Friday, October 06, 2006

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be thought it was going to be in the future

"They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him."
-- Philip K. Dick, in Valis

There's been a curiously nostalgic tone to the last few days.

...I should say straight away that I'm not someone who despises nostalgia; in fact, on the whole, rather the reverse. The nostalgia industry as a pernicious and self-nourishing driver of addictive right-wing behaviours, that old scam in all its gross and demeaning shallowness, yes, I despise that a bit. But nostalgia as an emotional (and not wholly subrational) propellor into a programme of work towards a more equable future is neither an ignoble nor a reactionary impulse. The word, after all, means 'homesickness' -- in fact meant only that until as recently as 1920 -- and the will to be somehow at home in the world is about as deep-and-meaningful as you'll get. The sense of an unreachable home, whether in the past or the future, underwrites much that is useful and imaginative -- possibly, in fact, everything that is useful and imaginative and not already covered by (a) the identification of a particular home as home, and (b) the topical rejection of a given 'home' in favour of an intuited 'away'. Everything from Boethius to Dvorak to Gus Van Sant. (And of course the current -- and potentially politically actionable -- nostalgia for a telegraphed future that failed to arrive, most fully and gung-hoically modelled in Radiohead's OK Computer.) Nostalgia is not just a philosophical hue, it's what makes philosophy and scientific inquiry tick. Hence the prolifically suggestive second epigraph to The Age of Wire and String: "Mathematics is the supreme nostalgia of our time."

Anyhoo. Hearing Mr Tony doing his Labour Party conference farewell greatest hits package last week was like chowing down on a whole tray of New Madeleines (ready-smothered in own-brand royal jelly and Auntie Mandy's Special Guacamole). I was very abruptly transported back the best part of a decade to the early afternoon of 1st May 1997: ambling back home from the polling station through the docile side streets of Cambridge with my then flatmate, enjoying the beautiful late spring sunshine and pretty much aglow with the knowledge that we'd just been part of (what we were pretty confident would turn out to be) a landslide victory for Labour. Those first few days were so giddy. I used to wake up every morning and think, suddenly I live in a country where Tony Banks is a government minister. And Ann Widdecombe isn't. It could make a stout man giggle.

So as Mr Tony enumerated the achievements of the last decade, yaddaing away in that agonisingly familiar Scylla-and-Charybdis blend of pious looping Anglo-Catholic cadences and shonky Estuary bonhomie, it was hard not to feel some pragmatic concessions leaking through the overlooked hairline cracks in one's resentment and disgust. The minimum wage was an achievement. There were advances on hunting and on the equal rights agenda. In other words, the targets that New Labour has done best in hitting are all ones that are both symbolic and stand-alone, and while it's wrong to diminish those gains by describing them as gesture politics and nothing more, those questions that require a stronger application of programmatic analytical thought to more intricate systematic relations have flummoxed them again and again. (Great ad men they may have been, but lousy cyberneticists.) Ten years on, we're nowhere on education, nowhere on integrated public transport, we've failed to take the lead that we were so well-placed to take on carbon dependency...

And of course what would also have helped in coming to a more level assessment of Mr Tony's last huzzah would have been to have a caption flash up every minute or so that said THIS MAN IS A WAR CRIMINAL. That can really take the edge off a seduction, I bet. (Though I admit that's speculation, I've no first-hand experience.)

Incidentally, I haven't at all liked finding the vacuity of Mr Dave more tolerable this week, and indeed more recognizable, than Mr Tony's was last week, and that Mr Gordon's was and will be. I feel like a very committed socialist, but the commitment really is to a ragbag of borrowed thoughts and unfashionable influences, all of which taken together add up to little more than politeness. I am a socialist because it seems to me to be polite to expect to treat people in accordance with the courtesies that socialism describes. Well, it's clear to anyone that Mr Dave is very much outflanking Mr Gordon in the politeness stakes. The Conservative party in the era of the 'pissing elephant' (thank you Steve Bell, as always) has absolutely nothing to say for itself except "Be nice to each other", the proto-Springerish codicil that Derek Batey used to append to each soul-blatting episode of Mr & Mrs. But better that than not, I can't help thinking. -- I shouldn't make light of it really, I think Blair / Mandelson / Campbell's neoconfiscation of the Labour movement is if anything more scandalous than the loose and wilful capitulation to imperialist warmongery that's inevitably followed on. The Anglo-American fundamentalist assault on the conditions of sincerity. Tut, I say. Tsk, even.

Well so there was that; and then there were a couple of interesting programmes, one radio and one tv, that were kind of interesting coming more-or-less together. One was the second part (I missed the first, though I've seen some clips online -- gone now, unfortunately) of Stephen Fry's remarkably candid documentary on manic depression -- woven around his own experiences, which until now have been vivdly exposed up to a point (the colourful biography, particularly around his teens; the Bruges misadventure) and, below that point, utterly submerged. The other was a really exceptionally good Radio 4 programme on the writer Philip K. Dick: about whom I know little beyond the movies that his work's inspired and the fascination he's held for some writers and artists I admire, first and foremost (for me) Ken Campbell.

The Dick programme suggested, tantalisingly, that a quasi-religious experience he reportedly had towards the end of his life may well have been no more or less than the epiphenomenal perceptual effects of a stroke. I find this fascinating as someone who had -- or, at any rate, I believe that I had -- my hardwiring permanently changed by taking prescribed lithium and paroxetine for a short while in the late nineties. As Stephen Fry noted, the average time-to-diagnosis for people with bipolar disorder is ten years; for me it was slightly longer than that, in that I believe my bipolar cycle started when I was fourteen and by the time I was properly diagnosed I was 26. I think I will remember forever the point at which the drugs kicked in, and the severe depression I was in lifted very steeply over the course of a couple of days. One night I was walking home when I happened to look up at the sky and I really had the strongest and most peculiar and compelling sensation that I could perceive -- not see, exactly, but sense -- connections, just simple linear connections, between the stars.

That experience has had kind of bifurcated consequences in my life ever since. It's given me a close interest (reflected in much of the poetry in No Son House, for example) in what you might call the hermeneutics of drug-induced experience and chemical imbalance -- in other words, how people describe and understand and sometimes harness the symptomatic insights and sensations that biochemical changes bring about, and how very often a characteristic belief system is overlaid on, and reinforced by, that interpretive process. So, most proximally, I wonder, as a result of my own experience, how much genuine religious belief and 'spiritual' or transcendent experience is actually located in the movement of neurotransmitters. In other words, is G-d a primitive name for serotonin? (This is an incredibly reductive gloss on something I'd prefer to think about -- and write about -- a bit more carefully, but this doesn't feel like quite the time and place.)

But the other, um, furc is, I guess, the same thought from the other end. I can't dismiss that weird Seroxat high, I can't disexperience it, and for all that I might try to rationalise it or locate it within my body, I can't altogether let go of the idea that is was revelatory in terms of my relationship with the external world; that those star-connections are not altogether unreliable.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is in terms of another experience, a few weeks earlier, around (I guess) July 1999, when I had my first and -- to date, d.v. -- only experience of psychosis during a severe depressive phase. Among a number of incidents, I had one especially strong paranoid episode when I went to see my GP one day and found that it became gently but forcefully clear to me while I sat in the waiting room that the scrolling message display screen in reception was broadcasting messages about me to everyone else in the room; that the man sitting behind me had a knife which he was trained to use on me if I started making a fuss; and, finally (this all within the space of a few minutes), that the whole surgery was an elaborate fake, designed solely for the purpose of surveillance of my actions and behaviour and gathering data about me. All this felt incredibly lucid, as if all along I'd been a dolt for not spotting these things before; I felt a bit frightened but also very calm, more powerful for having cracked this code. And then a very odd thing: as I left the surgery, having seen my GP (and not dared mention any of this to him, knowing that he was working for the enemy), it all cleared for a moment, and I thought: wow, how strange, to have suddenly drawn all these conclusions that clearly can't possibly have been true; and as soon as that thought was complete, I began to slide again: ...ah, except of course, the thing about the message board could be true... and that guy obviously did have a knife... and so on.

So I suppose the way I feel about the join-the-dots star patterns I apprehended is a bit like that. I'm constantly on the edge of a conscious, rationally figured, almost willed, relapse: because to have made out those patterns, though they may not be objectively or dependably 'real', is in itself sufficiently ineffable to have a permanent transformative effect on one's understanding of life-activity at the horizons of perception. Finding a language adequate to those events is a struggle, though, and I'm sure that feeds back into the agonies of isolation and fear of self (and of the sometimes brutal violence of the self's disregard for itself) that so many depressive and bipolar people experience.

Which, I now see, is perhaps why I found it so excruciatingly hard to watch some parts of the first series of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie when I found it cheap on DVD a few weeks back. The series was first broadcast in 1989; I'd been a hugely avid fan of his earlier Radio 4 series Saturday Night Fry. That, I think, holds up when you listen back (all six episodes can be downloaded here); but perhaps radio has a reassuring fluidity that that TV series necessarily lacked. At any rate, there is in most -- perhaps all -- of the episodes of A Bit Of..., a Fry monologue to-camera, normally built on the slightest of premises and drawing all of its laughs from the absurdly overelaborate language that he employs: the sort of talk that any impressionist 'doing' Fry would have to try to emulate, and that has led to at least one unauthorised gewgaw. I thought as I watched these monologues recently that my discomfort was simply overfamiliarity with what has become something of a worn-out mode (and, to be fair, one he hardly indulges now, though the bullying polyhistorrhea of QI merely supplants it); but actually, in the light of his excellent documentary, it's hard not to detect a profoundly anxious tussle with language and with the hollow superabundance of his own exertions. And the more one sees the work in A Bit Of... through that prism, the more startling it is. The desperate, tolling absurdism; the supercilious umbrage that keeps clouding these sketches over; the contemptuousness of the vox pop interludes... The ferocious unspoolings of hatred -- almost always directed at perfectly valid targets, but now appearing to show the influence not so much of the Footlights inheritance of diamantine verbal attack (vide Cleese, of course, and Peter Cook, and perhaps above all Eric Idle, one of the most incorrigibly hateful comedians you could possibly imagine), but, more radically, the characteristic rage of the bipolar artist stuck in a traumatic and irresolvable lockdown with language. Surely this must go some way also to explaining Fry's appalling The Ode Less Travelled, his guide to writing poetry, apparently pitched directly at people who, like Fry, secretly hate language for the betrayals it visits on them; though the awfulness of that book is also an index of his tin ear for music.

(I think I had better say here that, contrary to the impression that might be formed, actually I mostly like and approve of Stephen Fry. I think the real problem is his media role as Cleverest Living Englishman. He is clearly exceptionally well-, or at least widely, read, and has a remarkable memory; he's an appealing stylist, and he has been extremely shrewd in his career. None of these things has very much to do with cleverness, even in its most popular sense. I don't suppose he ever said they did.)

So much struck a chord in the documentary, especially the question that became a kind of refrain: if you could push a button and be cured of your bipolar disorder, would you? To which I don't think anybody replied 'yes', not even Fry himself who looked pretty worn out by what has evidently been a long and frequently disorienting struggle. And I've always felt I wouldn't push the button either (though as somebody said -- I can't remember who -- I'd like to be offered the opportunity to push it when I'm at my most depressed). That sense of the connectedness of things, that I got from my first full-on SSRI high, has underscored every piece of work I've done since, from the most experimental text stuff to the most user-friendly theatre shows and storytelling pieces. And, needless to say, it is itself a brilliant metaphor for the experience of manic depression, which I wrote about (not terribly well) in the scripts I did for Unlimited Theatre's Neutrino: the sublime sensation of intuited connectivity, at every level from the personal to the cosmic: which in mania is sort of erotically tantalising and enthralling, and in depression becomes so onerous and unmanageable as to be totally immobilizing.

I took myself off medication altogether within a year -- I disliked so much the reduced bitrate of a world travestied by lithium -- and have never gone back on. After I was high on Seroxat for those initial couple of weeks in 1999, the amplitude of my bipolar cycle has flattened somewhat, and I'm far more stable than I was. But it was good to be reminded of those comparatively recent extremes; and it was good, too, to want for the first time in a dog's age to give Stephen Fry a hug. Apart from anything else, I sympathise very fully with his apparent (though not, I think, mentioned) discovery, over the years -- which I too have found out to my infinite regret -- that there's almost no part of the cycle, and of its treatment, that doesn't have weight gain as one of its side effects. I was thinking a few nights ago, having accidentally come across an old school photo: it is, horribly, approximately true that when I was slightly more than half the age I am now, I was also slightly more than half the weight. At this rate, if I live to be sixty, I'll have died of a heart attack at 48...

Anyway, enough of this egregious candour. I promise I'll get back to bitching about theatre stuff asap.

Oh, bum, I really wish I could link to the Dick documentary but it's gone offline at the BBC web site now. If anyone recorded it, could they make themselves known to the Bank Manager please?

Tomorrow, if there's time: art. Of a sort. And a couple of neat blogs.

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