it as a priori given that the best art (or Art) is imbued with violence of one sort or another because that is the world we live in. Yet, so far as I knew back then, my world was not an especially violent one, so why the fascination for violent art? That is the secret I kept from myself: that my own identity, long before I first laid eyes on John Wayne or Kirk Douglas or Clint Eastwood, was forged through violence. And the hidden aspect of my movie love was not that I loved violent movies but that I loved movies violently. My identity depended on an ability to say “This is good and this is bad.” To judge, even as I was judged. And in every violent judgment, there is condemnation.

The part that seems most vital to my sense of who I am is the part that condemns anything and everything that questions its control: it is a system of defense.  Taste is a terrible mistress, a narcissistic mother and a moveable fortress. It is a prison made of promised but forbidden pleasures. A tree of knowledge.

*

So where does Stanley Kubrick come into this exactly, when none of his artifacts made it into my adolescent mojo pouch? The answer, I think, has to do with what Kubrick represented, even then. This was the thing I most wanted to happen, the identity I was desperately aspiring to become: the legendary filmmaker. What better way to hold onto my fantasy that the objects of my dream life were real than to learn how to make these objects myself? My 44. Magnum replica was a faintly embarrassing continuation of my stuffed animals, Star Wars action figures, and James Bond Moon buggy. It worked for a while but then had to be put away with the other childish things. Ditto my “idea” of becoming a cop in San Francisco (live the dream–enter the nightmare), which was about as likely as my becoming an astronaut. To be a filmmaker was a logical, practical next step for me to fantasize about; most excitingly of all, I could start immediately, writing scripts and (rather more childishly) drawing mini-posters and writing imaginary reviews of the movies I would someday make. (The only one I remember was called Houses in Motion, after the Talking Heads song. It starred Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange and was about domestic strife. Ha. DeNiro and Lange did go onto star together–ten years later, which might have been roughly the release date of Houses in Motion—in Martin Scorsese’s worst movie at the time—Cape Fear. It was about domestic strife, B-movie style.)

As Oliver Harris rightly calls it, from this time on (with the help of my own dysfunctional family conditioning, which included reverence for artists), I was indeed angling for induction into the Hall of Fame, for greatness, cultural permanence, for an identity to last the ages, in short, the closest equivalent I could manufacture for the missed boat of “enlightenment.” For the goal to fill the hole where my soul had failed to show, or at least for it to promise to, for the dream to do (seem real), it depended on the culture in question—Hollywood—being itself real, trustworthy and true. That world I courted had to be able to recognize, affirm, accept, and reward my offering—my holographic dream-self—and all its works. There would be no satisfaction in entering Valhalla if I wound up surrounded by clowns and fakers. Nothing less than the gods would do for company.

Along with Hitchcock and a tiny handful of others, Kubrick was probably the closest to being recognized as a cinematic deity and—here was the rub that would create the splinter—I didn’t like his movies! What was wrong with this vision? If Kubrick had gatecrashed the party, what was the point in my trying to get in? (The party was in my mind and it never stopped—but I didn’t know that yet.) More cryptically—even further below the threshold of my awareness back then—what did Kubrick have to do to attain his place in Valhalla? What was the price of admission to the ranks of culture makers–i.e., those who forge the artifacts from which lesser mortals such as myself assemble our own desperate, second-hand, identity matrices, all the while harboring the childish illusion that the dream is real? What was the price and was I willing to pay it?

Like the Wizard giving fake diplomas to Dorothy’s gang of losers, the need to believe in the Wizard’s sorcery is almost insurmountable. Is it enough for us to still believe that the one who creates the illusion of a Wizard is himself a wizard for doing so? To believe that his openly bogus artifacts—his placebo blessings—will bestow upon us our missing parts? Apparently so. But what about the Wizard—how can he believe? All that’s left for the culture maker is to believe in his own power to create illusions, and in the power—the reality—of the culture that bestowed the power on him, in exchange for eternal servitude. Like Jack in the Overlook.

Is there any prison more confining than the prison created by legend? It’s here that the deepest corner of the Culture Trap (the Kubrickon) is found, and this was the corner I had to gain access to. (In this present enterprise, that is: not the Hall of Fame but the dungeon of endless aspiring.) I would do so not by aligning with power, but by identifying my own inner compulsion to achieve it, and by confronting my hapless, hopeless aspirations for all the spectral rewards I began chasing after, all those years ago.

Continued next week

 

13 thoughts on “Placebo Blessings: A Long Goodbye to Mother Culture (Part 1)”

  1. An excellent piece.

    “So what happens if I let go of that “all,” and see that it’s really nothing much of anything? What then?” For me, it’s more like “how do I let go of that all.” The familiarity of the dungeon has lost all its romantic appeal.

    Reply
    • This post was spectacular. I refrain from lengthy comments on the blog because I don’t want any of us to get sidetracked, as you pointed out in my brief exchange with Dave regarding the Tower of Pisa. But regarding this particular content, you’re speaking for many of us, if not all of us. I used to be a filmophile, and was deeply entrenched in culture, but I have been clean for over a decade. As you said in one podcast, you write in order to make things clear for yourself, that’s precisely why I truly love reading your work. You name the nearly knowable for me while leading my attention beyond words, thoughts and mind. Penmanship of the highest order.

      Reply
  2. What if you manage to throw off the shackles of culture, break out of the prison, and find yourself alone in a wasteland? Will you, can you, return? Just being at the point of understanding, that it is a facade that everyone surrounding you takes so seriously, is a very lonely place.

    Reply
    • this is why they say the hardest part to a jail break is staying out; the preparations should also include an indeterminate period wandering in the desert. Hydration is the key.

      it helps to remember that we are already alone in a wasteland, hence our need for shadows to keep us company. But yes the wilderness is hard, esp if you have dental problems.

      Reply
  3. It’s odd , now that I think about it Jasun, I have been reading your site for a while now, and I enjoy your writings, but I must confess that I HATE MOVIES. I hate movies, not just intellectually, but with an aversion that is like an allergic reaction combined with a panic attack. The last movie I went to a theater to see was Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”, and I swear that I’m glad I made it through the film without passing out in the seat. Movies at home on TV are no better, I flee the room frequently when my husband is watching. I wish that we had a house where the TV could be banished to a soundproof room. I can watch a few old movies that we have seen a dozen times, or documentaries, or “How its Made”, or the like, but ask me to sit through a new movie I haven’t seen before, not gonna happen.

    Reply
    • What is it you hate about them so?

      I recently thought how odd it is that we enjoy watching people pretending to be something they are not. Maybe because it’s what we grew up with and never found a way to escape from, except into open pretending?

      Reply
  4. My discomfort with movies started with either “A Boy and his Dog” ? starring Don Johnson, or “Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris”, or maybe both. My Aunt used to drag me to artsy films back in the 70’s, when I was a teenager. I remember having to leave “Jacques” in the middle of the movie due to an anxiety induced stomach ache….

    Reply

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