The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

The P2P revolu­tion is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly com­pressed file, by Mark Simpson

grey The Anti Christ Has All The Best Tunes

 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listen­ing to music more con­veni­ent and less irk­some: it actu­ally does part of the tire­some job of listen­ing for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 — mer­ci­fully shortened to MP3 — is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very pos­sibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic com­pres­sion of sound files that uses “psy­choacous­tic” mod­els that account for what listen­ers actu­ally notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as pos­sible to facil­it­ate easier stor­age or upload­ing and down­load­ing. In other words, MP3 anti­cip­ates and inter­prets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actu­ally hears it.

Of course, this job used to be per­formed by record com­pan­ies, with their A&R men and mar­ket­ing depart­ments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been auto­mated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bed­rooms. A whole class of inter­me­di­ar­ies and author­it­ies have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been com­pared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after read­ing John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolu­tion, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘com­pressed’ form.

Thanks to the per­sonal com­puter and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The cor­rupt, uncool suits and cas­socks who used to inter­cede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed dir­ectly and free from dis­tor­tion, com­pressed by pure, clean math­em­at­ics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believ­ers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, any­one who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fas­cist re­gime. And of course this means any­one who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record com­pan­ies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their fright­fully expens­ive CD print­ing presses, dis­tri­bu­tion deals and back cata­logues melt at the press of a but­ton in someone’s bed­room. If indul­gences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the tem­poral wealth and power of the record busi­ness to come from?

For the record com­pan­ies, the lead­ers of the MP3 revolu­tion are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that oth­ers may not be temp­ted to stray. Against the cries for info free­dom, their law­yers invoke the Mystery of copy­right. Digitising music, just as print­ing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the lead­ers of the Counter-Reformation, they see them­selves as act­ing in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exag­ger­ate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation meta­phor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am war­ring against the cul­ture of the Internet, threat­en­ing to depop­u­late Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street law­yers to lit­ig­ate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its cul­ture but for its bene­fit and to pro­tect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nine­teen foun­ded Napster, the fam­ous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online ser­vice, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accel­er­ated cul­ture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls pray­ing in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 mil­lion registered users and Fanning was a very fam­ous young man indeed; his crim­in­ally young, beatific face shin­ing out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideo­logue or evan­gel­ical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his soft­ware could fill. From his time spent chat­ting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the prob­lem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than him­self, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster pro­gram, which allowed users to share files by plug­ging their com­puters, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hos­ted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s com­puters and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blas­phemy and heresy in the form of copy­right viol­a­tions. They were very wrong. In the open­ing blast of what was to prove a mer­ci­less bar­rage, the fear­some Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copy­right law­suit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a dis­aster of, well, bib­lical pro­por­tions. Practically a whole gen­eration of col­lege kids who didn’t even have to pay for the col­lege com­puters or the Internet con­nec­tions they down­loaded the MP3 files with, stopped buy­ing CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than order­ing CDs online. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giv­ing away MP3 play­ers (worth $150) to any­one who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of vari­ous law­suits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who fam­ously dis­covered that three unfin­ished ver­sions of a song he had been work­ing on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back cata­logue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record com­pan­ies to respond to the MP3 revolu­tion with any­thing other than pub­lic burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, main­stream, subscription-only ser­vice which, cru­cially, paid roy­al­ties to performers.

The issue of intel­lec­tual copy­right and reward­ing artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dis­miss as “record com­pany greed.” Ulrich is cer­tainly not the only pro­fes­sional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “crimin­al­ity” of online file trad­ing. Ultimately though, the feel­ings of artists or even record com­pan­ies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trad­ing is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to sur­vive some­thing even more destruct­ive than a music com­pany law­yer: nuc­lear war.

There is per­haps a tad too much jar­gon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the nar­ra­tion doesn’t always quite match the raci­ness of the title or the import of the revolu­tion it docu­ments, but it’s a valu­able, insight­ful book for any­one inter­ested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself con­tin­ues its onward march undaun­ted. Napster and Fanning may have recan­ted, but most of his 50 mil­lion dis­ciples that Bertlesmann hoped to con­vert into more ortho­dox cus­tom­ers have left and are now pray­ing at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more con­vin­cing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehe­mently that inform­a­tion should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to con­vince you with words; he’s won the argu­ment already with code by design­ing a sys­tem called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with com­plete anonym­ity. Unlike Napster, there is no cent­ral server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose con­greg­a­tion is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell report­ers that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street law­yers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001

Sex Terror’ Now Available on Kindle — Sweet Dreams.

grey Sex Terror Now Available on Kindle   Sweet Dreams.

SEX TERROR

Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture

Mark Simpson

This book will change the way you think about sex. It may even put you off it altogether.

NOW AVAILABLE ON KINDLE 

 

 In his full-frontal follow-up to his widely acclaimed It’s a Queer World, Mark Simpson dis­penses with the mon­key busi­ness of sexu­al­ity and gets to grips with the organ grinder itself: SEX.

Subjecting our saucy new god to his sac­ri­le­gious satire, Simpson sins against every con­tem­por­ary com­mand­ment about doing the nasty: It must be hot. It must be fre­quent. It must wake the neigh­bours. And it must be Who You Are.

Simpson argues that we all put far too much faith in sex these days, and that in actual fact sex is messy, con­fus­ing, frus­trat­ing, and ulti­mately disappointing.

Especially if you’re hav­ing it with him.

Along the way he gets worked up with Alexis Arquette over Stephen Baldwin’s bubble-butt, gets intim­ate with Dana International, Aiden Shaw and Bruce LaBruce, and – very gingerly – con­fronts Henry Rollins with those ‘gay’ rumours.

 

Praise for Sex Terror:

MARVELLOUS… open Simpson’s book at any point, as many times as you want, and you’ll find the sort of gem-like sen­tences that Zadie Smith would give her white teeth for.”

- Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday

A chain­saw cock of wit… blis­ter­ingly, endear­ingly hon­est… insight­ful and valu­able.  VERY FUNNY INDEED.”

- Dermod Moore, The Hot Press

Setting com­mon sexual sense on its ear, Simpson’s Swiftian pro­pos­als strike at an emo­tion dear to us: sexual desire. His anarchic mis­sion is to free sex from ser­mon­iz­ing, con­ven­tion, ego­ism, and cul­tural bias. But unlike Foucault, his decon­struct­ing weapon is built of rib­ald humour and pot­shots at pre­ten­sion. Simpson’s essays pro­duce ran­cour and HILARIOUS LAUGHTER, DISBELIEF AND DELIGHT. Some call him won­der­ful, and some call him out­rageous, but I call him A TRUE ORIGINAL and YOU SHOULDN’T MISS THIS BOOK.”

– Bruce Benderson, author of Pretending to Say No and User

BRILLIANT… With sur­gical pre­ci­sion Mark Simpson peels away the lay­ers of mod­ern mas­cu­line cul­ture, leav­ing few iconic fig­ures un-scarred. This book is cer­tain to pro­voke and likely to offend; we would expect noth­ing less from one of the most import­ant voyeurs of con­tem­por­ary life.”

– Bob Mould, Musician and Songwriter

When the cul­ture of sex breathes its final breath, Mark Simpson will be there to deliver the eulogy with great zeal. And what a GLORIOUSLY SARDONIC AND INSIGHTFUL farewell it will be!”

– Glenn Belverio, Dutch magazine

“One of those books that bounces up and down on your knee yelling ‘read me, read me…. Brutal hon­esty and razor wit  — a per­fect feast. QUOTABLE GENIUS.”

- RainbowNetwork.com

BLOODY GOOD…  every out­rageous insight is just that – an insight into the mod­ern  con­di­tion that often makes you laugh out loud and, if you are not entirely bey­ond hope, think. Simply some of the best writ­ing on mod­ern cul­ture around.”

- Brian Dempsey, Gay Scotland

One of England’s MOST ELOQUENT AND SARDONIC commentators.”

– Bay Windows

Mark Simpson won’t be every reader’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy a biter blend of DARK HUMOUR AND KEEN SOCIAL OBSERVATION will want to drink deeply.”

– Washington Blade

…never fails to amuse, bemuse, stun and stir… a writer at his peak, a SHAMELESS SUMPTUOUS SERVING OF SOCIAL SATIRE you’ll be digest­ing long after you put the book down”

– All Man Magazine

 

NOW AVAILABLE ON KINDLE

 

ABOUT MARK SIMPSON

English author and journ­al­ist Mark Simpson is credited/blamed for coin­ing the word ‘met­ro­sexual‘. Simpson is the author of sev­eral books includ­ing: Saint MorrisseyMale Impersonators, and Metrosexy.

 

Sex Terror cover image taken by Michele Martinoli.

Camp For Beginners

Mark Simpson inter­views David Halperin about his con­tro­ver­sial new book How To Be Gay at Out.com

grey Camp For Beginners

 I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shame­ful love — until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay cul­ture can make people of all per­sua­sions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teach­ing a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scan­dal: He was inund­ated with out­raged, abus­ive emails, politi­cians tried to axe fund­ing for his uni­ver­sity, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.

SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay ini­ti­ation man­age to upset so many people, straight and gay?

HALPERIN: It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long sus­pec­ted that col­lege pro­fess­ors aim to con­vert straight teen­agers to homo­sexu­al­ity; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slight­est implic­a­tion that any aspect of homo­sexu­al­ity might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither try­ing to con­vert straight stu­dents nor sug­gest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homo­sexual life­style. But in order to under­stand that, you would have had to read the entire course descrip­tion, not just the title. It’s inter­est­ing, though, that gay cul­ture should be more scan­dal­ous nowadays than gay sex.

If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a sim­ilar out­cry? Do you want it to?
I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polem­ical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be con­tro­ver­sial because it cel­eb­rates the fact that gay men are not exactly like every­body else. In an era of gay assim­il­a­tion, the notion of gay dif­fer­ence arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.

Is it true to say that the gay cul­ture you are writ­ing about is mostly the “gay sens­ib­il­ity” — the sub­cul­tural appro­pri­ation and sub­ver­sion of main­stream straight cul­ture that char­ac­ter­ized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma!
Yes, I’m inter­ested in the per­sist­ence of that sub­cul­tural appro­pri­ation at a time when gay people have now cre­ated their own cul­ture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay cul­ture, but it has trouble com­pet­ing with the appeal of those tra­di­tional icons or their con­tem­por­ary des­cend­ants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in par­tic­u­lar still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have ori­ginal works of gay fic­tion, movies, and pop cul­ture that fea­ture gay men instead.

Why has the out-and-proud gay iden­tity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sens­ib­il­ity?
Because gay iden­tity can’t con­tain the full play of gay desire. I dis­covered this when I taught a class on con­tem­por­ary gay male lit­er­at­ure a dozen years ago — I expec­ted gay male stu­dents to like such a class. But they got bored with the read­ing and amused them­selves instead by draw­ing car­toons on the attend­ance sheet, por­tray­ing the mem­bers of the class — includ­ing me — as char­ac­ters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I real­ized I was doing some­thing wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”

Does the fact that you’re in many ways an out­sider on gay cul­ture make you the right or the wrong per­son to write this book?
Both. I spend a lot of time recon­struct­ing labor­i­ously and impre­cisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it bet­ter, but they aren’t talk­ing, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explain­ing, but it looks like I have to.

How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please.
Terrible, truly ter­rible. I’m not a very camp per­son; I’m very ser­i­ous. I spent the first sev­eral dec­ades of my life absorb­ing high cul­ture — study­ing Greek tragedy, German music, American polit­ics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a pro­found enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.

Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male con­fid­ante who taught you about gay cul­ture?
Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idi­otic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boy­friend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.

To my undy­ing shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instruct­ive lines: “Cheer up, Mary, liv­ing alone has its com­pens­a­tions. Heaven knows it’s mar­velous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
Golly, I’d for­got­ten those. How about “Pride’s a lux­ury a woman in love can’t afford”?

Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my gen­er­a­tion, I thought homo­sexu­al­ity was just a sexual ori­ent­a­tion — I res­isted being ini­ti­ated into a sep­ar­ate cul­ture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexu­ally ful­filled, how to have a suc­cess­ful love affair.

Of course, it turns out that gay cul­ture was full of inform­a­tion about that topic, but the inform­a­tion it offered seemed mostly use­less or homo­phobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after dec­ades of dis­il­lu­sion­ment, we may be com­ing round to some of those rad­ical insights. But that will be the sub­ject of my next book!

What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man?
Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.

A cher­ished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homo­sexu­al­ity is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights?
They’ve been bought off with prom­ises of nor­mal­ity, and their social worlds have been des­troyed, so they lack the con­text and the cour­age to claim their cul­tural her­it­age, to the genius of being queer. They still pro­duce cul­tural break­throughs of bril­liance, but they aren’t com­fort­able tak­ing credit for them.

Is it a para­dox that the resur­gence of bio­lo­gical explan­a­tions of homo­sexu­al­ity has coin­cided with the dom­in­ance of the line “gays are just like every­one else,” except even more bor­ing?
It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay move­ment embraces that bogus gay sci­ence, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay dif­fer­ence are tri­umph­ing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about con­gen­ital abnor­mal­ity. You would think gay people would prefer to think of them­selves as cul­tur­ally dif­fer­ent rather than bio­lo­gic­ally dif­fer­ent. But here you can meas­ure the effect in the United States of reli­giously inspired homo­pho­bia: In order to dodge the implic­a­tion that homo­sexu­al­ity is a sin­ful choice, gay people are will­ing to accept bio­lo­gical determinism.

Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chau­vin­ist. Do you believe that being gay is bet­ter than being straight?
Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t ima­gine liv­ing any other way, or want­ing to. I cer­tainly think being gay is bet­ter than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some mis­guided gay guys.

I know I’m hope­lessly mis­guided, but I do think straight men make the best bot­toms. Sometimes I won­der, though, whether you might not have too much faith in het­ero­sexu­al­ity. After all, how straight is straight these days?
Straight people these days may often be highly per­verse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the cat­egory “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, trans­gress­ive iden­tity without hav­ing to do any­thing icky — but that’s just their usual insist­ence on being the everyman.

But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” stu­dents were straight…
Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who under­stand gay male cul­ture bet­ter and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are num­bers of straight people who are cul­tur­ally gay, but gay­ness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.

After teach­ing this course for a while and writ­ing this book, are you any campier? Do you watch Glee? Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class?
No, I still hate pop­u­lar cul­ture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first sea­son. But then, its pro­du­cer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It pro­duced such a demen­ted ver­sion of nor­mal life. I do think work­ing on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more will­ing to claim my cul­tural birth­right as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a des­per­ate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.

 

Mad Men and Medusas

grey Mad Men and Medusas

The return of the (well-dressed) repressed

Coming across this old review of Juliet Mitchell’s ‘Mad Men and Medusas’ (Independent on Sunday, 2001) reminded me that pretty much all the main char­ac­ters in the TV series of the same name launched in the late Noughties are hys­ter­ics, but most espe­cially Madison Avenue’s Don Juan, aka Donald Draper. I hope Mitchell is get­ting a royalty.

by Mark Simpson

A touch of hys­teria can make you a real hit with the ladies. If you play your symp­toms right, emin­ent fem­in­ist schol­ars might even end up arguing over your body years after your death.

Robert Connolly was treated for hys­teria in 1876. He suffered from an unfor­tu­nate com­pul­sion which forced him to swing his arms from side to side like a pen­du­lum. Elaine Showalter, the media­genic American fem­in­ist, held him up in her 1997 book ‘Hystories’ as an example of how hys­teria is a response to a situ­ation that is unten­able — point­ing out that he worked as a watch­maker she ‘read’ his body as an express­ing his dis­taste for the mono­ton­ous, finicky work he was unable to artic­u­late through lan­guage. Hysteria, in other words, is the cor­por­eal protest of the power­less and inar­tic­u­late work­ing class, women and blacks; lit­er­ally, the sym­bolic sigh of the oppressed.

It sounds plaus­ible. It cer­tainly sounds fash­ion­able — since it’s say­ing that hys­teria, like everything else these days, is ‘about power’. But in ‘Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria’ Juliet Mitchell the not-so media­genic British fem­in­ist psy­cho­ana­lyst dis­agrees. Inarticulate frus­tra­tion at his job is not enough to explain Connolly’s symp­toms, she argues (and besides, runs the risk of middle class con­des­cen­sion). Politics has rendered him a cipher for social forces. What is miss­ing is the internal com­pul­sion pro­du­cing his symp­toms: he could not stop. Mitchell spec­u­lates that Connolly may have been aware of Voltaire’s com­par­ison of God to a watch­maker. Such a hub­ristic iden­ti­fic­a­tion would, explains Mitchell, have had to have been repressed. When it returned from the failed repres­sion — as such wishes do — it made a com­prom­ise with the ego which had repressed it in order to allow it’s expres­sion. ‘With the wit of the uncon­scious, the watch­maker who wants to be God finds that, as Voltaire said, it is God who is the watchmaker.’

This poetic inter­pret­a­tion may or may not explain Robert Connolly’s hys­teria, but it cer­tainly explains why Showalter is much more likely to be invited on Richard and Judy or, for that mat­ter, Newsnight than Mitchell. For her part, Mitchell explains that whatever the spe­cif­ics of the case, a con­flict of a wish for omni­po­tence and a pre­ven­tion of it would be needed to explain Connolly’s — or any hysteric’s — move­ments. In other words, what’s needed is psychoanalysis.

And, at a time when many seem to want to be uncon­vinced of psy­cho­ana­lysis’ value, Mitchell’s book makes a con­vin­cing argu­ment for this. Not only because ‘Mad Men and Medusas’ offers a deeper, subtler — and much more dif­fi­cult — under­stand­ing of hys­teria than the famil­iar victim-victimiser Manichean nar­rat­ive of American fem­in­ism, but also because it admits that psy­cho­ana­lysis itself is part of the problem.

Hysteria was recor­ded and writ­ten about for 4000 years before dis­ap­pear­ing in the earlier part of this cen­tury. Today the term is almost unheard of in clin­ical usage. However, its many mani­fest­a­tions through­out the ages are still famil­iar: sen­sa­tions of suf­foc­a­tion, chok­ing, breath­ing and eat­ing dif­fi­culties, mimetic imit­a­tions, deceit­ful­ness, shocks, fits, death states, crav­ing and longing.

Hysteria has of course his­tor­ic­ally been strongly asso­ci­ated with women. The Greek doc­tors talked of a ‘wan­der­ing womb’ requir­ing treat­ment, Christian witchfind­ers of a ‘seduc­tion by the Devil’ requir­ing drown­ing or burn­ing. After the Renaissance, hys­teria was remed­ic­al­ised and, fol­low­ing the vogue, loc­ated in the brain, albeit a female one. In the Eighteenth Century refined women were quaintly described as suf­fer­ing from ‘the vapours’ (which eman­ated primar­ily from the brain but were some­how sup­ple­men­ted by espe­cially debil­it­at­ing vapours from the womb). By the Nineteenth Century asylums were chock full of hys­ter­ical women. By the end of the Twentieth Century, no one was dia­gnosed as hav­ing ‘hys­teria’ any more. For Mitchell this is not some­thing to be cel­eb­rated: defy­ing post­mod­ern cor­rect­ness, she asserts that hys­teria is as uni­ver­sal and as tran­shis­tor­ical and as com­plex a phe­nomenon as ‘love’ and ‘hate’ (which are, it so hap­pens, both con­stitu­ent parts of hysteria).

So who kid­napped hys­teria? It would appear that embar­rassed mas­cu­line pride bundled it off the clin­ical scene. She argues that hys­teria dis­ap­peared because of the intol­er­ab­il­ity of the idea of male hys­teria to men. Eighteenth Century science’s relo­ca­tion of hys­teria in the brain, even in one intox­ic­ated by the pres­ence of a vagina, meant that hys­teria was no longer so hygien­ic­ally con­fined to the female of the spe­cies. Ironically, Nineteenth Century psy­cho­ana­lysis, which was born out of the study of hys­teria, hastened the ‘dis­ap­pear­ance’ of hys­teria by uni­ver­sal­ising hys­teria and estab­lish­ing it as a male as well as a female characteristic.

The shin­ing corner­stone of psy­cho­ana­lysis, the Oedipus Complex, was fash­ioned out of the study of male hys­teria — Freud’s own, as well as that of his patient. However, Mitchell power­fully argues that Freud’s need to sup­press his own ‘little hys­teria’, as he fam­ously called it, and his ambi­val­ence about the early death of his younger brother, led him to over­look the import­ance of sib­ling rela­tion­ships and the threat of dis­place­ment they con­tain, which are felt before the Oedipus Complex. ‘When a sib­ling is in the off­ing,’ writes Mitchell, choos­ing a word which could be inter­preted as an example of the ‘wit of the uncon­scious’, ‘the danger is that His Majesty the Baby will be anni­hil­ated, for this is someone who stands in the same pos­i­tion to par­ents (and their sub­sti­tutes) as him­self. This pos­sible dis­place­ment trig­gers the wish to kill in the interests of sur­vival. The drive to iner­tia [the death drive] released by this shock becomes viol­ence. Or it becomes a sexual drive, to get the interests of all and every­one for oneself.’

As the title Mitchell gives to one of her chapters ‘Sigmund Freud: A Fragment of a Case of Hysteria in a Male’ sug­gests, Mitchell believes that Freud’s hys­teria was not so ‘little’. Again buck­ing the trend, she doesn’t reject the import­ance Freud’s Oedipus Complex, which she admits is dif­fi­cult to over­state, but argues that the focus on gen­er­a­tional rela­tions has blocked the under­stand­ing of lat­eral ones.

Mitchell illus­trates the import­ance of lat­eral rela­tion­ships by ref­er­ence to the first World War and the epi­demic of male hys­teria amongst the com­batants: the ‘shell shock’ vic­tims (so labelled partly because it was less humi­li­at­ing to the men con­cerned than being called an ‘hys­teric’). However, what has been for­got­ten is that the war­time male hys­teric has not only been a vic­tim of aggres­sion from enemy action but has also been an aggressor. What the sol­dier may also be suf­fer­ing from ‘is the know­ledge that he has broken a taboo and that in doing so he has released his wish to do so — his wish, his “want­ing” to murder, to kill his sib­ling substitutes.’

The so-called ‘neg­at­ive’ or fem­in­ine Oedipus Complex, in which a man wants to be his mother and desires his father was elab­or­ated by Freud as being as uni­ver­sal as the ‘pos­it­ive’ one — but it never received as much atten­tion in the the­ory then or espe­cially since, effect­ively releg­at­ing it to the uncon­scious. ‘But it has sur­faced again and again as homo­pho­bia…’ com­plains Mitchell. However, beat­ing one’s breast about homo­pho­bia is to miss the point: ‘The atten­tion now drawn to this homo­pho­bia means that we miss the cru­cial import­ance of hys­tero­pho­bia in the the­ory as a whole.’

The neg­at­ive Oedipus Complex, a pass­ive rela­tion towards the father, had to carry the weight of explan­a­tion of both male hys­teria and homo­sexu­al­ity. ‘Too often the two have become con­fused. Hysteria, to the con­trary, is essen­tially bisexual,’ explains Mitchell. (In an eerie con­firm­a­tion of either great art’s psy­cho­ana­lysis or psy­cho­ana­lysis great art, Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ tri­logy fic­tional shell-shock vic­tim ‘Billy Prior’ was bisexual and sexu­ally compulsive.)

After the First World War the role of sexu­al­ity in hys­teria and then hys­teria itself was replaced by trauma (which is nowadays used to explain almost everything). But how to account for what Mitchell describes as ‘the rampant sexu­al­ity of war’ — which was recently illus­trated by he pub­lic­a­tion of servicemen’s let­ters from The Great War which talked about ‘hard-ons’ when bay­on­et­ing the enemy? Mitchell pos­its an appar­ently ‘nor­mal’ male war hys­teria — a non-reproductive sexu­al­ity involving killing, mass rape and promis­cu­ity: the death drive attaches itself to sexu­al­ity. The Oedipalization of all rela­tion­ships meant that men at war and on civ­vie street could avoid being seen as hys­ter­ics — they were either homo­sexual or ‘nor­mal’, that is het­ero­sexual, and hys­ter­ical women merely appeared ultrafem­in­ine. ‘In hun­dreds of clin­ical accounts… the man who dis­plays hys­ter­ical char­ac­ter­ist­ics is suf­fer­ing from “fem­in­ine nar­ciss­ism”, “fem­in­ine passiv­ity” or homo­sexu­al­ity. In the eternal struggle to repress male hys­teria, these are the new pathologies.’

Perhaps most inter­est­ing of all is Mitchell’s res­cue of the Don Juan myth from the neg­lect that tra­di­tional psy­cho­ana­lysis has con­demned it. In the myth, Don Juan, a serial liar and sedu­cer of women, kills the father of one of his con­quests and is finally led to Hell by a stone statue of his vic­tim. Sexuality and murder are completely/hysterically inter­twined in the Don Juan story in a way that they are not in the Oedipus myth. Don Juan, the son, kills and defies the father sub­sti­tute who has done noth­ing to him, where Oedipus defies then kills the father who has twice threatened to kill him (the dis­place­ment from actual father to father sub­sti­tute is a typ­ical hys­ter­ical substitution).

According to Mitchell, the repres­sion of the Don Juan story, the story of male hys­teria par excel­lence, has allowed all psy­cho­ana­lytic the­ory to estab­lish male sexu­al­ity as the norm and in doing so avoid its ana­lysis. ‘Don Juan, the male hys­teric, was absorbed into Freud’s own char­ac­ter; repressed and at the same time iden­ti­fied with.’

What is repressed returns. Now Don Juan is every­where. The pre­val­ence of the male hys­teric ensured he became nor­m­al­ised as the post mod­ern indi­vidual — a latter-day Don Juan, unin­ter­ested in fath­er­ing, just out to per­form.’ The post mod­ern Don Juan, like the ori­ginal, does not take women as a love-object but instead makes a hys­ter­ical iden­ti­fic­a­tion with them. Loaded lad is lit­er­ally a ladies man.

However, for all her efforts to make hys­teria vis­ible again, Mitchell does not want to quar­ant­ine it. ‘Hysteria is part of the human con­di­tion,’ she states, ‘the under­belly of “normality”:

…it can move in the dir­ec­tion of ser­i­ous patho­logy or in the dir­ec­tion of cre­ativ­ity… it is a way of estab­lish­ing one’s unique­ness in the world where one both is and is not unique, a way of keep­ing con­trol of oth­ers where one both does and does not have control.’


Apollo’s Acolytes

grey Apollos Acolytes

We wor­ship the body, watch ancient battles at the mul­ti­plex, and bow down before the gods of celebrity. Mark Simpson mar­vels at how much our cul­ture owes to those skirt-wearing olive-munchers, the Greeks

(Independent on Sunday 30 May 2004)

Philhellenes are every­where, and every­where they look they see the glory that was Greece. “Today we are again get­ting close to all those fun­da­mental forms of world inter­pret­a­tion devised by the Greeks…” enthused one of the more fam­ous examples; “we are grow­ing more Greek by the day.” No, not Camille Paglia, but jolly old Friedrich Nietzsche back in the 19th cen­tury. According to Nietzsche, even then we were grow­ing more and more Greek: “At first, as is only fair, in con­cepts and eval­u­ation, as Hellenising ghosts, as it were; but one day in our bod­ies too.”

That day appears to have arrived – or at least the enthu­si­astic uptake of this aspir­a­tion by the masses has. The Greek leg­acy in the arts and sci­ences is almost for­got­ten in the scramble to achieve a body like Apollo’s; the state itself, like that of Athens, has begun to exhort its mem­bers to join gyms and take reg­u­lar exer­cise, while the ideal­ised, boy­ish form has all but usurped the female in pub­lic art, in advert­ising and fash­ion (often even when the mod­els are actu­ally female).

Leather mini-skirts and flash­ing smooth brown thighs will be all over the big screen this sum­mer with the release of not one but two block­busters set in Ancient Greece: Alexander The Great and Troy (in which Brad Pitt plays the parts of both Achilles and Helen). Some might say that we have already seen the Greeks’ ill-advised Trojan adven­ture remade in last year’s block­buster, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of course, in the ver­sion of Homer’s epic dir­ec­ted by Donald Rumsfeld, Troy has opened up her gates to the gift-bearing Coalition Greeks imme­di­ately – only to lock them shut behind them and promptly burst into flames.

Today demo­cracy (another Greek inher­it­ance) may have conquered almost all, but iron­ic­ally (yep, there’s another) the standard-bearer for demo­cracy, the USA, is com­pared increas­ingly by its crit­ics to anti-democratic Imperial Rome, and its selec­ted rather than elec­ted leader is often dubbed Emperor George Bush II. In other words, both sides of con­tem­por­ary polit­ical debate refer to the ancient world. With the col­lapse of mod­ern­ist grand nar­rat­ives of Socialism and Progress, ancient ref­er­ence points seem to be the only ones we have.

Hence ancient beliefs are also mak­ing a comeback. The decline of Christianity has led to a dra­matic increase in the kind of pan­the­ism it (sup­posedly) sup­planted, with more and more people lit­er­ally wor­ship­ping their own gods – even if those gods are often merely celebrit­ies. Sex and hor­ror, to quote Frankie, are the new (old) gods. In the eyes of tra­di­tion­al­ists, the Anglican church itself has gone stark rav­ing pagan with the ordin­a­tion of women. The Christian Blairs have their own Delphic high priest­ess in the form of “per­sonal guru” Carole Caplin, though maybe she would make rather more sense if she inhaled the smoke of burn­ing bay leaves as the priest­esses of Delphi used to.

You might be for­given for won­der­ing why we need any more phil­hel­len­ism. But Simon Goldhill’s book, Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the ancient world shapes our lives isn’t just a list of things that he and we love about Ancient Greece (and Rome). Yes, “to speak of cul­ture in the mod­ern West is to speak Greek”, as he writes, but for­tu­nately Goldhill’s book is rather more than a “What the Greeks Did for Us”, or “What the Greeks Can Do For My TV Career”.

Philhellenism may be turn­ing into a gang­bang, but it is largely a gang­bang in the dark: most phil­hel­lenes don’t even know how much con­tem­por­ary cul­ture owes to those skirt-wearing olive-munchers. Paradoxically, we appear to be exper­i­en­cing a renais­sance of interest in the ancients while enter­ing a new dark age.

Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, is of course mak­ing the case for the lights of clas­sics in a dark­en­ing world that might go to the mul­ti­plex to watch ancient battles rendered by mod­ern CGI, but which doesn’t study clas­sics any more. As with everything else, we like the fash­ions and the fads but not the ideas or the implic­a­tions. We don’t want to do our home­work. Most of all, we don’t want to know ourselves.

Luckily though, Goldhill is a great com­mu­nic­ator and the kind of clas­sics mas­ter whose les­sons you wouldn’t want to skip. Explaining the point of study­ing the ancients he quotes, as my Latin mas­ter used to, Cicero: “If you don’t know where you are from, you will always be a child”, and the fam­ous motto of the Delphic oracle: “Know thy­self.” Adding, “Myth and his­tory, sex and the body, reli­gion and mar­riage, polit­ics and demo­cracy, enter­tain­ment and spec­tacle: these are basic building-blocks of the mod­ern self.”

If this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with iden­tity sounds slightly Freudian, that’s because it is. There is an excel­lent chapter here on Freud and the story of Oedipus (a soap-opera star in Ancient Thebes who killed his dad and mar­ried his mother), but more than this, Love, Sex and Tragedy is offer­ing a kind of arche­olo­gical psy­cho­ana­lysis of the past (Freud him­self com­pared his work to archae­ology). Hence Love, Sex and Tragedy is divided into sec­tions which ask the same uneasy ques­tions as Greek myth: such as “Who do you think you are?”, “Where do you think you are going?” and “Where do you think you came from?”

He also cites another Greek play of frag­men­ted iden­tity, Euripides’s The Bacchae, in which Pentheus, young, over-confident ruler of Thebes (Q: Why is it always Thebes? A: Because most of the play­wrights were from Athens) is told by the god Dionysus, whom he fails to recog­nise: “You do not know what your life is, nor what you are doing, nor who you are.” Later Pentheus is ripped to shreds by his Dionysus-worshipping mother who fails to recog­nise him. We fail to recog­nise that we are not mas­ters in our own house, that we have a pre-history, at our peril.

Consistent with this, Goldhill is at his best when he reveals the past to be a for­eign coun­try that is as unfa­mil­iar as it is famil­iar. For instance, because of their rude pot­tery and our prudish Mother Church’s hos­til­ity towards pagan­ism, we tend to asso­ci­ate the ancients with sexual license and colossal phal­luses a-go-go, but in fact the Greeks had a great sus­pi­cion of and respect for desire which we might be advised to con­sider in our “sex pos­it­ive” era. The evil suit­ors of Penelope feel desire when they are being tricked towards their death. Paris, the sedu­cer who brings destruc­tion for Troy, is led by his desire for Helen. In Greek tragedy “every woman who expresses sexual desire, even for her hus­band, causes the viol­ent destruc­tion of the house­hold. In com­edy there are many lusty men, and some even lust after their own wives — but they are, to a man, fig­ures of fun, who are humi­li­ated by their desire, led by their erect pen­ises into scenes of more and more out­rageous ridiculousness.”

Even mar­riage was not meant to be based on desire: “To sleep with one’s wife like a lover is as dis­gust­ing as adul­tery,” har­rumphed Seneca, Roman mor­al­ist (who would have made a good wife for St Paul, founder of the Christian Church). In the ancient world the hier­arch­ical bond of hus­band and wife left no place for shared and recip­rocal sexual desires. Hence “for a Greek man in the clas­sical city the desire which a free adult cit­izen feels for a free boy is the dom­in­ant model of erotic liaison.”

But, rain­ing on the gay parade, Goldhill also demon­strates how mis­taken we are to think that we can use the mod­ern words “gay” or “homo­sexual” to describe the com­plex and finally unknow­able erotic rela­tions that exis­ted between men and youths in ancient Greece. ‘Greek love’ is in the end Greek, and not a euphem­ism or standard-bearer for mod­ern obsessions.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2012

 

What Happens When a Giant Brain Meets Kylie?

Genius, pop Svengali, the­or­eti­cian of cool: Mark Simpson gets to grips with the man who really listens to ‘La la la, la la la-la la…

(Originally appeared in Independent on Sunday 03/08/2003)

What do you hear when you listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’? This is a bit of a trick ques­tion as you prob­ably don’t listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Not because, like most hit pop singles that are played end­lessly on the radio, in shops, pubs, hos­pit­als and clubs for a while, it is now some­thing that you would never actu­ally play your­self, except maybe at a drunken New Year’s party. But because it was never meant to be listened to in the first place.

It was pop music assembled with fiendish cun­ning and cal­cu­la­tion out of over-familiar cliches (rather like Kylie’s voice, and rather like Kylie her­self) to be a hit. By being some­thing you hear but don’t listen to, don’t need to listen to. Background music to dance, drink, shop and die to. If you find your­self actu­ally listen­ing to a pop single, then it has failed. Pop music today is some­thing people hear while doing some­thing or going some­where more interesting.

Unless your name is Paul Morley. Mr Morley has actu­ally listened to “Can’t get you out of my head”. And as the begin­ning of his new book ’Words and Music: A his­tory of pop in the shape of a city’ (Bloomsbury) makes clear, he was not dan­cing, drink­ing, shop­ping or dying to it, but sit­ting in his room. Alone. Mr Morley, to be sure, is some­thing of a genius; he is also a very strange man. He appears to have actu­ally listened — not heard, listened — to almost all the music you might file under “Popular”. This is no mean achieve­ment; argu­ably it’s a very per­verse one. What’s more, Mr Morley has done it with a very large brain indeed.

Here’s just one of the many, many fecund para­graphs in Words and Music about what he hears when he listens to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’:

The song is a fluid thing of deep, deep­en­ing mys­tery, per­haps because what could be so corny, a pop song about love and desire, which doesn’t mean any­thing bey­ond its own lim­ited world, has become some­thing so pro­found. A pop song about love and desire that suc­ceeds in com­mu­nic­at­ing mil­lions of unique things about the unlim­ited worlds of love and lust. It’s about how every­day life and love are a shift­ing set of com­prom­ises between the ordin­ary and the extraordinary…”

I’ve always admired Paul Morley, and for that reason I have never actu­ally, prop­erly listened to Paul Morley before. I have often heard him and been very glad to hear him while I did some­thing else more inter­est­ing, but I’ve never really paid close atten­tion before. Words and Music is the first time I’ve sat alone in my room with him and really listened. Unlike Morley’s jour­ney with Kylie, I’m not so sure that this has only enhanced my affection.

It isn’t the way that he writes — which is all too fre­quently stun­ning. Or the inex­haust­ible con­nectiv­ity of his mind, which has more ideas per sen­tence, per phrase, per comma, than most writers have in their entire lives. It’s just that, like the mean­der­ing nar­rat­ive and delib­er­ately über-pretentious con­ceit of this book, I’ve lost track of what the point of Morley is. Perhaps though, this is my fault. You see, I have also lost track of what the point of pop music is.

Once upon a nos­tal­gic time, pop music was inves­ted with far too much mean­ing. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, Morley’s hey­day as a rock critic, when he coined the phrase New Pop to describe a kind of pop that was smart and super­fi­cial, pro­found and com­mer­cial all at once. In other words, pop music at that time was made in the image of Paul Morley. Little won­der then that he actu­ally entered the Matrix, via pro­jects he was involved in to vary­ing degrees such as Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and trans­figured him­self into a pop star/Svengali/theoretician of cool.

However, since then pop music, which once seemed so import­ant, so pre­cious and so other-worldly at the same time as deli­ciously vul­gar, has swal­lowed everything and become the world, and has inev­it­ably become, like us, rather less inter­est­ing than we thought. Like Kylie, it is bland, shiny, ser­vice­able, very pro­fes­sional and for the most part entirely undeserving of ser­i­ous thought.

Morley knows about this prob­lem. It is after all his prob­lem. Hence the poser on the back of his book: “Has Pop Burnt Itself Out?” Hence the book is (very) loosely based around the (delib­er­ately über-pretentious) con­ceit of Morley driv­ing in a Smart car with Kylie towards “a vir­tual city built of sound and ideas” while try­ing to con­vince her to allow him to write a book about her. It’s all very ironic, but it is also, I’m sorry to say, ulti­mately a bit pathetic too.

Morley of course knows this as well. His very large brain under­stands everything, but it most par­tic­u­larly under­stands that writ­ing about music is as stu­pid as “dan­cing to archi­tec­ture”. In fact, it’s rather easier to ima­gine Morley dan­cing to archi­tec­ture than actual music, which would be really ridicu­lous. Actually, the trouble with this book is not that it’s like watch­ing someone dance to archi­tec­ture, but that some­times it’s like watch­ing your dad dance to architecture.

Music is a form of archi­tec­ture. Especially the kind of pop­u­lar music that Morley is most inter­ested in: the cool, struc­tured, math­em­at­ical elec­tronic music which began with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and which influ­enced his favour­ite bands New Order and Human League. And also ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, which steals from all of these.

As Morley puts it in his groovy archi­tect boogie:

It is an eleg­ant demon­stra­tion of the way that all great music is about a rela­tion­ship between sound and silence, between hold­ing and let­ting go, between motion and pause.”

The archi­tec­ture of Morley’s own book is, how­ever, a mess. Even the blurb has no struc­ture: “part novel, part cri­tique, part his­tory, part con­fes­sional, part philo­soph­ical enquiry, part ulti­mate book of musical lists”. If it were a build­ing, Words and Music would be con­demned. As a piece of pop it would not be reques­ted on the main dance­floor, but it might pos­sibly make the chill-out room.

Of course, this is delib­er­ate too. Words and Music is ambi­ent, often dazzling prose that never really arrives any­where, least of all a “vir­tual city built of sounds and ideas”. Morley is Eno via a word­pro­cessor rather than a syn­thes­iser. As Morley writes on his hero: “Eno, to edit a long story short, coined the word ‘ambi­ent’ to describe a kind of intel­lec­tual easy– listen­ing music. An easy-listening music that has cer­tain levels of dif­fi­culty in its make-up. A back­ground music that you could take — as a weighty pro­voca­tion — or leave — as a sound drift­ing around its own pretty pointlessness.”

Likewise, to edit a long, long story short, Morley’s prose drifts around its own pretty pointlessness.

 

 

 

 

 


Morrissey Hasn’t Changed — We Have

Morrissey is always going to dis­ap­point those who want him to be some kind of ‘singing Stephen Fry with a quiff’, argues Mark Simpson

grey Morrissey Hasnt Changed   We Have

 Originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog

Because the 80s is the dec­ade that actu­ally ended the 20th Century – the 90s was just an after-party clean-up oper­a­tion – it’s also the dec­ade that never came to an end itself. In fact, the 80s is the dec­ade that just won’t die.

Economy in (‘Big Bang’) reces­sion. Tories in power. Cuts on the table. Riots on the streets. Royal wed­dings on the telly. The Falklands becom­ing a fight­ing issue. And my mother com­plain­ing about Morrissey: ‘I see that chap you like so much has been in the papers again. Ridiculous man! And he still can’t sing!’

As Madonna might put it, it’s all a bit reductive.

In fact every­one has been enjoy­ing moan­ing about Morrissey lately – just like the good old days. In case you some­how missed it, at a per­form­ance in Argentina last week, his band appeared in t-shirts prin­ted with the charm­ing mes­sage ‘WE HATE WILLIAM AND KATE’ (remem­ber 80s protest t-shirts?).

Perhaps wor­ried this might be over­looked back home, the former Smiths front-man also offered this bou­quet to his Argentine fans about those bit­terly con­tested, sparsely-populated rocks in the South Atlantic: ‘Everybody knows they belong to you’.

The Times, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun and Mail all duti­fully denounced Morrissey’s big mouth. The Guardian for its part ran an earn­est dis­cus­sion between two music crit­ics titled: ‘Is Morrissey a national treas­ure?’ (The answer seemed to be ‘yes – but a very naughty one.’)

Not bad for a 52-year-old crooner cur­rently without a record con­tract. But then, just like that other 80s diva keen on hair­spray and frilly-collared blouses, we’ll never entirely be rid of him.

The British exper­i­ence of the 80s is forever dom­in­ated by two very dif­fi­cult per­son­al­it­ies. Both from the north, both unafraid to speak their mind, and both pos­sess­ing a gender all of their own.

And while one was a working-class mil­it­ant veget­arian anarch­ist Sandie Shaw fan with a flair for homo­erotic imagery, and the other a bossy petit bour­geois social Darwinist and devotee of General Pinochet who fam­ously out­lawed the ‘pro­mo­tion of homo­sexu­al­ity’, both of them were rad­ic­als on a revenge trip.

But if Margaret Thatcher owned the 80s, Steven Patrick Morrissey stole its youth. Or at least, the youth that didn’t want to be a part of Thatcher’s 80s. The Smiths were not just an‘alternative’ band: they were the altern­at­ive that Maggie said didn’t exist.

In fact, The Smiths were reviled by almost every­one at the time – Fleet Street, the BBC (they were effect­ively banned from day­time Radio 1), the record busi­ness (they were signed to a teeny-weeny Indie label), and indeed most of the record buy­ing pub­lic (their singles struggled to even get into the top 20).

But they have become the heart of a dec­ade that didn’t have one. They are now the band that every­one liked – two or three dec­ades after the event.

Including, most fam­ously, David Cameron, who used The Smiths and Morrissey as a Tory re-branding and detox­i­fy­ing tool at least as import­ant as those melt­ing gla­ciers he went to gawp at. Declaring The Smiths his favour­ite group not long after gain­ing the lead­er­ship of the ‘Nasty Party’, he was even pic­tured, if memory serves me right, with a copy of Morrissey’s 2005 album Ringleader of the Tormentors on his desk.

But Morrissey, whatever you may think of him, isn’t a man to be assim­il­ated lightly. Especially by a Chipping Norton Tory.

When, in 2010, his estranged former Smiths col­lab­or­ator Johnny Marr tweeted that he ‘for­bade’ David Cameron from lik­ing the Smiths, animal rights act­iv­ist Morrissey endorsed him, adding:

David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – appar­ently for pleas­ure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recor­ded; in fact, they were made as a reac­tion against such violence.’

No-one can be genu­inely sur­prised that someone who called an album The Queen is Dead is fiercely anti-Royalist. No-one can be shocked that the man who sang ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ is no fan of the rem­nants of the British Empire. And let’s not for­get his fam­ous 1984 quip: ‘The sor­row of the Brighton bomb­ing is that Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed’, or the track ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ for his 1988 album Viva Hate.

Unless, that is, they hoped that Morrissey had mel­lowed with age and become some sort of singing Stephen Fry with a quiff. Morrissey’s views haven’t changed. Morrissey hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t grown up. He’s still an adoles­cent cur­mudgeon, an oth­er­worldly prophet from Stretford — he’s just older and thicker around the middle, and with a bit more cash to spend. He did, after all, prom­ise us again and again that he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change.

It’s we, his fans, who have changed. If we’re embar­rassed by his antics it may be because we’ve finally become the people we used to hate.

Download Mark Simpson’s acclaimed ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey on Kindle

Jungian Complexes at the Multiplex

This week David Cronenberg’s feature-length shrink cos­tume drama, A Dangerous Method, about the most fam­ous — and doomed — love-affair in psy­cho­ana­lysis, premières in the UK. I’m talk­ing of course about the pas­sion­ate, twis­ted and teas­ingly uncon­sum­mated romance between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Despite very mixed reviews I’ll be going to see it when it’s put on gen­eral release as I’m a sucker for this kind of costume-drama nos­tal­gia — and let’s face it, any­thing to do with psy­cho­ana­lysis in the skin-deep Twenty First Century is nos­tal­gia. Although both are good act­ors, the cast­ing of Michael Fassbender as the mous­ta­chioed Jung and Viggo Mortenson as the bearded Freud seems, like some of the lush loc­a­tions in the trailer, to be mostly an aes­thetic rather than dra­matic consideration.

Put another way, A Dangerous Method looks like Brokeback Alp, with cigars.

But this is a love-triangle, with Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, an hys­ter­ical Russian patient of Jung’s that he ends up hav­ing a sexual rela­tion­ship with, much to Freud’s dis­ap­proval. Spielrein, who des­pite (or because of) her entan­gle­ment with Jung ended up a patient and then con­fid­ante of Freud’s, was to become an ana­lyst her­self and her work may have inspired both men — who were to end up bit­ter enemies.

Although it’s pretty clear that in most import­ant things Freud was right and Jung just plain wrong, nobody is really inter­ested in that. In fact, pre­cisely because of the airy-fairy inco­her­ence of his ideas, and because in his ruth­less egot­ism he was more of the kind of per­son we can relate to now, Jung seems to be regarded more sym­path­et­ic­ally these days than Freud. Jung the keen astro­lo­ger who came up with the breath­tak­ingly neb­u­lous con­cepts of ‘racial memory’, ‘the col­lect­ive uncon­scious’ and ‘syn­chron­icity’ is hip. Or maybe, just a hipster.

But as an incur­able Freudian myself I would say that. Here’s a par­tisan review I penned of a bio­graphy of Jung, The Ayran Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung’ by Richard Noll, back in the 20th Century — when such things seemed to matter.

 

JEW-ENVY AND OTHER JUNGIAN COMPLEXES

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday, April 1998)

On October 28, 1907 Carl Gustav Jung was in an unchar­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally can­did mood. On that day he wrote a love let­ter to Sigmund Freud, father of the new Psychoanalytical Movement that Jung had just joined. But this love let­ter, in keep­ing with Freud’s own the­or­ies, was a touch ambi­val­ent: ‘My ven­er­a­tion for you has some­thing of the char­ac­ter of a “reli­gious crush”,’ he admit­ted. ‘Though it does not really bother me, I still feel it is dis­gust­ing and ridicu­lous because of its undeni­able erotic under­tone. This abom­in­able feel­ing comes from the fact that as a boy I was the vic­tim of a sexual assault of a man I once worshipped.’

It turned out just five years later that this some­thing ‘dis­gust­ing’, ‘ridicu­lous’ and ‘abom­in­able’ did bother the impec­cably Aryan doc­tor from an impec­cably pious Swiss German bour­geois fam­ily after all, and Jung split from the Jewish Darwin to found his own psy­cho­lo­gical movement.

Interestingly, the split with Freud was ostens­ibly over Freud’s insist­ence that the sexual drives were the ori­ginal motor force of all human actions. Jung felt this didn’t allow for the ‘nat­ural’ reli­gious and spir­itual inclin­a­tions of the human race. In other words, Freud refused to accept that ‘reli­gion’ was some kind of basic drive and that a ‘reli­gious crush’ might have ‘erotic under­tones’ but wasn’t erotic in ori­gin. In Jung’s eyes, he was once again a vic­tim of a sexual assault from a man he once wor­shipped. (He even wrote later of Freud’s ‘rape of the Holy’.)

As Freud feared, Jung and his myth­o­lo­gical mumbo-jumbo proved to be a ral­ly­ing point for many who rejec­ted the pess­im­istic and dif­fi­cult view of the human con­di­tion that psy­cho­ana­lysis put for­ward, pre­fer­ring Jung’s romantic meta­phys­ics of ‘the col­lect­ive uncon­scious’ and ‘arche­types’ to ser­i­ous enquiry into the nature of human desire. To this day people at parties talk­ing about being in ther­apy often say, ‘Oh, but it’s not Freudian, of course. It’s Jungian.’ As if this were some­thing to brag about.

Richard Noll’s book The Ayran Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung should make them and all the New Age Jungian groupies think twice before using his name as a byword for artsy soph­ist­ic­a­tion and rejec­tion of authoritarianism.

For all Freud’s flaws next to Jung he’s a blem­ish­less as Lou Andreas-Salome’s found­a­tion cream. If Noll’s research only claimed that Jung was a char­latan who lied about his research and took the credit for the dis­cov­er­ies of oth­ers – which it does – then few people would turn a hair. But his book goes much fur­ther than this. It shows how Jung set out to turn ana­lysis into a Dionysian reli­gion with him­self as its lion-headed god­head, how he believed him­self to be the Aryan Christ and how his Volkish, pagan beliefs com­pli­men­ted and fed into National Socialism and anti-semitism. And how he brain­washed and dom­in­eered his mostly female patients who had a ‘reli­gious crush’ on him (which he fre­quently exploited in that ‘spir­itual’ way that reli­gious cult lead­ers too often do).

The pic­ture that Noll – who is, it’s import­ant to point out, is a non-Freudian psy­cho­lo­gist – pieces together of Jung is worse than even Jung’s former Freudian col­leagues sus­pec­ted at the time. Jung was, by any stand­ards, bark­ing.

But it was Jung’s rela­tion­ship with Freud that seemed to shape his mad­ness; even his obses­sion with Mithraism. Just before his split with Freud, Jung wrote extens­ively about the tauroc­tony, or ritual slay­ing of a bull that was cent­ral image of Mithraism. Mithras is depic­ted as pin­ning down a bull and slay­ing it by plunging a dag­ger into its neck. A scor­pion or lion is usu­ally depic­ted attack­ing the bull’s testicles. Jung, nat­ur­ally, was a great fol­lower of astro­logy and Freud’s star-sign was Taurus – The Bull. Even the scor­pion attack­ing the bull’s testicles looks like Jung’s attack on Freud’s libido theory.

Freud had pub­lic­ally anoin­ted Jung as his ‘son’, declared his love for him, and looked for­ward to him inher­it­ing the lead­er­ship of Psychoanalytical Movement (as a hand­some Aryan Christian he would bring the respect­ab­il­ity to psy­cho­ana­lysis which Freud craved, but which he knew he could never quite deliver). Hubristically, per­haps, Freud turned out to be a vic­tim of the very Oedipus Complex he’d dis­covered. Jung failed to nego­ti­ate his ambi­val­ent feel­ings towards Daddy Freud and ‘murdered’ him. Jung turned psy­cho­ana­lysis into a reli­gion to replace Christianity and real­ised a long-held German aspir­a­tion by repla­cing the Jewish ‘Christ’, Freud, with his Aryan self.

My own the­ory is that Freud was a vic­tim of Jew-envy. Jung knew that Freud was a smarter, bet­ter, big­ger man than him and his ego was out­raged and suf­foc­ated by this real­isa­tion. Like his brown-shirted coun­try­men were to do twenty years later, he resolved rid him­self of the incon­veni­ent reminder of his inferi­or­ity. Indeed, when the Nazis – strongly influ­enced by the same Volkish tra­di­tions as Jung – gained power in the Fatherland, it was Jung who per­suaded the International Society for Psychiatry to accept the expul­sion of Jews from the German Society.

Jung’s femme-fatale seduction-assassination syn­drome was not only dir­ec­ted at Freud. As Freud put it, in a let­ter to Sandor Ferenczi in November 1912 about his last ser­i­ous com­mu­nic­a­tion with Jung: ‘I spared him noth­ing at all, told him calmly that a friend­ship with him couldn’t be main­tained, that he him­self gave rise to the intim­acy that he so cruelly broke off; that things were not at all in order in his rela­tions with men, not just with me but with oth­ers as well. He repels them all after a while…’. This is why Jung lit­er­ally turned him­self into a God – there wasn’t room for other men in his world, or, per­haps, the dis­gust­ing, ridicu­lous and abom­in­able feel­ings they pro­voked in him.

But per­haps the most intriguing part of Freud’s obser­va­tion was his ref­er­ence to Jung’s trus­ted – and recently deceased – assist­ant: ‘His refer­ring to his sad exper­i­ence with Honegger reminded me of homo­sexu­als or anti-Semites who become mani­fest after a dis­ap­point­ment with a woman or a Jew.’

Johann Jakob Honegger was a young assist­ant Jung took under his wing in 1909, telling Freud he had entrus­ted everything he knew to Johann. He was also to anoint him as his ‘son’ and heir in the way that Freud had done with Jung. But by 1911, when he was only 25, Honegger com­mit­ted sui­cide with an over­dose of morphine. Noll doesn’t go into the details of what promp­ted this – sui­cides are fre­quently acts of revenge – but he does give a start­ling account of how twenty years later Jung ‘murdered’ the dead man.

In 1911, the same year as his death, Honegger had dis­covered in a psychotic patient of his the fam­ous ‘solar phal­lus’ hal­lu­cin­a­tion – the basis of Jung’s the­ory of the ‘col­lect­ive uncon­scious’ and notion of ‘racial memory’. But accord­ing to Noll, from 1930 onward, know­ing that Honegger had been dead twenty years and had no liv­ing heirs to com­plain, Jung deleted Honegger from his­tory and took the credit for the case himself.

Jung was so excited by this hal­lu­cin­a­tion, in which the patient ima­gined that a large phal­lus hung from the sun mov­ing back and forth cre­ated the wind, because it seemed remark­ably sim­ilar to a ritual enacted in the pre-Christian Mithraic litur­gies. But Noll shows how Jung later lied about the details of this case, claim­ing that the patient could have had no access to inform­a­tion about Mithraic rituals, in an attempt to use it to ‘prove’ the exist­ence of the col­lect­ive unconscious.

But the philo­sophies of East and West occult reli­gions had any­way been dis­sem­in­ated for years by pamph­lets and books that could be bought at news­pa­per kiosks. Neo-paganism any­one? Hellenistic mys­tery cults? Zoroastrianism? Gnosticism? Hermeticism? Alchemy? Swedenborgianism? Spiritualism? Vegetarianism? Hinduism? Or per­haps a nice well-matured bit of Neo-Platonism? Jung’s whole ana­lyt­ical psy­cho­logy cult was pieced together out of pre­cisely this roll-call of des­pair; a pick ‘n’ mix of hys­ter­ical symptoms.

Noll’s case study is slightly more sym­path­etic to Jung (or at least non-judgemental) than I make out in this con­densed ver­sion of his argu­ments (full dis­clos­ure: I’m an incur­able Freudian). But I would ima­gine that after read­ing it most people would find it dif­fi­cult not to con­clude that if Carl Gustav were alive today he’d be liv­ing in L.A., scan­ning the hori­zon for fly­ing sau­cers, writ­ing astro­logy columns for the National Enquirer and selling Solar-Phallus key fobs on his website.

And still mut­ter­ing about that old bearded Jewish guy with the cigar whom he wor­shipped once but turned out to just have one thing on his mind.

Assume the Position: a queer defence of hazing


grey Assume the Position: a queer defence of hazing

Mark Simpson wants to be be soundly smacked with a paddle

(Out magazine, 2006)

When I joined my local rugby team, I was made to do ter­rible, awful things. Even now, all these years later, I feel dis­tressed and choked up recount­ing what happened. I had to stand on a chair as a full pint of beer was shoved in my groin, soak­ing it. I then had to drink a yard of ale (three pints in a yard-long horn-shaped glass) with a bucket in front of me. Later, sev­eral of us had to run around the rugby pitch stark naked. In January.

I was trau­mat­ized. I may never recover. This wasn’t what I had signed up for! I want to com­plain! I’m going to sue! Someone’s gotta pay!

You see, it was a ter­rible, awful, unfor­get­table, wound­ing dis­ap­point­ment.

It was just all so… restrained. I had been hop­ing that we would be per­form­ing some of the other bond­ing and ini­ti­ation rites that I’d heard about, such as the one where one naked team-mate bends over and a pint is poured over his ass, down his crack, and over his sack while another sits under­neath him with head back and mouth open. Or the soggy bis­cuit game: a circle jerk over a cream cracker where the last one to come has to eat it. Or per­haps the car­rot game, where a root veget­able is shoved up the rookie’s ass and a pink rib­bon tied around his erect penis (some­thing to do with the car­rot I sup­pose), which he has to keep on for two weeks, to be checked at each train­ing session.

Frankly, I would have even been happy with the rel­at­ively vanilla haz­ing that all new recruits to a crack U.K. Army regi­ment have to par­ti­cip­ate in: According to a straight sol­dier pal of mine, the “old-timers” rub their asses and gen­it­als over the faces of the new recruits or “crows”, as they’re called. Sounds like an excel­lent icebreaker to me. It is just a shame it has to hap­pen only once—why can’t you join every day?

But, alas, none of the really juicy stuff for me at my rugby club—just a wet crotch on my jeans and a frost-shriveled penis. Judging by the excited media reports, things would have been very dif­fer­ent if I’d been a col­lege fresh­man in the United States and joined the foot­ball team or one of those kinky fra­tern­it­ies with those Greek names.

At the University of Vermont the “ele­phant walk” is, or was, rather pop­u­lar: Pledges drink warm beer and walk naked in a line, hold­ing the gen­it­als of the lucky lad in front of them. At Tiffin University in Ohio the soc­cer team has been known to strip their fresh­men play­ers to their under­wear, hand­cuff them together, scrawl vul­gar­it­ies on their bod­ies, and make them lick one another’s nipples. Sometimes the fun isn’t just reserved for mem­bers of the team. At a Utah high school two wrest­lers stripped a male cheer­leader in the school locker room and “attemp­ted to shave his pubic hair” with an elec­tric clip­per. Attempted? Does that mean they didn’t suc­ceed? That’s some cheerleader.

truth be told, even in the United States, haz­ing isn’t what it used to be. This ancient rite is under attack from all sides: the media, fem­in­ists, moth­ers, edu­ca­tional author­it­ies, legis­lat­ors, police—and also many gays. Hazing is being shamed up and stamped out. The only reason we know about the sor­did goings-on in frat houses across the nation is because the author­it­ies were involved, lit­ig­a­tion was ini­ti­ated, crim­inal charges brought, and the media involved. A big stink, in other words. Most respect­able people seem to agree haz­ing is wrong, sex­ist, and homo­phobic and must be stopped.

Now, per­haps it’s because I’m not ter­ribly respect­able, or maybe because I enjoy cham­pi­on­ing lost causes, but I think haz­ing can be a valu­able, ven­er­able mas­cu­line insti­tu­tion that is worth defend­ing, par­tic­u­larly by men who are inter­ested in other men. Hazing is the last rite of pas­sage left for boys in a world that doesn’t seem to want boys to grow into men any­more, a very phys­ical form of male bond­ing in a soci­ety that wants us to remain as dis­con­nec­ted as pos­sible, an anti­dote to indi­vidu­al­ism, which in this atom­ized day and age tends to just mean ali­en­ated consumerism.

Yes, I real­ize that haz­ing can be dan­ger­ous. It can turn into abuse and bul­ly­ing or out­right sad­ism, as in those widely repor­ted instances of boys being sod­om­ized with mop handles and pinecones. Boys, like men, can be plain dumb and dan­ger­ous and occa­sion­ally fatal. Jocks can be obnox­ious, arrog­ant little shits, espe­cially to male cheer­lead­ers. But my point would be that this is all we ever hear about. Hazing has been tarred with one self-righteous pur­it­an­ical brush.

Scandalized media reports and a pro­lif­er­a­tion of anti­haz­ing Web sites such as BadJocks.com and StopHazing.org have helped to decis­ively turn pub­lic opin­ion against haz­ing (though in some cases with an admix­ture of voyeur­ism for the very thing that they are cam­paign­ing against). Hazing is now the sub­ject of a full-fledged moral panic about “our chil­dren”. This September sees the First National Conference on High School Hazing—and you can be sure they’re not teach­ing del­eg­ates how to con­duct a suc­cess­ful ele­phant walk. Most states now have anti­haz­ing laws, and most uni­ver­sit­ies have dra­conian anti­haz­ing policies.

Here’s the University of Vermont’s all-embracing defin­i­tion of what haz­ing is and thus what is ver­boten:

any act, whether phys­ical, men­tal, emo­tional, or psy­cho­lo­gical, which sub­jects another per­son, vol­un­tar­ily or invol­un­tar­ily, to any­thing that may abuse, mis­treat, degrade, humi­li­ate, har­ass, or intim­id­ate him/her, or which may in any fash­ion com­prom­ise his/her inher­ent dig­nity as a person”.

Which sounds to me like a recipe for a very dull Saturday night indeed.

Don’t we all want our “inher­ent dig­nity as a per­son” to be com­prom­ised some­times - espe­cially at uni­ver­sity? And why on earth would you join a fra­tern­ity, or an ice-hockey team, or in fact any all-male group if you were so con­cerned about your inher­ent dig­nity as a per­son? Wouldn’t it be wiser just to stay at home knit­ting? Hazing is used by these groups for pre­cisely that pur­pose: to put off those who aren’t really ser­i­ous about put­ting the group or the team above their own damn pre­cious­ness or good sense.

Note how haz­ing is defined as “vol­un­tar­ily or invol­un­tar­ily”: Consent is irrel­ev­ant to the powers that be in their zeal to stamp out haz­ing (just as it used to be with homo­sexu­al­ity). They know best. Nor is it merely extreme cases such as sod­om­iz­ing with pinecones that the anti­haz­ing zealots are against but “any act, whether phys­ical, men­tal, emo­tional, or psy­cho­lo­gical” that might be kind of naughty, kind of dirty, kind of fun. In itself a rather con­vin­cing argu­ment for haz­ing, at least for young people. Mom and the cops and the col­lege dean don’t like it? Great! Bring on the hand­cuffs, warm beer, and Jell-O!

Which brings me onto the aspect of haz­ing that, as you may pos­sibly have guessed, I have a fond fas­cin­a­tion for, and is a cent­ral part of my desire to defend the practice—and prob­ably why my defense will prob­ably suc­ceed in finally killing it off: the homo­erotic dimen­sion, the “gay­ness” of what these mostly straight guys like to do to one another and their private parts.

Granted, a lot of haz­ing, espe­cially with the crack­down going on today, has little or noth­ing to do with homo­erot­ics. It may be just Jackass-style crazi­ness involving oncom­ing traffic, gal­lons of water, and jump­ing out of trees. Mind, haz­ing does, like me, keep return­ing to men’s butts and pen­ises and testicles (any­one for “tea-bagging”?) even when it tries not to. Obviously, I think this is entirely under­stand­able and requires no explan­a­tion what­so­ever, let alone patho­lo­giz­ing it and crim­in­al­iz­ing it. But clearly plenty of people think otherwise.

So why is haz­ing so homo? Perhaps because all-male groups, accord­ing to Freud, are bound together by barely sub­lim­ated homo­erotic feel­ings. It’s what inspires them to such heart­warm­ing loy­alty, such pas­sion­ate self-sacrifice and heroic endeavor—Eros can wrestle the instinct for self-preservation to the ground. The haz­ing rituals with their sim­u­lated homo sex could be seen as a sym­bolic group fuck that gets the “sex” over with yet turns all the mem­bers of the team or fra­tern­ity into a band of lov­ers. Of course, I would prefer that they fol­lowed the exem­plar of the Theban Band, or the Spartans of ancient Greece, the warrior-lovers who didn’t stop at sim­u­lated homo sex (and were widely regarded as invin­cible). But you can’t have everything.

There are also putat­ively Darwinian explan­a­tions for the homo­erot­ics of male groups. In our pre­his­toric past the bond­ing of hunters and war­ri­ors was vital to the sur­vival of the tribe. Those tribes that sur­vived and thrived and passed on their genes were those in which men were will­ing to sac­ri­fice breed­ing oppor­tun­it­ies and com­forts of life with the chicks back at camp for weeks and months of intim­acy with men and a will­ing­ness to serve and take orders. Prehistoric man, in other words, was a bit of a leather queen. This is prob­ably the reason why hyper­mas­culin­ity is some­times dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate from homo­sexu­al­ity, espe­cially dur­ing Hell Week.

Alas, many gays see haz­ing as neces­sar­ily homo­phobic and appear to buy into the simplistic fem­in­ist ana­lysis of power and dom­in­a­tion. In an online art­icle Cyd Zeigler Jr. of Outsports.com recog­nizes that haz­ing is often deeply homo­erotic (and lists some of the same scan­dals I have), but sees it as essen­tially homo­phobic: “Whether it’s sod­om­iz­ing them or mak­ing them wear women’s panties, the notion of for­cing younger play­ers to sub­mit to team vet­er­ans comes right out of the hand­book of anti-gay ste­reo­types.” Clinching the mat­ter, homo­erotic haz­ing appar­ently “emas­cu­lates the victim”.

Leaving aside that the out-and-proud gay world isn’t exactly free of power, dom­in­a­tion, and humi­li­ation, or for that mat­ter anti­gay ste­reo­types, this asser­tion about the emas­cu­la­tion of the vic­tim doesn’t always hold true. While I have some sym­pathy with this approach, in its attach­ment to vic­tim­hood it seems to be rather more rigidly homo­phobic than haz­ing is.

The curi­ous para­dox of haz­ing is that while it may well regard “fag­gi­ness” and “soft­ness” as undesir­able, it actu­ally makes the homo­erotic cent­ral to mem­ber­ship of the group. Besides, rather than emas­cu­lat­ing the new mem­bers of group, the vet­er­ans wish to mas­culin­ize them, and they use homo­erot­ics to that end. Hazing itself is not an act of hos­til­ity but of affec­tion: tough love. While haz­ing can be homo­erotic and homo­phobic, this is not—and it’s dif­fi­cult for us self-centered homos to real­ize this—its point.

The fam­ous Sambia tribe of New Guinea (fam­ous because anthro­po­lo­gists won’t leave them alone) don’t sim­u­late homo­sexu­al­ity in their own haz­ing rituals: they prac­tice it. Adolescent boys are taken from their moth­ers by the older youths and required to repeatedly give oral sex to them—they are told that the semen will mas­culin­ize them. In today’s uni­ver­sit­ies, of course, the semen is replaced by warm Budweiser and pro­tein shakes. From a Sambian point of view, the dom­in­ance of the anti­haz­ing lobby today would prob­ably rep­res­ent an insuf­fer­able vic­tory of the pro­tec­ted domestic world of Mom, who deep down doesn’t want her cher­ished baby boy to ever be exposed to any­thing extreme or dis­taste­ful or dan­ger­ous or… male.

But then, it some­times seems that our con­tem­por­ary cul­ture has less and less use for, or appre­ci­ation of, mas­culin­ity that isn’t merely dec­or­at­ive or good at DIY. Paradoxically, as the tol­er­a­tion and vis­ib­il­ity of new­fangled gays and gay­ness in our cul­ture has risen, intol­er­ance of old­fangled homo­erotic mas­cu­line rituals has also increased. Very often, society’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with haz­ing is, like mine, a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with its “gay­ness.” But in reverse.

When a private video of drunken off-duty U.K. Royal Marines run­ning around naked together in some god­for­saken place was sold to the tabloids in 2005, it caused an out­cry. Officially, it was because one of the Marines was shown being kicked in the head by a drunken officer, and this was evid­ence of bul­ly­ing. But as the repeated print­ing of the naked pic­tures showed, it was mostly about the fact that they were fit young mar­ines, naked together, being gay.

The (extremely hot) vic­tim, 23-year-old Ray Simmons, came for­ward to say he didn’t hold the officer (who was now the sub­ject of a mil­it­ary police invest­ig­a­tion) respons­ible, and it was just a bit of fun that got out of hand. However, the host of reader let­ters that the stor­ies promp­ted showed the real pre­oc­cu­pa­tion was not the bul­ly­ing but the gay­ness. A typ­ic­ally hissy example from one male reader: “I am utterly dis­gus­ted by the beha­vior of our so-called Marines…. This kind of thing would be bet­ter suited to a gay 18–30 hol­i­day on a remote island some­where. Our enemies across the globe must be laugh­ing at us.”

So soci­ety appar­ently still expects Marines to go and kill and be killed any­where in the world at the drop of a daisy-cutter to defend our ener­vated suburban—and voyeuristic—lifestyle but ridicules and con­demns them for doing what men have to do and have always done to bond and let off steam. Fortunately, the Marines aren’t tak­ing any notice: “People think a load of men get­ting naked together is a bit gay,” said Simmons, “but we don’t care what oth­ers think. It’s just Marine humor.”

Well said that man. Don’t let the square civvies—or the envi­ous homos like me—try to shame you into being as joy­less, lonely, and bereft of real camaraderie and human con­tact as the rest of us. It’s a sign of our isol­ated times that most people today could never say the words “we don’t care what people think” because:

(a) they don’t belong to a group, or in fact to any­thing except a super­mar­ket loy­alty scheme; and

(b) they care about what people will think rather more than they do about their buddies.

The homo­erot­ics of haz­ing are not, in fact, neces­sar­ily homo­phobic or gay. They’re just guy.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m all in favor of guys.

German-American Pride and Prejudice

Review of Bryan Malessa’s new novel The War Room, by Mark Simpson in The Financial Times.

grey German American Pride and Prejudice

As an Englishman, I’ve always found the US to be a very German-flavoured kind of place. The organ­isa­tion; the pres­id­en­tial prin­ciple; the laws against jay­walk­ing; the love of tech­no­logy; the Protestantism. But almost nowhere do you find it acknow­ledged – which is odd, as almost every other eth­ni­city that went into the fam­ous “melt­ing pot” is cel­eb­rated from the rooftops and the floats on the St Patrick’s Day Parade.

But now an American writer has finally outed the US as secretly very German indeed. As Bryan Malessa’s new novel The War Room makes plain, Germans make up by far the largest eth­nic group in the US, but are also almost com­pletely invis­ible. As far back as the 18th cen­tury, the Anglo-US estab­lish­ment wor­ried that the vast num­bers of German migrants would sweep them away. They suc­cess­fully deman­ded that they stop speak­ing German. But the demands con­tin­ued into the 20th cen­tury. “They had stopped call­ing them­selves German in favour of German-American, but they acceded to Roosevelt’s demand to drop their hyphen: they under­went a final trans­form­a­tion from German American to American.”

Then, after liv­ing through two wars as enemies of the US, “they became America’s first post-ethnic cul­ture: they dis­ap­peared into a gen­eric state of tribe­less white, the primary stock sim­mer­ing in the melt­ing pot, from which they never fully emerged.”

The War Room is set, in its open­ing chapters, in a mid­west­ern vil­lage, the American heart­land. Sam is a curi­ous young boy who wants to find out where he comes from. His father, a tyr­an­nical, cigar-chomping German émigré from East Prussia, which became part of the Soviet Union at the end of the second world war, doesn’t want his past unearthed. He for­bids any German being spoken in the house and refuses to answer Sam’s ques­tions about his grand­par­ents, meth­od­ic­ally beat­ing him up instead.
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But the old man is con­flic­ted and in his base­ment den (a meta­phor for the sub­con­scious?) he keeps memen­toes from “The Old Country” and lec­tures his son about the hid­den German con­tri­bu­tion to America, proudly driv­ing an old Porsche around town like a Panzer. Porsche, he reminds Sam reg­u­larly, made the Tiger, the most advanced tank of the second world war.
Eventually his father deserts the fam­ily, and Sam, who loved his daddy des­pite the beat­ings, spir­als, heart­broken, into drug addic­tion before drift­ing to California.

Billed as “an epic invest­ig­a­tion into America’s under­belly”, The War Room has a Catcher in the Rye qual­ity to it, but without the tox­icity. Not least because the stifled homo-erotic under­tones of that novel are fully expressed in The War Room, where Sam has a rela­tion­ship with a man in California.

But this is not another coming-out novel; instead the rela­tion­ship is just another way for Malessa’s prot­ag­on­ist to explore his iden­tity. It is an iden­tity that res­ol­utely defies defin­i­tion. As Sam says at the end of the novel: “By the time I was in my mid-forties I had lived in 60 dif­fer­ent places, slept in well over a thou­sand dif­fer­ent beds, wandered across 30 coun­tries and called three dif­fer­ent con­tin­ents home – through birth, des­cent and mar­riage. I never did learn why, to be con­sidered authen­tic, you had to belong to a state, nation, reli­gion, eth­ni­city or sexual orientation.”

In his desire to make the case for the German-American con­tri­bu­tion, though, Malessa does some­times over­step the mark: he seems to sug­gest that German-Americans did more to defeat the Nazis than any­one else (Supreme Commander of European Forces General Dwight Eisenhower was German-American).

The War Room also meanders, but this isn’t neces­sar­ily a bad thing, given its theme. This is a very read­able road book even if, like Sam, one some­times finds one­self miss­ing the absent tyr­ant father: he is drawn so well in the earlier part of the book that he, rather than Sam, is the real star.

I Love You, Jim Carrey

Watching the exhil­ar­at­ing ‘l’amour fou’ movie ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ recently I found myself fall­ing in love with Jim Carrey all over again — after sev­eral years of tak­ing him for granted.

So much so I for­got he was there all over again. The role of Steven Russell the gay con-man is one he was born to play. It’s a return to the Jim Carrey of The Cable Guy — his best and most over­looked film until now. But a bit more grown up, slightly less scary, and with Ewan McGregor instead of Matthew Broderick as the object of his swirl­ing atten­tions. I don’t fancy Carrey, and I sus­pect McGregor prob­ably doesn’t either, but Carrey in full-on comic mad­man mode is impossible to say no to.

So I thought I’d post this love let­ter to him orgin­ally pub­lished in the Independent on Sunday back in 2002.

grey I Love You, Jim Carrey

Fears of a Clown

He’s the funny guy fam­ous for his devi­ant comic roles. So what is it about Jim Carrey, asks Mark Simpson, that makes him the per­fect embod­i­ment of American psychosis?

(Independent On Sunday 19 May 2002)

Whenever I finally con­fess to my friends that I’m a Jim Carrey fan I almost always get the same reac­tion. “Oh, I see,” they say, look­ing me up and down as if really see­ing me for the first time. “Yes, well, I can’t stand him, I’m afraid.” Then they pull a slightly sour expres­sion as if I’d far­ted and explain: “You see, It’s the…” “…gurn­ing” I say, com­plet­ing their sen­tence. “I know. That’s exactly what I like about him.” Clutching for some middle ground they then offer: “I quite liked him in The Truman Show, though”. It’s at this point that I quickly change the subject.

It’s all a case of mis­taken iden­tity: they see a vul­gar spas­ming idiot where I see a god of com­edy… who is a vul­gar, spas­ming idiot. Hence people who don’t like Jim Carrey will prob­ably like his new movie The Majestic. Like The Truman Show (1998), it is played straight(faced), and very com­pet­ently. People who like Jim Carrey, how­ever, will pull their lower lip over their fore­head in frustration.

Appropriately enough, the film is about mis­taken iden­tity. Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood B-movie scriptwriter who is caught up in the Anti-Red para­noia the 1950s and sacked by his stu­dio and black­lis­ted as a Commie. Of course, Carrey isn’t really a Commie but just “a horny guy” who was try­ing to get into the pants of a girl at col­lege who happened to be a Commie. But the cold war­ri­ors see what they want to see and Carrey is threatened with a subpoena.

So he gets drunk, crashes his car and suf­fers amne­sia, stag­ger­ing into small­town America where he is mis­taken for someone more inter­est­ing again – Luke Trimble, a young Marine who failed to return from the Second World War. The still-grieving town, hav­ing lost sev­eral sons, has a form of mass hys­teria: benign and heal­ing where the McCarthyite vari­ety is malign and divis­ive, and every­one believes he is Trimble, even Luke’s father and his former girl­friend. Carrey/Appleton, still with no idea who he is, decides that he might as well be who they want him to be.

However, there’s another case of mis­taken iden­tity in this movie: Jim Carrey has clearly mis­taken him­self for Jimmy Stewart. Carrey makes a pass­able Stewart, but why on earth should someone who is the unnat­ural love-child of Dionysus and Jerry Lewis want to be Jimmy Stewart? Besides, Stewart isn’t even dead – Tom Hanks, after all, is still with us.

Mr Carrey, who has just turned 40, is ranked num­ber five in Hollywood’s “star power” rat­ings – which effect­ively meas­ures whether we see what we want to see when we look at a screen actor. At 98.46 he comes behind Mr Cruise, Mr Hanks and Ms Roberts who all score a “per­fect” 100, and Mr Gibson at 98.68. Although he is already one of the most fam­ous and wealth­i­est men in America (and recently announced this by buy­ing his own $30 mil­lion jet), Mr Carrey would very much like to close that 1.54 point gap and be a per­fect 100. Hence the Jimmy Stewart preoccupation.

Carrey’s suc­cess of course has come largely through his mani­acal, edgy, inspired, disturbed/disturbing – and gurn­ing – per­form­ances in films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), The Mask (1994), and Liar, Liar (1997). He even almost suc­ceeded in res­cuing the rub­ber cod­piece melt­down that was Batman Forever (1995), with his tox­ic­ally camp inter­pret­a­tion of The Riddler. Alas, Carrey’s ambi­tions are “big­ger” than such roles allow. He wants to be mis­taken for that truly freaky thing: a well-rounded, redeemed human-being. Frankly, his green-furred mis­an­thropic Grinch (The Grinch, 2000) was a more sym­path­etic char­ac­ter than that.

Carrey seems to be a curi­ous, furi­ous ten­sion between a crav­ing for revenge and ador­a­tion. From a Canadian blue-collar trailer park fam­ily with a sickly, hys­ter­ical mother and a manic-depressive father, he tried to please and dis­tract in equal meas­ure. He wrote him­self a cheque for $15 mil­lion when he was start­ing out in the 1980s. (In a curi­ously ambi­val­ent ges­ture, he placed the cheque in his father’s coffin). Having suc­ceeded, he sur­passed fel­low Hollywood comedi­ans such as Steve Martin, Mike Myers and William Shatner – like them, he is a Canadian whose job it is to be mis­taken for an American.

So it’s per­haps no coin­cid­ence that in most of his films he seems to have “iden­tity issues” – dark­ness, dis­in­teg­ra­tion and exhil­ar­at­ing release is always just a few facial tics away. In The Mask, appro­pri­ately enough the film which brought him to the widest pub­lic atten­tion, he plays a mild-mannered nerd who dis­cov­ers a mask which imbues its wearer with the spirit of the Norse god of mis­chief. In Liar, Liar he’s a law­yer beat­ing him­self up to stop him­self from telling the truth. In Me Myself and Irene (2000), he plays a mild-mannered nerdy cop who keeps flip­ping into a devi­ant Mr Hyde personality

And then there is the The Cable Guy (1996), in which he plays a nerdy cable installer who wants nice Matthew Broderick to be his best buddy and flips over into a com­pel­ling psy­chosis when Matthew dis­ap­points him. Of all Carrey’s movies, The Cable Guy is the one which comes closest to the truth of his screen per­sona and also per­haps the truth of the best com­edy – that it is about des­per­a­tion and dark­ness. Carrey is like the Id mon­ster in Forbidden Planet on the ram­page and with a lisp. He turns in one of the most ori­ginal per­form­ances ever seen in a movie – and most reck­less, given that this was his first $20 mil­lion role.

So when the crit­ics pas­ted it and audi­ences used to his “alrighty!” slap­stick hated it, Carrey and his entour­age pan­icked and scrambled to make sure that his future pro­jects would not expose so much of his dark side: that people would see what they wanted to see, instead of the rage of Caliban in the mir­ror. Ironically, even a schmaltzy non-comedy film like The Majestic requires the know­ledge of the dark, Satanic Carrey to sus­tain our interest in his every­guy per­form­ance. The gurn­ing lies underneath.

Carrey is a man clearly pos­sessed by voices – the trashy voices of American pop cul­ture we all hear inside our heads: Captain Kirk, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Elvis, Lucille Ball. He’s a latter-day “Legion”, the Biblical mad­man of Gadarene who spoke in a hun­dred voices, whose evil spir­its were exor­cised by Christ (and who, evicted, promptly com­mand­eered a herd of swine and drove them squeal­ing over a cliff into the sea). Unfortunately, given his “heal­ing” tend­en­cies in his straight movies, Carrey also some­times seems to think he’s Christ too. (In his next movie, Bruce Almighty, he is set to play God.)

Actually, Carrey is someone much more import­ant than God: he is America. At least in terms of his con­tra­dic­tions: hysterical/professional, needy/maniacal, narcissistic/high-minded, base/aspirational, idealistic/hypocritical, cynical/sentimental, amnesiac/media-addicted. In The Majestic Carrey’s char­ac­ter recalls a movie plot but still can’t remem­ber who he is: “You mean you can remem­ber movies but not your own life?” says Laurie Holden. “That’s ter­rible!” Maybe, but it’s not so unusual.

Like The Truman Show, The Majestic ends with Carrey’s char­ac­ter renoun­cing the inau­thenti­city of fame for “real life”. Fortunately for us, the real Jim Carrey is never likely to make that choice.

Does My Brain Look Big in This? Susan Sontag’s ‘Where The Stress Falls’

This week is Susan Sontag’s birth­day. The fam­ous, and pos­sibly last American intel­lec­tual, died in 2004. Below is my some­what irrev­er­ent review of her last book (Independent on Sunday, 2002)

The first sen­tence in Susan Sontag’s latest col­lec­tion of essays is eight lines long, men­tions Camus and Pasternak and ends with the word “impinging”. But would we have it any other way? Sontag dares to look ser­i­ous in a way that is some­how enhanced rather than under­mined by that Bride of Frankenstein stripe of grey she sports these days. To hold on to your ser­i­ous­ness is quite an achieve­ment in an age of sil­li­ness such as ours, and you’ll be relieved to hear that Where the Stress Falls con­tains no pieces on Madonna or PlayStation 2, and def­in­itely no recipes.

Instead you’ll find pieces with titles such as “A Note on Bunraku” and “Homage to Halliburton”, writ­ten in that learned, didactic and appar­ently effort­less style which is not always quite so effort­less to read. Serious Susan is not here to enter­tain you. Though cyn­ics — i.e. me — might dub this col­lec­tion: “Does My Brain Look Big in This?”

Susan Sontag is a liv­ing legend, even though we might be for­given for think­ing that she was left behind with the 20th cen­tury, rue­ful amidst the ruins of the mod­ern­ism that we have aban­doned for the glee­ful bar­bar­ism of con­tem­por­ary life. She’s def­in­itely still here, though she might be feel­ing rather lonely. Sontag is, after all, the Last Intellectual in the Anglo-American world: Gore Vidal has turned into Truman Capote, Norman Mailer has turned into Moses, while Harold Bloom’s canon has turned out to be his wind­ing sheet. On this side of the phil­istine pond, Jonathan Miller would be hold­ing up the ban­ner of ser­i­ous­ness and intel­lect, but alas, that injunc­tion ban­ning him from appear­ing in pub­lic is still in force.

Sontag knows this — in fact, this is her “brand” which she exploits adroitly — but seems charm­ingly determ­ined to pre­tend there are other intel­lec­tu­als left in the world: it’s just that they’re shirk­ing their duties. In “Answers to a Questionnaire”, her response to a sur­vey of intel­lec­tu­als and their role, she com­plains magis­teri­ally how many times she’s heard intel­lec­tu­als “pro­nounce on the inad­equacy, credu­lity, dis­grace, treason, irrel­ev­ance, obsol­es­cence, and immin­ent or already per­fec­ted dis­ap­pear­ance of the caste to which… they belong”. All the same, she’s care­ful to men­tion that she was “the sole American” to whom the French (they would be French) com­pilers sent their questionnaire.

Sontag even had her own “Spanish Civil War” in the 1990s, when she trav­elled to a besieged, ruined Sarajevo to dir­ect by candle­light a pro­duc­tion of Waiting For Godot. It was a dra­matic ges­ture that was much lar­ger than the drama itself: the Last Intellectual nurs­ing the flame of mod­ern­ism in a European city cata­pul­ted back into the Dark Ages. It was also a brave and inspir­ing — and sin­cere — thing to do, and it poin­ted up the ineptitude of most who toil by brain rather than hand these days when faced with embar­rass­ing real­ity (one hor­ri­fied New Yorker asked her son, also a writer, how he could “spend so much time in a coun­try where people smoke so much”).

But is it merely the tain­ted cyn­icism of our selfish, ration­al­ising age that inclines some of us to doubt Sontag when she com­plains about the enorm­ous press atten­tion she received and that she “for­got” that she was going to be bil­leted in a hotel full of journ­al­ists? Or causes us to chortle when she dis­misses as “con­des­cend­ing” those back home who wondered whether the bleak­ness of Waiting for Godot was what the cit­izens of Sarajevo really wanted, but then sees no irony in later explain­ing she only staged Act I because she had decided that the dis­tressed cit­izens of Sarajevo might not be able to bear the down­beat ending.

And then there is another ques­tion which keeps insist­ently sug­gest­ing itself like a barely sup­pressed snig­ger: is there some­thing faintly camp about Susan Sontag? It dates back to the early 1960s when she tried to define what lives to avoid defin­i­tion, to pin down that wig­gly, tick­lish thing in “Notes on Camp”. If camp really is “failed ser­i­ous­ness”, as she sug­ges­ted, just how suc­cess­ful is Sontag’s ser­i­ous­ness in an age like ours where ser­i­ous­ness itself is judged to have failed? Her impress­ive, swan-like prose always inclines me at least to won­der how much furi­ous ped­dling is going on beneath the water line. This is why the naked boast of Serious Susan’s street-brawling 1990s nemesis, Camille Paglia, after the pub­lic­a­tion of Sexual Personae, was so funny. “I’ve been chas­ing that bitch for years,” she crowed, “and now I’ve finally over­taken her!”

But, just like the ‘vul­gar’ Paglia, Sontag made her repu­ta­tion in part by lend­ing cul­tural cap­ital to things which were not at the time con­sidered worth it, such as camp, cinema and Roland Barthes, in her now clas­sic 1966 col­lec­tion Against Interpretation. In fact, it was Sontag’s interest in that silly Frenchy which argu­ably set her up, giv­ing her the edge on her (long for­got­ten) rivals. She was one of the main con­duits by which Barthes’s obses­sion with tak­ing super­fi­ci­al­ity ser­i­ously reached Anglo aca­deme and became intensely fash­ion­able in the 1970s and 1980s, and in many ways pre­pared the way for the post-modernism and irony which is such ana­thema to Sontag today.

As Oscar Wilde once put it: “A mor­al­ist is someone who lec­tures on the vices of which he has grown bored.” In a pre­face to a new edi­tion of Against Interpretation, included here, she makes a mov­ing pub­lic con­fes­sion: “What I didn’t under­stand… was that ser­i­ous­ness itself was in the early stages of los­ing cred­ib­il­ity in the cul­ture at large, and that some of the more trans­gress­ive art I was enjoy­ing would rein­force frivol­ous, merely con­sumer­ist trans­gres­sions. Thirty years later, the under­min­ing of stand­ards of ser­i­ous­ness is almost complete.”

True, but per­haps it’s also the case that 30 years on the front­line of cul­ture has moved to other, less Sontagian regions.

But old and new cul­tural cap­ital always find a need for one another. It is well known that Sontag is in a rela­tion­ship with Annie Leibovitz, the fam­ous pho­to­grapher. The fam­ous celebrity pho­to­grapher. Despite no offi­cial acknow­ledge­ment by the couple, their union is splashed across the broad­sheets as a “glam­or­ous” affair. Serious Susan, whether she wants to be or not, is a celebrity involved in a celebrity mar­riage. No won­der she doesn’t want to talk about it.

All this can’t help but lend a spe­cial res­on­ance to “Certain Mapplethorpes”, one of the most inter­est­ing and per­sonal essays in this col­lec­tion. Explaining why she hates being pho­to­graphed, she writes: “The pho­to­graph comes as a kind of reproof to the gran­di­os­ity of con­scious­ness. Oh. So there ‘I’ am.”

After all, aren’t girl­friends an affront to the gran­di­os­ity of con­scious­ness too?

Copyright Mark Simpson 2011

grey Does My Brain Look Big in This? Susan Sontags Where The Stress Falls

Joe The Lion: Interview With Yuri Foreman

grey Joe The Lion: Interview With Yuri Foreman

Photographed by Alisdair McLellan

By Mark Simpson (Arena Hommes Plus, Winter-Spring 2011)

A few months ago there was a British box­ing team train­ing at my gym,’ recalls Yuri Foreman, in his charm­ing, easy-going Russian accent.  ‘I saw the young kids, 12, 13, and, well, they looked just like Russians.  They all looked very tough, y’know. Tough faces.  Wiry bod­ies.  They walk around in the winter in t-shirts!’

They’re hard, I say.

Yeah, very hard.  They had hard accents too!’

Ah, they must have been Northern.  You on the other hand are a very pretty look­ing Russian.  And I don’t mean that as an insult.

Haha!  Believe me, I’m tak­ing it as a compliment!’

You get the feel­ing that some boys have taken up box­ing because they want their face made a bit uglier, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I do.’

You man­aged to keep your face pretty, Yuri.

Yes, they say in box­ing you need to be care­ful of box­ers with pretty faces because it means they’ve got good defences. They know how to fight.’

YURI Foreman, the Lion of Zion, the Jewish-Russian Israeli who boxes with a Star of David on his shorts, cer­tainly knows how to fight.  How to stand his ground and come first in a world that some­times seems to want you to come last.  The first Jewish WBA cham­pion in 30 years and the first Israeli ever to win a world title (the Israeli VP recently called him up on his cell phone to tell him how proud Israel was of him).  The first to box in Yankee Stadium since Muhammad Ali took on Ken Norton in 1976.  And in a couple of years time when he fin­ishes his stud­ies of the Talmud and Jewish mys­ti­cism – which he takes in the morn­ing, before he goes to Gleason’s gym, Brooklyn, in the after­noon to spar and pum­mel – he will also be the world’s first pro­fes­sional box­ing rabbi.

Some find all this a bit dif­fi­cult to swal­low.  The ste­reo­type of Jews as rather more intel­lec­tual than phys­ical is a pop­u­lar one. On his chat show recently an incred­u­lous Jimmy Kimmel deman­ded of Yuri: ‘I wanna see some proof that you’re Jewish!’ ‘After…,’ Yuri par­ried, without miss­ing a beat, to loud audi­ence laughter.  Yuri is fast on his feet.

Just like Muhammad Ali – a fast-talker and even faster mover who used to brag about hav­ing a pretty face and how he was gonna keep it that way.  Ali was one of Yuri’s box­ing her­oes.  ‘I watched  lot of his box­ing tapes.  He was a pion­eer.  He was a new kind of boxer. Y’know, when I was a kid doing shadow box­ing I was always try­ing to kind of imit­ate him in some kind of way.  A heavy­weight stay­ing on his toes for 15 rounds.  Amazing.  Mike Tyson was also a huge hero of mine.  Marvin Marvellous Hadler, Ray Leonard.  And Rocky Balboa, of course!’

Mike Tyson liked to trash talk – like David Haye the British heavy­weight cham­pion who recently got into trouble for say­ing his upcom­ing fight against Audley Harrison was going to be “as one-sided as a gang rape”.  Has the box­ing rabbi ever trash-talked?

No, never!  I don’t believe in trash talk,’ Yuri asserts, pas­sion­ately.  ‘Boxing is a very phys­ical sport but it’s also a mind game.  You have to have a very strong men­tal and spir­itual edge.  Sometimes box­ers trash talk because they want to impress the audi­ence, and some­times they do it because they need to pump them­selves up. They might be a bit vul­ner­able there – not so strong.  Listen, you can talk all you want but at the end of the day you have to use not your mouth but your fists and brain.  Trash talk is for the playground.’

Perhaps this is why his name­sake the legendary George Foreman (‘Yuri’ means ‘George’ in Russian), who him­self has found God (it hap­pens more than you might think to ex-boxers), approves of Yuri. ‘Everyone tells me that Yuri is just the best man you could ever meet.  You don’t hear that about box­ers today.  Everybody wants to imit­ate Mike Tyson.  But this Yuri Foreman seems to carry the bag­gage of decency, and I like that about him.’

In fact, while it’s just about pos­sible to beat Yuri in the ring – he lost his WBA title to Miguel Cotto this June at that Yankee Stadium fight after an old knee injury flared up – it’s utterly impossible to dis­like him.

***

Yuri Foreman was born August 5, 1980, in Gomel, second largest city in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, and the homet­own of dimple-chinned Jewish action hero Kirk Douglas’ par­ents.  Just 170 miles south from the birth­place of another heroic Yuri whom Mr Foreman strikes me, only slightly fanci­fully, as facially resem­bling: Yuri Gagarin.  And barely 50 miles north of Chernobyl which exploded when Yuri was just seven years old, for­cing his evac­u­ation to Estonia for three months. So in a sense Yuri was born between the tech­no­lo­gical highs and lows of the Soviet Union.  Which col­lapsed just a month after his fam­ily left for Israel in 1991.  ‘It couldn’t live without us!’ he quips.

Yuri took up box­ing when he was seven.  He had star­ted the sport pro­gramme all chil­dren had to under­take in the USSR, choos­ing swim­ming – but was being bul­lied by older kids and came home with bruises on his face.  His mother wasn’t impressed and took him to a box­ing gym.  ‘She thought, “Oh, he will just go to box­ing for a while and learn enough to see off the bul­lies,” but it didn’t work out that way of course.  I ended up drop­ping the swim­ming and took up box­ing instead.’  But not before run­ning into one of his Pool Bullies and set­tling the score, just like in the movies.

Yuri was the young­est in the group of young box­ers in Gomel and keen to impress his trainer.  ‘I was quite proud when he used me as an example to the older kids – “See how Yuri is hit­ting the bag non-stop!”  In addi­tion to lov­ing the atmo­sphere – and smell – of the box­ing gym, Yuri cred­its his hero-worship of his trainer with inspir­ing his love of box­ing.  ‘He had a very strong per­son­al­ity, was very funny, very strict and very muscly.  I didn’t want to let him down. It’s funny because the other day I was read­ing an inter­view with him in a news­pa­per from Belarus, and he told a story I remembered very well.  I had my first fight when I was 7 1/2 and I lost the fight.  I was in locker room, cry­ing because I was ashamed.  He came and com­for­ted me and told me, “You know what?  You’re going to be a pro­fes­sional world cham­pion one day.”  I was like ‘Wow!’  Again, just like in the movies: Yuri’s life is the kind story of struggle that Hollywood used to love telling.

On arrival in Israel Yuri and the other Russian migrants were greeted at the air­port by Israelis with wedges of fresh oranges: ‘I never tasted any­thing so sweet and deli­cious before.  I thought we had arrived in para­dise.’  But pretty soon he real­ised that Israel wasn’t para­dise – at least, not for Russian immig­rants in Haifa in the 1990s. School was entirely in Hebrew, and he wasn’t wel­come.  ‘I had a lot of fights in school.  I wasn’t accep­ted.  There was always a gulf between nat­ive Israelis and Russian immig­rants. At 15–16 I felt they hated me and I wanted to return the favour, y’know?’

His family’s new life was tough.  His father got a job clean­ing offices which Yuri would help him with after school.  In the Summer Yuri worked on con­struc­tion sites with Arabs, seven days a week. There was no box­ing gym in Haifa, the third largest city in Israel.  But in a nearby Arab vil­lage there was.  Young Yuri decided to train there.  The Arabs weren’t very wel­com­ing either, to begin with.  ‘They set up a spar­ring match for me with one of their box­ers.  In the begin­ning they try to kill you, then they see that you can actu­ally box and defend your­self and so they accep­ted me.  It’s like that in lots of situ­ations in life – they don’t like you to begin with, you’re not wel­come, but then they see you can fight and they accept you.’

Yuri had a glit­ter­ing ama­teur box­ing career in Israel, win­ning national cham­pion three times.  ‘I could have just stayed there and been four or five or six times Israeli cham­pion, but that’s pretty much it. Basically I was stuck with the ques­tion, “What do I want to do in my life?” What I wanted was to pur­sue my dreams, my career.  I wanted to be a boxer.  And New York is home of box­ing.  I made a decision.  I remem­ber my Dad came home from work and I told him “Dad, I want to move to New York and try my best over there.  He was silent for five seconds and then he said, “OK”.  And that was it.  He bought me my ticket.’

There were no wedges of fresh orange at JFK.  Life was even harder in New York.  ‘I had always wanted to go to America, and always had big, big idea that when I got there life, for some reason, was not going to be that dif­fi­cult.  Not so dif­fi­cult as being an immig­rant in Israel.  But it was MORE dif­fi­cult, because I didn’t have my fam­ily or friends.  It was very tough.  I had to find a job right away to sup­port myself and found job in Lower Manhattan’s Garment District, push­ing clothes racks. Working for my American Dream.’  Yuri worked from 9–6 and then ‘try­ing really hard not to for­get the reason I actu­ally came to the US’ he would force him­self to go train­ing at Gleason’s.

There’s a sign on the wall of that gym quot­ing Virgil: ‘Now who­ever has cour­age, and a strong and col­lec­ted spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.’  Yuri put up his hands. And loved it.  ‘It was like a lot of adren­aline!  It was com­pletely dif­fer­ent exper­i­ence for me.  In Israel the box­ing gyms are very small, with one ring, or no ring and just a few bits and pieces of equip­ment.  Gleason’s has four rings, jump ropes, heavy bags, speed bags.  I felt like “I’m in the right place now.”  The fact this was the gym they used in Rocky made it all the more excit­ing for Yuri, who’d named his child­hood dog, a Caucasian shep­herd, after Sylvester Stallone’s dogged, every­man boxer who just wont quit.

Gleason’s was very well equipped indeed: Yuri met his wife there, Leyla Leidecker a former model from Hungary, and also a feather­weight ama­teur boxer.  ‘It’s very much a mod­ern kind of place where you meet your soul-mate,’ he laughs.  ‘If you can handle her in the ring you might get along!’ Their first date was in Gleason’s, attend­ing a fight.  ‘She’s a very smart girl as well as very beau­ti­ful and I’m try­ing to catch up with her.’  It was Leyla who intro­duced him to Rabbi Dovber Pinson, who is train­ing Yuri to be a Rabbi.  Like his hero Ali, Yuri found his iden­tity through a reli­gious awaken­ing in adulthood.

In Israel I stayed away from reli­gion, like my par­ents who are sec­u­lar,’ he explains.  ‘I didn’t see the point of eat­ing kosher or not using elec­tri­city on the Sabbath.’  It was only in the US, cut off from his fam­ily and strug­gling to sur­vive that he star­ted to take an interest in Judaism.  ‘I was so phys­ic­ally and emo­tion­ally drained that I needed a little bit of spir­itual back­bone.  We could barely afford the rent, we didn’t have much money for food – some­times in the Summer we would go through winter clothes hop­ing to find some change in pocket to buy lunch.’

In search of spir­itual suc­cour they atten­ded a lec­ture by the Kabbalist rabbi Pinson.  ‘He was explain­ing that life was like two box­ers in the ring some­times life hits you so hard that you find your­self lying on your back look­ing at the lights.  He said that box­ers always find a way to get back on their feet and con­tinue fight­ing.  He didn’t know I was a boxer so I was quite impressed.  He was young too.  After a while he invited us for a Sabbath din­ner.  That was cool because I’d never been invited to a Sabbath din­ner in Russia or Israel.  And here you come to the United States and someone invites you to explore Judaism!’  Yuri’s reli­gious fer­vour isn’t per­haps so odd in a boxer.  After all, ‘reli­gion’ means ‘dis­cip­line’ and box­ing is noth­ing if not a dis­cip­lined sport that requires, dur­ing train­ing, an almost mon­astic sep­ar­a­tion from the world.

Yuri is not plan­ning to be a rabbi in a syn­agogue when he is ordained. ‘I’d like to work with young people. Russian kids in Israel are very far from Judaism.  Judaism can help on many levels when you’re grow­ing up, it gives you strength.’

So rab­bis can be her­oes too?

Absolutely.  As human beings we are both phys­ical beings and spir­itual beings.  A rabbi is a spir­itual teacher but he should also use his hands – be really phys­ical, because we are liv­ing in the phys­ical world.’

As I wind up the inter­view Yuri enquires earn­estly after Ricky Hatton, who has been pic­tured in the scan­dal sheets recently tak­ing cocaine and who has just gone into rehab.  Being a cyn­ical journ­al­ist I sug­gest he prob­ably went into rehab because his pub­li­cist told him to.  But Yuri nobly refuses to be con­tam­in­ated by my cyn­icism.  ‘I really like Ricky,’ he says.  ‘He’s a great fighter but very down-to-earth.  A People’s Champ.  I’d like to think he feels he’s let down his fans and he’d bet­ter clean up his act because a lot of kids con­sider him their hero.’

Plus,’ Yuri adds, laugh­ing, ‘I bet he wears a t-shirt in the winter!’

Yuri Foreman may not wear a t-shirt in winter, but he’s plenty hard enough. Hard enough to be soft.  And I doubt he’ll ever let his fans down with bad habits. An unusual kind of boxer – and an even rarer kind of hero.  The real kind.

© Mark Simpson 2010

20 ‘Stella’ Years of Dolce & Gabbana For Men

grey 20 Stella Years of Dolce & Gabbana For Men

by Mark Simpson, Arena Hommes Plus (Winter-Spring, 2010)

America’s hot­test new Hollywood stars – who nat­ur­ally enough in this post-Hollywood era, don’t actu­ally work in Hollywood but real­ity TV – were recently hon­oured with a pro­file in Interview magazine. The Italian-American ‘Guidos’ from MTV mega-hit ‘Jersey Shore’, who have conquered America with their brazen­ness and their Gym Tan Laundry routine, were styled in Dolce & Gabbana. Suddenly, they looked as if they had come home. After all, these twenty-something earthy but flam­boy­ant, self-assured but needy young men are, aes­thet­ic­ally, emo­tion­ally, the bas­tard off­spring of Dolce & Gabbana.

The Italian design­ers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana got together over two dec­ades ago to make beau­ti­ful, emo­tional clothes for men – but ended up, almost as an after­thought, sir­ing a gen­er­a­tion. Such has been the potency of Dolce & Gabbana’s world­view they have more or less pat­en­ted the aes­thet­i­cized mod­ern male and his yearn­ing desire to be desired. Their dreamy but virile vis­ion of the male has become the dom­in­ant one in our medi­ated world. Even if Dolce & Gabbana man some­times likes to be underneath.

But who or what is Dolce & Gabbana man? In ‘20 Years of Dolce & Gabbana’ a bumper book of vin­tage glossi­ness cata­loguing the growth of the brand, the French act­ress Fanny Ardant describes him as ‘arrog­ant, with irony,’ which sounds very Jersey Shore. Victoria Beckham describes him as: ‘not afraid to be in tune with his fem­in­ine side and the sexual side of his per­sona…’ adding, ‘he has a strong sense of European fash­ion and has an extra­vag­ant, flam­boy­ant sense of per­sonal style.’ I think we know who she has in mind.

Aside from Becks (some, er, sem­inal 2002 images of him in half-undone jeans are included here) who is the quint­es­sen­tial Dolce & Gabbana man? ‘Cesare Borgia’, says Ardant, per­haps being slightly ironic her­self. ‘My son Rocco,’ asserts Madonna, who prob­ably isn’t. For my part I’d be temp­ted to name Cristiano Ronaldo, whose care­free per­sonal style seems totally Dolce, even when he’s advert­ising Armani.

Actress Scarlett Johansson hits the bull­seye when she iden­ti­fies him as: ‘Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire’. Yes! That white vest! That brood­ing brow! That pout­ing face on a Sicilian stevedore’s body! Truly “STEL-LA!”, young Brando was in many ways the first Hollywood male pin-up, arrog­antly and flir­ta­tiously invit­ing our gaze in a way that hadn’t really been seen before in America, even if it was noth­ing unusual on the streets of Syracuse, Sicily.

Brando doesn’t appear in the many film stills scattered through this book as examples of the inspir­ing lights of the brand, instead we have the pin-ups of Italian neo real­ist cinema such as Massimo Giretti and Renato Salvatore and of course, the sub­limely refined Marcello Mastroanni. But Marlon and his vest – and even in his middle-aged Godfather role – are evoked by many of the fash­ion shoot images here.

As Tim Blanks puts it in his intro­duc­tion: ‘There’s some irony in the fact that it was actu­ally Hollywood which dis­tilled Italy’s inter­na­tional image to hand­ful of core ingredi­ents that were really Sicilian in essence – the mach­ismo, the mama, the Mafia, of course, and, all the time, bright sun­light, dark shad­ows, and over­wrought emo­tion.’ Dolce & Gabbana were in effect an Italian take on Hollywood’s take on Italy. But all the more poignant for that.

Dolce & Gabbana are less of a fash­ion brand, more a stu­dio sys­tem that pro­duces pin-up-ness in the form of clothes. Or, as they like to put it them­selves, ‘dream doc­tors’. The fam­ously iconic pic­tures included here of a smoul­der­ing young Matt Dillon, and Keanu Reeves in his veal­ish prime, bring out and some­thing Sicilian in them that Hollywood itself has long since for­got­ten how to do.