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"AND THE ASS SAW THE ANGEL" ("A uzřela oslice anděla"), 1995
written by Phil Shoenfelt
"And many went down into the chasm but few returned. For the fiery furnace consumes or purifies each according to the nature of his soul." (Meyrink).

The alchemists of sixteenth century Europe believed in transformation - not only of base metals into gold, but of the arcane transmutation of the human soul from its vaporous and enmired state into the burning crystalline light of self-awareness and full consciousness. It involved detailed study of mystical texts and depended upon the discovery and harnessing of hidden energies and forces, both within the human organism and outside, particularly the harmonious alignment of planetary and earth energies with those of the liberated psyche.

There are other pathways to transcendence and our literature abounds with schemes, ideas and methods: Tantra, Zen, Buddhism, Sex-Magick, Yoga, Meditation, Asceticism, Shamanism-both "right-handed" and "left-handed" pathways. It seems to me that the present work delves closer to the latter direction, with its conjuring of demonic forces, the pain and sadism inflicted upon its "idiot-savant" protagonist, the idea of revelation through suffering that is at the core of the novel and, seemingly, of the author's own life. Another writer in this tradition, (and one with a special interest in alchemy), the nineteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, spoke of the poet becoming a "seer" through a systematic derangement of the senses. The idea was to induce extreme mental states by whatever means were available, or necessary: hallucinatory drugs, "unnatural" sexual practices, self-mutilation and self-abuse, intense emotional pain all aspects of the perverse - and to live through them, burning off the detritus of existence, (Euchrid, trapped in the swamp, is doused with gasoline and set alight at the end of the book), so that only the "essence" of the experience remains: All the poisons of the physical and material plane evaporate leaving behind visionary knowledge - the "philosopher's stone" of occult tradition.

For this to occur, the writer must first plunge himself into the slime and shit of existence, must explore fully, and in all aspects, his desires and perversities, live out his most twisted fantasies, before the holy light of redemption can (perhaps!) shine down upon him and give meaning to the seemingly random acts of violation and provocation that litter his days. It is a "dark romantic" tradition that goes back to the Faust myth and includes later Decadents and explorers of the perverse such as De Sade, Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Genet, and crosses the Atlantic in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Twentieth century "American Gothic" writers such as Nathanial West, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor are also, to some extent, inheritors of this tradition and it is the works of these latter two writers, with their strong geographical settings and their use of vernacular speech rhythms that "And The Ass Saw The Angel" can most fruitfully be compared to.

But there is also a tradition of American Blues, Gospel, and Rock and Roll music at work in "And The Ass Saw The Angel": The legendary Delta Blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the Devil, and was poisoned to death by a jealous lover while still a young man in the American South of the Great Depression; Elvis Aaron Presley was, like Euchrid, the second of twins whose elder brother was born dead from his mother's womb (see also Nick Cave's second solo L.P. "The First Born Is Dead"); and it is through music that I initially came into contact with Nick during The Birthday Party's first American tour in the winter of 1981.

The Birthday Party were an incredible live band and it was apparent right away that Nick was a performer of shamanistic intensity, capable of inducing a trance-like state in his audience with exhibitions of high drama, which were at the same time somehow imbued with a sense of irony, detachment and "gallows humour". We met later, in the house of a mutual friend, the Australian theatre director Lindzee Smith, on the Lower East Side of New York City, where I was living at the time. There was no great "meeting of minds" or sense of instant friendship - we were, in truth, both there to buy drugs and quickly went our separate ways after the purchases had been made - typical addicts in the frozen and ravaged streets of a New York winter, scurrying away like rats down an alley, trying not to get "mugged", back to our seedy hotel rooms and basement flats where we could partake of our illicit pleasures in solitude and isolation - the way we liked it best.

We ran into each other several times in similar situations over the next few years, the way addicts do. Then, around 1987-1988, Nick became a regular visitor to the "squat" I was living in, in Camden Town, London, (about half a kilometre away, incidentally, from the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed during their ill-fated sojourn to London in 1870-1871).  Again, drugs were the big attraction, it was a crazy house and all kinds of characters were in and out of there, day and night, but we got to know each other better. Nick was living in Berlin at the time, and would turn up on our doorstep in his black suit and "winkle-picker" boots, carrying a battered black briefcase in which were secreted early draft versions of "And The Ass Saw The Angel". (The expression "early draft versions" makes it sound terribly organised. It was really a mess, with scattered bits of paper, often torn and splattered with blood, written upon in an illegible scrawl with sections crossed out and others inserted. Some of it was written on napkins and beer mats, and though what fragments of it I could decipher were obviously brilliant writing, I couldn't make any sense of it at all - it seemed totally out of control and if Nick had an overall plan for it in his head, he certainly wasn't letting on).

Over the next few months, this strange beast of a book seemed to take over Nick's life. I didn't meet him in Berlin, but from what he told me I imagine him sitting all night long in some cramped cold-water flat, kept awake for days at a time by the strong Berlin speed, with only whisky, a bible and maybe a thesaurus for company (!), while he wrestled with this beast. Towards the end of this period I was worried for him - he really seemed to be losing it at times. His plan was to finish the writing and then check into a clinic to get his life into some sort of order, but events took over when some idiot journalist plastered an "expose" of Nick and his "secret life" all over the British music press in an extremely sensationalist way. Nick took out his fury on this journalist in a very direct manner, and when I saw him, maybe the next day, he was seriously worried about what was happening and what would happen with his own future in music. No matter what the provocation, it's not the done thing to beat up music journalists, and the following week this writer published the whole sorry story in the national music press, portraying Nick as basically washed-up and burned-out, a man who had taken the extreme lifestyle too far and had descended into self-parody and bathos. It read like an obituary.

My own life, too, had hit an all-time low. After years of self-abuse, I felt empty and scared, unable to see a way out of this particular box that I had built for myself. No words can describe the sense of utter futility, the stench of physical and spiritual decay, the despair and disgust at having to wake up each day and go through ALL THAT again, that is the lot of the long-time addict. The train had hit the buffers at the end of the line, and it was time for a big change. When my ex-wife offered me a room in her house, if I was really serious about stopping this time, I seized the rope with both hands and slowly began the excruciating process of hauling myself out of the stinking mire. Since then, (God and the Devil willing), I have managed to stay "clean", but you can never really be sure - there are many traps and  snares in life and it's not always possible to see where you are on a darkened road. But things are good for now and that is enough - indeed, after everything, it is some kind of minor miracle.

I started this short piece by talking about alchemy and transformation. How is it possible for a novel such as this, a work that could conceivably be described by the word "genius", to be born out of such conditions? Where did Nick get the language from? At times it is as if we are reading the words of some half-mad preacher of the Bible Belt, someone who is "speaking in tongues" - his control and use of language is extraordinary and original: Nouns used as adjectives, adjectives as verbs, a facility and ease with language that recalls the great writers of the Elizabethan age when the English language was supple and open and had not ossified into the devalued currency polluted with the abstractions of sociology and "political correctness" that we know today.

Yet this is an Australian writer using English with the speech rhythms of the American Deep South (apparently, in some isolated areas of states such as Kentucky and Arkansas, "Hollows" as they are known, dialects are still used that recall, in their syntax and vocabulary, the Elizabethan English brought across the Atlantic by the first settlers). Again, the story itself, while filled with dark images of pain and suffering, has an almost Christian sense of compassion for its twisted and brutalised protagonist, Euchrid, who recalls one of those in-bred freaks of nature seen in western carnivals and medicine shows. I remember Nick telling me that he read a lot of Samuel Beckett when he was younger, and there is a similar sense of fellow-feeling for the lost and wretched in the face of the Absurd in this book as you get in many of Beckett's works (something of the same black, very black, sense of humour, also).

So, that is all I have to say; I hope it sheds a little light on what is a very special and magical novel. Like all great works of art, where it came from is a mystery - it seems to transcend its author's life and take on an existence of its own, while at the same time still sharing many of the lyrical concerns of Nick's recorded output with the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds. I think it is one of the strangest and most compelling books I have ever read, and I'm still in some kind of awe that the chaos of words finally emerged from the briefcase and metamorphosed into a work of such beauty and power.