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.






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.



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.

German-American Pride and Prejudice

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

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.

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.

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

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.

Army Dreamers: A Backwards Salute to Recruitment Films

by Mark Simpson, The Guardian

As a boy grow­ing up in the 1960s and 70s I was raised to fight The Second World War all over again. Airfix mod­els. Commando com­ics. Air tat­toos in June. Watching The Battle of Britain and The Longest Day on telly with my dad, just so I’d know what to do if I ever found myself pinned down on a Normandy beach or with an Me 109E on my tail.

All of which made me easy prey to an RAF recruit­ing film about a buc­can­eer squad­ron train­ing sortie from Gibraltar, set to a Vangelis soundtrack. I promptly signed up to the air cadets and spent Tuesday after­noons and a week or two in the sum­mer hols wear­ing itchy shirts and a Frank Spencer-style beret, learn­ing how to march without fall­ing over. I loved it, and would prob­ably have signed up for the real thing if it hadn’t been for a sixth-form flir­ta­tion with Quakerism.

Alas, that old recruit­ing film isn’t included in They Stand Ready, a new col­lec­tion of Central Office of Information (COI) armed forces recruit­ment and pro­pa­ganda shorts made between 1946 and 1985, released by the BFI. But sev­eral sim­ilar ones are, includ­ing Tornado (1985), about a sim­u­lated attack on a Warsaw Pact surface-to-air mis­sile site, and HMS Sheffield (1975), about life onboard a Royal Navy frig­ate (that was later hit by an Exocet dur­ing the Falklands war with the loss of 30 lives).

With their prom­ise of escape from hum­drum life, oppor­tun­it­ies for new mates, good times, for­eign travel and play­ing with really expens­ive toys – though strangely silent on the pos­sible phys­ical cost – these films offer a glimpse into the list­less, regi­men­ted world that was mid-to-late 20th-century civil­ian Britain, wait­ing impa­tiently for Xboxes, EasyJet, the inter­net and proper drugs to turn up.

Perhaps it’s because prime min­is­ter David Cameron is around the same age as me – or pos­sibly because the armed forces, or at least the army, are still largely run by lah-de-dah Ruperts like him – that he seems so nos­tal­gic for this van­ished old world. Cameron recently vowed to make the forces “front and centre of national life” and “revered” again, in a speech to UK per­son­nel in Afghanistan.

Not that increased prom­in­ence is a guar­an­tee of increased rev­er­ence, how­ever. A short cel­eb­rat­ing national ser­vice, They Stand Ready (1955), which dates from a year before the Suez débâcle punc­tured the UK’s global pre­ten­sions, recalls the last time that the armed forces really were front and centre of national life. Yet con­scrip­tion proved to be highly unpop­u­lar – both with most of those who had to do it and those who had to find some­thing to do with them.

Once the last national ser­vice­men left the ranks in 1963, army life could then be sold as some­thing glam­or­ous and excit­ing instead of an oner­ous black-and-white duty. This is exactly what Ten Feet Tall (1963), a rock’n’roll-soundtracked recruit­ing film does in glor­i­ous Technicolor. It show­cases a matinée-idol young Scottish squaddie’s ruddy com­plex­ion, per­fect white teeth, and the (now omin­ously) nicotine-stained fin­gers of the army careers officer.

• The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready, a BFI DVD release, avail­able from July 2010


Edmund White’s Vulgar Fag-ism

I’ve always liked Edmund White’s refusal to get with the con­tem­por­ary gay hypo­crisy pro­gram and shrew­ishly con­demn promis­cu­ity in the hope that this will deliver lots and lots of wed­ding presents.

In con­trast to that pas­teur­ised movie Milk, which lied shame­lessly about gay men’s sex lives in the 1970s to make it easier for them to lie about their sex lives today, White, a vet­eran gay-libber who first star­ted lib­bing around that time – in bath-houses, back rooms and along the piers – insists on telling it as it was, gen­ital warts and all.

That said, I’ve fre­quently found his work to be insuf­fer­ably gay­ist. Edmund is a five star, old school gay chau­vin­ist – so lit­er­ally fuck­ing proud to be gay and so obsessed with ‘com­ing out’ (and attack­ing those that refuse to join his party) that some­times I just want to slap him.

Which is why I laughed out loud when frail old Gore Vidal, vet­eran dis­senter from the ortho­dox­ies of sexual iden­tity polit­ics, recently reached out of his wheel­chair and did just that, repeatedly, in The London Times. Asked about White’s fic­tion­al­ised por­trayal of Vidal’s letter-writing rela­tion­ship with the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in the play ‘Terre Haute’, The Gore lam­basted White for por­tray­ing him as ‘another queen’, only writ­ing about how ‘being a fag is the greatest thing on Earth’ and – in a fant­astic phrase that will stay with White forever, like an immor­tal red hand­print on the side of his face  – “vul­gar fag-ism”.

Probably it was the ‘vul­gar’ part that stung White most (his prose, espe­cially the earlier efforts, some­times looks as if it’s been fis­ted by a thesaurus) and pro­voked the bitchy response in an inter­view in Salon this week (‘Edmund White comes out swinging’).  Ed describes Gore as a ‘nasty, awful man’, claims sor­row­fully to have tried to help him in the past by invit­ing him to din­ner to intro­duce him to ‘cute boys’, very kindly reminds us of his great age, the fact that he’s wheelchair-bound, his alco­hol­ism, his loss a few years ago of his life-long com­pan­ion. Practically spelling it out for us in a campy stage whis­per: Bitter. Old. Queen.

But appar­ently this isn’t enough. He also tells us that Vidal is a ‘com­plete lun­atic’ and that ‘it doesn’t bother me what he says about me.’ Yes, dear, but if it doesn’t, why go on so? And on, and on….

I don’t know what he’s fam­ous for any­where, really, because I think those his­tor­ical nov­els are com­plete works of taxi­dermy. Nobody can read those. “Myra Breckinridge” was funny but light. The essays are what every­body defends — but a friend of mine who did a volume of the best essays of the 20th cen­tury said they’re all so top­ical that they’ve all aged ter­ribly. I don’t know where his work is.’

Ed, sweetie. Even if everything that you and your ter­ribly import­ant lit­er­ary friends have to say about that ‘nasty awful man’ were true, bit­ter old alco­holic crippled Gore would still be ten times the writer you are.

And, oh, about 100 times the man.

Edward Carpenter — The Utopian Uranian

Mark Simpson on the for­got­ten ‘English Whitman’

(Independent on Sunday, 5 October, 2008)

On his 80th birth­day in 1924, five years before his death, the social­ist Utopian poet, mys­tic, act­iv­ist, homo­phile, envir­on­ment­al­ist, fem­in­ist and nud­ist Edward Carpenter received an album signed by every mem­ber of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Cabinet. Glowing trib­utes appeared in the social­ist papers as well as the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and even the Egyptian Gazette. He was hailed by the philo­sopher C.E.M. Joad as the har­binger, no less, of mod­ern­ity itself: ‘Carpenter denounced the Victorians for hypo­crisy, held up their con­ven­tions to ridicule, and called their civil­isa­tion a dis­ease,’ he wrote. ‘He was like a man com­ing into a stuffy sit­ting room in a sea­side board­ing house, and open­ing the win­dow to let in light and air…’.

In the early Twentieth Century Carpenter was a celebrity, a hero, a guru, a prophet, a con­fid­ant: an Edwardian Morrissey, Moses and Claire Raynor in one. Multitudes of men and women — but mostly young men — had beaten a path to his door in his idyllic rural retreat-cum-socialist-boarding-house in Millthorpe, near Sheffield to sit at his veget­arian, be-sandled feet, or take part in his morn­ing sun-baths and sponge-downs in his back garden.

Soon after his death, how­ever, his cha­ris­matic repu­ta­tion faded faster than a Yorkshire tan. By the middle of the cen­tury he was the height of unfash­ion­ab­il­ity, and regarded by many on the left as a crank. When that manly Eton-educated pro­let­arian George Orwell decried the left’s habit of attract­ing ‘every fruit juice drinker, nud­ist, san­dal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, paci­fist and fem­in­ist in England’ every­one knew whom he was dissing.

Today very few would. Despite his extens­ive writ­ings, des­pite — or per­haps because of — the way many of his causes and indeed much of his life­style have become main­stream, and des­pite the brief renais­sance of his works with the gay left after the emer­gence of gay lib in the 60s and 70s — a move­ment which he appeared to pre­dict — and a hefty, worthy and yet also fas­cin­at­ing new bio­graphy by the fem­in­ist his­tor­ian Sheila Rowbotham (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty; Verso) not­with­stand­ing, it some­times seems as there’s almost noth­ing left of Ted, as his friends called him, save his beard and san­dals (he seems to have intro­duced sandal-wearing to these shores). He’s become the Cheshire cat of fin de siècle English Utopianism. In fact, one could argue, and I will, that the thing that con­nects most of us with Carpenter today is EM Forster’s arse.

George Merrill, Carpenter’s unin­hib­ited Sheffield working-class part­ner touched Forster’s repressed Cambridge back­side dur­ing a visit to Milthorpe in 1912:

…gently and just above the but­tocks. I believe he touched most peoples. The sen­sa­tion was unusual and I still remem­ber it, as I remem­ber the pos­i­tion of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psy­cho­lo­gical as phys­ical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.’

Inspired by Merrill’s tyk­ish dir­ect­ness, Forster, went home, sat down on his prob­ably still-tingling but­tocks and wrote the first ‘gay’ novel Maurice, which fam­ously fea­tur­ing a love-affair between Scudder the sun­burnt and impetu­ous grounds­man Alec and the uptight, middle-class Maurice. Though it wasn’t to be pub­lished until after ter­min­ally timid Forster’s death, DH Lawrence saw the manu­script and was him­self touched: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is in many ways a het­ero­sexu­al­ised Maurice. And of course, when Maurice was made into a film in the 1980s star­ring James Wilby and Rupert Graves suc­ceeded in mak­ing mil­lions of rumps, male and female, tingle at a time when homo­sexu­al­ity, as a res­ult of Section 28 and Aids had become a major cul­tural battleground.

Before Merrill, Edward Carpenter’s but­tocks had been touched by the American sage Walt Whitman and his pas­sion­ately romantic poems about male com­rade­ship, fre­quently involving work­ing men and sail­ors, whom he trav­elled to the US to meet (though it is unclear whether here the touch­ing was lit­eral or meta­phor­ical). Carpenter became a kind of English Whitman fig­ure, though more out­spoken on the sub­ject of tol­er­a­tion of same-sex love than Whitman ever dared to be in the US — if not, alas, nearly as fine a poet (another reason why his work hasn’t endured).

Lytton Strachey decreed sniffily that Alec and Maurice’s rela­tion­ship res­ted upon ‘lust and sen­ti­ment’ and would only last six weeks. Whatever Merrill and Edward Carpenter’s rela­tion­ship was based on — and Robotham argues that it was rather com­plic­ated and not what it appeared to be — it las­ted nearly 40 years, and was an inspir­a­tion to many.

Carpenter was noth­ing if not sen­ti­mental, when he wasn’t being just pat­ron­ising. He described Merrill as his ‘dear son’, his ‘simple nature child’ his ‘rose in winter’ his ‘ruby embed­ded in marl and clay’ and delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’. Raised in the Sheffield slums and without any formal edu­ca­tion Merrill was almost untouched by Christianity. On hear­ing that Jesus had spent his last night on Gethsemane Merrill’s response was “who with?”

It was Merrill’s — and the innu­mer­able other work­ing class male lov­ers that Carpenter had both before and after meet­ing him — lack of ‘self-consciousness’, or per­ceived lack of it, that attrac­ted Carpenter, who was born into an upright upper middle class fam­ily in Hove, Brighton (and it was his size­able inher­it­ance that fin­anced his pur­chase of Milthorpe and his com­radely life in the North). He was drawn to the work­ing classes because he saw them as res­cuing him from him­self — as much as he was res­cuing them.

Eros is a great lev­el­ler’, Carpenter wrote in The Intermediate Sex. ‘Perhaps the true demo­cracy rests, more firmly than any­where else, on a sen­ti­ment which eas­ily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affec­tion the most estranged ranks of soci­ety’. He observed that many ‘Uranians’ ‘of good pos­i­tion and breed­ing are drawn to rougher types, as of manual work­ers, and fre­quently very per­man­ent alli­ances grow up in this way.’

It’s worth point­ing out that even Wilde and Bosie’s rela­tion­ship, which was to cause Forster and many other homo­sexu­als at that time such grief, was based on their mutual enjoy­ment of rent boys. Carpenter dis­ap­proved of such exploit­a­tion, but it’s not impossible to ima­gine Wilde, or one of his char­ac­ters, jest­ing that people like Carpenter were social­ists only because they didn’t want to pay for their trade.

Robotham to her credit doesn’t shrink from point­ing out the lim­its of Carpenter’s social­ism: ‘Carpenter never quer­ied his own tacit pre­sump­tion that the lower classes and sub­or­din­ated races were to be defen­ded when vul­ner­able and abject but treated with con­tempt when they sought indi­vidual advance­ment.’ To this it could be added that if Carpenter suc­ceeded in abol­ish­ing class, then with it would be abol­ished the interest in the work­ing classes of men like Carpenter. Each man kills the thing he loves.

What though was work­ing class youth’s interest in Carpenter? In a word: atten­tion. It seems they were flattered to be singled out and treated with cas­ual equal­ity by a gent, and an attract­ive, charm­ing one at that. One young lover wrote of Carpenter: ‘You feel inclined to get hold of him as a boy would his mate’ and talked of his ‘Handsome appear­ance — his erect, lithe body, trim and bearded face, pen­et­rat­ing eyes and beau­ti­ful voice.’ Carpenter was to con­tinue attract­ing young work­ing class men to his door well into silver-haired old age.

Carpenter had a con­tra­dict­ory view of homo­sexu­al­ity, see­ing those exclus­ively attrac­ted to their own sex as psych­ic­ally andro­gyn­ous ‘inter­me­di­ates’ like him­self who were ‘born that way’ — but also as har­bingers of a new age, the cul­tural ‘advance guard’ of social­ism in which a Utopian andro­gyny would be the norm. Not every­one shared his enthu­si­asm for a future world of Carpenters. George Bernard Shaw for one was enraged by the idea that ‘inter­me­di­acy’ should be recom­men­ded to ‘the nor­mal’ as the desired way to be.

EM Forster described Carpenter’s mys­ti­cism as the usual con­tra­dic­tion of want­ing ‘merge with the cos­mos and retain iden­tity’ at the same time. This in fact described pretty much everything, from Ted’s atti­tude towards com­rade­ship and homo­sexu­al­ity, class and social­ism, and even Millthorpe where he would write stand­ing in a sen­try box in he had built in his garden while his ‘retreat’ was over­run by guests.

His cham­pi­on­ing of andro­gyny and female eman­cip­a­tion also had con­tra­dic­tions. Robotham describes his hor­ror and dis­gust at the andro­gyny of a Siva statue he wit­nessed on a mys­tical visit to India as being ‘akin to the dis­gust he had felt at see­ing the female nudes in a French art gal­lery…’. For Carpenter, ‘accept­able fem­in­in­ity con­sisted of lithe gay men and sup­port­ive, tom-boyish sis­ter figures.’

Carpenter’s works were taken up by the gay lib­bers and New Left in the 60s and 70s partly because of his rejec­tion of male and female sex-roles and also because of his proto-gay-commune life­style in Millthorpe, with his open rela­tion­ship with Merrill (and also sev­eral local mar­ried men). For Carpenter, the per­sonal was polit­ical long before it became a lapel button.

But in the 1980s gay lib was replaced by gay con­sumer­ism, ‘inter­me­di­ates’, par­tic­u­larly many work­ing class ones keen to advance them­selves, turned out to be the van­guard not of a back-to-basics social­ist Utopia but of High Street Thatcherism. The main­stream­ing of ‘life­styl­ism’ happened largely because it was divorced from polit­ics — and Carpenter — and became about shop­ping. Which would have hor­ri­fied Ted who had an upper middle class dis­dain for ‘trade’ (the shop­keep­ing kind).  Lord only knows what he would have made of the con­sumer­ist andro­gyny of the metrosexual.

Perhaps the most last­ing and per­tin­ent thing about his life is a ques­tion: How on Earth did the old bug­ger get away with it? How did he avoid a huge scan­dal? How did he end up so lion­ised in his old age? Especially when you con­sider what happened to Wilde?

The answer is prob­ably the same reason for his lack of appeal today. His prose now seems often strangely pre­cious and oblique and replete with coy, coded clas­sical ref­er­ences. Worst of all for mod­ern audi­ences, he neces­sar­ily down­played the sexual aspect of same-sex love. His most influ­en­tial work ‘Homogenic Love’, pub­lished in 1895, the first British book to deal with the sub­ject of same-sex desire as some­thing other than a med­ical or moral prob­lem, rejects the word ‘homo­sexual’ ostens­ibly on the grounds that it was a ‘bas­tard’ word of Greek and Latin, but prob­ably because the Latin part was too much to the point.

Class helped too: when the police threatened to pro­sec­ute some of his works as obscene he was able to scare them off with an impress­ively long list of Establishment sup­port­ers. Even his live-in rela­tion­ship with Merrill was often seen as one of mas­ter and ser­vant (and in fact that’s how Merrill, who was fin­an­cially depend­ent on Carpenter, was leg­ally described).

ESP Haynes sus­pec­ted that Carpenter might not be as simple as he presen­ted him­self, that his mys­ti­cism ‘gave him a cer­tain detach­ment which pro­tec­ted him against pro­sec­u­tion as a heretic’. To which Rowbotham drily remarks: ‘As for the non-mystical Merrill, he just tried out the ideal­istic admirers’. (Or as that other Northern prophet Morrissey was to sing many years later: ‘I recog­nise that mys­tical air/it means I’d like to seize your under­wear.’)

Whatever Carpenter’s sur­vival secret, it’s rather won­der­ful for us that he did, and although his hazi­ness may be part of the reason he fades in and mostly out of con­scious­ness today, as Robotham con­cludes her sym­path­etic yet clear-eyed study: ‘One thing is cer­tain, this com­plic­ated, con­fus­ing, con­tra­dict­ory yet cour­ageous man is not going to van­ish entirely from view.’

The Botton Line

Mark Simpson is mys­ti­fied by the aim of a book that obscures its author’s own status — and anxiety

(Independent on Sunday, 07 March 2004)

Oh, god! Alain de Botton! Do you know how rich his fam­ily is?! His dad owned Switzerland!” This, or some­thing very sim­ilar, is what almost every fel­low scrib­bler exclaims when this “pop­u­lar” philosopher’s name is men­tioned. Which is rather fre­quently, because Mr de Botton, damn him, is a best­selling author whose books get made into TV series. In their eyes, his crime is two-fold: in a world where most writers find mak­ing a grubby liv­ing a ter­rible, degrad­ing struggle, a liv­ing and more has already found de Botton, and (even worse) he appears effort­lessly to com­mand riches, atten­tion and respect on his own account when he doesn’t even need them!

I have no idea how much inher­ited wealth Mr de Botton does or does not have at his dis­posal, but a glance at the press cut­tings reveals that his late father, Gilbert de Botton, owned a suc­cess­ful invest­ment com­pany which was sold in 1999, a year before his death, for £421m. His step-mother, Janet (née Wolfson) is an influ­en­tial col­lector of mod­ern art and heir­ess to Great Universal Stores: she was recently lis­ted by The Sunday Times as the 12th richest woman in the UK, just after the Queen and four places above Madonna.

Now, men­tion­ing any of this is ter­ribly vul­gar I know, espe­cially when talk­ing about a man who has staked his own claim to fame and status on being — as his jacket blurb describes him — “genu­inely wise and help­ful”. Someone who, moreover, gives every impres­sion of being incred­ibly nice and incred­ibly embar­rassed, if not actu­ally apo­lo­getic, about their priv­ilege and suc­cess. Nevertheless, I feel in my unhelp­ful and unpleas­ant way that this taste­less­ness is rather ger­mane to a book called Status Anxiety.

Precisely because the author is such a polite, learned and charm­ing writer with a fine appre­ci­ation for his­tory, lit­er­at­ure and the arts which he is so very gen­er­ously keen to share with us, he never expli­citly touches on the sub­ject of his own status, or his own anxi­ety about what the world thinks of him. Despite the fact that he must be entirely and pain­fully aware of exactly what people whinge about when his name is men­tioned, and that it has prob­ably ever been thus since Harrow. This is a shame, since it would have made his beau­ti­fully writ­ten but baff­lingly point­less and aim­less book, which claims to deal with some­thing as real and worldly and dirty as status, rather more read­able and infin­itely more relevant.

As part of my job descrip­tion I should here tell you what this book is actu­ally about, but I’m afraid I can’t help you there. I can tell you that the blurb says it is a book about the anxi­ety of being thought “win­ners or losers, a suc­cess or a fail­ure”, that it is neatly divided into two sec­tions, one entitled “Causes”, with appet­ising chapter titles such as “Lovelessness” and “Snobbery”; and “Solutions” with chapters titled “Art”, “Christianity” and, of course, “Philosophy”, and that it has lots of illus­tra­tions. But I can’t for the life of me say what it all amounts to. I’m not too troubled by this though: if the pro­fes­sional thinker Mr de Botton hasn’t taken the time to fig­ure it out, why should I?

All the same, Status Anxiety is not without rationale. It seems to be a pre­text for de Botton to wit­ter on about almost any­thing that takes his charm­ing fancy and share his wide read­ing and impec­cable tastes with the less for­tu­nate. Status Anxiety parades, ever so benignly, his status and the reader’s anxi­ety. Occasionally he has some­thing to say rather than report, such as the insight: “Rather than a tale of greed, the his­tory of lux­ury could more accur­ately be read as a record of emo­tional trauma.” Well yes, but who would be inter­ested in read­ing it?

It’s dif­fi­cult not to over­look the irony that one of the few com­mod­it­ies that money isn’t sup­posed to buy is “wis­dom”, and that this is the very com­mod­ity that Alain de Botton is in the mar­ket to sell. I sus­pect that there is another level of irony here, that part of what people buy when they buy de Botton is the smell of an expens­ive edu­ca­tion, the aroma of a well-stocked lib­rary and the time and secur­ity to enjoy it, a life rel­at­ively free of the mater­ial anxi­et­ies that plague most people. A life free of the anxi­et­ies of, well, life. Readers of de Botton don’t aspire to be wealthy, which would be vul­gar; they aspire, much like my writer friends who resent him, to be born to money; to be post–money. “The con­sequences of high status are pleas­ant,” writes de Botton. “They include resources, free­dom, space, com­fort, time and, as import­antly per­haps, a sense of being cared for and thought valu­able.” You could replace the words “high status” here with “money” and not change the sense of that sen­tence — and in fact make it rather more sensible.

The book itself is a gor­geously pro­duced item: the lux­uri­ous paper, the recum­bent white space, the richly redund­ant illus­tra­tions (aris­to­crat­ic­ally illus­trat­ing some­thing from the text that didn’t need to be said, let alone illus­trated). It is emin­ently desir­able. The inside jacket copy tells us that “every adult life is defined by two great love stor­ies. The first — the story of our quest for sexual love — is well known and well-charted. The second — the story of our quest for love from the world — is a more secret and shame­ful tale.” In other words, the pub­lisher wants us to think that Status Anxiety is sex­ier than sex.

So the cover fea­tures a tall skinny lady in high heels and miniskirt hold­ing a shiny and sharp-looking trowel behind her back. Alain de Botton’s name appears next to the shapely shins, and you find your­self won­der­ing if it is him in drag (the lady is head­less). Alain/Elaine is stand­ing over a fat yel­low garden hose that is ejac­u­lat­ing water over the well-kept moneyed sub­urban lawn; the hose snakes sau­cily (des­per­ately?) across the inside cover and across the rear jacket and rear inside cover. Clearly the pub­lisher doesn’t believe for a moment that status anxi­ety is a sex­ier sub­ject than sex and is instead frantic­ally try­ing to sell us sub­lim­in­ally a book about cas­tra­tion anxiety.

Perhaps, as the reac­tions of my resent­ful scrib­bling pals — and my own uncouth review — illus­trates, being born to a wealthy father can be rather cas­trat­ing; how to assert your own status in a world where most things and val­ues, as de Botton admits, are now bestowed by money? What is left in the way of achieve­ments for you to acquire? Well, you could always try becom­ing a pop­u­lar philosopher.…

But I can’t leave you without men­tion­ing the endear­ingly silly graphs and tables of blind­ingly bril­liant banal­ity. My favour­ites are two graphs on p.207 titled “How we ima­gine sat­is­fac­tion after an acquis­i­tion or achieve­ment” and “What in fact hap­pens after an acquisition/achievement”. The first shows a steep, sur­ging rise in the level of hap­pi­ness over time which then levels off; the second shows a steep rise fol­lowed by a pre­cip­it­ous, droop­ing fall. This lat­ter image may or may nor be an accur­ate plot­ting of the impot­ence of worldly goods to sat­isfy, but it is an entirely accur­ate and sci­entific depic­tion of the effect of buy­ing Status Anxiety.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2008

Action Man: on land, on sea and legs in the air

Mark Simpson goes on a top secret mis­sion to the bot­tom of the garden

(Independent on Sunday, 14 March 2004)

I never had an Action Man (G.I. Joe to Americans). He was for sis­sies. I only gar­risoned my bed­room with tiny non-moving, non-camp Airfix sol­diers I’d painted myself. Naturally, this didn’t stop me play­ing end­lessly with the fam­ous male doll when I vis­ited my mates. My best chum had the Eagle Eye Action Man with work­ing com­bat hang-glider — which is why he was my best mate. When he finally real­ised my real affec­tions lay not with him but his 12-inch piece of moul­ded plastic, he dumped me in a fit of under­stand­able piqué.

It was my par­ents who had planted the sus­pi­cion of Action Man’s mas­culin­ity in my head and turned me into a closeted Action Manophile: “No, Father Christmas won’t be bring­ing you one of those dolls, Mark.”

He’s not a doll!! He’s a soldier!!”

Of course, they were entirely cor­rect in their con­cerns. Despite his butch trade­marked name and rugged cam­ou­flaged gear, he was clearly Passive Man, as was betrayed by the advert­ising copy that shrieked at you to: “Move him into action pos­i­tions!” Action Man: on land, on sea, and legs in the air.

My par­ents, though, were being more prac­tical than pre­ju­diced. They knew that once he entered our house, he’d take over. They knew this because my older sis­ter had had a Barbie doll, made by the same com­pany that made Action Man. The dolls them­selves were a loss-leader — it was the appar­ently infin­ite out­fits and accessor­ies they deman­ded that were the real agenda and the real money-spinner.

NG Taylor, author of ‘Action Man: on land, at sea, and in the air’ obvi­ously had less cau­tious par­ents; that, or sev­eral paper rounds. Splendidly pic­tured on the back of his book in a forest set­ting with mous­tache and cam­ou­flaged shirt, peer­ing through field bin­ocu­lars, he has been col­lect­ing Action Man since 1966. He has kept in impec­cable, quarter­mas­terly con­di­tion almost every out­fit and access­ory ever pro­duced for the little plastic man. Hence per­haps the men­tion of his wife in the introduction.

Even if you have never under­stood the appeal of Action Man, this book will make you fall in love with him faster than Action Man would take to strip down a Stirling sub­ma­chine and reas­semble it — if he actu­ally had any fin­gers. Taylor has pho­to­graphed him in more than a hun­dred dif­fer­ent out­fits, all in “real-life situ­ations”, from “frozen Alps to trop­ical sea­shores and jungles”. That this prob­ably means from his back­yard in January to Skegness in August only makes the tableaux all the more fetching.

Perhaps because, unlike Jean Paul Gaultier, I think that the only men who look good in a kilt are Scottish foot­ball fans and trained killers, my per­sonal favour­ites are the breath­tak­ing pho­tos of AM sport­ing the Argyll and Sutherland Highlander full dress uni­form. Photographed on a craggy moor, or per­haps atop a rock­ery in Taylor’s local park, Action Man with his tas­selled spor­ran and pol­ished tunic but­tons is a vis­ion of pint-sized, manly pride and gor­geous­ness that I defy any­one to not be moved by.

The pho­tos them­selves with their sat­ur­ated col­our, grass and stones a bit too big, but­tons, stitch­ing and zips a little out­size, are subtly evoc­at­ive of the inno­cence of child­hood. But while the glor­i­ous out­fits are the main objects of atten­tion, it is Action Man who is the star. This book proves him to be an incred­ibly ver­sat­ile actor, one who puts most of today’s Hollywood males to shame. The Tommy pic­tured in brown bat­tle­dress is a Cockney spar­rer who might cook you up a brew while whist­ling Colonel Bogey. The German Stormtrooper’s chin and jaw is Germanic and bru­tal beneath his square hel­met, his eyes those of a mer­ci­less Aryan killer. The easy­going Action Sailor snapped by the sea in ador­able blue denim bell-bottoms and shirt with cap is about to cadge a fag or a pint and tell you a dirty joke. The French Foreign Legionnaire in his white képi and cobalt blue great­coat has a haunted look about the eyes that makes you want to buy him a Pernod or three.

In fact, AM’s face is exactly the same in all these pic­tures. It’s moul­ded plastic, after all. And yet, magic­ally, his face seems to take on an entirely dif­fer­ent aspect, char­ac­ter and romance accord­ing to the angle at which it is pho­to­graphed, the out­fit, the nation­al­ity and the background.

No doubt this is down to Taylor’s skill, and also the fantas­ies we — or is it just me? — pro­ject on to the dif­fer­ent togs. But I also think this fet­ish has a life of its own. I’m con­vinced that AM’s face actu­ally moves when you’re not look­ing: that pouty mouth with the jut­ting lower lip, those brood­ing eyes gaz­ing for­ward to the world of mas­cu­line adven­ture which is never com­ing. He must have prac­tised it in the mir­ror when we were all asleep.

Butchness may require para­lysis of the facial muscles, but it’s a very cal­cu­lated kind of para­lysis all the same.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2008

A Right Royal Rent Boy

By Mark Simpson

The makers of BBC2’s The Tudors, know which side their Irish buns are buttered. They recently announced that Jonathan Rhys-Meyer’s Henry will not be allowed to get fat in the third series, cur­rently in production.

In case anyone’s inter­ested, the actual, his­tor­ical Henry VIII became a big porker in later life and needed a crane to hoist him on to his poor horse. Quite rightly, the makers of The Tudors, now half-way through its second saucy series, have decided that Henry’s his­tor­ical obesity is a little bit too pro­ley for BBC 2. “We still want him to be appeal­ing,” explained Morgan O’Sullivan, an exec­ut­ive pro­du­cer. “We don’t want to des­troy his good looks. An exact por­trayal of Henry is not a factor that we think is important.”

No, what is import­ant today is that HD Henry be shag­gable. In TV’s TudorWorld, no king can expect to hold the loy­alty of his sub­jects if he doesn’t look like he would serve them faith­fully in the bed­room. In other words, TudorWorld is a lot like the one we live in. As Rhys-Meyers put it him­self, act­ors ‘don’t get fam­ous for being pug ugly, do they?’

They cer­tainly don’t.  And I cer­tainly don’t tune in to ‘The Tudors’ for the dodgy his­tory, or the campy script (Henry to Thomas More, author of Utopia: ‘Your ideas are a bit… Utopian’). Nor, frankly, for Rhys-Meyer’s act­ing – though admit­tedly there is some enjoy­ment to be had in watch­ing the wife-axing Pope-baiting founder of the Royal Navy and in fact England as we under­stand her today played as a young Captain Kirk with anger man­age­ment issues.

No, the only thing I really want to see him do with his pouty face with that Billy Idol perma-sneer is snog. Oh, and spasm dur­ing those orgas­mic close-ups. Which is for­tu­nate, because both these things hap­pen about every three minutes.

Maybe the Tudor ther­mo­stats were set too high, or maybe it’s those leather pants, but even when he’s not snog­ging or com­ing, he seems to be aller­gic to shirts. On the rare occa­sion he has to wear one he seems unable to but­ton it up. Which is prob­ably just as well, as the naughty lad would only stain it.

Yes, there are lots of comely, busty ladies in TudorWorld and their bod­ices keep rip­ping, and Jonathan keeps shtup­ping them. But the fact that they’re usu­ally rather bet­ter act­ors than him just under­lines the fact that HD Henry is the real sex-object in his sex scenes, whichever wench he’s deflower­ing. His tits and ass are always the first out and the last in, and the widescreen cam­era makes sure his body is always, very vul­garly, on dis­play. In fact, Rhys Meyers’ looks more rent boy than roy­alty.  Maybe that’s why his King of England speaks – on the rare occa­sions when he doesn’t have his mouth full of wench – like an escort order­ing in a posh res­taur­ant (which he is – it’s called BBC2).

Besides, the lovely young ladies in TudorWorld are out­numbered by the num­ber of slutty young males in tights, every one sport­ing one of those clo­ney, immacu­lately trimmed Beckhamista beards no self-regarding metro can be seen without (Henry Cavill of course could wear a Yak on his chin and still be smoothly irres­ist­ible). And while the occa­sional plain woman appears to be tol­er­ated in TudorWorld, plain men who don’t hap­pen to be smelly old Chancellors or Archbishops most def­in­itely aren’t (and even they usu­ally end up in The Tower). The ancient Holy Father, played by a surprisingly-still-alive Peter O’Toole, appears to have had more bad plastic sur­gery than Joan Rivers.

Unlike the bigger-budget, better-directed and scrip­ted Rome, which in its Imperious second series almost suc­ceeded in con­vin­cing you that its very trash­i­ness and tarti­ness was prob­ably the truest, most accur­ate thing about it – that Ancient Rome really was like this – The Tudors is just Footballer’s Wives in codpieces.

Or, what is much the same thing, Footballers Wives for BBC2.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2008

This essay is col­lec­ted in  Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

You’re the Top! You’re Mussolini!

“Where are we going on our Honeymoon then, Adolf?“
“A lovely place in the east, Benito! Called Stalingrad.”

Mark Simpson on the oddly pas­sion­ate adu­la­tion the ‘Roman Genius’ Benito Mussolini inspired — and still inspires to this day.

(Independent on Sunday, 29 June 2003)


I grabbed her on the stairs, threw her into a corner behind a door and made her mine,’ wrote Mussolini recall­ing one of his teen­age woo­ings. ‘She got up weep­ing and humi­li­ated and through her tears she insul­ted me. She said that I had robbed her of her hon­our. It is not impossible. But, I ask you, of what hon­our was she speak­ing… She wasn’t in a sulk with me for long.… for at least three months we loved each other not much with the mind but much with the flesh.’

Benito happened to be describ­ing, in typ­ic­ally Nietzchean pos­eur stylee, the ravishing/raping of a peas­ant girl neigh­bour, but he would have liked us to believe that he could also have been describ­ing his seduc­tion of Signora Italia, whom he fam­ously ‘made his’ dur­ing his March on Rome in 1922 (which, actu­ally, was not a march at all but a jolly day out on the train).

This more fam­ous affair not much of the mind but of the flesh ended up last­ing over twenty years instead of three months, cost Italy rather more than her hon­our and some tears — even­tu­ally involving a hairy three­some with Adolf Hitler — and did not end until Il Duce (along with his real-life mis­tress of the moment) was sum­mar­ily executed by Partisans in 1945 as he tried to flee to Austria dis­guised as a German sol­dier, in some­thing of a crimine di pas­sione.

Although Italy, like the peas­ant girl of his mem­oirs was the vic­tim, it’s not entirely clear that Signor M was quite the tower­ing stud­meister he presen­ted him­self as being or more of a jumped-up gigolo eagerly play­ing the role that his­tory paid him to.

Italia, vic­tim or no, did love him. After sanc­tions were imposed to pun­ish Italy for his unpro­voked and mass-murderous inva­sion of Abyssinia in 1935, Il Duce called on Italians to donate their wed­ding rings to him — in exchange for steel ones — and other gold to help the inva­sion effort. Astonishingly, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Italians heeded the call from the reverse Midas, and handed over 33,622 tons of gold for steel, lit­er­ally mar­ry­ing their leader and provid­ing the dowry themselves.

To be fair, it wasn’t just the Italians who couldn’t res­ist Mussolini for the first dec­ade or so of his dic­tat­or­ship. Mussolini was the first pop star politi­cian in the age of mass com­mu­nic­a­tion and had a global, fren­zied fan-base. The American poet Ezra Pound was besot­ted, Cole Porter penned a song which helped turn his name into a super­lat­ive, ‘You’re the top!… you’re Mussolini’ (the Duce-worshipping lyric was actu­ally writ­ten by PG Wodehouse for the London ver­sion of ‘Anything Goes’). Pope Pius gush­ingly IX described him as a ‘man of Providence’. Before he left the Italian Socialist Party even Lenin spoke approv­ingly of him.

Once he became a bul­wark against Bolshevism, The Times and the Daily Mail heaped praise on this ‘great politi­cian’ and ‘fore­man’ of the Italian people. Winston Churchill, that great and uncom­prom­ising defender of Parliamentary demo­cracy and scourge of tyr­ants, was a pas­sion­ate admirer of the ori­ginal Fascist dic­tator he dubbed ‘the Roman genius’: ‘What a man! I have lost my heart!… he is one of the most won­der­ful men of our time,’ he sighed in 1927, provid­ing an early inspir­a­tion for the char­ac­ter of Jean Brodie.

In fact, the only other anti-Bolshevik who was hot­ter for Mussolini than Churchill was an ambi­tious former Austrian Corporal chan­cer kick­ing around Bavaria who des­per­ately wanted to be like his Italian ‘man of steel’. He insisted on eat­ing in Italian res­taur­ants and wanted to know everything about his fave pop­ster Il Duce. ‘He seemed like someone in love ask­ing news about the per­son they loved,’ recalled one SS Colonel. Hitler made many requests to meet Mussolini but the would-be groupie was con­tinu­ally rebuffed by a Mussolini who was not keen to share the Fascist limelight.

Until, of course, Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Observers noted that, on meet­ing Mussolini, the future mer­ci­less mas­ter of Europe had tears in his eyes. Afterwards he had noth­ing but praise: ‘Men like that are born only once every thou­sand years,’ he exclaimed. ‘And Germany can be happy that he is Italian and not French.’

Mussolini’s ver­dict was less rhaps­odic: ‘He’s mad, he’s mad.… Instead of speak­ing to me about cur­rent prob­lems… he recited to me from memory his Mein Kampf, that enorm­ous brick which I have never been able to read.’ Nicholas Farrell, who clearly is one of Mussolini’s grow­ing num­ber of con­tem­por­ary fans, makes much in his bio­graphy Mussolini: A New Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) of the Bald Big Head’s (as the Partisan who arres­ted Il Duce called him) dis­like of Hitler, both to dis­tin­guish Italian Fascism from National Socialism — which was, we can all agree, rather nas­tier — and also to por­tray the forth­right blacksmith’s son Benito as more sym­path­etic. Personally, how­ever, I found myself rather touched by Hitler’s crazy devo­tion to Mussolini, which long out­lived the Italian windbag’s use­ful­ness and always sur­passed his merits.

Mussolini’s rant­ing about Hitler, on the other hand, while very funny, seems almost, dare I say, unkind, or at least bitch­ily ungrate­ful. Worse, it merely sup­ports the pre­val­ent post-war per­cep­tion of him as a comic, impot­ent buf­foon that Farrell is so keen to punc­ture. Mussolini is undoubtedly more likable than Hitler; but he’s also, for that reason, more con­tempt­ible too. At the news of Mussolini’s dar­ing ‘res­cue’ by German troops from the moun­tain prison he was incar­cer­ated in after being deposed in 1943, Hitler, bless, was as ecstatic as he was at the fall of France, stamp­ing and dan­cing on the spot.

But when Mussolini real­ised that the men who had arrived in gliders were Germans rather than English he groaned, like some Latin Alf Garnet or Sidney Trotter, “That’s ALL we need!”. As the pic­tures taken (for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses) dur­ing this oper­a­tion show, the dimin­ut­ive ‘Roman Genius’ being bundled by tower­ing blond Nazi Special Forces into a tiny Stork aero­plane ready to whisk him off to Hitler’s Hideaway, was def­in­itely not a mas­ter of events by this time: he was a situ­ation­ist com­edy in jackboots.

Even though he prob­ably deserves less than most other his­tor­ical fig­ures I can think of, it’s impossible not to sup­press a cer­tain amount of pity for poor Benito by this time. You see, I sus­pect that he was begin­ning to real­ise that Adolf was behav­ing rather like another Austrian in his life called Ida Dalser, an old flame who used to reg­u­larly show up shout­ing, ‘I AM THE WIFE OF MUSSOLINI!! Only I have the right to be near him!’ Once in power Mussolini would lock Dalser up in a lun­atic asylum in Venice where she remained until her death, a pris­oner of love. In a strange case of poetic-romantic justice, Hitler was to effect­ively lock Mussolini up with him in his own asylum until Mussolini him­self expired — also a pris­oner of love.

After his death, Mussolini’s widow Rachele was determ­ined to have the pocket Caesar to her­self as well, des­pite the fact that he fam­ously met his end with his mis­tress. She claimed to have received a let­ter from him just before his death: ‘… I ask you to for­give all the bad things that I have invol­un­tar­ily done to you. But you know that you have been for me the only woman that I have truly loved. I swear to you in front of God… this supreme moment.’ Conveniently, she said she had sub­sequently des­troyed the let­ter after ‘mem­or­ising’ its contents.

Farrell has drawn on newly dis­covered let­ters to write a book that some­times seems like a 477 page ver­sion of that phantom let­ter to Rachele, albeit writ­ten in the style of a Sunday Telegraph edit­or­ial, or Spectator column. For Farrell, the Fascist bully boy who abol­ished demo­cracy in Italy, invaded Ethiopia, Greece, France, Russia and Yugoslavia for no par­tic­u­lar reason other than he thought he could get away with it (and made a ter­rible mess of every cam­paign except Ethiopia where bombers, tanks, poison gas and half a mil­lion men were deployed against tribes­men); who sold Italy to Nazi Germany for the price of the Prussian goose-step (he made his short-legged Fascisti prac­tice it to ludicrous effect) giv­ing Hitler the green light for his European war and the apo­ca­lyptic con­flag­ra­tion that fol­lowed, was actu­ally a hugely tal­en­ted, likable, big-hearted giant of a man who, unlike his “cyn­ical” and “ruth­less” left­ist oppon­ents (whom he had his Blackshirts beat, shoot or incar­cer­ate), always had Italia — his one true love’s — best interests in mind. But who made just one small, invol­un­tary, entirely under­stand­able error in regard to the Second World War that was, any­way, really that nasty wop-hating knee-jerk anti-Fascist Anthony Eden’s fault.

Perhaps I exag­ger­ate. Perhaps I have even cari­ca­tured the author. But Farrell, in a revi­sion­ist his­tory which is not entirely without merit, has cari­ca­tured him­self rather more. He is even pic­tured on the jacket sleeve in a black Fedora, a black shirt and black leather jacket. The text tells us that since 1998 he has lived in Predappio in the Romagna ‘where Mussolini was born and is bur­ied like a saint.’

Mussolini, in other words, is still a pris­oner of love.

© Mark Simpson 2008

Waxing Desmond Morris


By Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 21 Jan 2008)

Every child wants to be a zoo­keeper when they grow up. To run a place where everything is in its place, and has noth­ing to do but eat, shit and breed — to your timetable. Maybe it’s a yen for revenge on the par­ents who brought them into the world without ask­ing their per­mis­sion first, or maybe it’s just because chil­dren are all little dic­tat­ors with a peaked-cap fetish.

Most though aban­don these zoo fuehrer dreams when they actu­ally grow up. Not so Desmond Morris. Impressively, this former cur­ator of mam­mals at London Zoo, doesn’t make do with anim­als: with best-selling books such as The Naked Ape and Manwatching, this world-famous zoolo­gist has man­aged to become head keeper at his very own human zoo.

And to be hon­est, the world evoked in his latest book The Naked Man, ‘a study of the male body from head to foot’, sounds like a place I’d quite like to visit — but only because I’m some­thing of a nostalgic.

Morrisland isn’t just a zoo, you see. It’s also a his­tor­ical theme park. In Morrisland, mil­lions of years of evol­u­tion, red in tooth and claw, have brought us right up to… the sub­urban 1950s (the dec­ade Morris gradu­ated). In Morrisland ‘long-term pair bond­ing’ is the uni­ver­sal norm and there’s no need for a Child Support Agency or Asbos or turkey-basters since: ‘Powerful paternal feel­ings are unleashed the moment a human father holds his new baby in his arms and in the years ahead he will devote a great deal of time and atten­tion to the rear­ing of his offspring.’

In Morrisland, where everything hap­pens accord­ing to the zoo-keeper’s plan, women are 7 per­cent shorter than men so that their nose will reach inside a man’s hairy armpit, because sniff­ing his manly, rugged ‘pher­omones’ makes her happy and want babies. And, of course, no Western man would shave his armpit. Only ‘mem­bers of the homo­sexual com­munity or the bondage/sadomasochistic com­munit­ies’ would do that.

By far the biggest attrac­tion in Morrisland is sexual cer­tainty. Within this fenced-off space the dis­tinc­tion between ‘mas­cu­line’ and ‘fem­in­ine’, ‘homo­sexual’ and ‘het­ero­sexual’, is unclouded by all those unnat­ural mod­ern trends. ‘As nature inten­ded’ is a favour­ite phrase, one which appears above the entrance gates. In Morrisland, men are men — and there’s a strict golf club dress code. ‘Acceptance of male ear­rings still tends to be lim­ited to those worn by the younger, more flam­boy­ant males, largely from the world of sport, music and show­busi­ness,’ you’ll be glad to hear. Male brace­lets are simply effem­in­ate. And men only shave their legs — ‘sac­ri­fi­cing their mas­culin­ity’ — to swim or cycle faster.

In today’s fallen world, an older man might be called a ‘slap­head’ by unruly yobs — but safe inside Morrisland you’ll find your­self prop­erly respec­ted: ‘it is obvi­ous that bald­ness is a human dis­play sig­nal indic­at­ing male seni­or­ity and dom­in­ance. It typ­i­fies the virile older man…’ (There’s no author photo on the dust-jacket, but a quick Google search con­firms that Desmond is com­pletely ‘virile’.)

There is trouble in the Garden of Desmond, how­ever. Apparently ‘A few men — nar­ciss­ist or mas­ochists — have opted for nipple rings.’ But at least it’s only ‘a few’ — and they’re all devi­ants. Meanwhile, serpent-like ‘Gay design­ers’ ‘ignor­ing male pref­er­ences’ attempt to intro­duce ‘effem­in­ate new leg fash­ions’. Fortunately, these fash­ions prove as sterile as the gay design­ers them­selves: ‘they may have looked amus­ing on the cat­walk, but they have never made it to the high street. Crumpled trousers and grubby jeans still reign supreme in the world of the manly male.’

In Morrisland there does exist how­ever some­thing called a ‘‘six-pack’ chest’ — though ‘few are pre­pared to make the effort to cre­ate it.’ Perhaps because a ‘six-pack chest’ would require not just reg­u­lar vis­its to the gym, but also sub­stan­tial surgery.

Surprisingly, that ter­ri­fy­ing 21st Century male phe­nomenon I’ve been blamed for sir­ing myself — met­ro­sexu­als — are allowed in Morrisland. But only those whose het­ero­sexu­al­ity is bey­ond ques­tion and ‘are well-known as tough, mas­cu­line sports­men and as fam­ous celebrit­ies… so, for them to become fas­ti­di­ous and fashion-conscious cre­ates no con­fu­sion.’ Well, that’s a relief.

Non-celeb met­ro­sexu­als don’t exist in Morrisland, because ‘if an unknown het­ero­sexual male were to dis­play over-groomed, nar­ciss­istic tend­en­cies, his sexual pref­er­ences would be auto­mat­ic­ally mis­read by any­one who met him.’ Which would, it goes without Mr Morris say­ing, be the worst thing that could pos­sibly hap­pen to a man and would render him com­pletely emas­cu­lated and ridicu­lous. ‘This lim­its,’ explains the human zoo-keeper, ‘the met­ro­sexual cat­egory to fam­ous celebrit­ies who are already pub­licly recog­nised for their heterosexuality.’

Clearly, not many of those High Street sales of male cos­met­ics which have increased by 800% since the year 2000, have been made in Morrisland. Though I do worry that the cover model for Morris’ book, an anonym­ous, head­less, naked, smoothly mus­cu­lar, young male pho­to­graphed from behind in that sensuous-shadowy advert­ising sex-object way — offer­ing us his arse — has been binge­ing on met­ro­sexual products. I sin­cerely hope his het­ero­sexu­al­ity is already very pub­licly recognised.

As you may have guessed, Mr Morris has a prob­lem with homo­sexu­al­ity. Throughout his book ‘manly’ means ‘het­ero­sexual’, unmanly means ‘homo­sexual’ — and vice versa.

But it’s not a per­sonal prob­lem, it’s a sci­entific one, you see. In a final chapter called ‘The Preferences’ devoted not in fact to the pref­er­ences but rather to explaining/pathologising male homo­sexu­al­ity, he writes, ‘Viewed purely from an evol­u­tion­ary stand­point, there is only one valid bio­lo­gical life­style for the human male and that is het­ero­sexual.’ In other words, evol­u­tion, like zoo-keepers, doesn’t like waste and wants you to repro­duce early and often.

But I can’t help but won­der why, if God/Darwin/Morris didn’t want men to get shagged, why did he give them such itchy pro­state glands? And if every sperm is sac­red, why did he put their hands at crotch level?

Des’ explan­a­tion for exclus­ive homo­sexu­al­ity (exclus­ive het­ero­sexu­al­ity needs no explan­a­tion appar­ently — and bisexu­al­ity isn’t dis­cussed) is, like much else in his book, charm­ingly mid-Twentieth Century: at puberty some boys fail to move out of the long all-boy social phase of child­hood — and also boy-boy ‘sex play’ — and switch into dat­ing girls and home-making, because they have become ‘too attached’. I per­son­ally don’t mind the arres­ted devel­op­ment explan­a­tion of homo­sexu­al­ity: I think it rather romantic (like Morris, I atten­ded a boy’s board­ing school). I’m not entirely sure though that I’m that much more imma­ture than someone who never gave up want­ing to be a zoo keeper.

In con­clu­sion, Morris makes a final impas­sioned plea for tol­er­ance and accept­ance of dif­fer­ence and human vari­ety: ‘Isolating homo­sexu­als as though they are mem­bers of some exclus­ive club does them no favours’.

So true. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the The Naked Male does. Morris’ human zoo sep­ar­ates ‘homo­sexu­als’ and ‘het­ero­sexu­als’ with barbed wire — and elec­tri­fies the fence.

© Mark Simpson 2008