Back in the early sixties there was a gap in the BBC programming schedules and someone — perhaps seizing on a silence while others were rubbing chins wondering how to fill the gap — suggested with glorious abandon, like a secret he could not keep, a ridiculous idea for a series about an old man who travelled through time and space in a police telephone box larger on the inside than the outside. The format of the show, with the police box appearing by chance in far flung times and places, was fundamentally protean — the show could retain a very idiosyncratic identity while embracing a theoretically infinite (at least very broad) range of stories, settings, genres and so on. The ramshackle vehicle of the TARDIS was the concrete metaphor within the show for the show itself. Actually, no one expected the series to last long, and its beginning was inauspicious, the first episode being broadcast on the day that news broke of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Chômu — butterfly dream, to render the ideograms of the name literally in English — is also, if I might draw such a parallel, a very ramshackle vehicle. What other parallels might I draw? The randomiser circuit of the TARDIS that kept it hopping from one unpredictable place to another? Yes. The idiosyncratic identity unchanging despite this? So far, yes.
As to how long it will last, I don’t dare to speculate.
Let me begin by talking a little about the random or serendipitous elements that coalesced to form Chômu’s genesis. Back in 2006 or 2007, Justin Isis suggested to me that we start a magazine. I think neither of us were quite organised enough for the print variety of magazine we first had in mind, but perhaps tired of merely talking about things, Justin one day wrote and said he’d set up the magazine. It was online — a blogzine. We decided on the name ‘Chômu’. This was, for some reason, not something that required any torturous racking of brains. I would like to say that the name suggested itself — it just seemed right. As to its actual source, this was an essay by Lafcadio Hearn on the significance of insects in Japanese and Chinese culture. Listed in this essay were the pen-names of various Japanese poets of older days, all containing the ideogram for ‘butterfly’. ‘Chômu’ was one of these.
The blogzine contained flash fiction, poetry, essays, short stories and so on, by Justin Isis, myself, Michael Peterson and one or two other writers. I don’t know if we had any regular readers, but the Chômu blogzine, which is extant on the world wide web at the time of writing, remains something of which I am obscurely proud (emphasis, no doubt, on ‘obscurely’). The engine of that blogzine may have been fuelled by in-jokes, but it felt to me like an open and expansive project. Ideas bounced off each other resulting in some actually charming experimentation. Synergy, I believe, is the word. There was a fortunate and lawless synergy to that blogzine resulting from a pure the-hell-of-it attitude. Something of the joyousness of that proto-Chômu, as well as the nature of its content, might be glimpsed through a list of actual search terms by which some visitors found it:
panama hats in japanese literature
pray as a dance team
sarah palin wet pussy
2 girls introducing a metallic fork in a pénis
funk not only moves it can also remove
i want a malay girlfriend
samuel johnson and masturbation
Perhaps sadly, perhaps appropriately, there have not been any new entries on the blogzine for some time now.
In the year 2009, I was in retreat in Wales, looking back on a curriculum vitae of dead ends and defeats, and sometimes steeling myself to raise my eyes wearily to a future prospect that was rocky, barren and void of oases. At least the metaphorical rocks broke the monotony of this view. Philip Larkin once remarked of his own life that it was so flat he could see his gravestone at the far end. For me, one or two other stones obscured this, but little else. I had been unable to give my energies to those mainstays of human existence, the business of making money, and the business that usually comes under the name of ‘love’. My energies — such lamentable energies as were allotted to me — instead had been squandered on writing fiction, something which had entirely failed to become a route to the two kinds of business mentioned above, or to anything else.
While I languished in a Welsh miner’s cottage, however, changes were afoot in the world. My brother, Léon, at some point advised me on the phone that developments in print-on-demand technology had continued apace, now offering quite a respectable option in publishing, in a frontier-prospecting kind of way, and suggested we take the initiative in becoming part of these changes, since it was better than waiting for the world of publishing to reflect and cater to one’s tastes and attitudes.
By this time in my life, I suppose I must have been so utterly disappointed that I was ready to try anything, and I found, even a little to my surprise, that I did not resist the idea, but engaged with it in gradually increasing enthusiasm. When Léon asked me to suggest a name, I did not have to think. Chômu. That’s what it had to be.
Experimenting as we were, the first book we put out under the Chômu Press label was a novel I had written some years previously and for which I had failed to find a publisher. This was “Remember You’re a One-Ball!”, a tale of conspiracy and genital trauma set in a primary school in the English countryside. The anonymous quotes from publishers on the inside pages of the book — basically attesting that the novel was impressive but repellent — are genuine. I won’t dwell on the difficulties I had experienced in finding a publisher for the book pre-Chômu. Over two years into releasing books with Chômu Press, I can say with some conviction that I am now vastly more appreciative of what publishers do, the difficulties they face, and so on. I am far less likely now to think of them as ‘gatekeepers’ (a much-favoured phrase at the moment, it seems) and more likely to think of them — certainly in the small presses — as people gallantly manning and womanning the lifeboats, trying to make the right decisions whilst knowing that only a few will survive.
However that may be, “Remember You’re a One-Ball!”, among many other things, is a novel written as an unrestrained two-fingered salute, from the sinking ship of my own life, to a world I felt had refused me even a life-vest. As such, apart from the fact it was ready — had been for years — (able or not, a willing seaman) it also set the tone usefully for what we hoped to do, which was, briefly stated, something different.
“Remember You’re a One-Ball!” came out in May, 2010. There followed a gap of some months in which we must have seemed to the world inactive, though the opposite was the case — we were, with diligent Corybanticism, preparing for 2011, a year that, looked back upon, I cannot quite believe, in which we released 13 books, from such diverse writers as Reggie Oliver, Michael Cisco and Jeremy Reed. Our second release, in fact, in January 2011, was I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, the debut collection from Justin Isis. On this score, I am personally much gratified. With this achievement, it seemed to me we affirmed the spirit I had hoped would live on in Chômu Press — the spirit of the original Chômu blogzine. (Since then there have been other notable debuts.) I am also grateful for the confidence placed in us by more established writers — Reggie Oliver and Jeremy Reed, to name but two — who have, from an early stage in our development, entrusted us with their work.
From the summer of 2010 to the moment of this writing, Chômu has released 21 books, with more in the pipeline. It is not my intention to write at length on the individual books — there is far too much to say about each of them. Instead, I would like to give here an idea of one aspect of Chômu’s idiosyncrasy — that is, one aspect of what gives it a constant identity in the midst of eclecticism.
I’m not the first to observe that people claim to value originality, but that when originality actually appears, they tend to recoil in outrage and shun it. In the world of publishing, it seems to me, this phenomenon is manifest as a preoccupation with genre. I suppose that genre makes targeted marketing easier. When used as the criteria of what to publish, it also closes the door to originality. Some genres are recognised as such — science fiction, fantasy, crime and so on — while others are touted simply as ‘serious literature’ while possibly being even more hidebound than the acknowledged genres.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Thus wrote Jane Austen in 1813. Universally acknowledged? Even if we take this as satire, it seems Austen’s universe was very, very small, and I’m not convinced that many of the writers feted today as paragons of serious literature command a much wider purview of existence. Although even in the current literary mainstream there are those ready to criticise Austen’s work as petty romantic gossip, the above quote, with which Pride and Prejudice begins, contains the essential elements of most critically lauded ‘serious literature’ in the English-speaking world: a concern with money, and with social status, and a secular worldview (occasional peripheral religion notwithstanding) that, as it were, marries the two: materialism to social status.
In Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Journal of J.P. Drapeau’, one of the characters asks despairingly, “Where is the writer … who is unstained by any habits of the human … who has remained his entire life in some remote dream that he inhabited from his day of birth, if not long before?” Natsume Soseki, the Japanese novelist, similarly, has his narrator in Pillow of Grass lament the lack of truly otherworldly literature. While, ‘getting away from it all’ in the mountains, he ponders,
Suffering, getting angry or excited, shedding tears and so on; these were inextricably part of the human world. With over thirty years of living through it all, I had had enough of such things. Already weary of these stimuli, to have to endure them again repeated endlessly in plays, novels and the like was really too much. The kind of poetry I desired was not like this, a song and dance to drum up human’s worldly feelings. I wished for a poetry that discarded gain and loss, and, if only for a moment, offered the sensation that one had been transported from this world of grime and dust. But masterpieces though they may be, there is no play that breaks free from the world of human sentiment, and novels void of judgements of right and wrong are few. It is in their very nature that they are bound to this world. … They forever proclaim their own usefulness with calls to sympathy, love, justice, freedom — to all the stock in trade of the worldly marketplace, and to nothing else.
Soseki, among the earliest Japanese to visit the West and study Western literature, incidentally believed Jane Austen to have had a deleterious effect on English letters. In the passage quoted, he notes that in particular, Western literature, “scampers about on the surface of the earth without any time to forget the calculation of finances”. (Some Chinese poetry consoles him in this regard.)
A pure otherworldly literature of the kind Soseki hankers after here may be impossible, or at least extremely difficult (as the character in ‘The Journal of J.P. Drapeau’ also laments) to attain, but what is called ‘serious literature’ in the English speaking world is all too often the very opposite of this — pretending to universality, but depicting only the small circle of Western secularism. This is a circle that is smaller still if one considers the predominant social background of those writers most often taken seriously by the Western media. To cite one or two examples of this, statistics presented recently by The Guardian concerning recipients of the Man Booker prize show that 29% of recipients (that’s over one quarter) are graduates of only two universities. You might be able to guess which they are: Oxford and Cambridge. 62% of recipients were privately educated, rather than receiving a state education. No Booker prize-winning book has ever, by the way, been set in the future. Science fiction doesn’t make the grade. Just as Terry Eagleton described Richard Dawkins (also an Oxbridge graduate) as “a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist”, I would suggest the Oxbridge slant of Booker Prize ‘serious literature’ could also be “readily identifiable” as a genre with the same characteristics: middle-class liberal rationalist.
The division of the world into genre fiction on the one hand and ‘serious literature’ on the other, has made my life as a writer a limbo of frustration. With Chômu, I wanted us to dance through the limbo, between genre and ‘literary’. I wanted to see us do something new. For this reason, we do not focus on genre in our selection criteria. However, if we had no focus at all, there might be a danger of drifting into the unchallenged assumptions and unchallenging blandness of the mainstream. Therefore, we set about drawing up a document giving careful criteria for selection — not based on genre, but on aesthetics. Léon also suggested we work with the designer Anil Nataly (Bigeyebrow) to give our books an edge visually. Contrary to those who think the book as a physical artefact is unimportant — an attitude with shades of anti-sensual Puritanism about it — by working with Bigeyebrow to create a look that is both fresh and edgy (avoiding stodge as well as the anodyne sparkle of the mainstream), we have managed to enhance the sense of a Chômu identity and thereby empower the aesthetics that we wish to cultivate in what we select and produce.
The actual aesthetics by which we steer our course are secret. At least, one vital aesthetic ingredient, named in the document mentioned above, is not to be revealed. However, it occurred to me some time after the document was written that there is another aesthetic also vital to Chômu, but not mentioned in the document because it goes without saying. That aesthetic is yuugen, and anything submitted to us, no matter how good, if it is lacking in yuugen, will automatically be rejected.
Having written this much about Chômu in general terms, it is not my intention now to launch into a detailed academic essay on yuugen, but I will try to give a general outline of what it means and how it relates to Chômu, or Chômu to it.
Yuugen is a Japanese aesthetic that was first developed in that country (it appears to have older roots in China), as far as we know, during or before the 10th century, in relation to poetry (its first surviving usage as a Japanese word is in a Buddhist text by the monk Dengyō Daishi, who lived from 767 to 822). To employ the kind of crude, inadequate translation that is usually taken at face value and bruited about as if it were definitive, yuugen is “a quiet and profound sense of mystery”. The Kangorin dictionary defines it as: “pertaining to a deep elegance, the profundity of which cannot be fathomed”. Also: “the feeling of a deep, unfathomable atmosphere, beyond words, transmitted through implied, indirect expression”. I’d like to point out that the word I’m translating as “deep” — ‘okufukai’ — is not as trite and flaky in its connotations as that translation might suggest. I’ll come back to this soon. The above definitions, anyway, provide a general starting point, but the history of yuugen is centuries long—itself layered and ‘okufukai’ — and there have been many very specific, abstruse ways of understanding the word ‘yuugen’ during the course of that history. To give one example, the Noh dramatist Zeami (1363−1443) apparently described yuugen as a white bird holding a flower in its beak.
I’m going to suggest now a specific way of picturing the primordial beginnings of yuugen. First of all, the word ‘okufukai’ that characterises yuugen is made up of two words: ‘oku’, meaning ‘inside’ or ‘interior’, and ‘fukai’, meaning ‘deep’. (By the way, this is the same ‘oku’ as in the title of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North—Oku no Hosomichi.) ‘Oku’ is a word often used in relation to mountains. When tanka poets talk of the lonely cry of a stag deep in the mountains, it is the word ‘oku’ they use. As you can see, the suggestion is of something hidden, hard to reach, perhaps obscured by layers (of other mountains, for instance). Yuugen begins here, not on the edges, but deep in the mountains—okufukai.
Now let us look at the two ideograms with which ‘yuugen’ is written. ‘Yuu’, as it happens, is a character built on the ideogram for ‘mountain’. Its primary meanings are ‘dark’, ‘hidden’, ‘faint’ and so on. It features in such words as ‘yuurei’ (ghost or spirit) and ‘yuukai’ (the world of the dead). ‘Gen’ also means ‘dark’, ‘black’, ‘quiet’, ‘deep’, et cetera. The Kangorin tells us ‘gen’ is “the essential character of the ‘Dao’ espoused by Lao Tzu. The character of the Dao, the absolute existence that transcends time and space, forming the source of all the myriad things of Heaven and Earth, is Gen.”
Bearing all of the above in mind, imagine you are deep in the sombre, grey folds of the mountains (of Japan, Wales, or Unknown Kadath) at night, the air about you hushed and still, engaged in some sleepless vigil, when you see, or think you see, among the endless, ashen tangle of leafless branches, the faint glimmering of a light. There is not a sound, only the flickering of these moving flames. They draw nearer to you, but still you see no figures and hear no voices. You remember the phrase ‘corpse-fires’, and wonder what it could mean.
I will write no conclusion to this scenario. Somewhere within it, you may have been overcome, indeed, by “a quiet and profound sense of mystery”.
And this is my best understanding of the beginnings of yuugen.
Having said this much in a semi-scholarly fashion, it behoves me to confess that we at Chômu have basically hijacked yuugen for our own purposes.
In my early discussions of writing with Justin Isis, we found ourselves agreeing that something was lacking from the world of English-language literature, and we decided the lacking something was yuugen.
At Chômu Press, the implications of the above might be expressed something like this: The writer (let us suppose androgyny and alternate pronouns) has sat a long vigil in the oku of the mountains, and seen the glimmering ghost lights among the branches. She takes the long road out of the mountains and descends to where people dwell. There, he must tell of the mystery she has seen. When he speaks, blue and red goblins leap from her mouth, urinating on the dinner tables of the listeners and stitching to the left ear of each, with needle and thread, a floating, ultramundane moon, no larger than a firefly.
At Chômu, we wish to publish only writers from that unmapped oku.
Some writers have never heard of yuugen, and when they speak, yuugen is not to be heard. For others, yuugen goes without saying.
I now invite Justin Isis to close this editorial ceremony by characterising the Chômu incarnation of yuugen in a series of images:
A dog vomiting on a pea-green carpet,
An accountant’s gilded skull floating in a bowl of milk,
Lice nesting in the cracks of baby teeth,
The Milanese women with Thomas Ligotti handbags,
Trees copulating in autumn,
The green ice cream of envy,
A cracked pink iPhone case.