Isherwood

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. Emusic.com, an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giving away MP3 players (worth $150) to anyone who bought just $25 worth of music.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001

FannyStella1_318223o

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.

Jarhead

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 elite 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 uber-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 uber-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.