Interview By John Wisniewski, first run on AM/FM Magazine.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about working on an upcoming book, “Masks”, James?
James Curcio: The tentative title is Masks: Bowie and Artists of Artifice.
This is how it happened. Right after Bowie’s death, I had this sense that there was a book staring me in the face, but I didn’t know what it was. I listened to Blackstar like three or four times straight through, and this was like two days after it was released and just a few after he died as well, you’ll remember. It felt really significant to me, but not in a sentimental way.
I found myself a few questions, like “what drives an artist to create a work with their final months”? There’ll be no adulation or royalties or ego in heaven. Hell, the track “Lazarus” says this plain, and the video couldn’t be more clear.
I should mention, Bowie had plans to continue working with Visconti beyond Blackstar. At the same time, after his death, Visconti told the press it was his swan song and intended “farewell” to fans. How should we interpret that? It’s likely a bit of myth-making here, embedded within his work, that creates the grand illusion of a final Magickal will and testament sort of thing. I get into what I mean with this a bit more later, hopefully.
I started reading and digging around, and quickly I realized I’d been working on this book a long time already and didn’t realize it. I’ve got notes going back over a decade that circle around the same questions I found myself ruminating over in the days after his death. So, a series of questions, really. That’s how it started. And I’m still well into the asking questions phase, and far from the having any answers one…if that comes at all. I’ve never been nearly as interested in the answers, as finding better questions to ask.
JW: What interested you about Yukio Mishima?
JC: Of all of the artists I want to focus on, Mishima is probably the least well known these days, although he was quite well known in his heyday.
I suppose it started several years ago. After reading a number of Murakami’s books, I wanted to know how much of his style is personal peculiarity, and how much of it is a reaction to a tradition that I just didn’t know about. I hadn’t read any Japanese literature at this point, and my wife, who is a librarian, started passing books my way.
Mishima is probably one of the first names that comes up when you start looking into Japanese literature, though it’s obfuscated in some ways I think because of the manner of his death — he committed seppuku in about the most dramatic way I can imagine, and this happened at a time that a lot of Japan seemed to be trying to distance from cultural ideals that Mishima was trying to steer them all back to.
So what took my attention immediately about Mishima is his romanticism, you see it in most of his prose as well as the political ideology he laid out later in his life, and in how unable he was to reconcile fiction and reality. That’s really where the Romantic impulse originates, I think.
And yet he eventually wove that mythology atop this Ultra-nationalism. It’s something that I think most authors can relate to. Not being Nationalists, of course, but the draw towards writing coming from an inability to bring things into balance any other way. Writing was a compulsion for him, in a way, more than a vocation. And probably a source of both pride and shame, because it’d been well beaten into him that this wasn’t respectable, and he clearly came to look down on it and want to somehow enter the “Real,” a world that was cut off from him.
I can’t relate to Nationalism at all, myself. But I can with the Ideal that seemed to have a grip on Mishima, and I think that’s part of the enigma that made me take a greater interest in him. I think it was incidentally his insistence on abandoning the pen for the sword that demanded a revised version of Patriotism be acted out in the theater of the real world, though of course no one can truly know.
I’ll clarify what I mean about his Ultra-nationalist vision, because that’s probably going to throw some people for a loop. And this should also help demonstrate where my research is leading for this.
Nationalistic rituals tend to be strikingly similar to religious ones in a lot of ways — arranging people in relationship to a metaphysical principle. At the simplest level this is like, “the embodiment of all that is Good in a people” or whatnot, though his biographer and sometimes-translator Jonathan Nathan’s thesis is that Mishima’s metaphysical principle was actually an aesthetic one. This underlying logic seems to run through most of his work, about the embodiment of the highest virtue being an aestheticized death. That’s what Mishima seemed to find so compelling about Ultra-nationalism — he came to imagine the Emperor as the external embodiment of that metaphysic. “The Emperor” not necessarily being the reigning Emperor, but rather the abstract essence of Japan.
This is exactly what I find completely empty about both Nationalism and Metaphysics, if they’re taken literally. And you can’t get more literal than putting a sword through your gut. In Mishima’s case it’s the desire to find meaning in that relationship to an absolute principle that I find relatable, rather than its reality. In this reading of him, as I said, he was a Romantic, even after trying to cloak it by picking something so unromantic.
So what he did was try to create a ritual with his death that would inspire his romantic ideals to become real. Or at least, that’s a well supported theory. There’s an inversion there with turning his body into art to turn the unreal artifice of art into reality that I find fascinating, it’s almost alchemical.
Anyhow, observations of those rituals to control the masses are common enough (look at From Caligari to Hitler for instance,) but what I find interesting is how all these institutions — nationalism, religious especially from a literalist position — are focused toward a vacant space. It’s as if a nation stands in attendance in front of a television but the screen isn’t on. So I guess I agree with Zizek’s “ideology is an empty container” premise about fascism, in The Perverts Guide to Ideology.
I kind of came up in the 90s industrial scene, the occult fringe of it, though I’ve never been much of a joiner. I had more than one friend back then that was known by a name like “Jack the Nazi,” and then you’d have to qualify “oh no he’s not a NAZI nazi, he’s just way too into NSK / Laibach”. Zizek uses Rammstein to make this point in his documentary, which is hilarious, but the point is valid. Aesthetics is one thing; ideology is another. Though, I mean, that’s more or less the entire Laibach project. And it’s kind of inevitable that ritualized performance can wind up converting for the ‘other side’ when your audience isn’t clued in on the context, and it can even wind up converting the performers too. That’s part of how ritual works.
That said, I totally think exploring ideology and psychology, especially mass psychology, is something artists need to be doing. But there are inherent risks in aestheticizing everything the way I think an artist should. As Bowie said in an interview on Charlie Rose, “it’s a looney thing, really, being an artist.”
You know most the most extreme performers and artists I’ve met are pretty mellow when they’re not playing that persona. But that dichotomy between who you are and who you play, and that they cannot help but have some real points of intersection, in the subconscious if nowhere else… that can really fuck with you, especially if crowds of people are actually taking it seriously. It can destroy you.
In terms of my own thinking about Nationalism, I just want to be clear where I diverge from Mishima. Nations are collective fictions — sometimes, or for some people useful, and others not. They’re fictions many of us use to organize or identify ourselves. But in any hard sense, they don’t exist. “Reality is that which doesn’t go away when you cease to believe in it,” PKD said something along those lines, which is really quite funny when you consider the paranoia that set in for him when he got going on his dark Gnosticism and amphetamines trip. But it’s a good rule of thumb. When humans vanish from the earth, we’ll take our ‘nations’ with us.
JW: How does Bowie factor into this?
JC: Bowie was never a fascist but he explored these ideas as well, which caused quite a stir in the 70s, when he ranted about how Hitler was a rock star and all that. Though he was really mostly interested in mass psychology and the “empty container” of ideology, as they pertain to being a rock star. Or rather, inventing the character of a rock star in enough minds to reify it by way of magick.
His music is all very open ended but there’s a way in which at least some of it was a participatory ritual. This was quite conscious by the time of Diamond Dogs and Station to Station, though it sort of fell to the wayside until it arose as a more theoretical, postmodernist sort of thing in Outside. Again, this seems really esoteric but you look at what Bowie was saying and reading at the time, and there’s little doubt that this is exactly what he was on about. It’s also no surprise then why I picked Crowley for this book as well.
It’s somewhat parochial but Harari’s Sapiens pretty clearly explains what I’m getting at here, in terms of how fictions are a technology that humans have used to great effect. If it wasn’t for collective fictions, we never could have developed beyond small roving bands. So, the idea of using collective fictions as a rock star, a “superman” — which seemed to be Bowie’s obsession at least up until the mid- 70s — not really that out there.
JW: How do you choose a subject to write a fiction or non-fiction book?
JC: I think it’s more like they pick me. If something takes a hold of you enough to make you dedicate several years to it, clearly it has some grip on your psyche, it’s some sort of problem you feel you need to work with. But most of that occurs outside any conscious awareness. We’ll have theories, but they’re all post-hoc. Like Nietzsche said in The Genealogy of Morals, of ourselves, we are not knowers.
JW: What interests you about chaos magick, or are you interested in this?
JC: Honestly, what interests me the most is I’ve been getting this question in interviews since 2004 or so. I was interested in it somewhat back in the 90s. It was kind of in the air a bit back then, in occult circles, and for a little while I had an interest in engaging with the occult for its own sake. I’m talking about the period between when New Falcon published my first novel, Join My Cult!, and the Disinfo anthology Generation Hex.
But in retrospect it was mostly a transitionary period. For some occultists, the past ten years have been a transition into traditionalism, and I would say a regression, to try to turn back the clock, culturally at least, and yearning for a pre-Modernist world. For me, I was taken by some ideas in postmodernist philosophy, and an expanded understanding of the role art can play in myth — encoding and decoding them, as it were. The postmodern stance is often taken as somewhat empty, and this is something I could digress on for hours. But in short, in my view, the occult primarily exists to inform art, and vice versa. They are active methods of engaging with the psyche. But art can much more easily externalize that process, and working purely in the occult, you can very easily get lost in a hall of mirrors.
So in that way, chaos magick was critical, because it was one of the things that led me toward studying myth more closely, conceptually. The next ten years of projects were all pretty influenced by that sort of research, and what I’m working on now as well. But on its own, chaos magick was just a brief passing phase.
JW: Can you explain what you mean by myth?
JC: You know how seemingly simple things get more complicated the longer you look at them? It’s a bit like that. Myth needs definition, I get that — and that’s actually something of a problem. I don’t want to get as bogged down by academic side avenues and cul de sacs so much as I did in that last big anthology I worked on, The Immanance of Myth, nor do I want to repeat some of the excesses of that book.
Myths are collective stories, those that have gained a certain ‘life of their own,’ you might say. Calling them living stories is a bit dramatic maybe, but it hints at why I see this approach as arising quite naturally out of occultism. Especially for those familiar with the idea of egregores.
Myths, in the sense that I mean the word, define the way we are in the world, as well as how we see it — that’s pretty standard postmodernism. Derrida said, “there is no outside text.” Meaning that interpretation, in the same manner that we must interpret a work of fiction, say, must apply to our lives as well. To that extent it’s quite right, though some readers take it further to mean that there exists nothing except language. Beyond that, I talk generally about myth more in Myths Are Strange Attractors, if anyone is interested in some of my thinking on that, but I’d like to talk more about how this relates to the Masks project.
You might also start to see why this is relevant to the four figures I chose, because in all their cases they make frequent reference to the story kind of running the show for them, once it gained a certain momentum, or of there being this struggle going on.
And there’s even a manner in which we can say the characters they played “rode” them, in the way almost like an orisha or loa is said to ride practitioners of Santeria or Voodoo. Obviously it’s not quite the same, cultural context counts for something. But those forces — maybe to an extent these things are metaphors, but that is not to say that metaphors aren’t real. Consider what I said before about stories being, in a manner of speaking, alive.
The stories we wear demand things of us. Sometimes they even tell us who we are, at least some of the time. Grant Morrison talks about this a bit in terms of the “fiction suit,” and of course he’s had any number of really interesting things to say about how we’re all to some extent works of fiction. He’s one of the godfathers of this manner of thinking, as is his “arch-nemesis” Alan Moore… though the fact that it became quasi-mainstream is certainly an example of one of those flukes of history, I think. The same seems true with Bowie, even though there’s a certain inevitability to it at the same time. This is why it is wise, they say, to consider what you believe. It might not be at all based in fact, and it can still change you, influence you, in a very real way.
Crowley defined his Magick as “causing change in conformity with Will,” which is not normally very useful for a number of reasons, but it’s a sensible, if somewhat stilted way of thinking about how stories can affect the outside world through the minds of the people that come to live within them.
And, though he certainly wouldn’t have thought of it as “Magick,” Mishima’s ritual suicide is rendered eerily sensible in light of this kind of thinking. It was a ritual, with a desired effect — the reinstatement of a sort of Idealized pre-WW II Japan, and he was willing to commit his life to it. He intended to write out a last calligraphic letter with his blood after driving the blade through his innards, and but the pain was too much. Clearly that, and even seppuku itself, is ritualized to the extreme. But most such rituals involve following the pattern that was given to you, rather than shocking the established order to take a new form. In any event, it was an utter failure. One might say the same of Crowley. …and Thompson, while he would probably have been rather indifferent to the idea of ritual in this context, was very much trying to effect the world through the creation of a collective persona — one he couldn’t escape.
There seem to be elaborate feedback mechanisms at work within any society, so a would-be artist or politician can’t generally just walk in and say, “well, I’m going to create a myth today,” and have that just happen. Right place and time play a curious role in history. It just so happened that Gavrilo Princip was standing around, smoking a cigarette they say, some time after a failed assassination attempt on Franz Ferdinand, when his car pulled up. So, sorry, you generally can’t change the course of history by intentionally creating mythic fiction, unless the context allows that to happen.
But this raises an interesting question. Is an artist like Bowie a once in a generation sort of thing, or are there thousands of them, and we just happen to hear of the ones that happen to see a spark turn into a conflagration? Was the partnership between Steadman and Thompson that in some ways helped to brand “Gonzo” in the popular mind in some way fated? Survivorship bias is a bitch. It’s hard to say. And this is why success of this sort is surprisingly hard to reverse engineer.
JW: Any favorite authors and artists, James?
JC: Obviously, the artists I want to look at in Masks are amongst my favorites. They’re all figures that defy being called simply “author” or “musician,” and for — I think — a similar reason. Their masks were a fundamental part of their art. Maybe the fundamental part.
Incidentally, this is another crossover with my interest in Bowie and the occult. Taken as an artist, Bowie is all surface, and it is a surface composed of a kind of bricolage. At a certain distance it seems superficial, at another distance, very deep, and then superficial again — without any real core that defines it all. Except maybe this idea of the mask. As such I tend to think of much of his work as decidedly postmodern.
JW: What other projects do you have coming up?
JC: I’m working on several projects. Masks, of course, which we are working on now—the contributor list is spectacular—and looking for our publisher, and Tales From When I Had A Face, which is kind of a dark fairy tale for adults.
Tales will be the second Fallen Cycle book, but the first to be fully illustrated. Each illustration is as elaborate as an oil painting, and there are going to be over a hundred of them, so it’s obviously long term. I hope to have each of them ready to start shopping to publishers in a year or two, though of course the first Fallen Cycle novel is available now. They both actually play with some similar concepts, especially regarding shamanism, the occult, and art. Finally, I’m wrapping up Narrative Machines, which really covers all the theory research and work I’ve done since Disinfo’s Generation Hex came out in 2005.