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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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

A roundup

Snowed under

Its been a busy few weeks. Christmas and new year saw me in the States and since I got back I’ve been hard at work (round the job) on a project. Watch this space and all that…

Ive scribbled a couple of things though which have sort of fallen between the old blog and here. The Commentator, for which I’m Contributing Editor, has carried a couple of my articles this month. First was The economic reality of 2012, a look at the prospects for the global economy in the coming year. Its grim reading but then I think it will be a grim year.

Next up came an article on the coalition government’s attempts to cap the amount of benefits a family can receive to the level of the average national wage. This is such a no brainer in terms of fairness that you wonder how anyone has the gall to oppose it but there you are. I should add that The Commentator have changed the title of every item I have ever sent them. Not this time though, so read up on Why Britain is f*****

I also occasionally contribute to Global Politics and with the US Presidential race revving up I pondered the tricky question of the foreign policy of my favoured candidate, Congressman Ron Paul. Reading is most recent book I found myself wincing at times but I can put that to one side this election because the big question is not whether the US should bomb Iran but whether it will be able to afford to. Anyway, you can read all about it in the unimaginatively named Ron Paul and Foreign Policy

I enjoy writing for Middlebrow Magazine under a non political pseudonym. I try and steer clear of the sorts of topics I cover elsewhere and cover other interests like film, drama, music etc. But my article Animal spirits, Asymmetries and Austrians is a run down of some of the most popular of the spate of recent books on the economic crisis.

That’s all for now. More old rubbish is on the way so, in the words of Shaw Taylor, keep ’em peeled.

 

The late, occasionally great, Ken Russell

Ken Russell, 1927 – 2011

The 1960s ‘Harry Palmer’ spy films starring Michael Caine were intended as the antithesis of James Bond. They were downbeat, gritty, and realistic. The first in the series, ‘The Ipcress File’ (1965), opened with Palmer fumbling for his horn rimmed specs and sleepily making coffee. Then Ken Russell, who died yesterday aged 84, was hired to direct the third instalment, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ (1967).

Perhaps the producers were attracted by Russell’s intellectual cache and documentary film background. He made his name with a string of films he produced in the 1960s for ‘Monitor’, the BBC’s arts show. In themes he would return to in his films Russell’s finest television work focused on artists. His documentary on Edward Elgar (1962) was more than a simple biography with some musical clips. By setting up shots and scenes and using Elgar’s symphonies almost as incidental music Russell placed the composer squarely in his time and setting. It was as much an evocation of the high noon of Imperial Britain as a documentary about Elgar.

Russell took these techniques further in his film on the life of Claude Debussy (1965), which interspersed more conventional documentary film with dramatised scenes from his life. Oliver Reed gave a stunning performance as Debussy, powerful and passionate, and launched his career, a career he spent the rest of his life merrily trying to destroy.

So Ken Russell might have been the ideal director for the hyperrealism of Harry Palmer. Instead, where the ‘The Ipcress File’ had utilised no location more exotic than Balham and climaxed with a strung out Palmer in a disused warehouse, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ went to the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle and culminated with a right wing madman’s private army crashing through the Baltic ice on its way to invade the Soviet Union and trigger World War Three. The world had seen a sneak peak of Ken Russell, movie director.

‘Flamboyant’ and ‘outrageous’ are just two of the adjectives applied equally to Ken Russell and his films. Movies like ‘Tommy’, ‘Lisztomania’ (both 1975), and ‘Crimes of Passion’ (1984) are less coherent films than sensory assaults. There seemed to be no idea so loopy that Russell wouldn’t include it. ‘Lisztomania’, for example, a film ostensibly about the life of the composer Franz Liszt, featured Rick Wakeman of prog rockers Yes as Thor, God of Thunder (and Ringo Starr as the Pope), and a plot that saw a musical battle between Liszt and Richard Wagner over the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. His films became bywords for extravagance.

They also became synonymous with controversy. Most famously Russell’s film of ‘Women in Love’ (1969) became the first mainstream film to show frontal male nudity when its two stars, Reed and Alan Bates, wrestled in the buff in front of a fireplace. ‘The Devils’ (1971) with its horde of naked, masturbating nuns remains unreleased in its original form to this day. “Monstrously indecent” said one critic, a “grand fiesta for sadists and perverts” said another.

Russell appeared to shelter from some of the controversy behind a shield of silliness, something he only encouraged by saying he was writing a series of books on the sex lives of great composers with titles like ‘Brahms Gets Laid’. When he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2007 warbling Singin’ in the Rain Russell appeared to be revelling in his role of eccentric. He’d have been called an enfant terrible if he hadn’t been over 80.

Sadly all this this often obscured a ferociously intelligent man, one who thought deeply about religion (he converted to Catholicism late in life) and about the creative process and was capable of producing scintillating cinema.

‘The Devils’, for example, is a stunning exercise in cinematic expressionism; Russell cited Fritz Lang and Jean Cocteau and early influences. Though based on a true story from 17th century France the screen is full of billowing, anachronistic black flags. The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are similarly dissonant; the cells in the convent where the nuns are interrogated have smooth, white tiled walls evoking a modern day psychiatric institution. Russell is signalling the timelessness of the story.

Russell’s film is about the perversion of ideology, in this case religion in the form of the Catholic Church. The film shows a desiccated Church, become simply an instrument in repression, prostituting itself to the temporal power of the French King.

Oliver Reed’s Father Urban Grandier defies an edict from the King to demolish the walls of his town. Meanwhile Sister Jeanne, a crippled nun played by Vanessa Redgrave, becomes sexually obsessed with Grandier. When she hears of his secret marriage and tells the King’s agents they co-opt the full power of the Church to destroy Grandier and the walls of Loudon by accusing him of sexual deviancy.

The town erupts in an orgy of grotesque sexuality as repression is cast asunder and is proved to have perverted desire so long denied. This includes the now infamous ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence where the nuns descend on a statue of Jesus and pleasure themselves. This was cut from the released film and was the core of the outrage but it is absolutely integral to the movie, a vicious visual of the defilement of faith. Throughout the film scenes of the private, more personal, spiritual rites of Grandier and his wife are shown for contrast.

Along with ‘Tommy’ ‘The Devils’ was a rare case of Russell’s subject matter being matched to his incredible capacity for cinematic imagination. The late medieval Church which Russell depicts was rotten to its core, stinking and corrupt, and he captures it perfectly. Rarely has a film set out to depict such horror and succeeded so well.

Ken Russell’s imagination was capable of producing utter confusion. It was also, as in the case of ‘Altered States (1980), capable of making ordinary material watchable. And, given the right subject matter, it was able to create unforgettable cinema. Ken Russell made some bad films but he never made a boring one.

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

Dirty Hari

“Uh huh, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking does this article contain six lies or only five?”

Drowned out by Hackgate this summer was another spectacular story of media self-immolation. Johann Hari, columnist at the Independent, winner of the prestigious Orwell Prize, regular on Newsnight Review, and darling of the left was caught stuffing his columns with lies.

It began in June when a blogger noticed that some of the quotes given by Hari’s interviewees were identical to quotes which had previously appeared in those interviewees published works. Hari defended the charge, saying that “When you interview a writer – especially but not only when English isn’t their first language – they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible” He called any allegation of plagiarism “totally false”

But, ironically for a man who praised the power of social media, Hari was about to be hoist on his own digital petard. Twitter exploded with tweeters jumping on a bandwagon bearing the hashtag ‘#interviewswithhari’ which presented the hack as some sort of journalistic Zelig.

“‘Stop!’ he cried, pointing to the brass-framed clock above his desk, ‘Hammertime’” read one tweet. “After discussing my evidence with him. he stroked his thick beard, looked up, and then loudly exclaimed ‘GORDON’S ALIVE’?” read another. “He sensed my malaise” read a third “‘Young man’, he murmured, fingering his leather jacket ruminatively, ‘there’s no need to feel down’”.

A left wing journalist can survive many things. You can survive being caught lying in the service of a greater truth,as Hari tried to make out he was. But one thing you cannot survive when your entire shtick is seriousness is having the piss ripped out of you. As soon as he became a joke Hari was finished.

The story rumbled on from there getting worse at every turn. It took a weird turn when it emerged Hari had been posting lies about his opponents on their Wikipedia pages under an alias. It took an unsavoury turn when it emerged that the same alias had been used for other purposes. The outcome was that, on September 15th, Hari published a second apology covering lots of things he’d denied in his first one, handed his Orwell Prize back before it could be embarrassingly stripped from him, and went on four months leave from the Indy to get some training in journalism, a job he’s been doing for ten years.

Hari’s behaviour has been outrageous even by the standards of the newspaper trade. But it can’t have come as a surprise. Particularly not if, like me, you are a fan of Clint Eastwood and had read Hari’s 2009 article for the Independent titled ‘Clint Eastwood shows how America is changing’

Reviewing his 2009 classic ‘Gran Torino’ Hari looked back over Eastwood’s career. According to Hari Eastwood “caught the tail-end of the uncomplicated Us vs Them cowboy flicks where the Indians were evil, scalping savages who had to be destroyed by the white heroes. The films were gorgeous, romantic accounts of a genocide, told adoringly from the perspective of the genocidaires”

I’d love to know which film Hari is talking about here, he doesn’t tell us. Eastwood’s first big screen westerns were the ‘Dollars’ trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns made in Italy by Sergio Leone. In these films Eastwood played the famous Man With No Name who was only out for himself and whose occasional acts of kindness were few and often executed grudgingly or with an ulterior motive. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964), ‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965) and the epic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966) were all about grubby scrambles for cash by grubby men in grubby settings. They were utterly amoral films and Native Americans didn’t feature in the trilogy once.

Hari somehow conflates these carnivals of moral ambivalence with the films of John Wayne, writing “The attitude of the genre was typified by John Wayne’s jeer…” Absolutely nothing about Eastwood’s westerns can be typified by anything from John Wayne whose westerns were totally different. For example, Wayne turned down the role Gary Cooper played in ‘High Noon’ (1952) because he disliked that the townspeople abandoned the Sheriff and that he threw his badge away in disgust at the end. When the movie became a hit Wayne responded by making ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959) where the townspeople come to the Sheriff’s aid.

Compare this to Eastwood’s movies. The inhabitants of Lago in ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973) are such a craven bunch that they stood by and watched the town’s old Sheriff brutally whipped to death. When Eastwood’s mysterious stranger arrives in the town and wreaks havoc it is presented as a richly deserved comeuppance. And at the end of Eastwood’s most famous movie, ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971), the disgruntled policeman ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan throws his badge away in disgust. John Wayne turned down that role too.

Sure, all art including film is subjective and some will hate what another loves. But this is not a difference of interpretation but an error of content. It is quite simply impossible to characterise the westerns of Clint Eastwood in the way that Hari does. So Hari either has seen them and is misrepresenting them, or he hasn’t seen them in which case why is he pontificating about them?

This brings us to the crux of Hari’s argument; he hates ‘Dirty Harry’. “Dirty Harry is an old-style cop, fond of beating and torturing confessions out of suspects” Hari says before, entirely predictably, quoting Pauline Kael’s old charge that the film is “fascist”, something she said about all Eastwood’s movies and ‘Straw Dogs’ the same year.

Hari summarises the film thus; “He sets out to catch the killer – but at every turn he is emasculated by insane liberal regulations. The new laws prevent him from breaking into homes without a warrant, committing torture, or harassing suspects. Appalled, Harry spits: ‘That man has rights? The law is crazy!’”

Except he doesn’t say that anywhere in the movie. But he does say something similar.

The set-up is that a 14 year old girl, Ann Mary Deacon, has been kidnapped, raped, and buried alive with a few hours oxygen. The Police receive the ransom note accompanied by a tooth pulled out with a pair of pliers. Callahan agrees to take the ransom to the kidnapper, a serial killer named Scorpio who has already shot three people.

When Callahan reaches the ransom drop he learns that Scorpio is going to kill him, take the money, and leave the girl to die. Luckily Callahan’s partner shows up. In the ensuing shootout Scorpio escapes but not before Callahan has plunged a knife into his leg.

The chase is now on as Callahan tries to find the girl before her oxygen runs out. Callahan tracks Scorpio to his flat and finds the rifle used in the previous murders. He finds the fleeing Scorpio and stops him with a bullet in the leg. Scorpio refuses to tell Callahan where the girl is buried, demanding his lawyer instead. With time running out Callahan grinds his boot into the gunshot wound and gets the information. When the girl is found she is already dead.

That’s the context, now the quote. The following day Callahan is summoned by the DA.

District Attorney: I’ve just been looking over your arrest report. A very unusual piece of Police work. Really amazing

Callahan: Yeah, well I had some luck

DA: You’re lucky I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder

Callahan: What?

DA: Where the hell does it say you’ve got a right to kick down doors? Torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the Fourth Amendment? What I’m saying is that man had rights.

Callahan: Well I’m all broken up about that man’s rights

DA: You should be. I’ve got news for you Callahan; as soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital he walks

Callahan: What are you talking about?

DA: He’s free

Callahan: You mean you’re letting him go?

DA: We have to, we can’t try him

Callahan: And why’s that?

DA: Because I’m not wasting a half a million dollars of the taxpayers money on a trial we can’t possibly win. The problem is we don’t have any evidence

Callahan: (Indicating the recovered rifle) Evidence? What the hell do you call that?

DA: I call it nothing, zero.

Callahan: Are trying to tell me that ballistics can’t match the bullet up to this rifle?

DA: It does not matter what ballistics can do. This rifle might make a nice souvenir, but it’s inadmissible as evidence

Callahan: Who says that?

DA: It’s the law

Callahan: Well then the law’s crazy

Again, in a subjective art form you can make the argument that ‘Dirty Harry’ is fascist. But there is nothing subjective about making up quotes to bolster the argument. You come back to Hari’s apology. To Hari it is self-evident that the movie is fascist but Callahan doesn’t quite say anything fascist enough in the movie to make the case as clearly as Hari would want. So he “substituted a passage”, or quote, he had made up himself. This was Hari’s downfall. He got caught out doing it with Gideon Levy and Hugo Chavez and he did it with Dirty Harry.

I have no better idea whether Hari saw the first ‘Dirty Harry’ sequel ‘Magnum Force’ than I do whether he saw any of the Leone westerns. If he did he might have taken a little advice from Dirty Harry Callahan; “A man’s got to know his limitations”

This article first 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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Sam Peckinpah

When ‘The Wild Bunch’ was released in 1969 there were reports of people being stretchered out of cinemas after fainting during the prolonged, slow motion machine gun massacre which closes the film. The ambiguous rape scene in ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971) saw that film banned in Britain for 18 years. The title character of ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) was a severed head roasting in the Mexican sun.

But it wasn’t just in his films that Sam Peckinpah, director of these movies, shocked. His behaviour on the set of ‘Major Dundee’ (1965) caused Charlton Heston to charge at him with a sabre. On his first day on the set of ‘Pat Garret & Billy the Kid’ (1973) a stunned Bob Dylan watched Peckinpah urinate on a screen to show his disapproval of the footage shot that day. He was thrown out of a tribute to Jimmy Cagney for fighting a waiter.

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The birth of English history

The History Man

‘What Is History?’ E. H. Carr asked in the title of his famous book. Nothing objective, he argued, saying, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.” Several decades later, Richard J. Evans responded with ‘In Defence of History’ and argued the opposite.

It’s not taking sides in this ongoing debate to say that once upon a time, what we now know as history – a lineal narrative of cause and consequence consequence – didn’t exist. When Thucydides sat down about 400 years before the birth of Christ to write his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, his chronological ordering of events was a radical break with what had gone before. There was a city called Troy and there was certainly some fighting around it but the account of the Trojan War given by Homer in ‘The Iliad’ was mostly myth. Even the ‘Histories’ of Herodotus, written about 40 years before Thucydides put quill to parchment, have a confusing, scattergun approach with chronology largely absent. Quite simply, Thucydides marked a quantum leap in the documentation of experience: the birth of history.