Philip Treacy, ‘Dragonfly’ headdress (detail), Alexander McQueen SS 2008

Aspects of Artists

A work of art, by definition, is irreducible to other discourses—psychoanalytic, historical, sociological—that may illuminate it. The same goes, of course, for the artist him/herself. Here, then, far from any reductionism, I offer my reflections on aspects of artists that move me.

You can listen to the tracks in full with a registered Spotify account, which comes for free.


Jim Morrison was an accidental rock star, a man who walked backwards into the music business: His eye was always on the printed word (interview, eighth question from the end). The maelstrom of the sixties, before it swallowed him up, offered him a wave of turbulent confusion that he surfed with style and talent until alcohol—see the autobiographical poem further down in this post—turned him into an ‘asshole’. Before his return to the womb in that Paris bathtub, he left a body of work that, thanks to the genius of the Doors, is as vital and stimulating as it was half a century ago. Now, as the age becomes increasingly imbecilic—for so many, the marriage of invasive technology and hyperconsumerism has sealed off the soul with a wall of permanent amusement—I have no doubt that Morrison’s lyrics and the Doors music (that ‘rose of mysterious union’) will continue to cast their luminous darkness, their joyful seriousness, there wherever the vigilance of angels safeguards silence.

The hero’s journey

Upon graduating from high school, Jim asked his parents not for the traditional car, but for the collected works of Nietzsche (interview). From the time he could talk, he had a feeling for the heightened language we call poetry. He was a voracious reader, kept notebooks with words and quotations from his readings. By his late teens, thanks no doubt to Rimbaud and Nietzsche—Nietzsche for the marriage of philosophy and poetry, Rimbaud for the example of the seer—esoteric knowledge was flowing in his veins. How did he acquire it? After all, as Adam Phillips says in The Beast in the Nursery, ‘only hunger turns food into a meal, it is appetite that makes things edible’. So what made Jim hungry when the vast majority were satisfied, what was the crack that let in the light? Jim gives the answer in ‘Dawn’s Highway’ and ‘Newborn Awakening’ on An American Prayer (available in the Spotify playlist at the head of this post): ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’. He was marked, then, like all who are not ‘at home’ in the world, by a foundational trauma. (What confuses many is the fact that he was so at home—like a fish in water, like a drunk in wine—in the topless bars of Venice, in the decenteredness of L.A.) This was the necessary condition for his acquisition of esoteric knowledge.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

All Jim’s poetry, then, is informed by the knowledge available only to the initiated, the knowledge ‘the ghosts of the dead Indians that leapt into [his] soul’ impelled him to acquire. But where exactly did that knowledge come from? From whatever conductor of the numinous Jim came across: the via negativa that opens the doors of perception or the mansions of the mind that open up to the wayfarer’s gaze, the awe and mystery of the black side of the holy or the living-in-depth that journeying along the axis mundi entails. And in what does that knowledge consist? In a nutshell: The insight that truth is hidden, the visible world illusion, and only a quest to attain the transcendent can procure wisdom. As every Doors fan knows, the images of this in Jim’s poetry are numerous: ‘break on through to the other side’, ‘take a journey to the bright midnight’, ‘I want to hear the scream of the butterfly’.

Heightened language

‘All intensified language sooner or later turns metaphorical, and literature is the inescapable guide to higher journeys of consciousness’ (Northrop Frye, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990, p.28). Paradoxes, unusual verbal juxtapositions, are but one means the poet has at his/her disposal to ‘break on through to the other side’. Again, these abound in Jim’s poetry. A few examples: ‘Insanity’s horse adorns the sky / Can’t seem to find the right lie’, ‘Carnival dogs consume the lines / Can’t see your face in my mind’; ‘The music was new, black polished chrome / And came over the summer like liquid night’; ‘We need golden copulations / The fathers are cackling in trees of the forest’; ‘The streets are fields that never die’; ‘My eyes have seen you / Let them photograph your soul / Memorize your alleys / On an endless roll’; ‘Shadows of the evening / Crawl across the years’. As he pursues the initiate’s journey, then, Jim’s poetry paints us ‘inscapes’ of his consciousness.

The poet ‘makes of astonishment a language for deciphering the world’ (Adam Phillips).


Trance is another means Jim uses to attain the transcendent: ‘To speak to the heart / And give the great gift / Words Power Trance’. Jim has often said that in lieu of finished songs, in lieu of closure, he prefers the openness of improvisation: ‘I like singing the blues – these free, long blues trips where there’s no specific beginning or end. It just gets into a groove, and I can just keep making up things … I like that kind of song rather than just a song … just seeing where it takes us’ (interview). Performance-as-ritual: Unfortunately, most of the time Jim’s drunkenness and the juvenility of the audience impeded his attempts at trance. Nevertheless, his performance ideal was to use words/music to generate music/words that, in turn, would generate trance, then, spiralling up the axis mundi, trance would generate more words and music, inducing a deeper trance, and so on until transcendence is attained. Much of Jim’s poetry, then, employs language in the service of this ideal.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1564

‘At the Tower of Babel they knew what they were after.’ (Patti Smith, ‘Land’, Horses, 1975)


Jim’s poetry also has a strong cinematic dimension. Andrzej Zulawski (a Polish filmmaker whose first film, The Third Part of the Night, was released in 1971, the year of Jim’s death), was a filmmaker whose films, especially Chamanka (She-Shaman) and Possession (see also Isabelle Adjani Actress 4: Possession) are perfect expressions of Jim’s ethics and aesthetics (for the true artist, the two are always entwined). Zulawski’s films enact the trance Jim sought as a means to transcendence, they embody Jim’s conception of cinema: ‘Film is the closest approximation in art that we have to the actual flow of consciousness, in both dream life and the actual perception of the world’ (interview). The most consistent cinematic equivalents of Jim’s poetry, then, are the films of Zulawski. Indeed, ‘The End’ and ‘When the Music’s Over’ can be seen as aesthetic precursors of Chamanka and Possession.

Andrzej Zulawski, Possession, Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill

The mythical dimension

In Jim’s poetry a mythical dimension often attaches itself to words, like phosphorus to oxygen, giving them a particular glow. The butterfly in ‘the scream of the butterfly’ suffices unto itself, but attached to the insect—for listeners with attuned antennae—is its mythical dimension as ‘the soul freed from its covering of flesh’. In ‘The End’ the snake is clearly mythical: great god of darkness; symbol of both soul and libido; storehouse of potential underlying the palpable world. Night, as we have already seen, is an emblem of ‘the other side’; the word recurs in many songs. In ‘Moonlight Drive’, the moon is awash in mythical associations, giving access to the ‘strait gate’ which opens upon release and light, a short cut to the luminous centre of being and oneness. And what about ‘Wild Child’? Who is that ‘ancient lunatic [who] reigns in the trees of the night’? A witch, a black moon, a decrepit madman?

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864

The prophetic dimension

A prophetic dimension is present in several of Jim’s poems (‘When the Music’s Over’, ‘Ship of Fools’, ‘Not to Touch the Earth’), but it is in ‘The End’ where we perceive this dimension most clearly. ‘The prophetic in literature’, says Northrop Frye in Words with Power (p. 53), ‘indicates the quality of the poet’s authority’. He cites the example of Amos in the Old Testament, who ‘has the refusal to compromise with polite conventions, a reputation for being a fool and a madman, and an ability to derive the substance of what he says from unusual mental states, often allied to trance’. Frye points out that in modern times, ‘the writers we instinctively call prophetic—Blake, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud—show similar features. Such writers shock and disturb; they may be full of contradictions and ambiguities, yet they retain a curiously haunting authority’.

What gives ‘The End’ its ‘haunting authority’? What—besides the brilliance of the music—makes it so powerful? It is, in my view, the fact that it reaches deep down into a mythical, primitive psychology and then comes up with a cinematic evocation of what the poet found there. In a 1968 interview with the Los Angeles Free Press, Jim said: ‘I used to have this magic formula to break into the subconscious. I would lay there and say over and over, fuck the mother, kill the father; fuck the mother, kill the father… You can really get into your head just repeating that slogan over and over. Just saying it can be the thing.’ Now, ‘the connection with the psychologically primitive characterizes the prophetic writer’, says Frye (p. 54). Jim would agree, and would be quick to make it clear that, to the extent that he is working in a mythical dimension, the ‘prophetic’ is not about foretelling the future, but rather about highlighting the fact that history is a series of repetitions. Thus, just as in film where every image on the screen, not matter where it is situated in the narrative sequence, is in the present tense—is happening now—so in ‘The End’ the ‘stranger’s hand in a desperate land’, the ‘Roman wilderness of pain’, the ‘snake’ and the ‘blue bus’, the killer who ‘walked on down the hall’, are all immediately—’without mediation’—present to us, even as they resonate through past and future centuries. This is a particular quality of Jim’s poetic genius, and it is what constitutes, for me, the prophetic dimension of his poetry.

The serpent : the death-wish, the great regenerator, the sacred made manifest


If ‘The End’ is, as I believe, the finest poetic achievement in all of rock (matched only, perhaps, by ‘A Day in the Life’), we owe it to the ghosts who entered Jim’s soul when he was four years old. Those dead Indians made Jim the artist he became, and it is their recurring death that gives his poetry its prophetic dimension, its ‘haunting authority’. An extravagant thesis, I admit, but wasn’t Jim one for extravagance?


Jim Morrison, from ‘Curses, Invocations’, An American Prayer

Words dissemble
Words be quick
Words resemble walking sticks
Plant them they will grow
Watch them waver so
I’ll always be a word man
Better then a bird man

Shaun Leane, ‘Star’ headpiece (detail), McQueen AW 2007


Jim Morrison, Wilderness (Vintage Books, 1989) p. 202, 207-08

I am a Scot, or so
I’m told. Really
the heir of Mystery

Snake in the Glen

The child of a
Military family…

I rebelled against church
after phases of

I curried favor in school
& attacked the teachers

I was given a
desk in the corner

I was a fool
the smartest kid
in class

A natural leader, a poet,
a Shaman, w/the
soul of a clown.

What am I doing
in the Bull Ring
Every public figure
running for Leader

Spectators at the Tomb
—riot watchers

Fear of Eyes

Being drunk is a good disguise.

I drink so I
can talk to assholes.
This includes me.

The horror of business

The Problem of Money
do I deserve it?

The Meeting
Rid of Managers & agents

After 4 yrs. I’m left w/a
mind like a fuzzy hammer

Regret for wasted nights
& wasted years
I pissed it all away
American Music


Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel As Poet  (Duke University Press, 1994) p. 15


Dear Wallace Fowlie,

Just wanted to say thanks for doing the Rimbaud translation. I needed it because I don’t read French that easily. I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.

Jim Morrison

P.S. The Picasso drawing of Rimbaud on the cover is great.

Pablo Picasso, Rimbaud, 13 December 1960


* Wallace Fowlie, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet  (Duke University Press, 1994) p. 16

Oraison du soir

Je vis assis, tel qu’un ange aux mains d’un barbier,
Empoignant une chope à fortes cannelures,
L’hypogastre et le col cambrés, une Gambier
Aux dents, sous l’air gonflé d’impalpables voilures.

Tels que les excréments chauds d’un vieux colombier,
Mille Rêves en moi font de douces brûlures:
Puis par instants mon cœur triste est comme un aubier
Qu’ensanglante l’or jeune et sombre des coulures.

Puis, quand j’ai ravalé mes rêves avec soin,
Je me tourne, ayant bu trente ou quarante chopes,
Et me recueille, pour lâcher l’âcre besoin:

Doux comme le Seigneur du cèdre et des hysopes,
Je pisse vers les cieux bruns très haut et très loin,
Avec l’assentiment des grands héliotropes.

Evening Prayer (tr. Wyatt Mason)

I live my life sitting, like an angel in a barber’s chair,
A big fluted beer mug in my hand, neck and hypogastrus
Arched, a cheap Gambier pipe between my teeth,
And the air above me swollen with sails of smoke.

Like steaming droppings in an old dovecote
A thousand Dreams within me gently burn:
And at times my sad heart is like sapwood
Bleeding dark yellow gold where a branch is torn.

Then, when I’ve methodically drowned my dreams
With thirty or forty beers, I pull myself together
And release my bitter need:

Sweet as the Lord of Hyssop and Cedar,
I piss into the brown sky, far and wide,
Heliotropes blessing me below.

Auguries of Innocence (excerpt)

William Blake

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night
When the soul slept in beams of light

God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day

End of the Night

Jim Morrison | The Doors

Take the highway to the end of the night
End of the night, end of the night
Take a journey to the bright midnight
End of the night, end of the night

Realms of bliss, realms of light
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to the endless night
End of the night…

Realms of bliss, realms of light
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to the endless night
End of the night…

Bread and Wine (excerpt)

Hölderlin, tr. Michael Hamburger

But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep;
Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.

Thundering then they come.
But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?

But they are, you say, like those holy ones,
Priests of the wine-god who in holy night
Roamed from one place to the next.

Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems and Fragments  tr. Michael Hamburger (Penguin Books, 1994) p. 157

Memento mori | Mourning ring set with hair of deceased
Late 18th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Memento mori | Marriage ring
1550 – 1600 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)

Jim Morrison | The Doors

I want to tell you about Texas Radio and the big beat
Comes out of the Virginia swamps
Cool and slow with meter and precision
With a back beat narrow and hard to master

Some call it heavenly in its brilliance
Others, mean and rueful of the Western dream
I love the friends I have gathered together on this thin raft
We have constructed pyramids in honor of our escaping
This is the land where the Pharaoh died

The Negroes in the forest brightly feathered
They are saying, ‘Forget the night
Live with us in forests of azure
Out here in the perimeter there are no stars
Out here we is stoned, immaculate’

Now listen to this, I’ll tell you about the heartache
I’ll tell you about the heartache and the loss of God
I’ll tell you about the hopeless night
The meager food for souls forgot
I’ll tell you about the maiden with wrought-iron soul

I’ll tell you this
No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn

I’ll tell you about Texas Radio and the big beat
Soft driven, slow and mad, like some new language

Now, listen to this, I’ll tell you about Texas
I’ll tell you about Texas Radio
I’ll tell you about the hopeless night
The wandering, the Western dream

Tell you about the maiden with wrought-iron soul

 McQueen, coiled corset, AW99;  dress SS03 | Leane, earrings, McQueen SS03


Martin Heidegger, ‘What Are Poets For?’ in Poetry, Language, Thought,  tr. Albert Hofstadter (NY: Harper Colophon, 1975) p. 91 (first two paragraphs) and p. 142 (last paragraph)

‘… and what are poets for in a destitute time?’ asks Hölderlin’s elegy ‘Bread and Wine.’ We hardly understand the question today. How, then, shall we grasp the answer that Hölderlin gives?

‘…  and what are poets for in a destitute time?’ The word ‘time’ here means the era to which we ourselves still belong. For Hölderlin’s historical experience, the appearance and sacrificial death of Christ mark the beginning of the end of the day of the gods. Night is falling. Ever since the ‘united three’—Herakles, Dionysus, and Christ—have left the world, the evening of the world’s age has been declining toward its night. The world’s night is spreading its darkness.

If [a poet] is a ‘poet in a destitute time’ then only his poetry answers the question to what end he is a poet, whither his song is bound, where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night. That destiny decides what remains fateful within his poetry.

Shaun Leane, necklace, pheasant claw and pearl, McQueen AW 2001

Shaun Leane, necklace, pheasant claw and pearl, McQueen AW 2001


Giorgio Agamben: “Poetry lives only in the tension and difference between sound and sense.” (The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 109). Agamben is taking up Paul Valéry’s formulation: “The poem: a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”. (Tel Quel, Gallimard Folio Classiques, 1996; in the section entitled ‘Rhumbs’).

Jorge Luis Borges: “Words began not by being abstract, but rather by being concrete. Let us consider a word such as ‘dreary’: the word ‘dreary’ meant ‘bloodstained’. Similarly, the word ‘glad’ meant ‘polished’, and the word ‘threat’ meant ‘a threatening crowd’. Those words that now are abstract once had a strong meaning. Therefore, when speaking of poetry we may say that poetry is not trying to take a set of logical coins and work them into magic. Rather, it is bringing language back to its original source.” (This Craft of Verse: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1967-1968. Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 79-80)

Giorgio Agamben: “In our culture, knowledge is divided between inspired-ecstatic and rational-conscious poles. Insofar as philosophy and poetry have passively accepted this division, philosophy has failed to elaborate a proper language, as if there could be a royal road to truth that would avoid the problem of its representation, and poetry has developed neither a method nor self-consciousness. What is thus overlooked is the fact that every authentic poetic project is directed toward knowledge, just as every authentic act of philosophy is always directed toward joy.” (Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, tr. R.L. Martinez. University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. xvii)

Andrzej Zulawski: “Possession: the point of blindness. A tool for training actors [and poets], it touches a dark, black zone. There is a profound question that hasn’t been answered by scientists: What are trances? Nobody knows. We just know that it’s an ability of the human mind. While in a trance, you never hurt yourself, even if you walk across burning cinders. Why do we have this area of darkness in the brain? There we’re touching on phenomena that are beyond religion and shamanism The actor [poet] is nothing more than a shaman that plays a role in front of a village. Jesus was an actor [poet]. He played an entire shamanist myth: I’ve come to sacrifice myself for the sins of humanity, I will be crucified, I resign myself to the kingdom of the dead and I will come back to life and show myself to you and say: ‘There you go, you’ve been washed clean of your sins, guys!’. A shaman in Lapland still today doesn’t do anything else on Friday nights. I’ve been doing exactly the same thing in cinema for twenty years.” (Best  N°13 April 1997, interview by Jean-Marc Bouineau.)


This is poetry:

Alexander McQueen, ‘Armadillo’ shoe, SS 2010

Alexander McQueen, ‘Alien’ shoe, SS 2010

Alexander McQueen, ‘Titanic’ shoe, SS 2010

This is prose:

‘Poetry boots ain’t made for walkin’, I hear you say. ‘You’re wrong’, I reply. ‘Your assertion is based on the flat-earth assumption. Look up at the stars, adopt their point of view: The world is round, and in a round world, you walk well in poetry boots.’ ‘But—’, I rudely interrupt you: ‘Furthermore, your point of view implies parallels never meet. Again, you’re wrong. In both the heavens and the underworld, parallels meet, space is curved: In curved space, you walk well in poetry boots.’ ‘Hey man, I live on this here earth, not up in heaven or in the underworld. Gimme them prose boots any day!’ ‘Answer me this: What boots do you dream in?’ ‘You crazy, man? I don’t sleep in no boots.’ ‘I said dream, not sleep.’ ‘I don’t dream… Well, maybe I do, but I don’t remember nothing.’ ‘Well, that’s just what poetry is for!’ ‘To remember your dreams? So I can be crazy like you? Nah, plain sleep’s all I need.’ ‘All right, then. Goodnight.’ ‘Goodnight? Your peepers gone blind? It’s day!’ ‘Not for me. I’m on the other side of the world.’ ‘Yeah, you round the bend all right! But I can dig it. Goodnight!’ ‘Goodnight. And sweet dreams.’

I see you giving me a sly grin, then you strut your stuff in your prose boots. Or should I say, your poetic-prose boots?

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved