Going out with a bang

By Luke Hortle

And, behold, I come quickly.
– Revelation, 22:12

So reads the back of this year’s Dark Mofo staff hoody. It’s from Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, which speaks, among other things, of the imminent apocalypse (literal or metaphorical—the jury’s still out) that will be unleashed with the Second Coming (Jesus: SURPRISE! Me again!). Revelation continues: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.’ The grandeur of such proclamations has always stunned me; it’s like something out of a Michael Bay film. But we’re accustomed to this kind of thing, wallow as we do in pop culture’s hot mess of apocalyptic imaginings. No one’s exempt; the metaphors will always out, despite the pretensions of high culture and militant snobbery.

Dark Mofo Staff Hoody 2014

This revelatory snippet on the staff hoody—it has me thinking. It heralds the end of the world, instantly recognisable as a story of persistent human curiosity, but one that is endlessly open to interpretation. It proclaims the apocalypse, yes, but also confesses a propensity for premature ejaculation—a perhaps ‘world-ending’ event for some people and of a different variety. In perhaps not an entirely unpredictable manner, our interpretations of death—both big and little, planetary and personal—echo and warp as we mobilise them. Our photographer suggested the phrase for the hoody design, having seen the slogan adorning a painting of a lion and a lamb at the Odeon Theatre, before Dark Mofo took up residence there, when the theatre was home to a born-again Christian church. (Food for thought, perhaps, when you’re mid-debauchery at the Odeon for Dark Faux Mo. Remember, God’s always watching #catholicguilt.) The slogan has an irony in this churchy context, but I’m not going there. Self-deprecation is the order of the day, and it’s certainly not the first time MONA has co-opted a belief system for its own purposes (and I doubt it’ll be the last). In the painting, the mature-looking lion gazes fondly at the fluffy young lamb (would it be wrong to describe the lamb as nubile?), as ‘Behold, I come quickly’ intimates his intent (apocalyptic, carnal or otherwise). Poor little beast. Coincidentally, a Dark Mofo sign at the waterfront flashed, ‘WATCH FOR PEDS’, for the duration of the festival. Bright lights, creep city.

Behold I come quickly picture

But recently the apocalypse, and its related scenario of a threatened and vulnerable world, has taken on a different texture. Politically, environmentally and geologically, the planet is being reframed, as humans rethink how they read the globe’s skin and viscera. ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ proclaims The Economist, reporting on the early twenty-first century uptake of the term originally suggested by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in the early 2000s. Basically (and I’m cheating—it’s not basic at all; it’s vast and complicated), the Anthropocene describes how Earth has entered a new geological epoch. Following on from the Holocene, the Anthropocene recognises the human species as an influential force of nature. Imagine a future where humans are extinct, goes the anecdote frequently used to describe the Anthropocene; if there was a geologist present in such a future, they would be able to trace the lasting human impact on the planet. Our marks, as they are, are here to stay. How do you like that for your vanity?

This is not to suggest that the Anthropocene explicitly envisages apocalypse (although, it is interesting to consider how that anecdotal extinction might eventuate). Rather, it frames a whole swag of political agendas1 and cultural fantasies2. But why imagine the end of the world as we know it? As a species, maybe we’re just plain freaking morbid, intent on sharing the love with an hysterical death drive. Freud might agree, which is alarming in itself.

The pay off, surely, is some sort of projected collective solace. Getting in early, before one hell of a punch line. On the opening night of Dark Mofo Films, I went to see David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic road movie, The Rover. Guy Pearce, with that hypnotic gravelly voice of his, posed a question to Anthony Hayes’ character:

‘Feeling the air when you wake up in the morning, when your feet touch the floor, or before that, when you’re lying there, thinking about your feet hitting the floor—the feeling you have. What does that feel like for you?’

Maybe it was just Guy’s voice. Or maybe—forgive me—it tapped into something incisively and embarrassingly human. The desire to apprehend, and be apprehended by, another person. To escape your personal neuroticism and self-obsession, to imagine (if only for a moment) what it is like to be alive as somebody else and in their particular version of a material human body. It’s darker than empathy, somehow. And far more interesting.

Deep. Apologies. Is there anything more awkward than the expression of sincere sentiment?

I’m in the museum and I’m standing in front of Patrick Hall’s artwork, When My Heart Stops Beating, and it seems appropriate3. It’s my favourite work in David’s collection. Visitors to the museum have gotten engaged in front of this artwork, which I cannot for the life of me comprehend—do they see a hopeful sense of romance here?—because When My Heart Stops Beating seems to be more interested in the past than in an anticipated future. For me, it’s irreconcilably creepy and sad, and touching in a darkly bittersweet way. But it’s more than any ambivalent mess of feelings I might experience in front of these gleaming cabinets. It’s about what is no longer around and coming to terms with that; it’s an attempt, if you will, to rectify such a predicament. Absent speakers intone their disconcerting chorus of ‘I love you’, just as absent writers reveal their intimate stories on the cabinet drawers (drawers that open like those of a morgue). The sense of loneliness is shocking, and it really hits me given the sheer constructed-ness of the artwork itself—those intricately built drawers and the façade of the cabinet fixed upon the wall. I’m embarrassed, now, to admit it’s my favourite. I sound like a total emo.

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

When My Heart Stops Beating, 2008 to 2010, ©Patrick Hall
Photo credit: MONA/ Rémi Chauvin

It’s like bearing witness to something, absent now whether through death, apocalypse or otherwise. I indulge myself even further, and imagine I’m that future hypothetical geologist, witnessing the earthly marks of the Anthropocene with its indelible remainders of previous lives. Marking time is a peculiar thing, whether romantic and sexual, or geological and planetary. A flippant, throwaway remark comes to mind, and it’s not so flippant anymore; it’s a genuine question, posed to the possibilities of a quickly coming future: ‘Who gives a fuck?’

1Here’s lookin’ at you, Tony.

2For example: cli-fi, or climate fiction, is an actual thing. What an unfortunate abbreviation.

3The other week, I went to MONA’s new community centre, and saw that When My Heart Stops Beating is no longer on display. Go home, Southdale, you’re drunk and you’ve ruined my blog.

Useless as tits on a bull

By Luke Hortle

So the Skywhale has gone viral. (Let’s all say it together now: hashtag Skywhale! Yet again, the Twittersphere has doled out some sort of bastardised and populist cultural legitimacy, in a move that is equally liberating and terrifying. I don’t understand Twitter. For me, it’s in the same category as Sydney, Bob Katter and quinoa.) Gossip about Patricia Piccinini’s government-commissioned work has become contagious; it’s airborne, both figuratively (the goss) and literally (the art). And now this titted behemoth has arrived in Hobart, swinging mammaries and all that delicious confusion (‘I thought they were penises,’ said Mum. Thank you, Mother, for that screaming Freudian subtext). Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Because it isn’t just chit-chat, this inescapable talk (whether positive, negative or ambivalent); it’s indicative that this artwork has taken that perplexing leap from the tired category of art into the bustling cultural imaginary. And on a national scale too; it was commissioned by the ACT government to commemorate the centenary of the nation’s capital, Canberra. Christ knows what the connection is. Best not to tug on that thread too strongly. (And really, who cares anyway?) Regardless, with all this questioning and bafflement, we’ve all come together to suckle, so to speak, at the teats of the Skywhale, and who can say what her nourishing milk will provide?

Skywhale Cake

Skywhale Cake

For me, it’s this hyperbolic expression of the shock of reference, between my present experience and whatever my brain idiosyncratically connects to that particular moment. The other night I was walking home up the hill, scarf-muffled and icy-fingered, when the breeze changed and something, the shift in scent and temperature perhaps, took me back, immediately and violently, to dusk in London. I was floored by it, inexplicably upset. Bounded by circumstances and shocked to realise so. It was really self-indulgent.

Bear with me.

I’ve written previously on this blog about my reaction to a lecture given by Ellen Dissanayake about the evolutionary origins of art. (Her thesis, in a nutshell: that the behaviour of making art plays a part in better-adapting humans to their environment. Those groups and individuals who practice what Dissanayake calls ‘making special’— of which art is an important element—are better placed to survive and procreate than those who do not.) Overall, it (my argument) wasn’t great; I got a bit ranty and tangential. A few days after it was posted, someone asked me if the main reason I had a problem with the lecture (note: I had many problems with it) was because I may not procreate, that I may not participate, genetically, in the perpetuation of the human species. She was worried about offending me; she didn’t: I’d been wondering the same thing myself, in much less obvious terms—the ‘X because of Y’ phrasing made it sound petty and hard line. As a gay guy1, I keep revisiting this angst-y existential dilemma of not wanting to be, or end up as2, a genetic cul-de-sac.3 Sexuality is relevant to this discussion, although I’m not sure to what degree of relevance it can or should lay claim. In the context of popular reproductive politics, it certainly goes some way to explaining the increased use of the derogatory term ‘breeder’, where reproductive propensity is mobilised primarily against a heterosexual middle class. Note the term’s mocking gesture to animal husbandry (thanks, Urban Dictionary).

I get confused, though, wondering if my angst has a genetic undercurrent. In other words, apart from wanting kids for the conventional reasons, both immediate and distant (family, warm fuzzies, minions obliged to take care of you in your dotage), I’m unsure if this angst is also indicative of a subconscious burning need to pass on my genetic material. Currently, I don’t care about the means by which I could potentially have children (two of my nearest and dearest have offered me rental of their wombs—what do you do, pay by mileage?—it’s all so sci-fi). There are obviously innumerable reasons why people choose to have children in the ways that they do, and I would rail against any kind of artificially imposed hierarchy of the best ways to do so. ‘Naturally’ always seems to come up trumps, with its attendant cultural value offering a swift kick to the teeth of many.

And this is another reason why my particular anxiety (re: becoming a genetic cul-de-sac) makes me uncomfortable: it doesn’t match the position I’ve reached logically and politically. This kind of genetically based anxiety is frequently dismissed, arguably because socially constructed experience has become far more culturally and politically trendy following the identity politics boom of the 70s, 80s and 90s; it seems like we might only just be emerging from that particular hangover now. Many of my friends have begun to talk, winsomely and often, of marriage and babies.4 Discussing my worries with friends, I’m often met with a general response of, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll have kids somehow.’ I’d like that ‘somehow’ qualified, thanks5. Is that too much to ask? I’m aware, too, that if my sisters have children, then some of the genetic material I share with them will be passed on to their offspring. (Game of Thrones obsessives take note: I make this point not in the manner of that blonde twit, Viserys Targaryen; ain’t nobody gonna mess with Daenerys, am I right?) Richard Dawkins writes about this in his book, River Out of Eden. He describes how

Worker ants, bees, wasps and termites are sterile. They labor not to become ancestors but so that their fertile relatives, usually sisters and brothers, will become ancestors. […] To summarize, genes can buy their way through the sieve, not only by assisting their own body to become an ancestor but by assisting the body of a relation to become an ancestor.

No pressure, sisters dearest, but you could be my genetic Get Out of Jail Free card. How else am I to deal with such doleful condemnation from a figurative deck of Chance or Community Chest? ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred babies.’

For better or worse, these worries have been taking up a lot of my time. I’m still wrangling with them, and I will for a while yet, trying to reconcile where and how to put this particular brand of anxiety to bed. A necessary and timely thought process, or just self-indulgent, emotional and intellectual hot air? It’s easy, sometimes, to feel like the only Skywhale in the village. Inflatable and vulnerable to puncture. An effectively empty sack, already delimited within its predetermined arc. Where is the grace in that?

So there you go. Fuck you, Canberra. Fuck you, Patricia. Fuck you, Dark Mofo. Thanks for all the existential angst.


1 For the record, I don’t want to become one of those people who begin every sentence with prefacing fragments such as, ‘Speaking as a gay man … ‘ or ‘Given my raging and all-consuming homosexual identity …’ It’s a behaviour too resonant with that of feminists. And mature-age students. But you need it as context. So let’s all cringe together, and move on.
2 Oh the oblique rhetoric of that foul thought experiment, where you imagine yourself hurtling irrevocably towards your own culminating point of being a productive, aspiring human being. ie. Must have this job, that salary, that partner and those kids before this particular date, or I will be, effectively, doomed. NO PRESSURE, OK. It’s the bildungsroman gone unashamedly and hysterically histrionic.
3 I’m paraphrasing Bernard from Black Books here. Side note and name drop: Dylan Moran really loves Sidney Nolan. He told me so.
A clarification: I’m not entering this discussion within the terms of infertility, which obviously poses its own particular issues to those it concerns. Or not; it would be a gross generalisation to assume a uniform response to any of these experiences. It’s the particularity that matters.
4 Yes, yes, I’m aware I’m entering familiar territory of the single twenty-something, but I’m curious: when do discussions of these kinds of topics become normal and to be expected? It’s a different kind of thought experiment and a perplexing one, because I’m often unsure how to participate.
5 By whom, I’m not actually sure. The stork? By me? Christ I hate being an adult sometimes. Perhaps those wonderful people who wrote Where Did I Come From and What’s Happening to Me? could pen a follow up, So You’re Worried About Ending Up as a Genetic Dead End?

Is that subtext, or are you just happy to see me?

By Luke Hortle

Throat-clearing.
Last night I went to hear Ellen Dissanayake’s lecture, ‘The Deep Structure of the Arts’, which was about the role of art in human evolution. I went because I thought I should, cringing slightly because the whole thing sounded too damnably Mona-ish, and left feeling awkward—not because of the lecture or Dissanayake’s ideas (which were methodical and measured, although I craved a more emphatic statement of her argument), but because of the awkward atmosphere of the question time that followed. Awkward, because the long-winded monologues were not questions, and setting them loose in the lecture hall shifted the mood. The air between people thickened. It felt compromising to be situated within a group of other humans. A caveat: I’m not sure if this awkwardness was objectively so, or more a self-absorbed by-product of my own thought-stream, which is decidedly awkward and neurotic anyway, regardless of any objective social scenario. Performing the opposite of that state of mind is probably a necessity of contemporary social interaction, unless you’re a ‘creative’ and can get away with a whole lot of really irritating shit while other people make excuses for your unconventional and fucking vexing disposition. (Also, I didn’t take a pen and paper.)

The guts of it.
Dissanayake argued in the lecture that art, or ‘artification’ as the behaviour of making art, has a deep structure, and one that is comparable to the deep structure of language advocated for by some linguists and psychologists. She claims that this behaviour is essential and intrinsic to being human. That it’s innate and natural. That it’s universal. She argues that this behaviour has evolutionary benefits. Apparently, behaviours such as singing and dancing with other people produce a hormone called oxytocin, which is also elicited during sex. One of the benefits of oxytocin is that it counteracts cortisol, a stress hormone. I’d like a clarification though. Do you only get the oxytocin hit if you’re having sex with another person, or can you replenish your hormonal stores by treating yourself (singular) to a nice night in?

***
Interlude: A masturbatory call to arms

No one ever talks interestingly about masturbation. Faux Mo flashback: I’m in a darkened cinema and it’s black-bruised-red like the insides of a vital organ. A woman is dancing naked in front of hundreds of pissed people, alternately with a black sack over her head or wearing a gorilla mask. I’m trying to work out what to think of it, when a young balding guy, not unattractive, stands next to me, grinning, and asks, ‘Do you reckon she’s going to flick the bean?’ Oh Christ. If this is indicative of masturbation discourse (and I suspect it might be) then I’m putting a call out for people to lift their game. Pun entirely intended.

***

I can’t comment on the scientific validity of Dissanayake’s claims; I don’t know enough (read: not much at all) about evolutionary biology and I’m not remotely interested in making those kinds of comments about her work. It’s boring (that kind of discussion; not her research, necessarily). My main problem with the lecture was her use of the word ‘human’. It became an oblique invocation of the term, which was disappointingly predictable. Using ‘human’ in such a way is commonplace, but that shouldn’t equate to an excuse. ‘Human’ has a subtext. An uncontainable one. Bare it. Refusal to do so turns use of the word into an act of effacement. It becomes another form of exclusory language, and one that relates only, within the parameters of Dissanayake’s argument, to those types of humans that enjoy regular heterosexual sex and the possibility, and propensity, for procreation. Speaking of the human, and using the term in a critically savvy manner, has to be provisional. I suspect I’m against its use as a commonplace and absolute term because it kills my identity politics boner. Yours too. Oh, the critical impotence. Humanness, particularly in the context of evolution, is anything but a constant or endpoint or intellectual dead-end. If we’re speaking of evolution (and we don’t have to be, not really, not if you don’t want to, but we are), then using ‘human’ as a static term sets up a disconnect with the premise and ideological underpinning of the subject matter. Being human is a state of modulation, of unfinished-ness, regardless of how aware we are of this process. Being human isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a matter of common sense. In other words (and with some quite unrelated, juvenile, yet suspiciously apt imagery), it’s an intellectually stimulating cock and it’s happy to see you.

It boils down to this: given the broad and fascinating cultural implications of Dissanayake’s research into the origins of art as a human behaviour, with art seen as a shaping force of humanness, linguistic and experiential invocations of the ‘human’ demand to be given the commensurate critical attention they deserve.

Death illiterate.
As an English graduate, I’m supposed to be interested in how being human is culturally produced, rather than how it is inherently and essentially substantiated. I get trapped between thinking about myself as a culturally and linguistically realised entity, and the biological reality of my humanness. Because if I’m biologically and genetically human, if I am irrefutably so, then why am I even talking about this? Why are discussions of humanness, life and species booming in politics, the arts and that ever so sexy world of critical theory? Are we just a narcissistic species?

It’s particularly pertinent now, in this contemporary moment, to think about this. Contemporary anxieties, and the various discourses they infiltrate, are underpinned by an almost unspoken fear of extinction. (I could be inflammatory and drop the ‘C’ bomb—climate change—but I won’t.) Perhaps it’s the reality of living out our humanness, the reality of being a species—to be perennially haunted by various other states, those innumerable modes of not-life. The bottom line: we face the fact of our own death, and perhaps our broader concerns with extinction work to absolve personal responsibility for having to deal with the relatively imminent occurrence of our own dying. An implicit choosing of collective anxiety over the personal realities of being a fleshy composite with an expiry date.

I don’t know how to think about my own death. The pure facts of its reality are subsumed, immediately, by the romance of the language I use to talk about it. The word itself, ‘death’, is shockingly seductive. And biologically, I’m at a loss. The biological facts of my bodily aliveness refuse to cross the threshold of my conscious awareness. I can’t ruminate on them. They might enable my consciousness, but they never become usable and recognisable terms within that swarming and personalised mindfuck. Biological subtext, rather than readable narrative. Ungraspable, even in their physical immediacy. It’s terrifying.

New York I love you, but you’re making me cringe

By Luke Hortle

A while ago, I met a photographer from The New Yorker at the museum. I can’t remember his name because I was too busy swooning (he was European and painfully handsome in that rugged and forlorn manner that Europeans often are) and feeling inadequate, because we didn’t have a book with kangaroos in it. But this sensation of inadequacy (and it was a sensation, a bodily one; I could feel it drenching my limbs) leached beyond this one apparently minute interaction. Horror of horrors, I felt grateful to have met this man. Not because of his aquiline features, but because of all that other cultural currency that he’d brought with him, from Europe, from New York, and now he was talking to me, in Hobart, on this island, and I felt inferior, somehow ashamed, immodestly thrilled. Enter the cultural cringe.

At MONA FOMA last year, I went to see PJ Harvey. In a break between songs, clouded in the beer-breath and radiant bodily steam of PW1, Eleanor whispered to me that seeing PJ perform was ‘like a religious experience.’ I thought she was being overly dramatic and told her to finish her beer. This moment has been nagging me ever since, the implication being that we were somehow not quite worthy to be in the presence of this woman wreathed in feathered black. That we ought to have been grateful. This really pissed me off, because I wanted to be in thrall to PJ Harvey (did you know that ‘thrall’ comes from an Old English word for ‘slave’?) and not think about the experience in terms where I came off with an inferiority complex. Later that night at Faux Mo, I kept hearing people say things like ‘Are we still in Hobart?’ And I was guilty of thinking similar things. I couldn’t comfortably integrate where I was with what I was thinking. (What I can remember from Faux Mo: You’re in. Bass thumps skywards, leaching out of the winding alleyway; who even knew it was there? Bulging lights bloom in the brickwork. You manage to jump the line. Paris Wells is there. The really hot guy from BalletLab is there, sans feathers and twigs. You think that BalletLab was great, but so fucking weird. You should definitely be drinking gin. Bordello-red flickers against crumpled aluminium curtains. People are dancing like it’s windy.) The city, the island, kept intruding in my fantasies, fantasies which constantly gestured away from where I was, geographically, culturally, far-flung connections sketched with alcohol-induced similes.

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MONA/Remi Chauvin

PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA 2012. Photo credit: MOFO/Rémi Chauvin

I can’t seem to escape the fact that geography matters. It’s dished up to me on a daily basis. Customer after customer will find a way to tell me, as they purchase their catalogue, postcards, cunt soap, whatever, that ‘this [museum, art, estate, the whole deal] is a great thing for Tasmania.’

A brief interlude from that guy in the bookshop

‘Do the postcards come with envelopes?’
No. Of course they don’t; they’re fucking postcards. From Wiki: ‘A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope.’
‘Do you have a book on the architecture?’
No. We really don’t. I promise. And (shockingly, eye-poppingly shockingly, I know) you are not the first person to ask for one. And even if you do tell me for the next half an hour how great such a book would be, and how you can’t believe that there isn’t one for you to take home in your eager paws, I still won’t be able to provide one for you. So fuck off already.
‘Do you still sell the angina soaps?’
No words.

Invariably, their assessment of the museum becomes inextricable from its geographical locale. And inherent within these assessments of the museum is a commensurate assessment of Hobart and Tasmania more broadly; that we’re lucky to have the museum where it is, because of the entrenched view that the state is culturally inferior, a backwater, next stop Antarctica. And now I’ve just gone and written that and perpetuated the stereotype in print. Oh great. Maybe this doesn’t matter though, and maybe I’m just projecting my own (recently discovered) cultural cringe onto these social interactions. It (projecting potentially/completely incorrect assumptions onto a situation/conversation/relationship) does sound like something I would do.

I can’t seem to write about this cringe response without falling into the trap that the very construct tries to describe: ie. I end up cringing, through my attempts to elucidate what was happening when I met that photographer. (Clarification, obfuscation; potato, po-TAR-to.) My point: I live on an island, and sometimes this fact, and its corresponding sense of islandness, of being so bounded by a place, by a body, is suffocating.[i] Maybe this is my postcolonial penance. It’s undoubtedly constitutive too, which makes me uncomfortable (which is weird, because I’m an identity politics enthusiast). I’ve been told I can be quite neurotic (‘amazingly’ might’ve been the word used, actually) and maybe this is why I like reading The New Yorker. But I suspect it’s also a reaction to where I am, geographically and culturally; as I hand over my cash, I know I’m buying into a particular type of identity, a particular type of self-image. It’s a performance, one in which I’m friends with Lena Dunham and live in a loft with Paul Auster and/or Oliver Jeffers and/or Michael Cunningham. Even as it’s a performance, it’s one performed from my particular moment in time and space, my ‘here’ and my ‘now.’ But I’m not completely shallow; I do enjoy reading the magazine. I just want people to see me reading it as well.

Luke once ran over a Blue-tongued Lizard with a lawn mower. It was awful, like a scene out of a Tarantino film. He still feels queasy/guilty about it. Luke works in the Mona Bookshop.


[i] I recently read a couple of pieces from an edition of Island magazine, an essay by Adam Ouston and a short story by Ben Walter. They’re great, they really are. You should go read them, right now. What I do know is that they made me feel better about being a man living on an island.

There’s a wolf in your head

As children, my sister and I would go to stay the night at our grandparents’ house on Chapel Street, Glenorchy. I’m not sure how old we were and only have a hazy memory of the house itself. What I do remember of Chapel Street, and vividly, is what lay beneath the house. Whilst our parents were drinking coffee with Nanny Grace in the kitchen, Grandad would take Erin and I to venture under the house-proper, a terrifying place reached through an ancient wooden hatch-door. Erin and I would steel ourselves to take a few shuffling footsteps into the gloom, the air thick with the reek of cold bricks and bristling possums. These monster marsupials would freeze, staring us down with their glinting eyes, electrified marbles in the darkness.

Being taken to look at the possums under the house was a regular occurrence. The memory of these visits is like part of a story, one that I sometimes remember is true. (I also suspect that it has lead to my inability, as an adult, to be able to sit through any werewolf film; my childish impression of these possums is suspiciously lupine). The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that fear, or terror, is an inescapable part of being a child (how else are we to pave the psychological foundations for the neuroses that emerge later in our lives, those behavioural and mental patterns that make us so attractive and repellent to other people?). Just read Treasure Island, a quintessential childhood novel, and note how much of the book Jim Hawkins spends in a state of paralysing terror. Proper fairytales, not that saccharine Disney tripe, are drenched in gore; ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ arguably means so much more when someone has escaped ending up dismembered in a bathtub full of blood and hacked limbs. The deep, dark woods of storytelling are not a very nice place. Everything is not going to be alright. Chances are the big bad wolf is going to fuck granny, suck her bones dry, screw the axeman and then sit around discussing morals with you over a hot cup of tea.

‘I’m going to tell you a story,’ my Grandad would say. Erin and I would be tucked up in bed in the spare room at Chapel Street. Scratchy sheets pulled tight to our chins. Grandad would begin his tale.

‘There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham …’

We would instantly be filled with terror, unable to move and equally unable to stop listening to the tale of Jim. (Like a visit under the house, we knew this awful poem very well). These opening lines paint a fairly innocuous picture, even a pleasant one. What a lucky boy that Jim is. His friends are so nice to him, even if they do display a slightly disconcerting penchant for feeding him. But, oh, what horror the latter lines of Hilaire Belloc’s poem hold. Shit gets real when Jim escapes Nursie’s hand whilst at the zoo. Alas, his freedom is short-lived when he runs straight into the jaws of Ponto, a rather hungry lion. (One has to wonder if Ponto had brokered a deal with those suspicious feeder-friends of Jim’s. ‘Feed him up,’ Ponto might’ve snarled over the phone. ‘Feed up the little porker then send him my way.’ Who knows; maybe Nursie was in on the deal too. Jim must’ve been a real little twat).

‘Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!’

Mr. Belloc, just like my Grandad, seemed to relish these deliciously metred lines. We did not. Oh, the horror. (NB: Grandad’s recital of the poem was very much a performance piece, and a brilliant one, complete with requisite snarling). We were powerless before the hypnotic drawn out terror of this tale, a carefully measured concoction of words, tone and pace. Trapped within its iambic rhythm, Jim’s fate (and ours) would be sealed from the beginning as the lines galloped along. The story of Jim (which I have included below in full) has an important place within the mythology of our family. It is a common literary trauma embedded within us. Erin has also written about listening to ‘Jim’; for us, there’s something there that we need to revisit and deal with.

There is a piece in the museum called The Blind Leading the Blind, by Belgian artist Peter Buggenhout. It is a sculpture. One of the materials used to create it is household dust. It hangs from the ceiling, looming out of the shadows. It fills me with anxiety, with dread; my diaphragm tightens, the skin of my neck crawls and I dare not turn away from this twisted black mass. Is it part of the ceiling? No; it is a wolf. This art piece shocks me, and the shock is one of recognition.

The Blind Leading the Blind
Peter Buggenhout
Image courtesy of the Museum of Old and New Art

Most people, I think, are haunted by certain dreams. The brain is a bizarre bowl, and nightmares return to fill it with a weird and paralysing soup. I recognise the Buggenhout sculpture as a set-piece from a recurring nightmare I had as a child. I’m trapped amongst shifting piles of twisted metal. The piles grate together, slick with water and oil. Suddenly, I am sitting in a cinema watching a large count-down on the screen. The numbers tower, white and flickering. God’s voice booms, reading the numbers as they flash before me. And that’s it. It sounds relatively innocuous now that I read it back, but then again, the real terror of a dream doesn’t often lie in its literality or immediate appearance. Maybe it’s narcissistic for me to recognise a part of my own dream in The Blind Leading the Blind. It’s creepy too. It’s as if Buggenhout knows what is in my own skull.

– Luke Hortle

Luke works in the MONA Gift Shop, say ‘hello’ if you see him. This neurotic and talented lad aspires to be an editor, or writer, or PhD student, whichever comes first. He also has an overwhelming addiction to books. The Blog Mistress sometimes wonders if his eventual demise will be a result of being crushed under a teetering pile of tomes in a New York apartment. Fated to be a potential tale on a show such as A Life of Grime New York. A highly underrated show, frankly.

P.S. Here lies the story of Jim. Reader, beware; it does not end nicely.

Jim
By Hilarire Belloc

There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo—
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.

You know—or at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so—
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim’s especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!

He hadn’t gone a yard when—Bang!
With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
No wonder that he shouted ‘Hi!’

The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
‘Ponto!’ he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion’s name),
‘Ponto!’ he cried, with angry Frown,
‘Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!’
The Lion made a sudden stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ‘Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!’
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.