LISTEN: "All Eternals Deck" (2011) by the Mountain Goats

Three, among new age people, necromancers, heretics and fanatics, is supposed to be a number with power. I don't believe in any of that, but it's fun to pretend that you do ... the thread of it, the shimmer, had this really bitching heavy metal appeal to me. So, there isn't a story or a theme that you can pin down, but I feel like [All Eternals Deck]'s about dark, netherworldly things and what it means to be obsessed with them.

- John Darnielle

One may well sigh when one realises that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity.

- Freud

There is a whole literary genre, "psychological realism", for novels which focus on the details of their characters' minds. In them, self-narrative and (usually self-delusion) are more important than plot, truth, denouement: the "actual" events. Does anyone write psychological rock?

Well now yes. All Eternals Deck is just that, retaining the perfectly tuned Gothic aesthetic in which the the later psych novels wallowed. (Note: 'psychedelic' rock is the opposite of what I'm looking for - it's a candy-coloured flight from ordinary inner life.) So AED isn't just about how frickin cool tarot or black metal is, or how real ghosts are, or any of that: it's about the power of ideas over us. Also our perversity. (To be haunted is to not let a ghost go, and not as we usually say, the converse.)

"It's hard to tell gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits."
- Darnielle's Cain

Talking of subjectivity like this - saying that things can be important even though untrue - has the character of magic. And IRL, there are always two sides to magic and supernaturalism - the Without (the conning magician or priest's knowledge of the trick) and Within (the mark's numinous awe). These songs are about within, with all the entailed nonsequiturs and vague fogs of feeling.

Each of AED's titles are three words long (i.e. one per bandmember), and there are thirteen! songs. I think each song's a different Goat: some reviewers noted that AED 'isn't a concept album' - but this is only true in the corrupted sense of "concept", where it means just "story album".

  1. What it is to be subjective. Never mind if it's true - is it believed? How does it feel? (The fancy term for this could be "literary existential phenomenology".) Most often this is manifested here as being subjected, being the one things happen to. The motif that gives it away is the mask/face string.

  2. What it is to be a living anachronism, AKA old. His characters are left behind by time ("Vampires", "Estate Sale"), youth , talent ("For Charles"), the Market ("Estate Sale"), the march of evolution ("Sourdoire"), and each other ("Age", "Prowl"). And apart from that, few of the songs keep to one period for imagery - there's medieval and primeval images thrown to Trans-Ams, Hollywood and Death Wish.

  3. What it is to survive. What keeps you going? Your past (Garland's Minnesota, the Olduvai Gorge), or the thought of escaping it (Bronson's childhood, Garland's later childhood)? Every other song has a line about waking or resisting sleep - insomnia a perverse kind of 'surviving'. Follow the light, wait for the light, o light.

Let's call Darnielle's characters "Goats". (Fans are apparently "Capricorns" which is nice.) Very often he sings first-person as them, not himself. And a lot of them have the dramatic arc of Hamlet: on the outside, no arc at all; but, from within, it's a churning, morbid parabola, often followed by terrible action. In the end they are benighted by themselves, by sharp memories here symbolised by serpents and scorpions. Darnielle's great asset is his self-awareness - cos if you're self-aware you can do all kinds of things which irony usually forbids, like the simplest rhyme schemes and soothing stock melodies, without being unbearable.

"The album is called ALL ETERNALS DECK, and if you have ever watched say a 70s occult-scare movie where one of the scenes involves a couple of people visiting a storefront fortune teller, getting their cards read, and then trying to feel super-hopeful about what they hear when what they’re visibly actually feeling is dread, then you have a pretty decent idea of what the album is all about."
- Darnielle

The liner notes tell a little story about the titular lost Depression-era tarot deck, and give us thirteen hazy tv-screen close-ups with ironic comments on supernaturalism for each song: their captions, taken from some ungoogleable How To Be A Psychic guide/ Goth sales catalogue, underscores the shuckster's side (Without) rather than the mark's side (Within) of occult games.


1. Damn these Vampires
(Liner text: "damn also their friends")
(Liner picture: Confusing - somebody singing or screaming)

Song of bad influences, being moved on or left behind. One good trail: an addict (arteries, life spiralling down, 'vampires' as dealers - or the substances - or the friends that enable the habit, begging, crawling), but I'm veering off from storytelling - some are best left as symbolist fogs.

Anyway: a wild life, genre-mashing: cowboys (the young, macho, self-dramatising) and vampires (the effect of that life. Burned-out cowboys after a couple years of this). The world changes without them (horses into trans-ams). One cowboy realises what is up. And doesn't recognise himself:
let those glass doors open wide,
And in their surface
See two young, savage things
Barely worth remembering."

And suddenly anger and regret: "for what they've done to me". Tension between this sense of singular injustice and the "we" he wants to "walk upright" with. Struggles to change. Dawn's his chance, though we know it might be the vampire's usual fate he's crawling towards. (Analogous though unlikely is the Arctics' usage of 'vamp'.)


2. Birth of Serpents
(Liner text: "past life regression is your best vacation value")
(Liner pic: Three white roses, nested and complex. See top ^.)

Song of painful memories, of what images really are (open doors). Photos are hindsight. Pathos in the device that puts the direction the past lies in as Down - it being a natural law for this Goat that he was always lower back then. We can't avoid a Biblical nod from the title - the implication being that developing the reel of film is to invite attack from painful memories, to uncover the "permanent bruises" - but there's a persistent hopefulness to it. As if looking back ("down") at the serpents from a high haven. It's safe to call this a properly autobiographical one, the locations in the lyrics being JD's hometowns to date.

Wonderful line: "See that young man who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest."

AED is overproduced in lots of places. He isn't used to bellowing neither.


3. Estate Sale Sign
(Liner text: "roughly equivalent to the Tower in standard tarot - avoid")
(Liner pic: Extreme closeup of a large black bird landing, feet first)

Song of cultural destruction. Its extended metaphor is very metal: the couple as cult. And now the cult is selling up. ("The Crusades" were their honeymoon, I suppose.) The Goat's fury at the love lost is expressed in her listing the objectively valueless things that they had built their lives around, forgotten films and "trinkets". Also the incongruous chorus:

"And high above the water the eagle spots the fish
Every martyr in this jungle is gonna get his wish.
The jerky, thrashy energy it's delivered with helps suggest secret dark intentions (against the ex?), once the sale is through.


4. Age of Kings

("raps under table: 'who from future time dost summon, I slumbering in memory,' etc ad lib")
(Pic: a 2 of Hearts)

Song of idealising past love. Not rose- but gold-tinting. The scene is twice transformed: first, through the real effect of love on perception (making everything significant, everything exalted); but then also the vagaries of memory, smoothing edges and omitting negatives. Their relationship is a "lost age" to him, but, he thinks, attainable again ("sword sticks in the waiting stone still warm"). Blame is distributed between himself and the evil in the world's fog :

Reach down to the moment when I should've said something true
Shadows and their sources, now stealing away with you.

(Repeat of track 2's down=past, up=future metaphor.)


5. Autopsy Garland
("check for something behind floral arrangement")
(Pic: Top-left quarter of a girl's face, her hair all big. She's probably smiling.)

Song of corruption for no clear reason. Judy Garland reflects - does an "autopsy" - on her childhood. I don't know her story, and hadn't expected this crushing emotional portrait, "behind the floral arrangement" indeed! "Fat rich men love their twelve-year-olds": yikes. We see masks again, which I'm going to stretch for a reference to the adult actors: appearing as one thing on screen, but who "you don't wanna see" off camera if you're a kid surrounded by the excess and pressures of the top of the world. Song is also dominated by Wizard of Oz winks, as her life surely was.

"I consider all three of these figures [Bronson, Garland, Minelli] survivors in some way, and I’m very into survivors."
- JD


6. Beautiful Gas Mask
("a person known to you will make sudden contact")
(Pic: Fearsome skull-design gas-mask)

Song of wretches in love. They're stumbling, blinded by both fog *and* blindfolds! But they "jump" anyway: take each other, though hidden from each other. (As usual.) JD uses a wonderful rise/fall string of imagery - a subset of the sleep/wake string running throughout the album. Awful hope in the mantra:

"Never sleep, remember to breathe deep
Never sleep, remember to breathe.

The falling doesn't go so well: they lose each other, find themselves in toxic surroundings. What do BGM's two settings, post-apocalypse and medieval, share? : A sense of being subject to the world. The gas mask is not the usual symbol of terror and stricture (nor an identity-obscuring persona like the other masks) but an odd agent of salvation - possibly love itself. There's another saviour, but their uncertainty re: them is total:

Who will be there to catch us in his [hunting dog] jaws
When we arrive alive at last?

...Someone's coming to reward us, you wait and see!
(Or crush us both like fleas.)


7. High Hawk Season

("everything eventually takes place on film")
(Pic: A child swimming underwater, inverse-mirrored)

Song of solidarity. The images are scattered - vaguely biblical but also glorifying the idealism of youth. Friendly ghostly choir - one wonders what will happen to us at the end, when they stop singing with us. It can be read as a glorifying Within for the trashy pulp flick The Warriors ("Van Cordtland Park" gives it away).

"Who will rise, and who will sink?"

Alternatively: it can illustrate one idea of aesthetics: that things do not contain content; people contain content. As such, no one person determines a work's meaning. Each member of anything's audience sees a different work, because we attach unique meanings to it, if we're doing it right. ("It's hard to tell gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits" - and not only hard, but futile to.)

This album was released in March; the Occupy movement kicked off in September. But from where we stand, HHS can be seen to resonate with Occupy New York; that is, a new reading has opened up: the song is now larger than it was then. HHS deals in idealism, a NY park, graffiti, throngs, and Rising. (Also "frightened sheep" though.)


8. Prowl Great Cain

("expiation candles available in bulk; our most popular candle")
(Pic: a foreshortened arm, wrist bound in something strange and obscure)

Song of what follows for a traitor. (Meaningless freedom.) This Goat names himself after the biblical Cain - having killed a brother, or one as close. His emotions are startling, ambivalent - "every now and then" he feels "guilty, but can't feel ashamed". Opening line serves to make Cain more repugnant to us (graverobber). He rationalises it as a military maneouvre ("I live to fight another day"). An Apocalypse Now reference gives us a sharper picture:

Kurtz: "I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor…and surviving."

Goat 'Cain': "Like a caterpillar crawling out along the surface of the blade."

i.e. Trying to excise the moral part of himself. PGC's unusual because it treats the difficult survival of the abuser. Song ends with him waiting to see if he can escape the guilt, "the sickness", and getting demented.


9. Sourdoire Valley Song

("in a former incarnation you struggled but knew great joy")
(Pic: Two skulls, mirrored)
Song of the old olden days, the birth of dignity. Namedrops the French site of the earliest known Neanderthal burial and the African site veering off from storytelling - some are best left in of the earliest humans. Darnielle reconstructs an inner life for protohumans and links them to us. Their voice ends up as modern middle-aged Americans ("keep to ourselves mostly"). The Goat Hominid sees his line is going to end: the 'grass grows up to cover up the fire-pit and the forge'. His quiet acceptance of this is stunning. He cites Olduvai, "half the world away" (two million years ago) in impossible reminiscence, but also as if affirming evolution's motion.

The reference to "the old man" is an erudite nod to the fossils of nursed disabled humans that heavily indicate their compassion. (That the newer fossil was named 'Elvis' by researchers is a wonderful semiotic avenue I refuse to take.)


10. Outer Scorpion Squadron
("most spirit guides instruct the novitiate to send any demonic spirit animals, trust the seeker")
(Pic: Two hands, held in the seance manner)

Song of inviting doom in. One of his more beautiful arrangements for one of his more grotesque stories. The first half seems to describe a suicide-by-cop-scorpion; "raking the sands", provoking the dark bits of her past, the 'scorpion squadron', into destroying her. But then:

"Ghosts of my childhood stay with me, if you will. Find a place where there's water, hold you under til you're still."

We then see that the Goat (Darnielle, or near enough to him) was really ambushing them, drowning them so he can get on.


11. For Charles Bronson

("the room filled suddenly with the sound of a passing train")
(Pic: Revolver with trigger fingered)

Song of pained macho aging ("Never let them see you're weak"). It's introduced by Darnielle injecting himself for two seconds before flicking into the Goat, Bronson. It's an odd device, putting as it does those two faces together. The only subsurface point I can offer is that the liner note puts Bronson's "lucky break" (late-career starring role) into poetic context - the noise of the train a fleeting opportunity to fire the revolver without giving yourself away.

"A terrible example of a person with a gigantic chip on his shoulder, but made great by it. (Like everyone in the history of the world!)"
- JD

(Was tempted to read this as a paean to the British psycho in the hole. Anyone know if he was named after the American?)


12. Never Quite Free

("turn over crossing card; pause")
(Pic: distorted carousel horse)

Song of bruised renewal.This isn't so terrible as a song, but it's terrible as a fact: the most positive song he's ever written is boring, neither tragic glory nor ironic inspiration. The drums are nauseating, too. (In the Life of the World to Come, where a number of Goats are dogmatically affirmative, it was their delusions that gave the songs literary legs.) He seems to flick between two 'Goats here - perhaps an abuse victim (Darnielle...) and the abuser. ("When you see me, you'll know")

"For those of us who are into horror, dread is a nice, sort of powerful feeling. It's not that you're afraid of something; you're riding that feeling. And that's what I think surviving stuff is about -- learning to ride stuff like waves instead of letting it crush you."
- JD


13: Liza Forever Minelli
("Re-scan everybody for disguises. Somebody's hiding something.")
(Pic: Palm tree, from nearby, if you were looking up)

Song of Hollywood at night: the isolation and imprisonment of fame.

There's a case for seeing the Goat here as Darnielle - he loves Judy Garland - this could be empathy with Minnelli, lying on the Boulevard pavement next to her or Garland's Walk of Fame tile, "your star next to my face". (Giving Ms Minnelli an inner life being a task no less daunting than his work on Homo heidelbergensis in track 9.)

Not that there's nothing to work with - in her shadow ("If you're gonna sit next to the dealer you get to bet blind"), with her misfortune ("The compasses I came into this world with never really worked so good"), and her predestination, showbiz ('never going to get away from this place').

But enough of that. "Anyone here mentions "Hotel California" dies before the first line clears his lips": think about the way we listen to him (or any band). We scream for one or two songs, shite hatchlings mindless with the need to be fed. This song - this map of this town I don't know dedicated to this person I don't respect who presumably went through a lot to gain the flat showbiz contentment that lies without - is not going to be screamed for.

Anyway, All Eternals Deck ends swaddled in memory looking ahead, to the sun.



against nothingness we used bang.
against lifelessness we used rna.
against stasis we used predation.
against blind we used sense.
against neanderthals we used braining.
against darkness we used each other.
against peace we used questions.
against angst we used questions.
against boredom we used questions.
against impotence we used questions.
against arrogance we used questions.
against questions we used god and fire.
against hunger we use life.
against women we use themselves.
against happiness we use ideals.
against death we use soap.
against thought we use stuff.
against memory we use google.


nor custom stale her infinite variety

I am a glutton for variety. This is cool, since it drives me to like speaking to all kinds of people, and to being able to speak passably to them about almost anything among the things they love.

But there is a pressing possibility that my gluttony will rob me of my chances at both lasting happiness and a substantive contribution to Thought. (Via making me inconstant, overfamiliar, procrastinating, and general enslaved to diminishing marginal returns.)

what it is

Was skimming an epistemology book; came to the Epilogue. These two pages suddenly jump the book into space. Author wrestles with a Cartesian demon called Krebs (German for 'cancer') and goes on to give a metaphor for the entire project of all academic philosophy, in the manner of Kafka:

"I know that there is no Krebs, but what if I were wrong? I am not, but I could be, but I am not, though I may be.

A wall has been built, and it is being built; we think it will continue to be built. No one knows exactly who started the wall, though many have helped. Nor does anyone know how far it reaches: it seems to go on and on forever. We think the builders are our principals.

The wall is to protect us from the invasion. Wall soldiers man the wall. Whenever a soldier is overcome by an invader, he must be replaced by a stronger soldier, & we are forever sending replacements. We have even sent soldiers to man the wall in the distant provinces. No one knows how strong the enemy forces are there. We need as many soldiers as we can get, but we want only those who are strong enough to repel an invader. It is possible that there is a man strong enough to repel an invader. We know if a man isn't strong enough if he is overcome by an invader. But if he is not, we don't know whether it is because he is strong enough, or good fortune has kept stronger invaders away.

We have found a section of the wall where the invaders are too strong for anyone weaker than
K. So we know that no man weaker than K will do there. For the time being we risk it: we judge that K is strong enough. Perhaps someday K may have to be replaced. Yes, we know that.
Meanwhile we stare at the long reaches of the wall and wonder.

- Paul Ziff,
Epistemic Analysis

I like this because of its totalitarian melodrama. Though Ziff himself is a sturdy coherentist, the way he presents epistemology here casts postmodern shadows - "why do the invaders invade? who started this war? is the centre even worth defending? what would happen if the wall fell?" The wall, after all, is not Knowledge, Science or Virtue, but an ideology: that of orthodox Western philosophy. The little pastiche of academic prose towards the end is so tense that I don't know where the bottom to his irony is.


speak sense

the time for talk is over:

the rising tide lifts all boats;
you can't fight the tide,
you're either with us or against us.

it takes one to know one;
he knows one,
so he was asking for it

no smoke without fire,
no fire without fuel
no fuel without sowing (you've made your bed now reap it.)

spare the rod and spoil the child;
fight fire with leopards
who won't change their spots (though the tiger has a chance)

when in Rome do as I say not as I do
because I say so
you have too much time on your hands (out, damned tock, out!)

all's fair in love and war,
no pain, no gain,
and the time for talk deemed over


On the Eve of All Hallow's Eve: A Parafactual Ghost Tour of Aberdeen

[cowritten with Paul Crowe for Childreach International]

Scene 1. St Machar Power Plant (St Machar Cathedral, Seaton).

Night. One figure stands bolt upright atwixt the churchyard gates. Another, hunched and demented, flits between the tombstones, prodding the earth at each grave with a technical device of some sort. He minces over to the crowd and grants them all a trinket, mumbling "Talismans! Talismans!"

[incredibly long beat]

G: Welcome, friends! Do you believe I have brought you to a place of the past?

[beat] - You are then mistaken, friends! You stand in the very heart of modern, postmodern, metamodern, patamodern Aberdeen! A power plant supplying the whole of Aberdeen with carbon-free electricity, all year round! The largest green power facility in Europe - the very soul of modernity! How, you ask? How?

Oh, I do so love your questions. A mere nine years ago I would have had to demur a true answer - we were so maligned, so grey market in those days - thanks to the moralists(!) But now, ascendent on the wings of Mr Salmond's imprimatur, I can tell you loudly, broadly and with upheld head.

Merely the brilliant - and patented - conjunction of two elementary phenomena! First; a law of electromagnetism - that is, that a wire moved through a magnetic field creates electrical current. Secondly; that other well-known law of nature, that when one severely irritates the dead, they turn in their grave. We simply wrap the corpse in copper - the coffin in magnets - stimulate their anathema, and - Presto! Free energy in limitless proportion to the incidence above of their antithesis below!

  • Take Mr Alexander Gatto. Died in 1926, dear me. But for the last nine years, he has been supplying in death what he never could in life; excitement and social utility! Mr Gatto, bless him, hated women. In 1978 we encouraged a certain lady to seize Britain, and Scotland, by the throat. Gatto has not yet stopped spinning from the shock of this; we project his momentum to run out sometime in 2030. We at Dynamic Desecration Ltd stop at nothing to give you the cheap, green, noiseless - and spiteful - energy you deserve. Our motto? Gradii et Contemptus: "Nuance and Contempt".

You can see one of our staff, Igor Stravinsky here testing levels. Igor was recently suspended from his Hate Team post for malpractice and excessive frottage, but we hope to reform him in time.

  • Sometimes the trends of world history provide more than enough - almost too much - hate juice. Take the case of Mr James Esslemont here, who abhorred knowledge in plebeians.

  • And Robert Beattie; a local novelist once called the Proust of the North! A fantastically conceited man, he gave a decent yield through the century merely from his prominence declining to nearly nil - but since just last year he's had a true Renaissance. Our dedicated Hate Team in California fixed a deal with no less a director than Michael Bay to produce two - and only two - films of Beattie's six-volume psychological realist opus, Whit's Adae Wi Malkie? Since the news broke, he alone can power the university campus.

We are by this stage so efficient that we require manned operation only once a week, on Sundays. You might have noted that our facility staff are somewhat old and dottled; I can only assure you that the mechanisms contained therein are well within even their understanding. This staffing decision has left the very most brilliant sadists to serve in our Hate Teams.

  • William Lawson; a man who hated... himself. In our early, penurious days we had to settle with buying up billboard space and flyering posters of his face - which produced, as you might imagine, a sparse yield indeed. But with the advent of the craze for Green energy, we have been able to afford cloning! Igor is the earliest viable clone of Mr Lawson, and given his freakish and disagreeable countenance and personality, we can well understand what it was that Lawson despised in himself. What is Daddy reading at the moment, Igor?

[Igor begins to hassle the Director, tugging at his sleeve and being hissed at in return]

  • [briskly] Samuel Broadbent hated fun;

  • [coming to an eroded, illegible stone] This gentleman... hated the neglect of churchyards;

  • Robert Westland - who as you can see, is buried here in wonderful fraternal company, with no fewer than five to the grave - hated his family.

I need not brag when recounting our research method, for it speaks for itself - a unique blend of arts and engineering, I think it fair to say! We scour local records, diaries and survivora looking for that special something in everyone's life that one will do anything to avoid. Recently we have begun to enlist the family of the recently deceased, who often tell me how therapeutic and cathartic it is to recount all the bigotries and neuroses of their dearly passed ones.

  • John Ross - oho! - a special pet project of ours. Mr Ross was the chief horticulturalist and architect of Union Terrace Gardens. Sir Ian Wood is head of our Hate Division.

  • Finally - WHAT IS IT IGOR!? AAH, GET AWAY - FREAK, YOU RUNT, YOU INORGANIC EXCRETA! [beating] Ahem; finally: one William Gatto, a Quaker and a rabid fool, who hated violence.

What of stability, you may ask? Is there any risk of "melt" "down"? Hardly! Even in the unlikely case that all our Hate Teams fail simultaneously, risking a critical loss of disdain - well, all these men hated gays.

Scene 2. The Battles, Mauled Piskies and Malt Whisky. (Tillydrone Road down to Wallace Tower).

[Group is overtaken and led by a newly upright authoritative Paul and sword.]

P: The Scot! A proud history of industriousness, academic zeal, and respect for the letter of the law - no? Yet - it wasn’t always like this. Before the modern Scot came, an ancestral Scotland was populated entirely by drunken, violent natives who cared nothing for their neighbours, the fundamental elements of civilisation or indeed theirselves. Unthinkable, I know. In this wild, raving age clans were in constant war. Hungry, hairy, sweaty-bollocked men would frequently set to offing one another. Some of the earliest recorded, which caused the greatest loss of life, were the Whisky Wars of 1203. The Glengarry Clan had begun selling whisky, claiming to have invented it. They were challenged by the O'Campbells, a clan of extremely Irish origin who counterclaimed its invention. The two groups set to a bitter war, in what might have been hisotry's first copyright settlement - had not a third clan, the Lamonts, passed through the sixteenth skirmish blind drunk. You see [motioning] in the days when every man had a sword on the hip, a dirk on the shin and a nasty hatpin inventory, a drunk could kill six men merely carelessly bending down.


We are passing on our right the new commemorative plaque to the Meat Cleaver Fuck Massacre of Tillie Dron Road... but let's not talk about that.

The most significant war of all took place in 1555 between the McMalcolms and the McDougals. Or, should I say, almost took place...

[P ducks behind a wall. G takes sword.]

G: WAAAAAAAAAAAGH! Dougal McDougal! Rise to the hour of your death!

[long beat. tries again]
G: McDougal! In the sight of god and in the name of the Queen -

Clansman: -King.

G: What? Och it hardly matters I can never keep up with the buggers- AND IN THE NAME OF THE MONARCH OF SCOTLAND, I am come to serve thee as thy bane!

[McDougal appears in his dressing gown, puts on his glasses, blinks blearily.]

P: ...McMalcolm? Uh [yawn] what're ya doing howling at 6am?

G: As promised, McDougal, I and my mighty men are here to war.

P: To war?

G: To war! (It's an intransitive verb.)

P: Oh. Well, I'm sorry min, but there's a protocol to these sorts of things-

G: I KNOW THE BLOODY RULES OF ENGAGEMENT AWRIGHT! I sent the envoy last week. He had a crude drawing of you which he tore up in front of you and pissed on.

P: [pained sympathy] ...I never got it, min.

G: But...look [pulls out phone] ...Sent Lackeys folder...look! there!

P: [shaking head] I didna get it min. What network you on?

G: [crestfallen, petulant] House of Orange.

P: Ah. Their free envoys are often a bit shit, you know - gettin drunk, fallin in ditches and so on.

G: [sulking, highpitched] Nuh! Fuck this! Nuh! It's nae fair! I've got all my men ready and everything!

P: [conciliatory] How's about you go fuck up the McDonalds? They're just down the road...

G: WHAT KINDAE A WARLIKE CHIEFTAIN DYOU THINK I AM LIKE? Just picking fights for no reason? You and I are linked by oath of vengeance, son.

P: [beat. flailing] ...We need time to prepare!

G: Right. Ok: I'll count to a hundred. [turns back, counts]

P: [panic; idea] Wait! Wait wait wait! Wait: Why are you invading, again?

G: Ehhhhhhh...

Clansman in crowd: To distract your unruly clansmen from your incompetent rule!

G: [pensive] Oh. Aye, that's a good one. [riled] But no; not primarily that!

C: Cuz your castle's nicer'n oors!

C: Cuz we're Scots - the natural enemies of the Scots!

C: Cuz yoor sheep bully oor sheep!

C: Cuz we'll use yer blood tae wash the blood off oor swords!

C: Cuz we secretly fancy yous but canna express ony ither way!

G: [at this last] Fuck's sake speak for yourself, Calum! NO! We war with you...

[awkward beat]

G: ...Because the time for talk is over!

[Paul flees, G pursues, sword raised. They run around a bench, taunting.]

P: You crazy fuck! I mind you in school - ayeways were a loony cunt.

G: And you? You were the only bastard who wis a high-heid scoob and a loony cunt!

P: You ken what everybody said about you back then? That you were a psycho just like yer da.

G: Graaaaaaaaaaargh!!!

[McDougal runs on to Wallace Tower. McDougal hops the foot-high fence and preens, 'safe']

P: Ha! No one has ever scaled Castle McDougal!
G: Oh, you mean in the six whole years since you paid off the mortgage? Fucken dauntless!
P: At least some of us didna do oor whole thing on payday loans and dumbass credit cards!


[throws sword point-first into grass. absurd slap fight over 'wall' ensues. Foiled.]

G: I MIND NOW! I know why you must die!

[a minute or so of inarticulate noises, subsiding to a loaded silence, each looking into middle distance in different directions.]

P: [quietly] ...dyou, uh...want to come back to mine, then?


G: [as quietly] Yeah, awright.

[They walk, shyly arm in arm, around the side and away.]

Scene 3. Wallace Library (Wallace Tower).

[We return immediately, in media res of a Four Minute Warning siren as simulated by G's falsetto. Paul is his historian again.]

P: It is 1954. Stalin had had indigestion all day. Understandably, the Foreign Office, like the Premier's intestines, was distressed. Reports from Moscow: a jagged bowel movement that led firstly to the execution of three world-class Russian poets, and secondly, for the only time in its history, the Four Minute Warning of an imminent nuclear attack went out over Britain. Here, in the then Wallace Library, a terrible decision was made.

[P picks up stack of books, runs around, darting between shelves, frantic and whimpering].

P2: COMMIES! FIRE! COMMIE FIRE! Which books? This? These? Should we be...representative? Or...save the greats?!

[continues until]

G: [accosting him with gravitas] STOP. This is yet a library, is it not?

P2: Head librarian! Head, I've been looking all over! The bunker is small, m'lord, too small for even half the reference section! What'll we do!? WHAT'LL-

[Head clubs assistant.]

G: Even as we begin to char, we will not forsake the lessons instilled in us by the Librariate and Informatory Service - or will we? Now go. I feel a soliloquoy coming on.

[Exit P. long beat]

G: What's in a name? Would a classic not-so-titled smell as Great? ...I think not. You lot have always worshipped power rather than beauty. What about their being "the best that has ever been thought and said"? Hardly. All the libraries in all the world contain little of what we have been, and we are bad enough at seeing quality that the most of it has no doubt eluded history, and us. The canon are merely the lucky masterpieces. For every Balzac and every Burns there are 70 men, their equals, left in the dust; the back-shop if they are lucky.

And given these books' failure to civilise us - given that the world will soon catch fire because our artists and idealists failed to persuade us, were not powerful enough, were not universal and true enough - well. These have had their chance. The only reason to keep them would be to remember which symbols did not work last time, and to remind us of who we wanted to be.

Assistant Librarian Grant!

P: [appearing] Yes!

G: Select every eightieth book at random from each shelf. Take those to the bunker.

P: Sir?!

G: Maybe next time they'll stop all this from getting this far.

[solemn beats. Process away from Wallace Tower. Long beat.]

P: Wait; wait, sir! It's going to be ok!


P: I've got all the classics on my Kindle anyway!

[jazzhands, to fourth wall]

Scene 4. The wrong side of the Don. (Seaton Park).

[down the leafy slope to the Don.]

G: [toxically sweet]...Paul?
G: Didn't we have some material written for this bit?

P: Oh! Right yeah. We have led you to a place drenched in tragedy to tell the tale of Annie Larkin and her infidelious lover, Lonnie Firkin. It went a little something like this:

G: That's not the story at all! It was a political assassination!

P: Jesus. Not this! You promised you wouldn't-

G: Oh, so the fact she was a Rosicrucian had nothing to do with it, eh?

P: [turning to audience, blocking G] Annie had known no iota of human warmth in her brief life. Born an orphan into a nunnery known even among nunneries to be overdoing it a bit-

G: I do not deny she was an orphan - but to which absent parents, PAUL?

P: To wolves.

G: Annie Larkin was the first daughter of the Queen of France!




G: Observez, mon freres! The victors writing over all other histories! The truth-seeker denied, as ever!


G: You think that little of our audience?! You think they can't be both challenged and entertained?

P: [standing on the jetty by the river] Look! For FUCK'S SAKE LOOK - I'm Annie Larkin, right? Broken heart and fulsome belly; I will die by my own hand, because this life has lacked even promise of warmth.

G: [raging] Oo! Roleplay! I spose that makes me 'Lonnie Firkin' - "lacking heart and beery-bellied". And I'll kill you before you kill yourself because that's the kind! of guy! I am!

[On "am", G boots P into the Don, and turns immediately to address his audience.]

G: Lonnie Firkin was a fall guy, the Lee Harvey Oswald of the 18th Century.

[The water is two foot deep. P howls his dissent]

G: Annie Larkin was heiress to the thrones of Scotland, France, Nederlands and Germany (which admittedly existed only in secret at this point). She was killed.


G: Nay: 'Annie Larkin' is a metaphor, Aesopian language for those of us in the Know. The Larkinians were a sect, the head of which's line stretches back to Christ and forward to L Ron Hubbard! it was here, in Seaton, that They tried to sever her holy line. I've personally excavated 400 bodies from the north bank.

P: [more howling from the water] They were the 400 noblemen who drowned trying to save her!

G: And the other 400 on the south?

P: They were the sentimental commoners who drowned themselves in hysterical grief!

G: 400 men an hour died for seventy days in the suppressed Battle of Holy Dark Seaton Fuck. The records show that the ghosts of Machiavelli and Grotius manifested over the battle and had a go at each other.

P: Scotland ran dry of sentimental noble Christian men! More imported themselves from Normandy to solve the supply issue!

G: The Don choked with coagulating blood all the way along its length. They failed; a baby survived and crawled off along the congealing river.

P: [crawling onto land, bellowing] The Don, choked from source to mouth with bodies, the bodies of every noble Christian man in Britain - 170,000 willingly throwing themselves on to the crush, the last of them drowning not in water but in human tweed; the crush washing ohsoslowly out to sea - a tumbling grotesque such has never been seen! AND GOD HIMSELF COMMITTED SUICIDE AT THE SIGHT OF IT!

[beat. End.]

Unused scenes

- The Cathedral of Birch. Or, the genuinely unsettling path out of Hillhead into Seaton.
- The path circling clockwise around Hillhead. Lover's loup genuinely does mean "suicidal heartbroken spot".
- The Train playpark in Seaton. Celebrating the death by train of Aberdeen 1861's least favourite little boy.
- The Brig of Balgownie.


Further to my utopian blurt: now, say I don't like to self-medicate - what are the other treatment options, Doctor?

  1. Materialism - traditional politics. Global growth, Development, Reform. (Yes, but for what? The eradication of poverty? Good, but not enough. The end of alienated work? Yes, but not the end of only that.)

  2. Materialism - traditional hedonism. (with current drugs and people: cheap, unsustainable; for lucky unreflective folk only.)

  3. Asceticism - traditional religion. (It had its chance.)

  4. Asceticism - traditional philosophy. (Has worked badly and for few.)

  5. Aestheticism. (life as art if not life for art. See also Absurdism.)

  6. Existentialism - as affirmative philosophical anarchism.

  7. Mysticism. (Eh. It takes all kinds. See also Romanticism.)

  8. Other-directedness - the ruthless pursuit of Truth.

  9. Radical psychoanalysis. (Fuck knows if or how this would work. They don't seem to know, themselves.)

  10. Radical politics. (The odds are not good, but then, neither is the world.)

  11. Altruism. Personal-political, environmental, spiritual. The most common form, familial, is not really altruism at all. But it's something. ("I was not nothing, and did not do nothing.")

Option 0 (or 12, if you prefer) - biotechnology - is compatible with a lot of these. Unlike a lot of these though it's almost within reach, and is available to all regardless of intelligence or species.

Note that Nietzsche took options 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 - not being a man to let contradiction much impede him.


ad alienum

Said the peasant to the priest: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto!"

Priest: "Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?"

I come from philosophy. In that house there's an old and warming idea - that it shouldn't matter who raises a point, because good arguing is nil ad hominem - it has "nothing directed to the person" who's arguing, but all instead to what they argue. This is a noble idea. Unfortunately some new ways of thinking raise fairly fatal problems for it.

- When we talk about Difference in the new way, ad hominem is important. When an argument is politicised (as indeed even the abstractest arguments are), it can matter who is saying what. Some philosophical topics draw on experiences which are not universal nor easily mentally simulated.

For instance: gender. It's not hard to see what's problematic about a man stomping around telling a group of women what feminism should be, no matter how sympathetic and well-informed the man is, or how hostile to feminism the women are. Part of male privilege is to be disproportionately valued in discourse. Part of feminism for the foreseeable future will be to make men qua men uncomfortable. I can handle that.

- And, from a very different skew (which funnily enough bends right round to meet up with the first point): let's talk Nietzsche. He and other supporters of "psychologism"-about-philosophy feel free to evaluate philosophies based on their philosopher rather than their truth. Questioning the motives and complexes of thinkers is valid for them because beliefs and arguments are embodied and situational things, always made by some flawed person for a reason. It's an anti-foundationalist thing, stupid. It's also great fun.

The nagging-child question "Well, why do you think that?" is invariably eventually plugged with an attitude, and not a "proper" justification. "Because I am inclined to it" is exactly what their ad hominem aspersions aim to get you to admit.

It's only in a world better than ours that ad hominem will really be inadmissible.


taking maxims from economics somehow

Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.

– Lyndon B Johnson, supposedly

...nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist – and I am even tempted to add that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.

– FA Hayek

The claim is: there is humanity and honesty available in economics. Here's a reconstruction of folksy theorems and maxims: together they make for an surprisingly open worldview, one nowhere near as sterile as what the field is usually thought to instil. My point's not that a pure standard-model economic worldview is a complete one – the best thing Hayek ever said is the epigram above – just that the sterility and absurdity we often see in it is the result of monological extremism, not anything about the subject matter or even the method.

Few actual economists embody or articulate these maxims - but then, few economists admit to having any ideology, though in fact they all bear a third-hand positivist-utilitarianism auto-conservatism which stands in for a party-line. But there is a heterodox economics movement, who think of people as people, economies as economies, and of economics as one day becoming a real science. Note also that the ideology outlined below can't accommodate everything called good.


1. It is hard to change people.

People change all the time, but trying to direct that change is notoriously technical and intensive work. This is why some people say, mistakenly, that incentives are the core of economics: they're just the easiest way to get folk to shift. (As always, McCloskey can give us a poetic rereading of an apparently boring thing: "All that moves us without violence, then, is persuasion, the realm of rhetoric.")

Take the environmental policy brouhaha - even when reasonable doubt is ruled out, we, the world, keep dumping. Appeals to reason have convinced very few of us to make significant changes. Hence, all the large structural proposals involve increasing emission costs one way or other, and then letting people reallocate around that. Whether this is because we're hardwired for certain myopic behaviour by biology or psychology or culture is besides the point at this level of abstraction.

Note that this maxim does not preclude social engineering, i.e. progressive politics. But along with #2, 3 & 7, it gives us an idea of the sheer effort and uncertainty it takes.

Giant thesis: Non-political factors are more powerful than political factors in the determination of the state of the world.

Countermanding: But economics is only one of the non-political factors.

Many economists just give in to "It is hard to change people". The remainder of us risk making what Adrian Leftwich calls the "technicist fallacy": the dubious assumption that all governance problems have a policy solution.


2. It always depends.

Economies are 'complex' in the hardest sense: economic analysis takes place under such gross uncertainty and necessarily limited experimentation that unconditional answers are simply dishonest. Certainly the forecasting of economic trends is done out of quackery, theory-blind ignorance or getting paid for it. Admittedly the third thing you learn in basic ec is the phrase In ceteris paribus – i.e. "it doesn't depend!" – but at least that means they admit there's a problem.

A further gaping gap in the old theories has been sighted (that economics has been conducted under Modernist premises, and that modernism usually eats itself and shits the future). I'm talking postmodern economics, a seemingly unlikely creature, but one which actually follows easily from good economics' obsession with contingency, and the palpably post-structuralist nature of economies.
But scepticism is not a virtue in much of economics; this we know. Except, of course, when it comes to radical scepticism about moral or collective action, which they're mad for.


3. Things fall apart, but sometimes they fall into place too.

The ghost of Kant gums up arguments on political economy: many of us have the vague intuition that the amoral intentions of markets trump any accidental good that comes of them. You hear things like "capitalists don't care about social outcomes – all social outcomes determined by capitalists will be to their advantage". Well, yes, if they're doing their job and are lucky, it will. Less unreasonable question is whether it is only to their advantage. This mindset holds exploitation to be any case in which people are used as a means. (Stronger definition: the act of using labour without offering adequate compensation. Broader definition: any relationship of unequal benefit.) Under each of these definitions, every employer* is an exploiter, since they wouldn't employ you if they couldn't milk more value out.
The only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism.

–  Joan Robinson

But I can't see this as inherently or even generally wrong: there can be capability and existential relief in job creation, regardless of what the employer intended. Sure, let us refuse to use people - except that my participation in this economy and that history made that move for me. My conception of what is moral has to be larger now (sadly aposteriori as well as tritely virtuous).

Consider this (if it makes you angry then you have the ghost of Kant in you) "the dastardly and amoral oil cartel OPEC have done more to slow global warming than all activist efforts combined." (The argument is that by distorting the oil price upwards for forty years, they made people economise, and incentivised the development of cleaner energy. Shoddy discussion here.) Entirely accidentally - a thing fallen in place.

(*Every "rational" employer - see #4.)


(2+3). Protection is sometimes unsafe.

The unpredictability of large-scale human affairs and the occasional emergence of order without giving orders mean even we Left economists have to worry about policy. Moral judgments tend to be one-step:
"People are poor? Oh. Give em money."
"People pollute? Oh. Make em stop."
"Landlords charge too much? Make em stop."

But the world is anything but one-step! The analysis of behaviour in terms of incentives - for all that it often justifies self-congratulatory cynicism - is at least capable of looking ahead, a little way beyond the second domino. "Higher-order intentionality", they call it. Properly moral action demands it.


4. People aren't stupid

Huh! Hold on, hold on: first let me set up my easel and my astrolabe.
a. By this I mean the assumption of economic rationality. This "rationality" is quite different from the real thing, note - it corresponds to the will to more stuff and the rarer, derived will to efficiency.) The assumption has come under fire, being as it is a ridiculous caricature of human inner life. Traditionally there's two ways for theory to succeed: either it's true, or it'd be good if it was. Since rational choice is neither, it is rejected and despised.

The kicker comes when we consider the alternative assumption: that "people are often irrational". How do we shape policy around this? What kind of road do we build? How do we design insurance schemes or benefits? It turns out that it is punishingly hard to do without: #4 is the behavioural version of Donald Davidson's principle of interpretative charity. Rational choice "theory", reconstructed this way, is not a substantive theory at all, but a dummy methodological principle.

Now, the behavioural economists - actual scientists! - will inherit the earth one day soon. But policy prescription won't easily follow from their discoveries regarding our many perversities - because while there's only one way to be economically rational*, there are uncountable ways to be irrational.

How can rational choice accommodate macro events like the 2008 financial disaster? Surely that really was the lord of the flies set loose in stock exchanges? In part, yes. But the good choicist's answer is to decouple rationality from efficiency; it is in the deluded conflation of the two that the neoclassicals' malfeasance lies. If there is no necessary link between the two, crises can be explained in terms of rational but revoltingly inefficient collective action problems, rather than by positing mass hysteria or stupidity and so getting sad.

(*This is not technically true.)

All models are wrong but some are useful.

– George Box

b. The egalitarian conservatism that can be read into "People aren't stupid" also explains why few economists take false consciousness seriously. The processes that generate our "metapreferences", like our omnipresent social conditioning, are thus invisible to them. The upside of this is that economists are able to respect people's choices in a flawed world. This is also a kind of courtesy: "You're prudent until proven otherwise". Unlike Marxism and the new economics of happiness, even the nastiest neoclassical theory does not presume that it knows better than you what is good for you.

But ideology is too powerful and illiberal a force to ignore. You just have to recognise that there's a cost involved in calling people, or stupid people, or most people brainwashed.
The groundwork for an economics which includes metapreferences (and virtues other than shrewdness) is hot off the press.


5. You are the system. 

The pure commodity view of existence is disturbing. Economists have viewed healthy life as a stock of capital to offer for sale (aka "labour"); babies as the investment capital of the poor; immigrants as human pollution; and any outcome below the utter numerical maximum that you squeeze out as a loss ("opportunity cost"). There's obvious reason to think that this framework does harm wherever it becomes commonsensical, increasing inequality, corruption and, occasionally, letting capitalism loose on one of our last few sacred redoubts. But provided it's kept contained as one perspective among many, the commodity perspective has some important moral and policy implications:
Every pound you spend is a vote for whatever you're buying. Every seven pounds you spend is another hour of your life sold.


6. Efficiency is humane.

Somewhere along the way in rejecting the Victorian era's hypocritical bullshit, an idea arose that being efficient is inimical to some basic human will. (The will to piss about, perhaps.) This is agreeably romantic. But, in losing its social prominence, efficiency lost its moral connotation as well. (The word "economy" originally meant good household management, "thrift" comes from the same root as "thrive".)

This loss of moral charge is a mistake: the economical is ecological! Simple waste and planned obsolescence account for a headbreaking amount of the pollution and price hikes in the world. If you ain't using it, someone will; if you don't need it or particularly want it, don't use it. And more: in high-powered contexts, efficiency saves lives, and the rejection of efficiency in the name of sweet warm human imperfection is, here, inhumane.


7. Sometimes there is no right answer.

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

– Friedrich von Hayek

common idea: "capitalism sucks but it probably sucks less than the other current options".

But fuck "There Is No Alternative" too. Since we are talking about the replacement of capitalism on capitalist keyboards paid for with capitalist pounds: capitalism obviously doesn't totally stifle future systems. And remember #3: it accidentally clothes and feeds us, it accidentally enables state spending on education and health and law. It was forced to grant us surplus time in which to think, sometimes in which to think about alternatives. For all else that it callously does, do not deny this.


8. Most things fail.

Even before we consider De Beauvoir's more fatal sense: things don't work. Worse, most fail silently, creating a false sense of security. This is the least mainstream insight on this list, but watch its space.


oh baby I love it when you talk rorty to me
and I love your
ample activism, your
heaving critique, your
insatiable reading, your
tight, pert logic, your
kinky perception, your
slender irritations, your
broad, child-bearing mind,
and yo' thighs.


LISTEN: "Mr Chainsaw" by Alkaline Trio

"Found out recently that you are leaving -
'For good I hope', I softly tell my ceiling.
It's better now to be alive;
Sleeping is my 9 to 5;
I'm having nightmares all the time...
Of running out of words that rhyme."

"See also

Byronic hero
Fear of death

- Wikipedia

Emo had its day. The word seems to have disappeared - usage peaking in, what, 2006? This is partly because it has been enthusiastically assimilated into pop. (This is the fate of hypersuccessful memes - to become ordinary. It's one of two standards in yoof visual style, and a go-to in chart pop too.)

What little ideological content there was in it - commodified Gothic Romanticism, and also what a charitable cultural theorist might one day see as a kind of genderqueering - is gone and not missed, since it took its chauvinism, hypocritical conformity and soft nihilism with it. Some funny relics of the age: whenever my brother - echt punk! - was caught listening to Alkaline Trio, he would insist that they played "melodic hardcore". In them days in our house, even "pop-punk" was an insult.

Rock and its subset punk were youth musics. Emo, a subset of punk, trumped both of them on this score, being as it was the soundtrack to that portion of puberty in which happiness itself is rebelled against. A pretence to nihilism, sold in 3 minute packets - the first successful commodification of nihilism in history? (O course harsh music and slow films had been using nihilism for ages - but never catching quite this level of youth demand.) Morbid, violent drama for timid, repressed kids. It sold because it enabled petty catharsis - most of us know how profoundly comforting self-dramatisation and the embrace of misery can be.

But even now, when I think music's job is to ward off and castigate selfpity, I love this particular set of maudlin coke-addled Satanists. How easy our affections are, if you just catch us in a weak moment! (Or a weak five years.)


Alkaline Trio had several things to keep them ahead of the emo drudge queue:

  • Two distinctive singers: one soulful brat, Skiba and one baritone whiner, Andriano. Dan Andriano generally lands the more typically emo vocal themes - the bread-winning "beg that sky for lightning bolts" refrain.

  • An ear for a hook, lifted from the Misfits obviously, but also from 80s synth.

  • Some sense of their own ridiculousness (wit).

  • The marriage of melodrama and banality - "Fine time to fake a seizure, to feel your mouth on mine - you're saving me - I'D LOVE TO RUB YOUR BACK".

  • Drums are sometimes interesting in a nonpunk way.

  • Mostly had the sense to not slow down.

  • Selfconsciously primitive!

They don't always conjure up my mid-teens. But mostly - the uninspired inarticulacy, the afternoons on awful EA Games with Irn Bru and a pie, the directionless anger, and directionless lust. This is of course what it is supposed to conjure, or, in this song's case, exorcise.


"Mr Chainsaw" is a prime cut of the goofy and affirmative 'Trio. The only critical note I can offer is that the "you" is the singer himself. And that I like it a lot.



The horror film cliches and naff self-importance of emo encroached on their fourth album; the fifth is full of lethargy, empty piano and synth frill; and the sixth and seventh are more than ignorable. Alkaline Trio have reached the logical end of their self-homogenization - and may as well be Green Day wearing darker clothes. Sic transit vigor.


There aren't many covers - they're not that kind of band because we, their fans, were much too passive by nature for that.



One of the better phenomena in the last 20 years of rock has been a cluster of things I call rubinations:

  1. an over-the-hill musician
  2. is renewed, accrues critical acclaim
  3. from working with a young svengali producer,
  4. on an album containing covers (especially surprising ones).
  5. The festival circuit
  6. or very large sales follow.

On Spotify Here

Listen easily here. Or:

- Loretta Lynn (& Jack White) - on 2004's Van Lear Rose.
Satisfies 1, 2, 3, 4.

- Mavis Staples (& Jeff Tweedy) - 2010's You Are Not Alone. 1, 3, 4.

- Wanda Jackson (& Jack White) - on 2011's The Party Ain't Over.
Satisfies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & perhaps soon 6.

- Shirley Bassey (& the world) - on 2008's The Performance. Satisfies 1,2,3,4,5, and of course 6.

- Johnny Cash (& Rick Rubin) - American Recordings (1994-2003).
Satisfies #1, 2, 3, 4, 6.

- Neil Diamond (& Rick Rubin)- on 2005's 12 Songs.
Satisfies 1,3,4,5 & 6.

- Vashti Bunyan (& Max Richter & Animal Collective!) - on 2005's Lookaftering.
1, 2, 3, 4, 6.

- Bettye Lavette (& Joe Henry) - on 2005's I've Got My Own Hell To Raise.

- Willie Nelson (& Daniel Lanois) - on 1998's Teatro.
Satisfies 1,4,6.

- Willie Nelson (& Ryan Adams) - on 2004's Songbird.
Satisfies 1,2,4,5,6.

- Howlin Wolf (& Norman Dayron) - on 1971's The London Sessions.
Satisfies 1,2,3,4.

- Muddy Waters (& Johnny Winter) - on 1977's Hard Again.
Embedding forbidden, but do click here. The best single blues session?

- Leonard Cohen (& Sharon Robinson) - on 2001's Ten New Songs.

- RL Burnside (& Jon Spencer) - on 1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey and others.

- John Fahey (& Jim O'Rourke) - on 1997's Womblife.

- Glen Campbell - 2008's Meet Glen Campbell, cover dreck.

- Gil Scott-Heron (& Richard Russell) - on 2010's I'm New Here.

- Roky Erikson (& Will Sheff) - on 2010's True Love Will Cast Out All Evil.
Satisfies 1 and 3.

- Candi Staton (& Mark Nevers) - 2006's His Hands.

- Robert Plant (& T-Bone Burnett) - on 2006's Raising Sand.

Jimmy Cliff (with Tim Armstrong!) on Rebirth (2012)
1, 2, 3, 4

and even
- The Stooges (& Steve Albini) on The Weirdness.

Tom Jones continues to try, but he didn't rise anywhere in the first place, and so did not fall, and so cannot recur.


on Waking Life

"Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled."
- Santayana

I'm not going to say much about Waking Life here - it is what we might call a naked film: you will get philosophical content from it on your own. Nor do I particularly want to mark its visual style - 'rotoscoping' - because that’s not its main innovation. What I will say is that it is pretentious in the best sense and talks total crap in only three or four places. It is in one sense the most philosophical film ever, because it’s overwhelming, has no real plot, and definitely has no coherency: it is a cutup of a couple dozen talking heads with different worldviews. It is a visual and conceptual poem about how inscrutable and irrational life is on the inside; verse lifejackets thrown into oceanic gaps in our understanding. It moves fast enough for its flaws to be minor affronts, though it does feel long, being both heavy and unbearably light. I recommend dunking your head in the provided bucket if either of these get to you too much.

There's some nice postmodern devices to note - the main character is Wiley Wiggins from the same director’s Dazed and Confused, and a few other characters pop up, not least Linklater and the score's musicians themselves. People who saw Slacker might recognise the film's non-structure and focus on the radical underbelly on the world.

One of our esteemed members calls anything which contravenes his fairly strict commonsensist naturalism, 'Oogabooga' philosophy. Well, Waking Life is very much a matter of oogabooga, or existentialism as it is also known.

Two weeks ago somebody raised the idea of 'pseudophilosophy', and labelled Inception an instance of it. The short answer is that it's your fault if you find something unphilosophical. People contain philosophical ideas, not objects, or even situations. Whenever we derive an idea, it really would be best to remember that what’s happening is a successful projection, not some sort of extraction of mental ore. Obviously what the mitherer who insulted it meant was that Inception is pretentious in the worst sense, overambitious; it thinks it is philosophical but isn’t. This is backwards in my scheme.

Once again, with feeling:

"Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled."
- Santayana

(From a wee talk given to Philsoc.)


being bioprogressive

(c) Bertel Thorvaldsen (c.1820)

"How might a happiness drug... find itself described in the literature?
Substance x induces severe, irreversible structural damage to neurotransmitter subsystem y. Its sequelae include mood-congruent cognitive delusions, treatment-resistant euphoria, and toxic affective psychosis.
Eeek! Needless to say, no responsible adult would mess around with a potent neurotoxin of this description."

– David Pearce

The drug could be dangerous, after all. I was not a believer in easy solutions, something to swallow that would rid my soul of an ancient fear. But I could not help thinking about that saucer-shaped tablet...

Tumbling from the back of my tongue down to my stomach. The drug core dissolving, releasing benevolent chemicals into my bloodstream, flooding the fear-of-death part of my brain. The pill itself silently self-destructing in a tiny inward burst, a polymer implosion, discreet and precise and considerate. Technology with a human face.

– Don DeLillo's Jack Gladney

Accusatio: Why might a healthy young adult medicate themselves? Are my feelings of inadequacy so acute that I cannot get by – like everyone else does – without chemical assistance? What health freakery is this? What New Ageism am I professing? Isn't amateur psychopharmacology very likely to land me in hospital?

Apologia: I respectfully deny all charges. One definition of rationality is 'doing the best you can with what you have'. Well, what I have is my nasty nature-borne self* situated in a nasty late-capitalist world; the best I can do in general is to try to help; the best I can do for myself is see what's around and optimise. I am made of biochemicals, habits, and ideas**; acting on those are apparently my options.

One interesting subset of what's around are substances which purport to improve cognition, mood, or longevity without side effects. Such claims are obviously not new. But note that psychopharmacology, as a formal field, is. We have a strong cultural bias that non-nutrient chemicals are for people with serious clinical disorders and no-one else - and to be frank, until now, this has been pretty clearly the rational stance to take. But the line between nutrient and drug is not clear-cut; as I see it we are all born with an amineptine deficiency; and the balance of risk/cost to benefit has finally, finally started to turn.

* Exactly how bad is the natural self (insofar as we can see him under our kaleidoscopic socialisations)? Pretty bad - and this goes well beyond the classic moans about our mortality or our plenitude of ignoble tastes, and beyond even more modern emotional laments (e.g. about life as 'boredom then fear' or 'sickness unto death'): those are just the most emotionally obvious and absolute parts of our condition. New sciences have found horribly bad design in more intimate places like our ideals and self-control and introspection. We congenitally think as little as possible, and this probably does have appalling consequences; we are myopic as to time and morals; we find it almost impossible not to gang up, and this leads us to aggressively misunderstand and mistreat people not in our gangs^ ; the more we try to care the less we eventually can. Just as a bonus, we're destructively status-obsessed, are perhaps unable make ourselves much happier by any means, and our actions constantly contradict our conscious goals, often unto death.
^ Most of all the gangs known as families - consider the many grim things justified with "putting food on the table".

** Which are perhaps just biochemicals viewed from a certain very high level of abstraction.^^
^^ Or I suppose vice versa - biochemicals as the most magnified and mechanical view of Mind - if that's what you're into.


Because this is still so new, we need distinguish a few things here. First, by function.

  • Cognition. Aside from the battering rams used in psychopathology, the class which has so far gotten all the attention is the nootropics*, the "smart drugs" used by obsessive rich kids at uni. The term was coined by cranks in the 70s, but serves us very well: "A compound that enhances processing, learning, or memory, and possesses very few side effects and extremely low toxicity." In real life, most of the touted ones are just more or less crude stimulants (for instance, note that caffeine's effects are actually far too mixed to count as a pure cognitive enhancer). But there are interesting beginnings (e.g. the old Indian herb Bacopa continues to collect replications for memory promotion in healthy subjects.)

  • Affect and eusocial emotions. Potentially much more important are the class without a fixed scientific term yet - sustainable mood-enhancing substances, or, relatedly, ones to promote eusocial emotions. (Any neologism is bound to look goofy for a while: biopsychiatrics, moodfoods, euthymics; miseriolytics.) In real life: depressed people get a notable lift from high double-blinded doses of long-chain omega-3s (with an effect size similar to Prozac); the meathead powder creatine has a good effect in some populations (women, vegists); an unusual amino acid, SAMe, works well and very safely for some reason. Otherwise serious people talk about dumping lithium in the public water supply.

  • General health and longevity. (Immune system promoters or anti-aging bits.) The idea of a neuroprotective class of substance is already pretty credible and very important. (Though note that the naive antioxidant craze of the past 20 years may actually have done serious harm.) But they're also inherently limited - thus the radical engineers who speculate on the matter have much more invasive ideas about killing death. In real life, green tea catechins are well-studied, by the standards of the vague and ultra-confounded variable 'longevity'.

The mood ones matter most, I think: we are a chronically suppressed and twisted bunch, and not all of this is down to nasty social structures. Instead, it has much to do with our awful evolutionary past (i.e. everyone having some starved psychopaths for ancestors).

The grand, hazardous dream is not to just make people longer-lived or more computationally capable through these hacks, but to improve the whole standard of being and interaction. The mood ones are also the ones most likely to trigger the creeping creeps in people, because it is much harder to consider one's emotions functionally than one's thoughts; because happy people annoy and disgust unhappy people; and because Huxley poisoned that well so well.

* from the Greek νόος (“mind”) and τροφή ("to feed") [or perhaps τροπέω (“to turn”)].


The interesting part of all this is that there's more than economics at play here - more than my personal greed for power (or fear of impotence). The above attitude to one's substrates might be called chemical activism. It is obviously a sort of transhumanism - that old but resurgent intellectual movement concerned with the systematic surmounting of human limits and flaws. And that connects it to the most dramatic moral project ever suggested: Abolitionism, the scientific elimination of suffering. Biochemicals are just the nearest and least speculative branch. (They are still super-speculative.)

Ooh, but haven't we heard, and dismissed, this before? Isn't suffering what gives life spice? Well:

  • The Abolitionist's Hypothesis: Humans and many other vertebrates live for an intolerable part of their lives in states of abject stress, frustration and/or chronic melancholy. Even people who think they are happy don't know the meaning of the word, having been tuned for limited perception, affection, cognition, and so on.

  • The Abolitionist's Principle (Negative utilitarianism): If something can be done, something must be done.

David Pearce has done more for the chemical wing of transhumanism (the most immediate positive step available to us) than anyone, by publicising and clarifying what scinetific evidence, philosophical backing, and commercial options there are, or may soon be. The network called "BLTC" maintains a massive ring of philosophical and technical websites, which very often are the only reliable source of information on their subjects.

In a less cancer-wracked and cancer-crazed world, Erowid would win the Nobel for both Peace and Medicine.


Issues with nootropics and transhumanism in general

  • Evidential void. There is very little data on long-term effects for any of these substances. The subjective, self-administered, self-reported nature of the movement also leaves much wide open. Against nootropics: Against nutraceuticals: A 2008 meta-analysis. But, as satirised in the opening quote, we do not culturally back the enterprise, and so studies are lacking and will continue to be so. Prejudice reigns even amongst neurochemists. In less metaphysical cases, the descendents of Pascal's wager really are the clever way to guide action. I am prepared to risk, first of all because in the long-run we are all dead, but also because it's about more than me.

  • Your kung fu is primitive. Compared to what? To what is hopefully to come? Absolutely: amineptine is to those things what Paracelsus is to Pauling. But some of them seem to work a bit, and you needn't let the ideal be the enemy of the ok. Compared to the current sluggish and strictly rationed MAO and GABA system, though?

  • I don't like the Abolitionist hypothesis. Yes, it's troublesome. Plausible and not ignorable, however. "Is life really that bad? Why don't more people show it, then?" The answer is practically unfalsifiable: because we repress it (because evolution, psychological bias and culture both press us in the direction of delusion or silence).

  • I don't like the Abolitionist principle. Well you wouldn't. There is of course more to this than utility - dignity, creativity, and self-determination, to name just three other branches of the Good. But again, Brave New World's vision is only one, and hardly a likely, outcome. What about the modern tyranny of positivity, the American-style coercion to superficial brightness? Isn't abolitionism just the extreme form of this? Can't I be unhappy if I bloody well want to be? No it isn't; sure, if you really want. Even given the powerful false consciousness we probably all inherit from gene and meme, consent would have to be a part of the project.

  • Argument from free-will, existentialism, idealism. These areas of science disturb a lot of people on quite a deep level. But chemical activism does not imply any specific metaphysics or ethics - neither I nor Pearce endorse functional or eliminative materialism, for instance. And I'm not really a utilitarian. The only commitment is to the data surrounding the effects of chemicals on minds, and to a strong ethics of suffering. Here's a nice general Declaration.

  • Argument from Bioconservatism (or 'Authenticity'): A common modern prejudice is that "natural" means "good" - on this much both cynics and hippies agree. But half of what is good in the world stems from the denial of nature! (This much the world religions got right.) The approach to the mind and self implied above entails (some say) the replacement of life-lessons, rational self-esteem, and Stoicism with an unearned binge on wellbeing.

    I think this objection is misguided, stemming from an irresponsible kind of humanism developed so as to cope with the world. (Again: Pearce's rebuttal to Huxley covers more ground than I ever could.)

    We used tools to engineer the modern version of our species. Tools carry risks, often large. But we may soon have a genetic tool to prevent depression ever occurring. Do you value your nasty rationalised worldview enough to oppose this?

  • Argument from Planet of the Apes/Frankenstein ("Playing god!") See previous point.

  • If this is the approach you take towards problems, you will never feel happy - and what's worse, you make yourself absurd. Herbert Spencer: "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.": As well as bioconservatives, a Buddhist might object this. Note that most Buddhists have been Abolitionists.) How's about I take both the Aesop's fable approach to life as well as this tentative, unlikely arch-Enlightenment supplement? The Buddhist idea that the only way to be free of suffering is to lack desire is nothing I can endorse - my experience that positivity boosts affection, will, and general engagement with the world. (However, the research also shows that when hyperthymia shades into mania, bad, dangerous, selfish decisions also increase.)

  • Related: "Without suffering, there could be no art!" Aaaargh there's so much wrong with this.

    1. Some transformatory art has indeed been made by deeply unhappy, broken people. But most sad people have been as inarticulate, narrow and unwise as everyone else. A tiny number have been among the best of us - but then imagine what they could have done without black days, and with energy and esteem behind them!

    2. We fetishise romantic misery, and it is from this that misery art's significant place in the canon comes - not from anything intrinsically deep about it. Suffering is rarely noble. I think that those incandescent people who made theirs noble did so in spite of it. (NB: Happiness is also rarely noble. Lesson: nobility is rare.)

    3. Consider the last time you were properly in a good mood: were you more or less full of interests, of projects? Did you have more or less time for others? I think it's much more likely that a happy population would display massively increased capacity for reception and creation.

    4. More fundamentally: this objection places the value of art above the value of (good) life. This is a fantastically unempathic thing to do. Artes serviunt vitae! Even if the end of suffering really did end art, I'd still go right ahead, because art's worth is for and from us, and if that worth could be given directly rather than milked from a ritualised rationalised conceptual game, then the loss of future beautiful things would be alright. But, again: there is no necessary conflict between abolitionism and other ideals, of imagination, individuality, or desire.

  • Argument from anti-Enlightenment concerns: People often seem to misread postmodern critiques of science as implying: "SO STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING". Which would be awful! (The actual implication is "BE AWARE OF WHAT YOU'RE DOING".) Why shouldn't postmodern science arise, given some opening of minds? Is your conception of science ahem essentially essentialist?

  • The naturalisation of class. Nootropics really aren't very expensive, but they are an outlay which most folk in the world's budgets absolutely cannot justify. (The 10g package of amineptine, the cleanest euthymic available, I have is the most expensive thing I've ever bought.) So mass use of nootropics might mean that the rich actually become 'better' than the poor for the first time in history. The simplest solution to this is to offer it on the NHS to all adults. " (: "

  • Thought as athletics, therefore pills as dope. In academia, where contemporary use is concentrated, there is an intuition of foul play in letting students drug themselves better; an analogy to doping in sport is used. But this is a false analogy; nootropics are surely only a problem if students are graded differentially, i.e.with each class set a fixed number of As, and with the threshold decided after collecting the class results. This isn't how my education went (thank god). Perhaps the US is different?

    (Again, class concerns must enter in to the calculation: rich students who can afford fancy chemical perks will compound their lifelong privilege by coasting into good degrees. But there's no reason to think that levelling-down is the best move here.)

  • Anti-utopianism. Scepticism about dramatic impersonal schemes is vital for any contemporary thinking person. But the dismissals of this particular scheme are rarely reasonable - and, in fact, the point at which utopianisms go awry is where they dismiss suffering and individual worth - something which Abolitionism is literally unable to do (unlike, admittedly, some other transhumanisms).

  • Does Big Pharma Really Need More Control Over Me? For all that is said about Big Pharma... well, half of it is about right. But their malfeasance is not nearly reason enough to abandon hope of this much progress, in spite of them, through them.

  • Quacks: Aside from that, the nature of the product means there's vast potential for smaller-scale dishonesty and pseudoscience. (See 'evidential void'.) The real question is how much you'll allow your fear of being duped to rule you. Again: this is a place where decision theory (Pascal's asymmetrical gambles on unknowns) is clear. At the moment (thanks to grey-market limits on production and transparency) it looks like many online offers do turn out to be expensive scams.

  • Most mix badly with booze. Well, what is alcohol but a crude, tasty and socially-inscribed euthymic?


A day in pills 

1. Mere nutrients
(correcting for laziness, veganism, living in the Northern hemisphere).

  • 25µg Vitamin D3. Perhaps half the entire world has a subclinical deficiency of vitamin D. (My dose is five times RDA because RDA is minimal healthy level - not optimal - and because oral availability is low.)
    - Target variables: "All-cause mortality", bone health, a counter to seasonal affective disorder.
    - Effect size: Small but well worth: probably 0.33 years gain in meta-analysis.
    - Evidence strength: High (for heart disease prevention), medium (for bones and mood), medium for all-cause mortality.
    - Oral bioavailability: Low. (fat-soluble, so taken with meals).
    - Cost: £0.04 per day.
    - Known hazards: Two rare interactions. 250ug per day has been suggested to be the actual safe upper limit.

  • 0.1mg vitamin B12.
    - Target variables: Not dying.
    - Effect size: Notable.
    - Evidence strength: Yes (for not dying of homocysteine pathology).
    - Oral bioavailability: OK.
    - Cost: £0.05 per day.
    - Known hazards: Not much.

  • 5g creatine. Yup, the bodybuilder's staple. Vegists have about half the de novo stores of omnivores.
    - Target variables: Muscle integrity, cognition in vegists.
    - Effect size: Good. It's only vegists that get a distinct mental boost off it.
    - Evidence strength: Yes (exercise improvement), ok (for cognition; no controlled trials yet). It's the reference substance for power output.
    - Oral bioavailability: Very good, counter to one popular meme.
    - Cost: £0.14 per day.
    - Known hazards: Nah. Upset tummy if you take like 30g on its own.

  • - Target variables: Eh. Maybe brain function.
    - Effect size: Small.
    - Evidence strength: Eh. Just covering bases.
    - Oral bioavailability: Low (14-18%).
    - Cost: £0.15 per day.
    - Known hazards:
    Despite some recent panic about heart disease, negligible.

  • - Target variables: Endurance.
    - Effect size: Noticeable.
    - Evidence strength: Eh. Again, I'm correcting for vegism.
    - Oral bioavailability: Good (1-14% loss).
    - Cost: £0.05 per day.
    - Known hazards: Nah.

  • 1g Omega-3 EPA and DHA from algae. (ALA from linseed doesn't work very well.)
    - Target variables: Heart health, mood, rather than the ridiculous trumped-up IQ business of yesteryear.
    - Effect size: Small.
    - Evidence strength: Good (for major depression, not the common-or-garden blues).
    - Oral bioavailability: Very good (it's food).
    - Cost: £0.60 per day.
    - Known hazards:

2. Old-school
  • Anaerobic exercise. Not as much as I should, but 30mins a day flopping around. The benefits preclude indifference.
    - Target variables: Prevention of the diseases of affluence, and of cognitive decline; fatigue and sleep quality; mood lift, libido, glucose sensitivity.
    - Effect size: High.
    - Evidence strength: Very very.
    - Oral bioavailability: Ew.
    - Cost: Nope.
    - Known hazards: I look silly and sweat. Heart attack risk from endurance work.

  • Bacopa monnieri (150mg bacosides).
    - Target variables: Long-term memory formation and retention.
    - Effect size: Ambiguous; good "after 12 weeks of use" (which heavily limits the falsifications available, ofc).
    - Evidence strength: Conflicting, but a consensus emerges.
    - Oral bioavailability: Low.
    - Cost: £0.12 per day (from 'Himalaya').
    - Known hazards: The plant sucks up lead and arsenic very efficiently, so vetting your supplier is important! Nor do even the big manufacturers respond to queries or CoA requests. Luckily for us plebs, the lovely folks at r/Nootropics have run an indie analysis on three brands.

3. New school (pharmaceuticals)
  • 0.5mg melatonin. Sleep is profoundly important for cognition, mood, and longevity; anything which improves it can produce large effects downstream. This is one of my favourite pieces of reasoning ever.
    - Target variables: Sleep latency, sleep quality, and from there pretty much everything. It also allows you to enforce a regular sleep pattern.
    - Effect size: Good.
    - Evidence strength: Very strong. It is the reference substance for insomnia treatments.
    - Oral bioavailability:
    - Cost: £0.03 per day.
    - Known hazards: It's a neurohormone, which is enough to send most people running screaming. Studies using up to 2mg over 12 months look totally fine, though. Contraindicates with antidepressants and all that.

Total daily cost £1.23, plus four cups green tea (20p). Add to all this a decent dose of generic risk from lack of research into long-term use, ofc. Worth it.



  • Examine.com. Ah, great stuff. They have no ads or vendor affiliations, and offer a (nonrigorous) meta-analysis on more or less everything. They are more willing to recommend supplementation than is mainstream medicine - but, then, they also have more time to read and much less liability.

  • Gwern is a superlatively clear thinker on any topic he cares to hit up; his long and scientifically literate self-experiment is a fantastic introduction to both the philosophy and technicalities.

  • NYU's Langone centre has loads of relevant and sceptical material, but it's very badly indexed. Have a click around.

  • 'Science-Based Medicine' have some good sceptical pieces, like this on melatonin. (They fail to quantify their concern, though.)

  • The Nootropics subreddit is as high-quality as this sort of open forum can get. They even display cool collective action, trying to organise their own research, independent chemical assays of big suppliers, and group purchase of novel substances.

  • Quackwatch doesn't seem to be updated any more, but has lots of good, rational warnings about the people who try to hijack the naivety of people like me.

  • This is very cute and updated often, but they only link to one suggestive study per substance.


Where exactly does this consumption become 'chemical activism'?

Well. As we saw, there are fierce cultural and religious brakes on biotechnology, not least mockery. Some of the brakes come from informed caution and are to be respected; many others are not. Buying and promoting those primitive pills now available is also a tiny stimulus to future development and product.

Huxley's socially-engineered hell is possible - but philosophical grounding could help preclude it. In the worst case besides his: our intellectual and economic labour will produce a temporary illusion of control, a period of looking foolishly technocratic, and perhaps nasty side-effects in a strange nerdy subpopulation. To which my only reply is: do you have any idea how valuable a sense of control over our lives is?