Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground ... and the Books I Read

Having just finished writing a book at some speed I am now relaxing by reading a few books at leisure.  One of these is Paul Preston's A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.  Another is E L James' Fifty Shades of Grey, which so far strikes me as a very sweet boy-and-girl love story, its adolescent appeal made acceptable to married women over thirty (which I gather is the main readership) by its scenes of flogging or whatever (I will know when I get further).  Ever since reading in Cicero about the scandalous adventure of Publius Clodius when he dressed as a woman and gate-crashed a girls-only booze-up given by the Vestal Virgins I have been interested in arcane rituals.  And then there is The Art of Memory which has set off a series of loosely associated thoughts.

Dante's Inferno has led me to begin reading The Art of Memory by Frances A Yates, first published in 1966. Her thesis is that before the invention of printing a trained memory was of vital importance and this was achieved by creating an elaborate memory system based on impressing images and places on the mind. The medieval love of the grotesque, she suggests, does not necessarily mean a tortured psychology, rather it serves as a mnemonic device.

So Dante's Inferno can be seen as the prudent man's handbook for memorising a theological landscape of sin and punishment, a landscape in which abstract concepts are converted to vivid and grotesque images the better to navigate one's way to salvation. 
Cerberus by William Blake
Not that Yates' says so, but her argument makes sense of Dante's use of contrapasso, by which a sin is met by a punishment that is similar or opposite but in any case serves as an apposite reminder of the transgression. Gluttons, for example, who in their lifetimes wallowed in food and drink, and who made nothing of their lives and offered nothing to God, now lie in their own excreta where they are forever ripped apart by the three-headed dog Cerberus.  Having produced nothing of value in their lives they are now reduced to so much rubbish and filth. Thus is the Third Circle of Hell memorably described and distinguished from the vivid horrors of the Second and the Fourth and the other circles of Hell.  By means of intense visualisation Dante's entire scheme of vices and virtues, punishments and rewards, is committed to memory.

Which may seem obvious and elementary, except when you think that such memory devices were essential, not only in literature but in architecture and many other fields, until just over five hundred years ago when a new memory device, the printed book, began to make itself felt. 

During the Renaissance one powerful idea that took hold was of the hermetic universe, which saw a link between that which is above and that which is below, that is between man and the cosmos. If the cosmos could determine the affairs of man, so man could determine the cosmos, and if a man possessed great powers - for example a highly developed memory system stocked with an understanding of the laws and forces of nature - he could use his powers to control the universe.  To the Renaissance mind the universe could be understood through memory devices like the book and operated by magic. 

Only in the seventeenth century did this magico-mechanical view of the universe begin to be replaced with a mathematical conception.  But meanwhile the underlying principle remained the same.  As Yates writes, 'The translation of this magical conception into mathematical terms has only been achieved in our own day. [The] assumption that the astral forces which govern the outer world also operate within, and can be reproduced or captured there to operate a magical-mechanical memory, seems to bring one curiously close to the mind machine which is able to do so much of the work of the human brain by mechanical means'.

And now by some process of magical or poetic association I have taken a book down from my shelves, and its old familiar cover reminds me of Sterling Morrison, a founding member of the Velvet Underground.
John Cale, Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison c1965.

The book is by Robert Graves, the English poet, novelist and eccentric, who died about thirty years ago.  He is probably best known for his historical novel I, Claudius, which has also been dramatised for television.  But the book lying on my desk is The White Goddess, whose thesis, as Graves himself said, ‘is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry'.  

It is a language of trees and leaves, which are an inspiration and a mnemonic as you realise if you spend a length of time in a forest where every shape and colour and form becomes part of a familiar pattern, immediately recognised and understood - like a fisherman reads the sea or magi read the stars.  

I bought my copy of The White Goddess in 1961 in the local drugstore, a general store really, which sold everything from lightbulbs and shoelaces to stationery and cigars, had a soda fountain for milk shakes and banana splits, a pharmacy at the back, and displayed magazines, newspapers and paperback books at the front.  All during high school I would go up to that drugstore and twirl its paperback racks, coming away with books by Thoreau, Whitman, Plato, Sartre and Freud, novels by Balzac, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Lawrence, Hardy, Huxley and Orwell, histories by Herodotus and Thucydides, plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Seneca, and some good ancient pornography like Petronius' Satyricon – Fellini later made a raunchy film of it.  (They would not sell books like that there today, but it was the beginning of the paperback revolution in America and publishers were fighting for market share, so they published any damn thing.) I still have some of these old paperbacks on my shelves, just as I have The White Goddess by me as I write.
My 1961 copy of The White Goddess.

The reason I bought The White Goddess was because Sterling Morrison raved so much about it.  Sterling was in the year above me, so I did not have him as a classmate, but I knew him through Tom Dargan, a good friend of mine at the time, who had two lively and appealing sisters, Dorothy, or Dot as everyone called her, and Martha, who became Sterling’s girlfriend and later his wife.

It was the summer of 1961 and as usual I was staying up late.  Sterling must have seen the lights; anyway he roared up on his motorcycle, rang the bell, and bounded through the door.  I should mention that he was fully clothed, but he told me that he sometimes rode his motorbike stark naked wearing only a Roman helmet.  We had some wine, and then he started talking about books.  He talked till close to dawn, and I sat there spellbound.  Most of all he spoke about Robert Graves and The White Goddess, and how the worship of the goddess and the knowledge of true woman who in her five-fold person encompasses Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose and Death, was not only the key to poetry but the remedy for the chaos of our times. 

I saw Sterling in Manhattan a few years later.  By then I was living in London but I had flown over to New York and met up with Tom and Dot and Martha, and we went to the club where Sterling was playing with the Velvet Underground. They were stroking and beating and scratching their instruments - John Cale on the electric viola, sometimes on the organ, Sterling on electric guitar and bass, alternating lead guitar with Lou Reed - and producing amazing droning, rasping, dissonant sounds; that was the fun of it, Sterling said, the energy, the inventiveness, not how well they played. The Velvet Underground were not well known at that time, hardly known at all I think, which I am not sure that Sterling entirely minded. I remember him complaining that Andy Warhol had just taken over as their manager and was imposing on them a German blonde vocalist called Nico to make them more commercial, an idea that filled Sterling with dismay, though he did co-write Femme Fatale for her.
Sterling in 1966.

That was the last time I saw Sterling (and Tom and Dot and Martha for that matter, though I have been in touch with them since), but from time to time I would catch news of him. In London I bought and would listen to the Velvet Underground's banana album.  Sterling broke with the band, I gathered, and did a PhD on the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf at the University of Texas and then taught for a while at Austin, and also became a licenced master mariner and a tugboat captain. The Underground briefly reformed in 1993 for a tour of Europe where it played to packed houses; Sterling was interviewed in The Times and talked about his interest in poetry and also the novels of Lawrence Durrell.

Which takes me back to that copy of The White Goddess which has travelled with me from that drugstore.  In researching the biography I am writing of Lawrence Durrell I have been to Greece where I have interviewed a poet called Nanos Valaoritis who knew Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller when they came to Athens back in 1939.  Nanos talked about the sacred feminine, and he gave me the manuscript of a book he has written, inspired by The White Goddess, which finds the Moon goddess at work in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.  Nanos has also given me a copy of a CD on which, accompanied by strange music, he has recorded some of his own poetry dedicated to the goddess.

I filled you once and the sea was born
Then I emptied you and the sky was born
The starry sky the blue-black sky
The sky of dreams instead of birds of cloud

I feel that I am connecting dots, but that really Sterling should be here playing his electric guitar and singing Femme Fatale.
John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Lou Reed and Maureen Tucker.