‘Yes, it’s the sunset.’ Now that’s a sentence.









The Pop Metaphor: Part 2



The paradoxical entrapment in an accelerating metaphor is no better expressed than in the lyrics of the heavy-hitting hit-maker, Sia.


I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose

Fire away, fire away

Ricochet, you take your aim

Fire away, fire away

You shoot me down but I won’t fall

I am titanium

You shoot me down but I won’t fall

I am titanium


I wonder what it feels like to make art that doesn’t drift off-point. Contemporary pop is not a flaneur form – I feel like the people that either create or consume pop would like to think of themselves as diligent, hard workers. People you can count on to get the job done. Of course, successful singer-songwriters like Sia are not just workhorses. They’re also, and mainly, incredibly gifted, and there’s a lovely predestined aspect to Sia’s songs that make the lyrical choices seem obvious, nearly facile; it’s as if the songs have always existed. There’s making it look easy, and there’s making it look like you didn’t even do anything at all – the sprezzatura ease that comes to very few. True knack for metaphor – abstraction with clarity and reach – is incredibly rare.


‘Titanium’ exemplifies the privileged place that themes of resilience and survival take in contemporary pop songs. Why do metaphors to do with survival resonate with the collective consciousness? What are we surviving? Survival itself (and the scene of destruction the word implies) is not a trope unique to our times (see ‘I Will Survive’) but it’s certainly a trope that dominates current music that arguably no other trope does. From the media judo of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ (written in response to a journalist’s likening of the ever-changing membership of the pop outfit to an episode of Survivor) to recent number ones including ‘Titanium,’ ‘Roar’ and ‘Chandelier,’ survival has grown to occupy much space in the global soundscape. Everywhere: a sonic stamp of aural affirmation. In spite of everything, we are going to make it through this slog. But what is this slog? What is the vague, unmentioned force, which is apparently putting us all through hell? Often, because the conveyers of the message of survival are generally women, female audience members seem emboldened by the music, to take away something in the spirit of personal and sisterly empowerment.


I sometimes feel pop’s a little bit like opera, where the soprano always dies. Pop is a little like how Marilyn Monroe must die. She kind of did have to – I can’t really think of how else her story could have ended. As much as her death is the height of something truly awful, as much as it saddens me to think of, – well, that’s narrative logic. The beautiful soprano, the magical starlet, the female icon can’t survive the narrative. To die beautifully in Puccini is to have succeeded . If you are Mimi or Ciocio-san, you have achieved the height of beauty – and at the height of this beauty you face and embrace ultimate destruction. Is feminine destruction the ultimate patriarchal success story? What’s so awful about being in a success story? Laterally, in pop young women are constantly renewed – the older stars blow out in Vegas, the younger ones morph out of Disney confection – fixing a blurred, eternal image of fecundity and desire somehow emptied of any specific icon.


What does pop music’s voicing of survival have to do with this narrative of destruction? Telling the world ‘I’m a survivor,’ or ‘you’re gonna hear me roar,’ or ‘you shoot me down, but I won’t fall,’ certainly draws attention to a plight. These women are under attack. Really! Listen to them! You don’t even need to listen to the words – listen to the music. The rhythm splits into smaller and smaller subdivisions. Filter sweeps. Pumping synths. Forceful kick drums. Compressed vocals. No human stands a chance. I have no trouble being convinced that this music, while not quite a cry for help, is absolutely a drawing attention to a scene of destruction. An Act 3 scene – the woman is on the edge. I’m not sure that the announcement of triumph in ‘I got the eye of the tiger’ should be taken at literally. Well, of course I don’t mean literally literally – unless Katy Perry gouges feline eyeballs in her free time. But at face value, the representation that these pop figures are actually surviving anything doesn’t convince me.


(The opposite of a crash landing is a smooth take off.)

The Pop Metaphor: Part 1



I think most types of music sound good in cars, but some work better than others. And some excellent genres make no sense in there nearly all the time. Vervy, that time you made me play that gospel house mix as we drove to Northcote Aquatic centre during the day? On a Tuesday? That made no sense. That really sucked.


During my week-long binge of pop I discovered that this kind of music sounds perfect in an automobile. I have a really bass-heavy stereo system in my car. This is not a boon; it’s that crappy bass that makes the car sound like a rattling sunglasses case. Most of the time it’s turned on -2. Maybe all new car stereos are heavy in the bass, attenuated to pop’s soundscape, which like the body of any proper pop star has a big, non-threatening bottom, and always wears a glossy, shimmering top.


Firstly: it’s all very big. Fisher writes about ‘feeling as loud as the music … as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere all at once.’ The passage is unclear, or rather purposely indirect about whether the narrator is describing the effect of the music upon her as she drives, or the peaks of bipolar (one of Fisher’s famous afflictions), or, at a stretch, the affect plateau. The affect plateau is the banal but nonetheless beatific pleasure of everyday happiness. Ecstatic normality – an ecstatic realisation of an unremarkable reality. A woman drives her car. I remember wanting to kiss the dirty ground of Maylands at the tail end of a bad acid trip when I realised, looking at the clouds, that they no longer wanted to kill me. It was sunset. Later, friends would tell me that the problem was that we’d gone day tripping (and sure, maybe day tripping can be too much), but I still think that stuff we’d taken was poison, something not LSD. In any case, I was coming down – an inevitable process that up until then I’d anticipated with sadness because it meant the nice drugs were going away. But from this time I always felt secretly grateful for the come down, even at its most jaw-grinding and psychically brutal. Because a come down is a return to reality. Beautiful, sweet, normal normality. Humble, dear normality. Fragile, contingent, improvised reality. How do we do it, find what we all want to do and feel, agree on it, and proceed?


Is the car designed for pop or is pop designed for the car? Anyone who thinks of the synchrony between the two as modern forgets that this is a site of ghosts and dreams, both of which are profoundly unmodern. This brings me to my second point: big metaphor. To paraphrase Fisher – while listening to pop music in my car it struck me that this is the form for people that want to feel as loud as their music. The production and arrangements of contemporary pop are so expansive that turned up, it’s like your skin is all that keeps you from going everywhere immediately. The arrangements in contemporary pop have become increasingly abstract, as near to contextlessness as anything I can think over. Whatever the watered-down influences were – reggae, hip hop, house, rock, blues – all these referents are buried within their prior invocations, in pre-existing pop of years gone by. The form has truly eaten itself, spewing sonic cues that seem to come only from other pop songs. I listen and just think, this sounds so big, cavernous. Like a new mansion in an outer suburb, this doesn’t seem like anything but its size. All the while the lyrical tropes have become increasingly tight, controlled, and condensed. On one hand the bigness of the sound and metaphor make a grand space, a vast sound-scape for its listener. Arguably this bigness attracts those who otherwise feel small – this might explain the appeal of pop to young girls. On the other hand the lyrical condensation – caught around the one big metaphor – feels constrictive, imprisoned. The single signifier dangles in the rhythmic space (a telephone, a halo, a chandelier, diamonds, titanium) and then gets milked for all its worth. The pop star with her cascading synths is like someone stuck in an out of control elevator, soaring to the highest heights at immense speed. But she is soaring along in a box she can’t leave.


The Pop Metaphor: A Preamble



Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge begins with a crash landing and ends with a – hmmm. What’s the opposite of a crash landing? In the epistolary epilogue Suzanne Vale – a character very closely based on Fisher herself – describes the experience of driving in her car. Thinking back on the novel I realise that Suzanne’s happiest moments occur in that car, top down, music up, driving around LA in a free-motion suspension between origin and destination.


I still don’t think I feel the way I perceive other people to feel. I don’t know if the problem lies in my perception or my comfort. Either way I come out fighting, wrestling with my natures, as it were. Sometimes, though, I’ll be driving, listening to loud music with the day spreading out all over, and I’ll feel something so big and great – a feeling as loud as the music. It’s as though my skin is the only thing that keeps me from going everywhere at once.


Writing to the doctor that pumped her stomach prior to her admission to rehab, the point at which the novel begins, Suzanne continues, ‘If all of this doesn’t tell you exactly what I’m doing, it should tell you how I’m feeling when I’m doing whatever it is.’


A little while ago I spent a week or so listening to a shitload of pop music. There was no one to stop me. It was like being ten years old and home alone. Fuck it, it was like being Kevin in Home Alone, my ears and psyche feasting on nothing but auditory ice cream. Only for the most part I wasn’t in my home, but in my car. Cars are a great place to listen to music. You sit in concentration, with only your responses to driving conditions to distract you from the listening experience. And the responses you need to make distract minimally, being largely automated and intuitive. And – the sensation of listening to music seems to enhance your intuitive faculties while driving. You knew that sedan was going to change lanes. You stayed in second as you approach a red light because you knew it was going to turn green as you entered the intersection. On you go. All the decisions you make are correct. You flow with the collective.


If you’re like me – someone who can’t move their body with much certainty but loves music – the car helps you express, in motion, the way music makes you feel. The car is not only an instrument of pleasure, it is instrumental in the expression of pleasure. The feeling is one of integration. I’m least likely to tell you a lie in my car. The distraction represented by the task of driving is a fairly positive distraction when it comes to listening to music. You must sit still and listen – which helps become and stay in tune. But you are in motion, sailing along with the strings and synths. Also, steering wheels are excellent for tapping along with cowbells. Dance floors would be so much better if they had something for me to tap on.

What We See and What We Seem


Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?


The sublime ‘A Dream Within a Dream,’ by Edgar Allan Poe. I only realised, quite by accident yesterday, how much this meditation on paradox and brevity was influenced by Shakespeare’s allegorical ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle.’ The line length in the latter was uniquely short for Shakespeare; there’s an unexpected echo between the speed and rhythms of the poems when read together. The declarative first lines – ‘Take this kiss upon the brow,’ and ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ – also seem to exist in the same moment of poetic address. Another obvious echo: ‘Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream?’ and ‘Truth may seem but cannot be … Truth and beauty buried be.’ The simplicity is so sad and beautiful – a triumphal sadness? What is this peculiar joy in the recognition that nothing can be saved? Is this what memory is?


I have no idea why I didn’t go to the gorge with Vervy before he left. When he asked me about it last night I was uncomfortable, monosyllabic, tired. He then told me a story about a girl he teaches, who recently gave a talk about Japanese archery. She said, ‘The beauty of archery is that you only think about one thing and that one thing is nothing.’ Later, at the end of class, she came up to him to ask what he thought of her new shoes. What a class act.


Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;
That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.”
Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.
Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

The Gail Jones Sigh



One day I’ll die from someone not returning an email. I’m still waiting to hear from the novelist Gail Jones, whom I emailed a week or so ago. I was asked by a small press publication to come up with an established Australian author to profile for the next issue, and I thought of her. I suppose we could say that all Australian writers are individual or unique in their own way; of course they are. But there is a voice, or style that tends to give what we call Australian fiction its identity. We can say there’s a certain laconicism, a stripped-back, unpretentious approach in Australian writing that we see in writers like Tim Winton or Tom Keneally.


Gail Jones is what happens when an Australian writer goes the other way, eschewing the blokey meanderings of her peers in favour of a poised, earnest engagement with – what should I call this? The world of Blanchot, Barthes and Baudrillard: the world of interpretation, critical theory. It feels very 90s to me, but perhaps that’s because I met her in the late 90s, as an undergrad whose heart was set on fire by the French philosophy I was only glossing. I suppose it’s an academic style, self-reflexive, deliberate, clever. It’s a feminine style, a lonely style. She’s the Australian heir to Marguerite Duras and Agnes Varda. I recently showed a friend, an art historian, an excerpt from her second novel, Fetish Lives. My friend sighed: ‘This is so effortful!’ Yes, precisely the point, probably. Gail Jones would find the comment very interesting. ‘I find this very interesting’ was a phrase that was (and might still be) her catchall, her verbal tic.


Jeez, why do I talk as if I knew her? Verbal tics, indeed. I know next to nothing about her! I was once one of her students, taking a number of the literature subjects that she taught. Her areas were modernism and postmodernism, certain areas of cinema. I remember the words ‘hypnogogic’ and ‘paradigmatic’ getting thrown around. I remember ‘epistemophilia’ being scrawled across the whiteboard. ‘Do you know this word?’ she inquired, turning to face the lecture theatre.


There’s probably no way to write this without sounding weird, so I’ll just continue, ignoring the urge to insert disclaimers. A number of female Arts students had little Gail crushes, which, now that I’m teaching at University, I see there is no way she couldn’t have known about. We enrolled in an unnecessary amount of subjects on postmodern writing – which was very much her bag. I have a bad feeling I might have written on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in two totally different units. Mutatis mutandis. There are really huge gaps in my knowledge of English literature as a consequence of this imbalance. It’s my entire fault, of course. No one told me I couldn’t be supplementing my Winterson and Morrison with Chaucer and Spenser on my own clock. No one told us to follow this lecturer around! So why did we?


I might be wrong, but it seems to me that we were uniformly young women. This is not to say that Gail wouldn’t have been attractive to our male peers, but the boys I knew didn’t tend to be effusive. Ask me to picture a young man from 1998 and I see a chalky guy with a closed mouth, dark hair on face and dirty socks on feet – without shoes, listening to blistering techno on a discman in the shadows of a train platform. This kind of person who would tape the windows of their parents’ house in black plastic and trip balls deep in the northern suburbs for 5 consecutive days. Ok, that’s not an aggregate; I’m totally talking about an actual person. Hi, Vervy!


Where was I? Gail was beautiful, no doubt about that, a simple, slim and pale beauty: a piston, a pansy, a rose. She had a particular stance, legs wide apart in a V that seemed incongruous expressed by her small, feminine frame. The stance suggested a cockiness that probably snake-charmed the lot of us. At the same time I’m sure most who meet her would describe her as unassuming. For all the physical attractions, I think the actual attraction at that time was to do with the energy we sensed about her. Thrilling at listening to our own local genius, we struggled to put our response to her into words. She was brilliant! She delivered impeccable interpretations! She was quiet and unimaginably erudite! She wore mesh tops that were slightly out of fashion! She had a word for everything! She was elfin, magic! We thought these things but never said them. We would only sigh, gathering for a cigarette next to the peacocks. ‘Ah, Gail!’ we’d say. Or, for brevity, simply, ‘Gail!’ We delighted in our silliness, as clever girls at that age can tend to. In the same way, there was a not-small degree of pleasure in the public implying of ambiguity in sexual orientation, which only straight girls really bother with.


When I bump into friends from that time, the occasional mention of Gail will bid the same cries of helpless pleasure. ‘Ah, Gail!’ I have met people that studied there after I left and mention of Gail also brings about the same response. Not similar, but the same. ‘Gail!’ the young woman will inevitably say, closing her eyes and churching her hands. What kind of pleasure is this? I think the exact repetition of the Gail Jones sigh, across a decade, between people that didn’t know each other, is instructive. The necessary embodiment and performance of this disciples’ dialect –all of two words for its vocabulary – suggest we were simply interpolated into a Gail crush system. Our reactions, our words, our following her around, were less the result of individual motivation and more the system of desire that we as young women found ourselves placed within.


We were there to learn, but more than this we were there to fall in love with an idea of learning, an idea of ourselves. Perhaps Gail represented a fantasy of complete knowledge, which though it seems crazy now, as a young-young woman, well, this kind of completion is just the ultimate, the nuts. Omniscience seemed to be the superior partner to omnipotence. I’ve used this quote before, and boy does it haunt me. Recall ruined Myrtle in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night: ‘When I was seventeen, I could do anything.’ At seventeen I believed I could know everything. (Secretly, this has never totally disappeared. And many things I do suffer for this conviction.) Somebody coming along, at that liminal age, manifesting all the qualities you inwardly yen for yourself, well, it strikes the first match, doesn’t it? So I think part of the Gail Jones sigh was about a projection into the future – the unlikely but still, here was she, a working-class girl from Harvey! – the dimly possible projection of the ideal, all-knowing, self-assured future self.


She also gave a language and a history to feminine darkness; this too did not dampen attractions. But perhaps it made the men in our midst less likely to pursue her. It was not simply that she ‘gave voice’ to feminine subjectivity, but that by doing so she demonstrated her facility for naming by performing the ultimate – naming the unnameable. I wonder if we felt we had finally been read properly, through a sophisticated vocabulary for otherness, the dark world of bodies.


My best friend, also majoring in English, didn’t buy any of it. She was a year older than me, in second year when I began, and provided a sneering balance to this romantic idealisation of our postmodern teacher. My friend loved Brett Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, Nabakov and genre fiction. She was a much more serious feminist than me, but wasn’t particularly troubled by the dead white males that hung around the canon. I remember her pissing herself over The House of Breathing and Fetish Lives with her older brother, the prose so overcooked they gagged and spat as they read:


What is it, to read? They are paper wings you fly on. They are spaces of mysterious black on white rarefaction … Interiority itself is traduced and shanghaied. Think of it: how strange! What a peculiar absorption.

(‘Eleanor Reads Emma,’ Fetish Lives, 44)


I feel terrible representing this judgement, but the reaction depicts my divided loyalty. Do I go in for story? Or authorial flare? Do I like lucid metanarrative? Do I like a goddam joke once in a while?


Some important things about Gail Jones’ novels. They have no humour. They assume more than a passing acquaintance with critical theory. They’re a little presumptuous, a little purple.


But are these valid criticisms? Do we complain that Adorno doesn’t have enough funnies? The novels are serious, beautiful examinations of the strange worlds we inhabit. What seems verbose to some has always felt, perhaps a little counter-intuitively, to me to be quite honest and straightforward. How else but through fractured poetics to explain the predicaments of modernity?


There had to be in the world of mechanical efficiency some mystery of transaction, the summoning of remote meanings, an extra dimension – supernatural, sure. There had to be a lost sublimity, of something once strange, now familiar, tame.


The lights switched off and passengers seemed instantly to sleep. They had become sluggish, bored. Now they met the extra night with their eyes closed, their heads thrown back, their mouths slackly agape like codfish … in their steel and aluminium tube everyone was insensible. It was as if the plane was governed by alien air or some creaturely intention. A posthumous blue washed over bodies, faces.

(Dream of Speaking, 18-19)


The first plane scene from Dreams of Speaking is a good example of the watchfulness of Jones’ protagonists. They’re voyeurs, flaneurs. I’ve never put my finger on what makes me uncomfortable about these protagonists. While it’s certainly not their watchfulness per se, I think the trouble does stem from something that feels like superiority. Other people are ugly, slack. Love interests are annoying, imperfect. There’s something very judgemental in the narration – an unimpeachable quality that grates after a while (or immediately, as with my friend and her brother).


Yes, the protagonists are too good. That’s fine to say, isn’t it? Our most loved novels brought us gloriously fucked-up protagonists: Emma Bovary, Raskolnikov, Quentin Compson. Not windsurfing, world-beating academics that ponder the telephone in Paris on writing grants.


I was once in love with a painter. Actually, when we were lovers he wasn’t a painter yet. And actually, I didn’t really know I loved him until near the end. On holiday in London we spotted some guy who seemed wildly drunk, one of those crazed types out the front of a Sainsburys. It was July in Islington, a heatwave day – the kind of day when crowds gather for no reason other than to escape unairconditioned buildings. The man wore a football jersey, stained in blood. And the blood was fresh, dripping from a deep crack on his head. The crowd stared in that crowd-staring way: the bystander effect. So did I. The man was shouting, bleeding, when the soon-to-be painter/lover next to me walked nonchalantly into the square in front of Sainsburys and put his arm around the bleeding man. He spoke to him and opened his bottle of water, inviting the man to drink. They sat together. Hospital was discussed; an Oyster card was insistently donated. I truly fell in love with the painter when I saw him holding the bleeding face of the stranger.


Dreams of Speaking is fundamentally different from the rest of Jones’ fiction – moving across the West’s bicameral division of culture, from visual to auditory. Years ago I would have found this exciting – I had once believed I had struck upon an untapped area of our cultural landscape, true source of modernity’s ecstatic connection. Put simply, the thought was: sight isolates, sound incorporates. I used to go in for Attalì, believing that for too long Western culture (and the study of which) had been concerned with the visual at the cost of the auditory. I went on to study orality in twentieth centry poetry, somewhat improbably linking with a study of the radio. Jones’ novel is a study of the telephone. Both are absorbed by the idea of voice, transmitted from a distance. The idea seemed a powerful one to me once. Reading the novel I tested whether it still mattered.


Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that it didn’t. Dreams of Speaking transmits this strong signal: only the novel is the magical medium.


Recalling my old studies, I’m reminded of the self I have never really shaken. I’m still the girl who misspells the names of theorists. Only the other day I misused the word ‘surmise.’ Despite everything I feel semi-literate most of the time. But, you know, I misspelt ‘Bhabha’ once in a proposal because I had always taken those bloody modernist and postmodern subjects – Gail’s subjects.


One of the great unanswered emails reads like this: ‘Dear Gail, I would like to write an essay about desire. More specifically, the desire to be desired. Could you direct me to any readings? Best, Lucky’


You see, as I now see, that it was of course my desire to be desired. But I was interested, genuinely interested, in what to make of this particularly reflexive, enfolding desire. And while I probably desired to be desired physically – because why the fuck wouldn’t I – the really powerful desire at that time was to be desired intellectually. I wanted to belong to a community of thinkers, and if it was not possible for Perth to muster such a group, then I desired to at least to belong to a community of one more than me. More than equals I desired to be desired by a mentor, to have recognised the brilliance I believed I had somewhere in me, buried by circumstance, contained in thuggish self-doubt.


The second reason Dreams of Speaking is different from the rest, and the only reason this book is special (for me), is the insertion of real-life – refracted, sure, fictionalised, but perhaps closest in feeling to some  vague idea of Gail Jones, growing up in WA, a brilliant class-traitor, the ultimate rebel against the blokey masters of Australian literature.






The essential thrill of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is foreshadowed in the film’s delayed establishing shot, somewhere around the 10-minute mark. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lies on the cold bricks of a small dark alleyway. Snow falls slowly. Pipes clink. Somewhere nearby, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his apartment to buy milk. The audience is shown his short journey in agonising real time – one insipid step after the other crossing the shadows. On his return trip he finally discovers Joe’s bleeding body and after failing to convince her to be saved through the ordinary channels of police and ambulance, coaxes her to come inside with the promise of tea.

The point of all this – the concentration upon darkness, the snow that falls so slowly it seems almost suspended in the air, the battered body that refuses to give up its place on the pavers – is of course to assert the notion that there is pleasure in abasement. More than pleasure, actually: Joe has crossed a threshold into an extreme of human experience. The film is therefore not about sex addiction as such, but the existential kick of descent. At ground zero of personhood, Joe, stripped of character and dignity, has found a concrete freedom. In many ways Nymphomaniac struck me as an old-fashioned film, especially in von Trier’s awkward soap-boxing against the perils of political correctness and the hypocrisy of the middle-class. This existentialism too, though often finely executed, seemed even more anachronistic than in his other films. But more than in his previous films I felt the singular thrill of visible descent, a sort of recognition from the beginning that says yes, I have seen that bottom of existence.

The only thing that really stuck with me from this film was this establishing shot. On one of my runs a few days later I became preoccupied with finding the best word for this extreme – the place where one lands after the fall, the place at the bottom of it all. I shrugged off: ‘abject,’ ‘debased,’ ‘degraded.’ Showing the way words play before they mean, I strayed into alliterative territory as I got stuck on ‘deranged’ and ‘delirious,’ which really had nothing to do with the word for the deepest depths. I tried ‘deepest’ and ‘depths’ but while they were functional, literal enough, they didn’t resonate – I was trying to find a word that caught something visceral and broken, yet at the same time free. The word for Joe on the pavement in the dark alley. Perhaps, even, the word for the old psychic place, the threshold between eros and thanatos. It was beginning to bother me. I ran faster, as if the word was getting closer but still trying to elude me. I got caught in a trap, a memory trap, where the only word I could think of was ‘inferno.’ This was not the right word. There was no place for heaven and hell in my thinking – despite the backdrop of Christianity-in-Western-art-and-music in von Trier’s film. ‘Inferno’ was not my word, but its raison d’être here was precisely to tease me with its proximity to the word I was searching for. The more I tried to get past this word the larger it became, so that the best I could do was a side-stepping echo-word, ‘vernal.’ In that way that is so typical of the magic of running, the moment I gave up my search was the same moment I: a. realised that I’d nearly run my entire course without raising a sweat or losing my breath; and, b. that the word I sought was from an early modern musical setting for mass.

I kept running. ‘Inferno’ still clouded my vision, obscuring but no longer blocking the word – my word – the perfect word for the lowest extreme of existence. Inwardly, I could see the outline. It had three syllables. It was not an English word. It was a melancholic word. It made me think of water. I could see an ocean. ‘Inferno’ it most definitely was not. I pounced, leaping over a puddle, into: ‘profondo.’ Yes, profondo. Si, profondo. No wonder I kept thinking of inferno – recall Dante: ‘Caccianli il ciel per no esser men belli, ne lo profondo inferno li riceve, ch’alcuna gloria I rei avrebber d’elli’ (Heaven to keep its beauty, cast them out, but even Hell itself would not receive them, for fear the wicked there might glory over them).

But isn’t memory a perverse thing? Because my attempts to find this mass, which I now desperately wanted to hear again, this mass or early opera, as I couldn’t quite decide – were fruitless as I typed ‘profondo’ and other random words I thought would yield a lead: ‘lasciavi me,’ ‘renaissance,’ ‘mass.’ I could hear the music, faintly. I could almost see the text. Something was there. Some dormant part of my memory was stirred by the word.

But profondo? No, non è profondo. I should have known better than looking in the vernacular when the object of the search was a mass. I kept finding references to Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso. I was more stuck than ever. How the hell was I going to find this piece of music? I didn’t even have the faintest idea of where to place it – except that it was some time after the emergence of polyphony. I barely remembered my History of Western Music – how was I supposed to then navigate this history?

It was a Sunday afternoon and I was procrastinating on a paper I was meant to be writing about John Mateer’s Orientalism. I saw on a bookshelf my old Norton Anthology of Western Music: Ancient to Baroque. There really was no other option. Fuck you, internet. I opened, thankful to be at least skipping ancient Greek and Roman notation, started at Gregorian chant and kept turning the pages. I listened as I read. I got lost in the mystic Hildegard of Bingen. I smiled at my annotated score of Guillaume de Machaut’s Agnus Dei – I once knew what a doubled leading note cadence was! And ‘DLNs’ were everywhere in this mass. I listened to the sensuous, transitional Landini, and Dunstable. I was forgetting why I’d opened this book in the first place. I thought to myself – how can this be a waste of time, consolidating these things I once knew? By the time I was up to Dufay I was well and truly gone.

Each composer brought a new world of pleasure. Josquin des Prez’s Mille Regretzaccording to my notes, was ‘extremely modern,’ exploiting ‘textual changes’ and ‘manipulating sonorities’ with a ‘wider range.’ I cued the music. I cried, inwardly, at something so modern in the fall of notes. The cadences were pregnant with the infinite possibilities of the new era. There were new tensions between each voice. Yes, the music exploited the full range of voices. How exciting – would des Prez have had any idea how influential these ideas were to become? I skipped the next des Prez piece, a motet left unannotated by me all those years ago, and turned onto the next motet, a palimpsest of my arrows and ‘NBs.’ The name of the motet was De Profundis clamavi ad teAnd of course I smiled in the surprise shock of recognition. I’d found it when I’d totally forgotten I was looking.

Perhaps I don’t really need to take you through the pleasures of this particular piece – you can hear them for yourself. Listen for the fabulous descent. Funny, isn’t it, how wrong my memory hints had been, even as they finally edged me into the prize. Latin, not Italian. Profundis. That was the word. And now, really, I felt that the entire line of text was apposite to my understanding of the point of Nymphomaniac: ‘De profundis clamavi ad te Domine: Domine exaudi vocem mean.’ Funny how I’d remembered ‘clamavi,’ the imperative ‘hear me,’ as ‘lasciavi,’ which is either the imperative ‘you, leave,’ or ‘you left.’ Out of the depths I have cried to you, Lord. In a way my mis-remembering is better fitted to the film: you have left me in the depths, Lord; or better, leave me in the depths, Lord. Anyway, these are some of the many pleasures of distracted memory research. I finally found the best expression for what really captivated me in the film. I’m down here.

But I really came here to talk about how things sound different at night. Don’t you know the menace of a bicycle tyre as it snakes behind you on a path? What about the creepiness of a myna bird, waking hours before dawn, when you yourself still haven’t been to bed? What about the laughter of a house party at the end of a suburban cul de sac? What about the shudder of the diesel engine of a bus, emptily turning a corner on its way to the depot? What about the brooding melancholy of lonely dogs?

One of the few sounds that sound nicer at night than during the day is the sound of a car engine starting up. Maybe I include in this also the allied sounds of last footsteps, door slams, and more recently, reverse beeper guides. This sound has always comforted me, probably stemming from some childhood happy time of the end of a long sleepover party, and later, but not much later, denoting the end of a weekend visit to my mum’s house. The sound of an engine starting at night, and its twin, the sound of an engine being cut, also at night, strike me as two parts of a supremely feminine interval. My mum, while not in the least taciturn, never had very much to say and consequently never spoke much during these night drives back to my dad’s. These drives were mostly silent, warm, essentially relaxed in their meaninglessness. I could never decide whether I preferred one parent over the other, and in hindsight I can see that the space of the car was an interval space, articulating a time when I didn’t have to wonder where I truly belonged.