Column of the Infinite

I was musing the other day about how “Eli, the Barrow Boy” is possibly the definitive Decemberists song because it has star-crossed lovers and death by drowning and Victoriana and a Doleful Ghost, which reminded me of one of the things I often come round to thinking about as both a consumer and creator of Art. It’s one of those “there are two kinds of people” constructions that’s nonsense as soon as you give it any real scrutiny, but as wrong-but-useful models go, it’s at least an interesting place to start meditating.

So, broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach creating and building a body of work. The one most people tend to admire more, at least at a glance, is the one typified by David Bowie and Neil Gaiman and the late John M. Ford, where the creator reinvents their work (and, perhaps, self) with each new project, rarely or never covering the same territory twice. This is very ambitious, and impressive, and unquestionably challenging; and the three examples there are certainly among my heroes and inspirations. My hat’s absolutely off to folks who can manage this protean, dynamic, ever-progressing approach.

But there’s also what I’ve come to think of as the Brancusi school, where an artist returns again and again to a handful of subjects to ring changes on them and explore new permutations on old themes. And I’ve come to realize that I have just as much admiration for creators who follow this path, the ones who wear their obsessions on their sleeves. My grandfather was certainly one of these – quite possibly a Brancusi follower in a literal sense.1 Lots of people on my bookshelves are as well: Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Patricia McKillip.2 And some of the music I most adore was created for projects centered around a single artist’s obsessive vision, like Current 93’s David Tibet or the Bevis Frond’s Nick Saloman.3

I take some comfort in this because I know in my own work (and work-in-progress) that I’m a Brancusi. I really can’t help myself, even as I’m aware I’m doing it; I look at my notes for future projects and I can see the patterns starting to form there, little singularities whose event horizons I’ll be unable to pull away from. I expect this will also be somewhat true of what I write here. (Hey, there’s a reason I chose the name I did for this blog.) So it’s probably good for me to take stock from time to time how many of the artists who inspire me have similar threads that run through so much of what they create. If nothing else, it gives me permission, in case I need it, to quit worrying so much and just embrace it.


1 The Ray Gallucci ouvre is woefully underrepresented online, but his work is full of riffs on the same organic and quasi-organic shapes: circles and globes, spines and branches, layered strata, extended tubes.

2 Barker’s repeating themes, of course, are transformation, the intersection of beauty and monstrousness, the parade of the strange, and the secret otherworld. Barron has been noted for his exploration of the devouring cosmos, the hidden invading swarm, and the loss of self that happens when humanity comes face-to-face with the outer darkness. And McKillip has come back to the idea of the shapechanger so many times that her work is practically modern fantasy’s Metamorphoses.

I was going to put Grant Morrison on that list, and I think he very much belongs among the Brancusians; but damned if I can sum up the thread in his metatextual batshit mysticism enough to say why.

3 I mean to come back to these guys in more depth in future posts, but briefly: Aside from the way he’s made the through-line of his musical career the exploration of his very personal and idiosyncratic spiritual journey, Tibet gets extra credit for actually signposting some of his recurring motifs by making them into mantras that get repeated from one work to another. I’m not entirely clear on what “the inmost light” means when he says it, but I know it’s an awfully important idea to him. Saloman has a long list of interesting fixations, but I especially think there’s a very serious paper waiting to be written about the use of water as both a nurturing and destructive force in his work.


About Dan L-K

I write, I edit, I make music, I enthuse nerdily about nerdy things. View all posts by Dan L-K

4 responses to “Column of the Infinite

  • sitemonkeyvishal

    I’m probably more Brancusian than not. Sometimes I find myself deliberately trying reinvention or a new style/setting/form for my works, if only to see how my inevitable recurring themes — singularities, as you so wonderfully put it — manifest themselves in these works. Different roads taken to arrive at the same place, each affording a slightly different view of an ever-changing whole.

  • Dan L-K

    Well put. That “slightly different view” is important; I mean, jeeze, look at Hokusai.

    I also think of this process as “knob-twiddling,” after Douglas Hofstadter’s essay “Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity” in Metamagical Themas. (Now there’s a work that I got maybe 50% of if I was lucky, but what did get through rearranged my head in fairly significant ways.)

    Of course, there’s a yin-yang exchange here in looking at this as one of two approaches; a case could be made that, e.g., Bowie’s endless self-reinvention is itself the theme that obsesses him, if one wanted to disappear up that umbilicus for a while. (See? I said it was nonsense if you really looked hard at it. Nonetheless, discuss.)

  • Elly Zupko

    Really interesting take on the subject. I think I’m so used to pieces being reviewed in a vacuum; people tend not to consider bodies of work very often anymore, mostly I suspect because it is ultra time-consuming. (though Slate has done some interesting articles recently where their reviewer views everything an artist has done and analyzes it as a whole, including recently the Coen Bros and Aaron Sorkin.)

    I don’t have much of a body yet, but while my genre, style, form change quite a bit, I do find myself revisiting the same themes–such as parent-child relationships (including as a metaphor for deism)–over and over. (I can’t help but think that particular one is because of my age, and that it will subside as my biological clock quiets.)

    Maybe some themes are obsessions. Maybe others are so innate to being human they are inescapable. Perhaps, as you suppose, “fear of stagnation” is as much an inescapable obsession as any; therefore, change is the constant theme.

  • Dan L-K

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this isn’t given much thought elsewhere. I have to wonder if this is some fallout from the Death of the Author school of criticism, which I have to confess is a bit of postmodern thought that I don’t find entirely persuasive.

    Me, I have an excessive mutation of the pattern-matching lumper gene, and I can’t help it. Though I’m probably not as unusual as all that; I just happen to be discussing a handful of corpuses here that probably no one’s made a drinking game out of yet. (“Every time Nick mentions London or nostalgia, drink. If it’s nostalgia about London, finish your drink. If ‘London Stone’ comes on, finish the bottle.”)

    I should say that I use the word “obsession” without even a little pejorative intent, though one could say “persistent trope,” if one liked, and avoid the inevitable hint of judgment. But I do think it’s a good think to be aware of in your own work, not because I think these things should be avoided, but so they can be used and explored deliberately. SFF fandom sometimes refers to the unintentional variety as a “squid,” from the image of having a squid hanging out of your mouth that everyone can see but you. Own your squids, I say, as much as possible; if nothing else, it beats having to be embarassed when someone points them out to you later.

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