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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

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 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.

 

 

 

 

 


Jungian Complexes at the Multiplex

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

JEW-ENVY AND OTHER JUNGIAN COMPLEXES

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday, April 1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
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But the old man is conflicted and in his basement den (a metaphor for the subconscious?) he keeps mementoes from “The Old Country” and lectures his son about the hidden German contribution to America, proudly driving an old Porsche around town like a Panzer. Porsche, he reminds Sam regularly, made the Tiger, the most advanced tank of the second world war.
Eventually his father deserts the family, and Sam, who loved his daddy despite the beatings, spirals, heartbroken, into drug addiction before drifting to California.

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

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

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

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

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 debacle 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 matinee-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

 

The Definitive Vietnam War Novel? Or Cartoon War Porn?

Today’s FT carries a review by yours truly of Karl Marlantes’ controversial novel Matterhorn.

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 & 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 pique.

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.

A Right Royal Rent Boy – The Tartiness of The Tudors

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 these days (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 Cardinals most definitely aren’t – and even they usually end up in The Tower. Even 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.

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

You’re the Top! You’re Mussolini!

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 plenty of 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, symbolically 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 is clearly 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 likeable 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, likeable, 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.

Waxing Desmond Morris

naked-man.jpg

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

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