Being a parent will make you feel crazy, at least some of the time. During a recent stressful period (exacerbated by sleeplessness, sickness and a toddler with a predilection for explosive tantrums that come across like demonic possession in a Peppa Pig shirt), I made the questionable decision to read “Conspiracy Against The Human Race” by Thomas Ligotti. Great idea, idiot!
The book had a big impact on me. Once I settled into Ligotti’s somewhat hammy Grand Guignol style, I enjoyed his thoughts about the illusory nature of consciousness and the validity of a philosophy built on naked pessimism - just the sort of thing you want to read when you feel like a deranged marionette being pulled in multiple directions at once. Here’s an excerpt from Conspiracy, featuring the sort of thinking that resonated with me at the time:
How much nonsense can we take in our lives? And is there any way we can escape it? No, there is not. We are doomed to all kinds of nonsense: the pain nonsense, the nightmare nonsense, the sweat and slave nonsense, and many other shapes and sizes of insufferable nonsense. It is brought to us on a plate, and we must eat it up or face the death nonsense.
Sinking deeper into Ligotti’s pessimistic logic actually soothed me - if life had to become a minor living hell, filled with nonsense, at least I wasn’t alone in experiencing it. Everyone else was trapped in the same horrible situation... they just hadn't grasped the truth of their own predicament yet.
But one cannot (and should not, if they can avoid it) live on nocturnal brooding and pessimism alone. Life got better, as it is occasionally wont to do, and so I wanted a book that could offer some counterbalance to Ligotti’s relentless darkness. I had recently enjoyed John Higgs’ brilliant “Stranger Than We Can Imagine”, and found his voice and worldview refreshingly hopeful, but without ever resorting to mindless naivety or crass sentimentality. So I tracked down an older book of his, “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money”.
Whereas Ligotti argues for the intrinsic, malevolent senselessness of life, Higgs’ book about iconoclastic musicians/shit-stirrers Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty regards creativity/magical thinking as a way of imbuing life with much-needed meaning. The book also partially concerns the ideas and philosophies of some of my perennial favourites; Robert Anton Wilson and Alan Moore. Moore is often mentioned in terms of his personal philosophy of magic, particularly about what he calls Ideaspace. I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the concept, but just in case, here's Higgs to explain:
Look around the room that you are in. Is there anything there that didn't first appear as an idea in the head of another person? Think about the aims of the job you do or the ideology of your preferred political party. Think about the recipes of the food you eat or the music you listen to. The world we actually live in is made of ideas that have left human minds and entered the physical world. Indeed, the story of our evolution is essentially the story of us retreating from the natural world into the mental one.
Robert Anton Wilson, on the other hand, is primarily evoked by Higgs in relation to the concepts of “reality tunnels” and synchronicity. Now, as a young man I read Cosmic Trigger and Illuminatus! and plenty of RAW’s other work besides, so I was familiar with these ideas, but they were being reintroduced to me at precisely the time I needed them again. I resolved to start consciously looking for patterns in the fabric of my own reality tunnel, to observe and curate the synchronicities sprouting up around me, undertaking a conscious process to imbue life with meaning in order to travel deeper into Ideaspace.
I decided to start with Erik Satie.
Satie had been haunting me for a while. My wife and I listen to classical music when we’re getting ready to sleep, and “Gnossienne: No. 1” seems to be a favourite of the station programmer around the time we’re settling into bed. I know some people find Satie a little over-exposed, the sort of thing that might be dismissively labeled “car advert music”, but I’d managed to have very little prior exposure, so his music still seemed...well... magical to me. And the more I thought about Satie, the more his name and music kept coming up: in podcasts, overheard in conversation, or his compositions appearing in the most unlikely of circumstances.
So there I was: looking to make meaning with Satie on my mind and an empty house in which to pace and think. This is an unspeakably rare situation, just ask the parents of any toddler, it’s the dream basically - your wife and young child have left for a week, so you can really indulge some repressed urges, neglecting the routine that has become so important to the preservation of sanity, common sense replaced with an open invitation to revive dormant bad habits. For me, the worst habit I have is smoking cigarettes. It was Saturday night, and after a few drinks all I could think about was that sweet, sweet nicotine. I’m a semi-reformed smoker, and I usually go months and months without a ciggie, and most of the time they don’t even cross my mind. But the flare up hit me that night, friends, and it hit hard - a classic “nic fit”, obsession and repetition, a ceaseless request.
I don’t have a particularly addictive personality, but I can say with absolute certainty that nicotine has penetrated deep into my nervous system, my desire only ever ignored or dormant, never eliminated. I was trying to enjoy peace and solitude, but that pesky nicotine-craving voice would not stop hassling me: the brain wanted a fag, and it wanted one now. I tried to reason with myself, literally talking out loud, “Just take some deep breaths, ignore the part of the brain that wants to smoke and eventually it will fade out.” Stuff like that. It didn’t work. I decided to try distracting myself, thinking perhaps my guide Erik Satie could help - I queued up a documentary about the composer on YouTube. Mere minutes in, I heard the following quote, taken from Satie’s diaries about his daily habits:
My doctor has always told me to smoke. Part of his advice runs: “Smoke away, dear chap; if you don't someone else will.”
I rewound and listened again. Smoke away, dear chap; if you don’t someone else will.
It was a message tailor made from me. Who was I to deny the logic of synchronicity? Who was I to ignore these very specific instructions beamed to me across space and time? It’s all magical thinking, of course, some light mysticism to aid the addict’s logic, but without a moderating influence to bring me back down to earth, I soon found myself drawn towards the corner shop with one comical, terrible excuse in mind, “Erik Satie made me do it.”