And then all hell broke loose.
But what am I saying? That the Sixties folks were a bunch of hell raisers? Hardly. Hell is exactly what they didn’t believe in anymore. When people were tripping out at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January of 1967 the concept was that the old corrupt society of war and repression and without a doubt religious notions of Judgment Day would be eliminated by good thoughts, by beatific visions, by sex and smiles and laughter and blissed out awareness of the sun and the music. The Fifties, it turns out, were the only the seedbed of new explosions of Fun. The psychedelic Gold Rush was on! LSD, grass, meditation, the Beatles, getting tuned in – it was all going to change the world.
And sadly it did.
The best ideas and ideals of the Sixties have long since been left in the cultural dust. The actual San Francisco Hippies weren’t nearly childlike as they wanted to be. They still clung to things like reading, like art, like Civil Rights, like Free Speech, like Art Films. They might get stoned and dance around like children but they were still reading Nietzsche and Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. They might be breaking down the sexual boundaries but they still tried to defend what they were doing to their parents with somewhat rational arguments. And though much of the intellectual content of what they were ingesting might have had a deeply Romantic post-Rousseau-noble-savage-anti-intellectualism to it nevertheless whether it was Gravity’s Rainbow, Frank Zappa or El Topo, the work from the late Sixties early Seventies still challenged one’s brain. But it proved to be nearly the last gasp of certain kind of Post-War educational boom time which would last into the early Punk Era and not much further. Ultimately the Fun loving philistines won the day.
I’m old enough to remember a conversation about morality in the mid-Seventies where Adolf Hitler was mentioned and a girl said to me, “Well I can’t get into that space personally but maybe if it was right for him who am I to judge?” An ill omen indeed. Disco, too, was a bad sign. But then again so was the slick commercial television of the Brady Bunch. Even Sesame Street did not provide for children the superior stimulation of an Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows or A Wrinkle in Time. Hallucinogens ceased to signify any sort of inner exploration of the mind, let alone the universe. Drugs instead became a recreational activity. So did nature. Though eventually the Rocky Mountain High allure of hiking and national parks would give way to cruise ships and extreme sports. Theme parks were becoming much more serious in delivering their services. Disney World in Florida and eventually the simulacra driven EPCOT Center opened. By the late Eighties Disney World had surpassed Niagara Falls, itself now a shabby theme park, as the number one honeymoon destination in America. How could a merely majestic waterfall compete with the tableaux of a faux pleasure dome? As the Seventies slipped into the Eighties Fun became a much more serious mantra.
Also somewhere along the way, in a thousand different compromises, the overly optimistic dreams of the counterculture began to blend into the teething techno-culture of the time, which created as well a new commercial culture inspired by illusions of Fun. The road from science fiction through Star Wars and E.T. towards the current digital landscape of pods and pads went from being an rarely used byway into the dominant highway of mainstream culture. Late 20th Century American society soon sloughed off the adult in favor of the adolescent and we have suffered profoundly ever since.
And people began to change their modes of behavior in accordance with their new belief structure. Fun being the number one hormone in a Youth fixated culture was reflected over and over in a great percentage of our activities. Clothing certainly reflected this change. For a while it looked as if rock music’s sassiness would predominate: Punk and Metal black leather and studs. Post-Deadhead jeans and hair. Yet a change was taking place in the Rap demimonde perhaps first of all – the emphasis on sports gear; A fad that would take over much of the clothing trade. Shiny long kilt-ish synthetic basketball shorts worn well below the place formerly reserved for belt loops. Running shoes of one stripe or another seem to have replaced any semblance of leather shoes. Post-Deadhead “hippies” now freely invest in the kind of shiny sports gear and outdoor wear that was once decried as plastic, artificial. New Age enthusiasts carry strange rubberoid yoga mats around. How much of our current society seems to dressed for some recreational activity? If one were a 1967 San Francisco hippie and were suddenly transported to this moment in time from 1967 to meet people who espoused a similar philosophy the words might sound familiar but the living style would seem completely hollow. One would be aghast at the amount of artificial materials worn and used by folks who claim to have the same ideals.
But of course those people are still with us. Many of them in their sixties and seventies. By golly it is a very quare sight in deed to pass a few aging organic hippie types on a road peddling their bikes garbed completely in plastic fabrics of one kind or another. They think they are living the same dream, with some modifications.
But really the sacred cow of Recreation cannot be questioned. It is in truth a species of the hydra-headed Fun. I remember when I first arrived in Alaska in the late 90s I was talking to a woman about the vast tracks of wilderness surrounding us. I said something like this: “It surprises me to realize how many people only see nature as a recreational opportunity.” She looked at me without blinking. My words had the faint aroma of blasphemy in her nostrils. She did not comprehend what I was saying at all. I was going to mentioned something about Tarkovsky and the vision of reality that bleeds through his films. Then I realized that I might as well be speaking Russian.
In this brave new world of Fun and Recreation there are no questions. Fun simply is the point. And yet you think there would be people who seriously questioned this idea. Perhaps those old stick in the mud Christians ,with their savior who bled and died for our sins (definitely No Fun), would challenge the new ideology of Fun? Many who aren’t Christian think that’s exactly what is happening in our times. Oh how deceived we all have been. No one has bit quite as deeply out of the candy-coated apple of Fun as modern American Christians.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990’s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.
When we think back on the actual Hippie dream we often imagine college aged folks prancing around in fields, flowers worn as ornaments, recreations of Eastern motifs, men’s hairstyles caught somewhere between a Native American tribe and the Wild West, women in long flowing ‘natural’ garments, stoned bliss, childlike and childish behavior. For many who weren’t alive then the drumming and mud fest as see in the filmed version of Woodstock often sums it up. (I had a few friends back then who did play in the mud tweaked as they were by their acidic visions.) For a few moments in San Francisco, between say 1965 and 1967, there actually was a dream, a fervent hope that through the use of psychedelics, free love (meaning whatever with whomever), and all that great new music, a neo-primitive community would be born, scrubbed clean of all of ‘the hang ups of straight society’. The Jean-Jacques Rousseau idea of being born free was taken quite seriously. It seemed to have bypassed most of the hip youngsters that all three aspects of this new liberated counterculture were based upon old school unfree major league technology. (Drugs, made in a laboratory. Sex, big thanks to the Pill. Rock, um, electrical amplification is indeed a key ingredient.) And not only that the ingredients of liberation were certainly not for free. You had to pay to get back to the garden. The return to noble savagery was merely a naïve dream or maybe just a pose.
And in fact well before the Sixties ended the bloom was off of those flowers placed into the barrels of National Guardsmen’s rifles. Already by the supposedly beautiful summer of 1967 the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was infested by hordes of the most lost and searching children the country could produce. The media descended to play it up. They dubbed it the ‘Summer of Love‘. Meanwhile the overdoses mounted, the abortions flowed, the music was being packaged and sold, the hucksters arrived, the false messiahs found acolytes. (Jim Jones and Charles Manson both did their San Francisco time.) By the early 70’s more religious factions, sects and cults could be found compressed into the San Francisco Bay Area than any other place on earth. All to scoop up the youth of America who had suddenly come to the conclusion that rational thinking was over. “I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.” (The Byrds – Fifth Dimension)
Did anyone in the media notice the burial of the Hippie in San Francisco in the Fall of 1967? Did the mainstream media notice that the good vibes had seriously ended by the time of the Altamont Rock Festival in December of 1969? Did Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison ever get any kind of mass media frenzy that Kurt Cobain did when they died? Did anyone observe that the royal bummer of a film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England took 25 years to be released to the public? Did anyone apart from a few prescient individuals see that the Hippie dream of the psychedelic noble savage was over by 1970? The answer to all of these questions is the same. No. And so the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll dream continued. But something had to change drastically.
For one thing the very size of the movement of those influenced by the Hippie dream of a return to wild nature had swelled to global proportions. Yet what they were getting was something much more diluted, still filled with the basic gist of the idea, that rational thinking was fairly pointless, except perhaps in construction of our techno toys, and what everyone really needed in this massive chaotic world was ‘Fun’. And the very word Fun had been blown up into a teleological rubber dolly.
The real operative words became intuition and instinct, in other words to ‘trust your feelings Luke‘. ‘Thinking was stinking’ was the way Charles Manson put it. The general impression was that thought, intellectuals, book learning had poisoned the well of Western consciousness and one way or another we had to get back to our primal selves. We needed to just trust our intuitions, our hunches, our stream of consciousness. This sounds like every song by Bjork. But she wouldn’t be alone by any means. One could argue that since the Sixties a majority of the pop music world, regardless of style, has emphasized this basic principle. ‘It’s your thing. Do what you want to do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.’
Of course, most of this hope in thoughtless intuition, or instinct (that word we use to describe animal behavior that we have absolutely no idea about why or how they do what they do), is based around contemporary concepts, or should we say deconstructions, of sexuality: The ‘as-long-as-nobody-gets-hurt’ (Yeah right.) school of human relationships. But at a certain point when hippie, singer-songwriter, new waver, punky mom and dad, who had sewn enough wild oats for their entire antecedent family tree were confronted by a child who might say, “But I am doing what I feel! I hate their guts! I want them to die!”, the elder partners in the family firm might simply have nowhere left to fall back. The concept that following your feelings might lead back to real primitive urges hadn’t crossed their minds. Yet it certainly should have.
In 1974 the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a harbinger of things to come. For Tobe Hooper it was quite clear that the Hippie dream had failed. He references the dark side of the Aquarian dream as Saturn in retrograde, not a good thing at all. And now this was what returning to the wild was really all about! A family left to their own devices reverting to cannibalism, ghoulish fetish art, a world where rational thought and language no longer apply. And though, despite the phony warning at the beginning of the film, this really was inspired by the such a reversion in the back woods, not of Texas, but of Wisconsin in the 1950’s, it was not merely as film critic Robin Wood suggested, in a brilliant 1978 Film Comment article, ‘a return of the repressed’ (again referring almost exclusively again sexuality). This was indeed more a warning that the dream of a blissful return to the garden was the pinnacle of delusion.
Not that anyone seemed to fully get the point. Whether in the commercially coy New Wave music of Adam and the Ants lauding a return to the ‘wild frontier’. Or in The Virgin Prunes Goth manifesto accompanying their 1982 album Heresie where they rail against the cleanliness of society, advocating a return to the dirt and go so far as to recommend correcting one’s civilized behavior by leaving used menstrual pads around. Later in RE/Search #12 Modern Primitives, (the book that gave every one on earth permission to get tattooed and pierced), it was clear that the answer to the dilemma of hypermodern society was a return to the tribe. And yet as Texas Chain Saw and dozens of other horror films had foreseen, this reversion to a dark tribal past would not result in a more meaningful life. By dampening our rationality, we would not find answers, we would perhaps find rage, or perhaps an inchoate howl of distress as Kurt Cobain specialized in, but we would also be opening a door that leads to madness, the kind of madness French philosophers like Michel Foucault or Georges Bataille had dreamt of. The kinds of transgressive acts that Bataille in particular believe all religions eventually led to. And my own feeling is that if, massive if, there is no God, then perhaps they are right.
Such troubling reversions to our primitive state are not isolated incidents. Hundreds of examples can be culled from the news and history: Whether in the cannibal witchcraft cult of Matamoros, Mexico, on the Texas border in 1989 or in the individual feral children found in various parts of the world. The beautiful dream of returning to a primitive state dies pretty hard in the face of the facts. And in Lucky McKee’s dark film The Woman we are confronted with a stark collapse of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic countercultural Hippie dream. There is no escape in the wild.
(Next the Conclusion of the Feral Life. We meet the Woman, wild children and learn to lose our language.)
A woman, dressed in rags and furs, carelessly filthy, black stringy and presumably lousy hair, teeth unsubjected to any dentistry and poisonous as a hyena’s, her face cocked like a gun preparing to explode, enters the lair of a wolf. The animal growls. The human brute growls back even more ferociously. The camera does not show us but we hear the beating and the tearing of those human teeth. In a moment we see her running, perhaps it is a dream. But in this story the woman who runs with the wolves is no sub-Jungian New Age empowerment fantasy. This is a fearful thing.
The film is The Woman. It was released in 2011 and more recently for home digestion. Directed by Lucky McKee, who also directed the brilliant watch-at-your-own-risk May back in 2002, The Woman has been vilified as misogynist, far too gory and just plain nerve-wracking and simultaneously praised for it’s feminist undertones and unique character portrayal by Pollyanna McIntosh. It is indeed quite hard to believe that Pollyanna (Has anyone ever been more paradoxically named?) is actually a statuesque Scottish beauty. But all of this contradiction delineates clearly the manner of beast we have here.
And as I watched this grisly work of art I was struck by many details that resonated far beyond the confines of this inexpensive little indie film. The screenwriter, novelist Jack Ketchum, had continued his novel, The Offspring, with special emphasis on the Woman at the suggestion of producer Andrew van den Houten, who had directed a version of the earlier book. The film of The Offspring also starred Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, leader of a tribe of feral humans in the American Northeast. And it is in fact this notion of feral humanity that really jumped out at me with such force in both films.
Feral is a curious word. (By the bye it can be pronounced in two ways. One, the more standard, makes it sound like fair-al. The other less common pronunciation is more like fear-al.) It suggest not merely wild, or wildness, but of the domesticated thing returning to the wild. For instance if you showed up on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean you would find a healthy population of feral cats that had been left behind by sailors from centuries back to eradicate the rat infestation accidentally bestowed upon the islands. I am claimed by a feral cat myself here in Alaska. They can go in and out a feral state. And that is very different from the human race. This could have something to do with the fact that domestication depends entirely on an animal’s relationship to mankind. We are not tamed by our pets or cattle. Now before I tread too far into some politically incorrect screed let’s return to ferality.
So to be feral is to revert to a wild state. Now at this point we bump into a raft of cultural issues that have their primary origins back in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized most famously that ‘L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.‘, which translated says that, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.‘ It was clear from his writings that Rousseau lamented the state of society that had enslaved us. All those compromises! All that book learning! All of that conformity! The individual must be free as an individual! Vive la Revolution!
Another related idea is that of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau did not invent the concept nor was he as primitivist as it sometimes claimed. Yet the somehow a reduction of his idea comes down to us like this; that the most free folks on earth are those most free from civilization, those closest to nature and the earth. Rousseau praised children for their purity, primitive tribes when they had achieved the stage of the savage. Regardless of the subtleties of Rousseau’s very influential works, the concepts of the ‘noble savage’ eventually merged with the art movements of 19th Century French Bohemia.
French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin followed a quest for this kind of wild life when he left behind everything and followed his muse to Tahiti. There was vision at the time that the Tahitians and many other tribes were more liberated than the stale old bourgeois European world that he had left behind, along with his failed marriage and children and the sense of depression that led him to attempt suicide. He wanted to find something in Tahiti. Something he was missing. Yet it could not be found. When he did eventually paint his masterpiece, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (trans. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), this was not the work of a man who had found his boho dreams come true. Death and futility are writ large. Paradise, not a paradisaical as the dream. A great painting had been made but the Tahitians were pretty much stuck on the same earth as everyone else.
Nevertheless more and more souls began to empty themselves out into various jungles of the mind in search of the perfect primitive conditions of liberation. Expressionist movements like Les Fauves, the very word meaning wild beasts, followed Gauguin into the primitivist wilds. In fact so much of modern art can be seen as a various forms of rejection of the things that make up the a dull conformist society: a return to nature, a rejection of nature, the artist as prophet, the artist as shaman, the artist as outlaw, the artist as madman, the artist as barbarian, the artist as explorer at the edges and the artist as denizen of the dregs. And all the while the dream of a feral sort of existence haunts the proceedings.
The Surrealists perfected perhaps the most intellectual version of this dream… which is of course an oxymoron. Yet one has to hand it to the Surrealists, whom I have a great deal of respect for. Following Symbolist dream theory and folding into it a strong dose of early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s reduction of human psychology to the libido, the Surrealists sought among the detritus of tainted experience in childhood, the metal institution and other outsiders for a way to connect, beyond reason, to the meaning of Art and Life. Later artists would discover Carl Jung.
But finally a movement would come along that would bubble up higher than the demimonde of the arts. The Beat Generation were by the late 1940’s pickled in Rousseau’s individualistic liberation dream. All that matters is to be true to yourself. That is the final statement. (With the proviso ‘as long as you don’t hurt anybody’ whatever that means. Actually that is the nail in the noble savage’s coffin.) But the Beats had a few nice twists in the lime of Rousseau’s gin and tonic. One, sex, and lots more of it. Two, drugs, and lot’s more of them. And finally music, or should I say Jazz, with Charlie Parker, (Oops! Sorry! Dead from primitive aid number two!) or Miles Davis in the role of the prophetic noble savage. We’ll overlook the hidden racism in considering black jazz players as noble savages with a pipeline to the primitive urges and demiurges. Did anyone ever at the time notice that being black did not equate to being more in touch with the mysteries of the savage universe? Great musicians? Yes. Fresh from the jungle? Um? Not quite. Pretty damned intellectual actually. So let’s change that addition from Jazz, just cross that out, to let’s look around a little… Oh! Wait! What’s this wild primitive stuff over here? Oh yeah! Rock ‘n’ Roll! And voila sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (!) equals another variation on the noble savagery theme.
Okay. I’m well aware that white American asses in the 1950’s had gotten damned tight and needed some musical loosening. But in plain fact, find one 1950’s rock ‘n’ roller that was truly in Rousseau’s camp. This was a case of the noble savage interpretation of what was actually fairly standard electric folk music in the traditional American vein. Had Postwar America not been quite so somnambulistically square it would not have been seen as such a radical departure from Jazz or the Blues. Nevertheless by the late 1960’s this Rousseau interpretation of Rock music was standard. (See the burgeoning field of Rock criticism.) Rock had indeed become a revolt against civilization. LSD was the psychosomatic magic which would effect the liberation of desire. Down with Christian prudery! Down with humanistic rationalism! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go! Vive la Revolution!
And now the feral dream was out of the intellectual closet.
(Next time we continue our little survey of the wilderness from Woodstock to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Virgin Prunes)
Also here’s another Anadromous essay on a similar theme…
As a puppeteer, with quite a wide definition of puppetry, I find often myself keeping an eyeball cocked onto the world of those close cousins of the puppet, dolls. Technically the basic difference between a doll and a puppet is this: you play with a doll by yourself, but get an audience and you are a puppeteer. Playing with dolls is an act of personal fantasy, the creation of a private world. When you turn the figure outwards everything changes, you now have to communicate something to someone else. Dolls and puppets both serve valuable functions. And there is some academic wrangling over the true ancestor of the puppet. Is it the doll or another strange homunculoid cousin, a more fearful relative, the religious idol? It is probably a mixture of the two. The puppet is a performer who can contain many a complex message. The doll is a figure that is usually outgrown as a playmate as a child discovers the outside world.
But what happens if the child doesn’t outgrow the doll? What happens if the child begins to treat the doll as something to emulate? What happens when the personal fantasy becomes a prison? And more to our point: What happens when the doll becomes a role model and object of desire? What happens if the doll’s lover develops a real case of agalmatophilia, that is a statue, doll and mannequin fetish?
I recently stumbled upon the phenomenon of girls becoming dolls. We have often the heard a girl compared to a doll before. But in this new trend to call a teenage girl a living doll has taken on far more than subtext. There is a girl whose real name I’m told is Venus Palermo, but who goes by the YouTube moniker VenusAngelic. Venus is about 15 years old as I write. She likes to dress up like a doll, to wear ribbons and frills and to compose her face with wide eyed innocence. Oh! Did I say wide eyed? I mean that literally. Not ‘literally’ as in ‘I literally fell on the floor laughing.’ when no such thing occurred. But literally as in this girl has a fetish for Japanese anime an is turning herself into a ball Jointed Doll (BJD in the doll world). In her video entitled: How to look like a doll (make up), Venus instructs her viewers how to achieve a porcelain like doll skin and even how to apply contact lenses to enlarge the size of the pupils. Giving her eyes a real doll effect. And VenusAngelic has about 80 videos on her personal philosophy of doll simulation. (She also speaks in a crazy doll’s voice that make her videos uniquely bizarre.) So think about this for a moment… A girl trying to become a doll.
As soon as I saw these photos and videos I knew I was looking at one of those weird trends that would catch on all over the place. It’s obvious to me that hippiedom, punk attitude, alternative piercings and tattoos all pretty much have the musty aroma of stale history to many teens these days. They need a new model. The revolutions of the counterculture are basically dead. (Occupy Wall Street not withstanding.) Here is the strange new thing. This is not my vote for a new paradigm mind you. I would hope for something more grounded, more questioning of technology, a bit more Luddite and much more fiercely intelligent. But as long as people are seduced by our wireless, app-worshipping, multi-screenal technocracy this is what we will get. I just knew I would see much more of this particularly curious blur between fantasy and reality, between plastic and flesh, between screen and quotidian existence.
And there certainly is more…
There are more doll girls already. Dakota Rose, a 16 year old, who goes by the name dakotakoti or Kotakoti is even more popular than VenusAngelic. (Between the two their videos have been watched by millions.) She’s a bit less extreme and some have said she tweaks her photos a bit to get the doll effect. She too comes across as a human BJD and creates her big eyed effect a bit more naturally. But the effect is the same. (She also reveals a connection to the Emo girl look on occasion.) And the doll look is certainly being copied. Japan? Absolutely. America? It’s just winding up. Globally? We’ll see.
But this doll/human interchange is actually a two way street. The doll itself has become a sort a laboratory for a kind of android aesthetic. Let’s consider the BJD. The unusual thing about the BJD is that they are anatomically more correct than most dolls. Some of these dolls are exquisitely crafted with incredible attention paid to detail. Not only that the costumes and accessories are even more elaborate. I first ran into the Ball Jointed Doll (though it wasn’t called that yet) in the mid-80’s through little Japanese doll books of Amano Katan. His Katan Doll: Fantasm was something I’d never encountered before. Beautifully constructed, yet disturbingly emaciated dolls, that seemed one step away from drawing a warm tub of water and contemplating a razor blade.
Since then the BJD has developed a cult following with artists vying with each other to create the most dewy eyed melancholic homunculi imaginable. In the hands of an artist like Russian/Canadian Marina Bychkova these dolls are anorexic works of art. They have a strange erotic power in their tangible realism. I’m impressed by the craft and dedication that goes into these dolls.
Oh yeah, by ‘anatomically correct’ I mean they show pink nipples and genitalia, which is quite unusual for a doll. Of course they aren’t really for children. But what is their function? I know that people get together at conferences to marvel over these BJD creations. Doll collectors consider them a real pinnacle of the craft. But there is a problem.
The Japanese have a word, ‘kawaii’, which roughly translates into English as ‘cute’. Now in English ‘cute’ a relatively recent word, means something akin to baby-like, when most people use it. Babies are cute. Bunnies are cute. Kittens and puppies are cute. Cats can be cute. A teenage girl might say that a boy is cute. (Here the meaning is slipping a little.) But generally baby-like things can’t be violent or pornographic. At least that’s our vision of things. Kawaii things in Japan can be. That is, big-eyed anime and manga characters can certainly be both violent and highly pornographic. I won’t follow this any further, but if you know the worlds of anime and manga you know exactly what I’m talking about. The BJD has evolved from the anime tradition. And like anime or manga the BJD, though fitted with the standard markings of cuteness, big childlike eyes, puffy lips, silky smooth skin. But in the very realistic, and stylized treatment, of human genitalia several categories are being blended in ways that are not only erotic but have an especially troubling kick. The moist childlike faces seem to beckon towards very forbidden fruit.
But there are further degrees of the human/doll interpenetration. If you remember the climax of the first Star Trek movie where man mates with machine you can understand that there has long been a desire to make the perfect erotic mate. One that isn’t bitchy, naggy or bleed once a month. Someone who will not ask uncomfortable questions. This curious desire goes at least as far back as the Greek myth of Pygmalion. I suspect that it even finds it’s expressions in various fertility idols of the remote past.
And RealDoll has achieved the next step. The old image of the inflatable love doll is now hopelessly antiquated. For about $6,000 one can purchase a female doll approximately the exact size and, more importantly, the weight of a real woman. And would you understand me if I said that these dolls are even more anatomically correct than the BJDs. They have certain replaceable parts and very pliant human textured silicon skin. Interestingly the movie Lars and the Real Girl, featured one of these lifelike dolls and yet did not find the concept all that creepy. Again, as so often in the movies, humans and machines were made for each other. The relatives of Lars find it getting a touch too weird. But the movie itself seems to plump down with that old saw ‘whatever works’. Well they do make porn films of these dolls too. And what is the nature of the actual relationship of the man (Girls don’t get too envious, they now make male RealDoll’s too.) to the simulacra? Have we crossed the line from fetish to idol?
I don’t know, am I being too much of a Puritan about this stuff? (Calvin did make some good points.) Or is this really the destiny of the human race? Predictably the media has recently been covering the Doll Girl phenomenon and of course the questions they ask go something like this: Are we sexualizing young girls again? Like that was the big issue here. It is indeed a problem. But I don’t think that’s the serious issue. Maybe we should ask; What are we sacrificing in our desire to blur the distinction between what we make and who we are? What are we losing in the bargain?
Too understand the answers to that line of questioning I think we can start by imagining VenusAngelic or Kotakoti twenty or thirty years down the road. What prosthetics will they choose to retain their status as living dolls? What surgical procedures will they adopt? We know that most organs can be transplanted now. What happens when they finally find a donor to give them a doll’s plastic heart?
I hope they learn to face reality long before then… But then again what in this society is really encouraging them to do that?
There are questions and implications that I have left dangling during this survey of various aspects of American Gothic Culture. And undoubtedly I have left a few confusions uncovered. Since this has been essentially an introduction to a subject that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with before I’m well aware of how many other examples I could pull from a hat. There many discussions left to be had about what is and isn’t American Gothic Culture. There is also a fairly serious delineation to be made between this nascent American Gothic sensibility and what is often called Goth. I will attempt a little of that now.
One question that has been left unexplored is this: Why did American Gothic Music take so long to come into being? The short answer goes like this. Music has always been a part of that which links people together. Thus there has often been an underlying sense of confidence that often pervades the music. Music often has a joyful component to it. Or at least a simulacrum of joy as in the sterile ‘fun’ of so much pop music. Even the blues, as painful as they can be, often has an aspect of hope buried in the implications: The idea that “the sun will shine on my back door someday”. Or even the notion that by hearing the pain of these lyrics someone will change somehow.
As a result music hasn’t been the best vessel for expressing real darkness… until fairly recently. After years of exploring various musical phenomena I think I can fairly confidently state that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a certain kind of philosophical darkness entered popular music with groups like Love and The Doors. This existential dread festered into real anomie with Iggy and the Stooges. (It is curious to note that all of these bands were on Elektra Records.) And finally the music erupted into explicit rage with the Sex Pistols in 1976. And this rage was new. I don’t just mean it was a new musical trend. I mean in all of the history of music there was absolutely no precedent for such blood curdling scabrous anguish as to be found in, say, The Birthday Party’s Fears of Gun where Nick Cave vomits out the word ‘Love’ as if being disemboweled. You can search all you want, I have, for anything that sounds remotely that angry… you will never find it, prior to that point in human history.
It takes that sort of bleak intensity to comprehend the American Gothic vision. And it is not Nick Cave’s spewing forth that is his American Gothic work. It came when he started to try to find answers for the questions he had posed about the nature of humanity. And this is one reason why American Gothic Culture is vastly different than the usual Euro-Goth scene. Goth is about the darkness. Goth is about vampires, funerary motifs, ghosts. It finds these images to be helpful as some sort of anodyne to the blandness of contemporary culture. Goth also dips into fetishes quite liberally; leather, rubber, corsets, etc. Goth Culture seems to say I am the darkness. I want to be a vampire. I want to be as spectral as a ghost. I want to be cool. Don’t dream it, be it.
American Gothic Culture seems quite Other, by comparison. Even the darkest of the dark within the American Gothic spectrum, for instance Ambrose Bierce or Joe Coleman seem to have other fish to fry. Instead of being cool, their work seems to scream, “Why is it so dark? Huh!” Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fever pitched cry of black despair fuelled more by cosmic anger at the insanity surrounding him than by any desire to laugh at the rubes. Even the extremely sardonic and gory humor of EC Comics can be seen as a series of serious questions. The man who pulls the face off of an ugly woman with a hot body trying to get her to unmask says more about the mysteries and problems of beauty in this dark world than has ever been written in a fashion magazine.
In fact the hallmark of real American Gothic work is a recognition of the evil, the bleakness, the absurdity, the darkness of the human condition. And that’s the answer to another implication: Why don’t folks with an American Gothic perspective sell out to the commercial forces the way Hippies, Beats, Punks, Rappers, etc ad nauseum seem to do? It’s because there is no point in becoming huge. There is no progressive utopian Romantic goal to achieve. The end is already seen in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy or other successful American Gothic folks aren’t happy to be selling a few books and discs. But the truth is they aren’t driven by commercial imperatives. If they didn’t sell a thing their viewpoint wouldn’t really change.
Fascinatingly American Gothic Culture houses both Christians and Atheists quite comfortably. But by Christians I don’t mean the contemporary commercial mega-church consumers. I mean folks like Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, David Eugene Edwards. Nick Cave has been seemingly close to Christian faith at times. And by atheists I don’t mean the Richard Dawkins variety of confident hucksters, I mean the bleaker, more honest souls like an Ambrose Bierce or H.P. Lovecraft. And it was Lovecraft who admired the Puritans for their darkness.
But the point is this: These aren’t the gullible folks. These folks don’t seem to have nice positive attitudes. They aren’t trying to boost anyone’s self-esteem. They aren’t Romantic in any sense of the word. (Another big difference with Goth Culture.) There is no collusion between Disney and American Goth. There is no cute version of American Gothic Culture. And most interestingly American Gothic sensibility is in no way Postmodern.
Postmodern Culture thrives on postmodern irony. It lives on the deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe into Madonna into Lady Gaga. It lives on surfaces, since surfaces are deemed to be the only reality. It takes style as substance, content as merely social conditioning. It laughs at seriousness as pretension. The old Modernism was way too serious, though in disassembling everything they paved the way for the ironic hordes. Who to say that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t as good as James Joyce?
American Gothic trumps postmodern irony with bitter irony. And bitter irony is fairly impervious to deconstruction. Who can deconstruct the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I don’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Sure you can. But you have to get into the dark EC Comics mode to do it. But I mean put the DVD into your machine tonight. See who wins? Leatherface or postmodern irony? There is no contest. Your most postmodern child will wither before such an onslaught. Why? Because although there is humor to be found there, ultimately this thing is too damned serious to be turned into a deconstruction of itself. Tobe Hooper really believed in the power of the chainsaw. The same goes for The Road (film or book), Winter’s Bone (ditto), Nick Cave wailing Saint Huck or Tom Waits who uses humor all the time, yet really can’t be touched be postmodern irony.
The reason that academic theoretical babble about appropriation or deconstruction don’t get to far down the American Gothic road is because instead of ironic appropriation you have junkyard salvage, instead of deconstruction, you are faced with a much older stronger concept: destruction. American Gothic Culture is entropic. It sees the limits of a culture, our own, that is based upon endless progress and positive vibes. American Gothic Culture sees the good effects of negativity: The meaning behind the word No.
This isn’t to say that every artist I’ve mentioned was consciously saying No to the mindless optimism of the larger culture. But I do believe a good many of them have. There is a sense of realism in the face of the endless facades. American Gothic Culture is not an active movement. There is no town I could recommend for you to hang out in for American Goth trappings. There is intelligence, sorrow, black humor, history and even sometimes deeper strands of questioning and faith to be found in American Gothic outlook. At it’s best the American Gothic sensibility is a lot like the character of Ree in Winter’s Bone or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is grit and integrity in the face of the American nightmare, which it projects as the growing dimming entropic reality of the American future.
We’ll leave this introduction to American Gothic Culture here. But it is obviously one form of Anadromous Life being birthed in our times, one culture going against the stream of endless propaganda and the hype, a real question mark in the face the growing fiction of the 21st Century.
Sometimes it seems that we live under the illusion that what is, what exists right now, is pretty much the way things have always been. Our movies help us to believe this prestidigitation. We see some contemporary actor in a historical setting and we automatically assume something like, “Right. That is how it would have been.” And of course what we now consider to be heroic prevails: usually someone fighting for the right to pursue their deepest desires against forces of containment and repression and to naturally in some way come out of it victorious. There is always the temptation to believe that we have at last come to pinnacle of history, or even better evolution, and can now look back at the miserable past with the confidence that at least we don’t have to live in that slop anymore.
Or perhaps we can imagine a Romantic epoch where the knights and princesses of old would be as clever and cynical as we are now and still, while eating our cake yet still possessing it, get to have all of the old trappings of royalty and nobility. The distant heroes in our fictional myths are always the people we would believe to be the hero now, in this quicksilver moment; the princess who understands medieval politics from a contemporary post-feminist perspective, the boy who fights to be himself no matter what others may think, the decadent aesthete who, while drenched in delicious vice and squalor, is far more admirable than the hypocritical religious folk who look down their self-righteous noses at him.
And so it is possible to both imagine the darkness of the past to be now safely behind us and paradoxically to feel that had we lived back then we would have changed everything, we would never have given into the blindness of that age.
And indeed every era does have a blindness to it, especially our own. And while it is impossible to entirely escape all of our ‘sightlessness’ nevertheless we can actually use the past to call into question the blindness of our times. Things that seem obviously self-evident to us at this moment can be called into question by using the past as a measure of the present, much as we measure the past by our current beliefs
Here are a couple of examples: People today take it for granted that there has always been music that expresses existential anger or rage. Punk, Metal, forms of Industrial or Rap often specialize in this kind of expression. But I can tell you this with certainty, prior to say Iggy Pop or the Sex Pistols,depending on how you reckon the origins of Punk rock, there was never such a thing in music… anywhere: no tribes in Africa or on the Amazon, no Jazz nor Pop, no obscure Russian folk styles. There were tribes who might use music to stoke the warriors for war. But it was not the bellowing inarticulate rage of the postpunk world. There was no sense of bewildering aimless raging loss. (Feel free to challenge me on this.)
Or take another example: It is easy to think that cuteness is an eternal concept; that people have always looked at creatures with big eyes and said “Awwww how cute!” But again, the concept really isn’t that old. The word ‘cute’ in English hardly goes back two hundred years and then it was closer to the word ‘acute’. ‘Cute’ in contemporary usage means something more akin to ‘baby-like’. And what am I doing even suggesting that there is something off with ‘baby-likeness’? I’m sure there are a few people who might read this who are already wondering why I’m even going on about the word. But that is exactly the point. ‘Cute’ things are beyond the pale of discussion. It’s like questioning a baby. What sort of sick monster would suggest there’s anything wrong with a baby? And I’m sure the Disney Corporation came to exactly that conclusion when they changed Mickey Mouse from looking like a rodent to looking baby-like by giving him a round head and huge eyes. And my what big eyes so many cartoon characters have! The better to smuggle ideas in with!
Disney stands in a preeminent position here in raiding the past and changing it. Starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and moving on through much of their oeuvre they have consistently deformed the past by making it both a wonder land and a commodity. It’s hard to convince many people today of how brutal many fairytales were in the past before being bowdlerized by Walt and company. Read the original Grimm’s Brothers. But then again those fairy tales came before the concept of ‘family friendly’ entertainment. Many folks today, of many religious and agnostic stripes, simply give all ‘family entertainment’ a free pass because, well, it’s just so ‘cute’. Never mind that some of the propaganda concepts buried within them are amongst the most self-serving and selfish that could possibly be imagined. The message can often be summarized as, “You can be whatever you choose to be.” Or “Don’t let anyone ever tell you ‘No’ ”. But has anyone in the past ever had such messages so relentlessly driven down the gullets of their young?
The answer would be no. Those old fairytales did more than just warn you about the dangers of the forest. They told you that life had darkness in it. And that in order to get through the dark forest, you’d better not leave something as silly as bread crumbs.
The past was truly different than the present. The people living there, while subject to the same lust, greed, envy and pride as we all are, did not have the same outlook on the world that we do. Jane Austen was not a contemporary woman just waiting for the 21st Century so that she could escape the 19th. No one had a ‘geeky’ ‘fanboy’ mentality about anything collectable prior to somewhere in the late 20th Century. We folks today are far more self-conscious than anyone ever has been in the past, thanks to all of the equipment we have for recording voice and image. And it is quite possible to see that not that long ago people had a fuller understanding of how to make music than we do. There were people who knew how to eat together, how to hold discussions, how to make shoes. These things are often lost or problematic to us.
In the last very few years things have already disappeared that once seemed like part of human nature. Whatever happened to letter writing? Serious book learning is imperiled in many quarters. The relationship to music is changing yet again as people enter a sort of record and erase mentality. CDs, interestingly enough, will probably die out, but in a rare streak of good news the vinyl LP will probably survive as a kind of specialty artifact.
For me the thing to keep in mind in all of the chaos of rapid change is that the past can come to our aid in helping to both measure what is lost and to strengthen the good things that remain and inspire us to experiment anew. Maybe dinnertime has become a media feeding frenzy for you and yours. But with a little thought and a few simple rules you can probably bring good discussion back to your table. Maybe you live now in a highly distractible world. Well turn the stuff off and read an actual book. There are dozens of ways to begin to reclaim human existence from the swirl of technology and the bloated media illusion.
But first an foremost I would suggest that you turn off the drone of the present on occasion and discover that the past is a country with rights of its own and it has words for us that we would do well to heed.
I will let C.S. Lewis have the last word from his essay entitled: On the Reading of Old Books
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
And a little further on he writes…
“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”