On the 11th of June, 1993, I was born with an extra digit, an eleventh finger. I am told it was a finger, so goes my parents’ mythology, but probably there is some anatomical word which better explains the strange appendage attached to my left pinkie. Resembling a kind of lollipop, a glass candy, my eleventh finger was a long thin vessel of muscle or blood (what I cannot know or ask of that fact) attached to a kind of crimson orb, like a cherry. It wasn’t really a finger at all, but the unfinished potential of what might’ve been one, a mutation. This was accompanied by a strawberry-shaped birthmark on my inner left wrist which, my dad assured me, would fade as I grew older. The cherry finger was lopped off on the day of my birth, and the blood splattered the doctor’s coat, bright red upon starch white. Soon after, I nearly died. A lightning storm raged through the morning. I was placed in an incubator, I had some kind of viral infection. They furnished me with the supplementary khora, until I grew blonde and better. So the story goes, and already I have probably messed up the order.
But I want to say something of the number eleven. Eleven feels like a residue, an extra. The loss of this finger, which I do not write with and yet slyly it makes itself present as absence, constitutes a kind of originary erasure. Years pass in which I forget this secret was mine at all. Eleven, perhaps, is a statement of entropy, a chaos spilling over our familiar limits and even regressing or falling in loops. However we parcel our intake/outtake, our sense of personal energy. I test out images of eleven, of extra. In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, the protagonist wants to claim his free coffee, the remainder, so badly that he buys ten cappuccinos just to get the loyalty card stamped, just to claim the free one, the eleventh beyond the card. A strange caffeination that remains incomplete, to come. Then there’s Eleven from Stranger Things as a kind of genetic extra; the number identifies her as a test subject. The number becomes name. That phrase, turn it up to eleven, when really the system stops at ten. Why is it we make wishes on 11:11, when did I start doing that? The wish constituted itself as extra. Over time, I find myself ‘catching’ this time more and more, glancing at the clock of my laptop when it just happens to be 11:11. And the wishes pile up at the forefront of thought, they take a while to resume as memory. When I am sad, I visit the Kelvingrove fountain. There is water and clarity, the hum of other people’s wishes. Sometimes this is better than poetry, it’s simply potential.
I knew someone who named themselves after the sky in Super Mario (with Ayrshire inflection) long before either of us had even heard of Cory Arcangel. We were born on the exact same day, same year, and we called ourselves twins. It took eleven years of our lives to find each other. Speaking to this person, I felt always this chiasmus of consciousnesses, a sense of keeping up, or ongoingness. They were super beautiful with luminous curls and sports jackets. Their nights were spent up with consoles and synthesisers, and we messaged each other until our windows crashed, or our parents needed to use the phone. I will not quash the romance of the dialup connection, for it was real, the frisson of interruption. The sense of a moving into, the attunement that performed itself in the temporal interlude of a radio whistle, blow of white noise that had its sonic continuum, warping and twisting as though all these howls in the wires were coming to life, and we would sing through the modem our deepest thoughts. You would teach me a riff. We were each messaging the others at once. There would come a point where everything was just text in the end, the fragile reminder of each bodily fragility.
You wrote in cyan-coloured Comic Sans, before this was ironical.
Half of my brain wants a masculine state; the other half a quiet, feminine comedown. What is it to speak or sleep gender. I’d sip cider in the wee hours after the party, but nothing fragmentary said then was as good as it was on the computer. It was like coming to life, discovering what had not yet been told of a love or a taste. I suddenly felt affectionate towards everything, and the aesthetics of a particular website, the trajectory of a song, could startle me into tears. Everything grew fizzy and sugary; it was all too much. What we were supposed to say to each other. I was learning to apply eyeliner, clip bras and shed weight like a grownup. The environment was a diagram we drew at school, a set of names we recited while dipping for critters in rockpools, freezing our brains on polluted beaches. A joke that was told to the air before we could return to our games.
I never learned the word for what happened at my birth, what grew on me, this residue fruit. After a while, it broke away, the fact of it which was a specialness. I was losing that specialness the more I learned language. There was a solvent process of being okay with a long red line that meant mine or anybody else’s ‘I’. (/) A length of energy, a vessel snipped close to the richness. We invent names for ourselves on the internet.
Something constant was the minor chord shard in my heart, when I knew there was a thing awry. I could not put my finger on it, much as I could not remember what I wanted to do with my life, or what passion that had driven me to write as a child. For I had filled documents and jotters with my rambles before. What happened, if you can forgive me for inserting a narrative turn here, was a loss of story. Post-puberty, it seemed there could be no climax in my life. Events I had expected to effect a shock into existence had not occurred so; a long hard drag had occurred instead, slow enough to trick you into passive submission. Resistance became a case of daily withdrawal, decay. It seemed there was nothing to write into, now I understood the mysteries of sex, reproduction, death. I had written these epic fates about unwanted births, woman impregnated against their will in labs buried deep in violet mountains. I had a horror of the body inside the body, which was the same as the body inside the planet or the planet inside you. What grows, regardless.
There was a fragile voice I was waiting to hear on the radio. I had not yet worked out the temporal trick that was poetry, the way it could stop you on the blot of a page, by fact of its shape. What grew charged or tangled. I became interested in the way the body was just a body, something to be seen, something to offer up to bodies beyond you. I wanted to know its limits, its multiplicities, as much as its points of attunement. Like plugging in headphones to the library PC just so I can hear the electrical charge of each scroll as a sonic intensity. There was a time of mark-making, rigging lighters, taking steaming baths. Staring at other people’s ceilings. I practiced lying on concrete, feeling the dark cold of summer’s inversion travel up from my spine. I listened to music so loud that stars began splintering inside my ears, and so I would have tinnitus forever more. I burned my tongue on a minor chord.
And so the same sound would scream back, muted lagoon trapped in my ear a decade later, the splitting sextillion stars of that music. The melody itself was irrelevant. I was drawn to songs where you could fall between verse and chorus, and the space of that slack guitar was far more important, the way a man’s voice could break on a word. For some reason, then, it was always men.
What does it mean to be taught how to feel by the opposite sex? Things tilted and sweetened the weaker I grew. We held hands in west coast impressions of sunset. The word for weather was like whether to say I’m going offline. The fort-da pull of your endless sign-ins. r u okay?
Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘A corpus is not a discourse, and it is not a narrative. A corpus is what is needed [qu’il faudrait] here, then. Here—there is something like a promise that this has to deal with the body, that is going to deal with it—there, almost without waiting […] there is a sort of promise tacitly to hush’.
Thus the body is clearer in machinic absence. Thus this vast proliferation of forgettable text was the logic we gorged on, empty calorific haribo words. There was no vegetarian alternative, we were eating each other. I mean the sway of exchange, this sense to be dealt with. A hunger, sugar rush. I message you later. The pressure of reply, now we’re always online; transmission as love’s endless labour. Isn’t it exquisite just to hush, to disappear mid-conversation and relish the ellipsis for a future hour. In these small ways I was building a tentative next, but its openness was yet clouded by thought itself. I couldn’t think beyond three minutes, and that was depression.
I learned the deformity of my birth was a sign of witchcraft. I bought a bright pink book on the subject when I was very young, and tried to astral travel. I wanted to see things from above, but instead I found myself suffocated by their closeness. Children can smell sorrow, the weight of it dripping from adult expression; the way dogs pick up the mood of the house and embody it through quivering and whimpering. I burned incense and imagined an orb of lilac light spreading over my body, which became the mountain I buried my heroines in as a child writer, an amateur at fantasy. I slept with crystals under my pillow (I still do).
The wrongness of the world was everywhere. The way people spoke to each other. I could not connect. I leapt into situations where voices were just echoes back into the water they came from, where sentences shored up nothing more than the vice of their speaker. I began a long affair with silence. I stopped writing, and later I stopped speaking. For weeks at a time, I would lose my voice. It broke on the shore. I smoked little menthols in wind tunnels, listening to reality talk shit back to me. I was broken inside before I began; that was the feeling. Long walks could not smoulder it off, and the only calm I achieved was from the absolute lack of understanding I experienced in math. Not knowing was a clarity, one I still crave in the space of writing. The absolute sentence as a violence that closes all others.
Later, much later, I would discover this glitch was a crisis far beyond me, a crisis of climate, a crisis of world itself: so huge my child’s mind could hardly have discovered it. And yet, having said that, I was already halfway there. Halfway towards ecocide. As a child, I swore to my mother I would leave the planet on my fifteenth birthday. She almost believed me. Mars beckoned, with its fiery red swirls and its secret knowledge of an evil beyond. I liked the way the name felt ‘full’ in my mouth. When nothing happened, I drank myself into amnesia; I stopped eating. It was a birthday gift to myself, the hope that I might still disappear.
Hungover, I know there will be a point where I go and that is to die. The blank is like a name you forget at the point of recall. It is so much worse than that, as if we’d forgotten our own name and the name of our mothers and the E____ itself. And what it means to see the back of the tapestry and a trypophobic horror where every unloosened stitch, a tiny blank, is the signal of multiple (un)ending worlds. Consider the strawberry seen from inside, with its millioning glowing yellow seeds of light. My wrists replaced originary marks with marks.
There was so much to learn about what was happening. I needed to know what would be okay. It was just this whole impossibility of thinking the future. The word ‘career’ was hilarious. It made me think of falling through time, Scrabble letters tossed into void at light speed. That was the language I wanted, letters at light speed.
Silver foil, the metallic smell on your fingers from playing guitar. The way I could play through brass and acquire an instrumental breath, vibrations that slid out of tune because I had damaged my ears too much to listen.
As promised, the strawberry birthmark faded. It was like somebody had slowly quietened the white noise, so slowly that I could not be sure if what I heard was truth or hallucination. The distinction mattered less over time.
Dream where I can’t sleep, so I wake up to watch Super Mario Cloudson YouTube, so I relive the level without level.
Sometimes I feel twinges of pain in the bump where my finger was. This phantom sensation is strange because I have no working memory of the limb itself, if it can be called a limb. The-cherry-nothing-more-than-a-supplement. Wikipedia tells me that the pain of phantom limbs can be aggravated by ‘stress, anxiety and weather changes’. The supplementary limb, then, its existence as a constant play between presence and absence (I had the limb, and yet no memory of its function; the limb was extra and yet in having it removed I felt less than a ‘normal’ person, I am less than I was and in sameness still more), acts as a site of super-attunement. When the temperature gets weird, the tingles start over. The pain is a drift of cirrus.
If you press very hard on the bump on my hand, I feel a sort of convex nerve pain, akin to the ache of pins and needles, concentrated in this single location. I wonder if this is what happens to a cherry when you slice it in half, when you make of the round fruit a sudden circumference. Something fell out, a long long time ago. The tiniest stone.
The world is wrong. There are only signals. Nothing has even really reached us yet. So why leave?
Wikipedia tells me one explanation for phantom limb pain is ‘the result of “junk” inputs from the peripheral nervous system’. There is an overhaul of arousal just to live now; somehow the waste of this activity is concentrated in this mark of removal. Can it be called a wound if it is not a gap or a hollow, but something in addition to the skin, a geologic feature: a kind of tiny crater, a half-sphere, a mound? I imagine a tangle of thread-like nerves coiled up inside. Nobody has noticed this bump of their own volition. To mention it to someone, I was born with an eleventh finger, is of course to commit an act of confession, a gesture of intimacy.
Like here, you can nearly have my birth back. A gift to the Earth in you.
Derrida: ‘The wound can have (should only have) just one proper name. I recognise that I love — you — by this: you leave in me a wound I do not want to replace’.
I died when I was born, literally; I was born wrong. But in being born this way, I had to love the world as a child of enchantment. I had to trick myself into existing. It would be an obscenity to look back at those pictures, tiny baby with this slight extremity, this tuning fork of flesh, so easily severed. Who knew anything of a redheaded future, a salad of spent conditionals and love. And I want you to be free.
So what do we do with this extra? Knowing too much of the world and what the self cannot say of the world in itself. Autoplay is paused for the meantime, by which I mean the time in which we are mean. I remember discovering cruelty in the playground, where a boy would go round and hit us with strong red branches he pulled from a shrub that grew with some abundance around our school. And realising the marks made on the back of our calves were really just marks of a pain this boy had felt; a pain inflicted upon him from elsewhere, so that cruelty was something you transferred, a kind of heraldic ink you wore for your life, for your family. I would not explain these marks to my mother, or to myself, for years. My early experience of inflicting cruelty: throwing Chao against the wall, only to nurse them back into serenity later. Teasing the dog, watching a friend knock his head off a wall, deliberately fucking things up. Then the delirious pleasure: to throw one’s avatar off into starry void, a final sacrificial act. In Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, a game to which I dedicated many hours of pre-adolescent life, the villain Dr Robotnik has programmed his space colony, ARK, to collide with Earth if the chaos emeralds are used. Such annihilation intends vengeance on ‘the government’ for condemning the doctor’s research and killing his daughter, Maria. Her request to Shadow, Sonic the Hedgehog’s Jungian double, is to help mankind. When Shadow plummets back to Earth, following the ultimate battle, ‘the Finalhazard’, he is happy, because he has fulfilled his promise to Maria.
Admittedly, this cosmological battle of heroes is little more than parenthesis here. I want to say something of my entrance into this discourse of annihilation. Shadow was a supplement: Sonic’s ‘double’, but also his genetic extra, his genetic remainder; both hero and villain, his narrative volition was ultimately self-sacrifice to save the world, and yet he was created to conquer the world. He embodies the eerie promise of a kind of living apocalypse, an ‘end’ to the world that does not end. I remember the final book of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, whose blurb used the word cataclysm, or cataclysmic, to describe the events that closed the trilogy. That word lived on in me as a wound, cataclysm: something sharp that had already cut me. It was a word I could not unthink. What actually happened in the book was terrible, was a battle, it involved the loss of life; and yet there was redemption. I knew then that cataclysm was not necessarily apocalypse, because one world of fantasy could open into the new, like a modified species. There were chain reactions.
But all this is just average Earth. Learning to like the light, to paint a thought with the similar blue, knowing it only exists in dreams, and the way she holds a note.
These days, everything mostly feels like transing times. I listen to a Jason Molina recording and realise that he is gone, he is missing from the world, and yet the warmth of his fingers, these arpeggios; the sound of sirens passing through the windows of his Chicago apartment. These are present but I discover them only after absence. I have to realise this over and over, to register the shock of this or that loss. I close one tab, only to open another window onto extinction: this fact of a text we can’t share, because the text is ourselves, and we have shared unto each other enough of the missing space. And someone else I once loved dies. Data is what’s given, it clots into so much hurt. We just are confusion, the two of us and the planet and what’s opening up.
Everything swells; a cherry-red globe recurs in memory. I drift on a lifelong melancholia that isn’t quite mine. I want to be able to parse this bodily symbology as a something beyond me, of course; I want to look outwards at the felt inequality. So many wounds between us. The word continent crunched sour in my mouth. These histories we can’t unpeel or remain in singular. I want to be able to understand the matheme, but there is a wilderness still. The breath won’t catch up. Scared I’ll fall off the edge of my mind.
What we make difficult for ourselves, these fractures in fact or family. Always a guilt that sticks. It is as though we were speaking underwater, our altered tongues; what we could only bring together as lyric.
I had all these dreams of traffic, and the traffic could only move in the night. I was at the edge of a slip road, but I could not merge. Are we closer, now that you know this?
whatever in the world behind closed eyes the doors whispered. let her be. let her be her. let us be as if we were not forever entwined in that, as if we were not able to unthread the conclusions, deliver ourselves of the plot. at that level she intercedes for you. she cries mercy at the feet of her father. she knows where he is at the far corners of the universe. he has removed himself. he has gone off to sit and brood beyond the pale of light. if not that then this. but we had opened it. the knife that cuts both ways. always. in the centre of it the rose. pure. the flaming heart, an artifact. believe me. this is not a special dispensation. this is a matter of life and death.
(Beverly Dahlen, A Reading)
And why did they give me the middling name of the Rose? There was a world tucked in and still to unfurl, and the rose was a planet with cloud tucked into its darkest heart. Let her be here. That time I set my hair on fire and everything of the world smelt singed for weeks. It happened at the funeral. She was at the mercy of a childhood memory, curled at the window as they came in the night to tip the car. And she remembers the way the oil ran down the road as rainbows. The sound of her parents on the phone and a knife that cut the silence of Sunday. It was a thick gelatine; the boiled fruitmeat of calorific lyric. The cut in the world behind closed doors, closed eyes, the lids we can’t keep on our possible futures. So we swim through; no, it gets stuck in our teeth. How can it be a matter of both?
Crank the anthropocene up to eleven. I wish we had been sweeter to each other. Like listening to the bees without meaning to. We’ll never know why we are born the way we are born, or whether that matters. And I’m pushing sleep for the pleasure of that stretch of the break: when you say the break of the sky and is it a pink cloud I see, or just blue. The 8-bit troposphere catching nightly. Facebook is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is colourblind. There is the overlay, the twice-lived light of the screen and the sky beyond, which is also contained in a window. At no point do I choose to go outside, as it were; for this is the happening of a necessary containment. I need to be able to switch between tabs, my brain still reeling. There is always extra, the bit we missed and have to pursue.
If I saw you again, and we were the same as we were.
Excoriations of time are like Facebook disavowal; don’t click, don’t react. They rub off on our skin as however many times we surrendered our diaries, only to take them again in our arms, cradling tiny diacritics. The first broadband was the rupture of a secret, something breaking out widescreen and hurting.
Narcissism: this essay. A name comes out the sky(e), its extra e for the isle, for extinction. The Earth is active now, this state of evil, eleven, never even.
We should be kinder to each other, said the tree to the thing that would grind it to pulp. When Justine eats the meatloaf and it turns to ash in her mouth. And you know that all this extraness, extremeness of death is from the other planet that is our planet. Just is. I put a bar through Mars, I pierced its fat red eye with the proto-knowledge of Earth’s erasure. That was my great stupid rebellion. It felt like a dreamwork of futile justice.
The fact is only an identity, a pristine midnight. Land lines of countryside glimpsed in the feed, I know the moon only this way until I leave the library. So sigh, milk silver of gaze. Instinctive descent occurs in dark mode, and we play it over, scrolling and scrolling. The hours between. For all I remember of that night, there is only the simple avocado emoji, and a thank you. You’ve been more than a friend to me.
What do we call for?
It’s like the first time I saw Jane Campion’s Bright Star and thought of something shimmering in the woods, that would not come as powder or song but simply as itself. And yet even that was split. Cancer moon/Pisces rising. I could sense it, and the morning hurt, and the continuum of pain whose fidelity remained still into the half planet smudged on the edge of my hand. The Earth is a cherry that lost its innocent self. You would interrupt our greeting in honour of the end of the album. That was the tempo we stretched for ourselves, syncopating sleep with the lights adorning our names with time’s ongoingness; eleven hours at the end of the wish again, after we stayed up past the chorus of dawn. And the world was shimmering in the woods. Our cut had barely interrupted the story.
And ongoingness is, as Tim Morton puts it, the temporality of melancholy in the anthropocene, this sense that ‘nothing is determined yet’. This sense that we are not looking towards apocalypse but rather trying to be here, knowing this ‘here’ is not ours or fixed but is a viscous spreading of multiple subjectivities, bodies and times. Ongoingness is to look for pleasure as well as pain, to not look towards loss as imminent or behind us, but rather to appreciate the uncanniness of reality. So this person’s consciousness became for a while another half of my own, their thoughts would echo and remain in me, beyond pathology, warping from something raw and ‘live’ to a gentler articulation of being here, being-with. The enviro-mind, formerly-known-as…
Incidentally, the Ark was a youth club I’d frequent as a teenager, beside the sea. The site of many formative drinking experience, it was surrounded by dunes of lawn and behind those dunes I’d learn my first versions of drowning.
‘Radical tenderness’, Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez write in their 2015 manifesto of the same title, ‘is to be critical and loving, at the same time’, it ‘is to not allow our existential demons to become permanent cynicism’. In the world we find ourselves in — call it the Trumpocene, the Anthropocene or simply late fucking capitalism — it’s difficult to resist this cynicism, to find productive ways of channelling the angst and frustrations that belong to us but also seem much more than us, that link our smallest actions to global feedback loops. How do we productively engage with events whose scales elude our usual modes of expression? Naming his latest album Western Culture, Kiran Leonard could be forgiven for falling short of doing justice to such a sweeping title, but that would be missing the point. As Leonard says:
as a phrase I think [Western Culture] is really funny, because when somebody says it it’s got these heavy grandiose connotations, like they’re drawing at the roots of something — but the phrase has no concrete meaning in itself. Any attribute you can apply to it, there are hundreds of examples throughout history where you can undermine it as a term. It’s not consistent.
The term Western Culture is one of many problematic signifiers that Leonard unpicks across the ten songs of his new record. With deft combinations of subtlety and sweep, Western Culture explores the poetry and politics that are possible in the present moment, casting a nuanced, historical long-view over the conflicts many other indie practitioners seem ill-equipped to sing about, let alone talk about. But maybe the lyric mode is its own conversation.
After reviewing Western Culture for GoldFlakePaint, I sit down to chat to the Saddleworth songwriter ahead of his gig at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, with support from mesmerising Heir of the Cursed (based in Glasgow via Dumfries and Kenya) and the otherworldly Ubaldo, hailing from Spain. What’s striking about the support acts is the stark intensity of their work: Heir of the Cursed weaving stories with her crystalline voice and guitar, Ubaldo sending the bustling crowd into trance with his splintering, almost meteorological arrangements. Leonard’s own performance explodes that intensity with a full band, shaking the room up with an irresistible sense that this was something to see. I find myself jotting odd tuning commentary on my phone: ‘Tom from MySpace this goes out to you, to a happier internet’.
I ask Leonard what kinds of crowds he typically gets at his gigs, and aside from the reliable 6 Music Dad demographic, there’s definite interest from younger audiences who find themselves drawn to what seems different. He mentions going to see Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma in London and being delighted to find ‘an amazing cross section between queer teenagers and 6 Music Dads’. It’s nice to see the demographics of gig-going crowds evolving alongside supportive stalwarts. Aside from the general enthusiasm of youth, part of this, I suggest, is due to a bit of innovation in the kinds of gigs folk are putting on now. In March, Leonard had a break before uni exams and ran his own solo tour. I caught him playing Mono alongside local artist/poet Jessica Higgins and experimental guitarist Jon Collin, an event billed as ‘late start feel good sit down heavy listening/viewing after hours party’. He’s also done the rounds of pubs and arts collectives, as well as Manchester Central Library.
Although Leonard admits it can be tricky to get people to respond in-depth to his lyrics, there’s something of a latent DIY energy in his work that crowds definitely respond to. The care he takes with his lyrics (you can read them, lovingly presented, for free here) is basically akin to poetry; but with the energy of math-rock rhythms and tendencies towards epic or eccentric riffs, even the more intricate or ‘difficult’ lines deliver a universal punch. It’s important to highlight this word lyric, because what Leonard does is play with voice, and I don’t just mean those Jeff Buckley-esque leaps of octave: he inhabits the lives of other characters, marries marginalised experiences with structural forces, pulls us into the harmony of chorus, makes literary use of his academic background. There’s a sublime quality throughout Western Culture that is nevertheless controlled by a narrative arc, where clamour is followed by quiet reflection, walls of noise by careful intricacy, suspension by release. You can tell Leonard has thought long and hard about the challenges involved in singing about the morass of chaos and apathy that we are faced with as millennials, human beings, selves and others, innocents and actants all at once. He writes about the sad decline of a man who loses his job and struggles to ask for help (‘Working People’) with the same deftness used to tackle a lecture delivered by a human rights lawyer (‘Exactitude and Science’). There’s a timeliness and timelessness across the album, which makes it as rousing as it is reflective. It offers both the noise and stillness we need in a time of insidious, pervasive war, migrant crisis, media confusion and mass extinction. With so many people and species and values lost on this planet, sometimes it’s all you can do to cling to a single voice, bask awhile in its quiet wisdom, which rises sometimes to a shout.
For it’s the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ that Leonard points me to when I ask him about the role of empathy in his work. D’Emilia and Chávez, both transfeminist activists and performance artists, describe the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ as an ‘embodied poetic exercise of resistance’, and you might say the same about tonight’s cathartic performance at The Hug. I sense that tenderness, for Leonard, is not just affective choice, but an ethical position to take as a maker of culture, a way of being radically self-reflexive, conscious and careful of one’s positioning and power in a world that demands immediate expression and response, a crowded echochamber where we fight to be heard. Radical tenderness asks for space, consideration, which isn’t always easy for anyone who spends a lot of time online.
For Leonard, the song that most engages with this idea of radical tenderness is ‘Unreflective Life’:
‘Unreflective Life’ is the song on the record most to do with [radical tenderness], but a lot of that is to do with misconceptions around internet use. The internet not as this thing that magnifies the self but instead the thing that disintegrates it. The metaphor I came up with to describe it was: if we think of narcissus as a figure that looks into the lake and sees his reflection, the computer sees every particle in the water and loses a sense of themselves. So there are strands I try to follow in that song: the first is the individual anaesthetised by the weight of history, they can see and access everything so how can there be a capacity for activity; the second strand is fascism — if we want to make a neutral generalisation of what fascism is, it’s an extremist desire for things to make sense. […] What I wanted to get across is that there’s almost like a desire to find something beyond this complete exhaustion by violence.
And of course violence is there in that search for meaning, it’s the wrench that stings in lyric, it’s the painful awareness of one’s complicity, one’s own frustrations, one’s disintegrated identity. But there’s an ancient, philosophical beauty in that search for meaning, even when manifested in the fraught conditions of the contemporary. While many musicians respond with sheer anger or apathy, aggressive walls of sound that do little but mimic the frustrated commuter’s journey on the London Underground, Leonard is striving for something genuinely different. He’s writing from the heart, he’s writing from the history of literature, he’s writing sensitively from different languages and cultures (Leonard studied Spanish and Portuguese at university); I’d wager that he’s making genuine attempts to swerve the passage of the western indie canon. And he does it with a humbleness, eloquence and care that inspires me to try harder with my own writing.
We talk about the lyric ‘fiction in leverage’ from ‘Exactitude and Science’ and Leonard suggests that ultimately the song is about how much of the Israel and Palestine conflict is
a question of maps and lines: how do we redraw, who drew what. That supplants the very real murderers and human beings. That’s an aspect of the Borges story [from which the song takes its title] that I think is very true, especially if you think about the way representation now more than ever preempts everything, the way that things are framed becomes reality.
Going back to his previous thoughts on the internet’s disintegration of identity, I suggest this is what web 2.0 does: maybe social media is a sort of map that constantly remakes itself and the world through targeted ads and data dissemination, these endless feedback loops that we navigate in the map, rather than with it. So all questions of identity and conflict, from something as individual as cultural selfhood or ‘brand’ to geopolitical conflict, are all about framing, the tailoring of fictions.
When asked if he writes consciously within a cultural context, Leonard responds:
I feel like in terms of what I’m trying to do, maybe it’s not a question of communicating something but instead to assess what the value of that communication is. A lot of the songs on Western Culture are to do with this difficult paradox within art-making in the context of general communication and articulation. On the one hand, writing something in response to an event is — from most pragmatic points of view — a waste of time, and I think you see this in a lot of post-Trump art: a lot of it’s really bad, pointless and coming from an arrogant place. Being anti-Trump is the easiest thing in the world; organising against him is difficult but writing against him is a complete performance. One of the things ‘Exactitude in Science’ is about is that these kind of verbal responses are almost doomed to fail because they lack a physical activity in the world, yet at the same time it’s impossible to deny that the way these things are framed within language both changes the way that we interact within reality and also changes the way that that reality happens.
Art, then, has the power to structure reality. We can’t escape ideology, we can’t write from some ideal non-partisan position, we can’t deny that every little event in culture is contributing to the way politics, identity and such abstractions as space or time are framed. We can’t dismiss the complex identity politics of a pop song with ‘Oh it’s just a song, it doesn’t mean anything’. Even as this process becomes increasingly diffused with the internet, the album is a form that, like the lyric poem, bears a cultural weight. People still talk about albums on the radio; Leonard admits most of his gig-going audience is probably owed to coverage from BBC 6 Music. This isn’t an admission of hubris around the importance of music, but a humble statement about a cultural artifact and its wider dissemination. And hopefully a statement of hope. Albums express things, they are containers of multiple points of view, they provide escape from reality while changing the way we experience reality. They are points of contact, contrast, friction. Leonard elaborates:
The central thing in ‘Exactitude in Science’ is a talk I went to given by an international human rights lawyer, which leads him into work around Israel and Palestine. Inevitably when he’s invited to talk about these things, he’s saying he’s doing all these things but he’s mostly failing, admitting that we’re not getting further with this. If there are active attempts to amend oppressive activities, what’s the point of verbal responses? It shows an interesting juxtaposition between framing the world through language and how that impacts on the world, especially with that incredibly complex and sad issue, which is totally a question about how we verbalise what genocide is. And the difference between that has an impact on the extent to which that genocide is perpetuated. So yeah, especially if we’re dealing with any of the big-2016 nonsense — it’s about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating.
It strikes me that this is more succinctly and eloquently put than many of the academic perspectives I’ve come into contact with during my five years of higher arts education. Stepping back from who might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex, entangled, deeply historical issue, we should ask ourselves what we are doing when we comment on something we might be involved in, or otherwise ‘simply observing’. What world do our opinions and comments contribute to? It resonates with so much about what we do when we make art of any kind, when we express anything in this cultural sphere or that. This admission of the gravitas of the speech act; awareness that what I am saying has impact, accumulates within a wider discourse, ripples across the water, does something.
I was curious to find out if Leonard had much experience with a sense of cultural commons within the music industry. While his first two LPs were recorded at his parents’ house (Leonard grew up in a ‘really old farm, so the neighbours were never really an issue’), after label Hand of Glory picked that work up he had the opportunity to participate more in the Manchester scene, on a somewhat tangential basis. Leonard is clearly comfortable with making music on his own, and while he admits most of his attempts to form bands ‘never really worked out’, it’s clear he gels well with the musicians that play with him on this tour. What’s more interesting, however, in his response to this question, is a point he makes about representation in arts communities:
Music is often less receptive than other art communities to think about the contextual importance of their scene and representation within their scene. In Manchester there was quite a big debate around a venue which had an all-dude bill on a night, and when someone called them out and started a boycott it was surprising how that concept developed — the gig was eventually pulled and replaced with an open panel discussion on the day. I often feel like in art communities, because it’s grounded in theory from the get-go, people get it.
It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the next few years, whether the music industry will continue to take representation seriously and how this plays out in terms of the politics of promotion and access around diverse identities. Does DIY and self-release culture present a formidable challenge to the mainstream, whose macho Gallagher avatars still haunt the walls of many a Manchester pub?
Aside from this nuanced, socially responsible approach to music and lyric expression, we also talk about bands who do provocation in more direct ways. Specifically, our shared love of Death Grips. Leonard mentions a quote from Mark Fisher’s K-Punk about how Kurt Cobain is a symbolic embodiment of ‘the person who’s completely exasperated by the thing in culture where the best thing to play on MTV is a thing that’s against MTV’. If consumer capitalism subsumes all postmodern attempts at irony and critique, maybe we need something that’s ‘reactionary in the right way’, rather than simply ‘hostile and alienating’, as Leonard puts it. As an all-male band making noise rock, it’s important, he admits, to be aware of what the ‘imperative’ is here. For Leonard, Death Grips seem to get this spot on. He refers to their work as ‘genuinely funny and provocative, the real deal’: ‘they manage to make something on paper that could be incredibly macho and annoying, but I kinda like the character of MC Ride – I like his words, he’s a vulnerable figure in his lyrics, incredibly intelligent’. Not to mention the fact of the band crossing the line of business, and deliberately getting dropped from their label.
Maybe what we need in a time of crisis and fragmentation is a turn to something maximalist or long-form, sensorially and intellectually challenging, or (with regards to mainstream culture) simply ‘imperfect’ in some sense. Leonard agrees that there’s probably
a hunger for people to see a process where you work stuff out. I think art’s very prone to answering, because a lot of artists are very arrogant and think they have the answers, to say it in a plateau kinda way. But I think that’s really important — going back to what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation — to be against atrocity and fascism in a verbal way is easy, but it’s often more helpful, especially with something like the Brexit vote, to properly engage with the reasons for that, to take in the history. The way we think about the European vote is riddled with amnesia; I find it funny that nobody talks about the miners’ strike around this issue.
We’re almost out of time, and there’s still so much to unpack here. Kiran Leonard is someone you could share many a pint with and learn a lot from, but I’m also content listening to him as we sip water in the venue basement, the ethereal sounds of Ubaldo’s soundcheck leaking from upstairs. I ask him what’s next, now that he’s got his degree and some solid album reviews under his belt. I’m especially interested in whether he’s considered working with poetry or translation. Leonard tells me he’s ‘hoping to put a pamphlet out next which year which is a load of very short essays which are tangentially relevant to songs on this last record’ and also an exciting new double-CD release, which promises one side of ‘long abstract’, ‘kinda My Bloody Valentine but more through-composed’ songs and the other ‘more sparse acoustic songs’. ‘Something that’s got more space in it’. It’s only been about forty minutes and already I feel a lot of my worldly cynicism dissipate. There is still so much to be said for the world, and I want to hear it.
[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]
I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.
A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.
My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staring, she says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.
It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.
In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.
For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.
Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.
I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the City, a record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.
In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.
Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.
I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.
Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.
I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.
Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.
Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.
The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.
Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.
In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?
I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.
Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.
(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)
I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.
I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.
As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.
Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,
comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.
Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.
Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…
Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?
Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.
Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.
“You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.
100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:
It’s a better way to feel When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one dimensional, it’s not the only thought)
Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.
As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons,Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?
“I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.
To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:
You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.
That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.
My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.
‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…
The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?
The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:
He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.
So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:
I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.
Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…
Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter.The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.
Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?
“There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.
I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:
The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.
Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.
I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.
So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.
Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?
I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…
‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.
For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”. But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?
I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.
Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.
Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?
‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?
The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.
At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.
Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:
Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.
The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.
If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:
Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?
Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:
When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.
What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.”
Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.”
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.”
There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.
Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:
Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.
Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.
Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.
Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric
What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.
Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.
Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability. However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.
Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.
Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?
Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.
You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.
On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.
Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.
I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.
Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.
But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico”. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.
Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.
But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.
Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.
America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.
A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.
But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.
My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.
My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).
One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.
Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.
It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.
One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.
Nostalgia for the Future: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Love’ and the Cultural Politics of Celestial Hauntology and Queer Temporality
[this essay arose out of Tumblr & IRL discussions with Scott Coubrough & Douglas Pattison; all images taken as screen-caps from the ‘Love’ video unless stated otherwise]
look at you kids with their vintage music
coming through satellites while cruising you’re part of the past
but now you’re the future
Lana Del Rey finally dropped a new song. Critics are calling it ‘uplifting’, ‘radiofriendly’, ‘an ode to allowing yourself to feel’. They aren’t wrong: on the surface, ‘Love’ does what it says on the tin. It’s a pop song dripping with sentiment, evoking that sense of yearning, the fragile desire of a typical Lana ballad, the kind of retro-culture sadcore found most prominently on Born to Die (e.g. ’Videogames’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’). However, as with all of Lana’s material, there’s more going on beneath the surface. This isn’t just a saccharine ballad about love. In fact, this is probably the most poignant address to millennial angst I’ve experienced in pop music so far.
In the video for ‘Love’, clad in a white dress, dark hair studded with sixties-style daisies, Lana’s figure fades into view out of blackness. The mood is monochrome, but the song and its video deal in more than one mood, one temporality. As Scott Coubrough puts it, ‘it totally depicts the experience of the cultural anachrony of now’ (citation: Tumblr chat). The black-and-white vintage Hollywood vibe is lingered over with sensuous closeups of smouldering cigarettes, dust swirling on a rain-streaked window, a handsome man pulling shapes from his vintage guitar. In the first half of the video, Lana’s performance is spliced around footage of kids living in a pastel-hazed Instagram version of the sixties, skateboarding and drifting in couples around graffitied streets. While most of these teenagers carry sixties iconography—huge plastic shades, cropped haircuts, Ginsberg-glasses—there are the odd anachronisms, the kind of hoodie-clad ambience of a Blink 182 video romanticised in slow-motion. Smartphones make an appearance only as cameras. It’s not a selfie that’s taken, but an old-fashioned snapshot of a friend. Why invoke this vintage idea of relationships, of summer afternoons wasted innocently without the distracting paraphernalia of everyday technology? Who are these kids, who have time to lean seductively over trucks, to laugh arm in arm in glorious LA sunlight?
This is all a deliberate exercise in nostalgia. The warm haze of an Insta-filter showers these moments in the warm glow of preservation, the stylised memorabilia we accumulate daily with our social media feeds. There’s a sense of the future anterior to everything that happens: such visual flickers of perfection, snapped as photos, remind us that youth is always about imminence: knowing that this won’t last forever, that soon it will slip away. We are always finding ways to preserve, to prolong it. Youth. Even as we’re living, we’re thinking of ways to capture the moment.
So far so ordinary. Nostalgia for lost youth and lost love isn’t exactly a new theme in pop music, from Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ to Del Rey’s own back-catalogue, notably her offering on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, ‘Young and Beautiful’: “will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” What’s different about ‘Love’ is its relentless insistence on the temporal deferrals within presence. “To be young and in love” she sings over and over, a collective rallying cry to her fans that urges its utopian possibility through the infinitive, rather than present tense. There’s no actual sense that these kids are all in love, but Lana explores what that love really means. She references the confusion of modern dating, mired as it is in the conventions of various apps and different types of hookup (“signals crossing can get confusing”). She repeats the word “crazy” like she’s trying to conjure it into being from the word’s invocation of chaos. But other than that, ‘Love’ doesn’t explicitly explore what it means to be in a conventional relationship; there’s none of the vivid imagery of masochism and defeat, none of the apostrophised Brutish and Beautiful Men you might find scattered around previous albums. Instead, love figures on this song as a kind of energy, the channels of desire that seem to pull us out of our current reality and into nostalgic futures.
The problem is, this desire isn’t a simple longing for a lost object, the loved one who slipped from our grasp; it’s a kind of depression, the Freudian melancholia that lacks an identifiable source, that eats away at our sleep. Beneath the sugary imagery of couples sharing walks and drives together, there’s that restless unease. The dark pulse of Born to Die-era strings. The heart of the song is a sense of self-reflective stasis. The camera pulls outwards to reveal the teenagers in the ballroom, watching Lana perform with reverent awe in their faces. Already, the singer is reflecting on the cultural presence of her music as it spreads into the future through the track’s own duration. This is a song which never seems to build to obvious climax, which rejects that teleological impulse towards the goal of release and decline, the cycles of reproduction which compel us to consume more and more as we start again each time. Instead, ‘Love’ wallows in the shallows of its strange, haunted swing, mesmerising us with cinematic production, with delicately repeated refrains that twirl like spun sugar. Onstage, Lana is bathed in white light, this ethereal beacon from the past or future, existing in the timeless space of an auditorium. It’s like the set for a Beckett play, that dark space of absence and aporetic timelessness where anything might happen. Beckett, only with sex, beauty and audience adoration. We’re encouraged by a playful, irresistible wink to fall for this surreal and breathless dream.
The kids slowly sink into Lana’s music, lolling their heads in time, blinking in meditative motion as they stare at her swaying onstage. When we see the starlight reflected back through Lana’s eyes, the kids begin seeing the same celestial beauty. A huge moon rises above them, the walls of reality shattering as the ceiling becomes a super-imposed night sky. The truck starts spinning in space, a truly lost object, like the kind of anachronistic cultural products scattered across Back to the Future, divorced from their temporal ‘home’ and washed up elsewhere, the debris of a lost present. In space, the truck’s radio says ‘No Service’. We’ve entered Beth Orton’s ‘Galaxy of Emptiness’, the starry space where we’re detached from the everyday. “Back to work or the coffee shop”; these banal facts of daily life are usually excluded from the typical Lana song, which is more likely to feature gangsters and bad boys and probably a branded soft drink or declaration of deeply personal romantic sadness. This song feels more universal, generational, though nonetheless affective. The ordinariness of work and coffee (made more poignant by the obvious fact that many millennials combine the two as baristas, again reinforcing this idea of a dull labour cycle) infiltrating a LDR song? Woah. Her previous work explores the saturated hyper-dreams of consumer capitalism, with presidents dripping in gold chains, Lana herself resplendent in expensive pastel Jackie O suits, or riding across sunset highways against the vintage billboards advertising various American Dreams. The haunting quality of ‘Love’ is that it sort of rises above the glitz and glamour. Smartphones aren’t product placements but rather become anachronistic, incongruous relics, twirling out of time. The youth depicted in ‘Love’ are caught in a static reality, never growing old. By floating into space, they are cast adrift from capitalism’s materialised temporality.
“You get ready you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular”. With this line, I’m reminded of an endearing extras video from the Skins series, called ‘Cassie’s dark dates’. Cassie, the ethereal and bittersweet anorexic character, announces to her flatmates that she’s going on a date, slicks on lipstick and smiles nervously in the mirror. She sits in the park smoking in her mustard socks, hair blown back wispy in the wind, watching a red balloon caught in her tree, fragile as her own wee heart. She wanders the city alone till it gets dark, then finds an old man lying on the ground. Thinking he’s dead, she tries to talk to him, then lies down beside him after he says he’s ‘listening to the pavement’. The pair wander home and she helps him make beans and toast; they share a cigarette and some laughter. It’s a lovely depiction of two lost souls from different generations finding temporary peace in their lives. He falls asleep on her knees while she reads an old book. It’s wistfully delightful; watching it now reminds me that those teenagers we watched grow up grotesque and vivid onscreen are somewhere, someone else now. The girl I was ten years ago (literally, wow) is equally lost. Part of her thought she would return to Mars. But she didn’t (or did she?) and instead she faded through the years, through the ether.
Reality is a Stage Set/Baby the World’s Ending
J. G. Ballard famously said that ‘one of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set’, whereby ‘the comfortable day-to-day life […] could be dismantled overnight’. I’m reminded of the closing scenes of Ashes to Ashes, where Daniel Mays’ devil-like character starts smashing up the office ‘stage set’ and revealing that this reality is really just a kind of limbo, suspended in starry space—all the characters, we suddenly realise, are already dead. This is a series that, as with Life on Mars, is constructed on the premise of a sort of techno-hauntology, where the characters find themselves cast back in time but connected to the present through various forms of twentieth-century media. Signals start crackling with uncanny resonance, spirits and voices carried across the ether.
In ‘Love’, the film’s stage set is revealed as suspended somehow in the rather grandiose setting of space. Seeing the truck spinning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Hunt’s Quattro, this retro object that acquires nostalgic significance for the contemporary viewer. Why is it hurtling, in Lana’s video, towards the smouldering sun? The faces of the young folk in the car are seen glowing amber as the sun approaches, but they look happy rather than frightened. Somehow the video ends with the cool kids frolicking in this strange environment which could be anywhere, any planet. There are several moons in the sky. There’s a diner in the middle of nowhere. It feels a bit like Mars, all red canyons and desert sands. But there’s the blue water. These sublime landscapes evoke a sense of both fear and wonder as all the characters, including Lana, stare up at the sky. Are they scared of what lies beyond? For a generation whose futures are likely to be less well-off than their parents, whose hopes and dreams are clouded with rent-markets, dead-end jobs, cycles of unemployment and crippling student debt, the world of phantasmagoria evoked by the planets and stars seems a welcome retreat.
Like Clay in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, they spend endless time just floating. While Clay drives about on the LA freeways, these characters drive about in their trucks, then frolic in the wastelands of space. What Gen X and millennials have in common is that sense of suspension and boredom. Where millennials differ, perhaps, is in their urge towards something greater, a less jaded sense of existence. When pushed to the edge, where else to go but down into that abyss? Simon Reynolds explains this sense of suspended progress in the twenty-first century, where the problems Ellis’ characters faced in the eighties are even more accelerated within culture and social life:
our belief in progress itself has been shaken badly recently – by the resurgence of faith-based fundamentalisms, by global warming and toxic catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, by evidence that social and racial divisions are deteriorating rather than improving, by the financial crisis. In a destabilised world, ideas of durable tradition and folk memory start to appeal as a counterweight and a drag in the face of capitalism’s reckless and wrecking radicalism
(Reynolds 2011: 404).
It’s this drag that Lana’s languid beat creates. She assures us: “It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough / For the future or the things to come”. This is a bold statement in the goal-orientated universe we live in; a time when everything has to be justified, ticked in boxes, underlined with attaching transferable skills. ‘Love’ allows us to dwell on just being, on the non-instrumental connections we make with other humans. Like many LDR videos, ‘Love’ offers a form of escapism from reality, but unlike those other videos this is an escape we all live everyday. The anonymous teenagers/young adults featured in the video could be any of us; they are scaled down, their insignificance is made vivid by the appearance of huge celestial bodies. We literally transcend the Earth. So why not make it spiritual? After all, our planet is itself on the edge. We are living in the time of the Anthropocene. Isn’t it about time our pop-cultural heroine consulted the oracle and told us how best to look westwards?
“Baby don’t worry”: Lost in the Chora
Take previous LDR videos. ‘Born to Die’: the American flag, the imperial palace, the denim shorts and red baseball sneakers, tattoos and stretched ears, tigers and headlights, a lost highway, vampy red nails, the virginal white dress, sex, silence, a crown of summer flowers. A glut of signifiers. Money, power, glory. Oh wait, that’s another Lana song. The point is, we’re used to this sort of postmodern meta-play of signifiers when we’re watching a Lana video or listening to a Lana song. Like Ariel Pink, she works with readymade styles, retro-fitted fashions, vintage imagery and iconography. While Pink tends to work with a lo-fi, rough-edged, VHS aesthetic, the juicily plastic styles of the eighties, Lana favours the melancholy Hollywood dreams of the sixties. Those dark lashes, irresistible grin, hair so perfect you could frame it. ‘Love’ is a cinematic video; its very cover art suggests an old-school Hollywood film more than a new single. It’s got grandeur, it rises to what might be called ‘an intergalactic space opera’, although that sounds more like something Muse would get up to. We’re watching shooting stars stream silvery blue over a pyramid. What is a shooting star? A wish? And aren’t wishes necessarily orientated towards the future?
In opposition to an easy play of signifiers, ‘Love’ favours the expansive space of the sensuous and strange. Space itself, understood as whatever that mass of stars and matter that exists beyond our planet, is a bit like Plato’s chora. Or at least, the way it functions in Lana’s video (hell, I’m no astrophysicist). The chora is a kind of ‘mobile receptacle of mixing, of contradiction and movement’ (Kristeva 1977: 57); it is a womblike space which drive flows of renewal and infinite multiplicity within and beyond the subject. Think of a space in perpetual motion, no stasis allowed in its play of atoms. There is always a shimmering, a flickering between being, self, other. The language we use to describe this deconstructive flickering is, as Timothy Morton reminds us, ‘highly accurate’ at ‘a quantum scale’ (2015: 71). ‘When a verb is intransitive,’ he continues, ‘like flicker is, does the fact that it has no direct object mean that it represents a state of being or does it mean that it represents a state of doing—and if so, doing what to what?’ (Morton 2015: 72-73). What if ‘love’, as it appears in Lana’s new single, is an intransitive verb. To be in love is different from saying, ‘I love you’, ‘I love chocolate’ or ‘I love sunsets on the hottest days of June’. You’re not attaching the state to an object. There’s a sense of transition, passage, deferral between expression and feeling, the manifestation of a signifier. The space we inhabit in Lana’s song is a kind of chora, always undergoing some kind of self-rupture.
‘The chora, as rupture and articulations (rhythm), precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality’ (Kristeva 2001: 2170). Phantasmagoria are necessarily virtual images, superimposed on reality; the flicker of a hologram, a light display, a shower of fireworks, a neon sign flashing in the darkness. The blur of street-lamps in rain, the light of your phone glowing through a pink gauze of candy-floss, shimmers of fairy lights in a stranger’s window. There’s a sense of being seduced by the other side, by the beyond of the looking glass; nearly getting through but not quite. The allure of the surface, its invitation of depth that mistakes perception for layers of mirrors. The cameras filming ‘Love’ rupture time and space as they burst between different scenes, different worlds. Staring up at the stars is an old-fashioned Romantic image, but it seems less like the humans are projecting themselves onto the landscape, declaring their love as Keats did to the stars: ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—’. Rather, this is more an experience of the sublime: the camera’s focus is more on the characters’ eyes, which become reflective screens to the visual dramas unfolding. The world impresses itself upon us, we become but reflective surfaces in the endless refraction of this mysterious universe, its scintillations of colour and light, of divided time.
We view the subject in language as decentering the transcendental ego, cutting through it, and opening it up to a dialectic in which its syntactic and categorical understanding is merely the liminary moment of the process, which is itself always acted upon by the relation to the other dominated by the death drive and its productive reiteration of the “signifier”
(Kristeva 2001: 2175).
With the word ‘liminary’, I can’t help but think of luminary. Is light necessarily a transitive state between presence and darkness? Can one have presence in darkness? A luminary is someone who shines light, who inspires or influences others; but of course it is also a light-giving body, the sun and moon and stars. Lana, clad in white and seeming to emanate light from the stage, is easily the video’s luminary. I also can’t help but think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, ‘turning away from the future to face the ruined landscape of the past’ (Love 2007: 5); she’s caught between past and future, deliberately shadowing the future with her turn to a retro-fitted past.
Liminary, on the other hand, is that which is placed at the beginning of the book; it is the instating moment of ‘the process’. ‘Love’ is the start of something new, even as it is grounded in retro culture. The mise-en-abyme of its central ballroom performance instates a rupture in discourse, the sensuous invitation to revel in its temporal infinitude, the possibility of abyss offered by sudden expansions of space-time, the spreading out into the galaxy. How do we relate to one another in this reconfigured universe, this endless opening of the book that leaves us stranded in the interval between what exists and future artistic possibility? The faces we encounter in the video are always Other, always slipping from our grasp as the camera gives us insufficient time to retain them. What is the signifier so constantly reiterated in ‘Love’? Why, love of course! And here, love is inseparable from death.
No Future: Rejecting Reproductive Futurity
The video’s inertia and the song’s refusal of the little death of musical climax enacts a kind of non-consumerist pleasure. Take a standard pop, rock or indie song. There’s the buildup, the verse/chorus repetitions, the climax (with its attendantly indulgent, masturbatory solo) and the middle eight, a swift denouement. It’s all over before you know it and there you are, gorged and glutted but ultimately empty as you were to begin with. It’s the standard model for masculine sexual desire, which is pretty much always ego-centred. You keep going back for more but the high lasts only as long as the song. ‘Love’ strains towards something more intangible, elastic; both evanescent and eternal, a sensuousness moving between bodies, minds, times—never entirely confined.
I think a clue to the video’s strange temporal dynamics is, perhaps, its conspicuous lack of non-heterosexual couples. If it’s a paean to love, it’s a very straight one. Why have her characters plunge into the fiery planet? Is this a heteronormative apocalypse?
There is a sense that this video is ghosted by a queer temporality. This opens up questions about identity, sexuality but also a more epochal sense of where we are now in terms of our experience of being and time.
According to Walter Benjamin (1940), one of the hallmarks of the modern era is a constant movement through “homogenous, empty time,” as opposed to the hauntings and co-occurrences of premodern civilisations and religious times. Attention to queer temporality explodes the idea of such homogenous and empty time, indicating the public face of white, heterosexual Western normativity as its vanguard.
(Cho 2015: 49)
Another striking thing about ‘Love’ is its white-washing. There are a few mixed-race characters but overwhelmingly these kids are the white youth. Maybe not quite Made in Chelsea-level, but nevertheless the video is pretty white. Now, while there’s been some controversy about Lana’s performative stylisation of racial tropes (and that’s a whole other essay on the topic of cultural appropriation), I don’t think white-washing is an inherent problem with Lana herself; she’s worked with people of colour in previous videos and in her touring band. So this instance of whiteness seems potentially deliberate. It’s part of a more general invoking of this hegemonic bloc, the young folk who we expect to have a wild youth and then grow up and settle into settled, middle-class heteronormative, reproductive lives. But what happens instead? They end up in this performative limbo, this space of the sublime, which is by definition ‘limitless’: ‘the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’ (Kant, A Critique of Pure Reason). Lana offers us this impulse to strain beyond what the world, in all its narrow clarity, offers. She urges us to relish in the shadows, even as she emanates light and knowledge.
What are these shadows? Where are the queer and non-white hiding? As Lee Edelman (1998) points out, culture and society translate desire into temporality, into narrative; specifically, into the heteronormative teleological narrative of reproductive futurity. Fall in love so you can settle for a single partner, bind your desire in a capitalist social contract based on ideas of possession and commitment (marriage) and then help perpetuate the social order by having children and raising them to share your heteronormative ideologies. ‘Love’ unravels this teleological narrative of love. Those who fall out of the heterosexual camp are considered negative, ghostly, associated with the death drive since they do not reproduce. Lana, with her asynchronous depiction of sixties youth in the age of the smartphone, invokes a kind of time out of joint. As I’ve already said, these kids are trapped in stasis. The chora allows a sensuous, non-object related pleasure that goes beyond the consumer ethic or the typical romantic ethic of attachment. As they enter the waters of Mars (let’s just assume it’s Mars), they spread out from their initial couplings and form a collective of shared wonder. We’ve seen them plunge towards the fiery planet, the possible apocalypse that explodes instead into celestial beauty.
For Edelman, the project of queer theory is to embrace this association with the death drive:
Queer theory, then, should be viewed as a site at which a culturally repudiated irony, phobically displaced by the dominant culture onto the figure of the queer, is uncannily returned by those who propose to embrace such a figural identity within the figuralisation of identity itself.
(Edelman 1998: 27)
As discursive space, queer theory allows for ironically retaliating with an embrace of this phobic backwards queer. So imagery associating homosexuality with ghosts, vampires, absent figures and so on is vividly figured as an assertion of refusal, refusal to capitulate to reproductive futurity. In ‘Love’, the time of adolescence is transformed as these early models for future capitalism become ghosts, faces lit up in celestial white as they form a sort of playful colony on another planet. Their anonymous identities are held in stasis, prompting the audience to conjure for ourselves a narrative for their existence, their future.
By its very exclusion, the queer figure haunts Lana’s video. She reminds us that in Hollywood culture, rarely does a queer character get to share screen pleasure; but ultimately, the couples that do get together in ‘Love’ aren’t doing the old R’nB style dry hump in the back of a fancy car, but rather more innocently share in each other’s being. The moment of collectivity towards the video’s end when everyone looks up at the sky, just as before they looked at Lana, Angel of History, initiates a different kind of shared love. Friendship, perhaps, is just as important as romance. It’s all about a shared openness to the wonders around us. Maybe this is a sort of jouissance, that joy and bliss that cannot be pinned down simply to signifying object relations, ‘the sense of a violent passage beyond the circumscriptions inherent in meaning’ (Edelman 1998: 27). An experience of rupturing pleasure that can poke a hole in our normative sense of reality. However, as with most of Lana’s output, jouissance is inherently tied to the death drive, since by unravelling our symbolic reality, it also peels apart ‘the solidity of every object’, including the subject—making us painfully aware of our finitude, the void that stares back at us through the torn gauze of everyday signification (Edelman 1998: 27).
The Loop of Depression
Often referred to as ‘Hollywood sadcore’, Lana’s music is always inflected with a tragic undertone, a flirting with death (notoriously, she claimed in a Guardian interview that, ‘I wish I was dead already’), an atmosphere of darkness and depression. Depression works often by a loop logic. As Timothy Morton points out, the problem with depression is that it restricts temporality ‘to a diameter of ten minutes’: five in the past and five in the future. This narrowing translates into a kind of loop where one’s inability to think long-term forgoes the possibility of interrupting and re-directing the cycle of negative thought. The beats on ‘Love’ are tensely held; the song rarely develops beyond its repetitive ah-ah-ahs and it’s refrain of young and in love; while on the surface it seems affirmative, really it operates by a loop logic which betrays its cultural claustrophobia, its haunting. As my friend Scott points out, ‘Love’ also has a sound effect ‘that sounds like a metal bolt being locked’ which ‘reinforces how trapped we are in this loop’. And what exactly is this depressive ontology in which we are caught? How does Lana make it so seductive, even as she deconstructs its sources in heteronormative futurity and the existential despair of our millennial generation?
Depressive ontology is dangerously seductive because, as the zombie twin of a certain philosophical wisdom, it is half true. As the depressive withdraws from the vacant confections of the lifeworld, he unwittingly finds himself in concordance with the human condition so painstakingly diagrammed by a philosopher like Spinoza: he sees himself as a serial consumer of empty simulations, a junky hooked on every kind of deadening high, a meat puppet of the passions.
(Mark Fisher 2013: 61)
Being depressed highlights how much of a serial, looped existence we live on a daily basis, regardless of our mental health. It’s just capitalism. Only, unlike their ‘healthier’ or ‘more adjusted’ comrades, the depressed are unable to pursue this consumption of ‘empty simulations’ with any exuberance, feigned or otherwise. What’s the point in washing our hair when we’ll only have to do it again, when we’re not even sure what this body is or who it belongs to or what the fuck it’s doing in the world. When you don’t give a fuck about looking like that girl in the Loreal advert? Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, falling into clinical depression, says:
I hadn’t washed my hair for three weeks, either.
I hadn’t slept for seven nights.
The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.
(Plath, The Bell Jar)
The way Plath’s sentences spill out like lines of a poem, of code or fragmentary diary entries, indicate this sense of a loop: Esther can’t think beyond the next five minutes, and when she tries, she sees the infinitude of a ‘desolate avenue’. This is the future of the depressive, an endless repetition of mundanity that has no release from its shade. Esther has lost a sense of purpose or instrumentality: she cannot buy into the ideologies of femininity or self-care that justify the washing of one’s hair. She is, in body and mind, utterly exhausted.
What’s the point in having any faith in television, love, novels—the everyday detritus, landscapes and people of life itself—when everything reveals its inner hollowness, its lack of presence. The depressed see the emptiness in everything, the way everything concatenates, leads back round to the false positive of consumer logic. Maybe it’s a bit like seeing the world through Derrida’s eyes, but without Derrida’s flourishing ability to express it. Being depressed is actually—aside from the myriad debilitating physical and serious mental side effects—about having a very incisive and mostly, sadly, accurate view of the world. The problem is that there are ways of thinking through this loop and creating an alternative, positive subjectivity from the surrounding ruins; but when you’re stuck five minutes into the future and five into the past, this is pretty difficult to achieve.
So in a sense, ‘Love’ fetishises not death per se, but a depressive ontology which overshadows its surface celebration of exuberant love and celestial futurity, the astrological symbolism of possibilities to-come—future predictions. As with Esther Greenwood’s white boxes and black shade, Lana works with a monochrome logic of feedback loops (the audience viewing the artwork which we as audience are presently viewing), the symbiotic, repeated exchange between black and white, presence and absence, past and future. We are gifted with her “vintage music”, with the siren song of the past spreading into the celestial bounds of tomorrow. The sixties were a decade of utopian promise, representing the hope of future freedoms being realised in the present through protest, communes, youth culture—putting new ways of living into practice. In ‘Love’, the stylised invocation of the sixties represents the lost futures which our generation has been outcast from by the structural logic of late capitalism, its favouring of those who came before us, its refusal to invest in the infrastructure of youth and its possibility. The sixties can only appear here in the cinematic vintage of nostalgia.
The sound that comes “through satellites while cruising” could refer to the satellites of the present, the ones that structure the global interconnectedness of the internet, of broadcast television, the possibility of a rhizomatic exchange of divergent (and, hopefully, ideologically and temporally subversive) dreams that goes beyond the one-way projection of Hollywood’s cinematic vision of heteronormative LOVE. The word ‘cruising’ evokes the sense of pointless drifting, the sensuous and pleasurable experience of sailing around without definition of purpose that we find in the chora; in the way the characters float without gravity in space, surrounded by the suspended debris of identity, with smartphones and skateboards. It also, however, connotes the act of wandering around in search of a (casual) sexual partner, a practice often associated with gay culture. Once again, the spectre of the non-heterosexual returns to haunt this vision of sensuous, anti-teleological pleasure. Casual hook-ups rupture the reproductive marriage logic of possession; they instate a consumer attitude of recycled desires. Yet Lana’s video, unlike many contemporary music videos, doesn’t portray a vacuous array of club meet-ups leading to casual sex. It moves towards something sensuous, visionary and strangely warm and beautiful. There’s genuine affect, as Lana smiles and sings her way through this weird journey. She celebrates a kind of jouissance which seems to exist outside of reproductive futurity, outside of capitalism, outside of the Earth as we know it. Is this where we Millennials are headed? Will only the choice, privileged few get to share in this utopia, as is apparent in the video? Whose vintage dream is this, anyway?
Cho, Alexander, 2015. ‘Queer Reverb: Tumblr, Affect, Time’, Networked Affect, ed. by Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen and Michael Petit, (London: MIT Press), pp. 43-59.
Fisher, Mark, 2013. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Alresford: Zero Books).
Freud, Sigmund, 1914-1916. ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement: Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, Vol. 14, trans. by James Strachey, (London: Hogarth Press), pp. 243-258.
Heather Love, 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (London: Harvard University Press).
Morton, Timothy, 2015. ‘Sparkle Time Time Sparkle’, in Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, Chtonic Index (Southend: Focal Point Gallery), pp. 66-79.
Reynolds, Simon, 2011. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (London: Faber and Faber).
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.
This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.
Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident’(2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.
We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.
Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).
Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.
Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.
What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).
Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
(Derrida 1998: 61)
This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.
The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy
(Haraway 2008: 16).
It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.
In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.
Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”
My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…
Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).
A Voicemail for Some Scots Poet (scrawled in bed on the morning of Burns Night)
Your thatched roof I hid under with a jar
of rhubarb & custards, birthday gift for a friend
of the old-fashioned sort. Hiding my anxiety
with the pishing rain and roses for eyes,
I tried not to cry with the waiting.
Alloway was never the place for me,
though tourists once snapped my photo
sitting at the bus stop in my pinafore; maybe because
the bus never came as before and I seemed to them
an exhibit of the idle, plaited poet, crouched
and concrete with schoolbag and notebook.
I tried then to draw out my longing
but the salt water was sore and washed
each sketch away. At fourteen I took blackouts in the park
with the help of old Glens and Bell’s whisky.
Now they keep putting pictures of your face
under the hair of Che Guevara but my wi-fi
is shite as I look farther for the secrets
of some revolutionary conspiracy
known only to Twitter.
You were the smell of burnt haggis
in primary school kitchens, the passion
of incompetent, childish longing;
every January blackened for lack of snow
or a coffee topped with Irish cream
and dreams of home.
I’m trying to make you more of a meme
but the birds sing merrily of some Scots
that got tangled in my mouth, made a scandal
of the girls slinging glittery hooks
against the Ayrshire weather, dreich and pitiful
in the stench of manure and nicotine.
You made poetry from head-lice and folktales
while I’m starting out on madness and palm trees
and the single best beat to snatch, ecstatic
from a still calm sea. Dylan loved you
and god knows I share your fetish for roses,
though mine are long-glitched out of semantics
or flourishing poesy. The inevitable middle name; the rose is a dead rose, a broken cable.
Every time they sing Auld Lang Syne
the spell snaps tight like the cutting of tartan
on a slut’s dress as she readies herself legendarily for bewitching auld Ayr’s errant men. I love her
with the crimson candled extravagance
of the urban occultist, dull and lonely. She’s got legs
enough to kick them in the Doon when she’s finished,
chortling like a slot machine.
A match, perhaps, for the farmers of the toon
who tossed my friend in a hedge when he tried to join them at school
in talk of fags and cattle and the internet equivalent
of cutty sarks. It’s a fell swoon for the rest of us,
with ardent cries for freedom
from the trendy alt-truths of southern politicians
and the armies of bagpipes swarming the park
to practice for every month of fucking summer.
That hot breath steaming the January air,
some promise for Scots blood running cold in the veins
of my milky Englishness. I’d swap it all
to be back there, sugar-tongued and sweeter
in teenage confusion, rain spilling off
the thatched roof, every drop fused
with a purer kind of truth like the shape of your words (Romantic).
Can you call me dear Rabbie,
if you’re able? I’m waiting, but the rose
is a dead rose, a broken cable.
Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty
The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.
In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?
Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’. LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.
For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.
For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…
With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.
Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.
Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that
attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].
Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.
One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:
In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.
(Peters 2015: 1357)
Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism). The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.
The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.
Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,
[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?
And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.
This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.
Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?
Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks):
Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.
“I guess it’s like, for the past seven months, I’ve felt like I don’t exist.”
A friend and I are standing down by the River Kelvin, watching the dark sloshy water unravel itself below us, the purplish October twilight settling around in the shadows and leaves. Part of our friendship has always been this: trying to fill in meaning and substance amongst the ghost-worlds of our lives. The drifting, disappearing act of routine. We agree that we are lone wolves; we pick apart the significance of things, every social occasion an attempt at just living. It isn’t easy. We write letters to each other with little drawings and pictures, sometimes forgetting to dot our i’s and cross the t’s. It doesn’t matter. The point is to communicate things, to write about the weather and the changing colour of the leaves and the way we are feeling. Relationships crumbling, people leaving. What stays the same is the insistence on memory. Remember this time. The walk we took out to Glasgow Green, sitting for hours in the glasshouse with the ripe spring sun so clear and gold on our skin, our talk of the future striving towards something tangibly positive. That night when the boy was sick and when the music was so loud it crashed in our ears for days afterwards; that night you dropped a pill and waited for the high to come, waited so long that you were outside of time, you were in a bubble with the world around you nebulous, distant, the high never coming and only that sense of being washed ashore, exhausted, after a long journey. I always sensed an ending and left the party early.
We write letters and they pile up in a shoebox in my bedroom, tacked together with coloured rubber-bands, as if candy-wrapped, waiting to be opened again after their first moment of preservation. Each one contains the microcosm of a whole moment, month, a jewellery case of feelings that glimmer in the arrangement of words, jotted down so simply but now rich with possibility. I can read this in your handwriting. I wonder if you do it too, if you like to trace the curls of my y’s and m’s. I am obsessed with materiality, as if it was the writing itself that keeps us being—making a record is insurance of existence, the future reassurance that I am alive, I did these things, I existed like this—once. I doubt anyone in the world cares so much about the little things as I do. It’s strange; I suppose it works against my exaggerations.
When you are sad, I say: keep a diary. It’s something I’ve done for years. Part of me truly believes there is no use in telling people certain things. I wonder, is this because I treasure secrets? Yes, I love to hoard. I keep jotters stuffed full of primary school scribblings, drawings of stick-figures falling from buildings. I keep clothes that no longer fit me, broken pencils, lipsticks long since soured but still heady with the smell of wintry, glittery evenings in bars I cannot visit again. There’s a box full of Game Boys, ancient crystals on the windowsill, fantasy novels whose worlds I feel cast out of forever, too old, too cynical.
Keep a diary. Is this my catchall advice for the lost and lonely? What is a diary? Why keep a diary…? Such questions are cast in the meaningless swirl of words; they float to one’s consciousness every time one sits down to write another entry. What is the point in this useless recording of words? Words, words, words. How hypnotic they are, how pointless! In keeping a diary, we make secrets. The secret lies behind every word. It is all decipherable possibilities that lead us back to the realm of the undecipherable. Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, in their playful, lyrical essay, ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’, draw attention to the slippage between secret and secretion. There is something decidably intimate, eremitic, perhaps insect-like, about the human will to autobiography. As a silkworm or a spider spins its gossamer web, as the Lady of Shalott sits in her tower weaving her tapestry of the world, the diarist retreats to her solitary lair and writes of the day—that which has happened, that which is yet to come.
Unlike the fictional novel, the diary is more or less necessarily bound by the clock and calendar, as opposed to narrative time which might follow the personal experience of time, a more Bergsonian sense of duration. For Henri Bergson, our sense of time is not a mishmash of broken moments, memories to be recalled at will as if accessed from some inner harddrive, but rather that of duration: the accumulation of the past in the present, a ceaseless flow of unbroken moments. ‘The truth is we change without ceasing,’ and duration itself is ‘the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’ (Bergson 2013: 69-70). There is a sense of our personal time as being in flux, more fluid than the linear progression of calendar time would suggest. The diary form negotiates between this structuring of days and months and the impressionistic rendering of moments, which flow between past, present and future. We experience the present through the memories which populate our past and colour our senses. I walk through these streets, which are palimpsests of years gone by, a split screen of seasons, the autumn leaves and Christmas frost, the corner where we stopped…the desk by the window on level four of the library where I first cracked the notion of différance, the place by the pond where the bluebells grow, the shop which used to sell ribbons and now lies empty, gathering lumps of broken plaster and dust. This place has a bittersweetness, a depth of shadows, which it did not have the first time. A diary grows fatter by the year; as time goes by and I read back old entries, the words have acquired a weight they lacked when first written in all instancy and innocence.
The Britannica Encyclopaedia Online defines the diary as a
form of autobiographical writing, a regularly kept record of the diarist’s activities and reflections. Written primarily for the writer’s use alone, the diary has a frankness that is unlike writing done for publication. Its ancient lineage is indicated by the existence of the term in Latin, diarium, itself derived from dies (“day”).
This foregrounds the essential relation between the diary and dailyness. We write to contain the day, to compare our days, to express the day, to make sense of the day, to merely record the day. Not everyone writes on a daily basis; nor are all diaries structured in a daily sense. Sometimes, vague and impressionistic renderings of a summer, a month or week, might be jotted down as an amalgamation of sensations and feelings. The summer a loved one died, when it rained for weeks on end, when the news was full of insufferable political travesties. A patch of time defined less by rigid temporal boundaries and more by a general mood, which like watercolour paint bleeds into its edges.
Writers use various metaphoric images to make sense of time. In a diary entry from 22nd July 1926, Virginia Woolf writes, ‘[t]he summer hourglass is running out rapidly and rather sandily’, an image which coalesces the objective measure of time with the abstraction of a summer and its accompanying texture—sandily—giving some experiential hint as to the abrasive ‘feel’ of that particular passage of time, ‘[h]ere nothing but odds and ends’ (Woolf 2008: 216). In a single entry we might note a month of great personal achievement, rapturous words on the fulfilment of a new job or relationship or project. For me, this style of diary-writing falls more into the remit of a journal. A diary, for me, probably has to be associated somehow with the daily. This is what makes it interesting, since in recording the day, the writer has little chance to reflect with all the hindsight of distance upon the events of the day. They are more raw, honest; they contain the energies of the present moment as it is borne upon by the immediate, pressing past.
Maurice Blanchot usefully if not obtusely describes the everyday as that which escapes: it is ‘the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse’; however, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived – in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity’ (Blanchot 1987: 13). There is then a sense that it might be impossible to represent the everyday as the everyday. In our experience of dailyness, we are so blinded by habit, routine, ritual, that we cannot step back to discern what actually happens. There is a strangeness to the everyday, its mediation of spontaneity and routine, which seems to elude attempts at representing the exact experience of encountering it. All reports of the everyday, whether fictional or in the form of a diary or ethnographic report, seem to fall prey to retrospective narrative organisation of some form or another. The truth is that in our daily lives we experience a particular texture to the passing of time, the passing through space and place. It depends on our job, our friends and family, our use of leisure time, our responsibilities. Time is experiential as well as ‘objective’. The diary, to some extent, captures this, with its vague sense of immediacy (something Samuel Richardson cashes in especially in his novel Pamela (1740), where Pamela is literally writing ‘to the moment’, as he puts it). The gush of sitting down to write before bed: here, I must capture it all before it fades into memory. The diary is a willingness to preserve the past, a form of archive fever, a possibility of dumping or offloading memories to be dealt with later. It is often prescribed to those undergoing psychological difficulty for that very cathartic reason: the possibility of sorting out the chaos of one’s thoughts and experiences by simply writing them down, thinking them through.
Diaries abound in literature. I will never have time to talk of them all.
There is a queer slippage between presence and absence in the diary. Think of Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which Harry finds himself writing onto, into, watching ink dissolve and then materialise on the page after his own scrawled print, as if he were having some primitive MSN conversation with the realm of the dead. Riddle speaks through the diary, but it is a specific fragment of his character, the Riddle of the days when the diary was written. The diary is a puzzle to be solved; it is full of secrets (as the name Riddle suggests). We read a diary and we are confronted with a problem: it is chockfull of names, places, references that are never explained, since the person writing is writing not for an understanding readership but for herself alone. As readers we have to decipher the shorthand, the elliptical allusions to things that have happened, people who appear briefly but are then never mentioned again, though their unexplained presence haunts the diary like a ghost. You don’t have to justify your inclusion of certain characters when you’re accounting for a day. It’s just what happened. She did this, he had a go at me, the man that sits beside me at work, my favourite cafe, Mr. S and Mrs. C etc etc. We redact, unconsciously, as we write our lives (for reasons of repression perhaps but also brevity). The reader has to scour through page after page, trying to decode all the references. For what purpose, however? It’s not like in a novel, where you might be searching towards some argument, some overall notion of what the text is about. Doesn’t the diary elude this, in its very fragmentary nature, its resistance to the definition of closed art, its status as a kind of found object documenting a life (maybe even still living and thus not even closed off by death!), never intended to be published, let alone poured over by a curious reader or critic?
Perhaps, then, the diary is the perfect method through which to represent the unknowability of the everyday.
Think of the tape ‘diaries’ of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Every year, on his birthday, Krapp indulges in the ritual of making a tape recording in which he accounts for the events of the year, his general impressions of life, hopes for the future and so on. Every year, on his birthday, Krapp also listens back to previous tapes. Some of the tapes thus constitute a dialogue between tapes, as the Krapp of the present or past tries to make sense of the Krapp of a more distant past. Much of this dialogue, this ‘reading’ of the tapes and their various temporal selves, is an encounter with moments of aporia, with references that don’t make sense anymore. Krapp scours his personal memory, but often the cognitive dissonance persists. The uncanniness of the diary is that it reminds us that we are always strangers to ourselves; there are things in our memory, buried subconsciously, that we cannot access or understand, and yet they are part of us. They are the other within us. As such, writing, as one form of what Derrida calls ‘originary technicity’, is a key technological mode which humans have used for thousands of years to generate and make sense of their being (there can be no outside text). Early humans recorded their memories and made sense of the world through cave paintings; later came language as such, the gramophone, the typewriter, the tape recorder (so far, so Friedrich Kittler). Memory and being, therefore, have always already been technical. The prevalence of the diary as discursive form throughout history attests to this.
The diary can be intimate and confessional, but also performative. Not performative in the sense of a memoir, which has the luxury of retrospective maturity to aid its arrangement and sculpturing of events (a diary has the rawness and disarray of immediate record), but performative in the sense that in language all attempts to express the self are inevitably cast into the play of difference and deferral. Let us make no mistake about the representative problems of writing. In writing, the self dissolves. This is the basic Lacanian assumption that when I identify myself in language, I also split myself as Other (‘I’ am no longer the ‘I’ of writing), just as when in the Mirror Stage, the child recognises their mirror image for the first time and sees herself as a coherent object—the initiation of the decentering of the human. It is perfectly possible to refer to ourselves in the third or second person, creating an even greater distancing effect (think back to our most emo of teenage diary entries: you’re so selfish, fat, useless, you might as well give up now and so on). So in writing, the self splits. It is referring back to itself from the position of another self. Blanchot attests writing as a kind of space of death:
The truth of the journal lies not in the interesting, literary remarks to be found there, but in the insignificant details which attach it to daily reality. The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed
All year I’ve felt like I don’t exist. There is a sense in which writing a diary is a desperate attempt to pin down the self, to attest to your existence—here, look, see all the things I’ve done so far!—but in doing so, the self stays fluid, under the signifying movement of language. You can’t pin it down and then mount it like a butterfly. The writer’s self undergoes this ‘dangerous metamorphosis’ in the play of words, a transformation and dissolution that she indeed ‘suspect[s]’ even as she writes. A diary indeed, is partly a performance, even if you never intend another soul to read it. You can’t quite get the right words to come out. You’re striving towards an ideal expression of an experience or feeling or even just the sense of your own personality. Perhaps that’s why diaries are full of repetition. Dates, names, phrases. I’m always talking about how sound a person is, how lovely the leaves are at this time of year, how nice to sit in bed like this at three in the afternoon, listening to Arthur Russell albums. Sometimes the music changes, but the habit doesn’t, the phrases might modulate but they’re mostly the same.
Flicking back, painfully, through some diary entries from 2012-2014, I’m struck by how much I just write about the weather. Lyrical descriptions of rain, the promise of summer, the ephemeral beauty of daffodils. Maybe there’s a way in which diary writing is also a kind of phatic speech act, in Roman Jakobsen’s sense of a deliberate establishment of communication for communication’s sake. Communication to whom? The self of the future? Some entries seem to me reluctant; angry somehow, pissed that I’m even having to write this stupid thing at all. The phrase ‘But I will keep writing for the sake of writing’ comes up a lot…Why then do I keep writing? It’s like I’m trying to work through things. I spend sentence after sentence rambling on about the books I’m reading, formulating half-baked ideas which in retrospect often seem deliciously twee and naive. I exert grand claims for my continued writing: ‘I need to find purpose and order in things again, instead of being content with chaos’; claims that are ironically followed with the rambling chaos of self-deprecation and a rather banal outlining of my day, as if I had never made such grandiose assertions of existential realisation a few lines before. I think the diary attests to existence itself and memory more than it does to subjectivity and self-awareness. This is partly why reading one’s diary is always going to incur cognitive dissonance. Yes it’s good to write things down, to work them out, but often the world gets even more confusing in the process of writing.
It’s not a problem of empathy, it’s a problem related to the nature of subjectivity itself. Read back through old entries and yes the memory is stirred, you get a vague impressionistic matrix of sensations that to some extent recall the moment. But can you really remember what it was like to live it at that moment, with that particular naive frame of mind, untainted by everything that has happened since? I don’t think you can really. You get this sharp sense of empathy with the version of you in the diary, but in a way it isn’t really you. It’s quite sad actually. It forces us to deal with our own mortality, the irrevocable passage of time, that melancholy sense of the person we once were, the innocence we have lost. The diary is a record of traces of existence. They’re not necessarily mine. Maybe they’re filtered through dreams or literary narratives or imagined versions of what really happened. They’re attempts to make sense of the everyday, doomed always to fall back on the concrete detail which is its own story of surfaces over depth. As Jacques Lacan put it, the signified always slides under the signifier. The event always shifts under its representation in language. To make sense of one thing, you refer to another and so on, ad infinitum. There is an impossibility to the diary: is it bound to the self’s mortality? And yet it lives on, haunted with its revenants. The diary is always also a writing towards the future, a writing against death, a resistance to the ephemeral that extinguishes at the very level of the ephemeral. For in capturing a moment, perhaps you erase its elusive presentness…
In literature, the diary form is frequently used to make sense of the duality of personal time and clock time (which is itself historically, culturally and technologically relative). The metafictional chaos of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759) is a constant spillage of clock time, leaps between temporalities, anachronisms, the time of writing, the spanning of a lifetime, of a narrative. Its self-referentiality gives its time-space a maddening, recursive quality. One of the most famous encounters with the literary journal, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), is partly a rendering of the need to record time and daily rituals in order to maintain order and stability in a world outside of society. On his desert island, Crusoe marks the days in notches on a makeshift cross of wood but also notes with Puritan precision the days and dates and changing seasons. A significant chunk of the narrative is constituted by Crusoe’s journal, as he relates:
And now it was that I began to keep a journal of every day’s employment; for, indeed, at first I was in too much hurry, and not only hurry as to labour, but in too much discomposure of mind; and my journal would have been full of many dull things; for example, I must have said thus: “30th.—After I had got to shore, and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of salt water which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
Some days after this, and after I had been on board the ship, and got all that I could out of her, yet I could not forbear getting up to the top of a little mountain and looking out to sea, in hopes of seeing a ship; then fancy at a vast distance I spied a sail, please myself with the hopes of it, and then after looking steadily, till I was almost blind, lose it quite, and sit down and weep like a child, and thus increase my misery by my folly.
But having gotten over these things in some measure, and having settled my household staff and habitation, made me a table and a chair, and all as handsome about me as I could, I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.
I love this passage. You get the actual tangibility and physical limitations of the journal (he runs out of ink – another indication of writing’s material and temporal basis). Defoe provocatively renders Crusoe’s sense of real terror—‘fear of being devoured’—alongside his grand exaltations and little self-congratulations. There is a touch of pathos in his solitary situation, but also a self-aware sense of humour. Crusoe sometimes interrupts his journal to give over the ‘present’ narrative to philosophical and religious musings which connect the reflective mode of his present self with the self of the journal, encountering trials and tribulations of solitary island life firsthand. This interplay is what gives us a sense of Robinson Crusoe’s Protestant work ethic, a work ethic which Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) defines as that of being thrifty, ordered, productive, rational, self-controlled.Crusoe is not only deeply religious and ascetic but also a rather zealous capitalist, a merchant tradesman who dabbles with various colonial trades, and the novel negotiates the ideological balancing of these two positions through its shift between journal and narrative reflection. As Thomas Kemple argues, ‘in spite of the boundlessness of nature, Crusoe budgets his time, rations his resources, and keeps a strict account of the tools he has been able to save from the shipwreck in a way that does not exemplify but only prefigures the logic of investment and savings which will later drive the expansion of capitalism’ (1995: 249). Part of this budgeting and rationing is conducted through the journal.
There is a sense in which keeping a diary or journal is a means of keeping the self in check. Disciplining the self in the Foucauldian manner of applying internalised beliefs and discourses of control to the self, which becomes an external product to be in a sense ‘worked upon’. Listing one’s eating habits, exercise, love interests and so on is a way of tying them to the day, making them concrete. There can be some things that are embarrassing to write about, and the diary forces us to moralise ourselves, to justify our actions in writing. This isn’t always pleasant and there is a sense in which keeping a diary reinforces our panopticon-like internalisation of morality, our self-surveillance on a daily basis. It is true that the wilder our lives get, the less we write in our diaries, and perhaps this isn’t just a practical issue of lacking the time, but a more evasive, psychoanalytic phenomenon. Crusoe is deeply reflective about his ‘journal self’ and by putting our own lives in writing, we are subjecting ourselves to a similar internal discipline. Think of how much Jane Eyre loves Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. Think of Pamela, in Richardson’s eponymous eighteenth-century novel, where the young servant protagonist writes both letters and a diary as an assertion of her virtue, a way of sorting out her emotions and assuring herself that she is not in the least tempted by the licentious advances of her master. Yet she must hide her papers delicately in her underwear, always on her person, raising the question as to whether we carry our secrets, our personal burdens, with us always. Even if our diaries are hidden under a mattress, at the back of a drawer or in some old box, they still speak of their very existence. Perhaps that’s why so many people burn them.
The diary then, has a deep connection to inner morality, to self-justification, to the secret. One diary that is seductively rich with secrets is The Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, co-creator of the early 1990s tv series Twin Peaks, from which Laura Palmer is drawn. Without delving into too many Twin Peaks spoilers, we can say that The Diary of Laura Palmer is compelling partly because it gives voice to a character whose absence defines much of the television show, far more than her presence. Laura’s death in the first episode overshadows the action of the Twin Peaks’ narrative; she is an object of memory and memorial far more than a subject in her own right: she’s the Homecoming Queen portrait; the beautifully still and glittering corpse, iconically wrapped in plastic; the name on everyone’s lips (I always think of that Bat for Lashes song, ‘Laura’, and the implications of the trace in the metonymic lyrics which attempt to grasp her presence as absence: ‘You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark, oh, Laura / You’re more than a superstar / You’ll be famous for longer than them / Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin’). In Lynch’s diary, we get access to Laura’s voice, which is a strange experience after knowing her only through the stories told by other characters. She gives detail and flesh to the entity known as ‘BOB’ and the psychological breakdown associated with her encounters with this torturing spirit. If you weren’t familiar with the tv series, you could probably read the diary as a standalone account of someone who suffered possibly schizophrenic tendencies, but with the weight of the show behind your reading, BOB is loaded with more sinister metaphysical and narrative implications and is certainly not just a psychological projection of Laura’s mind. Laura gets involved in all sort of sordid activities: lurid jaunts in the wood with a number of men, involvement with the local porno business (the creatively named Fleshworld magazine) and taking cocaine like it was cotton candy. What is haunting about Laura’s diary is that it troubles our easy narrative of corruption from small town innocence to debasement; the diary reveals that desire and its darkness were in Laura even as a child, as we see in her first entry:
Dear Diary, July 22, 1984
My name is Laura Palmer, and as of just three short minutes ago, I officially turned twelve years old! It is July 22, 1984, and I have had such a good day! You were the last gift I opened and I could hardly wait to come upstairs and start to tell you all about myself and my family. You shall be the one I confide in the most. I promise to tell you everything that happens, everything I feel, everything I desire. And, every single thing I think. There are some things I can’t tell anyone. I promise to tell these things to you.
(Lynch 2012: 1)
Lynch lets us into the taboo world of preteen sexuality which grows even more visceral as the diary progresses. Stylistically, we have the enthusiasm of someone very young, the peppered exclamation marks, the excitement, the promise. Towards the end of the diary, an entry from four years later, Laura remarks: ‘The girl who received this diary on her twelfth birthday has been dead for years, and I who took her place have done nothing but make a mockery of the dreams she once had’ (Lynch 2012: 167). This self-conscious sense of a fundamental splitting of self is not merely a moralising narrative about the loss of innocence, but is characteristic of our human condition as decentred subjects. With the archive fever of the diary (distinct from other forms of archivisation such as the blog or the social media profile by its privacy, its overt association with the intimate, ‘authentic’ self), we are forced to realise more vividly what we have gained and lost in the years, the sense of alienation that occurs when confronting the thoughts of our younger selves.
The secret is always a communication, even as it is concealed as such. You cannot have a secret without a hint of communication, otherwise it hardly exists. The promise of Laura’s diary entry is its seduction: ‘I promise to tell these things to you’. We are led to believe we are reading something intimate, never designed for public consumption. Yet as the diary progresses, we find that Laura is increasingly insistent on her narrative as narrative; she wants to write the diary to tell her story. When she realises she is in grave danger, she gives the diary to her friend Harold ‘for safekeeping’ (Lynch 2012: 184). She wants people to know how she ended up in such a twisted, seedy situation. Although Laura sometimes goes into detail about her trips into the woods with various shady characters, her dalliances in the Double R diner and hangouts with best pal Donna, the diary is often elliptical—especially elliptical in relation to Laura’s erotic fantasies: ‘ I went into a deep, drugged, happy, thoughtful, nasty, and still-innocent fantasy. I’ll have to tell more later…I feel so dreamy right now…’ (Lynch 2012: 120). The chain of adjectives is as bewildering as it is suggestive, the oxymoronic play between nasty/still-innocent disturbing our easy sense of the binary between good-girl and bad-girl. There is a sense of playful performance not unlike the deliberately seductive tone of someone selling phone sex, the elliptical gaps indicating that breathy space of erotic silence. Laura’s refusal, or inability, to disclose the details of her strange and alluring fantasy, seduce us with the promise of a secret. At some points in the diary, she lapses into poetry and what resembles a kind of displaced dramatic script, furthering the sense of the deferral of meaning, the weight of the secret and the struggle to articulate it which is the masochistic scene of both pain and play.
Indeed, some of the pages of the diary are noted by the editor as torn out, and often Laura alludes to something but never explains it fully. In a sense, this enables to maintain power over her secrets. As Jean Baudrillard says of the secret:
Everything that can be revealed lies outside the secret. For the latter is not a hidden signified, nor the key to something, but circulates through and transverses everything that can be said, just as seduction flows beneath the obscenity of speech. It is the opposite of communication, and yet it can be shared. The secret maintains its power only at the price of remaining unspoken, just as seduction operates only because never spoken nor intended.
(Baudrillard 1990: 79)
How unseductive it is to be explicitly seduced! Some cretinous man in a nightclub approaching you with his sloppily explicit sonnet of adoration. It is in the price of a glimpse, a smile or a chance, enigmatic word, that we are seduced. Seduction unravels in the realm of the clipped, the elusive and cryptic. Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), is written as a diary and its beautiful language is not the only thing that seduces the reader: its disturbing seduction is the uncertainty as to how much of the narrative is truth, how much the projection of Humbert Humbert’s zealous, harlequin imagination. Think also of Amy Dunne’s diary in Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl (2012), which provides a reflective counter narrative to her husband Nick’s present control of the story. Later, we learn that her diary entries were fabricated in order to incriminate Nick in her disappearance. The diary here becomes a tool of seduction, the private sphere designed to cause events in the public. Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel disguised as a diary, satirising the cultural representation of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype by having her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, cannily trick men into various racketing schemes (including buying her diamonds), at the same time as negotiating a trickstery language which shamelessly embraces its spelling errors and grammatical faults, and as such pokes fun at both the Patriarchal Laws of Discourse and the whimsical gendering and power performance of Lorelei Lee herself.
The diary, as I have already said, is actually a form of communication, whether we like it or not. As a text, there is the implicit potentiality of its exposure to the world; a frisson between public and private that worms its way into the diary and infects the way we read and write, encouraging us to hold back or expose more, constantly engaged in the game of the secret, its slippage between presence and absence, silence and revelation. Perhaps no clearer is this visible in Laura Palmer’s diary than in her final entry, which is noted (presumably by the ‘editor’) as one of the torn pages:
Dear Diary, Undated
I know who he is. I know exactly who and what BOB is, and I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe.
Someone has torn the pages out of my diary, pages that help me realise maybe…pages with my poems, pages of writing, private pages.
I’m so afraid of death.
I’m so afraid that no one will believe me until after I have taken the seat that I fear has been saved for me in the darkness. Please don’t hate me. I never meant to see the small hills and the fire. I never meant to see him or let him in.
Please, Diary, help me explain to everyone that I did not want what I have become. I did not want to have certain memories and realisations of him. I only did what any of us can do, in any situation…
My very best.
(Lynch 2012: 184).
The fact that Laura does not reveal the true identity of BOB is compelling, because why should she? If this is a diary merely for herself, then there would be no need to recount the agony of his name in writing. She does not disclose the truth, but rather marks the pain of a burial. ‘I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe’: and yet we know she will never get to tell the secret, since, as the editor tells us, after this final entry Laura is found dead days later. This drive for knowledge which seduces us as readers, sends us scattering back over the text, searching for clues and codes as to the true nature of the entity that has tormented Laura for most of the entries. It is probably for this reason that the creators of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch, were so reluctant to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer halfway through season two, as their network pressured them to. What keeps us watching and reading is partly the seductive possibility of the secret; we don’t really even want to know, we just want the pleasure of trying to find out…
Still, while Laura’s diary was evidently written as an exploration into trauma and the problematic pleasure of voyeurism and secrecy, a similar teenage drug diary from the early 1970s raises questions about the ethics and polemic uses of the diary as a writerly form. Published by ‘Anonymous’ as Go Ask Alice (1971), but later discovered to be written by Beatrice Sparks; while initially marketed as nonfiction, it is now widely sold as fiction. There is some controversy over whether Sparks based the diary on the real diary of one of her patients, and the persistence of this controversy attests to our obsession with the slippery division between fiction and reality, a line that the diary form negotiates with only the most tender of distinctions. Like Laura Palmer, Alice is a young teenager who soon finds herself embroiled in a darkly muddled world of drugs (coke for Laura, LSD and heroin for Alice) and prostitution, made darker still by the hints of physical and sexual abuse incurred by both characters/diarists. There are striking similarities between the two diaries, but the crucial difference, to me, is that while Lynch wrote Laura’s diary to extend the thematic explorations of Twin Peaks, to give Laura a voice and deepen our knowledge of her character, Sparks wrote her diary novel with the didactic purpose of teaching an anti-drugs message to its avid teenage readers.
When I first devoured Go Ask Alice, a whole six years ago now, I found myself sucked into the sinister allure of Alice’s adventures, which were at once so far away and yet perilously close to my life in a rural Ayrshire community where many of us were bumming out on toxic legal highs purloined from the local sex shop. I found myself rather terrified of my edition of the book; after reading it I shoved it to the back of the shelf, behind my equally harrowing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, and tried to forget about it. The cover has a picture of a skinny girl, face turned away from the camera, buried in her hand. It is all shadows; the title has ALICE and ANONYMOUS printed in harrowing block capitals. It reminds me of similar covers from the anorexic and depressive memoirs of Wasted (Marya Hornbacher) and Prozac Nation (Elizabeth Wurtzel). It cut a bit too close to the bone; I was worried that I’d get lost in the text somehow, the way I used to find myself lost in things that horrified yet seduced me.
Maybe part of this devouring was like Crusoe’s fear of being devoured: what scares him is the thought of being eaten alive by some unknown beast (think also of the Beast that haunts the boys in Lord of the Flies…). The fact that the corrupted fable of a contemporary Alice was meant to be anonymous probably made it scarier for me, because she was the everygirl, the possibility that anyone might be seduced by a life of self-destruction. Alice is the horror of the other within; the self-hating, monstrous self.
Reading it back now, however, with my vaguely improved and university approved capacities at close reading, I can see the slippages where the text reveals its true author, the moralising American therapist who wanted to push her opinions on sexuality and drug abuse. Maybe as a teenager I was too close to the subject matter to think about the tone and style, the actual form of the diary. Some of it is pretty accurate: the in-depth reflections on diet and weight and self-image which prompt Alice’s first trip down the rabbit hole of self-harm and addiction. However, it’s obvious to me that it couldn’t be the authentic discourse of someone Alice’s age. There are so many points where you have to stop and think, would a teenage girl really say that? Like when she reflects on her mother’s youth and whether her mother got so hung up on boys as she did: ‘I wonder if boys were as oversexed in those days as they are now?’ (Sparks 1994: 9). ‘Oversexed’ reads like the kind of word that would crop up on Mumsnet if it was around in the 1970s. There’s a general tone to the novel, a kind of failed attempt to script the logic of a teenage mind through an emphasis on ‘cool’, that reminds me of those 1970s and 1980s sex ed documentaries they used to wheel out the telly for in Personal Social Education at school. You’d be so distracted by the bad haircuts and the terribly stunted dialogue that you forgot about what the documentary was supposed to be teaching you, even as the narrative hammered it home so overtly that you’d have to be asleep to miss it. The ‘editors’ of Go Ask Alice claim the book to be ‘based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user’; ‘It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions’. Nevertheless, the definitive statement that you can extract from Go Ask Alice is clearly: don’t do drugs. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t runaway from home. Alice does all these things and it only ends badly from her and occasionally, Robinson Crusoe-style, she chides herself with an almost religious morality for falling into such vices and immoral behaviours. Sometimes, Alice’s anxiety is rendered with such clunkiness it’s surprising the reading public didn’t pick up on the diary’s inauthenticity sooner:
I hadn’t thought about being pregnant before. Can it happen the first time? Will Bill marry me if I am or will he just think I’m an easy little dum-dum who makes it with everyone? Of course he won’t marry me, he’s only fifteen years old. I guess I’ll just have to have an abortion or something. I certainly couldn’t stand it if I had to leave school like_______did last year. The kids talked about absolutely nothing else for weeks. Oh God, please, please make me not pregnant!
(Sparks 1994: 30-31)
You could take those first few sentences as the cover quotes on leaflets from a vintage NHS ad on pregnancy and birth control advice. It’s so obviously contrived. There are other parts of the text where the slippage between teenage imagination and cringe-worthy adult representation is a bit more ambiguous; for example her description of sex with her drug dealer boyfriend, Richie, as ‘like lighting and rainbows and springtime’ (Sparks 1994: 43), which is naively refreshing at the same time as being a little too absurd for someone who is supposed to premise her existence on being a hyper-cool teenage dropout.
While Laura’s last diary entry is genuinely pretty harrowing, Alice’s is laced with a queasy sense of self-awareness that seems filtered through textbook rhetoric on adolescent mental health, as if the wiser voice of Sparks (therapist and Mormon youth counsellor) were speaking through her:
I used to think I would get another diary after you are filled, or even that I would keep a diary or journal through my whole life. But now I don’t really think I will. Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times. But I think when a person gets older she should be able to discuss her problems and thoughts with other people, instead of just another part of herself as you have been to me. Don’t you agree? I hope so, for you are my dearest friend and I shall thank you always for sharing my tears and heartaches and my struggles and strifes, and my joys and happinesses. It’s all been good in its own special way, I guess.
(Sparks 1994: 151-152)
Would a teenage girl really use the word ‘strifes’? Would she really, in the midst of a drug-addled breakdown, sound as lucid and lofty as to say ‘I think when a person gets older’? There is though some genuine pathos in the simple, casual ‘See ya’ followed by the overtly political and moralising register of the epilogue:
The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.
Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.
Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of approximately 50,000 drug deaths in the United States that year.
(Sparks 1994: 153)
This overtly cold and clinical passage is obviously rendered as a contrast to the preceding philosophising from Alice herself, who is here transformed into the impersonal ‘subject’, whose identity is subsumed into a broader narrative about drug problems in the U.S. However, the canny reader should be suspicious of the way that Sparks clearly set up Alice’s ‘epiphany’ as the ironic precursor to her death, which was obviously meant to emphasise the tragedy of her wasted life, the cause of which is explicitly rooted in drug abuse. There’s that famous phrase of second wave feminists, the personal is political: it resonates throughout Go Ask Alice in the sense that Sparks is making a political statement on sexual morality through the denigrating circumstances that Alice finds herself in as a result of reckless, premarital sex—which in the diary’s narrative is almost always tied to drug abuse, to being irresponsibly stoned out your head. The familiar narrative of suburban girl gone bad appears as a microcosm for a wider point about the ‘50,000 drug deaths’ across the rest of the U.S that year. Thus the diary in literary fiction serves to blur the line between fiction and reality, the personal and political.
This blurring of the personal and political is also evident in the actual diaries of various authors. I take as my example Virginia Woolf, who wrote on the brink of World War II a vision of a perfect pastoral afternoon in the English countryside as a counterpoint to the ominous coming of war:
I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what? On this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all? – our lives, oh yes, and everything for the next fifty years? Everyone’s writing I suppose about this last day. I walked on the downs; lay under a cornstack and looked at the empty land and the pinkish clouds in a perfect blue summer afternoon sky. Not a sound. Workmen discussing war on the road – one for it, one against. For us its [sic] like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But there’s a vast calm cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting a doctor’s verdict. And the young – young men smashed up. But the point is one is too numbed to think. Old Clive sitting on the terrace, says “I don’t want to live through it.” Explains that his life recedes. Has had the best. We privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls. No feeling of patriotism. How to go on, through war? – that’s the question. Yes, its [sic] a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room
(Woolf 2008: 459).
There is something rather uncanny about reading this passage, blessed and cursed as we are with retrospective knowledge of what was to come in the war, its atrocities, its rupturing of this simple, innocent life forever. Woolf is clearly already aware of what is to come; she has learned from the first war: ‘young men smashed up’, a ‘vast calm cold gloom’ – images which seem incongruous against the ‘perfect blue afternoon sky’. Woolf effectively evokes that awful limbo feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen. The diary form is especially suited to capturing such moments, the in-betweenness of present and future, the ‘strain’ of this waiting, writing as if to pass time. Woolf notes the futility of writing at such a time: ‘I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what?’, the dash emphasising that aporetic sense of meaninglessness in the face of the unknowable war to come. It is the granular details of everyday life that remain concrete, that seem to ground her, as they ground the reader against the shadowy abyss of war that hangs over our reading of this piece: ‘cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls’. The strange interruptions that mark a routine day: ‘A swallow came into the sitting room’. That Woolf flits indecisively between describing the beautiful pastoral scene and thinking ahead to the war suggests the struggle to capture the everyday, the struggle to pin down in language that elusive sense of momentary calm which is swept up in the grander historical events. I wonder, if I had kept a diary as far back as 9/11, would I have written much about the event itself? One of the few ‘flashbulb memory’ events from my lifetime that I remember vividly is the London 7/7 bombings. I was on a boat on the way to Tobermory and the youth worker who was looking after us got a text about it. I think she had the same Nokia 3220 phone as me. She mentioned the terrorist attack briefly but I have no recollection of how I felt about the event itself, whether I was stricken with grief or worry for London family members. I seem to remember more the fact that someone was playing 2Pac on a crackling ship radio; we were drinking watery Ovaltine and sharing a bar of Cadbury’s Mint Chocolate. I remember feeling very calm and safe, being rocked to sleep in the dark little cabin with the boat moored at some bay, the feel of the water sloshing up against the walls so comforting. Perhaps it’s only the tangible details we can cling to.
Woolf’s diary entry brings us to the question of the cultural function of the diary. The diary gives us a bottom-up, microcosmic insight into a specific experience in a specific time and place. Woolf: the middle-class writer’s view of the interwar years, told from the position of poetic eloquence and reflective precision. Then there’s perhaps the most famous of all ‘historical’ diaries: Anne Frank’s. Arguably, what draws people back to Frank’s account of living as a Jew in that perilous moment in German history is not the overall backdrop of historical and personal trauma but the focus on everyday detail. We want the tangible reality of how someone like Anne lived, survived and loved at a specific, dramatic moment in time. It’s the classic liberal humanist narrative of empathy. The Diary of Alice James (1934), sister of Henry and William James, is an interesting case as a ‘real life’ diary, not only because it was published after her death (and thus raises interesting ethical questions about whether one’s diary is up for grabs after one’s passing), but also because of its representation of illness. Alice’s struggle with physical illness plays out in the diary as a conflict of mind and body, will and impulse, power and impotence. She describes abandoning her body in order to preserve her mental sanity. It is a candid account of illness that shirks away the need for sympathy and never skirts around the difficult issues of assuming the ‘sickness’ identity. It is also rather funny in parts (as in Frank’s), delivering an array of scathing opinions on figures known to the James circle.
The diary form, then, has a clear lineage within ideas of trauma and authenticity, gender and genre. If the diary is associated with dailyness and immediacy, it seems the ideal form to express the experiential ‘reality’ of everyday life, which is at once the most obvious and most elusive aspect of our existence. Most of the texts I have discussed so far have been written by women, about women (including themselves). Dorothy Wordsworth wrote several beautiful journals rich with everyday description and nature writing, imagery which her brother William plucked scrupulously for his poetry.She talks about illness, frustration, the loveliness of her garden. While William’s poetry is hugely famous and taught in school curriculums, Dorothy’s journals remain a niche interest for Romanticists and academics. While William enters literary stardom, even into the twenty-first century (though Carol Ann Duffy seems to have overtaken him in the Higher English poetry stakes…), Dorothy remains cast aside as a kind of fragile, queer and weak Victorian woman.
I could reel off a list of other texts by women writers which use the diary to thematise and dramatise psychological and/or historical trauma: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) being two strong examples. When we think of writing a diary, do we think of teenage Sylvia Plath wannabes (Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You), wearing all black and scribbling furiously, alone in a bedroom adorned with Cure posters and feminist slogans? Do we think of the innocent young woman, maintaining a diary to make sense of transitions in their life—Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949), Marielle Heller’s 2015 film The Diary of a Teenage Girl? Why is the diary form traditionally associated with women? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that women are traditionally associated with the everyday as such. This is because, as Rita Felski (2000) has suggested, women (because of their biological ‘rhythms’ and link to domesticity) are connected with repetition, with tasks that repeat day after day; whereas men are associated with the dramas of the public sphere, the dynamism of war, work, politics and so on.
There is obviously a rich array of texts which fit into this gendering of the diary. When one tries to think of a masculine tradition of diary writing, one realises that diaries by male authors tend to be subsumed into the category of historical artefact, rather than the comparatively ‘feminine’, domesticated diary. Think of Samuel Pepys’ diary for instance, which was certainly focused on details of everyday domestic life as much as it was on the politics and social events of the time, but is largely considered as a loftily important historical document. Think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), which is modelled on the 18th-century fictional convention of presenting itself as a diary, but in fact is generally conceived of as a philosophical novel rather than a diary as such. There are far more texts to be discussed here and critical issues at stake, but clearly there is a lot to be said about the gendering of the diary as ‘genre’ (genre in the sense of form but also content, i.e. philosophy, everyday life, adventure, young adult etc).
…Admittedly some people live more than others. The excitement curve of a telephone operator, white-haired, lumpy as a pallid pudding with knots of blue arthritic veins for raisins, would no doubt be shallow = a slow undulation with a monotonous mechanical basis, heightened by a slight bump for a movie or dinner with the “girls.” But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in colour, rather than black-and-white, or more grey? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully
(Plath 2011: 44).
As Sylvia Plath muses in her diary entry above, everyone has different ways of living, and in a sense, some people ‘live more than others’. Why do we (as the consumers, the reading public — to use a rather gross term) lust after the details of famous people’s lives, while leaving the case of ‘people like us’ to the ethnographers, to the experimental sociology of the Mass Observation project? Perhaps it is because of the magical realisation that such extraordinary people actually led ordinary lives: Virginia Woolf cooking her dinner, Sylvia Plath enjoying a couple of sherries before bed, Beyoncé perhaps clipping her toenails and settling down to an evening with Big Brother (okay, that last one is clearly fantasy – Beyoncé surely wouldn’t clip her own toenails?!). While Plath makes the point that some people have more colourful lives than others, she also usefully foregrounds the role of the diary as a way of rendering one’s life as more exotic, regardless of how famous or exciting one is. Plath refreshingly admits to ‘try[ing] to be more like them […] and try to live most fully’. Maybe there is a sense in which the impulse to record the daily occurrences of your life encourages you to live more fully, to embrace the moment, to linger over the good things and make their significance more concrete in writing, to start weaving a web of associations that will linger on in memory and perhaps provide the treasure of discovery for a future reader…
And even if nobody ever reads your diary, I still think it’s a useful form of self-expression. I’m pretty sure it’s done wonders for my own mental health, and also it means that nobody has to listen to me bang on about my problems for too long, because I’ve already sorted them out in writing, stashed them away at the back of a drawer. Decanted them, like Krapp, if only temporarily (the written has a habit of breaking out into the real, as anyone who has read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart will attest). Anyway, sometimes it’s fun to have a casual flick through old diary entries. While it generally feels self-indulgent, there’s a certain pleasure in being reminded of wee embarrassing and maybe endearing details of your old life that you’d have totally forgotten otherwise. Like celebrating sixth year exam results with ‘Pimms in the West Kirk’ (Ayr’s finest…), like writing a poem called ‘The Sirens of Ibiza’, like having a weird addiction to sweet’n’salt popcorn, star jumps and Downtown Abbey, like ‘feeling nostalgic for Comic Sans’. Like the morsels of venom or wit I must’ve mustered in the flush of the moment, describing the ‘wankery South London yuppies who didn’t tip’ ; the silly wee quirky conversations you had with people: ‘I stopped at the bridge to gaze at the near-full moon and told Douglas it made me feel primal somehow so he told me when he was twelve he used to have a Ghostbusters calendar which told him to go outside and howl at the moon. I just adore Douglas’. It’s an opportunity to revisit your first impressions of people (who later become friends or enemies), albums, poems, novels, political events (the 2015 election and 2014 election gaining a particular amount of page coverage–Brexit being too depressing to even write about), travesties and celebrations. Sometimes, my diary makes absolutely no sense to me, often because I neglect the provision of context— ‘At the Burns party upstairs, I talked to people about brewing magic crystal meth, learning Japanese, and postcolonialism, among other things’—but I think I’m comfortable with the mystery. I like that there’s a part of myself that I might never know again; it’s like the relieving of some burden. Maybe that’s the beauty of the diary in general: its sense of controlling one’s life but also its possibility of escapism, paradoxically, through reality.
A Select Bibliography
Baudrillard, Jean, 1990. On Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer,(Montréal: New World Perspectives).
Bergson, Henri, 2013. ‘From Creative Evolution’, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), pp. 68-72.
Blanchot, Maurice, 1982. The Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press).
Blanchot, Maurice, 1987. ‘Everyday Speech, Yale French Studies, Vol. 73, pp. 12-20.
Cixous, Hélène and Jacques Derrida, Veils, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).