I was always torn between my ethnic and my national culture without ever feeling fully part of either; this together with my introversion, and a life long struggle with depression, has situated me firmly on the outside for much of my life.
As I grew older, my interest in the arts, and my need for harmony, identity, and expression led me to seek solace in the works of other outsiders — in avant-garde artists who strived to challenge the limits of understanding from the fringes. Doing so reshaped my life.
Here are some individuals who have, throughout their careers, extended a hand towards the dark, unexplored boundaries while simultaneously raising two fingers to the establishment. And have given me, and many others, a sense of connection as well as permission for boundless creativity, and a hope that one day we may understand our place in the world.
David Bowie, ‘Lazarus’ (2016)
David Bowie‘s early album The Man Who Sold the world (1970) combined nightmarish Brueghelian images, and the nihilistic philosophies of Nietzsche, with fears of mental illness, identity, and technology. Across his other experimental albums — the Orwellian dystopia of Diamond Dogs (1974), the uncompromising ambient-electro-rock of Low (1977), the conceptual noir, ‘death-art’ of 1.Outiside (1995) — through to his final jazz infused album Blackstar (which referenced alien messiahs, incest, dystopia, and mortality), Bowie was simultaneously an influential, authoritative figure, and beguiling outlier; he was welcomed by the public and critics — spawning generations of imitators — but, whether it was through music, film, art or theatre, Bowie to the end remained an alien gazing towards the stars.
Scott Walker had found fame as part of American pop group The Walker Brothers, but became artistically dissatisfied during the late 1960s. Walker found connection with the works of Belgian singer-songwriter, Jacques Brel, before pioneering his own techniques. His later dark, surreal (often disturbing) albums include Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), Bish Bosch (2012), and Soused (2014). In a rare documentary 30 Century Man, the reclusive artist revealed some unorthodox recording techniques that included the pounding of fists against raw meat. These later albums play like terrifying subconscious soundscapes exposing the nightmarish existence of the individual in a wider, equally troubling political sphere.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds who began as a post-punk, gothic indie group have never shirked away from exploring the darker side of love, lust, and death, even when roping in pop princess Kylie Minogue for their sublime Where the Wild Roses Grow, which featured on relentlessly dark, concept album Murder Ballads (1996). Their style has constantly moved and matured through the years from the Faulkner-esque Southern gothic of Henry’s Dream (1992); the soft ballads, and mournful dirges of The Boatman’s Call (1997); the meditative, New Testament influenced resurrection, and hope of No More Shall We Part (2001); through to the Skeleton Tree (2016), which explores the nature of grief and discord after the death of Cave’s son.
Kate Bush, ‘Breathing’ (1980)
Unique British singer-songwriter Kate Bush found fame as a 19-year-old with the Emily Brontë inspired Wuthering Heights. In a career spanning over 30 years, Bush has been uncompromsing, exploring such bold and disturbing subjects as insectual pregnancy (‘The Kick Inside’), fetal sentience during a nuclear apocalypse (‘Breathing’), supernatural pedophilia (‘The Infant Kiss’), forbidden homosexuality (‘Kashka from Baghdad’), clairvoyance (‘Houdini’), and death by drowning (The Ninth Wave).
Other favourite avant-garde artists include: multi-instrumentalist, ex-Japan frontman, and distinctive baritone David Sylvian; ambient pioneer Brian Eno; ex-Velvet Underground singer, and Bowie collaborator Lou Reed; and minimalist composers Erik Satie, Philip Glass, and Arvo Pärt.
Inland Empire (2006)
From the outset David Lynch has placed himself on the outside as an unyielding, surreal, and experimental film maker, and his subsequent 40 year career has constantly tested the boundaries of our understanding of identity, reality, and the subconscious. His debut movie, Eraserhead (1977), explored the terrors and angst of parenthood when the character of Henry Spencer is left to care for his deformed, alien-like child. Lynch later received commercial success with his academy award nominated The Elephant Man (1980); Blue Velvet (1986) — featuring a convincingly psychotic Dennis Hopper — explored subconscious psychosis and desire in suburbia — a theme he would later revive to great effect for his hit television series Twin Peaks (1990); the somewhat more conventional Wild at Heart (1990) united Nic Cage and Lynch regular, Laura Dern, in an Elvis meets Wizard of Oz road trip; with its heady and perplexing noir mix of love, sex, murder, and Lynch’s trademark surreal, dreamlike encounters, Lost Highway (1997) is a story about false identities (or parallel lives or both or neither); exploring similar themes of identity and dreams, a naive, aspiring actress crosses paths with an amnesiac in Mullholland Drive (2001) as the two women unravel a sexually latent mystery against an unfolding crime; with its surreal sitcom sequences of rabbit-people, and a parallel story set in 1930s Poland, Lynch’s masterpiece, Inland Empire (2006), thrusts the viewer into the life of an actress on a set of a doomed remake of an abandoned movie as she slowly doubts her own existence and identity.
Drawing a line of artistic descent from August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, Ingmar Bergman became a master of bleak, existential crises before those Ikea furnished Scandi-crime dramas popularised it. Bergman’s most famous movie, the darkly-comic The Seventh Seal (1957), featured that iconic scene of a knight playing chess with Death against the backdrop of a plague ridden land.
Other influential avant-garde directors include: Spanish surrealist and Salvador Dali collaborator, Luis Buñuel — Belle de Jour, That Obscure Object of Desire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; minimalist Jim Jarmusch — Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive; master of intelligent horror, David Cronenberg — Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, his later films have moved away from horror and include: A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Maps to the Stars; Stanley Kubrick was reputed to be difficult to work with and refused to be classified, films include: war (Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange), horror (The Shining), drama (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut); Danish enfant terrible, Lars Von Trier, whose disturbing and challenging movies include the minimalist crime drama Dogville (2003), psychological horror Antichrist (2009), and 2014’s shocking exploration of addiction and desire Nymphomaniac.
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
It has been said that modern literature began with those lines. Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965), one of the founders of modernism, had suffered mental breakdowns before later finding spiritual rebirth; Eliot’s work therefore, is often infused with a sense of fragmented identity, of an individual who constantly desires salvation, and yet is paralysed to seek it. This is the dilemma of J. Alfred Prufrock and also of the protagonists in Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land — in short it was the dilemma of modern, post-war society. With these poems and other major works including The Four Quartets (which offers a dazzling and often perplexing study of the human condition and its relation to the nature of time), Eliot constantly strived to free the poet from the shackles of traditional forms with the innovative use of free verse, and is now considered one of English language’s greatest poets.
Irish critic, novelist, and playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is regarded as one of the greatest modernists, and a major proponent of absurdity. Always infused with dark humour, from his early, heady prose through to his plays, and his later more mature novels, Beckett was an unrelenting force in revolutionising language and structure. Beckett suffered with depression for most of his life, and this sense of personal struggle and powerlessness is reflected in his work. His most famous play Waiting for Godot witnesses two tramps as they futiley await the mysterious Godot, while his novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) explored the different (often unknowable) facets of the individual psyche and the relationship between the individual and god, between writer and characters; and the Freudian relationship between the Id, Ego, and Superego.
Just as T.S. Eliot had broken the conventions of traditional poetic forms, Irish writer, James Joyce (1882-1941), similarly challenged the expected norms of prose. In Ulysses, Joyce utilised a ‘stream of consciousness’ technique which disregarded the standard rules of punctuation and speech, employing lengthy soliloquies to mirror natural, often unconscious and sporadic, thought patterns. Like Eliot’s technique in The Waste Land, Joyce scatters a litany of classical references in Ulysses to parallel (and parody) modern life. Joyce’s developments in language are often regarded as a major influence on Beckett.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
Jewish, Czech-born, writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was largely unpublished during his life time and his three novels, The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle remained unfinished at his death. Kafka’s themes of guilt, alienation, and the senselessness of bureaucracy were intensely felt personally, through his troubled relationship with his father, and professionally, through his stifling job in an insurance office. His most famous novel The Trial concerns the character of Josef K. who is arrested ‘one fine morning’ ‘without having done anything wrong’, however, it soon becomes clear that all attempts by Josef K. to determine the nature of his nonexistent crime are futile and blocked by bureaucracy. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself mysteriously transformed into a large insect; Gregor’s sense of isolation is only worsened, and his guilt deepened, when he becomes reviled by his family. Together with Beckett, Kafka is seen as a major influence in the development of absurdist literature, proving how language can move the barriers of the possible.
Other notable writers include Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) whose novels, including Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves, also pioneered the use of ‘stream of consciousness’ to explore internal states of mind; Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges‘s (1899-1986) short fictions, like those of Beckett, dazzle with their trickery of language and depth of philosophical thought; Portuguese Fernando Pessoa‘s (1888-1935) The Book of Disquiet plunges to new depths of individual consciousness, often disturbing for its levels of solipsism, but always startling for its poetic use of metaphors and similes.
Before I leave, I should also mention Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) whose own novels, in particular, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov opened the doors for later 20th century modernists such as Kafka and Beckett to further explore the magnitude of the subconscious, and the existential dilemmas and fragmentary sense of being of the individual.
Each one of these artists sought (or continue to seek) their unique sense of expression above all else. Always uncompromising, daring, ground breaking, sometimes despised, mistrusted, and misunderstood, many stood on the outside and, even after having gained success will remain perpetual outsiders because, not only is it more interesting on the fringes, but sometimes, being on the outside and pushing the boundaries of convention is the only way to be admitted as part of it.
© 2017 Occasional Dreams
In response to daily prompt: Outlier