So, I’m sat on the quayside at Methana, on the northeast Peloponnese coast, reading Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘Synchronicity and Isomorphism in Finnegans Wake‘ (part of his book Coincidance). Every now and then I look up from the book to gaze as the heavy swells of the harbour’s waters, shining from the morning sun and beaten by the strong, chill winds. I ponder the beauty and strangeness of what Terence McKenna calls the “literary quality” to reality, this mesh of references and connections that weave through life in a way that might lead careless minds to reach for the idea of some singular creative personage behind it all, but which finally can only be appreciated through some grasp of the concept of spontaneous, self-generated, self-organizing structures of meaning stretching across space and time.
My own most intense experience of creativity was making two short films at college. The artistic construction of meaning in narrative works—using “devices” such as coincidence, visual and linguistic associations, and chance encounters—is taken in the study of such works to be wholly the conscious craft of the artist. Certainly that was the dogma of the degree course I undertook, reflecting rationalist Marxism-driven literary criticism everywhere. And certainly, it’s a good place to start when faced with the complex mysticism of late capitalist image-making, advertising and unconscious propaganda. But my experience of making my first film, in association with my accompanying reading of William Burroughs and my psychedelic experiences, convinced me that something else is at work. The conscious construction of meaning in art, if undertaken with a modicum of sensitivity and enthusiasm, seems to generate a kind of momentum of signification, where your own intended meanings become autonomous, copulating and generating offspring that complexify the whole process beyond anything under your control—often beyond anything within your capabilities.
The intensity of this experience, together with the density of synchronicities that I found surrounding the making of the film in my personal life, decisively shaped my second film. The central idea in this was that the aforementioned “devices” used by narrative artists to shape meaning in their works do not originate in human creativity. Rather, their use in art is a form of realism, if one admits the fact that reality itself uses them in its interactions with our conscious awareness.
Looking up from Wilson’s book at one point, my usual view of the heaving ocean was interrupted by the huge form of a ferry pulling in to harbour at Methana. Something about its sudden appearance, the ferry, the writing on its side, triggered a memory, a memory of a syncronicity. It was something to do with the ferry port in Holyhead, when I was there recently with Jim on our way to move his things to his new home in Dublin (the location, of course, of the “action” of Finnegans Wake). But I just couldn’t place it. I carried on reading.
A few pages later, Wilson starts talking about the traces of the Italian Hermetic philosopher Giordano Bruno in Joyce’s book. He mentions that in Joyce’s day, Dublin had a bookshop called Brown and Nolan, oddly echoing Bruno’s self-given title “Bruno of Nola” (the suburb of Naples where he came from).
All at once it hit me. Around the time we moved out of our flat in London, I had been reading Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Having grown up in England in the 1970s with the godawful Nolan Sisters parading their songs around on TV all the time, I had been amused by the way Yates frequently referred to Bruno as “the Nolan”. I’d been chuckling to myself about this as I came out of the Holyhead ferryport terminal building to return to our van when my path had been suddenly crossed by a huge freight truck bearing the company’s name in large letters: NOLAN.
Some kind of wormhole of frivolous meaning had suddenly opened between the harbour of Methana and Holyhead ferryport, pulled into being by my reading Coincidance. Actually, the word “meaning” in these contexts is often misleading. There are probably levels of actual personal meaning that could be dredged out of this web of associations using dream logic; but in the end the real significance of it all is held in the way Wilson spells the title of his book. It’s a playful interaction, with rhythms, patterns and rhymes that act as channels for emotion and thought and pleasure. It’s a dance. And as Alan Watts said, “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”
A slight aside, my favourite bit in the essay I was reading:
As Joyce’s eye-sight failed, his prose became even more ear-oriented, and Brancusi portrayed him in 1932 as a spiral, symbolizing the inner ear; Joyce’s father, seeing this sketch reproduced in a Dublin newspaper, said drily, “Jim has changed a great deal since moving to Paris.”