Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Dark Side of the Moon

The phrase "the dark side of the moon" has excited me for many, many years. In fact, I can remember the exact day that my fascination with it was born. It was one Christmas morning in the late eighties or early nineties. I remember this Christmas morning for several reasons. Me and my brothers were all opening our gifts, and several of them made a big impression on me. One was a wall-chart of the moon that my older brother received, along with a telescope. This is the first time I realised that the craters of the moon had such poetic names. Another was the Sherlock-Holmes themed board game 221B Baker Street, which seemed impossibly classy to me. Finally, I received (as requested) a model of Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. (I was a Transformers nut.) Every Transformers toy had a potted biography on the back of the box, and the potted biography on this version of Optimus Prime mentioned (I forget why) the dark side of the moon. I'd never heard the phrase before, and it seized my imagination forever.

 It's interesting to speculate how much of our adult selves exists, in embryo, in our childhood selves. Is it a coincidence that "the dark side of the moon" is an expression that now seems to express so much of what I believe, of what fascinates me?

I mentioned in a previous post that I've been reading about Christina Rossetti, the English poet who died in 1894. Aside from the fact that she was a fine poet, I'm interested in her because she was associated with both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Oxford Movement. Both of these movements were unabashedly "backward-looking", something I admire. They were also unabashedly romantic. (All these qualities also pertain to the Gaelic Revival and Irish cultural nationalism.) What fascinates me about such movements is that the very things which were recently disparaged suddenly become prized. For instance, in the Oxford Movement, all the qualities which the Protestant Reformers decried-- ritualism, hierarchy, celibacy, "monkishness", and so forth-- became admired and sought-after. That such "flips" are possible, and indeed that they occur, should be a matter of deep significance to anyone with conservative views. Indeed, I think we can see it happening in our own time-- the resurgence of populism and nationalism is extraordinary. Certainly I never would have predicted it.

Another reason Rossetti's poetry is interesting to me is because of its dream-like, symbolic, otherworldy atmosphere. At the moment, I'm completely besotted with this kind of thing. I'm in the mood for dreams, visions, archetypes, legends, myths, folklore, and everything that sustains the less rational, more poetic side of our nature. I want to read about all these subjects right now!

Not that I'm ever uninterested in these things. Even when I was a kid, long before I'd heard the term "Counter-Enlightenment", I was on its side. Man does not live by reason alone. Indeed, I tend think that reason is the least of his psychological requirements.

The image of a cinema audience is one that haunts me, and one which I use as a wallpaper on various computers and computer applications. Here is the image I use as the backdrop on my gmail account:

It's beyond a cliché now to compare the experience of watching a movie in the cinema to dreaming, but it's a cliché for a good reason. You're in the dark. The imagery on the screen is magnified to an enormous size. Scene gives way to scene in a way that is similar to the sudden shifts of a dream. More than anything else, perhaps, we seem to "regress" in the cinema, to allow ourselves to become receptive and open in a way that we usually don't. There is an element of self-forgetting and disassociation with ourselves-- we merge with the audience.

To me, the cinema is a perfect metaphor, not only for dreams, but for consciousness in general-- especially the "lower" levels of consciousness, the subconscious, the unconscious and the collective unconscious.

Cinema audiences seem to be an especially good symbol, or even an especially good example, of the collective unconscious. Few phenomena express the state of the collective unconscious as effectively as hit movies. If dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, I think hit movies are the royal road to the collective unconscious. (Even more so than television or music, for various reasons-- TV is less likely to "isolate" the themes that are especially exercising society at any particular time, as its plots and genres are much less varied, while music is less immediately related to life.) Cinema historians often draw parallels between the themes of successful movies in any given moment of social history, and the anxieties or traumas or enthusiasms which were gripping society at that time, and I must say I often find these very convincing. Sometimes it's quite obvious, as in the case of the "giant bug" movies which were popular in the fifties, when nuclear power and radiation were a new public fear. Sometimes it's more subtle, as with the wave of occult thrillers that seemed so popular in the seventies, as society became more secularized.

The flickering light playing on the absorbed faces of the audience, in the darkness of the movie theatre-- that, to me, is perhaps the best symbol of this state of being that interests me right now, the state of being that we find in dreams, stories, legends, archetypes poetry,, symbols, and so forth-- the "dark side of the moon". I plan to spend more time exploring this territory in the foreseeable future. I'm also inclined to think that Christians and conservatives should make more use of this spiritual terrain, in their efforts to reach others-- Peter Hichens once wrote that we keep trying to make a case in prose which is best made in poetry, and I agree with him. This is not to concede that Christianity or conservatism is irrational, but it seems to me that successful conservative movements such as Romanticism or the Oxford Movement do tend to speak to society through the imagination, rather than through the analytic mind.


  1. Yes. The point about the Oxford Movement reminds me of the (closely-related though more widespread) Gothic Revival. Augustus Pugin's father, according to Rosemary Hill's fantastic biography of the architect (that I've been meaning to review for ages), produced illustrations and designs of quite a different style to the Gothic his son was later to champion. Pugin fils rode the crest of a sudden and practically unexpected wave of interest in the Middle Ages, of which there was little sign when he brought out 'Contrasts' (the first of several architectural Credi).

    Another interesting point is that people (including Bl. J. H. Newman) actually used the word 'reality' to refer to the qualities of the neo-Gothic style, as opposed to the optical illusions and alleged fakery of the Regency period. That, too, suggests that that it had worked through, and then captured, people's imagination.

    1. I know next to nothing about Pugin, although I was quite recently at a funeral Mass in a church designed by him.

      In your last sentence, do you mean the neo-Gothic or the Regendy architecture?

    2. Sorry, that wasn't clear - I meant the neo-Gothic. Perhaps something similar is needed against the illusions and fakery of our own era.

      Pugin was quite a character: a Catholic convert and immensely talented artist if rather impetuous and caught up in himself (without any thought for finances he asserted his belief that his cathedrals should take centuries to build, just as the existing ones had) who designed (for example) the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in London. The book is called 'God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain'. It's a bit of a tome but highly readable. I devoured it in about a fortnight.

  2. Interesting point on relating to that spiritual terrain ("dark, imaginative" etc) in efforts to reach others, especially if you mean some kind of evangelisation. Two examples from my own daily life this week can be loosely connected to the same theme:

    First I met a man about my own age by chance at a funeral and it turned out he worked at the same place where the widow is a team leader; the only time I had seen that chap before was the last 3 or 4 weeks when I had visited and revisited one of the last second-hand bookshops in my home town and he was there at the same time (this bookshop being open only three hours a week, on Friday afternoons, so nothing uncommon about that), and when I told him that I recognized him, at the gathering with food and coffee after the funeral, I soon heard that he was a typical non-religious person that nevertheless are interested in something supernatural and asked for books by Stephen King, Dean Koontz and "mysteries" like Egyptian pyramids etc; and I tried a little to say something positive about our Catholic parish just in a slight effort to "reach" someone who possibly never had put his foot in a like parish church. He looked a bit surprised and we talked only for a short while, before he sort of drifted away, a bit bewildered perhaps but most likely none the more understanding than the moments before. My most obvious mistake was to simply talk as if he understood some basics of Catholicism even though he most probably never really had much chance to take it in. That was one first small failure in this area.

    Second, today I had a good long talk with a friend at work who has recently been visiting Japan and had interesting experiences to tell from his visit. This man too is a typical secularist but at the same time a good fellow in any normal human sense. At the end of our long talk, and not related to Japan, I came to mention Portugal and the Fatima jubilee. Here too I failed in making practically understandable an exposition (in two minutes = impossible anyway! but still... half-possible?), while only "succeeding" in making him just a little perplexed for a moment. I tried not to bring up too much of the difficult aspects, but still I suppose his major impression of Catholicism still is more or less: "strange!", and no more besides.

    Summa summarum: the complexity of speaking about faith today seems multilayered, and maybe it would be better to take your suggestion and make some reference to things like the Pre-Raphaelites or something else that actually is popular already! (rather than making references to reason or logical arguments)

    1. There's also a danger of overthinking it though. Personally I think you did made an effort...there's no way of knowing what will work. The point is both of those people had the experience of a convinced Catholic speaking to them about their faith.

      When I talk about trying to reach people with poetry...I don't really mean replacing more straightforward means of evangelization, I mean supplementing them. I didn't make that clear, though.

    2. Yes, poetry would be more suited for imagination than those encounters of mine I suppose. Doing "both" is perhaps also the archetypal way for Catholics, sharing universal truths from experience so to speak.

  3. If GOD'S ARCHITECT by Rosemary Hill published by PENGUIN in 2007 is in your library, it's a pretty good one on Pugin

    1. To be honest, I don't think I'd ever be interested enough to read a whole book about Pugin, but thanks.

      Happy feast of St. Mary MacKillop, by the way!