The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy


Reviewed by Mark Simpson in The Independent (20/9/13)

Contrary to what the pop songs tell you, the lan­guage of love is not uni­ver­sal. It really isn’t the same the world over or even on the same street. Everyone’s love affair is utterly unin­tel­li­gible to every­one else. It’s per­haps the whole point of hav­ing one.

Which can make read­ing other people’s love let­ters a baff­ling if not slightly point­less exper­i­ence. Katherine Bucknell’s The Animals (Chatto & Windus), a col­lec­tion of let­ters between the fam­ous British-born nov­el­ist Christopher Isherwood and his lover the American por­trait artist Don Bachardy, who lived together openly as a gay couple in Hollywood at a time when most were closeted, isn’t point­less. But love does speak in animal tongues. Cloying Beatrix Potter animal tongues.

Bachardy, who was just eight­een when a 48 year old Isherwood met him on a Santa Monica Beach in 1952, is ‘Kitty’, ‘Fluffcat’, ‘The Fur’, ‘Catkin’, ‘Sweetpaws’, ‘Dearest Darling Puss’, ‘Sweetcat’, ‘Snowpuss’, ‘Angel Lovecat’, ‘Velvetpaws’, ‘Sacred Pinkness’, ‘Sweet Longed-For Flufftail’, ‘Pink Paws’, ‘Beloved Fluffpuss’, ‘Whitewhiskers’, and ‘Claws’ (the lat­ter epi­thet being per­haps the most sali­ent to this reader of Bachardy’s waspish missives).

Isherwood for his part is ‘Horse’, ‘Drub’, ‘Drubbin’, ‘Rubbin’, ‘Dobbin’, ‘Old Pony’, ‘Dear Treasured Love-Dub’, ‘Slickmuzzle’, ‘Naggin’, ‘Drudgin’, ‘Drubchen’, and ‘Dearnag’. If this seems an unfair dis­tri­bu­tion of gushy epi­thets this is because it was meant to be. As Bachardy wrote in a let­ter dated 6 Feb 1961:

The horse Kitty loves has always been an old grey mare, so sweet and dear and never one of those greedy and faith­less white stal­lions. And besides grey is more becom­ing to Kitty’s white fur. Two white anim­als would never do.’

The lan­guage of love may be unique to each couple, but one rule of sexual syn­tax every­one under­stands: there’s only room for one prima donna in one relationship.

Like many gay rela­tion­ships, Bachardy and Isherwood’s was open though, per­haps under­stand­ably given the large age dif­fer­ence, more so on Bachardy’s side. ‘Dobbin’ often encour­ages ‘Kitty’ to enjoy strange sau­cers of cream, but is always anxious that Kitty return to his ‘bas­ket’ and the primacy of their rela­tion­ship not be threatened: ‘Dobbin is only happy if Kitty finds con­sol­a­tion – ONLY NOT TOO MUCH!’ Many of the let­ters res­ul­ted from sep­ar­a­tion caused by Bachardy’s pro­longed dal­li­ances with oth­ers abroad, such as the London theatre dir­ector Anthony Page.

Isherwood – who had a pro­nounced fear of the dark and hated being alone at night – attempts to explain and jus­tify their campy, furry arche­types in a let­ter dated March 11, 1963:

I often feel that the Animals are far more than just a nurs­ery joke or a cute­ness. They exist. They are like Jung’s myths. They express a kind of free­dom and truth which we oth­er­wise wouldn’t have.’

The irony for the reader is that this is stated in a let­ter, writ­ten imme­di­ately after a face-to-face row, which dis­penses with the Kitty-Dobbin shtick and stands out as per­haps the most dir­ect, heart­felt and unmannered let­ter in the col­lec­tion – and one that sug­gests that much of the time, like many couples, they are not so free or true after all. As Isherwood writes:

Oh – I am so saddened and depressed when I get a glimpse, as I do so clearly this morn­ing, of the poker game we play so much of the time, watch­ing each other’s faces and listen­ing to each other’s voices for clues. I was so happy the other day when you said that about Dobbin hav­ing been a jailer and now being a con­vict.… Masochism? Oh, Mary – what do I care what it’s called.’

In her excel­lent intro­duc­tion Bucknell does a skil­ful and brave job of try­ing to inter­pret the lov­ers’ talk for the reader. Apparently Bachardy reminded Isherwood of his younger self – and indeed there was a remark­ably strong, pos­sibly slightly dis­turb­ing phys­ical sim­il­ar­ity. The let­ters end in 1970, and Isherwood died in 1986, sur­vived by Bachardy.

But thanks to The Animals Isherwood’s devo­tion lives on. As a typ­ical sign-off from Dobbin put it:

Love from a devoted old horse who is wait­ing day and night with his saddle on, ready for his Kitty’s commands.’

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

Sean Fanning

 (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., 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

How to Spot a Sodomite

Mark Simpson reviews some fam­ous Victorian bum holes in Neil McKenna’s Fanny & Stella (the Independent)

I had never seen any­thing like it before… I do not in my prac­tise ever remem­ber to have seen such an appear­ance of the anus, as those of the pris­on­ers presen­ted.” So test­i­fied Dr Paul in shocked tones at the trial of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young, cross-dressing clerks charged with sod­omy in 1870 — a crime that then car­ried a pen­alty of a lifetime’s penal servitude.

Park and Boulton had been arres­ted in the Strand Theatre dressed as their coquet­tish, las­ci­vi­ous alter egos Fanny and Stella. The trial of “The Funny He-She Ladies” as the press dubbed them, was the sen­sa­tion of the age. Largely for­got­ten until now, Neil McKenna’s highly read­able recount­ing brings it roar­ing back to life.

According to the med­ical author­it­ies of the day the signs of sod­omy were eas­ily detect­able. A wear­ing away of the rugae around the anus, mak­ing it resemble the female labia. Elongation of the penis, caused by the “trac­tion” of sod­omy. And dila­tion. Dilation was the big­gie. The way one tested for it was by the inser­tion of a pro­fes­sional fin­ger. Repeatedly. If the sphinc­ter failed to show enough res­ist­ance to the learned finger-fucking then you were deal­ing with a sodomite.

The appalled police doc­tor was as we’ve seen con­vinced he had fingered major sod­om­ites. Six more doc­tors lined up to inspect the upraised rectums of Park and Boulton and insert their digits, repeatedly. After two fetid hours, five declared there were no signs of sod­omy to be found on or in either arres­ted anus.

In fact, both Park and Boulton were guilty as pro­ver­bial sin. Their bot­toms had been rogered sense­less by half of London — though, unlike the good doc­tors, their part­ners usu­ally paid. From respect­able middle-class back­grounds they enjoyed work­ing as brazen, hoot­ing cross-dressing pros­ti­tutes in the even­ing, as you do. The single dis­sent­ing doc­tor had a few years earlier treated Park repeatedly for a syph­il­itic sore in his anus.

But because the med­ical prob­ing had pro­duced the oppos­ite med­ical opin­ion to the one hoped for, and because sod­omy was such a ser­i­ous offence (car­ry­ing a pen­alty of life with hard labour) the Attorney-General had to with­draw all charges of actual sod­omy. Instead Boulton and Park were charged with the vaguer but still ser­i­ous catch-all of “con­spir­acy to soli­cit, induce, pro­cure and endeav­our to per­suade per­sons unknown to com­mit buggery”.

Seventeen dresses and gowns; quant­it­ies of skirts and pet­ti­coats; bod­ices and blouses; cloaks and shawls; ladies’ unmen­tion­ables, all a bit whiffy and worse for (work­ing) wear, were paraded through the court as evid­ence. Although cross-dressing was not in itself a crime, and was actu­ally a pop­u­lar form of bur­lesque enter­tain­ment at the time in which both Fanny and Stella had enjoyed some suc­cess, the Victorian state was keen to make the case — presen­ted by Attorney General Sir Robert Collier him­self — that their cross-dressing was part and par­cel of their abom­in­able sod­omy and the “con­fu­sion” of the nat­ural and godly gender order it rep­res­en­ted. The male anus dressed as a vagina. This approach also back­fired, spectacularly.

Digby Seymour for the defence asked the court, “Would young men engaged in the exchange of wicked and accursed embraces put on the dresses of women and go to theatres and pub­lic places for the pur­pose of excit­ing each other to the com­mis­sion of this out­rageous crime?” In other words, the very obvi­ous­ness and shame­less­ness of Stella and Fanny’s (deli­ciously out­rageous) beha­viour was presen­ted as proof that they could not pos­sibly be guilty. Which, in a strange, 20th-century gay pride sense, was sort of true.

But the defence’s ace in the, er, hole was a final, irres­ist­ible appeal to pat­ri­ot­ism. “I trust that you will pro­nounce by your ver­dict,” intoned Digby Seymour, “that London is not cursed with the sins of Sodom, or Westminster tain­ted with the vices of Gomorrah.”

The jury did its duty and the “fool­ish” young men, as their defence termed them, were acquit­ted — hav­ing fooled most of their cus­tom­ers, the doc­tors, the courts and the imper­i­ous Victorian state.

The Few, The Proud: A Jarhead memoir of the First Gulf War

The myth­o­logy, the rituals, the dogma, the cult of mas­culin­ity and most of all the hair­cut, set US Marines apart. Mark Simpson takes a look at a mem­oir of the First Gulf War.

(Independent on Sunday 23/03/2003)

It may seem odd that the United States Marine Corps, the élite fourth branch of the US Armed Services, lar­ger and bet­ter equipped than the whole British Army, heroic vic­tors of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, spear­head of the last and cur­rent Gulf War, should be best known for, and most proud of, its hairdo. But then, the USMC is a pecu­liar insti­tu­tion. Magnificent, but very peculiar.

Jarhead”, the moniker US mar­ines give one another, derives from the dis­tinct­ive “high and tight” buzzcut that Marine Corps barbers dis­pense, leav­ing per­haps a quarter of an inch of per­son­al­ity on top and plenty of naked, anonym­ous scalp on the sides. Like cir­cum­cision and the Hebrews, the jar­head barnet has his­tor­ic­ally set US mar­ines apart, mark­ing them as the chosen and the damned: monk­ish war­ri­ors. Or as one of the Corps’ mot­tos has it: “The Few, The Proud”.

Image is import­ant for US mar­ines, per­haps because of the bur­den of sym­bol­ism — for many, the USMC is America. Or per­haps more par­tic­u­larly because the USMC is John Wayne. Jarheads, or rather, act­ors in high-and-tight hair­cuts, are invari­ably the stars of Hollywood war movies; the other ser­vices just don’t have the glam­our and the grit of the dev­il­dogs. As a res­ult, the myth­o­logy, the rituals and the dogtag dogma of the Marine Corps cult of mas­culin­ity — boot camp, the DI, sounding-off, cuss­ing and haz­ing, tear­ful gradu­ation, test-of-manhood deploy­ment, and that hair­cut — are prob­ably more famil­iar to British boys than, say, those of the Royal Marines.

The rela­tion­ship of real jar­heads to their act­ress imper­son­at­ors is con­fus­ingly close. When 20-year-old Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford and his bud­dies in a scout/sniper pla­toon get the order to pre­pare to ship out to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in response to the Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait, they spend three days drink­ing beer and watch­ing war movies. Ironically, their favour­ite films, such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are ostens­ibly “anti-war” lib­eral pleas to “end this mad­ness”, but for fight­ing men they only serve to get them hot: “Filmic images of death and carnage are por­no­graphy for the mil­it­ary man,” explains Swofford, “with film you are strok­ing his cock, tick­ling his balls with the pink feather of his­tory, get­ting him ready for his First Fuck.” Take note, Oliver Stone, you pink feather dick-tickler: “As a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammuni­tion and alco­hol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.”

In fact, Swofford’s ”Jarhead: A Marine’s chron­icle of the Gulf War’’ is an avowedly “anti-war” mem­oir, power­fully writ­ten (pink feath­ers aside) and well-crafted, by someone who was clearly embittered, not to say dam­aged, by his exper­i­ence of the USMC and his par­ti­cip­a­tion in the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, it isn’t clear whether Swofford, for all his reflect­ive­ness, and of course his authen­ti­city, is much more suc­cess­ful in demys­ti­fy­ing war in gen­eral or the Corps. Telling us that war is hell (again) is rather coun­ter­pro­duct­ive: hell is after all a rather inter­est­ing place, cer­tainly more inter­est­ing than heaven, or civil­ian “nor­mal­ity”. Moreover, the quasi-religious, dra­matic tone Swofford strikes of des­pair and ecstasy, loneli­ness and camaraderie, and the awful– but-fascinating base­ness of war is not so dif­fer­ent from that of Stone or Coppola (or for that mat­ter, of Mailer). And while there are not quite so many explo­sions, there’s no short­age of pornography.

When sweat­ing in Saudi in 1990 wait­ing for the war to start, Swofford’s unit find them­selves being ordered to per­form for the media, play­ing foot­ball in rub­ber NBC suits in 100-degree heat. To sab­ot­age the hated pro­pa­ganda op, they start a favour­ite ritual of theirs, a “Field fuck”, a sim­u­lated gang rape, “wherein mar­ines viol­ate one mem­ber of the unit,” Swofford tells us. “The vic­tim is held fast in the dog­gie pos­i­tion and his fel­low mar­ines take turns from behind.”

Getting into the spirit of things, the jar­heads shout out help­ful remarks such as: “Get that vir­gin Texas ass! It’s free!” The vic­tim him­self screams: “I’m the pret­ti­est girl any of you has ever had! I’ve seen the whores you’ve bought, you sick bas­tards!” The press stop tak­ing notes.

Swofford reas­sures us that this prac­tice “wasn’t sexual” but was instead “com­munal” — how­ever, even in his own terms it seems that the dis­tinc­tion is almost super­flu­ous: it’s the hall­mark of mil­it­ary life that what’s sexual becomes com­munal. Elsewhere he tells us about the “Wall of Shame” on base: hun­dreds of pho­tos of ex-girlfriends who proved unfaith­ful — fre­quently with other marines.

Swofford’s obses­sion with the mar­ines had a media ori­gin, begin­ning in 1984 when the USMC bar­racks in Lebanon was bombed, killing 241 US ser­vice­men. He recounts watch­ing the news bul­let­ins on the TV and how he “stood at atten­tion and hummed the national anthem as the rough-hewn jar­heads… car­ried their com­rades from the rubble. The mar­ines were all sizes and all col­ours, all dirty and exhausted and hurt, and they were men, and I was a boy fall­ing in love with man­hood…”. Manhood in Swofford’s fam­ily was intim­ately linked to the mil­it­ary: his father served in Vietnam, while his grand­father fought in the Second World War. The desirab­il­ity of man­li­ness was the desirab­il­ity of war.

It is prob­ably not so strange that his obses­sion should have begun with an almost mas­ochistic image of suf­fer­ing and death: tak­ing it like a man is an even more import­ant part of the mil­it­ary exper­i­ence than giv­ing it. Sure enough, at boot camp Swofford finds his Drill Instructor to be a fully-fledged sad­ist of the kind that civil­ian mas­ochists can only fan­tas­ise about: “I am your mommy and your daddy! I am your night­mare and your wet dream! I will tell you when to piss and when to shit and how much food to eat and when! I will forge you into part of the iron fist with which our great United States fights oppres­sion and injustice!” Like many recruits, Swofford signed up to get away from a dis­in­teg­rat­ing home life and the flawed real­ity of his father and found that he had mar­ried his super­ego made bark­ing, spit­ting, apo­plectic flesh.

The DI’s job, as we all know from the movies, is to humi­li­ate and break down the recruit, shame him, strip away his civil­ian per­son­al­ity and weak­nesses and build him up into a mar­ine. The DI is obsessed with inau­thenti­city: find­ing out who is not “really” a mar­ine. He asks Swofford if he’s “a fag­got… you sure have pretty blue eyes”. During one of these haz­ings, Swofford pisses his pants — an under­stand­able reac­tion, but intriguingly it hap­pens to be the same one that he men­tions earlier in the book, when, as a young boy liv­ing in Japan (his father had a tour of duty there), he received “con­fus­ing and arous­ing” com­pli­ments on his blue eyes from Japanese women.

For good meas­ure the DI also smashes Swofford’s con­fused shaved head through a chalk­board. Later, when this DI is under invest­ig­a­tion for his viol­ent excesses, Swofford shops him. However, he feels guilty about this and day­dreams about run­ning into the DI and “let­ting him beat on me some more”. Like I said, the USMC, God bless it, is a pecu­liar organisation.

Of course, Swofford isn’t your aver­age jar­head. “I sat in the back of the Humvee and read the Iliad” is a mem­or­able line. Other days might see him bur­ied in The Portable Nietzsche or The Myth of Sisyphus. Swofford also seems a little highly-strung: he attempts sui­cide, Full Metal Jacket– style, fel­lat­ing the muzzle of his rifle after receiv­ing a Dear John let­ter from his girl­friend. He’s saved by his return­ing room­mate, who takes him on a run “that lasts all night”. More phys­ical pain to salve the exist­en­tial vari­ety. By the book’s end, we are left with an image of Swofford, long dis­charged, wrest­ling with des­pair, not least over the sights he saw in action in Kuwait, but now without the dis­trac­tion of phys­ical suf­fer­ing and dis­cip­line. Sisyphus without the rock.

Mind you, “jar­head” does sug­gest some­thing that can be unscrewed: brains that can be eas­ily spooned out. It may be true that some men become sol­diers to kill; but it may equally be the case that some join to be killed, or at least escape the bur­den of con­scious­ness. Swofford appears to feel cheated that life not only went on after the Gulf War (like most U.S. ground com­batants he was a largely a spec­tator of the mas­sac­ring potency of American air power) but in fact became more com­plic­ated and burdensome.

Under these cir­cum­stances, I think most of us would miss our DI.

© Mark Simpson

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

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.