Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett

Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett

Title: Heart of the Original

Author: Steve Aylett

Review by Alex Masters

‘Find the strongest gravity, fold the world’s edges into it and flip it inside out like a dog’s strange ear.’  Steve Aylett’s advice for those seeking true originality is an apt microcosm of Heart of the Original. The dizzying plunge from the universe to a canine ear reflects this work’s scope; its absurdity; the elimination of pomp and grandeur; the love of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary; and the need to create something breath-taking without being projected onto a gilded pedestal. 

At the heart of this book, Aylett mourns our dearth of creativity, that ‘ferocity of consciousness’, a rare beast that the world consistently eschews in favour of plagiarism and holding up ‘old ideas in new clobber’. The universe of originality waits ‘drumming its fingers and wondering why nobody calls’. 

When it comes to plagiarism, Aylett’s views are clear: ‘It’s pathetic to have someone else’s gut feeling,’ he says frankly. Few writers escape his bemused scorn, calmly dished out like a shrug. Ayn Rand was apparently ‘busy plagiarising Zamyatin’s We’, while Martin Amis inflated the idea of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five into an entire book. Aylett can’t resist a further quip: ‘Many defend Amis, claiming he stole from Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick.’ Meanwhile, Bret Easton Ellis is deemed ‘a conscious fraud’ and Henry James ‘exercised a restraint so radical he imploded, taking a tornado of teak furniture and thousands of readers with him’. Perhaps most withering is Aylett’s description of Nabokov – not only a ‘less ambitious’ writer but one who ‘merely creates one meaning inside another, like being dead inside a hospital’.

At times wry – ‘luckily for the book trade, most writers haven’t enough passion to burn out’ – Aylett is also candid in showing the consequences of our fervid commitment to all things robotic, rehashed and anodyne and aversion to the murky world of complicated variety. It is no small irony that a civilisation that so energetically rejects creativity has succeeded in creating an astounding dystopia. ‘Imagine’, one quotation introducing a new chapter exclaims, ‘imagine the horror of dropping into the world’s throat while trusting others’ declarations above the evidence of your own senses!’ One feels foolish when it becomes clear this metaphor is all too real.

Revel in your damnation

It is baffling why we commit to this volitional amnesia and succumb to repetition as ‘the illusion of activity’. Why do we follow our base desires to conform and so rarely visit ‘the sticky infinity of unformed ideas’? What is at the heart of this resistance to create anew? Aylett puts it down to fear, a familiar emotion in a culture where ‘it is patriotic to be guided by alarm’. His claim that originality is less welcome to the mind than the certainty of death, seems hyperbolic, were it not true. This fear is not just about the unfamiliar intensity that comes with creativity but also the risk to be known and the potential for subsequent ‘obscure revulsion’ and ‘a frenzy of neglect’.

Aylett sees this revulsion as a reward in itself and yearnings for exile and isolation persist throughout the book. He makes the case for accepting that an ‘angular personality’ is unlikely to ‘align with the spin of the mechanism’ and that the vivid must go ‘where most people are not looking’. Indeed, the exiled should revel in their damnation: you shall be rewarded with ‘the glory of unconditional weirdness, with its generosity, exuberance and lateral grace’. It’s a brave if uneasy motif. But what other choice is there if you want to live ‘among the standing dormant’?

For those who remain fearful, Aylett is unsympathetic. This fear is not justifiable ‘because it wastes years of people’s lives’. These are cold facts related with love.

Reassuringly, Aylett draws attention to those he deems fearless creators. Voltaire exercised ‘such unfashionable integrity of thought’ and William Blake ‘navigated complicated moralities as one would stride across a mosaic floor’ while Brian O’Nolan is deemed ‘a cast-iron genius and master of the Irish art of falling sideways into a sentence’. Specific works are handed brief but joyful acclaim: Thoreau’s Walden is ‘one big, beautiful restraining order’ and Whitman’sLeaves of Grass is ‘so brilliant it’ll pin you to your body’.

Folding space

Heart of the Original

‘There’s a half-universe of imagination waiting’

What’s more you, the reader, are empowered. There’s ‘an unused half-universe of imagination’ waiting and at any point ‘you can turn your whole mind around to look in the other direction for any distance’. You can even fold space. There’s more: look what happens when you put two words together that have never been introduced before. It’s another scientific explosion: ‘their cogs mesh as if they were made for each other and a massive amount of energy is released’. It appears that with this lexical love story, Aylett is a shameless romantic. However, he tempers this with suitably wry advice to keen writers: forget the standard practice of starting the narrative in the middle and begin ‘after the universe ends’. Also, consider allowing your brain to perform a fractal dive ‘pouring through everlasting data assemblages’.

The brain is already encouraged to perform these ‘dives’ willing or not: Aylett’s baffling digressions are so hilariously, beautifully obscure they make you clamber for more. Take this thought process from musings on the ‘seemingly cheerful fossil of a great appendage arthropod’, to Strindberg’s tale of being arrested for injecting morphine into the hanging apples of a tree, to the lack of intellect of supposedly ‘wise’ owls. The connections are as tenuous as they are gloriously baffling. No doubt there is always a thin, spinning thread, constantly sparkling if we look closely enough. 

The digressions don’t end there. He swoops across and chips into the whole gamut of life: politics are ‘money and bones’ left after the tide goes out and elections are reduced delightfully to ‘buffoon renewal’; the Catholic church is ‘frivolous’; those who profit from war greet the survivors ‘with tilted heads and terminology’; civilisation is ‘a blood-sugar panic of powerlessness’; the media is an ‘always-sudden world’ full of ‘shallow stress’; education ‘seals the spirit against brilliance’; the internet is ‘a safe tantrum arena’; technology has encouraged us to ‘think in our devices rather than our selves’; and destiny is ‘a dead lightbulb from the room where you were born’.

Mischief

Aylett projects his diatribes with a cool wisdom, living up to his word that ‘the real thing is the least hysterical in the room’. Often, his voice is so quietly assured you hardly notice the tectonic plates shift into unreality: for long moments you are left convinced that Carlos Castaneda mistook an axolotl (‘an antlered albino tadpole the size of a parsnip’) for the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and that Antonin Artaud’s performances were kicked off by the writer ‘rattling his limbic system in a hat and throwing it at the audience’. That’s when you know you have truly jumped with floating skirt into Aylett’s world. As the man himself says: ‘A life or text in which every link is spelled out will be expunged of mischief, leaving no task to the mind.’ 

This celebration of creativity is indeed mischievous and its joyful, childlike descriptions are exhilarating.‘The dog-in-a-side-car joy’ experienced upon encountering even a single book which is active will ‘swoon you into fizzing pools of rediscovered self-respect’ and will feel ‘as stomach-rolling as translating yourself sideways into adjacent dimensions’.

This isn’t dusty academia or self-indulgent pontificating, this lark is fun, he whispers. Creativity is a ‘house tornado’ in which ‘intermeshing components roll and radiate in collisions of velocitous bliss’. ‘Done right, it puts sherbet in the heart and washes a purple-white feeling through the top of the brain’. Why not extend this fun to your daily life? ‘Arrive in a stupid badger-faced biplane with five adrenalin pens hanging off your forehead. Stand pelted with angry finches, ashen-visaged in a moth-shot coat, thoughtfully scratching someone else’s chin. Disappear in every direction or rise in a smack of black feathers.’

Layered within the mischief and sherbet and feathers is a voice of urgency: don’t leave it so late that when you look back on your life the ‘meaningful events add up to a few days’. Don’t settle ‘like soil over a grave’. If you do, you will leave the human world as bland as you found it. 

Aylett’s final wish is as loving as it is obscure. ‘I hope the bloodbuzz of accelerating vision blurs you into the seraphim blast of reasonable assumption, producing high hours amid the blaze.’

Rather than fearing that blinding blaze, embrace it.

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