William Burroughs

vollmerLast week would have been the 99th birthday of William Burroughs. A great writer (in patches) and a key member of the Beat Generation Burroughs was also infamous for killing his wife, apparently accidentally, in a drunken reenactment of the old William Tell trick but with a pistol.

I loved all things Beat Generation as a teenager but it’s difficult, looking at it now, not to feel sorry for the women like Joan Burroughs who were caught up in it. None of them achieved the artistic success of the men, Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg. Reading Kerouac’s books now you wonder if that wasn’t because they were too busy doing all the cooking and cleaning for their oh-so-creative menfolk. The women in Beat novels are generally maids or whores, preferably some convenient combination of both. Those who aren’t, who want something more for themselves and the children the Beat writers occasionally father (and generally abandoned) come out of the Beat novels as pushy harridans cramping the guy’s creative style.

So, as I got older, one of my favourite pieces of Beat writing became Allen Ginsberg’s poem Dream Record: June 8, 1955. It is one of the few looks at and acknowledgements of the women behind the Beat Generation, who fed and watered the men, almost always anonymously and often at great cost. I figured Joan Burroughs “leaning forward in a garden chair, arms on her knees” deserved remembering today just as much as the famous man who killed her.

A drunken night in my house with a

boy, San Francisco: I lay asleep.

darkness:

 

    I went back to Mexico City

and saw Joan Burroughs leaning

forward in a garden chair, arms

on her knees. She studied me with

clear eyes and downcast smile, her

face restored to a fine beauty

tequila and salt had made strange

before the bullet in her brow.

 

      We talked of life since then.

Well, what’s Burroughs doing now?

Bill on Earth, he’s in North Africa.

Oh, and Kerouac still jumps

with the same beat genius as before,

notebooks filled with Buddha.

I hope he makes it, she laughed.

Is Huncke still in the can? No,

last time I saw him on Times Square.

And how is Kenney? Married, drunk

and golden in the East. You? New

loves in the West–

 

      Then I knew

she was a dream: and questioned her

–Joan, what kind of knowledge have

the dead? can you still love

your mortal acquaintances?

What do you remember of us?

 

      She faded in front of me–The next instant

I saw her rain-stained tombstone

rear an illegible epitaph

under the gnarled branch of a small

tree in the wild grass

of an unvisited garden in Mexico.

– Allen Ginsberg

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

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Ground control to Major Krugman

Krugman

Paul Krugman was ill/The Day the Earth Stood Still…

One of the standard charges against believers in smaller government is that we are all fans of Ayn Rand and imagine ourselves as John Galt. I get this thrown at me despite the fact that I have never read a single thing Rand wrote.

Indeed, Paul Ryan got a roasting for his admiration of Rand from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who called Rand “a very unserious, unreasonable novelist”. And maybe Krugman is right? Perhaps basing your political and economic philosophy on an old science fiction novel is the height of weirdness.

But hang on, what’s this? In an article for the Guardian titled ‘Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics‘, Krugman writes, “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.”

It’s worth reading that again and remembering that it’s from the same man who quotes the well-worn joke about Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings; “the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man’s character forever; the other book is about orcs.” If nothing else, at least Krugman’s suggestion that a fake alien invasion could rescue the economy makes a little more sense now.

For those who haven’t waded through Isaac Asimov’s several Foundation novels, Krugman explains:

In Foundation, we learn that a small group of mathematicians [including Krugman’s hero Hari Seldon] have developed ‘psychohistory’ (a) rigorous science of society. Applying that science to the all-powerful Galactic Empire in which they live, they discover that it is in fact in terminal decline, and that a 30,000-year era of barbarism will follow its fall. But they also discover that a carefully designed nudge can change that path…The novels follow the unfolding of that plan

There’s only one brief description of a space battle – and the true purpose of the battle, we learn, is not the defeat of an ultimately trivial enemy but the creation of a state of mind that serves the Plan

There are a series of moments in which the fate of the galaxy seems to hang in the balance… Each of these crises is met by the men of the hour, whose bravery and cunning seem to offer the only hope. Each time, the Foundation triumphs. But here’s the trick: after the fact, it becomes clear that bravery and cunning had nothing to do with it, because the Foundation was fated to win thanks to the laws of psychohistory. Each time, just to drive the point home, the image of Hari Seldon, recorded centuries before, appears in the Time Vault to explain to everyone what just happened.

You can see how Krugman pictures himself. He is one of a small band of Psychokeynesians who possess an insight, the IS/LM model, which enables them to predict the future of economies and gives them the tools – vast deficits and credit expansion – to steer them.

Anything that supports the Psychokeynesian analysis is evidence; anything that doesn’t is simply a ruse. And when the next bit of corroborating evidence floats along, Hari Krugman emerges from a Time Vault to say “told you so”.

But there’s a problem. It’s true that Krugman spotted the housing bubble in 2005 but then he had been calling for it in 2002. This might lead you to question Krugman’s omnipotence. Or you might want to wait for Hari Krugman to appear and explain how this crafty Knight’s Move is actually part of The Plan.

Hari Krugman celebrates his clairvoyance:

The IS-LM model (don’t ask) told us that under depression-type conditions like those we’re experiencing, some of the usual rules would cease to apply: trillion-dollar budget deficits wouldn’t drive up interest rates, huge increases in the money supply wouldn’t cause runaway inflation. Economists who took that model seriously back in, say, early 2009 were ridiculed and lambasted for making such counterintuitive assertions. But their predictions came true.

But considering that they also predicted that this mountain of debt and avalanche of new money would lead to economic recovery then no, their predictions didn’t come true.

Remember former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Christina Romer’s prediction that President Obama’s Keynesian stimulus would see American unemployment peak at 8 percent in late 2009 and fall to a little over 5 percent today? Remember that American unemployment actually peaked at over 10 percent in late 2009 and stands at 7.9 percent today?

This doesn’t worry Hari Krugman a bit. In the course of a spat with economist Robert P. Murphy, Krugman wrote:

[I]t’s really important to distinguish between fundamental predictions of a model and predictions that an economist happens to make that don’t really come from the model… [T]he unfortunate Romer-Bernstein prediction of a fairly rapid bounceback from recession reflected judgements about future private spending that had nothing much to do with Keynesian fundamentals, and therefore sheds no light on whether those fundamentals are correct. In short, some predictions matter more than others.

Quite so Paul. Apparently the predictions that come true matter; those that don’t, don’t.

In his Guardian piece Krugman excitedly writes of “the possibility of a rigorous, mathematical social science that understands society, can predict how it changes, and can be used to shape those changes.” Well, looking at the record it’s clear that Hari Krugman hasn’t found it.

Or maybe he has, and we mere mortals simply need to wait for his shimmering likeness to appear from the Time Vault and say “told you so.”

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The man who was only a silhouette

James Bond has one identity but many personalities. There’s Sean Connery’s suave savagery and there’s Roger Moore’s eyebrows wiggling their way through Confessions of a Secret Agent. Insofar as the books upon which these films were increasingly loosely based were subjected to serious consideration, it was widely accepted that the high living, promiscuous, invincible secret agent created by Ian Fleming in 1953 was nostalgia for an imperial age which was dying as the books went to print.

Fleming’s books were a publishing sensation. In 1965, as Thunderball became the fourth James Bond film to roar across cinema screens, 27 million Bond books were sold worldwide. Of the first eighteen books to sell a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond novels. They were avidly read by the Duke of Edinburgh, President Kennedy (who rated From Russia With Love as one of his favourite books), and Lee Harvey Oswald. They won some literary admiration. Raymond Chandler was a fan as was Kingsley Amis who wrote a Bond novel himself after Ian Fleming died suddenly in 1964.

But they drew plenty of criticism. While the sardonically downbeat spy novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré were critically lauded, those of Fleming, who had actually been in Naval Intelligence during World War Two, were dismissed as juvenile fantasies. Fleming once came home to find his wife (who had an open affair with Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell) and her literary friends reading aloud from the books and laughing at the naffest bits. In the New Statesman in 1958 Paul Johnson wrote a famous review of Dr No (“the nastiest book I have ever read”) titled ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’

There was plenty of sadism. Every book contains a horrific physical ordeal which wreaks havoc with Bond’s body, from the gruesome carpet beater scene in Casino Royale to Dr No’s grisly assault course. But Bond himself was not a sadist. As he mused in Goldfinger:

“It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare Double-O prefix — the licence to kill in the Secret Service — it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional — worse, it was a death-watch beetle in the soul[…]”

Is there snobbery? True, anyone who reads the books will emerge with plenty of tips on how to live high; they contain endless details of Bond’s expensive wardrobe, sports cars, and fine wines. But to a large extent this is just a function of Fleming’s penchant for detail which borders on the autistic. Bond’s various weapons are chronicled in minute detail. We are told the exact blend of custom made cigarettes he smokes, and 007’s dinner with M at the exclusive Blades club in Moonraker spreads over seven well stuffed pages. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond has to become an expert in heraldry, something you feel Fleming enjoyed researching.

There’s plenty of national snobbery. Fleming’s description of Harlem in chapters like “Nigger Heaven” in Live and Let Die and Bond’s views on Italian-American gangsters given in Diamonds are Forever will send many potential modern readers running.

“They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves[…]”

Bond sounded like Alf Garnett in You Only Live Twice when his Japanese friend dares criticise England:

“Balls to you, Tiger! And balls again!…Let me tell you this, my fine friend. England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars, our welfare-state politics may have made us expect too much for free, and the liberation of our colonies may have gone too fast, but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes. Our politicians may be a feather-pated bunch, but I expect yours are, too. All politicians are. But there’s nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them[…]”

You can see how this went down well with a British public knocked about by the Luftwaffe and Suez. Fleming wouldn’t have bothered to respond to the charge. “My books are just out of step” he said “But then so are the people who read them”.

The sex, however, is central. Each book features at least one prominent female character who allies with Bond as much out of lust as a desire to defeat evil. No woman is immune to his charms; whether they are telepathic virgins like Solitaire or confirmed lesbians like Pussy Galore.

Bond’s views on women seem as one with his views on Italian-Americans. In Casino Royale Bond reacts to Vesper Lynd’s kidnap by asking “Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and their gossip, and leave men’s work for the men?” In Goldfinger he muses on the results of women’s suffrage:

“As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were[…]”

Possibly even more questionable to a modern audience is Bond’s attitude to sex itself. When he ponders life with Vesper Lynd he notes how her emotional distance will give every conquest “the sweet tang of rape”. Vivienne Michel, narrator of the offbeat The Spy Who Loved Me, reflects that “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful”.

Bond’s attitudes to women plainly weren’t any more out of step with the readership of the 1950s and early 1960s than his attitudes to foreigners. But James Bond is more than a compendium of late Imperial prejudices. If he wasn’t, he would be no more remembered now than contemporaries like Matt Helm or Our Man Flint. There is a complexity to Bond which humanises him and draws readers and filmgoers back nearly sixty years after Casino Royale. For all the irresistible invincibility there has rarely been a darker and more damaged hero than 007.

His love life illustrates this most clearly. The first of Bond’s women we meet is Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd. Casino Royale itself is an odd book. Two thirds of the way through its plot, the unsuccessful attempt by British Intelligence to turn a Soviet agent is over. Le Chiffre is dead and Bond is recuperating in northern France with Vesper, the agent who assisted him. With more than fifty pages to go, what’s left?

Fleming takes a devastating detour. Recovering with Vesper:

“His feelings for her were confused and he was inpatient with the confusion. They had been so simple. He had intended to sleep with her as soon as he could, because he desired her and also because, and he admitted it to himself, he wanted coldly to put the repairs to his body to the final test. He thought they would sleep together for a few days and then he might see something of her in London. Then would come the inevitable disengagement which would become all the easier because of their positions in the service. If it was not easy, he could go off on an assignment abroad or, which was also in his mind, he could resign and travel to different parts of the world as he had always wanted.
But somehow she had crept under his skin and over the last two weeks his feelings had gradually changed[…]”

Bond is in love. He resolves to resign from the Secret Service and marry Vesper. Immediately, the relationship collapses.

It is revealed that Lynd was a double agent being blackmailed by threats to her husband; a Polish RAF pilot in Soviet hands. Knowing the torture Bond, whom she also loves, suffered as a result, Lynd commits suicide. Bond’s terse response is “The bitch is dead now”

But despite the many other women, Vesper Lynd lived on somewhere inside James Bond. In Goldfinger, the seventh book, published in 1959, Bond is captured and drugged alongside accomplice Tilly Masterson and, believing himself to be dead, imagines his meeting with St Peter:

“There must be a whole lot of them, going up together. Would Tilly be on the same trip? Bond squirmed with embarrassment. How would he introduce her to the others, to Vesper for instance?[…]”

And ten years on from Vesper’s suicide in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,

“James Bond idled through the pretty approaches to Royale, through the young beeches and the heavy-scented pines, looking forward to the evening and remembering his other annual pilgrimages to this place and, particularly, the great battle across the baize he had had with Le Chiffre so many years ago. He had come a long way since then, dodged many bullets and much death and loved many girls, but there had been a drama and a poignancy about that particular adventure that every year drew him back to Royale and its casino and to the small granite cross in the little churchyard that simply said ‘Vesper Lynd. R.I.P.”

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond finds a woman who lives up to Vesper; vivacious, beautiful but troubled Teresa di Vicenzo, called Tracy.

Bond meets a suicidal Tracy at Royale; “Oh lord! thought Bond. One of those! A girl with a wing, perhaps two wings down” He rescues her from a suicide attempt and her grateful father, head of Europe’s biggest crime syndicate, offers Bond £1 million if he will marry and look after her. Bond refuses the offer but agrees to continue seeing Tracy in return for information on the whereabouts of his arch enemy, head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

In one of the best novels Bond tracks Blofeld to a hideout high in the Alps. Blofeld, longing for legitimate recognition of the power he has gained by illegitimate means, is pursuing a claim to be recognised as the Comte de Bleuville. Posing as an expert in heraldry and genealogy, Bond gains access to Blofeld’s lair, rumbles his plan, and escapes in a thrilling night time chase down the mountain. At the bottom, exhausted, he is rescued by Tracy. Travelling home,

“Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one. She’s got everything I’ve ever looked for in a woman. She’s beautiful, in bed and out. She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings. Above all, she needs me. It’ll be someone for me to look after. I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience. I wouldn’t mind having children. I’ve got no social background into which she would or wouldn’t fit. We’re two of a pair, really. Why not make it for always?

‘Tracy. I love you. Will you marry me?’
She turned very pale. She looked at him wonderingly. Her lips trembled. ‘You mean that?’
‘Yes, I mean it. With all my heart’”

Reflecting on this,

“Bond sat down. His breakfast came and he began eating mechanically. What had he done? What in hell had he done? But the only answer was a feeling of tremendous warmth and relief and excitement. James and Tracy Bond! Commander and Mrs Bond! How utterly, utterly extraordinary!

The voice of the Tannoy said, ‘Attention, please. Passengers on Swissair Flight Number 110 for London, please assemble at gate Number 2. Swissair Flight Number 110 for London to gate Number 2, please.

Bond stubbed out his cigarette, gave a quick glance round their trysting-place to fix its banality in his mind, and walked to the door, leaving the fragments of his old life torn up amidst the debris of an airport breakfast[…]”

But Bond’s old life won’t leave him. As he and Tracy drive away from their wedding they are ambushed by Blofeld:

“When he came to, a man in the khaki uniform of the Autobahn Patrol was shaking him. The young face was stark with horror. ‘Was ist denn geschehen? Was ist denn geschehen?’

Bond turned towards Tracy. She was lying forward with her face buried in the ruins of the steering-wheel. Her pink handkerchief had come off and the bell of golden hair hung down and hid her face. Bond put his arm around her shoulders, across which the dark patches had begun to flower.

He pressed her against him. He looked up at the young man and smiled his reassurance.
‘It’s all right,’ he said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child. ‘It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry. You see -’ Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair – ‘you see, we’ve got all the time in the world’”

Bond’s romantic life is catastrophic. This is crucial for the character. In one of the rare moments when a Bond film has captured 007’s dark heart exactly Goldeneye’s Alec Trevelyan says:

“I might as well ask you if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed. Or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect[…]”

It is because James Bond is exactly as vulnerable as he is invincible that we keep coming back to him; a man whose heart and soul are scar tissue.

Fleming recognised the flawed nature of his creation. To him Bond, who “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”, wasn’t a hero “nor is he depicted as being very likeable or admirable. He is a Secret Service agent. He’s not a bad man, but he is ruthless and self-indulgent. He enjoys the fight – he also enjoys the prizes. In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins. Nowadays they have pond water”

And Bond recognised it too. Moonraker ends with Bond rendezvousing with Gala Brand with whom he has shared the adventure expecting to consummate their relationship. Instead she indicates her fiancée and says goodbye.

“And now what? wondered Bond. He shrugged his shoulders to shift the pain of failure-the pain of failure that is so much greater than the pleasure of success. The exit line. He must get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere. There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The secret agent. The man who was only a silhouette[…]”

This article first appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

 

Comedy of Errors

True Brits

A couple of weeks on from the Diamond Jubilee I’m still not sure why it is supposed to have made me feel particularly proud to be British. I’m generally a patriotic sort of chap but the site of hordes of cheap (to produce, not buy) Chinese made plastic flags being held aloft by crowds outside Buckingham Palace didn’t increase this a bit.

I suppose I should say early on that intellectually I am a republican. By that I mean that when I sit down and think about it the idea that our head of state is selected by genetic caprice is logically indefensible. But does Churchill’s old observation about democracy, that it was the least bad option, apply to Britain’s monarchy? I look at the United States where the head of state is routinely despised by around half the population and find the affectionate indifference of most Brits towards Elizabeth Windsor infinitely preferable. I was a fan of the Irish set up until a cross between Che Guevara and old man Steptoe took up residence at Áras an Uachtaráin.

And then there are my fellow republicans. Basing their case on envy as opposed to aspiration and making it with bitterness rather than generosity they truly are the modern version of the “hard faced Cromwellian sourpusses” Alan Partridge spoke about. About 20% of Brits call themselves republicans, a number almost unchanged over the past few decades; decades which have seen traditional structures break down utterly in many other spheres of national life. For its failure to make any appreciable headway with such favourable tailwinds the republican campaign in Britain must go down as one of the most useless in our history.

But still I find no national pride in the monarchy. What makes me proud is the things the people of this great country have done and the people who did them. I feel pride when I see Brazilians and Indians playing games invented in Britain. I feel pride when I hear a record by David Bowie, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones on a foreign radio. I feel pride that we gave the world Adam Smith and free market economics. I feel pride when I travel on a bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I feel pride when I think about the men who flew fighter planes over southern England in 1940. I feel pride whenever Hollywood adapts another novel by Dickens or Austen. I feel proud that so many countries have been inspired by our constitutional arrangements. I feel pride that the theory of evolution came from a Brit. I feel pride in every life saved based on the discovery of DNA by two British scientists.

And I felt pride a week after the Jubilee when I saw an Afghan theatre company perform a play by William Shakespeare. The Rah-e Sabz company was founded in 2005 by French director Corinne Jaber, coming together out of a series of workshops she had run with aspiring actors in Kabul. The actors were immediately attracted to Shakespeare and resolved to make Love’s Labour’s Lost their first production. With no translation of the play in their native language, Dari, the actors work shopped their own, and when the play was premiered in Kabul and toured Afghanistan it was a success.

The production of The Comedy of Errors which I saw before Rah-e Sabz left to tour it round India was a joy. Performed entirely in Dari, captions explaining the action were projected on to a screen. But they were barely needed such was the expressive, jubilant physicality of the performers. With sparse staging they brought alive the setting of the bazaars of Kabul, helped by some wonderful Afghan music played live. Standout performers were Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi, dragging it up brilliantly as Kukeb (the production’s Afghan name for Luce), and Farzana Soltani as a Courtesan who could have come straight out of a modern British tabloid sex scandal.

The infectious joie de vivre was all the more remarkable knowing the company’s background. Thanks to the medievally minded morons of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a dangerous place for performers. Last year Rah-e Sabz missed an attack on the compound where they were rehearsing which killed 12 people only thanks to a last minute change of schedule. One of the company’s female members came home one day to find her husband murdered as a punishment for her acting.

People from half a world and an entire culture away were united during the performance of a story by a long dead Englishman; “tickle us, do we not laugh?” as he might have said. These enormously talented and brave people had risked their lives to perform the plays of the Englishman William Shakespeare. Those Afghans made me proud to be British.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

Versus: Death of the Author

The late Roland Barthes

Holly Steell:

The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes was published in 1967, and in this controversial essay he criticises the tradition of interpreting text through the author’s history, personal views and actions.

Barthes argues that the text is not the sole product of the author, but rather it is the sum of society – every sentence is the quotation of a previous work and the author merely the channel it is expressed through; they are the “Scriptor”, not the creator.

A text is made from a multiple of writings, that is built upon every generation and drawn from many cultures; but there is one place where this multiplicity comes together, the reader.

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origins but in its destinations.

If we follow this argument, than it becomes irrelevant for us to search through biographies and dusty letters in order to unlock the meaning of texts, because as the reader we already have the necessary tools at our disposal.

No more should we should be attempt to understand the text by first endeavouring to ‘know’ the author; the author is a distraction from the text, too much knowledge of the author is a barrier to our true understanding and enjoyment of the text.
The works of Shakespeare are undeniably the most beloved in the English language, and yet what do we know of the man? That his son died young and that he left his wife the second best bed in his will? He is a mystery and I for one am glad. Shakespeare the man never interferes with that incredible body of text that has been left to be constantly reinterpreted by the next generation of reader.
.
Sean O’Faolain:

Death of the Author is very French. On one level this reflects the French intellectual tradition which, as an Englishman, frequently moves one to amused bemusment. The French seem to revel in intellectualism for its own sake whereas we ‘rosbifs’ have always had a pronounced practical streak. Harold Macmillan said it was the difference between an English intellectual approach which reasoned a posteriori “in the tradition of Bacon and Newton” and a French intellectual approach which reasoned a priori in the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas. We invented the industrial revolution, they invented literary theory.

On another level it reflects the essays central place in French intellectual life in the twentieth century. The bedrock of Barthes work, and the subject of his best known book Mythologies, is the idea of language as a system of socially constructed ‘signals’ which builds on the earlier work of Ferdinand de Saussure. This, which also lies behind the Death of the Author, points towards Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ which argued that everything was essentially without inherent meaning and ultimately to Jean Baudrillard who famously deconstructed the Gulf War out of existence.

But what of its argument? It is hard to avoid the idea that, like much writing of its kind, Death of the Author is an exercise in stating the bleedin’ obvious as impenetrably as possible (possibly a Brechtian distancing technique?). It is, of course, tedious to crawl through every nook and cranny of a text and try to find a corresponding biographical point in the author’s life. There are also limits to the usefulness of this. You can buy a biography of JD Salinger that is longer than everything he ever had published put together.

But neither can we completely banish the author from their work. You can enjoy the James Bond books perfectly well if you know nothing of Ian Fleming or his times. But when you think that he had been a spy, that he was frequently very publicly humiliated by his wife, and that he was writing his fantasies of British potency at the time the Empire was evaporating, the books take on new depth, new light and shade.

Rather than the death of the author or domination by them, the act of reading is, rather, a meeting between equals, author and reader, in the process of bringing the text to life.

Holly Steell:

For me the most important part of Barthes argument is the freedom it gives readers; yes influences on the author are interesting to know and can illuminate the text in surprising ways, but it can also limit the reader’s interpretation and experience.

I think the way we are taught Literature puts far too much emphasis on context, particularly at GCSE and A Level, when we should be concentrating on the actual words.

Reading should be between the reader and the text. For example, Jane Austen wrote books of incredible enduring popularity, and yet very little of her life is in those books and I think that is a chief part of their charm. While her work was inspired by her observations, they are not influenced by her own love affairs, and despite researcher’s best attempts to uncover secret romances, very little is know about her private feelings or experiences. Therefore there is no distraction from the text, you do not read Northanger Abbey or Emma and imagine the ‘real life’ scenario that occurred between Austen and X, and therefore there is no filter between the text and the reader.

Sean O’Faolain:

I agree that we do not want to be tyrannised by the author but neither should we be tyrannised by literary theorists.

Your example of Jane Austen is a good one. I would add Stephen Crane author of The Red Badge of Courage, one of the most vivid descriptions of war ever written. Crane was twenty four years old when the book came out and he had never seen a battlefield or an army on the march in his life. The book is a pure product of the writer’s imagination and there is nothing in Crane’s life of particular interest from an interpretative point of view. There is no author to kill.

So it is in the power of some writers to write pure imaginative fiction and render pointless any autobiographical baggage. Of course, some, like the Beat writers, make autobiography the centre of their literature. What is On the Road if not a travel diary with the names changed?

So we are, as Barthes argued, free as readers. Not only to kill the author if we so wish, but to judge for ourselves how well we want to get to know them and to choose how far they come with us on our creative journey as readers. Just as we can choose how free we wish to be from the author we are free just to read unencumbered by the self-serving intellectualism of much of literary theory.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

Versus: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

‘I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.’

Sean O’Faolain: ‘Write about what you know’ is usually the first advice given to any aspiring writer and it was certainly followed by John Kennedy Toole when he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole was a native of New Orleans with a Masters in English and mother issues. The main character of this book, Ignatius J. Reilly, is also from New Orleans, has a Masters in English and mother issues. Confederacy is one of only two books Toole wrote. It was published in 1981, 12 years after his death, and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Reilly is also loud, sanctimonious, dishonest, cowardly and convinced of his own superiority, in short, he’s one of the least appealing main characters I’ve ever come across. His actions spark a story which rattles around New Orleans some time in the early 1960s (when the novel was written) taking in a former prostitute turned bar owner, a wannabe stripper, a bored businessman and his resentful wife, a black guy who meets his oppression with wisecracks, a put-upon police officer and Reilly’s long-suffering mother among many others.

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Versus: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Holly Steell: After weeks of seeing Norwegian Wood being read by hordes of engrossed commuters on the tube, I convinced Sean that this was the book we should be reading for our versus and off we went.

Norwegian Wood is primarily about nostalgia and sexuality in the rapidly changing world of 1960s Tokyo. Its protagonist Toru Watanabe is a young drama student at a private university who after an opportune meeting with Naoko, the ex-girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, who killed himself at seventeen, embarks on a series of complex relationships that ultimately allow him to finally fully mourn the death of his friend.

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Paddy Pantsdown’s poetical problems

Always worth another airing

The British public was never too impressed with Paddy Ashdown. By turns sanctimonious and silly, Paddy Pantsdown, as the tabloids memorably christened him after an affair, took the Liberal Democrats from 25.4% of the popular vote which their predecessors, the Alliance, won in the election before he took over to 17.8% of the vote in his first election in charge and 17.8% again in his last election in charge. This lack of political achievement hasn’t stopped him sounding off in the wake of the Liberal Democrats worst set of election results since, well, he was in charge.

In the Guardian today Ashdown fulminates against the “regiment of lies” put about by the No to AV campaign and warns, none too ominously it must be said, that

“So far the coalition has been lubricated by a large element of goodwill and trust. It is not any longer. The consequence is that when it comes to the bonhomie of the Downing Street rose garden, that has gone. It will never again be glad confident morning”

You wonder if Ashdown knows where the quote “Glad confident morning” comes from? If he did it’s hard to see why he would use it.

It comes from ‘The Lost Leader’, a poem by Robert Browning excoriating his former idol William Wordsworth for his betrayal of the Liberal cause

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation, and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

Given that the Lib Dems never “loved (Cameron) so”, “followed him”, “honoured him” or, as far as I am aware, “Lived in his mild and magnificent eye” you have to wonder if Ashdown isn’t actually talking about Nick Clegg. Indeed, if this is the starting pistol for a leadership challenge then it may be the first time one has been fired in catalectic tetrameter. If being a party of government doesn’t suit them the role of party of poetry is all theirs.

Did The Leopard really change his spots?

Would they have?

You may be one of those people, like me, who always tries to sneak a look at someone’s library, record or DVD collection when you visit their home. Perhaps the shelves are a window on the soul?

In October last year Nick Clegg told Desert Island Discs that his book choice would be The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. By then Clegg’s popularity had plunged from the heady heights of the pre election TV debates in April to somewhere lower than a snakes waistcoat. What does Clegg’s choice of The Leopard tell us about the man who is one of the most controversial figures in Britain? And how useful is this sort of analysis?

The Leopard is a book both written and set in changing times. Tomasi di Lampedusa, the last in a long line of minor Sicilian princes, wrote the book in the wake of World War II during which his estate had been badly bombed. The novel’s setting is the culmination of the ‘Risorgimento’, or resurgence, the name given to the period of Italian nationalism which brought about the unification of Italy, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, in 1861.

The book tells the story of how the Salina’s, a minor aristocratic family like Tomasi’s own, navigate the turbulent social and economic waters of the Risorgimento. The challenge for the head of the family, Prince Fabrizio, is to adapt the family to the new Italy being created by Garibaldi’s nationalists.

The book is full of portents of the apparent impossibility of the task. It opens with Fabrizio’s daily routine being interrupted by a grisly flashback of a dying soldier. Later on a cake in the shape of the family castle is devoured before Fabrizio’s son gets to have any. Fabrizio himself seems unsure whether the aristocracy can survive. In conversation with his staff he believes that the old order can be maintained but when he encounters Father Pirrone, who warns that the new order will bring the destruction of the nobility and church, Fabrizio says that change and adaptation to it are the natural order of things.

This dilemma is resolved in the character of Tancredi, Fabrizio’s nephew. He throws his lot in with the nationalists, explaining to Fabrizio, in the books most famous epigrammatic moment, “They will foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

But if Tomasi sees the end of the old aristocracy as inevitable he seems to see as equally inevitable its replacement with something remarkably similar. One of Garibaldi’s men, Don Calogero, has risen from poverty to become wealthier than the Salina’s. He is nouveau riche and, early on, arrives at one of Fabrizio’s parties tastelessly dressed, to Fabrizio’s quiet satisfaction. But despite having the money he still craves the respect which the old nobility brings. A marriage is arranged between Dan Calogero’s daughter, Angelica, and Tancredi. Don Calogero gets the Salina’s nobility and the Salina’s get Don Calogero’s cash. Fabrizio and Don Calogero soon begin to assume more and more of each others characteristics. The prediction of Don Ciccio that the union of Tancredi and Angelica will simply cause the negative characteristics of the two families to thrive at the expense of the positive characteristics comes true.

In this sense The Leopard is a fundamentally conservative book. The very nature of conservatism is the conservation of an existing order. It is based on a conception of human nature as a constant from which it follows that methods and norms of behaviour in the past are equally worthy of respect as those originating today and that a good case must be made for change. If the duty of the conservative is not quite, as William Buckley put it, to stand astride history shouting “Stop!”, it is certainly to say “Hang on a minute” in a rather stern voice.

And in The Leopard Tomasi questions whether the changes wrought by the Risorgimento were beneficial. At one point Father Pirrone, the novels conscience, returns to his home village and sees the changes since the arrival of Garibaldi’s troops. The land, which used to belong to the church, has been seized and handed over to a moneylender much like a young Don Calogero. Whereas the monks, embedded in the community for several centuries, allowed the peasants to collect herbs on the land for free the new owner charges them. That this echoes the Marxist critique of capitalism for ditching “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” in favour of the alienating ‘cash nexus’ only goes to highlight that we are discussing conservatism with a small rather than capital ‘C’.

What does this tell us about Nick Clegg? After all that it’s hard to say. Someone looking at my bookshelves might see The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher and Capital by Karl Marx and conclude that I’m a total schizophrenic. If you saw American Psycho on a bookshelf would you panic and reach for the mace?

Does Clegg empathise with any of these characters? It is difficult to see the son of a wealthy banker and descendant of Russian nobility seeing much of himself in the counter jumping Don Calogero. It is difficult, if you believe Clegg is at all sincere, to see him picturing himself as either Fabrizio or Tancredi, one doubtful of the possibility or worth of change the other resigned to it but determined to use it for his own ends. If you doubt his sincerity then Tancredi would seem to fit the bill perfectly. More likely, given his recent tear stained interview with the New Statesman, he may identify with Concetta, Fabrizio’s put upon daughter who retains the family’s noble traits only to be appreciated too late.

Perhaps he may identify with Tomasi himself? The Leopard was turned down by publishers fearing a scandal in Tomasi’s lifetime. When the book was published in 1958, the year after Tomasi’s death, it lived up to the publishers fears. From the left the book was accused of smearing the progressive achievements of the Risorgimento. From the right it was attacked for its depiction of desiccated nobility. Clegg would certainly recognise that situation.

Or perhaps he may value the novels deeper points about change. The many people who voted for Nick Clegg based on his promises of change may, perhaps, have thought twice if they had known that the one book he would read if he could read no other, questioned both the possibility and desirability of radical change.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine

Dylan and The Symbolists

Bob Dylan is not many people’s idea of a vigilante but one day in 1970 the Voice of a Generation decided to dispense a bit of summary justice on the streets of New York.

“I’m on Elizabeth Street and someone jumps me, starts punching me” remembered Dylan’s prey, A.J. Weberman. “I turn around and it’s like – Dylan. I’m thinking, ‘Can you believe this? I’m getting the crap beat out of me by Bob Dylan!’ I said, ‘Hey, man, how you doin’?’ But he keeps knocking my head against the sidewalk. He’s little, but he’s strong. He works out” What had tipped Dylan over the edge?

Dylan’s early albums had been lyrically direct. His first was made up mostly of covers of old folk songs. He found a voice of his own on his second and third albums, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ in 1963 and 1964. These alternated between topical ‘protest’ songs and personal songs. For his topical songs, like ‘Talkin’ World War Three Blues’ or ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, the subject matter sprang from the days papers; for his personal songs, like ‘Girl of the North Country’ or ‘One Too Many Mornings’, the lyrics were clear, evocative images from real life.

Please see for me if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair hangs long
That’s the way I remember her best

This began to change on Dylan’s fourth album, ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’, recorded in one boozy session in June 1964. Aside from a light hearted reference each to Fidel Castro and Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, the politics were gone. In their place came a song like the beautiful ‘Chimes of Freedom’ which started with a simple thunderstorm before spiralling into poetry.

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorways, thunder went crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

A song like ‘My Back Pages’ skipped any pretence at a lyrical realism, opening with the lines

Crimson flames tied through my ears rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads using ideas as my maps

What had garnished an intimate album like ‘Another Side’ was developed fully on the next three albums, Dylan’s famous electric trilogy; ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ (1965), ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965) and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966).

Dylan unleashed seemingly nonsensical lyrics

The motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause the gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden

What on earth did this mean? The man who, just a couple of years before, had been articulating widely held fears and concerns about nuclear war and civil rights was now, seemingly, talking gibberish.

Some found this impossible to believe of their idol and convinced themselves that he was, in fact, speaking in some sort of code. At the lunatic end of the spectrum this prompted Weberman to root around in Dylan’s bin bags looking for clues to crack it, succeeding only in scaring Dylan’s wife and incurring his wrath, hence the beating.

But even supposedly serious people started to come out with their own interpretations. ‘Cultural critic’ Greil Marcus wrote a short yet tedious book called ‘Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes’ (1998) in which he wrote that the songs Dylan recorded at home while recovering from a motorcycle crash in 1967 were “palavers with a community of ghosts” and that “these ghosts were not abstractions. As native sons and daughters they were a community”. Quite. The truth is that Marcus probably spent longer writing about a song like ‘Apple Suckling Tree’ than Dylan spent writing it.

At the same time it’s difficult to believe that Dylan was filling his songs with inconsequential babble. Despite cranking out records at a fearsome rate (his seventh album was released just four years after his first) he took care over his songs, carefully crafting them. He agonised over the track listing of ‘Freewheelin’’ until the last minute. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ sat around for over a year before Dylan recorded and released it. When ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ didn’t work as a waltz Dylan rewrote it in 4/4 time.

If it wasn’t a secret code and it wasn’t nonsense, what was it? We know that around 1962 or 1963 a girlfriend introduced him to nineteenth century French poetry. He later went on to name check two of the poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, in song.

Verlaine and Rimbaud were part of the symbolist movement. In the same way that Dylan moved away from his lyrical directness the symbolists had sought to move away from the then dominant trends of realism and naturalism in the arts. These movements, the symbolists believed, had restricted communication by tying words to their literal meanings. Words and images had a value beyond the merely descriptive and, when placed in new often unfamiliar contexts, could communicate deeper meanings. As the critic Jean Moréas put it in the ‘Symbolist Manifesto’ in 1886.

“In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”

Given this, it is possible to see Dylan’s songs from that period as works of symbolism. He was using words as the symbolists had; as tools to directly generate an emotional response, in some ways the songs were a prolonged attempt at Synaesthesia. Take the following from ‘Desolation Row’ as an example.

Einstein disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row

Dylan isn’t challenging the listener to identify who Einstein disguised as Robin Hood really is and neither is he engaging in stream of consciousness doggerel. The effect is too powerful for that, too deliberate. The effect is sadness. Stripped of the famous scientists, monks and drainpipes, this is simply a powerful image of a man past his prime, an image of decay. Don’t try and decode who he is, he could be anyone.

Take a line from ‘Visions of Johanna’; “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”. Literally that doesn’t mean anything but the feeling it conjures up in the listener is crystal clear. It’s that sensation that shoots up your spine as you look at a lovers face and lose yourself in every detail, trying to find the particular magic, the ghost of electricity, that draws you to them.

The symbolism subsided after his motorcycle crash in 1966 and when he re-emerged with the album ‘John Wesley Harding’ in 1968 the electric surrealism was replaced with rootsy tales of frontier folk bathed in Biblical imagery. Not for the last time Bob Dylan revealed yet another side. “I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on…I’m mask-erading” he had joked with an audience in 1964. It’s a thrilling masquerade which has continued to the present day.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine