Thoughts on the Symbolists (An Exercise in Procrastination)

Responding to the charming delinquency of Isabel-Cobwebqueen-bastard (or whatever your name is, linked below)…..

My hand has exams to write this week but I thought I would procrastinate going to the ink-mines of the library this morning and respond to your stimulating thoughts on the symbolists and Melville and you know, escaping life through words …. Unfortunately, all the Mallarmé texts in my library are in French, so my exposure to the poetic giant remains only through the critical lens of the writer-translator and generally nefarious character of Paul Auster. So, in other words, if you want to keep writing about Mallarmé, I would like to keep reading—

But, you did encourage me to take down my (library-stolen) book of poems by Stefan George this morning, another one of the Tuesdayists[1], from my structurally-collapsing shelves. He’s a German. The joy of the French symbolists being how they were joined by the Germans and the Austrians and the citizens of Miscellaneous Countries in their thoughts, as their literary movement defied borders…

Regardless, I thought I would respond to your thoughts firstly with a Lacan-fuelled disagreement. For words are the ghosts—the phantoms—of our experience and what we perceive and describe, not life, as they desperately try to cling on to and remember things that would otherwise be forgot. They capture the likeness of the things that we immediately experience but that have vanished, like abstract thoughts and cats, operating as signs/symbols for that which has passed our perception. Words preserving and conceiving reality in otherworldly memories, dream-like reconstructions of experiences no longer there, recalled into our minds so that we may speak and type things into the internet. Even obscure words, like otiose and bereitschaftspotential, signifying things or processes we as individuals have become aware of for a certain time, before forgetting about them completely to go do something else. So thus, I disagree: for whilst people distrust impractical, superfluous words (what use is poetry to the economy? Not even the publishers can sell it!) I think we enter little dream states every time we talk. I.e. Life is not a phantom—linguistic “declarative” memory is. Even phrases like “Get back to work” presupposing the imagination of the greasy-haired foreman who has said them, as he imagines us not idling about but doing some work instead.

I think you see Mallarmé as being ebbed into some sort of sea-scape of Dreaming, the unconscious waves of thoughts within all of us, but in my reading the symbolists are also centred on the phenomenal immediacy and newness of the external world outside of us: a life of feelings and experiences without the signs and symbols we are so fondly conscious of…

Take a few examples from Valéry’s, The Graveyard by the Sea:

‘The wind rises! … Life calls to be attempted! / The boundless air opens and shuts my book’ – is this a longing for escape-by-daydream or for the rush of life?

‘And as a fruit into enjoyment melts, / Its form dissolving, dying in the mouth, / Changing its absence into sweetness, here / I breathe the elusive smoke I shall become, / And to my incandescent soul the sky / Sings alternation in the restless shores.’

AND, from another one of his books I read a long time ago:

‘What are mortals for?—Their business is to know. Know? And what is to know?—It is assuredly not to be what one is.’

‘SOCRATES […] What will never happen again happens magnificently before our eyes!’

In the Freudian sense, dreams are the backdoor to understanding the unconsciousness, and words are a construct which allow us to know stuff by describing things, without disclosing and giving these things to us themselves. Which would make Mallarmé, by your reading, crazy: for wanting to be the mouthpiece for dreams, for using the illusion of language to create images of the pre-linguistic and primordial, he first has to consciously create and craft language. It is like trying to end world conflict by violence or global hunger by eating cake. I.e. the symbolists are trying to use language to describe a pre-linguistic reality, whether it’s within us or (as I think) in the urgent-fluidity and phenomenal experiences of life… Images and symbols, dreams created through words, describing some atavistic state before language in some strange performative contradiction.

And there is the Blumenberg-Nietzschean myth of how since fish-men walked out of the ocean and on to land, ill-adapted for it with myopic eyes, they have longed to a return to the sea. Returning to the unconscious also being a return to a state where we are not conscious of words, where we are not walking on solid land… where we are cod fish. Sea breezes usually stranding debris onshore (there is a push motion away from the sea, as well as a pull one towards it)…. But then, Nietzsche was mad and even his moustache wasn’t very impressive; it just drooped.

Here I shall sincerely apologise for dropping names like bombs during wartime, but then demonstrate that I don’t know what the word ‘sincere’ means… For in Van Gogh’s letters he writes of how that all he can aspire to do as an artist is “to paint an atom from out of the chaos”; when Delirium and Dream find Destruction, they talk to him, hearing words from out of the previously mute figure continually defined in Gaiman’s series by his absence (is just irony that the harbinger of absence and the end of things, is absent himself? That he has, in a sense, become self-destructive?). Dream anyway always tends to evoke words from out of people and inspire their lives in some way *cough, Shakespeare, cough*. And, isn’t this what the symbolists are doing: trying to create images through language of life’s pre-linguistic marvelousness? Trying to be inspired by a love of life in all its rawness? Whether it be the numinous within or without of us? To create order, economy, and (art)work, from out of the profligate and primordial space of ordinary experience, reality, and feelings? I haven’t read or thought about them in-depth, but this is just the vibe I get from some of the non-Mallarmé symbolists (I’m going to file a complaint in my library asking for an English translation).

But anyhow, here are four lines from out of my Stefan George anthology which are ideational payment for “Sea Breeze” and I think (though am not sure) pertain to Van Gogh’s Starry Night (thanks for the procrastination!):

Northern Painter                                                                                                                          Wherein your secrets and your weakness lie                                                                                   We spent our nights in torment, to discover:                                                                                  You paint the shreds of glow into your sky                                                                                   That round the limbs of fallen angels hover.


[1] Les Mardistes….I’m afraid I’m another one of those linguistic-colonists, who turns all terms into English out of a lack of polylingual ability. For how I should hate all my French poetry to be in French, and my German poetry, to be, you know, German. I like to think a poor translation adds something to a text rather than taking it away. 


Supernatural Season 11, Episode 1 ‘Out of the Darkness, Into the Fire’: An Outsider’s Perspective

I have a dark confession to make. This was the first Supernatural episode I’ve ever watched. Thus, I realise for the more seasoned viewer it may seem a little harrowing that I’m judging the entire contextual history of an over 200-episoded show on this one specific one alone. But, I’m reviewing it anyway, okay? Deplorable, I know. If you think I got something wrong just say.


So naturally, this being my first episode, I was a little disorientated but this didn’t seem to matter. The 360 degree turns of Dean amidst the ethereal Darkness showed him too in a position of disorientation—brash head movements corresponding to his state of clueless vulnerability. Confusion seemed to be a constant thematic element of the episode. Who and what is the Darkness? Her back turned from the audience. What position have the characters been left in? ‘What the hell’s going on?’

The constant cyclic elements of the episode are nauseating. But in true cinematic style, the producers reflects this confusion through the editing by framing the episode with Dean’s encounter with the Darkness. It’s something this season is evidently going to continually regress back to. But as far as this episode goes, it is merely a plant—a mystery, we are wanting to be revealed. A mystery that will continue to enshroud Dean and test character interpersonal tensions as it is dragged out. For what is darkness but evil and ignorance? What we cannot see but are irrationally afraid of nonetheless. A future unknown. I think the show is really breaking the fourth wall in this episode pointing towards a seismic shift. ‘If we don’t change, all of our crap is going to keep repeating itself’ (Sam). If the show doesn’t change some of its dynamics, it’s not going to progress and evolve but rather repeat all of the same sort of things it has already done. It’s enshrouded by a dark, unknown potential.

I mean from what I can gather, the format of the show seems to be exploring numerous character story arcs whilst the Winchesters go around uncovering supernatural events as FBI agents in their car—usually leading to anarchy. ‘And around and around we go’.

But, now it’s time for some profound character development. Dean’s been thrust into his carnal nature where his character can really be expanded on. Initially, a leftward track from a field of flowers reveals him unconscious looking down towards the earth or Hell; he has been placed amongst the reeds and natural whilst a long shot of Sam above him sees him transcend the reeds symbolic of human primal instinct. He’s the moralistic figure. ‘Saving people, means all of the people. Not just that baby.’ He is above Dean’s aggressive, the-only-way-to-solve-a-problem-is-to-hit-it, morality. He’s above Dean’s carnal nature.


Yet, Dean was very much the focal protagonist of this episode with everything centrifugally springing forth from his masculine, no-nonsense, character. Sam, despite his great jawline, as the voice of reason was often blurred out into the background. The episode was Dean. Dean in control over the situation. Dean absorbed in his own bubble mentally detached from the present in flashbacks. Dean’s masculinity. I mean, the times the camera cuts to Dean’s face borders on the grotesque. It’s relentless.

But, it also really highlighted the central issue of the episode. Dean feels isolated. He’s withholding information about the Darkness from Sam and in keeping this secret has thus burdened himself with whatever it truly holds. He feels obliged to act as the heroic protector on all accounts due to his masculine sense of responsibility. And, in this obligation to protect himself and those he prioritises from all outside danger, Dean will pursue his aims regardless of the moral cost of his violence. He doesn’t want to see the zombie infection grow to the point where it can harm others; he wants it quelled now. In his minds the zombies are no longer human. They are the enemy beyond saving. Anyway, the zombie risk clearly doesn’t weigh up with the instrumental value of finding a cure for their condition. ‘You know there’s no other way’, the Darkness like the disease is his responsibility and one he feels he must deal with before it harms others.

‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ says the isolated Prospero in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. The same connotations apply.


Yet, Sam is able to get through to Dean. He steps forward. ‘This isn’t on you, this is on us.’ Truly heart-wrenching narrative mechanics. The chemistry between the two is what a false tooth is to the wealthy. It’s pure gold; they clearly belong together. I dare say it takes the bromance to a whole other level of literalist meaning.


No longer blurred, his voice pierces the invisible membrane hovering around Dean the entire episode (i.e. his masculine egoism). Yet, Sam’s moralistic arguments prove not only to expose him to danger but to almost risk his life. Dean is proved right; whatever they’re going to be facing, acting morally is only going to put them in danger. Are they going to place themselves in this unknown, in the instability, where horror and tension thrive? The Darkness? Or is there always hope and a cure in religious idealism and morality? All I know is that Sam wanted to do things ‘his way’ but ultimately failed.


The zombies themselves, the ’28 days later’ black-veined monsters of the show, I found really interesting. We’re given an upward tilt of a bunch of sprawled out, bullet-holed, corpses of the stereotypical dehumanised infected. ‘They’re not human’ says Sam. ‘Rabid dogs’ says Jenna. They have no rights in their state of unrestrained animal aggression and are thus, in this conjecture, percieved as mere potential violent targets for the good guys to extinguish.  But what about the ‘cure’? Sam practically emplores Dean to not kill them-that there is another way to mass extermination. To truly solve the problem, he argues that the zombies deserved to be saved from their abject conditions through finding a cure to the cause of their conditions. As humans, they deserved to be saved; there is always hope that their infection isn’t irrevocable. There is redemption even for the most externally as internally corrupt of characters.


Mike really humanises this episode’s ‘bad guys’ in this way supporting Sam’s argument. He redeems the undead. (It just screams Richard Matheson’s ‘I am Legend’ that zombies can be people too, alright?!) Regardless of his transformation, he protects his child by giving her to Jenna and clinging onto to all paternal sentimentality in his fight against his infection. Clinging on to the last shreds of humanity left in his persona, he raucously splutters out ‘Her name is… Amara’. The child is defined. If in doubt, parental love is a guarenteed identifiable crowd pleaser. This entire story arch is just fun to watch even if it feels unoriginal like I’ve already watched it before.

However, I do have some actual grievances with this show—namely with the character of Jenna we are presented with. She had the potential to be a real, Ellen Page, kickass woman yet was shown as not only incapable at her job but forcibly thrust into maternity? It’s embarrassing.


Firstly, there’s Dean’s condescending tone of voice to her throughout their relationship. Its velvety deepness speaks with an almost paternal authoritarianism. The bloody gash on your side, the ‘bad guys’ did that right? Though she may have killed a whole militia of bellicose zombies, all emphasis is put on her bloody infirmity which her achievement is almost utterly subverted by. Now, this is okay. Dean is a lot more experienced than her. She’s only been a police woman for ‘three weeks’ and even Sam fails to deal with them later on in the narrative. Yet, by calling them ‘bad guys’ it is as though that Jenna’s ingénue juvenility means that she is only capable of understanding things in the form of a childish fable.


She is taken from what should be a heroic position and placed by Dean into a damsel role. He dresses her wounds whilst she grimaces in all her white purity. ‘They don’t train you to shoot your friends, I panicked’ she admits. Dean’s male ruggedness scarcely falters. Jenna is represented in her inexperience as incapable of doing her job and thus subsequently is deferential to Dean and the males around her.


‘I don’t understand’. Why treat her this way? Why make her the wide-eyed and startled fool negligible on nearly all accounts. Sam and Mike assure her that they’re right—that the zombie disease is ‘transmittable’ despite her feckless responses. Despite her position, without experience, she is shown to know nothing.  The badge gives off more a glint of luster than her eyes and it seems as though her authority is feigned and based on the prowess of her position as a policewoman over her innate capabilities. The badge makes up for her dullness. A little harsh; she was still a fun character and she could still see the painstakingly obvious, ‘FBI my ass’. For all of her shortcomings, she still can see that Sam and Dean are too detached from the ordinary to ever be identified as belonging to it.

11But, I mean apparently adoption consent forms now only require potential mothers to say, ‘I don’t even own a guinea pig’, before trusting fathers pass their children on and run off to becomes zombies. Mike orchestrates the situation entirely and the transference of the child is left as though completely canonical. As Sam says at the local Gas Station, it’s ‘you and her’ now—she’s your ‘way back’, good luck, I’ll drive you home.What? Well no. Sorry Sam, but there’s no way back for her to be an independent heroic woman again now that she’s been shown as incapable of her job and thrust into domestic maternity without as much as her openly agreeing to it. But who cares? Equilibrium is restored; she’s a woman, women have children and thus it is only logical that she has the child in her care. Don’t worry about shooting the zombies anymore Jenna, we’ll get you two to safety.

09Dean’s sewing her up earlier in the episode is almost yonic as if foreshadowing that she’ll no longer require the faculties of her uterus anyway giving that she’s going to be put into the situation of being a surrogate mother.  But, in defence of the shot, if only one thing this show has mastered I have to say it is the lurid Hammer-style fake blood. But, does its stylistic vitures make up for its thematic vices here? I really hope they redeem her character in the next episode.

Now the Bible might be renowned for having few heroines, but surely we don’t need to depower and titillate women today—which is precisely what this one episode of Supernatural definitely does. It may cater to some societal demand but it just makes the show look cheap. Though subtle sexism in conventional television gender representation is as common as manure is to a horse’s rear end, I’d rather not see it and it is definitely behind on the times. Even the femme fatale, the Darkness herself, who was supposed to be similar to some sort of ancient Cthulhu-like force, unleashing tendrils of black fog everywhere, just happens to be a glamourised model with a revealing dress on. What is empowered is inexorably titillated and designed for male consumption. The Darkness too can’t be extrinsic from all males but rather is bound to Sam whom she allures in a two shot appearing as though the two are going to kiss.


Why can’t the Darkness just be an independent character? Jenna at least had to make clear to the Winchesters that she wanted to see their flesh. ‘Show me some skin.’ The exposure of female sexuality in this episode is just lavished on the audience constantly– playing directly into our expectations of commercial television. Now, I’m not saying that Supernatural as a whole is sexist but I’m definitely sensing a definite, albeit subtle, undercurrent of it here. It’s asif in part they are selling good looks.


Even by far the show’s greatest virtue, the King of Hell, conforms to this basic stock positioning of women. For what else would one inhibit a female body for aside from to place it in an orgy? The first thing said by this lecherous figure is a straight out ‘bollocks’ as his demonic powers are shown infirm whilst he possesses a female body physically emasculated. Though, in a suit, her character does seem to be, unpossessed, very outgoing to say the least dressed in a professional business suit. She tries to coerce her Christian husband (who gives such colloquial outbursts as ‘any-hoot’) to have an orgy. The scenario in its absurd irony is purely comedic in nature.


But, I forgive Hell’s old man. This show evidently isn’t afraid to be a bit risky. Where a bowel of blood and nuts are placed together as simple orgy party snacks whilst doubling up as metaphoric breasts, the screen transcends all simplicity into a level of cinematic artistry. The cinematography of some of the shots in Supernatural is nothing but outstanding. I mean, you’re serving nuts at an orgy? Whilst the cheesy Tom Jones sings ‘It’s Not Unusual’? It’s like a metaphoric snack in a scene readily ate up.


Everyone’s a little physically damaged in this episode. Well, all aside from Dean ‘protected’ by the Darkness not so much as having a scratch on that immaculate face of his. Boy, you have got to love that face. Jenna’s mortally wounded, Sam’s cut up and is infected with the blood-borne zombie disease. But, what I was most impressed by was Crowley’s injuries being compared to those of a dead dog’s. After Castiel’s repeating flash-back fixation on assaulting Crowley, we are given a gruesome shot of a bloody hound. Crowley has been temporally put down. He seems like a dog at the end of his days and surely it is kinder just to put him out of his misery. Yet, I don’t think Crowley will go down without a fight…..


I mean, even the fact Crowley’s subservient pawns are fumbling multicultural bureaucrats adds to what we already know. There is no hell like a bureaucratic hell. I bet the forms are antagonising long. Each pen without ink. It’s completely ironic how the conventional anarchic representation of the underworld is represented as an ordered sovereignty as in Milton’s Paradise Lost. ‘Half of Hell is freaking out, sir.’ Well what do you expect? An ordered society of zealous Puritans? Of the little of it that I’ve seen, this may prove to be one of my favourite interpretations of Hell ever where even its King is on the run. Yet, his power base of organisation shows him as a figure hard to put down. He’s at the top of a vast hierarchy for goodness sake.


The blistered eyed Castiel too seems like a character on his last legs. Running from persecution and praying in what appears to be like the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘prevent me from doing further wrong’, he is in clear desperation. I admit, he didn’t initially impress me with such ingenious lines as, ‘Don’t make me hurt you’, but through him I get a very real sense of the religious narrative of the show. He hides and runs from persecution, prays to his ‘brothers’, is handcuffed and then hung on his own personal Cross to pay off the penance of his crimes. He appears almost Christ-like in this sense despite his menacing and haunted characterisation.


But, finally, the Darkness! Forget her titillation, those who don’t admire a good anthropomorphisation are…well… wrong. They are timeless characters. ‘I don’t know this Death, and he doesn’t know me.’ She literally is without time–without a finite end, acting as a universal concept brought down to inhibit some mortal vessel. Cain’s mark on her here is really ambigious: has some Cthulhu-like spirit possessed the child? They are somehow inexorably linked.  It seems quite clear that human Darkness can transmigrate from person to person like the zombie infection can be passed on through blood branding them indefinitely. It seems almost hereditary that even in the innocence of a child, there is corruption and Darkness. It clearly iterates the Old Testament notion of a sin being passed on to all of the transgressor’s progeny. But why? Has she claimed some sort of ownership over the child?


For just because Cain’s mark doesn’t scar the rest of the characters physically, Dean, how can anyone ever surmount its past markings on their psyche? It conventionally drives Cain into being the liminal Wandering Jew persona as his sin hereditarily passes down to all men. Castiel and Dean seem too haunted like mere apparitions of a long bygone self. Interestingly, Amara’s name translates as ‘eternal’ and ‘unfading’ and we see that the mark on her brands her persona and preconditions her from birth. All we can hope for in the next episode though is that the Darkness possessing Sam is not unfading too. Will his moralistic philosophy transpose into Dean’s because of this bad experience? Will he become as mindlessly violent and anarchic as everyone else? Is there redemption for Castiel and Dean?

‘I can feel it inside, something is happening’, says Mike,‘How long until I become like them?’ How long will it take for Sam to become like them? Mindless and violent.


But my overall rumination? The overarching attitude I now attribute to Supernatural? I like it. If nothing more than its experimental nature and engagement with the religiously gothic, which is nearly always sensational, it’s complex and entertaining. It often leaves its construction lines open which although sometimes seems sloppy means that so much significance and synoptic connectivity can come out from it not found in most shows spun off by the major networks. I admit, a preliminary read-up probably would have solved my confusion over the narrative like when Castile says in hoarse voice ‘Rowina escaped with the Book of the Damned and the Codex.’ I recognise that the show is complex. Stuff is going on. But, narrative complexity is the very foodstuff that fandoms devour and love. I’m not surprised the show has gone on for so long. It focuses on so many story arcs all at once. I still prefer Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Good Omens’, but this tackles the same sort of genre and area that is so full of potential if done right. And Supernatural’s dry humour and cultural references meshed with archaic imagery and stock narrative ideas certainly seems to be getting something right. I mean I just watched this on catch-up TV on Thursday night rather than having to endure the walk of shame to and from the cinema seat of ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ but I will definitely be making time to watch the second episode sometime this week…

‘I don’t really know what to think. And I don’t know what to expect either. So, I’m just going to chuck it all in’—Dean Winchester