Strange Sounding Sermons From A Dusty Soapbox

Here, brother’s of Bolo, is an immense and unwieldy letter. I had it sent to one of our brethren many moons ago before I had returned to the land of e-mail.

I offer it for your perusal…

“Sick to say so but I seem to be averaging about 1 letter a year! I just checked the date on my last letter – Jan 2005 – and the shock of that distant date stung my lazy flesh with spur enough for me to once more pick up the baton and cast it back across the deeps.

As I write I picture my letter winging its way to you across the Atlantic’s stark indigo swells; I picture the white caps and the vast vault of bright darting life that teems beneath them; I ponder the bottom feeders groping in blind hunger through the detritus of life undone; and I wonder if even in the gloom of their lightless life one can still hear the hum of some distant heart-song. Yes perhaps these creatures inward-sing as they suck the stuff of life from the sunken scraps of life undone. Yes surely these living gargoyles share with us some sort of love for the moment’s passing pleasures. Surely some spark of celebration zings through their little life as the sweet taste of sustenance plays upon their pallet. What say you my skeptical friend? I’m well aware that this poetizing might not catch you right. Yet of late the sheer strange wonder of being plays upon me whenever I sit down to write. I just sent my grandparents a letter they might find equally odd or puzzling yet nevertheless I send both letters in the hope that they might somehow convey something of the wonder I sometimes see in being. For if one thing is often lost to us in this age it is this sense of the inconceivable mystery and wonder of existence. I fear that we secretly suspect that everything rolled of some universal production line. That life and being came shrink-wrapped in the same plastic film in which Tesco’s packages its rows of naked headless chickens.

And of course the flipside to all that poetizing is that if those strange sea-creatures taste a drop of the joy we sometimes swim in, they surely also feel a measure of our agonies: in those moments when pain’s pitiless pressure pins them fast toward their end. Though of course they don’t know it as an end in the same way we do: they probably just sink whylessly into the great sea of ontic agony; into the anti-nirvana of agony annihilating awareness. Into the vast red sea into which all sentient creatures are thrust from time to time; and into which some are plunged so deeply that it seems inconceivable; whilst others dip their manicured pinkies in for seconds, only to drift to their pampered death on pink and pillowed opiate clouds.

The point I seem to be making here is that under-girding all sentient organic existence lies this twinned experience of pleasure and pain. The central nervous system common to all higher forms of organic life formally assures us of this: all of us – from reptile to chicken to human – are predisposed to experience being through the medium of sensation. And we experience sensation as a plane of awareness strung between the twinned poles of pleasure and pain. This is basically a self-evident fact. However we are unfortunately accustomed to thinking through the consequences in solely objective terms. From a Darwinist perspective we view life’s development sequentially, from lower to higher, we analyze our lower-brain’s similarity to the higher mammals and we go on from mammal to rodent to reptile attempting to trace back the course of life’s many metamorphoses. And on a basic level I have no problem with any of that. What I am driving at, however, is that if there is this sameness in the objective form there must be some corresponding sameness in the subjective experience. Which all suggests that the bottom feeder’s experience of life is not wholly alien to mine. Which is all to point to the primal ontic unity of life. Which suggests in turn the endless echo of oneness through the world’s immense distances of difference. For what we talk about in an objective and analytical manner as ‘awareness’ and ‘central nervous systems’, as hormones and instinct; we experience in day-to-day life as the language of life and its passions; as the flesh’s throbbing dance of taste and touch: as the perpetual reflexive flight from pain and the wide-eyed pursuit of pleasure.

The same primary paint pot, the same elemental pallet, was used to paint the bug-eyed fish and Aristotle. Their experience of being differs like the three-note rudiments of birdsong differ from Mozart and yet in like manner they share the same compositional parts: organic vertebral life in the first case; notes and melodious vibration in the second. Each is a limited whole formed from common forms that exist as the preconditions of each.

Yet the life of the latter creatures became manifest in the spontaneous overflowing of creative genius: in those self-aware creations of intricate interrelation and subtle proportion: in those marvels of the intellect’s flight through glorious freedom and compositional creativity. Each of the latter represent rarely paralleled expressions of the human being’s unique contingent freedom: radiant pulsations from within human nature’s immense limits.

So here we grope – somehow belabored by limping terminology and abstraction – around the essential unity of life and being. And yet paradoxically we thereby stumble upon the human being’s distinctive existence within the larger whole. Consider this creature in reference to all else we have encountered. Consider his intricacy and his incredible capacity to create and comprehend. Consider him as a form that forms, as a form that sees and takes hold of forms and reforms… a pseudo-deity, a half-god, mired in mud yet comprehending the heavens, subject to limit and dependency yet able to move in mind from the ocean’s primal depths to the violent nuclear radiance of the universe’s first six seconds. Able to postulate the end of everything – yet unable to prevent the death of the people and things he loves the most. Subject to the same twin pools and poles of experience as a catfish – physiological pain and pleasure – yet enabled to manipulate matter through this selfsame rudimentary medium of sensory awareness. With his hands and mind, with his sense, man yanks and barters from existence’s manifold forms countless ‘new’ forms of treachery and sublimity.

Indeed he has been able to play out from matter the crafts and vessels and social systems that bore this strange letter from my hand – over those thousand rippling miles of glassy ink-blue vastness – into yours.

All of which I find begs the question: what is the source from which flows this stream of coming forms, this relentless tide of form breaking on form? What is the meaning of this primal chain of interlinking forms, this stream of becoming? This metamorphic stream of being that now seems to stream through our human hands?

And what is it that sees us use our unique ingenuity and freedom to create tools whose sole aim is to torture and afflict? The centuries have seen us create thousands of tools designed solely to compel another through the black depths of man’s fathomless capacity for torment. We must then ask: what is the origin of the sadistic urge that propels us through such extremes of degradation and perversion? (Its not just about brute power – we’ve been too inventive – I fear that there’s a part of us that truly relishes the perverse existential depths that we plum with our freedom.) It is as if in humanity life reaches its highest pitch of intensity, achieving, begetting and birthing its most delirious extremes… its most intensified beauties its most depraved vileness… and we are hardly saying anything particularly insightful at this point…

Accept to add: Where my friend do you stand in the midst of this?

How do you take your bearings amidst it all?

In the last while I’ve had my own little adventures and through them I’ve come to trust my own guiding lights. Broadly speaking you know where I stand with regard to the meaning of being and the purpose of my life. And although I could talk at length (yawn) about my discoveries and convictions I’d rather ask for something from you…

Anyhow, that’s a hell of a lot more philosophizing than I was intending on. To be honest I just liked the bottom-feeder muse to begin with and then the whole thing spiraled out of control. Anyhow, I considered starting over but then I decided, in for a penny in for a pound, I seem to be committed now. Besides which I’m guessing you don’t receive too many letters precisely of this kind, so at worst it will have had a certain novelty appeal…

All that to say: every man needs a metaphysic. Indeed I wager that everyone has one – it’s just that some are more consciously examined than others. The ideas that spilled out above are broadly speaking those I inherit from the Classical and Christian metaphysical tradition of the West. And yes, as always I read voraciously. Of late my teachers come from the top ranks of the great Catholic thinkers and philosophers of the last Century. Jacques Maritain, Stanley Jaki and Hans Urs von Balthasar are among my current favorites.

Jacques Maritain’s philosophical work saw him apply the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (the great doctor of the Church, and the primary architect of the 13th Century’s synthesis of Aristotelian metaphysics and Patristic Christian thought) to the mid-twentieth century’s particular cultural crises and ferment. He was a leading figure in a group who formed around a (Parisian?) periodical called L’Esprit. The group sought to orchestrate a cultural response to the various totalitarian regimes that were at that time beginning to carve up Europe. To cut a complex story simple their philosophy centered on the dignity and innate worth of the human person. And their vision rested on the belief that culture must flow from a foundational respect for the person. For any social organism that is willing to sacrifice concrete people on the altar of ideological abstraction inevitably takes the form of totalitarianism – the great all conquering ‘state’, the ‘workers’, the ‘Arian nation’ etc.

At the same time Maritain and his collaborators understood that personalism had to be clearly distinguished from bloated bourgeois individualism. And thus they promoted the idea that a person could only find their authentic meaning and significance in the context of a community of which they were a part and for which they had a responsibility. And this seems to be – today as much as yesterday – something of a self-evident fact. People are not self-sufficient atoms bouncing around in a social void. It is in our relationships with one another that we create our social worlds. And it is in these self-same interactions that we reveal – before ourselves and others – something of that which lies within each and all.

Knowing how wary you are of any form of utopianism I shall not dwell on the social-political angle. I will, however, continue just a little longer on the Maritain theme. Primarily because I am inclined to mention (knowing your literary bent) that his thinking on art and poetry, is by far the best work of its kind that I’ve read. In my time at university I read a good number of bogus and absurd tracts about literature, and so Maritain’s work in Creative Intuition In Art and Poetry has been a great discovery. He stands far above the gabbing designer-spectacled throng. And one major reason for this is that the nature of Aristotelian (and thereby Thomistic) thought is to be concerned with the thing-in-itself. This method of investigation leads him to write about art and literature primarily for the sake of exploration and understanding, not ostensibly to pursue some kind of ideological agenda. i.e. he asks – What is this? What is great about it? What is unique about it? How does it do what it does? \ Not \ How is patriarchy propagated in Proust’s use of pronouns? How was Shakespeare’s neurotic mother midwife to Macbeth? What dubious psychosexual motifs can we extrapolate from this incidental phrase? How can we distort language’s ambiguities to the extent that we render the whole literary tradition meaningless? Etc etc.

The difference in a nutshell that is the first approach looks at the object and asks: What is it? whilst the second asks: How can I make this object serve my premeditated intentions? The first approach is basically respectful, the second egotistical at worst, utilitarian at best.

Still more sermonizing. It seems that once I get into a loop I can’t be stopped. Just one final note before we move on to less polemical subjects – Maritain’s work was not simply a regurgitation of preexisting theories, or petrified dogmas, because in point of fact Thomas wrote very little about the arts as we understand them. Maritain adapted the tools he inherited from tradition to meet the needs and conditions of his time; he was not some kind of narrow minded antiquarian obsessing about the wonders of the pre-Renaissance West. He learnt his trade, understood the ramifications and potential of his tools, and applied and adapted them to changing cultural conditions. He wrote about Picasso, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Eliot, critically but not dismissively, often enthused by the formal leaps and innovations of these great pioneers. (And for the same reason I suspect he would have like Roots Manuva.) In so doing he performed – consciously – one of the few distinctively and fundamentally human acts: he met the moment with the full benefit of his tradition. The last word has taken on a pejorative sense in recent years, yet in point of fact tradition is the medium through which we are given our full humanity: to be without tradition is to be without community, language, tools, clothing, skill, or shelter. It is arguably the most extreme form of poverty a person can be afflicted by and it is tragically exemplified in the rare occurrence of the feral child. A person utterly deprived of tradition leads a life as close to the bestial as a human being is capable of experiencing.

Now of course we must be ready to reassess and critique our tradition, to look on it from new angles, to confront it with new discoveries, to name the error, to uproot the falsehood, but never will we be able to exist outside if it, we are what we are, and what are has been powerfully shaped by the lives from which we came. Ignorance of one’s tradition is ignorance of oneself. A frightening phrase if one looks around your average plane deck or waiting room: the ever-present screen the constant intake of the absurd and banal, the macabre commercial merry-go-round. Where can this lead? We’re attempting to hold a civilization together around our collective obsession with celebrity kitsch and brand-stamped fetish objects. Eastenders and its manifold equivalents are proffered as cultural glue in the wake of displaced traditions, culture, and religion. In place of virtue and civic responsibility we have police-state surveillance cameras; instead of citizens we have consumers; instead of religion and philosophy we have pop-psychology and self-help pity parties; and playing at governance we have ad-men and management junkies. I find it hard to smile when I think of the future this promises.

Believe me man before too long there’ll be a constant stream of commercials playing its way across our nighttime skies. Stalin once projected a titanic image of himself onto communist Russia’s night skies – soon it will be Posh Spice and Beckham: plugging the Nike cause, bowed under the wealth yoke, warped and concaved on the smog skies, everywhere the grin and gape of unsated lust, everything smeared to shining tan, and all eyes set a-yearning by the ad-man’s airbrush sorcery.

Ah ha, the belated return of the apocalyptic ranting. Yet in truth I can’t help but be perturbed when I look on our collective momentums and the ends to which they seem to propel us. This can, though it should not, lead me into a fruitless kind of deterministic pessimism. And thus it would seems to be a wise move to balance my ravings with the admission that our technology and scientific capacities need not, in and of themselves, be the harbingers of doom or disorder; indeed they often bring us healing and liberation from bondage, and they remain the medium of our existential explorations and discoveries. Our problem is rather that we’ve generated a void at the heart of our cultural life. And thus we bumble around like chimps with chainsaws, dangerously over-equipped and ethically under-developed. This is a multi-causal phenomenon – yet I have little doubt that the unfettered marketing industry has catalyzed the ferment. Nobody seems to have the political muscle to put a leash on the corporate sector and thus they encroach inch-by-inch into every facet of our cultural life. Plastering their siren songs and soft-porn incitements over every conceivable surface they dangle there hocked lures before us, and we invite them into living rooms to snag and placate our children as well. Our artists and thinkers have lessening contact with our tradition, living more and more in this self same world of brand and bait; and thus they chew upon this deadening food regurgitating it in slightly rarified forms, creating intricate webs of self-referential pop-culture posturing, fiddling with ‘semiotics’ as Rome burns.

In short we have traded the logos (antiquity’s metaphysical ‘word’ the guiding principal of reason, the all sustaining order of the cosmos, ‘the light’ that illumines the mind) for logos©. We have (culturally if not scientifically) abandoned the intrinsically human search for a place in the cosmos, for the meaning of existence, in order to recline sedated on Swedish furniture or graze neon-hued streets in search of the latest technological delicacies. Now obviously I’m exaggerating for effect and we both know I was never really inclined toward the subtle distinction in the first place. However, I maintain that the dialectic I propose between Logos and logos© is a real one. It is most explicitly manifest on the level of unchecked appetite, as I’ll attempt to illustrate in the following:

In the case of the latter (Logos) it has been taught (in the West) from the pre-Socratics through Plato to Augustine and Avencia and Aquinas and the neo-Thomists and countless others in their turn, that the appetites must be brought under control if one is to perceive reality with clarity: and it is this correspondence between the perceptive mind and reality that they called truth. And this insight is really little more than elaborated common sense. On the natural level one’s freedom in this life really amounts to the capacity to consciously choose one’s paths and form one’s environments with understanding and a measure of foresight. Perhaps we can best illustrate our point antithetically with the example of the addict. Obviously, we use the term addiction to describe the condition whereby a person is beholden to an appetite: bound to the extent that they are unable to chose to willfully rule it, and thus their unfettered appetite ravages their existence and seriously impairs their capacity for clarity of thought or purposeful action. (The expression ‘a slave to drink’ is particularly illustrative in this context.) A person in this condition basically ricochets from one collision to another – propelled by their appetite as heedlessly as pinball by its momentum. And I can testify – having touched a little of this life – that it is not a happy state…

The goal to which I labor is no doubt already obvious. Because it is precisely this heedless hunger that our mass-manufacture industry profits from. And some of the reasons for this can be historically plotted. For example: Following WWII Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Béarnaise (sp?) began to adapt the propaganda techniques that he had honed as one of the Allies’ chief social engineers. Adapting tried and tested methods (and incorporating his uncle’s theories of phallic power, symbolism and sublimation) he basically invented the modern advertising phenomenon, as we know it today.

And the reason that companies flocked to his penthouse door was that they were fast becoming aware that if they continued to promote their products solely on the level of utility value their market could conceivably dry up. Béarnaise’s great insight was that the scope of man’s appetites greatly (infinitely?) exceeded his basic needs. And thus if a company wanted to be sure of constant sustainable product-demand it would advised it to pitch its products to man’s seemingly infinite desires, over and against his finite material needs. Thus began the whole ‘lifestyle’ phenomenon that took off with such perky optimism in the 1950s and now exists as variegated veritable eco-system catering to every conceivable fleeting preference and peccadillo.

And now we reach a time in which the lifestyle concept mutates a little into brand-identity and brand-fidelity, a time in which the logo© comes to occupy the place once occupied by the symbol. But where as the latter points to and mediates meaning, and allows us somehow to speak of our place amidst the whole, the former simply conveys some kind of cool-mystique or life-style allegiance. Yes logos© have become the nexuses of our mass-market media web. In public/street life they operate as little emblems by which we announce to each other our initiation into some branch of the halcyon-celebrity land. A dreamland where death is but a thing one feigns for money and life but a shiny sunlit promenade through palm-trees and pleasure. And thus we arrive – with sketchy vagueness – at the growing cultural vacuum. A vacuum that I fear threatens to swallow Europe’s cultural soul.

But there is a flip side to the whole thing, a truth disclosed even as it is concealed, an insight given but misappropriated. Because what is the bitterroot of appetite but the immanence of lack, the fleshy certainty of need, the painful stamp of finite limits upon man’s body and soul. It is nothing other than the certain knowledge of a void within. This sense of the hungering void – this anxious clammy pressure of emptiness – that haunts our city streets and employs our psychiatrists is, in large part, nothing other than the authentic intuition that man is empty, hungering, and yet incapable of ever being wholly filled. In this way our cultural situation reveals an undisclosed sense of the precarious finite/infinite tension that animates the human spirit. Plato described the human condition by likening it to a cracked vessel – no amount of matter could ever fill it. In like manner the Christian ascetics of the early centuries – the Desert Fathers – spoke of the desert, the formless empty wilderness, as the place of meeting between man and God: as the borderland place of contact between the finite and the infinite. In any case we feel this desert – this emptiness – keenly, we fear its bareness and its yawning lack; and we are on occasion touched by its dark shades and illumined by its sudden dawning lights. And yet we flee from its painful poverty into all the manifold bottled oblivions that roll of our production lines. This at least is how I sometimes view the situation from my hinterlands place of lack and light…


Finally, with that last phrase, I think I’ve told you – in-between the (many) lines as it were – how I am and where I’ve been over the last year or so. And I’ll draw the whole bravado performance to a close with the bold and foolish claim that I really do believe that this idiotic pauper’s life is a comprehensive response to the crisis I rightly-or-wrongly foresee.

Anyhow now that’s done (I hope) I should say that I began this letter a little while before yours made its second successful flight to Canada: Excellent to hear from you, excellent to receive the tunes. It will come as little surprise that Manuva remains my favorite. Although I totally understand why you favor Ty – in fact I could picture you bobbing your head and jabbing your index finger in the sheer gleeful pleasure of the beats and lyrical flow. I see that his steady sanity and positive even temper would appeal very strongly to you. And the first tune, and the sixth – the one with the mad merry-go-round loop – were indeed thoroughly appreciated. In fact they elicited a little impromptu bop around our tiny two-up-two-down living room. However the fact remains it would take a lot to displace Run Come Save Me from its podium: for yes the bond was indelibly forged in BK’s purgative fire.

And the new LP has its moments. Musically I might even grow to consider it the better half. However the lyrical content is substantially darker than the last one: there’s a growing strain of misogyny amongst other things, and a love-hate pull toward the media circus that seems to generated a bitterness that wasn’t so evident before. One of Awfully Deep’s persistent themes is the cut-my-nose-to-spite-my-face tantrum over the fact the last album didn’t blow up into the mainstream. And I have to agree it probably deserved to – musically it was extremely inventive and it had something significant to say about British life and street culture. Yes, everything was right and yet he didn’t break and worse Dizzy Rascal scooped the Mercury. I appreciate that was probably a pisser. Yet I’m not keen on the ways it’s played out in the new record; I suspect he got dumped as well because the images of women are pretty violent: no faces just ‘tits and ass’, it’s not pleasant. Of course this is just one of Hip Hop’s recurring problems, the form has been long established so it’s easy to slip into; and Manuva’s new record draws a little on the Eminem model: the misogyny/insanity/vulgarity kick. And on that score Ty is the better playing down the whole gangster rap violence and producing some pretty insightful considerations of life and love and women and that… So, on the level of ethics I go for Ty every time and yet we’re talking tunes not philosophy, so over all on the music tip I’d say it’s Roots Manuva by a long chalk…

And I’d also say that Manuva still has an eye for the times (perhaps it’s just that his somewhat apocalyptic leanings find kinship with mine). Nonetheless even though there are parts of the record that seem a little unhinged he continues – even in the darkness – to name something of the corruption that I, for my own part, saw descending on Britain. Anyhow to engage in that line of though would launch me once more on the pundit soapbox tip, which I have interiorly vowed to discontinue in order that you and I can reach the end of this lurching titanic beast…

As to you your last letter: you wrote that you were a little ticked about my forgetfulness of your wedding. Well, it’s true that time keeping and calendar awareness are not strong points – in the last year I also forgot my mother and my father’s birthdays. So, yes this is indeed one of my ongoing character faults. The old self-absorption remains, though in different and I would say, less noxious form. So, it remains a thing to be worked on: one more good reason to integrate a calendar into my life… apologies.

Nonetheless I keep you both in mind – then and now. And because of the orientation of my life that basically means I pray for you all. You, your wife, and the rest of that strange crowd who remain alive and immanent in my heart and mind. Though as you probably guess it’s a fairly intermittent, sporadic and spontaneous affair, and so once again there’s probably a level of order that can be introduced here as well…

Anyhow the growth is sure and steady; sometimes painful often unseen. Yet there are brief moments when I catch a glimpse of the form that unfolds itself from within. For I sense that the ‘new man’ lives a little in me. And he is somewhat like a breath received and given back in a two-step instant; and yet he is alive: hidden in the dark yet yearning upwards; a tiny shoot of purpose thrusting up and growing through the perpetual outpouring of the one true Light.

Undoubtedly this letter has been too damn long, apologies for that, it’s just that I’ve thought plenty and find it good to tell some when the moment arises. Hopefully we will sit down to a coffee sometime soon and mull the whole thing over…

Wishing you grace and joy in the struggle,


Surely congratulations are in order for those that stayed the course…

What say you brothers?

One Response

  1. Groover says:

    Yes blad. Liked the thoughts. Particularly identified with the bit about logos. Did you read ‘No Logo’, that struck a chord? Course, these days I deal in logos and the currency they convey. Beautiful stuff. Not so sure about the essential ebb and flow of the common purpose of life. I think the principle of survival we all share creates some similarities, but it’s a nice pattern nonetheless.

    Also agree re: manuva. A tough album and seldom listened to in my household, but some true moments of genius. I particularly like the bit where he describes cutting a piece out of his heart to get better.

Leave a Reply