2007 - 2020

The Ice-Cream Cone of Desire

The Ice-Cream Cone of Desire: FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT  by George Gunn

There is a beautiful Gaelic word, eòlas, which means, more or less, knowledge; or more specifically, the knowledge of healing incantations. Healing in Gaelic is slànachadh. In my new play “The Fallen Angels of the Moine” (which is about the proposed Space Hub on the Moine peninsula in North Sutherland – regular Bella readers will be acquaint with this project) I have a character called An Slanagher, which – I admit – is a terrible corruption of an neach-slànachaidh, or the healer. This character’s job is to connect the real world with the other world. Why is any of this important? Well, I have this romantic notion that transforming observation into revelation is the job of the artist, or more specifically in my field, that of the writer. It’s what makes us useful to our fellow humans. Allegedly.

Let’s face it, this modern world could use some healing and a lot more eòlas. Issues and catastrophes line up as if in an audition for history. Coronavirus, floods, Australia on fire, Trump, Bojo, Highland landownership and BBC Question Time – take your pick. These are my current Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse. You will have your own. There are plenty of choice nags in this race. I know that Biblically – Revelation 6:2–8 – there are only supposed to be four horsemen, on white, red, black, and pale horses, symbolizing pestilence, war, famine, and death, respectively. But casino capitalism and climate change are truly inflationary apocalyptos’ and as I am not a practising Christian I have to try and create a less metaphorical script to reflect contemporary reality, even if that is through distortion or metamorphosis.

The current governmental system of manufacturing spurious desire for specific lifestyles and throw-away products is designed to lock us into a permanent present and seems to me to be a full-on manifestation of a maxim of the 12th century French scholar and architect, Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, who noted that, “The dull mind rises to truth through material things.” In these early decades of the 21st century, you could legitimately ask, are our deliberately dulled minds capable of rising to truth, through material things or anything else? And if they do will they not be unceremoniously slapped back down? What has art to say about that?

The cruel trick of time is to lock us all, artists included, into a permanent now. We are as incapable of looking back to learn as we are in looking forwards to be aware. For most of humanity the journey from memory to imagination is more of a tight-rope walk than a progressed narrative. From the past, through the present and on to the future, is for most people, as Peter Pan said in another context, “an awfully big adventure”. To write about the future, without falling off a cliff you did not see you were approaching, is almost impossible. As the writer William Gibson puts it:

“Every fiction about the future is like an ice-cream cone, melting as it moves into the future. It’s acquiring archaism by the second.”

It is interesting that Wikipedia describe Gibson as “an American-Canadian speculative fiction writer and essayist widely credited with pioneering the science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk.” Most of Gibson’s readers would rightly counter that if he pioneers anything it is the truth. One of his “truths” is that “All prophecy is a description of the past.” So all our futuristic melting ice-cream cones are old hat anyway. Is this reassuring or terrifying? Another one of Gibson’s chilling squibs is, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. Is this a description of the psychopathic financial system we currently call capitalism? You bet it is. The affluent minority are the subjects of their own desire, and so they will be consumed. They experience the future through technology, which will eat them. The majority who are daily getting poorer see their future being outsourced and, less desirously, will experience what is to come in the form of one calamity after the next.

The present “now” is a grim comedy where capitalists do not have any capital, communists have no communism and Scotland has no state-hood. In this sort-of Kodachrome society where negative information is always more popular than positive interaction and where the fake is always bigger and shinier than reality, what is the function of the artist, the writer, the truth-teller, exactly? Who is mad enough to make poetry out of this mess let alone talk truth to power?

Which also leads me to wonder why there have been so few successful cultural manifestations – art, music, literature or theatre – about climate change? Throughout history these branches or forms of culture have responded to war, industrial alienation, agricultural failure and crises of many and all kinds: why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to conventional artistic practice? Maybe the artists have all grown too comfortable? Maybe they cannot see? Mebbe they don’t dare look? Maybe the artists have no art left to make sense out of what is coming our way? Maybe it’s just too big to see? It took the poet Hugh MacDiarmid nine years of being chained, Prometheus-like, to his rock of Whalsay to understand the stony limits of his own and the world’s poetics. Gladly for us, the result of this “lithogenesis”, as MacDiarmid called it, was a series of brilliant poems. You will be relieved to know that lithogenesis is the formation of sedimentary rock. Or, as MacDiarmid put it in his poem, “On A Raised Beach”,

Deep conviction or preference can seldom
Find direct terms in which to express itself.

But we must try. We are encouraged by our dominant political system to be on the periphery. That is the nature of centralism: power at the hub, participation at the rim. Art, as far as I’m concerned, has to create an inverted wheel where participation is at the centre and power on the edge. Then we might have a democracy worth the name and an art worth the candle. This I think is what stimulating and encouraging every human being to discover their creative potential is all about. It is what life is all about. If you financialise or monetise this facility then you herd the people into Thanatos. People are hungry for another kind of relationship with power and art. In Scotland we need to refocus our political and creative language in order to articulate our desire for both freedom and a future. Instead we obsess about who is going to be the new leader, or who will replace who to represent whom in what constituency when? Or as they say in Aberdeen – fah’s sayin fit aboot fah?

The problem with culture is that it is created by humanity and it engenders desire. Mostly, but not exclusively, for material things. Most recently for the chattels of urban living – houses, central heating, cars, washing machines, TV, holidays in the sun and mobile phones: things that drive the economy, the must-have digi-knick-knacks and life-enhancing-gizmos that pump carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. This is desire as destruction, umbilically linked with empire, war and the mercantile hegemony of western “values” forcefully implanted into conquered territories. It is not as if this historical process of political and cultural export has been camouflaged in any way because traditionally the cultural expressions of art, music, literature theatre and architecture have chronicled them, some in celebration, some in condemnation: but all have replied to the questions set by history, by the actions of the ruling elite and their effect on the subjugated. Yet when it comes to narrating and analysing climate change the arts are far less confident, almost impervious to the subject. Much like the Greenland glaciers – and under similar increasing heat and pressure – the fiction of the future, the ice-cream cone of desire, is melting.

He may have been chained to a rock on Whalsay but like Prometheus MacDiarmid possessed forethought, not so much like Prometheus in his name as in his nature. Because he was a poet he had the fire of creation in his belly and a dream of the future in his head and he gave it freely to humanity and like Prometheus was punished by the gods (MacDiarmid by the gods of economics and reaction) for offering humanity a glimpse of the possibilities of a good civilization. The experience of Prometheus can be read about in myth, for MacDiarmid the falling apart of the world was his subject and in so being an intimate experience, as poetry is the most intimate of arts and the one most attuned to extremes. Milton wrote most of Paradise Lost during some of the coldest Winter’s ever recorded. MacDiarmid was comfortable to be where extreme met.

Despite the pessimism of the new age of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch we are entering into, if we do not believe that we, the human species, have the possibility of an enduring future then why should we create anything? The pressure on the young to conform to the self-consuming orthodoxy of our brutal material culture is immense. Where are the heralds of promise for them? How can their desire be rendered creative instead of destructive? In The Great Derangement the Indian novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh, thinking of the forthcoming generations who will fully inhabit and deal with the Anthropocene, writes,

“When readers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look first and most urgently for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance?”

We will be part of that inheritance. We will have time-bombed them with nuclear waste at Dounreay, hundreds of leaking shit-holes in the North Sea, air that is dangerous to breathe and a flora and fauna reduced to a scratch on the wall of evolution. They will have little to thank us for. Our melting ice-cream cone of an imagined future will be to them the distant half-remembered reality of a dark sticky period in the past. Their desires will be tempered by experience so that they can survive. If they are not they will not. It is a pity we cannot learn form them. Where is the character from fiction or the poet on this Earth now who can connect these two worlds? How desperately we need eòlas.

©George Gunn 2020

George Gunn’s new play “The Fallen Angels of the Moine” will be performed as a moved reading by Dogstar Theatre, directed by Matthew Zajac, on Wednesday 18th March at 1.30 pm in the Thurso Merlin Cinema, Ormlie Road, as part of the Environmental Research Institute’s 2020 Peatlands Conference.

For further information contact dogstartheatre@gmail.com

Comments (3)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    From Ian Gibson’s work, another horseman of the apocalypse may be AI lawyers. Indeed, the main defence against Artificial Intelligence exploiting (and possibly wrecking, perhaps for trivial ends) the legal-financial-corporate-economic-political-military-security-social system (they are all connected through money and enough money can buy you armies after all) could be AI rationalization of the legal system, which could even deliver social justice through the back door. But you’re wrong if you think communism doesn’t exist either. Indeed that’s basically how the underclass survives and the rebels fight back, by sharing technologies, as in Gibson’s future-now of 3D-printers and open source hardware-software combinations.

  2. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks again, George, for all the rich connections of your writing. There is an evocative passage in William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ which your article brings to my mind.

    Your first paragraph says that in your play, ‘The Fallen Angels of the Moine’, the character An Slanagher’s job is “to connect the real world with the other world”. Gnosticism (gnosis = knowledge) was/is of course a dualistic worldview which deprecates the physical world in favour of a supposed higher-level “other world”. Picking up on your Gaelic word “eòlas”, the (accentless) term in Irish yields the idiom: “Chaill mé m’eolas: I lost my sense of direction, my way.”

    Okay. So anyhow, in ‘Neuromancer’, Gibson’s main character, a superlative computer-hacker called Case, “loses his way” (eolas) and falls like a cyber-gnostic “angel” into the material “imprisonment” of his body, his malaise provoked by a chemical toxicity, presaging your final paragraph.

    Gibson writes:

    “He’d made a classic mistake, the one he’d sworn he’d never make. He stole from his employers…He still wasn’t sure how he’d been discovered, not that it mattered now. He’d expected to die, then, but they only smiled….They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin…The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.” (Neuromancer, William Gibson, Ace Books, New York, 1984)

  3. Tom Hubbard says:

    Thanks again George for your integrative vision.

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