by Dan Browne
You are gone now, but you are also still around, in the eyes and hearts of many. In fact, I think there’s a good chance you’ll be around in another hundred years, if the art of our era survives. Artworks are time machines, as Wyndham Lewis once wrote: “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because they are theonly person aware of the nature of the present.”
When I saw your films they were such a shock, especially the accompanying dates — to make one of those in a year would be a good year for any artist, let alone three or four, every year for many years. They were such condensed energy that I wanted to run out of the theatre and howl! When I wrote about them I decided it was necessary to update your filmography because your website was out of date and nothing else existed, and I never imagined for a second that the list wouldn’t contain another fifty masterpieces in a short matter of time. The loss of these films is hard, but of course it is nothing against the losses of those who were closest to you.
In my last email, I mentioned that I wanted to revise my analysis further, as it was a rushed draft. I also forgot to credit you with the Walter Benjamin quote included near the end, which was entirely your suggestion. The passage fit so closely with what I feel is the purpose of art today that I will repeat it now. You wrote to me:
So much of what you describe is unthought for me to a large degree, but at the same time very familiar, and literally so, in the cases of Bergson and Benjamin, as influences. There are some passages of Benjamin about Freud in Illuminations, that have either inspired some films, such as ANOTHER VOID, or else I read them after making the films and felt some connection, I can't remember. Here's a passage if you're curious: In Freud’s view, consciousness as such receives no memory traces whatever, but has another important function: protection against stimuli. “For a living organism, protection against stimuli is almost more important than the reception of stimuli. The protective shield is equipped with its own store of energy and must above all strive to preserve the special forms of conversion of energy operating in it against the effects of the excessive energies at work in the external world — effects which tend towards an equalization of potential and hence towards destruction.” The threat from these energies is the threat of shocks. (Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”)
Benjamin saw trauma as the defining feature of the contemporary era — an era in which technology is written into the body with a newfound velocity, in which the mind struggles to make sense of the maelstrom of impressions that surround us daily. In this environment, where communication takes place through the hardened and detached forms of media instead of the body itself, we can become harder as people. Time accelerates until we are backed into a constant state of reaction, rarely able to contemplate our place. This affects everyone, but artists tend to be more sensitive, and so it can affect us a bit more. I agree with Benjamin that the task of pattern recognition falls to the artists — to find those alchemical forms that might turn the leaden violence of shocks into golden piercing insights to restore balance, to find beauty in the ruins of the world, to sow the seeds of vital ideas from which new life can grow, to reintegrate the fragmented shards of our selves back into the whole.
While I believe this is true now just as it always was, I am also starting to notice a difference today. I am worried that there might be too much trauma in the world already. I am worried things might be too far-gone: the biosphere and ice caps will not recover in our lifetimes, or our children’s or grandchildren’s. We are living through the first mass extinction triggered by a terrestrial species, and bear the simultaneous burden of being both cause and witness. It will take millennia for the earth to recover from our will to mastery. My hope has been replaced by grief at the knowledge that this happened in my lifetime and nothing was done.
So much in the world is so wrong today, and as a result there is even more pressure on the forms and images that reflect truth. We can agree with Lewis, and with Pound, that the artist is an antenna for the race, but we tend to conveniently forget their politics, and who among us really wants to see what is at the front of this profane march we are on? I want to believe that balance can be restored, but the longer I am around, the more pessimism takes over. Recent news about Arctic temperatures makes me think that a new balance will not include humans, at least not as we are acting currently, having forgotten our place in the cycle. Artists have been sounding the alarm for more than a century, but continue to be ignored. What further response can there be, when their bodies are used only to protect the masses from lightning strikes? I am no longer sure if I can still believe in a sentiment that burdens artists with the weight of salvation, because the stakes are so incomprehensibly high. As William Carlos Williams once wrote:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
It is hard to make something that comes from the heart — it requires such openness and vulnerability, and asks for a sensitive response in a world that is so often cold and indifferent. Your art shines a light for another relation to the world, a way that exists outside the will to mastery. The light you channeled was not yours, it moved through you as a conduit — a magnetic force that linked the forms of the world through vision. To share this was your gift. It must not have been easy, for to channel such force necessitates a different state of consciousness. As Plato wrote, “the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him.” Not everyone understands this, but some people do, and the idea lives on. It does not originate in you, nor does it end in you. The rest of us carry it forward, and continue to make space for its cultivation. One day, more will eat of its fruit. This is all we can do. Now that you are gone, there is a space between the lights on the horizon, but we have to keep on going, for that is our only option.
“Everyone knows that, if an art necessarily imposed the shock or the vibration, the world would have changed long ago...” (Gilles Deleuze) “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still function.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
All energy circulates and all things change, but we need to stick together — it is a dark time and we need to preserve light amidst good company when we can find it. There are so many billions of galaxies out there that we cannot lose hope. I hope that others are inspired by your example to live for today, as if there is no guarantee for more. That they might take a moment and do the thing they have been dreaming about. That they might tell someone they love them. That they might try and fail, then learn something and try again. That they might not be afraid to look foolish, for looking foolish is the only way that anyone ever did anything worthwhile. That they might play from their fucking heart, as Bill Hicks once said. Thank you for playing from your heart, Paul. I hope you are reincarnated as a butterfly.
Originally published in Hors Champ, March 2018.