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Island FiveOn the

Archipelago of Ontological
Chaos
(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul - ThirtyOne Isles of the Creative Imagination)

Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights


reserved. All short extracts from the
texts discussed used under fair usage
related to review and theoretical
critique under international copyright
law.

Image: copyright Caleb Irvine-King-Smith, 2013,


all rights reserved.

Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013.


NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part
of a series drawn from Irvines soon to be
published non-fiction book on experiential
poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul:
Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.

Island Five On the Archipelago of Ontological Chaos


In retrospect I washed ashore on an Island that was part of the archipelago of Ontological Chaos
in the second year of my Commerce studies at Auckland University. A friend of mine since high
school told me to read Thomas Pynchons novel, Gravitys Rainbow. I began the book inbetween studying for Accountancy, Economics and Statistics exams. I tried to read it like an
ordinary novel but, unable to follow the story, I soon began skim readingapproaching it more
as one would a book of poems, browsing for striking phrases, apocalyptic paragraphs or sexy
bits. I felt bamboozled much of the time but was occasionally delighted by passages of sheer
brilliance. There was also its dark humour, veiling, I suspected, a profound social critique that I
could only understand intuitively. Eventually, needing to prepare for exams and unable to
penetrate any further into the books deeper mysteries, I set it aside as dense and unreadable.
Gravitys Rainbow (written in 1973), however, had what I call after-resonanceit
moved me at irrational levels at the same time as it posed a profound intellectual puzzle. Given I
was at that time a serious young man when it came to interpreting literatureI felt exasperated
by its farcical dark humour and hopelessly non-Realist narrative style. For example, the main
character, Slothropabsurd name! I thoughtsimply dissolved as the text proceeded. I also felt
drawn to its fragmented narrative structure and vivid, dense language. In a way I guess this
mirrored the fragmentation of my psyche at that time (something of which I was mostly
unconscious). Id lived in various countries and numerous cities in my 19 years and my cricket
abilities were starting to see me spend more and more time on the roadboth within New
Zealand and internationally. I guess I was beginning to feel quite confused about where I actually
belonged in the worldbits of me seemed to be strewn all over the planet.
Id also lost interest in my Commerce studies by the middle of 1983. After a short
teaching placement in a local secondary school, Westlake Boys, I also realised that I didnt want
to be a school teacherleast of all, an Economics or Accountancy teacher. To continue studying
at the University, however, I also needed the teaching scholarship that the government paid me
each fortnight to continue. A crisis of vocation was loomingespecially after I withdrew from
several Accountancy subjects and failed, for the first time, an Economics subject. Only the two
Economic History classes I was enrolled in interested me that year and as a result I passed them.
I remember asking whether I could transfer to a Bachelor of Arts (setting me on track to be an
English teacher) but was told that my scholarship was exclusively related to completing a
Commerce degreestudying English, History, Philosophy, etc. without this support wasnt an
option given my financial situation at the time.
The summer of 1983 was again absorbed by cricketclub cricket with Birkenhead Citys
first team, also with Aucklands U23 & 2nd Eleven representative sides. On and off throughout
the university break I ponderedeven if I only rarely readGravitys Rainbow. The book went
with me to Dunedin for a rep. cricket tournament. It even went with me to matches involving
some of the most promising young guns of New Zealand cricket at the timeMark Greatbatch,
Martin Crowe, Ken Rutherford, etc. I also thought about it occasionally during the long boring
hours working in an Albany fruit shop (I was trying to save enough money to fund a trip to
England to play cricket for Worcestershires various county sides). Eventually, after deciding to
defer my studies for a year, it was one of the few books I took with me to the UK in March 1984.
As the French jet climbed out of Auckland bound for Noumea then Paris, Gravitys
Rainbow leered up at me from my passenger seat pocket. I read a few pages somewhere over the
Middle East then put it asideits mysteries remained as impenetrable as ever. My thoughts

turned instead to Alison whom Id been out with the night before (a gentle goodbye after little
contact over the summer). Perhaps there really was a chance for useven though I was on the
way to strange new experiences in the UK and she was beginning her studies toward a BA at
Auckland University. I remember feeling generally optimistic about the futurethough also
quite anxious. Id been temporarily relieved of the burden of choosing a vocation but a D-Day of
sorts loomed off in the distance. Everything seemed to be on hold. As the airliner battled
intercontinental head-winds at 32,000 feet my life simplified to that of a professional sportsman.
I occasionally glanced at my brother, Andy, in the seat beside me18 months younger than
myself, he was looking forward to a six month holiday among relatives. We were returning to the
UKthe place wed both been bornafter 7 years in the antipodes. I started to imagine meeting
our two Welsh brothers, Pat and Phil, againwe were to live with them in South Wales whilst I
went through the trials with Worcester. Likewise, I was looking forward to reconnecting with my
grandparents in Yorkshire, as well as my many aunts, uncles and cousins living near Glasgow in
Scotland.
Britain, however, was in the throes of recession and Margaret Thatcher was finalising her
plans to smash the mining union on the way to a Neo-Liberal version of paradise. It was an
economic ideology borrowed second-hand, of course, from the reactionary economist Von
Hayek via Ronald Reagans Republicans and its blatant program of wealth transference
upwards angered a lot of people. Upon arrival The Clash, The Jam, U2 and Joy Division
dominated the alternative music airwaves. Meanwhile, on television, the nihilism of The Young
Ones (its style strangely paralleling aspects of Gravitys Rainbow) was gaining a huge cult
following among millions of dispossessed and cynical young Britons. It was immediately
obvious that I was a long way from the sleepy, bourgeois certainties and comforts of Aucklands
North Shore. 1984 loomed as a year of intense living.
Pynchon taught me that subjectivity is absurd, sexual, fragmented, brutal at times and
fundamentally unstable. These are difficult truths to retreat fromthey get in your head, as the
saying goes. Pynchons work provided a fictional model for interpreting the modern worlds
chaos, madness and absurdityits legacy has proved remarkably durable since it summarised
aspects of the new de-realised subjectivity that comes with life in globalised cultures. I was
unaware at the time that I was mainlining pure, fictional postmodernismthough I didnt
actually complete it until January 1990, some 7 years after Id bought it! (Even then I had to
force myself through large slabs of text). Interestingly, only days after finally completing the
book my life changed radicallysynchronicity or mere chance?
No books by postmodern theorists or writers moved me in quite the way Pynchons
Gravitys Rainbow didto be honest I remain emotionally indifferent to many of the core
postmodern theoretical texts (even though I agree, to some extent, intellectually with what they
are trying to do). Books written by the likes of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault etc. invariably strike
me as pretentious and, despite the professed goals of their authors, subtly ethnocentricperhaps
this is largely due to my long-term contact with Maori, Aboriginal and South-East Asian
cultures. I see a vast abyss between the ultimately secularist presumptions of most of these
European writers and the immanent spiritualities of many majority world cultures. Likewise, the
writers seem patently middle-class to me and their generally opaque writing styles usually
bamboozles (thus disempowers) economically oppressed peoples in so-called Western
democracies.
I enjoy the writings of Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and Bachelard, however,

though mostly because of their sheer eccentricity of style. Baudrillards dazzling, apocalyptic
style always gets me thinking in poetic, even musical, waysI suspect even translators have a
hard time working out exactly what hes on about. The texts of Deleuze and Guattari also inspire
metheir chaotic, jumbled prose that often leaps from one concept to the next with obscene
haste and devoid of discernible logic fascinates me, as does the concept of the rhizome as
applied to culture (and these days to the pervasiveness and non-authoritarian functioning of the
world wide web!). Bachelards prose I find to be more stately, introverted and measured and
there is something Jungian, almost alchemical, about his investigations into creativity, for
example, that appeals to me.
Despite my suspicions about some of the key Postmodern theorists I try to avoid
simplistic critiques of their work aware that as a group theyve influenced me greatly. I certainly
admit that the mood that is postmodernism has haunted my adult life, and probably every
argument Ive ever developed against oppression (caused by grand narratives?) and for
human rights has inevitably drawn on post-modern theorists. The French pointy heads were/are
onto something!
The novel I began typing in the years after encountering Gravitys Rainbow was written under
the influence, as they say, of Pynchon. Im fond of it despite its appalling hallucinogenic prose.
It will never see the light of day since it is, as one would expect of a novice mimicking Pynchon,
beyond editing. The experimentation in ego dissolution it testifies to was in retrospect somewhat
affected. I never consumed vast quantities of powerful hallucinogenic drugs, for example, and
at that time I didnt get the core methodology of Pynchons classic bookwhich Id now
summarise as the urge to not tell a story by problematizing, at times dissolving, the transparency
principle (to reality) of literary language. Likewise, I needed to believe in an authentic self at
that time (a fragmented childhood due to migration made me pause before embracing and
idealising subjectivity as fragmentation). In the language of humanistic psychology I needed to
find a real self I obviously felt I lacked. Not surprisingly I missed perhaps a central tenet of
postmodernismthat there is no real self only collections of masks (self in fluid motion)
standing in for a self. I interpreted Pynchons novels, with their dissolving and fragmenting
protagonists, as critiques of the tendency of modern society to derealise the sense (my sense) of a
stable self! This was probably fairly shoddy literary analysis on my part. Only when I read
McHales books Postmodern Fiction and Constructing Postmodernism around 2000 did I finally
begin to understand (pardon the blasphemy!) the aspects of Pynchons novel that had puzzled me
for over a decade.
To begin with, however, I discovered in Gravitys Rainbow what I wanted to discover (a
sophisticated existential critique) and ignored the rest, including the books literary precursors!
I still have trouble admitting that Joycein comprehensive fashion in Finnegans Wake and the
latter part of Ulysses had paved the way for Gravitys Rainbow.
Whatever else reading Gravitys Rainbow did to me, there is no doubt that it gave me an
introduction to what scholars of culture label post-modern literature. The Archipelago of
postmodernism, like that of Modernism and Romanticism, consists of a large and strange main
island sheltering a host of smaller islandsmany of which I only encountered much later in my
literary journey. For example, I did not visit the smaller isles of Fluxism, Oulipo and
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry on my first journey to the archipelago. Though I read Italo
Calvinos Invisible Cities in the early 90s I was completely unaware at the time of its connection
to the Oulipo movement in Europe, with its strange mathematical (constraints based) literary

methodologies. Likewise, it seems clear to me now, that the performance poets I messed about
with later (also in the early 90s), were constantly enacting Fluxist and Situationist principles i.e.
poetry (art) as event/happening, though nobody in our group ever used the terms around me.
Summary
At the heart of postmodern creativity is a profound social and cultural crisis. Suffice to say that
in coming into adulthood in the 1980s I was mostly unaware of (though no less powerfully
affected by) the profound changes in cultural outlook my generation was being forced to enact.
In a sense mine was the last traditionally raised generation, many of our parents were in their
thirties when the sixties revolutions (epicenter of cultural postmodernism) struck, thus a
significant majority were, I suspect, like my parents puzzled onlookers barred from participation
due to family commitments.
I remember that in my early 80s attempts to come to terms with the mismatch between
the values of my parents and the ever more pervasive values unleashed by 60s radicalism, I
tended to look to 60s musicians in particular for guidancethe usual suspects, Neil Young, The
Doors, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, etc.. In my case the result was a certain melancholy sense of
having missed out on the party of the century. This nostalgia for a past era is the main reason I
dont identify as a Baby Boomer. John Holton, a poet and writer friend of mine holds to a similar
positionhe calls people my ageborn in the mid-60sthe Smiths Generation or the InBetween Generation (despite what Wikipedia calls us). I think our In-Between Generation
were the first to intuit a postmodern swerve in popular cultureeverything became more
complex for us. The revolutions of the 60s had dissolved into hyper-capitalismmusically, into
Glam Rock, Stadium Rock and Punk Rock. Perhaps there are only so many important questions
the young can fire at a civilisation at any moment in time and people needed a breather (maybe
we should be called The Breather Generation). Im happy to acknowledge that the Punk
movement of the late 70s-early 80s (the main musical revolution of my early 20s) barely ranks in
terms of its ability to critique general culture (in comparison, say, to the musical radicalism of
late 60s musicians).
Given the complexity of postmodern culturearising in part out of the complexity of
globalisation, the tragedies of two World Wars, the horrors of the holocaust and the threat posed
by the nuclear arms raceit seems fitting that it took me seven years to complete reading
Pynchons Gravitys Rainbow. During the mid-to-late 80s, however, the books puzzles and
mysteries continually gnawed at my unconsciousalso at my notions about what it might mean
to be a creative writer. It sat on my book shelf throughout that period like a disturbing portal to
ideas I dimly sensed Id be grappling with for the rest of my life.

A Postmodern Nigredo
At that time
troubled by words
not adequately connecting
to things. Three years of
not ill enough for medicine
or incarceration. And
roaming the planet
flinging leather balls at
stocky men in white holding
decorated lumps of flexible wood
and armoured up
like American footballers
or lunar motorcyclists.
Only a tenuous sense of I
to venture the harsh light
of necessary socialisation.
Fragmentation is a party trick
for tenured academics
you can tell theyve never known the terror
of abyss, the possibility
of never coming back. I would not
wish it
Call it Nigredo, a time when the promise
of sunlight really mattered
others in the deep sea drowned
or skeletal in stone vaults
of Gothic.
Such slippage.
Ever after
hard to be a realist.

Flicker, Uncanny Creature

The child in the playground


is frozen in mid air
time has sped up and
the dead bird pipes
a trumpet blare.
The slide with rows of
nails
is a foundation for
skyscrapers
each piled into the
dull earth tunnelled
til the lava freezes all
abstraction
and the poem opens
thus

Author Bio (as at April 2013)


Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and
non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as
Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the
Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a number
of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005
(Black Ink Books) and Agenda: Australian Edition, 2005. He is the
author of three books and co-editor of three journals and currently
teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT
(Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria
University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University
(Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of
alienation and morbid ennui.