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AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN J. CLARK
Conducted by John Hirshhorn-Smith, © June 2015
Stephen J. Clark was born in County Durham. Since first emerging in surrealist journals and exhibitions throughout the 1990s his fiction and illustrations have appeared in publications by Fulgur Limited, Ex Occidente Press, and Side Real Press among others. Regular collaborations with Tartarus Press have notably featured cover illustrations for a complete series of Robert Aickman’s strange tales. In Delirium's Circle, the author’s debut novel, was published by Egaeus Press in 2012.
John Hirshhorn-Smith: Your visual work is more overtly surrealist than your written. In what ways do you see them inter-relating?
Stephen J. Clark: Drawing for me tends to be spontaneous, whereas my approach to writing requires far more effort and reflection. However, both my writing and visual work serve a similar aim in attempting to engage with "unconscious currents" drawn in part from actual dream memories and also applying a form of associative poetic play. Both in their own differing ways are methods for me to develop a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. I think of my approach to writing and drawing as a kind of waking dream, comparable in some ways to solving a riddle or perhaps closer to play, drawing on memories and desires as raw material in the game.
In fact one of the main motivations for me in my writing is exploring where a certain image will take me, how it will evolve into something unexpected, unearthing unforeseen associations and revelations. I don’t necessarily refer to automatism here exactly as there’s more selection and refinement involved than that. It is the development of a form of thought along analogical or magical lines. In my art and writing, for the last twenty-five years or so, I’ve found myself exploring a kind of private mythology in a sense, with recurring motifs and symbols. Both activities of drawing and writing can have intrinsically magical qualities in that they possess the capacity to enchant, influence and reveal hidden or neglected aspects of experience.
For me what we call the unconscious isn’t just a repository in the human mind, but exists in dynamic relationships between the subject and their language and culture. I’m talking here about things lying dormant or forgotten or latent within language, within memory that can be triggered by certain words or images. So in a sense the unconscious doesn’t only come from within us but also surrounds us, in the world’s forms and in our encounters with others.
JHS: The Satyr’s unseen but central character is the artist Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956). What was it in particular that drew you to him?
SJC: Spare is described as appearing only briefly in The Satyr, however he informs the whole novella. The character Marlene’s adoption of the persona of a femme fatale is a key to some of the magical themes played out in the undercurrents of the story. For me Spare tried his whole life to tap and explore the unconscious currents running throughout language, history and culture that influence human behaviour. In some ways it was an affinity with this preoccupation that drew me to his art and writing. Inseparable from that too is discovering his life story, revealed for example in the stories related by his friend Frank Letchford in his book Michelangelo in a Teacup. I’m not interested in viewing Spare as a demigod as some do, but as a fascinating human being who turned his back on an elitist art world to follow his own path. I think there’s a danger of projecting too much of a heroic image onto that story as later on Spare in some respects retreated from life, using his art and writing, his magic, as a way of coping with isolation. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’ve noticed how some people who’ve appreciated Spare for many years discuss him not in terms of reverence as if awestruck, although his art remains striking — no I find they speak of him with fondness as if imagining sharing the warmth of his company over a few pints. There’s a warmth, mischief and humour about Spare that isn’t always acknowledged.
JHS: Both your novel In Delirium’s Circle (Egaeus Press) and The Satyr evoke a WWII urban environment. Is there anything special about this period/location that you’re drawn to? How much research did you do?
SJC: It’s a lost world that’s still close to us. I read a great deal around it and as I find with most factual research a large percentage of what you discover is only inferred in the final work. With In Delirium’s Circle I read a great deal about the experiences of demobbed soldiers attempting to adapt back to society and how many became disillusioned and marginalised. So I wanted to cast light on undercurrents in historical accounts that in a way have been suppressed or glossed over because they don’t fit comfortably into patriotic and nationalistic propaganda. Yet with respect to The Satyr I was particularly drawn to accounts of the Cockney working class communities at that time, a world in decline due to social changes within the city prior to the war, so there was a lost world there too, a world on the brink of disappearing due to gentrification but that was also obviously in disarray due to the war. Generally speaking I’m drawn to this historical period as I think the conflict and turbulence of those times offer many possibilities for storytelling and for exploring human behaviour.
It offers the opportunity to engage with a time of recent memory that is also rich in its mythological resonance not only in terms of human conflict but also the secret life of cities, and a capital in turmoil at that. To some extent it’s a kind of remembering, a way of returning to the past to unearth what may have been missed, suppressed or neglected and to reveal another secret life, bringing to mind Bruno Schulz’s approach to story and myth, someone who appears in the novella “The Lost Reaches”.
JHS: You write of "migrant spirits", a term applicable as much to your line in drawing. This could also be appropriate to represent the situation that many in Europe found themselves in over the last century especially European Jewry. Whilst many literally migrated to another country some, such as Bruno Schulz, write poignantly of the shift into the imagination. Do you think that a response to uncertainty or would it have emerged anyway?
SJC:For Schulz I think the imagination would be an important factor in his life anyway, not in an escapist or retreatist sense but as a critical faculty, another way of confronting and resolving tensions. While I think there’s definitely some element of withdrawal and introspection involved in writing and art, for me, the imagination is not some insular realm of escapism but a transformative tool for opening up the possible interpretations of reality. I think it’s clear from Schulz’s letters and essays that he was formulating a poetics that related to memory, imagination and mythology prior to the outbreak of war yet how much this was a matter of cultural consolidation because he was Jewish is not something I feel able to attempt to discuss in the space allowed here. Yet I can say that with the story “The Lost Reaches” (from The Bestiary of Communion), I was mulling these kinds of questions over. I was drawn to the idea of history as communal memory and thinking of how oppressive forces strive to obliterate or obscure the past of another people or another social class for their own ends.
JHS: Spare described Freud and Jung as “fraud and junk”. It would seem to me that European weird fiction embraced the psychological more fully than the UK (notable exceptions being Robert Aickman and Anna Kavan). Is that something you agree with, and if so why do think that might be?
SJC: It’s a difficult one to answer without getting mired or side-tracked into literary definitions. For me the genre of “weird fiction”, historically speaking, belongs to American writing of the early Twentieth century, largely writers such as Robert Chambers, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft et al. Today the term “weird” runs the unfortunate risk of simply becoming a limiting and homogenising label to denote anything that’s perceived as being a bit nebulously “odd”. Yet for the purposes of this question I’ll take your terminology as I think it was intended; as meaning a tradition of supernatural, decadent and fantastic fiction I'm not sure about Austin Spare's protestations regarding Freud and Jung’s work. I think he was influenced by it but found it very limited and disappointing. Indeed I think as many of the European writers of the fantastic and decadent you’re referring to did. Although exposed to the ideas of psychoanalysis and psychology many would have remained ambivalent in their stance, that doesn’t mean of course that they were not influenced in some way due to that. Yet, some of the notions of the unconscious mind and dream-life entering European or British culture weren’t solely reliant on their introduction via Freud but would have arrived much earlier by way of Schiller’s philosophy, for example. So in a way the British Romantic tradition, thanks in part to Coleridge, was already informed by the same currents that were evident too in Freud’s ideas later on. It’s more accurate I think to say that there were all manner of cross-fertilisations back and forth, for example in Poe’s significance to Mallarme, Baudelaire and the “Symbolist school”. To what degree was Freud influenced by Romanticism and its related preoccupation with mysticism (for him particularly Jewish mysticism), myth and dreams?
So perhaps the British manifestation of the supernatural in fiction comes more from sensibility (in its Romantic sense) and folklore as opposed to analysis, science and therapy. Yet later British writers like Mervyn Peake or more prominently J.G. Ballard or Angela Carter for instance were certainly influenced by psychoanalysis and the latter two, Surrealism as well. With Carter though perhaps psychoanalytic theory was more consciously applied in her process, likewise critics have identified similar aspects to some of Aickman’s work. Certainly some of the symbols that arise in his fiction could be seen as being derived from Freudian theory, although one could question to what extent he was playing and experimenting with these forms. Whereas someone like Leonora Carrington for instance, while of course very much part of that European milieu engaging with psychoanalytic ideas, I still think there’s something recognisably wilder informing her work, something that isn’t satisfied in using psychoanalytical formulae for exploring or representing human behaviour. So, it might be more a matter of there being an “anxiety of influence” with some writers in relation to psychoanalysis.
I’ve always preferred writers who have taken a critical stance regarding Freud and Jung as they found their ideas too reductive. I remember there’s a moment early on in “The Interpretation of Dreams” concerning Freud's recollection of a dream while on a train journey where he starts to make promising associations between the content of the dream and his waking life but then stops short. The problem with both Freud and Jung, for me, is the division between life and dream – the Cartesian assumptions that isolate human experience, or the “inner life” from its environment and from the wider mysterious fabric of life. The psyche isn't insulated from the world, the body arises from the world's primal flesh, from sensual experience – its unconscious is drawn from the depths of pre-verbal experience and is informed by the dynamics of language, the forms in Nature, the secrets encoded in culture. Yet rather than answering your question I’m straying into territory mapped by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a European thinker very much indebted to psychology yet capable of expanding upon its subtle frontiers. So I guess I’m saying it is a matter of complex cross-fertilisations and tensions with regards to psychoanalysis, regardless of geography some writers adopted its theories rather dogmatically while others went on to influence its development. In part I’m thinking here of Surrealism’s impact on Jacques Lacan and Bachelard’s fascinating and unique explorations.
JHS: Would Schulz, Alfred Kubin or Odilon Redon, to name a few, have been as strange as they were regardless of circumstance?
SJC: My understanding of your use of the word “strange” is in terms of a desire to depart from, or as a challenge to, the habitual and the conventional, to seek out, perhaps compulsively, that sense of the awakening of the unexpected in oneself, through a meditation on and dialogue with the imagination and the unconscious. To be estranged, to become an outsider not only as a consequence of experience but as a critical principle . . . on these terms I think yes, regardless of the strife of war I think the people you name would have still been motivated in that way. Of course personal life events and cataclysmic events like war are going to shape who you are and genuine trauma isolates and can compel a search for healing through a more authentic and uncompromising intimacy with others. In being estranged from your community you still remain engaged in another kind of dialogue with it, perhaps in a dialogue with its hidden aspects, seeking out its secrets. Estranged from his friends and from his city the character Nemec in “The Feast of the Sphinx” is drawn into another forgotten world within the one he knows. The discovery of this secret life becomes a form of resistance. For me, to engage with the imagination and the unconscious is to enter into a dialogue that is intrinsically opposed to any dogmatic, fixed sense of the real. Integral to this experience of questioning the familiar is a sense of estrangement, a sense of rejecting the conventional and living in a form of exile in the heart of a community. With the names you mention, for me, it is more a case of experiencing empathy rather than ‘strangeness’, or empathy through estrangement perhaps.
JHS: Do you believe in “possession” in the occult sense of the term? To what extent do you think Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms are manifestations of possession?
SJC: I guess conventionally, possession implies the parasitic entry or emergence of a presence against the host’s consent. Yet if one thinks of possession not necessarily as a dominating or demonic entity but in terms of the subtle ambiguities of identity and influence, then in a way we can find the same dynamics played out in games of fiction. To what degree is heteronymic play a part of personal identity? Children play at being other people and adults imagine and desire at times to be other people. They might long to be better people or desire to break away from a stultifying life. To what degree could it be said that we consent to the things we find ourselves desiring or becoming? Recalling the hermetic notions of “The Theatre of the World” and its relation to “The Theatre of Memory”, to what extent do characters in fiction become refractions or projections of the author writing them and the reader reading them? Our own memories are narrated to ourselves and each other as dramas. Are we in some way characters in our own memories, our own dreams and lives? Fiction then can be understood as a kind of game with memory, with empathy, as well as imagination.
John Hirschhorn-Smith is a collector and sometime publisher of the weird and decadent. See his website Side Real Press for more information.
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