Monday, November 5, 2012

Meet the Flesh - On Clive Barker's Writings

Some years back I was involved in an online conversation about Clive Barker's writings from the 1980s/90s. The quoted pieces below are from a guy named Jim I was discussing this topic with online. It was being kicked about that there seemed to be a lot of thematic emphasis placed on the skin, or lust of the skin (appearance) in Barker's writings. One individual's interpretation was that we are so tied up in our own personal pleasures, and in the appearance of our objects of lust that we ignore the other realities around us.

Another favorite filmmaker of mine who's films I have watched for decades is David Cronenberg, who also has explored this visceral connection to our bodies, our flesh, in many of his films (Videodrome, They Came From Within, Existenz, etc.); and indeed Clive Barker must have recognized the verisimilitude between them having a common vision, if one takes his collaboration with David Cronenberg in his film, "Nightbreed" as a sign.

Originally when we were debating this issue online, I was curious where I might go in response to all this speculation. So I decided that I would simply free associate via a stream of consciousness and just see where it might take me. All of what follows can be argued certainly, and it's only my opinion, obviously; but I am not looking for an argument here. It is merely my take on it. I decided I would try to be as accurate as possible without making this a thesis and meticulously looking everything up. So what follows is pretty much word for word what I had typed to Jim online so long ago. I hope you find it at least somewhat useful.

Brief qualifying statement: I have always been a writer at heart and received my degree in Psychology in a division called Awareness and Reasoning, which more than "touched" upon the senses, as well as the mind/brain dichotomy and phenomenology, the study of the experiential "human condition", with sex thrown in for good measure.

Just why are we so fascinated by our flesh? What is so fundamental to our psyche about the flesh, our skin, for it to have such a primal hold on our desires and our fears. Have Mr. Barker and Mr. Cronenberg both found something in common that is so central to our "being" that they press upon it as the most disturbing and the most evocative to us in their works?

I would have to say that I believe so. Now, here's hoping I don't sound too insane....

Considering pressure, stress and tension are everything in story, looking at characterization in this way has really helped me over some rough spots when writing my own stories. In Jim's email, quoted in parts here, he questions Mr. Barker's use of skin, or "lust of the skin" (to be metaphorical  or literal in this case) in his "Hellraiser" series and other works.

First of all, what is our skin to us? Our skin is our primary contact to the outside world. It is guaranteed to us no matter what else we have or don't have, save for special examples that tend not to count. That is, if you had a condition wherein you cannot feel, which would be rare enough to not be included, unless it were in a horror story. Skin relates to our sense of "touch" which is interesting, as it is how people relate to others (e.g., "I felt "touched" by her generosity").

Simple phenomenology states that we can only know our universe through our sensory apparatus and the data that is supplied to us therein; we perceive what is delivered to us via our senses, then we conceive what that means via our personal history, our individual catalog of experiences.

A good study in lack of sensory input other than touch (pressure, vibrations, heat, cold, intuitive impressions, etc.), is Dalton Trumbo's film, "Johnny Got His Gun" (written by a one time blacklisted writer who had tried to get the film made since the 1950s, but it was considered too "anti-war"). Don't watch it alone and be prepared for an intense (and no, I won't say, "touching") experience. 

As for our senses, as everyone knows skin has the sense of touch and temperature, which are derived from pressure, the speed of it's molecules, the continuity of tactile stimulation; just as your nose has smell; your eyes, sight; ears, hearing; and tongue and palate, taste. Try looking at all senses as subsets or evolved element of the sense of touch: sight, hearing, smell, taste; all are variations of touch.

[okay, I looked up these next too paragraphs just for this]
Our skin is just another one of our organs, our largest; it is an organ made up of a group of tissues that perform a specific function or group of functions.  Skin has four main types of receptors: mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, pain receptors, and proprioceptors. These account for the perception of cold, hot, smooth, rough, pressure, tickle, itch, pain, vibrations, and more. Within the somatosensory system, this is our most base sense and developed first, with all other senses evolving from it. It is closely tied to melatonin which moderates our skin tone as well as our sleep patterns, moderated by light sensitivity. Our skin is the most basic and important element of a human being, next to our brains.

Pineal glands secrete melatonin. This activates the pituitary gland to release MSH (melanocyte stimulating hormone). Within the melanocytes, melanin is produced. MOST Europeans and people of European descent have calcified pineal glands. The pineal calcification rates with Africans is 5-15%; Asians ­15-25%; Europeans ­60-80%. This may have something to do with certain psychosocial differences which may mean that there is a disparity in the primal fear factors between certain races. But there is still, a fundamental and primal orientation to flesh and skin across all human beings.

How about a less formal comment on senses?

Initially as a fetus, we have touch. From that basic sense (skipping the correct order of development), we have the other "impression" senses (all essentially relating to translations of pressure into a conceptual framework). At very least, I would say all senses "developed from" the initial sense of touch. A one cell organism requires at very least that one sense (i.e., an amoeba will touch something, then move to the left).

-TOUCH, the transduction of pressure upon the skin surface and of heat as the nearly direct electrical translation of one form of energy to another, similar in nature to the mechanism of sight. Intense heat, to the point of the melting of skin cells, initiates higher energy states leading to intra-cellular chemical reactions; with cold being the absence of heat, a progression toward solidification and a type of experiential vacuum; a negative impression of pressure.

-HEARING, the transduction of sound waves through mechanical means, via the ear drums vibratory impressions to the "hammer and anvil" in the ear, to Electro-Chemical impulses to the brain. Balance coming from fluid touching filaments in the inner ear.

-SMELL (similar to taste), the translation of molecule chains into the same said Electro-Chemical impulses via chemical reaction and similar to taste in mechanism. I would argue smell and taste as very highly evolved and specialized forms of touch.

-SIGHT, the transduction of light waves into E/C impulses via the impression of energy upon the rods and cones of the optic nerve. Light touches the rods and cones, and the fluid purpurea drains from the structures and a corresponding "feel" (set of impulses) is related to the brain which interprets this sensation, eliciting the firing of a set of neurons in the brain which give off a feeling of a particular nature which evokes a subset of historical experiential relationships, which is typical of our ability to translate sensory input into usable data.

-TASTE (similar to smell), cataloging discrete units of flavors via the interaction of those chemicals upon several taste-buds in triangulatory matrices. Again I would argue taste and smell as very highly evolved and specialized forms of touch.

Basically, all senses are an admixture of translating different forms of pressure upon organic sensory mechanisms. This is a simplification, but the more one studies the structure of the senses, the more this fundamental feature of "pressure" raises itself as a predecessor and becomes relevant, or appears common.

Now, there is no emotive affect in this, that comes later. Through childhood we all learn certain basic and common associations related to the human experience and our particular society. We learn to tie them to less esoteric behaviors. We learn to discriminate and compartmentalize societal norms and thus eliminate synesthetic experiences of cross-modal sensory translations.

Individuals that eliminate these emotive affects from their lives, that are normally tied up intricately from childhood with their sensory data, become closer to sociopathy and seeking pure pleasure (by their own definition) and at all costs.

There begins, as I see it, the "sense" of a good horror story; the birth of a horror story antagonist. 

Take these basic concepts and twist them, see where they go; where they would lead an individual if some part of this process breaks down. Whether it is due to some abnormal functioning of the senses, or due to something quite outside of normal reality, stepping into the sensual arena.

We can only understand by way of what we know. We can synthesize experience, but if something happens too far outside of our experience, reality breaks down. When something outside that realm of understanding occurs, we shut down. We act irrationally, or we ignore it.

Consider schizophrenics. Are they crazy? Or merely acting normal while trying to deal with the insane sensory input they are receiving? 

> In both [Hellraiser] 1 and 2 there are entrances into other worlds which
> consist of  tunnels leading into any number of directions.  Again the labyrinth in 2 is a
> more explicit example.  The interconnected maze of the labyrinth is ruled by
> Leviathan.  What is Leviathan?  Is this an actual occult figure?
> My interpretation of the labyrinth is that it symbolizes the mind and the
> passageways to other worlds which we can only experience by disregarding the
> limited functions of our physical selves.

Perhaps Leviathan is the most easily understandable form of a connection of all these "worlds" or "passageways" (of the mind?). And what is that? What function does the mind (our mental software) have on the brain (our physiological hardware), or the brain on the mind?

> My interpretation of the labyrinth is that it symbolizes the mind and the
> passageways to other worlds which we can only experience by disregarding the
> limited functions of our physical selves.

So, is this the opposite of the sociopath mentioned above, who forsakes the senses for more ethereal experiences?

> I still don't have a good interpretation for what the puzzlebox
> represents.  There seems to be a vague connection to the decisions we make
> throughout our life and the impact they have.  Especially with respect to the
> pleasure/pain scenario.  To what extent are we willing to go to experience
> pleasures?  There seems to be a direct relationship between the pleasure Frank
> is willing to seek and the pain he endures.

Fundamental of the pain/pleasure dichotomy is that both release hormones similar in nature to a heroin-like substance. Pain merely brings more intense doses of the painkiller hormones thus, those individuals that can overcome the "agony" of the pain (for want of a better word), experience the pleasures, which are what is left over.

> What are the religious tie-ins in these movies?  There are a few references to the worlds being
> part of  Hell. Is the idea that these are personal Hells which each individual experiences
> separately?

Every person's Reality is a separate universe. Each person experiences and views (or filters) Reality differently, and as no two individuals can perceive the same Reality, there is NO ONE sharing your Reality with you.

We ARE all alone.

> I am interested in what others think, especially if there is other
> symbolism I may not have mentioned that plays a major part in the overall
> meaning of these movies.  Barker seems to have a much deeper meaning and more
> intriguing way of presenting his material, that I wish I could fully understand.

Brief Aside: Read M. Merleau-Ponty on Perception. My university class had to read it. Was the class titled "Creativity", or was it "Perception"? We quickly discovered that the shorter the title, the harder the class, something it took underclassmen a while to learn. We lost several students that first week. The homework was to read only the first paragraph of Merleau-Ponty's book. Several students nearly had a nervous breakdown that quarter due to that class (all of them business majors I might add and no offense, its just who they were). More than one Psych major had serious difficulty, but they had to see it through as it was after all, their Major area of study. 

So, this is how I break things down toward achieving alternate states of a character's consciousness. To the outsider, or reader, it makes for a very satisfying, "odd" character, and one that holds together through the story or the character's dementia, or their altered Reality. But at the same time through these considerations, it becomes somewhat easier to create.

Sorry this was so long, but I spent years trying to understand this stuff, and it is very much more complex to understand than what I have stated above. If I offended your sense of biological reality, I only meant to supply an alternate way of viewing that Reality. Or merely of creating a character for a story.

In closing, flesh certainly is a fundamental issue with humans. Both physically and emotionally, even metaphysically. Both Barker and Cronenberg have hit on this and much to their benefit (and ours), as well as the horror genre in general. Just consider "Buffalo Bill" in "Silence of the Lambs", and the effects the words, "It rubs it on its skin", had on the audience. Cronenberg and Barker both, were there before that, setting up the stage and the lighting, and the warm detestable glow it produced upon our pallid skin in the theater.

Thank you ... and good night.

The following is a reply email I received from someone I had previously sent this set of thoughts to (following used with author's permission):

"Thank you for forwarding your thoughts to me.  I just wanted to let you know that I found your replies very interesting.  I am presently studying for a doctorate in Genetics, and so I have a strong background in cellular biology (believe me, this is going somewhere).  When I first read your thoughts on how all senses are derivatives of touch, I first thought "Nah, not really."  But I then remembered how cells interact-either through a molecule from one touching the receptor of another, or molecules on the surfaces of both touching.  This is the way cells "talk" to each other, and is the basis of all of our senses (after all, how will we know what we are seeing if our rods and cones don't tell our brain what is there).  I now agree with your point, and appreciate having another point of view clearly illustrated to me.  I have a tendency to think on the level of very small molecules too much! Once again, thanks for the post and for the interesting ideas. I just wanted to let you know that your ideas have gotten me thinking--a hard thing to do today, since the holidays just ended. Christine"