Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy


Having found myself at that tenuous stage of life where friends of mine are having children with increasing frequency, my avuncular tendencies have responded by going into overdrive. The most pronounced symptom of this is the compulsion I now feel to get strange and, hopefully, insightful presents. First on my list is Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy by the British Colombian teacher Tiffany Poirier.

Well, that’s not entirely true. First, I usually give them a plush Cthulhu while singing: “Squamous horror from beyond the stars / I wonder what you are / you’ve come so far / to melt my mind and eat me”, because its never too early to start trying to reconcile your little ones to the vast indifference and terror of the cosmos. Then, if their parents ever allow me near their children again, I give them this book.

Addressing such concepts as causality, infinity, mind/body duality and solipsism in simple rhymes, some will no doubt be tempted to see in Q is For Question something like “baby’s first existential crisis”. I know I particularly liked the letter “Y” for You:

You: As you grow from day to day, / what parts of you will always stay? / Of what stuff do you consist? / And of this stuff / what will persist?

Yet in the back of the book, and on the companion website Poirier encourages parents to talk to their children about difficult concepts, to make games of them, and listen to what they have to say. It is, after all, an important part of preparing them for life, existential crises and all. While I’m not a parent, I believe this to be an incredibly powerful sentiment, and one worth encouraging.

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The New Death and Others by James Hutchings

There is a talent in James Hutchings’ writing that becomes apparent when one reads his collection of short stories, parables and poems: The New Death and Others, and I have hitherto been remiss in my duties to it, having months ago agreed to review it.

Perhaps best described as a work of weird irony, the majority of the pieces satirize the tropes of weird literature. By and large this is a good thing, for there is a great need for the weird to be able to laugh at its own melodramatic melancholy and oft-exaggerated features. Within this atmosphere of parody Hutchings also sets his sights on political and cultural topics, targeting reality television, war, consumer and business culture and many general acts of superficiality and ostentation.

Not all of the works in the collection, however, are ironic, and it is clear from the number of poems and prose inspired by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsay and Robert E. Howard that the author does indeed see himself writing from within the tradition of the weird tale, employing often elegant language to describe the oddities of his otherwordly settings.

Hutchings’ greatest strength seems to lay within the conceptual spaces he explores, and in his talent for the clever concluding twist that he employs in such pieces as “How the Isle of Cats got its Name”, “The God of the City of Dust”, “The Face in the Hill” and “The Scholar and the Moon”, which describes the fantastical culture of the Mayajenese people, and their often deadly rooftop politics.

Despite the growing ubiquity of flash fiction, particularly on the internet, there has been proportionately little increase in the number of writers employing the styles of the aphorism, allegory or parable. The gallows humour that the author brings to bear on many of his subjects, as well as his talent for allegory and unexpected endings mentioned previously, makes The New Death a positive contribution to this body of literature.

Internally a few indicators hinted that the work was self-published. There were some consistent but minor errors of proof reading throughout, the kind that inevitably find their way into a work no matter how many times a single pair of eyes happens to pour over it (sadly, I did not notice until the very end of the work that Hutchings has provided a contact address along with a request that readers alert him to these matters, and so unfortunately I did not record them as I read). There was also a slight unevenness in quality of the contributions, and I have the feeling that with some editorial oversight certain pieces would not have been included, or else would have been divided up differently. Considering the overall quality of many of the collection, these are minor points, but it is indicative of the effect that ebook publishing has on the material writers are releasing upon the world.

I myself am certainly no exception to this.

Even with an editor, my ebook collection of poetry “Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken” shows the over-eagerness or lack of circumspection that tends to accompany this form of publishing. I was so taken with the seemingly magic number “50” that I included pieces in that collection that were, upon reflection, probably not worthy of it, and in the name of eclecticism I gave little thought to the overall effect of the work.

And like my own work, a certain lack of unity of tone and style was one difficulty I found myself encountering with The New Death, sometimes finding it jarring when what I took to be a weird tale had its eldritch atmosphere dispersed by some modern reference made in jest. It is possible that designated sections for satirical and non-satirical prose, and another two for satirical and non-satirical poetry would have helped the reader in this regard. Even with this though, some stories, such as “Todd” and some poems such as “If My Life Was Filmed” seemed slightly out of place in the collection taken as a whole.

I very much appreciate the narrative quality of the poems, and while employing largely rhyming verse, Hutchings often succeeds in evoking the fantastical, folkloric potential of the style without descending into the stretched sounding turns of phrase that have, in many ways, made it fall into a state of disrepute among the modish literati. Still, I must confess that I do not know quite what to make of his decision to base so much of his poetry off of the stories of other writers of weird tales. While these pieces often have many remarkable stanzas, at some points it seemed that the author was forced to spin out a few too many of them in order to approach the scope of the stories they were based upon to the determent of the poetry itself, and at these points the verses do occasionally seem to stumble on the need to make the lines fit into even rhymes.

Despite this, there are many striking stanzas in The New Death that I will not soon forget, such as this one from “Diamanda and the Isle of Wives”:

“The babe in arms, the maiden fair
the childhood friend – not one was spared.
Was this an end that you would choose
or was your love of freedom used
to blind your heart and cruelly cloak
the wicked plans of wicked folk?”

It is thus with some humility that I recognized in this collection several of my own errors as a writer, yet Hutchings’ successes are all to his own credit, and many of the stories and the stanzas from his poems will no doubt remain in my mind for some time to come, drawn up by some meandering reflection or other. And after all, this is the lasting power to which all writers, I suspect, actually aspire.

James Hutching’s second collection of poetry and prose “Flights of Fancy” is slated for release on September 28, 2012.

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Kosekin Nation

James De Mille (1833-1880) was a professor at Dalhousie University and the author of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. The novel is a pre-Orwellian dystopia partly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Ms. Found in a Bottle.

The immediate context of the story is that a group of wealthy European gentlemen sailing in a yacht towards the Mediterranean stumble across a fantastical account of a man named Adam More’s travels among a strange people called the kosekins. Each member on board the yacht has a definite place in society, a doctor, a lord, a businessman, etc and they comment on the account from time to time.

What Adam describes is a civilization that worships death instead of life and the horror and hardships of being a stranger there. Yet, for all its dystopian qualities he ultimately becomes the king of this nation, proving that he is a better kosekin than the kosekins themselves.

The anti-climax of the novel comes when the gentlemen simply get tired of reading the account:

“Here Featherstone stopped, yawned, and laid down the manuscript. /”That’s enough for to-day,” said he; “I’m tired, and can’t read any more. It’s time for supper.” ”

I make some note that this was written before George Orwell’s 1984 to show how it connects with a tradition that is decidedly other than Thomas More’s (1478-1535) Utopia, Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) New Atlantis, or Tommaso Campanella’s (1568-1639) City of the Sun. Utopias are about the future, but dystopias belong to the present. This is why 1984 is called 1984, because Orwell finished writing it in 1948. De Mille, like Orwell, wrote about the present, but unlike Orwell, did not feel like he had to place his commentary in some future state. There is something definitely important about the shift from some strange land to some strange future as the setting for these kinds of social commentaries that I can’t quite put my finger on just yet, but I suspect it says a great deal about the changing political landscape that these two authors found themselves in. It gives me cause to question if in our modern world the imperial fascination with, and demand to subdue foreign lands, has not simply become sublimated into the strangest land of all, our common future.

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Robertson Davies, Beyond Canadian

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) is one of the few Canadian authors that I have a great deal of respect for. His Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975), combines the small town parochialism of Canada with elements of a truly world literature. Along with their occult and Jungian underpinnings they present a depth of character, universality and feeling that is unsurpassed in Canadian letters.

In reflecting on my own ambiguous relationship to this nation I often find myself trapped by it. Reject defining myself as a Canadian author, and I’m doing what half of them do; revel in it, and I’m following the other half. When it comes down to it, I know I have to get over this nationality business and just get down to writing as well as I can. But it’s never that easy, is it?

The problem isn’t really a sense of national past, though to be sure, it lends itself so readily to the savage tribal will that today goes under the name of patriotism. It’s the fact that most of what passes for Canadian culture is garish and self-satisfying. It’s the kind of culture typical of every nation that knows itself to be small on the world stage, and responds with a kind of ressentiment. The problem is even worse in Quebec culture, but that’s only by virtue of the fact that it’s couched in a larger nation, and not anything inherent to it. Really, what’s good about french Canadian culture is unique to it, while what’s bad is part of a more common failing. Native culture has the potential to be free and enlivened, but we’ve also managed to squash that through very narrow forms of patronage. Still, at the best of times, like it or not, the most interesting products of this place tend to be hybrids, much like the Manticore itself. Only when it learns how to be a self-knowledgeable and more perfect Manticore, will it ever be able to claim some kind of whole.

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The Unplumbed Depths of Lovecraftian Philosophy

H. P. Lovecraft’s interests mark him as one of the most scientifically engaged writers of fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. His works demonstrate an awareness of Einsteinian and quantum physics, Freud and psychoanalysis, astronomy, chemistry and the question of progress. He also wrote over a hundred articles dealing almost exclusively with these themes. Despite this, Lovecraft’s importance in the context of the history and philosophy of science has largely been overlooked.

A few examples of this kind do exist, such as S.T. Joshi’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West”, which attempts to place Lovecraft in the tradition of Oswald Spengler’s critique of progress. Overall, however, there has been little written on this topic in any concentrated way, and what has appeared has generally been dominated by the writings of Joshi.

Lovecraft’s philosophy of science has been much maligned by narrow interpreters who see in his exultation of the unknown an anti-scientific nostalgia and an unhealthy, morbid fascination with madness and human frailty. While by the end of the 20th century Lovecraft’s fiction had developed a cult following, this interest and the substantial cultural capital afforded by it has seen little reflection in academic circles, partly, one thinks, for this very same reason.

My recent interests have lead me to a comparison of Lovecraft’s sense of “Cosmic Horror” with Einstein’s description of “Cosmic Religion”. Given Lovecraft’s knowledge of Einstein this connection is tantalizing, more so because of the work I have been doing on science and the uncanny. All three of these concepts are closely related, and are worthy of much further consideration.

Links of Interest:



A Canadian film that interweaves Lovecraft’s life and literature: “Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft”.

If you can get a plushy of it, it must be important:


Nelson, Victoria 2001 The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Faust, Alchemy, Everything and Nothing

Goethe’s Faust is one of the most commonly begun, and most infrequently finished, epics of the western literary tradition. Romantics drawn to the tragedy of the first part, the personal drama and heartache, are often estranged from the archytipical allegory of the second, but this is to their own detriment. It is the second part of Faust that really reveals how it is an alchemical drama, and finally makes sense of Faust’s otherwise puzzling statement to the demon Mephistopheles “I hope to see your nothing / turn to everything for me.”

While it may seem prosaic to modern readers, the emphasis on the four elements in the second part of Faust is actually a completion of Faust’s statement. While Earth, Water, Air and Fire might not seem like much to us moderns, with our gaggle of elements to chose from on the periodic table, in the medieval setting in which the Faust drama plays itself out, to say say those four things is to describe the basis of everything.

With this in mind, the concepts of transformation and prime matter inherent in alchemy take on a much more profound meaning.

In 1768, during his convalescent period, Goethe read a number of alchemical authors with Fräulein von Klettenberg. He studied Paracelsus, van Helmont (a follower of Paracelsus who introduced his theories to Newton and his contemporaries) as well as the American George Starkey (who was also influenced by Paracelsus and influential in the Newtonian circle in London) . After his alchemical initiation Goethe became increasingly interested in the chemical-philosophical process, and hoped to create a substance called: “Virgin Earth, which would give birth to other substances from its own womb; to imitate as it were the creation of the universe by producing a microcosmic world of his which would develop of its own accord”. This Virgin Earth appears to have been a purified form of the “prime matter” of the alchemist.

His work in this respect was ultimately fruitless, as one scholar observed: “although in old age he was still struck by the beauty of the experiment, he was disappointed in his efforts”. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Goethe was well versed in the astrological, numerological and alchemical lore which he elaborated upon, and occasionally criticized in Faust. His notebooks from his time in Frankfurt and Strasbourg have large sections dealing with figures such as Paracelsus and Agrippa, as well as showing his interest in cheiromancy, astrology, and numerology.

The scholarly world, and particularly the English world, has yet to fully embrace the implications of Goethe’s engagement with alchemy, and in particular the role Paracelsus played in his thought. With a better understanding of Paracelsian principles we can gain greater insight into how they inspired Goethe’s account of the role of the devil in creation, as well as the view that the whole world is in the process of revelation through restlessness. Furthermore, it seems more likely that the character of Faust himself was in some ways more based on the person of Paracelsus than the legend of Faust, given the alchemist’s relation to authority and metaphysical doctrines. Finally, with an elemental understanding of the nebulous “Mothers”, we find a greater source of unity in the second part of Faust which binds together the seemingly disparate scenes and phantasmagoric carnivals into a coherent whole. In short, for Faust: “what keeps the world together in its inner essence [rough translation of: “Was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält“] is nothing less than alchemy.

A Beautiful Animism

For me the beauty and the wonder of the movie Wall-e comes from the way in which it is able to instill the fundamentals of life and fellow-feeling in what seems to the human observer to be an inanimate object. While it is undoubtedly CGI, I had the feeling when first watching it that I was observing puppets in motion.

Puppetry as an art is both ancient, and, like many ancient things, deeply under-appreciated. It, and its sibling claymation, has been steadily fazed out because of improvements in computer graphics that see the material construction of cast/scenes to be an unnecessary and complicated expense.

But there is something to be said of the joy of animism in making the inanimate animate through these forms. That a puppeteer could pick up something seemingly dead and with a few skillful motions give it life and personality seems to me to have a powerful effect upon the imagination.

A greater appreciation of the personality of things would do much to ameliorate the culture of waste and refuse that refuses to adhere to environmental responsibilities. Yet when it comes time for me to throw away some old jacket, or sell some long possessed relic of my childhood, I am often struck with the feeling that I am leaving behind a companion rather than a belonging.

No doubt this view is the height of eccentricity, but such foolishness may well save us in time.

For More Information:

http://www.mermaidtheatre.ns.ca/ (An excellent puppetry theater currently on tour across America)

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a self educated poet, sculptor, painter and writer who spent almost the entirety of his life living in a small cabin in Auburn, California. While supporting himself by picking fruit and cutting wood, Smith taught himself French and Spanish, and read encyclopedias and dictionaries to expand his knowledge of a world he seldom traveled in.

It’s hard finding Smiths writing in most bookstores, but the website The Eldritch Dark has done a wonderful job of presenting his creative output. I have long admired Smith’s works and contribution to uncanny literature, and would not have known anything about him if it wasn’t for this delightful find.

Of course, not everyone would agree with me. Smith was in conscious opposition to the realist litterature of his day, and often expressed frustration when critics would chastize his work for not being another reproduction of Hemingway. His fantastical worlds, their ambivalent moralities and cosmic scope, his enjoyment of concepts of reincarnation, mysticism, the evil or indifference of higher intellects and the ultimate finitude of human activity won him few friends in the polite society of letters in 20th century American literature.

But that does not seem to be what he was really after anyway.

My own story, The Gray Men of the Desert of Dust, was originally written as an homage to the first work by Smith that I ever read. The Abominations of Yondo, while not Smith’s finest work, captured my imagination with its arcane use of language and atmospheric qualities. Indeed, readers looking for character-driven plots may be disappointed by his style. His protagonists tend to be archetypal, and his female characters too often find themselves in the old duality of the maiden or the witch. Yet I prefer to treat each work as an exquisite painting, and am little troubled by this.

For new readers I would certainly recommend The City of the Singing Flame, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Disinterment of Venus, The Chain of Aforgomon and The Ghoul to get a feel for what Smith was all about.

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Serge Sunne, Time, Identity and Otherness

I know very little about the artist Serge Sunne. He is Latvian, but I don’t think he’s gained a wide enough circulation yet to attract the kind of theorizing and speculation given to more popular artists.

Since discovering his works I have quickly become enamored with their strange depictions and surreal sense of the uncanny. Sunne seems to enjoy playing with concepts of identity, otherness, and time in his works in ways that I have not seen before.

“Another Holy Mother”, the title of the above picture combines an unsettling union of the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus with an entirely unworldly subject whose motherly embrace is a nightmare of its entangled, strangely disproportionate limbs. The contrast is made even more complete by the addition of the halos around the two figures, whose pale, almost feeble light contrast so sharply with the darkness of their bodies.

Then there is the question raised by many of his pieces: When will the future get old? One example can be seen in the derelict ghost spaceship at the bottom of this post. Few artists I know have really focused on a little explored theme in science fiction: when the new gets old, then ancient, the half-forgotten. Sunne’s “Abandoned Space Port” is another example of this lovely juxtaposition of an almost unfathomable futurity clashing with some sense of deep time.

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The Atomic Heart of Japanese Robotics

Japanese culture has been one of the major “alternative” imports into the west for the past several years. Their view of A.I. and humanoid robots is refreshingly different from that of the western traditions of Frankenstein, the Christian Golem (unlike the Jewish Golem), and the Matrix.

One of my earliest introductions to the east and robotics was in the form of Astro Boy, the boy with the atomic heart. I was too young to see it at the time, but the show must have clearly resonated with its Japanese audience, the only people who have actually had atomic weapons used against them. It’s hard to overstate the effects that this historical event seems to have had on the Japanese relationship to technology, and their desire to give it a human face in literature, art, and reality.

It is even more interesting juxtaposed, as it often is, to the Japanese dystopia in which the machines often take on a more human character than the humans themselves. Take for instance the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, for which the question of humanity is an overarching theme. The main character is a human brain in a mechanical body, while several of the characters are human brains stored in computer chips and placed within human bodies. Questions of essential personality, indeed, essential humanity, get even more tangled in the light of amnesia, intentional and not, dream worlds, multiple personalities and the concept of storing human memory.

Despite the manga’s occasional turn to what I call “splorching” (excessively pressurized human gore often seen in Japanese media) and often taboo subject matter, the series still has a lot of heart to offer curious readers.