warren ellis versus harold bloom’s bardolatry (plus philip k. dick, booze, fathers & cave paintings)


Stories, Drinking and the World

 

Written in June of 2005

 

The literary critic Harold Bloom once said that we weren’t fully

human until Shakespeare began writing: that Shakespeare

completed our sapience. Which is both interesting and stark, utter

bullshit. Stories are what make us human. They’re an advanced form of

play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms

of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only

humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.

 

And we’ve always had them.

 

Go out to the ancient standing stones at Callanish in the Orkney

Islands, at sunrise. You stand in the middle of the stone circle and turn

to follow the sun. From that position, the sun is alternately occluded

and revealed by the curves of the surrounding hills. The sunrise is

dramatised as a struggle. As a performance. Shadows fall and twist

around you like spokes, until the sun claws free of the hillside and

sends light right down the middle of the circle and on to your face.

Walk down the great processional avenue to Glastonbury Tor, and

you experience a similar effect. The walk is designed to sequentially

reveal and present aspects of the surroundings, until the Tor is brought

out of the backdrop to stand in front of you. It’s intended as a religious

experience—a walk that becomes an experience of mystery and

revelation. It’s a plotline.

 

Cave paintings are comics. Standing stones are art installations. It’s

all stories.

 

And I don’t mean that in an ethereal Gaimany “the world is made

out of stories, mine’s a nice cup of tea” kind of way. I mean that we

make the world into stories. From scratching our perceptions of the

day into cave walls to dramatising the landscapes we’re born into, we

make the world into stories to make living in it all the sweeter.

 

Millions of us, every day, add art into our daily mundane experience

of the world by playing a personal movie soundtrack into our ears.

I knew a guy who’d put a tape into his car’s player and would

wait until Lemmy tore into “Ace Of Spades” before standing on the

accelerator and pulling out into the street. I must’ve nearly died a

hundred times because of that bastard.

 

An acquaintance of mine had a Lemmy story. He was living in an

apartment building in New York, and heard a terrible banging outside

his door. Going out into the corridor, he found Lemmy, throwing

himself into the walls, gripping a huge wooden spoon in one hand.

Lemmy, he said, why are you outside my door with a wooden spoon?

You know how some people have a little silver coke spoon? Lemmy

said. And then he held his wooden ladle up like it was Excalibur and

yelled, This is MINE!

 

Which brings me to drugs, which accompany storytelling

cultures. Being southern English, my own culture is an alcoholic one.

Mead culture. I’m from a village that began as a Norse settlement.

Thundersley. It translates from the old English as thunder clearing or

Thor’s clearing. It was a small centre of worship for Thor. There was

and is another Thundersley, fifty miles north, and the old story was

that every Thursday Thor would fly over both of his English clearings.

Thundersley was all forest and weir, back then. When I lived there, the

weir has been paved over, and the only trees in the centre of the village were around the school I went to, on a gloomy tree-lined alleyway called Dark Lane. A dramatised little passageway. We still do it. Over in rural Rayleigh, five miles away, there’s a road called Screaming Boy Lane. I’ve never found out why it’s called that.

 

My dad told me about that. He never found out either, and it was

one of those things that bugged him to his grave. He was one of those

people who stories happen to. He was a drummer in the Sixties. One

night after a gig, a couple of Liverpudlians came up to him and asked

if he wanted to join their band, as they were without a drummer at the

time and on the promise of playing some gigs in Germany

 

“I can’t think about that too much,” he used to say.

 

He was in the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s mounted soldiers,

and once responsible for giving the Queen a horse with the shits to

ride during a public event. He was in the Merchant Navy, and once

imprisoned on Fiji for accidentally jumping ship—said prison being a

thatched hut that he was asked to return to at night, if he’d be so kind.


You become part of your father’s story, and you can feel like maybe

you haven’t done enough to live up to his stories. My dad was an

unpublished writer, and I didn’t realise until late on that he felt that

he’d become part of my story, and that he loved it. I’d phone him on

my mobile from other Countries, places he’d never visited, or had only

seen once. From my usual hotel in San Francisco I can see Telegraph

Hill, where he’d gone during his single trip there. I called him from the

black shoreline of Reykjavik. Our stories, then.

 

Dad and I had similar histories in our drinking. Both woke up

in our late teens/early twenties finding ourselves doing a bottle of

something in a single sitting without trying. For the rest of his life,

I never saw him have more than a small can of beer at Xmas. I just

control mine, ferociously. I know to the drop the point at which I can’t

return from, and can fine-tune my drunkenness so I don’t wake up

naked and halfway up a tree. Again.

 

Read the rest…

scenes from the writing life: robert graves, poetry and mushroom cults

Rent "The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs" book by Marcus Boon by BookSwim Rental Library Club.

 

. . . The other great psychedelic pioneer of the 1950s was a J. P. Morgan vice president and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson and his wife had already written a voluminous work on the history of mushroom lore, Russia, Mushrooms, and History (1957) when, apparently through a conversation with the English poet Robert Graves, he found out about the continuing existence of a cult in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, that used teonanacatl, the vision-inducing mushrooms that Spanish writers had talked of after the conquest of Mexico. This mushroom cult had been discovered by an Austrianborn physician, Blas Pablo Reko, and picked up on by the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had traveled to Oaxaca in 1938 with Reko to witness the ceremonial use of the mushrooms. Schultes’ interest in the cult was botanical (he claimed that he experienced none of the visionary dimensions of the plants he “discovered”), but Wasson saw the cultural and religious significance of the story and traveled to Oaxaca, where, on August, 15, 1953, he took the mushrooms (which were of three species, the best known being Stropharia cubensis) with the Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina.Wasson published a widely read account of his trip in LIFE magazine in 1957, but was apparently appalled when others who read his account began traveling to Oaxaca. Wasson argued that psychedelic mushrooms provided the key to many of the world’s religious mysteries, including the soma of the Vedas, the Eleusinian rites of Ancient Greece, certain visions related in the Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, and the tree of good and evil in the Bible, but made no comment on contemporary use of the drugs. Forgetting his own LIFE article, he later criticized the vulgarization of contemporary discourse about the drugs, calling the term “psychedelics” “a barbarous formation,”101 and with a group of colleagues proposed a new term, “entheogen,” to describe the drugs—a term that conveniently obscures the nontheogenic nature of most twentieth-century use of the drugs.

 Robert Graves also believed that the psychedelics provided a source for much of the world of classical and preclassical mythology. In a review of Wasson’s work published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, he already speculated that the cult of Dionysus held mushroom orgies.102 On January 31, 1960, when he was sixty-four, Graves took mushrooms with Wasson in New York, and wrote an essay about it called “The Poet’s Paradise” (1961), which he read to Oxford students in the early 1960s. Graves described his experience in highly mythical terms, feeling that the mushrooms were taking him back to the world of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian paradise. He experienced worlds of jewels, demons, and erotic fantasy, while Wasson played a tape recording of Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina chanting. Graves was impressed, although he noted caustically, that “what was for thousands of years a sacred and secret element, entrusted only to persons chosen for their good conduct and integrity, will soon be snatched at by jaded sensation-seekers.”103 Such people would be disappointed, however, because instead of drunken oblivion they would experience heightened insight into themselves—which they might find less than recreational. Yet Graves believed that the experience of the mushroom was passive when compared to that of poetic trance: “It seems established that Tlalocan [Aztec word for paradise], for all its sensory marvels, contains no palace of words presided over by the Living Muse, and no small white-washed cell . . . to which a poet may retire and actively write poems in her honour, rather than bask sensuously under her spell.”104 A little later, Graves had an experience of synthetic psilocybin with Wasson, which disappointed everyone involved. Graves wrote that it had been “all wrong, a common vulgar drug, no magic, and followed by a nasty hang-over.”105 In the late 1960s he dismissed marijuana in print as being a low-class type of drug.

 —from Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Harvard (pp 253-255).

Notes 

101. Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl Ruck. 1986. Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 30.

102. “Centaur’s Food,” reprinted in Graves, Robert. 1960. Food for Centaurs: Stories, Talks, Critical Studies, Poems. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. A review of Wasson’s “Soma, Mushrooms, and Religion” was published in Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (1973)—in which Graves notes that Wasson does not credit him for developing the idea of Greek soma. The book also contains another essay on the mushroom experience, “The Universal Paradise.”

103. Robert Graves, 1969. On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 380.

104. Graves, 1969, 382.

105. Graves, Richard. 1995. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 306.