John Warner: The Funny Man

Reviewed by Declan Tan

The Funny Man

John Warner’s debut novel, about the rise and fall of an unnamed American comedian known only as “the funny man”, is a mulchy broth of satire, cultural commentary and La-Z-Boy philosophy that simmers away on lukewarm, only ever threatening to come to the boil, though not without ambition, before bubbling back into quiet soup, despite a satisfying crouton rising to the surface now and again.

By switching between courtroom scenes, where the funny man is on trial for murder, and flashbacks, where we learn of said funny man’s trawl through the dehumanising backstages of ‘the comedy world’, Warner, in his quintessential American voice, attempts to blend one too many disparate elements in fashioning an over-elaborate whole, without quite succeeding.

There are, however, moments of literary revving, a story that builds as shearing layers, but ultimately there is too much slippage, and the story’s foundations turn out to be a little uneven and cracked, perhaps even hurriedly laid.

It sounds simple enough: The funny man is happily married; he and his wife share a wry humour that feels warm and true. They also have a young son, of whom they are most proud. And in his work, the funny man is reasonably successful on the stand-up club circuit. But he wants more and more, to be a world-beater, worshipped as one of the greats (Bruce, Carlin and Pryor, in the funny man’s opinion).

After a gig he meets a talent agent who tells him he needs a “gimmick”, a thing recognisably his, to take him to the next level. His son unwittingly provides this gimmick – a most moronic one – yet the funny man becomes a runaway success, earning millions with his act. He is roped into making studio movies, then a sequel, all while having to do “the thing” that of course he comes to hate. Meanwhile, he becomes unassailably detached from reality. When his celebrity reaches unmanageable levels he begins to rely heavily on medication, which in turn leads to the breakdown of his marriage, an incident with his son that is hugely played up (but sags when revealed), and eventually, a secretive long-distance relationship with a female tennis star.

Warner provides some readable if often familiar asides throughout these aspects of the plot; on what happens away from camera; the anatomy of a cynically made Hollywood comedy; and the demands made on a touring comedian. His commentary sends up both the executives that fund the big-budget idiocy, and those people who pay to watch it. Though his message is often delivered with an over-inflated belief in the veracity and humour of his words, it does flow quite smoothly on the whole.

But too often it seems routes that could have been taken, to explore more dangerous or original ideas, were instead avoided. The novel reverts to platitudes (1. Be careful what you wish for, 2. Fame ain’t all that), along with the employ of some dry narrative devices (1. The unreliable narrator, 2. Observational stand-up bits disguised as conversation) which occasionally grind to a halt the reader’s enjoyment.

The social media aspect of the trial for example, is played for a couple of laughs. A theory from his lawyer, Barry, about “not guilty by reason of celebrity” is toyed with. Then there is the other musing, also from Barry, on there being no such thing as ‘emergencies’, only ‘eventualities’, and how the funny man believes this theory to “reconcile both free will and predestination” (an idea perhaps inspired by the later works of St. Augustine). Is it the occasionally patronising tone of some of its delivery that makes it unconvincing? Perhaps, because there is something that dims the message. Making it all sound a little beige. Like a book review based on ill-conceived soup and construction similes. Which brings us back to those courtroom scenes, unfortunately reading like those parts of a novel where one plot strain is indeed a strain to get through. Whole passages you want to skip over to get to the riper elements of the plot.

The second half further mixes in the possibility of the funny man’s delusions, taking the form of a classic reality/fantasy conundrum, as he is mysteriously blinked away to a celebrity retreat (or “advance”, as it is explained); a place recalling Patrick McGoohan’s surreal 1960s TV series The Prisoner, crossed with the titular utopia from Huxley’s parting gift, Island. There the funny man meets the love of his “second life,” Bunny, the tennis star, with Warner attempting to leave some mystery as to the fate of his protagonist.

Yet what Warner really is good at, turns out to be played down. The relationships and interactions between the husband and wife, and their child, are touching, full of feeling and honesty, transcribed as if straight from real-life. But the novel’s efforts to instead excoriate the minor components of a rotten corporate system, rather than explore the possible source of American society’s slide toward post-cultural obsessing, is a choice that eclipses the inherent humanity of this everyman journey.

Warner’s point seems to be that this fame thing happens to once-grounded individuals, but the impact of that message fizzles when the wayward nature of its plot must be elucidated. While doing little to explore the true cause of that delusional state of mind.

This is only Warner’s first novel-length fiction, and a misfiring run-out first time round is by no means disaster (look at HST’s The Rum Diary). There is space to develop, and potential to fulfil, demonstrated fully in this story’s ability to have you hooked, at times, be it not even necessarily the ‘style’ that does it.

And if there is a kind of moral here, in this more nibbling than biting satire, then at least efforts have been made to avoid it becoming a preachy one, which is admirable. (But now I’m the one being condescending.) Nevertheless I’ll still be trying out Warner’s follow-up. There are just enough tasty croutons here to warrant that.

PK: BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images from the Internet

Reviewed by Sourav Roy

BibliOdysseyHow does one review a book like BibliOdyssey? This is not just a rhetorical question to open a book review, but also a genuine query. Because though BibliOdyssey feels like a book and looks like a (very handsome) book, is anything but.

It started its journey as bibliodyssey.blogspot.com/ a cabinet of curiosities of visual Materia Obscura, collected and curated from the depths of public internet archives, by PK from Sydney. When reborn in a book form, it retains most of the serendipity and adventure of its original form. The glorious randomness, the free association of thoughts, genres and timelines and above all the obsessive-compulsive joy of hopping from one breathtaking visual to the next. For all practical purposes, it’s hardbound internet with a gilded cover.

The kind of entity we all hoped internet would be when it grew up. A boundless sea of beauty, wisdom and surprises, where all you need to set sail is a blue boat of hyperlink.

The review tries to mirror that experience. Picking ten random pages from the book, I have paired them with ten random bookmarks from my personal collection. The only connection between them: those pages prompted me to look up these links, afresh. This is kind of coming full circle, as BibliOdyssey too, started its journey as a list of random bookmarks in PK’s computer.

May you bump into more and more wonder as you sail on the blue boat of hyperlink.

Bon Voyage!

[Please note: all images are hyperlinked to their sources. Happy clicking!]

 

Page 12: A Flying Ship and Alice’s Flight of Fancy

Flying Dutchman
Flying Dutchman, © Sergey Tyukanov, 2000

Formally trained as a graphic artist in the far east of Russia, Sergey Tyukanov combines elements of myth, folklore and fantasy in his unique etchings and paintings.

Tyukanov is an artist fixated, among other things, on Alice in Wonderland. And who can blame him? Even Salvador Dalí could not resist the siren call of it. Here is an excellent hyperlink about a rare edition with original illustrations by Salvador Dalí.

 

Page 72: Victorian Music Sheet Covers and a Parisian Love Story

Matrimonial Galop and Tabby Polka
Matrimonial Galop, 1860s, and Tabby Polka, 1880, Spellman Collection, Reading University Library

Music sheet covers were big business in the 19th century. Changes in technology and social habits fuelled demand for illustrated sheet music, particularly among the Victorian middle class. Innovations in piano design meant that by the middle of the century, upright pianos became a focus of family entertainment in many homes, in a similar manner to the television set in the 20th century. At the same time, people were attending more choral society performances and public concerts, and informal pub sing-songs were giving way to dedicated singing saloons. There was a growth in purpose built venues – music halls – that greatly contributed to the appeal of certain songs and artists. People clamoured for the music sheets so they could hear the popular music of the day in their own homes. The development of the lithographic printing technique, in which images were drawn with greasy crayons onto lime stones, made reproducing vivid colour illustrations easier and cheaper. Subject matter for the covers ranged from the nationalistic and political to absurd and humorous. Satires and comical images were especially prevalent as a reflection of the often light hearted nature of the music hall songs.

This page made me think about the circular nature of things, i.e. music album covers being a modern day avatar of music sheet covers. It eventually brought me to book cover art. This hyperlink celebrates first edition book covers in the famed antiquarian books section of Shakespeare and Company, Paris, via a love story between a skeleton and a vampire victim. Directed by Spike Jonze, stunningly felt-animated by Olympia Le-Tan.

 

Page 86: Sleepwalking into a Orwellian Nightmare a.k.a. Robida’s Future

Albert Robida
La Guerre au Vingtième Siècle, 1887, La Vingtième Siècle, 1883, Albert Robida, The Robida Association For The Future

French illustrator, Albert Robida, combined humour with an undercurrent of foreboding, in a trilogy of prescient futuristic books published in the last two decades of the 19th Century. He anticipated social advancements in the status of women, public transport and the quality of prisons; alongside improved mass killing machines, a polluted atmosphere and environmental destruction. His books were populated with imagined technologies and gadgetry – including installations of ‘television’ and ‘videoconferencing’ – but he seemed to suggest in his writing that there was no real progress ahead in the quality of life for the people. instead, there would be a continual need to adapt to a perpetual onslaught of unnecessary new devices. Robida’s ambiguous portrayal of a dystopian utopia suggests that he can be cast as either a luddite or a technophile, depending upon your point of view.

[The third book in the series was called La Vie Électrique (Electric Life) from 1892].

Robida’s predictions for a technological dystopia made my mind wander and latch onto this reader’s comment on a Guardian article about the future of books. While I am all for e-books, this comment makes my mind break into a cold sweat. May it never come true.

 

Page 94: Pre-History of Surrealism vs. the Future of High Art

Giovanni Battista Braccelli
Bizzarie di Varie Figure, Giovanni Battista Braccelli, 1624, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library Of Congress

Giovanni Battista Braccelli was an obscure Florentine artist who produced an enigmatic series of nearly fifty etchings for his 1624 suite, Bizzarie di Varie Figure. The paired acrobatic characters appear through the book to be fashioned out of random household and mechanical bric-a-brac such as plates, screws, rags, geometric shapes and even tennis rackets. Although associated with the tradition of mannerist grotesques, Braccelli’s playfully stylised figures were true originals. They are more closely connected to the cubist and surrealist movements of the 20th century than with any contemporary influences, except perhaps as parody. The capricious forms resist a single, or even necessarily, a simple interpretation. As human simulacra, they evoke a correspondence with puppetry, dance and pantomime scenes, and they have even been touted as precursors to man-as-a-machine cybernetic culture of more recent times. For whatever reasons after it was published, Bizzarie di Varie Figure drifted into a mysterious stream of esoterica known only to a select minority of artists and bibliophiles (Horace Walpole noted in his copy in the 1700s that the author had a ‘wild imagination’) and wasn’t rediscovered and republished for a wider audience until the mid-20th century. Consequently, there are less than ten original copies known to exist and only two of them are complete.

Is there a genome embedded into each piece of art that helps the eye map a connection between two pieces of art even if they are generations apart and look nothing like each other? If Braccelli can be related Picasso and Dalí, there are definitely more genome strands to be unfurled. art.sy is doing exactly that. It might change the business of art forever.

 

Page 109: When Maps are Not Just Maps

William Harvey (Aleph)
Geographical Fun, William Harvey (Aleph), 1869, The Map House Of London

The story goes that the brother of a certain fourteen-year-old girl was sick in bed and needed cheering up. The enterprising girl found an image of Punch (from Punch & Judy) riding a dolphin which she transformed into a comical map of England. This became the inspiration for her series of a dozen maps of European countries made out of stereotype caricatures and published in 1869, along with a short descriptive verse for each picture by the author, Aleph. In the introduction, Aleph tells of his hope that the amusing drawings will encourage young people to be interested in geography. Whether or not a fourteen-year-old girl was capable of developing all the sophisticated political and caricatural nuances portrayed is perhaps a moot point. Aleph was later revealed as the pseudonym of the journalist, William Harvey. Russia is formed by Tsar Alexander II standing back-to-back with a brown bear; Scotland is formed by the kilt-clad piper ‘struggling through the bogs’; and mainland Italy is represented by the revolutionary patriot, Giuseppe garibaldi, waving the flag and wearing the Cap of Liberty, while standing tall over the diminutive opponent of Italian unification, Pope Pius IX, as Sardinia.

Compared to the maps above these maps are science fiction. They track the tourist traffic in the whole world via geotagging the holiday photos on the net and colour codes it to help you travel off the beaten path. But both do the same thing actually , that is add a lot of fun into the drab life of maps.

 

Page 110: Elephants of Alphabets, Horses of Nudes

Kufic Script Animals
Kufic Script Animals, anonymous, 19th century, Professor Frances Pritchett, Columbia University

Arabic scripts have an intrinsic flexibility making them perfect vectors for a diverse range of calligraphic expression. Their curvilinear nature and and malleability inspired radical experimentation throughout history, but it wasn’t until about the 15th century, when the restrictions on religious iconography were loosened, the artists in Iran began to conjure shapes such as birds and animals from the script. The figural or zoomorphic calligraphy has traditionally incorporated text from the Koran. In the process of artistic abstraction of the letters into visual word forms, new layers of nuanced meaning may develop, where knowledge of the language is undoubtedly required for a complete understanding. The lion, bird and elephant images here are thought to be from a Kufic script from the 19th century.

Muslim script animals apparently are neighbours of Hindu animals made up of nudes (point 2, nari ashva). Why else would they share adjacent alcoves in my mind? Though they have completely different spiritual interpretations, we should love all the animals equally, irrespective of their religion.

 

Page 120: Napoleon, the king of cliches

Napoleon
Blicke in die Vergangenheit und Zukunft (Views of the Past and Future) and Das ist mein lieber Sohn, an dem ich Wohlgefallen habe (Thou Art My Beloved Son, In Whom I Am Well Pleased), anonymous, 1814, Division Of Rare And Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

At the beginning of the 19th century, a unique array of political and artistic circumstances conspired to produce one of history’s great targets for the caricaturist’s pen in the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although subversive cartoons were hardly a new phenomenon, the military campaigns threatening Europe and the Middle East, combined with the megalomaniac and self-promotional tendencies of the great man himself and the widespread belief that an invasion of England was imminent, fuelled an industry of satirical illustrators led by James Gilray. English anti-Napoleonic caricatures in prints, newspapers and handbills were very efficient in arousing national patriotism, and the thematic and stylistic elements significantly influences the popular illustrative response in Europe. The rare German prints seen here date from the year prior to Napoleon’s eventual defeat at Waterloo. They are fairly vicious in their symbolism, casting Napoleon as the devil’s spawn and suggesting a legacy built on the deaths of his victims.

From Napoleon caricature to a Napoleon painting is not a big leap. But it brought back all the memories when I was standing in front of this painting in the Louvre and the excellent guide was doing a vivid art historical sketch about how the king was a royal arsehole and the painter was no better, despite being magnificent at their respective jobs.

 

Page 122: Reading with Taccola and Eating with Vinci

Mariano Taccola
De Ingeneis, Mariano Taccola, 1449, Kinematic Models For Design Digital Library, Cornell University

Mariano Taccola was known as the Archimedes of Siena and produced some of the earliest examples of the new illustrated style of engineering and machine manuals, that came into vogue during the Renaissance. Taccola’s training as a sculptor honed his drafting skills, and the social realities of Siena – lacking a stable water supply and being in a semi-permanent state of war – provided the technological subject matter for his imagination. The sketch book images here are details from De Ingeneis (The Engines), and Taccola was not averse to including whimsical drawings alongside the more serious creations. He has been variously credited with inventing pumps, bridge building and transmission systems, underwater breathing devices, water and windmill axle mechanisms and less likely, the trebuchet and catapult. Despite any difficulties we have now in attempting to identify specific inventions by Taccola, his manuals are important for their documentation of the innovative excellence of the Sienese engineers of the time period. Leonardo da Vici was known to have viewed some of Taccola’s manuscript work prior to sketching his own series of machine technology masterpieces.

A foiled plan to visit Vinci, Leonardo’s village of birth, while I was in Tuscany is what is behind this bookmark. If you are ever there, don’t forget to dine well. I will be sighing over here.

 

Page 143: The Cat Out of the Bag and into the Rain Cloud

The Comic History of Rome
The Comic History of Rome, John Leech, 1852, Poaner Memorial Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Library Special Collections

Many ancient history students will be familiar with the parade of visual gags displayed in the 1852 classic, The Comic History of Rome. This was the second collaboration by two members of staff at the humorous Punch magazine: Gilbert a Beckett and John Leech. Their first outing had similarly combined fact and satire in retelling the history of England. Beckett openly pitched the texts at people ‘willing to acquire information [and] in doing so as much amusement as possible’. Leech was very much a contemporary of George Cruikshank, and another inheritor of the caricaturist mantle from the school of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray. His illustrative output for magazines and books (including Dickens) tended to be a little less severe and sarcastic than the work of his predecessors. The image here of Fulvia, the Roman political operative and third wife of mark Antony, is one of a large number of amusing intertextual details dotted throughout the book.

It’s one thing making up fake histories behind proverbs and it’s quite another to actually believe in them. Snopes shreds these urban hoaxes to pieces.

 

Page 156: Of Ghost Tracks and Bird Clouds

Thought-Forms
Thought-Forms: Mendelssohn and Gunod, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, 1901, The Culture Archive

Annie Besant was a prominent advocate in Britain for social reform and the advancement of women. Her intellectual development took her from Anglicanism to workers rights and strike organisation, through Fabianism and socialist politics, to birth control promotion, secularism, theosophy and home rule campaigning in India. She was a friend to the likes of Shaw, Krishnamurti and Gandhi and became both president of the Theosophy Society and the Indian National Congress Party.

Her theosophical beliefs were influenced by a meeting with Madame Blavatsky and the present work – Thought-Forms – was an attempt to depict ‘the forms clothed in living lights of other worlds’ and “changes of colours in the cloud-like ovoid, or aura, that encompasses all living beings”.

The thought-forms reminded me of many paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró but this one by Lyonel Feininger is, dare I say, spiritually the closest? They would have liked each others company too, I guess. Or not.

Judy Collins: Sweet Judy Blue Eyes

Reviewed by Robert O’Connor

Judy CollinsLife Magazine called Judy Collins the “gentle voice amid the strife” when it put her on its cover in 1969. The next year, her sublime voice brought the 18th-century hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ to the top of the pop charts.

I first remember hearing Judy’s voice in 2004, when Bill Moyers did a piece on her for his show Now with Bill Moyers. Bill had become friends with her after she participated in a documentary he did for PBS about the hymn. She sang it in St. Paul’s chapel at Columbia University, where she had recorded the chart-topping rendition.

Many people miss the darker meaning of the words of ‘Amazing Grace’, and its suggestions of complete hopelessness and ultimate salvation. Judy Collins has had an extraordinary life, with many tragic turns – the many tragedies she’s had amid her gentle voice. And she’s detailed them, along with many of the better times, in her new memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.

The title is a play on the song her then-boyfriend Stephen Stills wrote about her. They dated in the thick of the strife, in 1968-69. It’s there where the book begins, and while the book covers Judy’s entire life, most of it goes from roughly 1955, when she discovered folk music, to 1978, when she got sober.

Up until 1955, she was a pianist (there’s a picture of her playing a duet with George Shearing), but drifted towards folk music largely thanks to T.D. Lingo. Lingo was a radio host in Denver who was friends with Judy’s father (who was also a radio host). He had a mountaintop ranch where he and a group of friends would gather and play folk music. Judy would meet her first husband, Peter Taylor, at his ranch.

Judy began her folk music career in Denver’s folk clubs in the late 1950s. She was the star of the Exodus club in Denver, the main folk music hangout when she was signed to Elektra records and brought to Greenwich Village. One night at Gerde’s Folk City, where she was a regular, a young man came up to her and told her he liked her set. She described him as having hair that was “unkempt, but soft like a child,” and his face as “full of contradiction, a combination of innocence and arrogance.” The man’s name was Bob Dylan. She introduced herself and he gave her a look like they had met before. She didn’t know it, but while playing at the Exodus, Bob had sat in on her playing.

Judy has similar poetic descriptions of others she’s met along the way, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Suze Rotolo, Odetta, Leonard Cohen, Pete Ochs and many others. She tells the story of her appearance as a defence witness in the ‘Chicago Seven’ trial. She began singing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ and one of the guards put his hand over her mouth, while the judge told her he didn’t allow singing in the courtroom.

Judy has written before about her struggles with alcoholism. It got worse through the 70s before she hit bottom in 1978 and went to rehab. She had tried other forms of treatment earlier – naming the psychiatrists who didn’t help her. Judy says that she was drinking almost nonstop by 1977 and it was affecting her voice. She had surgery on her vocal chords a few days after her guest appearance on The Muppet Show and she notes that her alcoholism almost kept her from performing with Snuffleuppagus – she’s appeared on Sesame Street a few times over the years, most notably with Snuffy performing the alphabet.

Collins also has more words about her son Clark, who also came down with alcoholism. Clark went to the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota for treatment, recovered and relocated to St. Paul. But in 1992 he relapsed and committed suicide. Her last book, Sanity and Grace is about her grief and recovery from that, along with her memories of Clark.

The cover photo is similar to the cover of her 1975 album Judith. Judy looks off in the distance with the bright blue eyes that Stephen Stills had written about. Judith came out as she was nearing the bottom, and she has a slight frown.

On the book, she has a wistful smile.

James Sallis: Drive

Reviewed by Declan Tan

James Sallis DriveIf Camus had been at all interested in the crime or noir genre, then you could imagine he might produce something vaguely comparable to James Sallis’ novel Drive. Trotting in at a similar duration to Camus’ classic The Fall, Sallis also plays with the unfolding napkin of time in this narrative, in what he might be hinting is the only time-signature we’ve come to understand, that of film – intercuts and reversals, flashbacks and action sequences. Cinematic, in a word, which seems understandable that it was made into “a major motion picture”, as my copy reminds (yes, I’m five years too late). But that word ‘cinematic’ wouldn’t really give enough of what is due when considering Sallis’ steady metronomic delivery. He is far less erratic than a camera-toting Hollywood director, or his subsequent intercut-loving editor.

The story follows a character known only as Driver. Driver works in the movies. He also works on the occasional heist or robbery, for all of which, it is made clear, he wants only to do that one thing that he is known for. We learn that following some severe familial disturbances, young Driver’s mother has been institutionalised. Then as a teenager, he goes out on his own, leaving his foster parents’ home, taking their car, moving to Los Angeles to find work. The plot opens in medias res, blood running on a bathroom floor, before weaving back and forth through the young man’s troublesome upbringing in Phoenix, then onto his successes amongst the movie crews, and his neighbourly relationship with a Latina and her four year old son, at a point in his life when he does the closest thing to ‘settle’ that he can manage.

In the movies, the stuntman is a stand-in for the actor and the actor is a stand-in for the person. Who the person is a stand-in for seems to be a question unanswerable but posed in Sallis’ Drive (the tenth of his thirteen books), the narrative can be read straight or taken as a mini-handbook for modern alienation. This double-removal from filmed reality, a removal in itself, is the ghostlike angle that Sallis works from when he assembles the body parts of his character, Driver. A kind of fleshy ghost haunting the LA landscape, he can only been seen by a few people. That word that has been attached to his work, “existential”, chimes on every page, possibly for good reason. There seems a kind of two-lane flow of traffic where the prose can be read either quickly as an entertainment or, if it is to be taken more seriously, as a darkly philosophical tract. Then the action takes on a meditative slant, the story of a man chased by time. We’re given a neo-Western gunslinger, just one that never uses a gun. Instead he’s reworked into a driver, a slick operative of that other of man’s modern machines.

Driver does not think, only acts. Always taciturn, he is attempting to reach the state of ‘grace’ where thought or meditation is transcended. In between he drinks, makes deals with presumptuous men, pays them back.

There is that feeling that Driver’s story is fabricating unplanned as it hums along. Intentional or not, this method does give the text a kind of wandering, unpredictable quality that is both intriguing and admirable. The form functions well with his theme; Sallis has a style akin to that of a Cormac McCarthy, or a printed-word Coen Brothers production; the familiar voice of a wizened cowboy sipping bourbon in the darkest recess of a grotty, empty saloon, whispering old-timer wisdom about the nature of existence, the slew of time. But Sallis writes as if in slow bursts of energy, with a feel for narrative and rhythm that stays fresh by returns, intervals and intersections.

And setting much of this in Hollywood, a place Sallis seems to agree is as vacant and empty, even nihilistic, as its fame-hunting inhabitants, a city of life-substitutes, full of avaricious death-ready hollow men, is no mistake. His hero too is suited to the wide-open highways of Los Angeles, the reliability of the streetlights leading irreversibly to an eventide of gunshots, throat-slices and getaways. The sheen that Sallis gives to his world’s reality wraps like aluminium foil over his prose. There seems to be an idea in his head that has formulated into the novel. What the message is, is hidden, but a story emerges.

Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two of them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.”

His Driver is involved and not involved in life, there and not there. And the sudden violence of Driver’s actions when they happen, often shocking in retrospect, read as if they are not happening at all, or happening too quickly to mean anything in the ‘grand scheme of things’. A blip. Everything is written in unceremonious and unrelenting measures, where one note is equally as important as another. Driver, like Sallis’ other creation, Lew Griffin, creates himself from nothing. He is meticulous and careful. Assembling his life as if assembling a gun. And when the violence is done with, the lessons follow:

Maybe he should turn around. Go back and tell them that’s what life was, a long series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.

Hell with it. Either they’d figure it out or they wouldn’t. Most people never did.”

One short chapter after another, Sallis delivers the occasional asides on the Hollywood system, its producers, writers, and stars, with a cast of recidivist poor people that are the only real ones worth saving. No, it’s not revolutionary, but it is entertaining:

TV’d been turned on but blessedly you couldn’t hear it. Some brainless comedy where actors with perfect white teeth spoke their lines then froze in place to let the laugh track unwind.”

Drive reads as if it was a bit of fast fun in between other projects. Which makes it all the more impressive. This is genre-fiction elevated somewhat by a writer who is clearly familiar with the genre that he is subverting. Sallis doesn’t believe in the long manipulation to wrench out a little emotion from his characters. He achieves it quite smoothly without really showing you how. He dashes off a backstory of a character, and his future, in a single breath. Sallis doesn’t try to con you into believing there is more depth than there is. He lets you decide. And he’ll let you decide again when the sequel, Driven, arrives in 2012.

Roger Ebert: Life Itself: A Memoir

Reviewed by Robert O’Connor

Roger Ebert Life Itself“I was born inside the movie of my life.” That sentence starts off Roger Ebert’s new memoir, Life Itself. The first chapter, ‘Memory’ – which is numbered zero in the table of contents – shows the great arc of his life from the beginning to now. It touches on the essential moments, the essential people, and demonstrates why writing a memoir now at the age of 69 is just the right time. The life Ebert ends up describing, most of it spent as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, is an extraordinary one, and what makes the memoir so much fun is that it seems like Ebert is just as astounded by it as any chronicler of it would be.

Ebert was an alcoholic when he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first film critic to win it. He has lived the last five years with just as much vigor and worked with the same enormous industry as before, despite being unable to speak, eat or drink and thanks to corrective surgery, it is painful for him to stand and hard to walk. And after starting his blog, his voice has been even more powerful. Any of these things could easily make a somber, melancholic memoir just by themselves, but Ebert tells his life story – all those things and more – with no cynicism or anger.

Chicago magazine had a long piece on Ebert several years ago that pointed out that he had lived an extraordinary life without making enemies. One of the most moving chapters in the book is about his rival, who eventually became his great friend, Gene Siskel. Siskel was the film critic at the Chicago Tribune, and was given the job to rival Ebert. They were fiercely competitive with each other and when WTTW wanted them to host a show about the movies, neither of them wanted to do it. The show made them famous, in part because in almost every respect they were the opposite of the other. When Siskel died in 1999, Ebert dedicated a show to him, sitting in his usual spot, while Siskel’s seat stayed empty. In a recent profile by CBS Sunday Morning, Ebert said that he “misses [Siskel] terribly every day.”

Much of the book is pulled from the most personal writing that’s appeared on Ebert’s blog, with some editing. There’s a chapter on the Eyrie Mansion, where he stayed while in London that first appeared in 2010 when it was torn down. His chapter on Russ Meyer includes the tale of Who Killed Bambi, the never-made film that would’ve starred the Sex Pistols. He had posted his original script and retold the story when Malcolm McLaren passed away. His stories about O’Rourke’s, where he would go every night after work when he drank, read poetry, sang songs and interviewed movie stars also first appeared on his blog. Some of the people he interviewed there like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum get their own chapters.

This isn’t a criticism. After all, the best stories are told many times.

Before the surgeries that took his voice, Ebert produced a stunning amount of work: six movie reviews a week for the Sun-Times, a weekly TV show, a Great Movies column and an Answer Man column, to say nothing of the features, interviews and opinion pieces he would do for the Sun-Times and various other places. He still does all of them, albeit he produces the show instead of co-hosts. I’m convinced he’s possessed by the same demon that Studs Terkel said possessed Mike Royko that made him write so much. Those two great Chicagoans get tributes and memories in the book.

The most moving stories he tells are the ones Ebert leaves until last. His memories of Gene Siskel at the end and his tribute to Studs Terkel. He also has a loving tribute to his wife, Chaz, who has saved him from living out the rest of his life alone. He closes with a chapter on his beliefs about religion and another about death. His religion is what Richard Dawkins would call “Einsteinian,” in that the experience of the universe, from the grandness of it to the smallest of intricacies gives him the ecstasy others find in a personal God. And death – which he’s already stared in the face – is nothing to fear.

Publishing details for Roger Ebert’s Life Itself at Grand Central Publishing

Future Media: edited by Rick Wilber

Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith

Future Media

Norman Mailer hated television. He distrusted email. He even hated plastic. Marshall McLuhan was probably right, to some extent, to suggest that Mailer had a Victorian attitude towards technology. Other critics, past and present, will probably find sympathy with Mailer’s assertion that man’s relationship with technology is some kind of Faustian pact. You can watch them arguing about it all – two minds running on autopilot, having two different conversations – online after reading this article, on a web-based magazine, of a book I read as a PDF. Chances are, Mailer would hate all of this too, and we can probably guess his reaction to his books being available on Kindle. But chance, guesses and that repeated ‘probably’ are the key to the (e-)book under review; as Future Media is a collection of sci-fi fiction and non-fiction all concerned with the effects of media on its users and its ultimate potentialities – and is, thus, a collection more in the school of future, rather than media, studies.

There are several problems with this; predicting the future might be ‘fun’ but those predictions are very often wrong. Think of Herman Kahn and nuclear disasters or think, more pertinently, of McLuhan’s theory that technology would ultimately cause man to – somehow – revert back into a form of tribalism. As a lay reader of media studies, it’s hard to see how this relates to his other famous theory of the ‘Global Village’. Future Media is book-ended, appropriately enough given his lasting influence on media studies, by McLuhan’s work, but this is not enough to give a clear picture of what McLuhan was actually getting at. Often misunderstood even when read at length, in such small doses as this his work simply leaves you wondering whether either you’re to dumb to grasp the ideas or if he was a mere peddler of jargon.

This raises a question about Future Media itself: who is the book for? There’s no general audience for a collection of, on the one hand, science fiction – Huxley and Bradbury are here – and, on the other, non-fiction about media. However, if it’s for media studies students, and I have no idea how those departments are run, are they permitted to quote sci-fi stories in essays?

A collection like Future Media is the book equivalent of a search engine: chapters culled from their original body to prove/illustrate a point instead of immersing yourself in the original work – much like looking for information online. Information overload and the disposability of this information are just two consequences of the pact with technology – as Norman Mailer (again) said, “if you want to learn something, get thee to a book”. Yet the benefits of technology are so apparent that need not be mentioned here. Mailer’s point, however, is discussed in Future Media by Nicolas Carr in ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ This is one of the standout (non-fiction) pieces and describes the “chipping away [of] my capacity for concentration and contemplation” – something which most people will surely be able to relate to. Who isn’t a wizard when it comes to collecting snippets of information on anything from here and there and piecing them all together to suit our purpose, rather than spending valuable time reading a book? Carr informs us that this is known as “power browsing” and is fast becoming the dominant way in which users access information. He also highlights that due to this rapid information gathering – which includes text messages, emails, etc. – we are all probably reading more than ever before in history.

This is, of course, a different type of reading. The Kindle was mentioned earlier and indeed it, and any other ‘reading device’, is a more superficial form of reading. It may be convenient to have hundreds of books on one device but once you’ve got your free complete Shakespeare downloaded next to your other holiday-reads, will you ever look at them? Harold Bloom, the great literary critic, called digital books the “death of education” and in an age when reading is more and more superseded by television, video games and the internet, digitalisation will make books even more disposable – just as the MP3 killed the album.

Future Media has a lot of interesting work in it but probably – dare I say? – nothing you couldn’t find with a search engine, if you were interested. The ultimate trouble with futurology, besides the low success-rate, is that most of the things predicted are never as wondrous, elegant, or, even, horrific as the ultimate product. Consider the future idylls conjured up by the sixties; jet packs, flying cars, homicidal robots, computers bigger than the underwater houses they serve? You can keep them. I’ll stick with my iPhone.

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Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer take on the future

Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett: Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Five Wounds

Not every book looks and feels like an artefact when you pick it up. Oftentimes it is just words printed across cheap paper, the literal form of it separated from its content, cased in a merely functional cover with some gluey binding. But with Five Wounds, an “illuminated novel”, the very object itself is part of its mythology and there is a sense of something big, something heavy within it, if you have the time.

It is not very often that a review of a book demands also a review of its physical presence. Crossing genre and classifications, both narratively and visually, and switching tone between allegory and playfulness, the book is clearly a labour of love for its writer, Jonathan Walker, and its illustrator, Dan Hallett, in what is the pair’s second collaboration. It is undeniably a sublime thing to behold. The first time you pick it up and turn it over in your hands is, as Walker and Hallett have intended, like reading the first lines of its mystic story. An impressive hardback almost biblical in feel, its appearance matches, too, its biblical layout of chapters and verses.

The story follows the escapades of five fairytale characters inhabiting a composite Venice made of historical and modern snatches of the city, strikingly illustrated by Hallett based on, among other things, Goya’s etchings. The designs are impressive and densely detailed throughout, with a glossy series of 18 plates in the centre pages occasionally referred to in the text. We are first introduced to Cur, a beast-like man and leader of a pack of dogs, being photographed by Magpie, a thief and daguerrotypist. An interweaving, lattice of a story emerges which involves a devious ‘saviour’, Crow; the hero origins of Cuckoo, a gambling man with a face of wax; as well as a de-winged angel, stolen identities, kidnapping, murder, and some questionable cuisine.

Five Wounds makes the admirable move of not taking itself too seriously, which certainly works in its favour. There is a vein of quaint humour that runs throughout; revisions and asides are scribbled upon the page as if the work was still incomplete; arrows point at things and comment upon them matter-of-factly (“Not a whale”); surreal events transpire through droll, imaginative wording; and it is all set off by a dedication that reads: “To whom it may concern”.

But intermittently there seems inhibited intrigue to a story built as if by Calvino dealing tarot cards at random, that stakes everything on its desire to be deciphered. By so blatantly attempting to lure the reader into interpretation, the result is a story that has a hint of hollowness if insufficient effort is dedicated in reading to create an interpretation. Too often we become aware of Walker’s knowing lack of intention. Events go from one to the other in a sometimes repetitive, staccato rhythm reminiscent of faux parables and, though it reads like a writer having fun, it occasionally ends up giving the story an odd dashed-off feel that is incongruous with the meticulous nature of the book as an artefact. The book is now leering at me accusingly, for being too lazy.

Of course, all of this could work in the book’s favour, to add to its ‘world-building’ design. We know that the story has the purpose of creating multiple meanings, and its style possibly works as a part of that. But as a storytelling experience, something seems missing. This illusiveness makes the story of Five Wounds somehow less exciting to read, somehow less absorbing, as we are too aware of the writer’s and the reader’s roles though perhaps this method, in theory, functions as a comment on the book that it imitates and, conceivably, parodies; the Bible.

But this comes in waves. For the majority of its telling, particularly warming into the second part, the writing alternates between robust allegory and surreal, comical fantasy, with the highlight being Cuckoo’s journey to claim himself a face. His tale is something ghostly, like the daguerrotypes of the long ago buried, with Walker’s words taking on some of the lore the book is torn from, as he deals in his grainy haunted images.

If you have the time to commit to this book, there is surely reward for what you put in. And you know a writer is doing something right when you seek out his previous work, hints of which are revealed in this novel, where the historical accounts are genuinely fascinating and always communicated with gusto. The punk history biography, Pistols! Treason! Murder! also illustrated by Dan Hallett, about the 17th-century Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, was the first part of their developing partnership. It is waiting patiently on the shelf.

Further Resources:

  • The design of Five Wounds at Spike Magazine
  • Jonathan Walker’s incredible Five Wounds website
  • Jonathan Walker’s blog (including a free sample chapter of the book) and further fascinating insights

Kevin Avery: Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life And Writings Of Paul Nelson

Reviewed by Robert O’Connor

Paul Nelson

Frank Zappa once said “most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” However true that might be, Paul Nelson was one who most definitely could write. And he interviewed people who could talk, and plenty of people read what he wrote.

Kevin Avery certainly read what Nelson wrote, and has now written Everything Is An Afterthought (Fantagraphics, who usually publish comics), which is both a biography of Nelson and a collection of his work, including some pieces that have never been published. The book is covered in praise for Nelson, both on the jacket and throughout the book, from other people who read his work and were inspired by it. They’re from the people he wrote about, his friends, colleagues, fans or some combination of the three: Jon Landau, Robert Christgau, Jackson Browne, Greil Marcus, Rod Stewart, Cameron Crowe and Bruce Springsteen are just a few of the people quoted.

Nelson was born and raised in Warren, Minnesota, a town in the northwestern corner of the state with a population of around 2,500. He went to the University of Minnesota where he started The Little Sandy Review with Jon Pankake. It covered folk music, which Jon loved. They reviewed new releases from national folk labels like Folkways and Prestige along with local artists like Tony Glover (who later joined the ‘zine as a contributor), Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray and Bobby Zimmerman.

Nelson’s work caught the eye of Irwin Silber, the editor of the magazine Sing Out! Nelson moved out to New York when he graduated in 1962. He covered the folk scene in Greenwich Village, populated by the same folks he wrote about in Minneapolis, including Zimmerman, who by now was going by the name Bob Dylan. He wrote for Sing Out! until 1965, when he parted ways with them over Dylan going electric at Newport. He was one of Dylan’s few defenders from within the folk community.

Nelson moved to Mercury Records where he worked as an A&R man. His most famous act there was to sign the New York Dolls for their first recording contract. He also released the album 1969: The Velvet Underground, the band’s last album.

He then moved on to Rolling Stone, where he took over the mantle of the reviews editor from Jon Landau. He stayed at the magazine until 1982. For the next 24 years until his death in 2006 he ran a video store, worked on projects and his name hardly appeared in print. One of the few exceptions was a 2000 interview he gave to Steven Ward which starts with the same question that the press release for Avery’s book starts with: ‘What ever happened to Paul Nelson?’

Avery fills in these missing years, describing what Nelson had been up to, much of it pieced together by works collected from Nelson’s apartment after he died. Among the things he worked on were long articles about Clint Eastwood and a biography of Neil Young called Rust Never Sleeps, which he never finished. He co-wrote a book about his good friend Rod Stewart with another good friend, Lester Bangs. He also labored over a screenplay, something he had wanted to do ever since he started his writing career.

In these, Nelson shows himself as a first-rate writer, who didn’t stand at a distance when critiquing artists. All too often he was – or would become – friends with the people he reviewed. They provide intimate portraits of the artists and Nelson shows an immense respect for his subjects. He held an intervention for Warren Zevon, who was suffering from alcoholism, and described the experience in his famous 1981 Rolling Stone Piece ‘How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death.’

Like the best critics, Nelson was primarily a fan of what he wrote about, subjects that struck a chord with him. And here’s a bio and a collection of his work written by a fan of his.

Note: Avery has another book of Nelson’s collected writings that came out around the same time as this one, Conversations with Clint, (published by Continuum) which collects a series of interviews he did in the late 70s early 80s with Clint Eastwood.

Candice Millard: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Reviewed by Greg Houle

President Garfield

Long relegated to history’s vast nether regions of obscurity, the twentieth president of the United States, James A. Garfield is best known for two things: he was the last of the American presidents to be born in a log cabin (in Ohio in 1831), and he was the second American president to be killed by an assassin’s bullet while in office (the first being Abraham Lincoln, sixteen years earlier in 1865).

Candice Millard does her best to lift this once highly regarded, entirely self-made paragon of late-19th-century American politics out of anonymity in her new book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Millard traces Garfield’s rise as a poor yet precocious child whose father died before his second birthday to his reluctant ascension to Republican presidential nominee and victor of the election of 1880.

“I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day,” Garfield said at the time, but in a day when the Republican Party was rife with conflict between the old guard “stalwarts” who believed in the patronage system of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, and reform-minded “half-breeds” who favored a government and civil service based on merit, Garfield did not back down from what he saw as his noble duty for his nation.

Solidly behind the “half-breeds” Garfield appointed his former rival and fellow reformer James Blain as his Secretary of State (after he made Blain promise him that he would never again run for president, a promise that Blain, ultimately, broke) and aimed to take Washington by storm and shake up the stagnant and corrupt political system that had washed over the government of late-nineteenth-century America.

While much of the United States was behind Garfield’s reformist agenda, fate unfortunately was not. Less than four months after he assumed the presidency Garfield was shot, at close range, by the fantastically deranged eccentric Charles Guiteau in a Washington, DC train station. Less than three months later Garfield was dead.

Millard, who expertly sets the stage leading up to Garfield’s assassination on July 2, 1881 by introducing her readers to a cast of vivid characters – from the famed and dogged inventor Alexander Graham Bell, to the flamboyant stalwart Republican senator Roscoe Conklin and his toady Chester Arthur (who also happened to be Garfield’s Vice President thanks to a compromise that the stalwarts and half-breeds entered into at the Republican convention), to Lucretia Garfield, the president’s shy yet keenly intelligent wife who Garfield had grown to adore over the years. Yet none of Millard’s characters are as remarkable as Charles Guiteau.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction and Millard seems to relish her opportunity to write about a subject who, if created for a novel, would seem completely unbelievable. After an odd childhood Guiteau attempted to gain admission to the University of Michigan but when he couldn’t pass the entrance exam he instead joined the Oneida utopian society in upstate New York, famed mostly for its acceptance of free love and the fact that its members included two presidential assassins (the other being Leon Czolgosz who killed President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York in 1901).

Despite its free love mentality, the women of Oneida did not warm to Guiteau (in fact, as Millard notes, they took to calling him Charles “Gitout”) and after five years in utopia he left and later filed a lawsuit against Oneida leader John Noyes. After floating around New York and Chicago, Guiteau, who was an expert at sneaking out of hotels without paying his bill and “borrowing” money from distant relatives who he never intended to repay, somehow obtained a law license and began practicing, first in Chicago and later in New York. Never very successful, he regularly enraged his clients by making nonsensical arguments in court that had little to do with their cases.

After abandoning the law, Guiteau dabbled in theology briefly before finding his true calling around the stalwart Republican fringes. This is where Guiteau is at his most fascinating and where Millard shines at capturing his chilling persona. It was during the 1880 presidential campaign that Guiteau convinced himself (and likely nobody else) that he had helped to elect Garfield president by delivering an uninspiring (and little-heard) pro-Garfield speech one time in New York City. It was also during the campaign that Guiteau struck up a one-sided “friendship” with the vice presidential nominee Chester Arthur and other members of the Republican Party, writing largely unanswered letters to them – including Garfield – that took a familiar tone as if he had been friends with them for years.

Once Garfield was elected, Guiteau was convinced that he would be given the ambassadorship to Vienna as his prize for electing the president (later deciding that he preferred Paris instead). Despite the fact that Guiteau never did anything to legitimately help elect Garfield, and that neither the president nor any member of his inner circle had a clue who Guiteau was, he continued to write chummy letters to Garfield and members of his administration. He even joined the throng of office seekers who flooded the White House (a common practice in the19th-century political landscape) after Garfield took office to make sure that the president was aware of his request.

One day, while visiting the State Department to inquire about when he could finally take up his new post in Paris, Guiteau crossed paths with the new Secretary of State himself. Blain, in no uncertain terms, told Guiteau to get lost and abruptly walked away. Crestfallen yet undeterred, Guiteau decided that he had to warn the new president about his Secretary of State who clearly wasn’t aware of how important Guiteau had been to Garfield. But when his warnings went unanswered, Guiteau concluded that the problem ultimately rested with Garfield himself and, with the full backing of God – whom, by this point, Guiteau believed wanted him to kill Garfield – his task was set.

The assassination itself was a relatively simple task in the days before presidents had a protection detail and walked around openly in public places. Guiteau shot the president in the middle of a crowded train station minutes before Garfield was scheduled to board a train to the seacoast of New Jersey and he was apprehended moments later by police.

But what Guiteau thought was his crowning achievement – indeed the very work of God – was actually just the beginning of the end for Garfield and an American public shocked at the news of their mortally wounded leader. Millard then enters the next phase of this tragedy, describing in vivid detail how Garfield, ever cheerful even while enduring extreme pain and facing death, had his recovery thwarted by the antiquated medical practices of a particularly arrogant physician.

While the assassination of James Garfield has largely been lost to the passage of time, Candice Millard’s page-turning new book has brought it back to life in a remarkable way. Adeptly weaving together the stories of fascinating characters to create movie-like scenery, Millard reintroduces us to this truly American tragedy.

Greg Houle is a freelance writer who lives in New York City. Find out more at www.greghoule.com

Dan Fante: Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Dan Fante

Opening with the familiar visions of snow from the likes of Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Dago Red (‘Bricklayer in the Snow’), Dan Fante kicks off, like Svevo and Arturo of his father’s novels, buried in an image of purest white. But this is a damned and dark tale, swirling in sweat and alcohol, of depression and addiction, with some genuine pain and angst behind it.

And instead of the cold winters of John Fante’s Colorado, we open with Dan’s grandfather, Nicola, struggling to make a living in the Abruzzi mountains where the only way to make it is with one’s hands, mostly laying brick. Nicola’s father escapes to America, where eventually he’s tracked down by his son, discovered in the back of a bar drunk and broke. “Gimme a buck, kid. I need a drink.” These are the first words he hears out of his father’s lips in ten years. So begins a cycle of misery fuelled by alcohol that Nicola Fante visits on his son John, and that John pays forward to his son, Dan, earning the book the subtitle: ‘A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving’.

Dan recounts in his own uncomplicated, straight-talking (occasionally repetitive) language his father John’s rise to literary fame, his encounters and friendships with the literati of his time, exchanging correspondence with H.L. Mencken and William Saroyan, before being dragged down by a lust for the good life becoming a hack screenwriter in Hollywood. This is the source of John Fante’s bitterness, his disgust with himself for ‘selling out’, putting this dedication on his short story collection Dago Red:

From that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist, that sublime literary pervert, that thwarted lyricist – that stinking scene artist, that Paramount cunt-lapper who gets paid for the sweet scented vomit whispered by Dorothy Lamour – Dedicated with the hope that someday soon he can write some less bitter inscription on the flyleaf of a really great book.

Meanwhile, Dan was growing up. And the opening of this autobiography, which reads a lot livelier, perhaps refreshed with some choice tweaking of events, tells of his dyslexia, his troubles with his older academically gifted brother, Nick, and his first experience with alcohol at the age of four:

Many years later, when I got sober, I would remember the event vividly and mark it as a major transition in my life. Alcohol had become a life-changing elixir.

Finding it difficult under the same roof as his father, Dan begins moving around a lot, leaving LA and getting involved in the New York political scene in the 1960s while paying the rent by driving a cab, before eventually squandering a playwriting deal on the radio that could have seen him become a big name, like his father, a lot earlier on. Depression, insomnia and several suicide attempts follow:

Because sleep was impossible, I began walking again at night to exhaust myself. Forty or fifty blocks. The East River to the Hudson River and back again. Sometimes I would stop to get a blow job from whatever Times Square guy was handy, then return to my hotel and drink myself to the point where I could pass out.

A darkness had come to my life, a despair that only those who have known the unendingness and bottomlessness of their own psyche can understand. No matter what I did or what female hostage I took in a relationship, I knew that sooner or later I would die from suicide. And, as it turned out, I would continue to drink for at least another fifteen years.

It’s anecdotes like these, admittedly even with the disclaimer (“bearing in mind that I suffered from active alcoholism for years”), that make this a mildly enlightening, though often numbing, read. We get a decent insight into the family life of a frequently bitter but always mercurial writer, and the understanding that the father and son come to toward the end of John’s life.

You may find yourself skimming through some of the latter chapters about Dan’s time working as a carnie, or as a limousine driver, or a telemarketing exec, as sections of ‘Fante’ are rehashed from material he’s covered thoroughly in previous books, almost word-for-word.

Nevertheless, his recollections blended in throughout on the rough relationships of the Fantes are always strong, emotive and honestly written which makes it a shame that it tapers off toward the end, though it would be easy to understand. Some of these experiences must have been painful to recall. But catharsis through words has always been Dan’s way. To him, writing is vital. And both John and Dan’s stories are vital ones, certainly worth telling, and certainly worth reading.

Suraya Sadeed with Damien Lewis: Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse

Reviewed by Amanda Simms

Suraya Sadeed with Damien Lewis: Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul GuesthouseSuraya Sadeed’s memoirs begin with a dramatic recollection of smuggling $35,000 across the Afghanistan border beneath a burkha in 1998. What follows is a blend of autobiography, the history of the post-Soviet Afghanistan, as well as the development of her charity, Help the Afghan Children.

Fleeing to the US after the Afghan communists seized power, Sadeed eventually lands the ‘American Dream’ with a successful property business and makes a small fortune. The sudden death of her husband several years later plunges her into a period of depression and self-reflection over her immersion in materialism, Sadeed shuts down her business and withdraws from the world. However, through a chance witnessing of a CNN report showing the plight of Afghan people in civil-war Kabul, our protagonist is inspired to act, raise money and help alleviate suffering in her homeland.

Sadeed immerses herself completely with her new found passion and we see the charity grow from handing out blankets to creating free clinics and funding underground schools for girls. Through her travels during these aid missions, we are exposed to what is almost always lost in news reporting of war, namely individual cases of loss – it is in this aspect that the book flourishes. Some of the most haunting passages arise through her conversations with the individuals she meets along her way.

We are told of an orphanage where children, both boys and girls, are taken away for a few days by anyone who pays, to be raped and abused. There are also the ‘widow camps’, where women who have lost all the male members of their family are temporarily sold in the same way. We see the most vulnerable being taken advantage of in sickening ways. We’re not just shown that something terrible has happened; we are given faces, expressions and glimpses of the victims.

Mainstream news reports of war feel so clinical in comparison, it’s just “x many people died today in this region”, obviously it would be impossible to represent each case, plus graphic depictions and photographs are rarely shown or even allowed. Our disconnection with what’s going on increases the more we hear these reports as they increasingly have little effect. That’s the reason why books like this are vitally important, we are brought square into the face of suffering and horror we find difficult to imagine otherwise, let alone emphasise with.

The vast ideological bridge between Sadeed’s two homes induces a mass of conflicting emotions; her anger and emotion at the injustice the US inflicts upon Afghanistan creates powerfully eloquent passages and interesting viewpoints. None are more succinct than when she discusses the time around 9/11. “Those were American bombs falling, paid for by my tax dollars. For the cost of one of those bombing runs I doubtless could have fed and clothed and cared for those 100,000 displaced people. For the cost of another bombing run I could have educated their children. And that would have done so much more to defeat the blind prejudice and hatred spawned by the Taliban and bin Laden”.

We are also introduced to Yar Mohammed in this section, a young teenager who is reputed to have killed an American troop. While his community heralds him as a hero, Sadeed is repulsed, this young man represents her fears for the future and she muses over what would have happened if the situation was reversed. In fact, it’s easy to imagine, especially with the gun-toting American culture, that many individuals would want to protect and their families and their way of life. “History was repeating itself, and a new generation was coming up that was proud to kill foreigners… I didn’t think that a 14 year old kid in America would necessarily would have done any different. If Afghan soldiers marched through America’s streets, would he also kill the invaders? Quite possibly”. It also seems especially poignant when we are reminded that a lot of Afghan people had no knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, they saw their homeland being attacked for no just reason.

It feels difficult to criticise someone who has undoubtedly achieved so much, yet there are sections of these memoirs that seem unbelievable or embellished. For instance, her sassy attitude getting our heroine haphazardly through so many situations that could have easily turned incredibly sour – especially given the standing of women in Afghan society. Or when she is constantly saved in the nick of time, like when she is just about to close down the charity fearing a hate-fuelled backlash following 9/11 – but a phone call comes from a benevolent stranger with kind and encouraging words… in these instances it smells like some exaggerated plot devices have been slipped in here and there to help with its flow and stop the plot from sagging.

Sadeed’s inane naivety fits in this same bracket – she is enchanted by a field of beautiful flowers until someone tells her they are opium poppies, asking a destitute woman why she doesn’t try getting a job, demanding to be taken to Kabul during shelling and conflict despite several warnings from people that have actually been there. The sad thing is that this didn’t need to veer towards becoming some self-confessional pop tripe, although thankfully it doesn’t for the most part, it just stands out so much when it does.

At the end, Sadeed calls this a ‘humanitarian album’, which is apt – this is the focus and where its importance for readers lies. It seems much more than just her memoirs though, it also charts the stories and lives of the victims she came across that would have otherwise blended into the mass of statistics. The Guardian review terming these memoirs “adventures in charityland” seems a little harsh – it’s no literary treasure and while the writing may be clunky and the clichés dull, there are also some heavily emotional and thought-provoking passages. There’s no doubt that she has helped improve the lives of so many Afghan people, especially girls and women who were the most vulnerable and least cared about and it’s inspirational to see how much can be accomplished in this kind of adversity.

Tequila Tales: An Anthology of Short Fiction

Tequila TalesReviewed by Declan Tan

The Tequila Tales anthology (edited by Millie Johanna Heur and Roy Anthony Shabla) is an eclectic mixture of genre, style and content that unites a well-published group of writers on the single and divisive subject of, yes, tequila. All of the work has in some way been licked by the liquid sting of the Mexican favourite and, like a night on the stuff, there are ups and downs in the success of each tale’s telling. But it has the kind of lively, straight-talking touch of some of the better literary magazines circulating today, the sort that these writers appear in regularly and consistently.

There is little posing here, little in the way of self-conscious and superficial intellectualism. It is lucid writing and, mostly, strong storytelling. This tequila is a kind of unknowing antidote to some of the throwaway posturing that has become fashionable in certain literary circles; the voice of an older generation, of the printed ‘littles’, that still have something they want to say.

There are two stand-out stories that make this book: John Brantingham is the writer of the first, and he has certainly done the rounds. He was fiction editor of the legendary (and borderline-defunct) Chiron Review and has been publishing strong work in the small presses since the ’90s. His short story ‘Even Puppets Must Die’ is simply a disturbingly well-told piece of writing, a booze-soaked memory torn out of a nightmare domesticity.

The other is a kind of mythical “devilish maze”, recalling Lautrémont’s prose poems had he been resurrected as a shaman before downing a bottle of hallucinogenic poison; ‘Naked Existential Woman’ by Hexham-born Philip Daughtry, is another great find.

There are others, though; a playfully experimental Gerald Locklin, a drunken but sharp Mike Muñoz, a brief Gary Keith, and a warped Tim Raab, to name a few more. And each of the tales employs the drink in a different way, be it medicinal or otherwise, though it isn’t always celebratory; there is a lot here about the trough after the peak, the grey guts of alcoholism, which make it more than a disposable collection.

Unfortunately it’s the first and last title to be released through Two Friends Press, owned and edited by Roy Anthony Shabla and Millie Heur. Soon to be released in eBook format, maybe they’ll have a drink and change their minds.

Mark Kermode: The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What’s Wrong with Modern Movies? (Random House)

Reviewed by Jim McConalogue

Commode

 Mark Kermode is his same old self in this book. Like your straight-talking granddad balling on about the price of a cinema ticket, it is littered with anti-Hollywood sentiments (which for Kermode, and for film buffs generally, is understandable because of the blockbusterisation of the industry), his judgements on the role of excessive money in film, combined with technophobic attacks on 3D cinema and of the multiplex experience in general (and his reduction of cinema staff to the level of primates), all of which makes this book an absolutely essential read. This may sound cynical but let me explain.
 
If not for his film criticism, then it is essential for the excellent writing and terrier-like doggedness in pursuing the horrifying contemporary experience of multiplex-going with audiences of popcorn-munching, seat-kicking troglodyte-adolescents going to watch the next bunch-of-crap digital instalment from Hollywood. There is an almost scary result of his rigorous cultural assessment, like the fiery rants of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, so one cannot help sympathise and root for his cause.   
 
The book begins, in its ‘Prologue’, with a manifesto protesting at the recent historical death of the projectionist and celluloid – and a stark objection to the general removal of the ‘human’ from the mechanised, digitised cinematic process. It then moves on to a humorous and cynical analysis of cinema-going as he provides an account of his trip to the multiplex with his eleven-year-old daughter – and the arguments he finds himself pursuing with various cinema staff while purchasing expensive tickets, the obligatory popcorn and the badly projected screening of a Zac Efron film (who bizarrely, Kermode thinks is great). The engine of the modern multiplex is a “computer programme with no memory of the past, no human interaction, no soul” which replaced the care and craft needed for celluloid with digital and smudgy third-rate 3D glasses.
 
Citing Pearl Harbor, the Saw movies, and many others, and their exorbitant budgets, Kermode explains that in blockbusters, money just seems to lead to even more money without fail. On the whole, I find myself nodding in agreement (even though as I write, I read that monster movie, Creature, has received an all-time awful total box office revenue of just $331,000 after 1,507 screens, even though it is made by a well-known producer).
 
Kermode takes us through a vast range of expensive movies and demonstrates “how infrequently they have failed to turn a profit, regardless of quality”. The failure of blockbuster-makers to entertain and engage comes down to them not wanting to do better and audiences accepting their laziness. And yes, it is we, the audience, who keep paying them. I must have watched nearly all the films Kermode rubbishes, for my sins.
 
As for 3D cinema, Kermode gives an analysis of its failure – designed to “head off movie piracy and force audiences to watch badly made films in overpriced, undermanned multiplexes”. 3D has been consistently rejected by viewers for more than a hundred years. It is now a ploy to feed up money-hungry Hollywood producers. He gives out a pretty heavy 3D-bashing to Clash of the Titans-2010 style as an example of its failure – and on which I couldn’t agree more.  
 
He is unrelenting in his criticism of the Oscars – whose films are hand-picked by “a bunch of unaccountable drunken bozos” or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – and sweeps aside the critique that the British film industry is in terminal decline and strongly defends its film-making and acting contributions, referring favourably to The King’s Speech and United 93. Kermode asks us to “stop worrying so much about film production, and start worrying a bit more about the support and upkeep of independent UK cinemas that show the kinds of movies (British, foreign language, arthouse, etc.) in which the multiplexes have little or no interest”.
 
In his self-deprecating style, Kermode acknowledges that many do not go by what critics have to say and in many respects they are powerless among audiences but which he accepts – because it is not for the critics to tell audiences what to watch but merely telling audiences what they think about them in an entertaining and engaging way. It is perhaps his ‘insider’ knowledge of the use and manipulation of critics which I found most intriguing about the whole book.
 
Kermode’s protest at this totality of the culture industry, the near-authoritarian output of multiplexes and the blockbuster, the way in which critics feed the very profit-driven producers they seek to criticise, end up bearing a strong resemblance to the film, cultural and music criticism of one of the greatest European cultural (and anti-fascist) critics of all time, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). In Adorno’s view (Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) and Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (1951)), the critic becomes a self-incriminating entity and empty criticism is then an almost defunct activity for the messengers of a totally administered society. The ‘absolute’ culture industry encompasses the death of its own counter-arguments. Criticism becomes part of the institution. He argued that the critic is free to make accusations but the despairing will rightly predict that only a number of chat shows and a radio show later, such a “dissident will soon be reconciled” into the totality of the culture industry. Kermode’s explanation of the way in which film critic’s words are used in promotional quotes to sell the films are a perfect example of how this is carried out in the marketing of the modern blockbuster.
 
Theory aside, the critique that Kermode outlines for the modern multiplex, and the cultural whipping he deals out to Sex and the City 2, amongst others, make this a must read for all those interested in the irritating snags and the wider failures of modern cinema.
 
If there is one thing I would have liked to hear more of, it is that Kermode rarely touches on the key issue of ‘choice’. Yes, we should support our independent cinemas, as he suggests, but should we not also take on the uniformity of the multiplexes and ask them, through local campaigns, to screen at least one alternative/offbeat/world cinema category movie so that movie-goers can choose? Choice means letting the gobby, annoying cinema-goers have their 3D and awful dumbed-down Hollywood blockbusters – after all, they are the regular ticket-payers – but we can also have intelligent cinema screenings, showing world cinema movies or at least something more engaging that doesn’t entail crashing helicopters and end with waving US flags and moronic whooping and jeering. All in all, this is a thought-provoking, illuminating, well-informed and humorous book.

100 Artists’ Manifestos – From the Futurists to the Stuckists: Selected by Alex Danchev

Reviewed by Ben Granger

100 Artists Manifestos1. The purpose of politics is to inspire art. The only useful thing it has ever achieved

When Marshall Brennan argued “The Manifesto is remarkable for its imaginative power… It is the first great modernist work of art”, he referred specifically to The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. While the Diggers and Levellers before them had already captured for the people the format of dramatic declamation previously used only by noblemen and clergy, it was Karl and Friedrich who were to craft it into something resembling literature, with its “opiates of the people” and “icy waters of egotistical calculation”. These were cadences which spoke on as aesthetic as well as an instructional level, more scripture than stricture. But if Germans were the forefathers of bringing an artistic sensibility to the manifesto, it was an Italian who was to take it to the next level, to make the manifesto a work of art in itself. Fillipo Marinetti was a man whose life’s work was dedicated to hammer at the block of his own bombast in the hope it was battered into something resembling genius. His diabolically dynamic screed ‘The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism’ was published on the front page of leading national newspaper La Figaro in 1909, and was to set the tone for many of the hundred manifestos Alex Danchev has compiled in this fascinating collection: it takes pride of place as the chronological first. Taking in his own Futurists, through their British counterparts and bitter rivals the Vorticists, to their bastard offspring and political foes the Surrealists and Dadaists, it was his supercharged oppositionalism which set the template.

2. Substance is for abusers. Style is king, subjects are mere subjects

Futurism’s bad reputation proceeds it, but should not supersede it. With its adolescent worship of speed and war, cars and explosions, and with the knowledge of its noxious later association with fascism, one returns to Marinetti’s original manifesto expecting a risible gaucheness at best, (a kind of Top Gear for intellectuals), or a repellent mania at worst. And yet its evil beauty can and does still thrill today. From the orgasmic opening scene of his car crashing off the side of the road (“Oh mother of a ditch! … How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse…”) the narrative itself roars off into the distance, crashing repeatedly through its audience’s senses and sensibilities. Later comes the firecracker destruction of all established art and history:

“We want our country free from the endless number of museums which cover here like countless graveyards… admiring an old painting is just like pouring our purest feelings into a funerary urn, instead of projecting them far and wide, in violent outbursts of creation and action”.

Then the zealously phrased, totemic proclamations: “There is no longer any beauty but the struggle. Any work of art that lacks aggression will never be a masterpiece”.

This is the word as weapon, where the pen is power (or penis power given Futurism’s obsessive virility: penis mightier than the sword). It is absurd, illogical and immoral, but it is as much a manically brilliant, endlessly fascinating creation in itself, as it is a tyrannical statement of intent for the magnificent paintings which were to follow.

Other manifestos from Futurist followers follow in the collection, including Boccioni and Carlo Carra (perhaps the greatest Futurist painter, railing against “the cube, the pyramid and all other static shapes” and hailing “Red, rrrrrrreds, the rrreddest rrrrrrrrreds that shouuuuuuuut”), but it was Marinetti who remained poet provocateur in chief. Yet while this was a movement founded by a priapic misogynist, it took two women followers – Valentine de Saint Pointe and Mina Loy – to make manifestos which contained enough jagged aphoristic gems to match those of those of the Futurist founder (“Misery is the disintegration of joy. Intellect, of intuition. Acceptance, of inspiration”). They bring a lightness of wit lacking in Marinetti, which reminds us that another forbear of the manifesto tradition is perhaps the un-credited Wilde, whose paradoxical ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’ (“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”) can also be traced here. A greater wit than Marinetti could also be found in his great rival Wyndham Lewis over in Britain, whose Blast manifesto contained all the acidic bombast of Futurism with a greater realisation of its own contradiction and absurdity.

While this is a form rooted in politics it can graduate into a purer aesthetics of the soul and mind, and it is perfectly possible to wander its waywardly beautiful walkways without being corralled down the shady political alleys many of its practitioners ended up skulking. With the deliberately self contradictory rhetoric of Blast, this is positively invited, political rhetoric is a mere tool for internal implosions of the mind and senses (despite Wyndham Lewis’ own later rightist dalliance). The Russian Constructivists, and later the multinational Dadaists and Surrealists, were undoubtedly inspired by Marinetti’s manifesto, but were to take sides at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, some Communist, some Trotskyite, (not many anarchists despite what you might expect) though their own thought experiments clearly inspired many way beyond this ideological milieu. All were to understand the importance of rhythm and cadence in channelling the grand chaos of their ideas. They also understood the importance of having an enemy to kick out at, a hate figure at which to throw their artful darts. Whether their politics ended up on the far-left or the far-right, the tone of absolute rebellion, the stance of heroic David in creative revolt against a moribund art establishment Goliath is often markedly similar in spirit, though not necessarily in execution. The Dadaists after all were to cast the Futurists themselves as just such a rigid, fusty old relic, despite Marinetti’s crew arriving not five years before them. And despite, or perhaps rather because of, the clear inspiration they gleaned from them.

3. We never saw an opposite that didn’t attract. All hail MC Skat Katt!

As early as 1923 we see reactive statements against political ‘control’ of art in Theo Van Doesburg’s ‘Manifesto Prole Art’, which explicitly renounces the existence of a “proletarian” art in an of itself – “Every proletarian work of art is nothing more than a poster for the bourgeoisie”. While the contemporaneous ‘Manifesto of the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors’ of the Mexican David Alfaro Siquieros shows the stale, nullifying uniformity which came to dominate the degenerate art in the “actually existing socialism” which became known as “Communism” to the world. “Exploiters of the people in concubinage with traitors who sell the blood of soldiers who fought for the revolution” etc etc. By contrast, Breton, Riviera and Trotsky’s later ‘Towards a Revolutionary Free Art’ from 1938, (one of the few manifestos here with input from a “real” politician), displays a beautifully stated commitment to absolute freedom of expression “No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above!” It’s perhaps surprising to read the one time brutal overseer of the Red Army and butcher of Kronstadt sounding positively anarchistic. And yet earlier manifestos here from artist supporters such as Mayakovsky and Rodchenko show in its earliest days the Soviet Union was both a wellspring and a haven for artistic rhetoric of the most rapturously absolute intellectual freedom, though this very quickly curdled into the gruel of “socialist realism”, little of which is worth reproducing today.

If Futurists were in revolt against tradition, Dadaists were in fuller revolt against established thought: anti-sense. This made their output more knockabout, pranksters as much as revolutionaries. Pranks are always hit and miss, and this approach can often grate to modern eyes as often as it delights. (“Honour is bought and sold like ass. Ass, ass represents life like fried potatoes” says Francis Picabia’s 1920 ‘Dada Canibalistic Manifesto’, and on it goes). Of course the Dadaists would argue this was the very intent, storming the bourgeois boundaries of our sensibilities, twanging the elastic until it snaps. The later Surrealist manifestos here are comparatively stately in their assaults on political, spiritual and mental establishment, take the sublime statements of the movement leader, Andre Breton: “This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes a little impression on me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere”. Far more, and greater works of art emerged from this more elegant swipe at the accepted.

4. Those who can, paint, those who can’t, write manifestos

Though they may have dabbled, neither Marinetti nor Breton, the movement maestros, were painters nor sculptors, their manifestos were their art. This leads us to the half truth above. At least in many cases there does seem to be a kind of inverse relationship between the artistic success of the author and the brilliance of the manifesto. There are no manifestos from Picasso, Miro, Magritte, nor later from Pollock or Francis Bacon. Carlo Carra and Wyndham Lewis were relative exceptions in excelling at both the written and pictorial form. Certainly Dali’s ‘Yellow Manifesto’ from 1928 is rather flimsy and derivative thing in comparison with its Dadaist forbears, with little of the flair at work in his painted phantasmagoria , while the sculptures of Picabia are wonderful grotesques which do not begin to translate into the language of his writing. Art is absolutely subjective – fly forward to the book’s more recent manifestos, and Gilbert and George’s words are dry recitations of the banal (in contrast with what – to me – are the dizzy delights of their images), while the Stuckist Manifesto written by Billy Childish in 1999 – a declaration of war on conceptual art of the Young British Artists, Hirst, Emin et al is a fabulously angry and witty slice of excoriation, expertly honed (and far more interesting – to me – than anything he has ever drawn). Kandinsky meanwhile, perhaps the greatest painter writing here, has a manifesto written with Franz Marc which is not a striking piece of art in itself, and does not aim to be, but is instead an expertly clear and ordered explanation of what the new non figurative art aims to be. Sometimes the manifesto is simply a piece of meticulously crafted description or statement rather than an exhibit in itself.

There are other quieter, thoughtful manifestos here, such as Takamura Kotaro’s ‘Green Sun’ from 1910, grasping the joins between traditional Japanese art and the new Western abstract style. There are wry pieces like Michael Bettancourt’s ‘The —————– Manifesto’ from 1969 (i.e., fill in the —————- yourself), and there are inroads to far more all encompassing and revolutionary philosophies such as Guy Debord’s ‘Situationist Manifesto’ from 1960. Danchev’s selections in this to-and-fro across the century are eclectic yet exhaustive, and his introductions to each piece are highly informative, managing a fine balance between an impassioned interest in the subject and the aim not to overwhelm with his own point of view. As always in art, true objectivity is impossible, and he cannot – for instance – disguise his contempt for Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, but then a little of the combative spirit redolent in so much of the material here is quite welcome.

5. There is no one true path to the sublime. The road may be painted in ink as well as oils.

100 Artists’ Manifestos is both an intriguing history of art in the 20th century, and an art exhibition itself, artists using words not canvas. And this is art, not literature. It seems to me it is possible to signify a separation between the two, the teleology and order of the former, and the amorphous, weightlessness of the latter. In one of the quieter pieces here, Apollinaire claims the new (in 1912) non-figurative art is “purer” as, like music, it reaches parts of the soul beyond description. In the best these manifestos, the melange of aphorism and idea, of barbed incongruity and graceful lyricism, can entice and sooth the nameless contours of the soul just as much as Miro’s ‘Ciphers and Constellations’ or Kandinsky’s ‘Composition VIII’. There is a genius at work in these words-as-art which cannot easily be imitated, as my own piss-weak pastiches here no doubt amply display. The manifesto is an insistent form, one that makes demands. Read the selection here, and see where the orders take you.

Christopher Hitchens: Arguably (Atlantic Books)

Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith

HitchensThe critic, wrote H.L. Mencken in his Prejudices, “makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art”. If we take this as a fair and desirable definition of a critic; which, Mencken continues, results in “understanding, appreciation, [and] intelligent enjoyment”; then in Arguably, his latest collection of essays, Christopher Hitchens measures up to the requirements and succeeds in producing those reactions through his limpid and erudite body of work. Mencken didn’t mention fulminous disagreement or wholehearted approbation – surprisingly, given his record – but one is almost certain encounter these reactions whenever Hitchens comes up in conversation, be it across the press or amongst interested friends. Suspicion should probably be meted equally to those whom describe Hitchens as the world’s greatest author and, conversely, try to dismiss him as a glib pseudo-intellectual. That being said, he simply is, even solely on the basis of Arguably, one of our greatest prose stylists, and is, maddeningly for some, capable of dismissing entire schools of thought and opinion, authors and politicians with a pen stroke of that prose.

You need look no further than first section, of six, of the book to appreciate this; of John Updike’s prose in his book Terrorist: “Could anything be more hip and up-to-the-minute?” or “This is a fair attempt to push all the clichés about Irish-Americans into one brief statement”. Examples such as these demonstrate that, though their friendship may have dissolved entirely, Hitchens’s writing still flirts with the influence of Gore Vidal, who was – is? – also capable of this type of constructive literary bitchiness (and also doesn’t escape criticism in this volume).

Arguably is a stout volume crammed with over one hundred pieces for greedy readers in the main taken from The Atlantic, Slate and Vanity Fair. Just under half the pieces are book reviews, mainly from The Atlantic, and these are the essays which elevate Hitchens from a social commentator or pundit – though usually incorporating these two aspects at the same time – to a critic. Indeed, if it had not been for 9/11 he might, as stated in a 2006 profile in the New Yorker, have left politics behind – excepting that his book reviews are of an holistic nature and go far deeper than the text under discussion; see the review of a book about the Founding Fathers and faith which he uses as a shield against the ‘theocratic fascism’ that threatens America today – and not meaning just the Islamic variety.

Obviously matters of religion are central to Hitchens’s body of work but it may be of interest to some, perhaps those wounded Christians who sent him congratulatory letters when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, that there are no outright critiques of religion in this collection. However, there are those that appear in more subtle forms in keen reportages from Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, among others, that describe both the oppression of those countries’ people by such outfits as the Taliban and heartening – not patronising – accounts of their desire for change, as we have seen in recent months. (We are also reminded that Saddam Hussein did at least one positive thing during his reign: “By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before” and thus gave them the impetus to create one of the most liberal societies in the Middle East.) In an essay on Benjamin Franklin Hitchens also gets to employ another of his favourite themes, the deism of the Founding Fathers, and a favourite – for good reason – line, of Franklin’s, about religion: “Created sick, and then commanded to be well”. This is not to say that Hitchens’s writing is repetitive but that when he thinks a point is worth pressing he isn’t afraid to do so. In this case he is especially right to, when considering, as he highlights, that even the great Mark Twain couldn’t see the satire in Franklin’s maxims.

All of the things that have come to be associated with Hitchens are present in this book from Marx and Orwell to Larkin and alcohol, but the most ‘controversial’ piece in the book is entitled, almost as if it has a label reading ‘Inflammable’ attached, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. It is amazing that this little feuilleton written for Vanity Fair attracted so much attention because Hitchens explicitly states that he doesn’t mean that there are no great women comedians but that women do not have the same need as men to be funny in the first place and, secondly, if you don’t think there’s even a hint of irony in it or you can’t shrug it off – then you aren’t funny (darling).

Articles of this nature, though, could give some readers pause to question why Hitchens writes fairly diversionary pieces like this one for Vanity Fair, to which one could add that surely no one should be serious all the time. But why Vanity Fair? A fine publication in many respects but, if you were to look at their website or a random issue, it seems jarring that Hitchens writes for a magazine still so eager to support the Kennedy dynasty and the myth of Camelot – especially considering that, of their legacy, he has this to say: “The reputation of the Kennedy racket is now dependent on a sobbing effort of will: an applauding chorus demanding that the flickering Tinkerbell not be allowed to expire”.

The result of this trade-off, however, is that he is able to write essays that might not otherwise reach such large audiences, such as most of the ‘Postcard’ pieces mentioned above and a tour de force essay in praise of the King James’s Bible and its influence on the vernacular – but only as a stepping stone and liberating force along the progress of mankind towards permanently throwing off the shadow of Rome, and that its abandonment by the Church of England goes to show that religion is a man-made construct “with inky human fingerprints” smeared over its divine body.

The essays in this collection are meant to enrage those who disagree with Hitchens and delight those who find his arguments convincing; but he never asks blind fealty of us – the title of the book gives it all away – and, as he remarks of a Lincoln scholar, he treats us like grownups, with minds of our own. Decades will pass before the permanence of the Hitch’s (if you’ll forgive one use of the overtly familiar colloquialism) work is decided, but if this is his last book, as he fondly quotes of Benjamin Franklin, “litera script manet”. The written word shall remain.

Heidegger: Hederated or With Hakenkreuz?

Martin Heidegger: Routledge Critical Thinkers (2nd ed.), Timothy Clark. 197 pages. Routledge, London and New York. Reviewed by Jonathan Reynolds

As postmodernism has faded for professional intellectuals in the West and also, still, because of his engagement with Nazism (unsettled whether flirtation or serious or profound), Heidegger is the one major modern philosopher who remains arguably outside of the pantheon. Often he is called the greatest philosopher of the last century; a few dismiss him entirely as a flagrant dissimulator of bombastic nonsense and/or find him a fatally compromised or truly reactionary extoller of German blood and soil.

“He was (with the possible exception of Wittgenstein) the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. He was (with the possible exception of Hegel) the greatest charlatan ever to claim the title of ‘philosopher’, a master of hollow verbiage masquerading as profundity. He was an irredeemable German redneck, and, for a time, a gullible and self-important Nazi” (Inwood 2002: 1).

Enthusiasts include many who read into him their own half-baked notions, among them postmodern opinion-makers who suggest a relativist epistemology and attitude on truth and reality that, if I read him right, Heidegger would completely and emphatically reject. What keeps him in this seesaw free-for-all is that he appears to fill an expected place in Continental philosophy, as the unfolding of the internal logic of this fundamentally romantic impulse in Western thought requires1.

Martin Clark HeideggerEven as both Sartre and Heidegger were agreed that ‘existence precedes essence’ – an absolutely necessary insight for existential perspectives if not for ‘reality’2 – his thought is positioned to come after Sartre despite Sartre post-dating him chronologically (more on Heidegger in relation to Sartre below). Heidegger’s philosophy bridges to post-existentialist/postmodern thought fundamentally by removing the anchor3 on the individual human organism or the self to reality (or ‘being’4) by his focus on ‘deep history’, Dasein (‘being-there’), and the ‘world’5. ‘Turns in time’ are, for him, crucial goals for poetic language, and the ‘poetry of poetry’ is an integral part of a return to ‘authenticity’, as he puts it, in life and experience and away from the modern technological society in which science has sought inexorably to appropriate and master ‘nature’6. Here is where we see how he can be considered profoundly reactionary and how, if we believe him, he was tempted only briefly to follow Hitler and National Socialism because both seemed, for some reason, to promise or forebode a turn to a more direct and immediate relationship between man and ‘being’, in the sense of the reality already given to consciousness – the ‘being-there’. He does not appear ever to have been explicitly anti-Semitic and, in his lectures before (but not after) joining the Nazi Party, he spoke out against racism. However, at the least, the utterly deplorable treatment by him of his Jewish mentor and teacher, Husserl will raise doubt for as long as there is discussion about him and his work, as the author reviewed here, Timothy Clark, suggests7.

Given the doubt, thirty-five years now after his death enough time has passed and enough has been written about him – a many-thousand volume literature exists on its own – that it is possible to evaluate Heidegger from a distance and to better take his measure. Even without this possibility, legitimate concerns must be addressed about the danger of any totalistic advocacy such as Heidegger’s. Certainly we can say that Heidegger’s influence has been great at least through the rise and demise of the postmodern movement, even if what he actually said so often seems to be paraphrased or idiosyncratically interpreted.

Heidegger in Today’s Context

In its ongoing project to understand and explain the fundamental problems of humans and the universe, philosophy seeks to round out what remains mysterious in the pre-given trajectory of insight or logic from at least the Greeks; in asserting this, I affirm the notion of the episteme and certainly of the unerring tropes of European thought since Descartes. Like quanta, History8 occurs en bloc or in discrete epochs as part of phenomenological and existential reality. What many believe was the legitimate next step in the Continental philosophical project after the nineteenth-century triad of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, followed by an early twentieth-century triad – principally Husserl but also Dilthey and William James – Heidegger’s propositions are interesting because he creates a new object for serious or formal human attention, being. Importantly, he examined being in the same ‘radically empirical’ fashion that Husserl examined phenomena. Why we would want to look at this new object – the being of being – is not exceptionally clear in a real or practical sense, except, 1) as Heidegger becomes an advocate rather than a neutral outsider considering matters ‘metaphysically’ and which he declares to have been the fundamental error by omission since the pre-Socratics or the beginning of Western philosophy and which, as the Western tradition of rationalism and science, has distorted and damaged consciousness and ‘nature’, and 2) as Heidegger urges this return or ‘movement’ by humans changing the way they connect to the world to a way resembling what the sensitive person obtains from experiencing a great work of art or poetic language.

This illuminating new volume on Heidegger has the very real virtue of being concise and contemporary without making too great reaches for ‘relevance’. Thus he usually credibly puts Heidegger through his paces in the utterly changed world of today as compared even with the world as it was when Heidegger died three-and-a-half decades ago. It compares well to those that I have read of the several thousand other books claiming to explain Heidegger, and, specifically, adds to a little cottage industry of reliably fine scholars in the UK writing on him; at least one earlier work (Mulhall 2005, e.g., p.2) included a needed better emphasis lacking in Clark’s exegesis on the significance and fuller philosophical implications of ‘tone’ and what ‘tone’ led to or was part of what might be called heightened, or radical, or fuller experiencing of life. This emphasis is what I consider, indeed, generally to be ignored in the literature on Heidegger; when I discuss Heidegger’s ‘Nirvana’, I review how Clark considers this and how there may be still more to add to the discussion.

Essentially, Clark’s book attempts to summarize interpretations situating Heidegger in a post-postmodern radical critique, post-postmodern in the sense that formulations leading to epistemological relativism cannot continue to have currency (if they ever did) and that – precisely as existential thought made clear – the conventional division between subject and object has been closed, definitively. There is reality, as in ‘the reality’, and integrally a part of this reality is that indubitably we exist and we are alone as we confront finitude, and as long as humans are around this will always be the case. Clark’s (admittedly necessarily) creative or idiosyncratic reconstruction (cf. 2011: 79) does fulfil his claim that he discusses Heidegger’s long excursus into poetry or poetic language – the later focus of much or most of his work after Being and Time – where some other interpretive guides have not explicitly done so in any close manner nor at length; four of the seven chapters in Clark’s book deal explicitly with this matter, which makes unfortunate his otherwise very useful exposition because unarticulated are, I think, certain crucial emphases.

In general, stylistically, Clark succeeds where other interpreters of Heidegger have failed in making Heidegger accessible; he writes well, despite a few confusing sentence constructions:

“These contrast with the tortured but more scrupulously defensible recognition of other Heidegger texts (e.g., ‘On the Question of Being’…) that one cannot so directly exit the language and thinking of the tradition, that its hold on us is too total to admit yet of more than a patient tracing of its all-pervading closure” (Clark 2011: 133).

I think follow him here but admit to some difficulty. Mostly Clark persuasively describes what one can and should understand about Heidegger – the legitimate post-Husserl phenomenology of his program and his assertions about man-in-the-world, the Dasein, and ‘deep history’. In the chapters not about poetry and poetic language – ‘The Limits of the Theoretical’, ‘Deep History (Geschichte)’, and ‘Nazism, Poetry, and the Political’ – his readings are basically clear, suggestive, and productive. For lack of space, I will limit myself to no more than a few lines on each of these chapters before addressing Clark on Heidegger and art and poetry.

In the ‘Limits of the Theoretical’, Clark defines and distinguishes the ‘theoretical’ in Heidegger’s thought as not having to do with this term in the sense of something merely abstract, or heuristic, without ramifications from or for the context of the specifics that provided the data in order to construct a theory. As Clark makes clear, Heidegger meant the limiting or negative impact of what he saw as the entire Western effort since the pre-Socratic philosophers to construct a parallel – or simulacrum, in the negative sense of this term – of ‘nature’, this effort a violent one because it seeks to appropriate, master and control nature and being, of which, otherwise, purposely excluded by science but which man both as consciousness and organism is a part. The effect is to harmfully distance man from a much closer connection to nature and the universe. In the chapter on ‘Deep History (Geschichte)’, Clark guides the reader through what is fundamental to Heidegger’s understanding of poetry and poetic language. Geschichte – ‘history’, in German – refers in Heidegger to “the little noticed changes” – descriptions of which perhaps most essentially are found predominantly in great art – “behind our backs, but affecting everything” (2011: 30-31). Clark ties ‘deep history’, in this sense, to pervasive tendencies going back to Plato and continuing through modern, technological, rational, applied knowledge and which Heidegger decried. In ‘Nazism, Poetry, and the Political’, Clark reviews the facts, and the suppositions from the facts, about Heidegger’s active pre-war Nazism and how this related or relates to how we can or should read him. He limits to 1933-1934 Heidegger’s “political engagement [with the Nazi Party as] a matter of genuine conviction and even excitement”, which leaves unanswered two questions. The first question asks, does ‘genuine conviction’ mean or imply that Heidegger truly understood what Hitler stood for, including what was available from 1925 on in Mein Kampf, calling for war for the sake of Lebensraum and for the extermination of the Jews of Europe? The second asks, How much of the “genuine conviction and even excitement” remained to whatever degree as a fundamental current in him through the war and into his post-war life and his ‘silence’ about the war and Nazism?

An additional, and final, section in the book, ‘After Heidegger’, looks at some of the major descendants and offshoots of Heidegger’s thought, while continuing to assert that “[h]is work engages us at the most fundamental level imaginable about the nature of a human existence and what we have to understand as knowledge” (2011: 143) – this despite the obvious absurdity of the bulk of humanity becoming carpenters, peasants, or poets10; these would be what Clark refers to as ‘right-Heideggerians’. ‘Left-Heideggerians’, on the other hand, now focus on Heidegger as providing “…a fundamental social critique deeply critical of given thinking and institutions” (2011:144). Clark also briefly reviews the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur and, then discusses Blanchot and Derrida, respectively for their literary critical reading of ‘texts’ and for a return to Heidegger’s fundamental urgings that human beings critique and deconstruct Western rational assumptions and institutions.

Heidegger and Sartre

Some omissions flaw this otherwise quite useful and worthy book and require comment. Sartre, who studied under both Husserl and Heidegger in 1933-1934, early on was a candid admirer11. Astonishingly, Clark makes not one mention of Sartre anywhere in the book – an omission which one must think, perhaps, to be due to the decoupling of the two since the 1970s and of Heidegger in preference to Sartre. The fact remains that, despite the, in my view, unfruitful punctuation in European and American philosophy now known as ‘post-existentialism’12, Sartre and Heidegger are tied together by their focus on finitude and meaning as theme and phenomenology as method, and, in order to understand the context of Heidegger’s thinking, it remains difficult if not impossible in any thorough manner to discuss one without discussing the other.

How the two philosophers situated themselves is possibly explicable to small degree by conventional biography. A crude biographical interpretation might consider the two thinkers in the conventional historical context: Heidegger’s thought, spawned in Germany’s post World War I collapse, looked for a renewal of life on a deeper basis, presumably, to replace a catastrophe that had just already happened to his country; Sartre’s, given impetus in World War II’s German-occupied France, needed, on the basis of the individual consciousness, to make the decision to struggle and live against the reality of the horror of Nazism and to construct a philosophy in a world of unimaginably grotesque brutality and the overwhelming ugliness or what man can do to man.

True to their roots in Continental thought, for both Heidegger and Sartre the concern is the human universe rather than the universe13 which is what makes them both part of the romantic or Continental philosophical tradition. As Clark makes clear, despite the preoccupying objections to Heidegger, within or part of Heidegger’s formal philosophical concerns are some reflections that do seem still perhaps even vitally to resonate for many important thinkers for whom, abstractly, epistemology becomes ontology (which Hans Georg Gadamer argued and which Paul Ricoeur took further), philosophy becomes advocacy through the inevitable turn to ‘the act’ or ‘action’. With these tropes of (supposedly) neutral ideas leading directly to ethics (for both Heidegger and Sartre it is ‘authenticity’), both ask: what do we do with ourselves in the world14 as it is given ineluctably to us and as we are inextricably part of the world? As long as the human individual or collectivity remains relevant, as long as The Human continues to have integrity of and for itself as human and not as cyborg or manipulated cipher producing capital in a digital age – the individual person increasingly divided up into digitized Consumer and Consumed for the sake of Capital15 – as Sartre wrote toward the end of Being and Nothingness, we still confront the ‘mystery of action’, in the sense of an existential ethics. To whatever degree Facebook has played a role in the Arab Spring, the irony is that perhaps nearly equivalent in space on the front pages of world news an initial stock offering recently puts the company’s value at more than fifty billion dollars. The moral of the story is that content – even possibly revolutionary action – is quantified (as are studies for AI, another enterprise associated with Heidegger), by money or capital value. I don’t think Heidegger would have approved.

In sections of Being and Nothingness – the title a conscious takeoff of Being and Time – Sartre responds directly to Heidegger’s work. One difference between Sartre and Heidegger is the former’s perspective of the individual consciousness or the ‘for-itself’ confronting nothingness in ‘good’ or ‘bad faith’ (1966: 53 passim), while Heidegger’s is on a general turn away from the control by Western rational, e.g., scientific knowledge, of nature and the world to a phenomenal immediacy of life for the German language and people. Sartre focuses on the individual, both pre-reflective and reflective, Heidegger on the advocated return – or access for the first time in human existence – by humanity to ‘tones’ and inspired wellsprings that, for example, great poetry partakes of or summons or invokes. Sartre’s advocacy was that human consciousness, housed in individuals, should put itself ‘in good faith‘ at that nexus of decisions in front of nothingness16, Heidegger’s, ‘authentically’ in front of the world that is not just anywhere but is ‘there’. Accordingly, neither philosopher begins from neutral ground. This insight is derived from Husserl’s project to ‘bracket’ the presuppositions of the ‘natural world’, and Husserl’s brilliant recognition that consciousness is always intentional. Heidegger’s achievement has been to suggest that certain of what is already written on that supposedly blank slate is what heightened poetic language translates or re-records. The blank slate is the primordial intermediary between existence and essence; that things written are not creations but discoveries in time is what matters.

One possible ‘error’ by Heidegger was pointed out by Sartre. The construction – the production, or creation and appropriation (as opposed to the scaffolding, as it were, of applied Western scientific rationality) – of the other is always necessary so that the absolute status of each can be transcended, the always-becoming of the ‘for-itself’, the already finished or dead status of the ‘become’, or the ‘being’-status of the other. The fact that Heidegger is greatly unhappy with the technological and scientific modern world might automatically or reflexively require a dialectical process, but he does not specify this in Being and Time. Sartre’s comment or correction:

“The characteristic of Heidegger’s philosophy is to describe Dasein by using positive terms which hide the implicit negations. Dasein is ‘outside’ itself, in the world’; it is a ‘being of distances’; it is care; it is ‘its own possibilities,’ etc. All this amounts to saying that Dasein ‘is not’ in itself, that it ‘is not’ in immediate proximity to itself, and that it ‘surpasses’ the world inasmuch as it posits the world as not being in itself and as not being the world. In this sense Hegel is right rather than Heidegger when he states that Mind is the Negative” (1966: 22 passim).

Accordingly, Heidegger seems to deny the necessary mechanics17 of the existential: the dialectic that always goes on with the for-itself creating and objectifying the other (cf. Sartre 1966: 302-307) while never allowing itself to be more or less fully objectified. Paraphrasing Heidegger, as Clark puts it, the final ‘explosion’ by virtue of Western rationality of The Human or of humanity’s relation with reality will come direly unless we follow Heidegger’s program of a non-technological, or necessarily formally rational, pre-reflective engagement with being, an engagement unifying self and other Sartre refers to as “the for-itself [in] perpetual flight in the face of being” (Sartre 1966: 149)18 – that is, not in a stasis of flight, but, rather, in a jockeying, as it were, back and forth, in order to transcend négatités, specific moments or instances for transcendence, or the cycling between these for the sake of possibility/ies or freedom/s. In effect, rejecting the ekstasis or ‘standing-out’ of the individual/self, Clark describes Heidegger’s idealized life as possessed of “the kind of knowledge of things shown by traditional craftsmen, such as in a carpenter’s deep, non-theoretical understanding of wood, or in the life of peasants or finally, to a degree, in art and poetry” (Clark 2011: 12). It is unclear in all of the approving works on Heidegger that I have read whether Heidegger in point of fact is urging Germans, or all of us, to become carpenters, peasants, and/or poets in our ‘turning away from’ the ‘globalized, technological civilization that Heidegger saw as a threat to the very essence of humanity’ (op. cit.: 32) Perhaps the world would become, on balance, a better place with middlingly small but sufficient prosperity via small craftwork, with generalized appreciation of art and poetry – the master carpenter (or master plumber or worker in a nuclear power plant??) a fine sensibility responding to the Aeolian harp. However, the dialectic, again, seems to be missing, the historical fact of conflict, from the individual to the collective level, ubiquitous if not absolutely existentially inevitable. If the Marxist dictum, to each according to his need, from each according to his ability, might be applied to Heidegger’s ideal, humanity could arrive at a (lower ‘c’) ‘communist’ or egalitarian society. But ‘communism’ would not exclude ‘techno-science’19 (see Note 27).

Despite these distinctions, seemingly by consensus Sartre has been bypassed by Heidegger. Roughly since the 1970s the currents in Continental philosophy have flowed much more from Heidegger than from Sartre. Is this fair or correct, that is, true to the continuing impulse in this centrally important philosophical tradition? Why does consensus have it that Heidegger has carried the day? In a formal sense, it may be that because it could be argued that we have no epistemological or ontological grounds ultimately on which to base decisions about dualities or partialities as opposed to holisms, Sartre operates on artificial assumptions. What is the self? Does it exist? Specifically, does Sartre continue from Husserl to assume a transcendental ego? The answer also may be that Sartre belongs to modernism and modernism’s death has not (yet) meant humanity’s or the world’s death. Linked with this, it may be that Sartre’s philosophy simply has been too difficult to incorporate in the Western individual’s privileged and cushioned life while Heidegger’s lends itself more to (impractical) non-individual themes and issues more easily theorized about from the armchair. And what is significantly lacking in Sartre is Heidegger’s identification – for the first time in Western philosophy – of the phenomenological, that is, experienced, brilliant and shining distillation-exhilaration of poetry – perhaps the flip side of Sartre’s ‘nausea’ of “the facticity and contingency of existence” (1966:774 [from the glossary by Hazel Barnes]), and which accompanies, as well, the realization of what Sartre calls “the ontological proof”, itself derived originally from the Cartesian cogito. It may finally well be the case, also, that philosophers today contemplating planetary ecological crisis are preparing their own new dissertations from Sartre’s as well as Heidegger’s vantage; Clark, as mentioned, explicitly makes the case for Heidegger’s contributions to environmental and globalist thinking, and he devotes some pages to the fascinating and very suggestive link between Heidegger’s writings and research into artificial intelligence20.

Heidegger and Walter Benjamin

In addition to Sartre as one of the more famous and astute of Heidegger’s critics, a poignant voice – otherwise a footnote, and, if Hitler’s Third Reich had lasted longer than the few years that it did, perhaps likely never mentioned nor ever rescued from the void – was Walter Benjamin, the great literary theorist associated with the Frankfurt School of critical sociology and posthumously considered one of the most important social and literary theorists of the last century. The marvellously subtle medium of Benjamin’s mind was housed in the person of a nervous, exalted, exhausted Jew who killed himself, mistakenly believing he had been found out by the Gestapo just as he was successfully escaping from Germany. That Benjamin’s comments on Heidegger were brief and humorous might explain why Clark makes no mention of him. But because of Benjamin’s large and growing influence now, it seems appropriate at least to mention him in any work on Heidegger. In his journals, Benjamin describes how he plotted jokingly with Bertolt Brecht about how they would “finish off” Heidegger. Although the context was light or frivolous, Benjamin’s criticism that Heidegger systematized history (or the un-systemizable) bears thinking about as another problem or error by Heidegger.

Martin HeideggerHeidegger’s Nirvana: Does It Make Sense?

What about Heidegger’s Nirvana and his urging for getting there? Clark refers to it variously as “[seeking], in the German language and people, the possibility of a new non-reductive relation to being, one which would both repeat and revise the Greek inauguration of Western life” (Clark 2011: 133). This Nirvana is constrained by critiquing ‘Western life’ and advocating its replacement for the sake of Germans and, only by implication, humanity, in general. Heidegger’s hortations also are constrained in that both what he critiques and what he advocates have specific points in time when they were or are or could be real and when, therefore, they were or are not. It seems by this, again, that Heidegger does not understand the notion of the dialectic, which, because the dialectic refers to a dynamic and continuing process, incorporates change. However, in part because of his philosophical identification of, for want of better terminology, a heightened reality, or ontology, of being available via, using his example, great art, I put myself in the camp of Heideggerians, although, like many of those who value him, I also am uneasy (profoundly so) by his advocating, during part of his life, the heightened being of great art exclusively of and for Germans and Nazism. Sartre, on the other hand, did not intend his philosophy to be solely applied to and for the betterment of French people only, certainly was on the left, politically, and, indeed, became a (disputatious) Marxist. I can, like others, with some difficulty rationalize Heidegger’s priority of Germans and Germany in his philosophy, give him the benefit of the doubt regarding his Nazi affiliation – accepting that this was quite brief – and, ultimately, universalize his work so that it has value for all of us. I can imagine an African and an Asian finding value in Heidegger, though, for some reason, I cannot an indigenous person of the Americas, for example, the Maya, my own research focus.

I propose there are two general motivations toward an ideal discoverable within Heidegger’s thought. The first is a ‘return’ to a different and somehow more fundamental way for humans to live than the excluding, measuring, and controlling rationalism of Western scientifically applied thought. The second is more specific: a ‘movement’ into ‘the power of poetry’, ‘poetry’ having a specific sense attached to it. For lack of space, I focus on the specific sense of the second ideal which he urges humanity – presumably not only Germans! – to pursue.

The second of these motivations is where Heidegger confirms for me, at any rate, the legitimacy of some of his fundamental insights. These have to do with what can only be described as the ‘magical’21 emergence out of or apart from the context of the hyletic or the conventionally considered reality, of absolutely unpredicted and unpredictable creations of art and poetry that simultaneously and, seemingly quixotically, are also and at the same time, discoveries. I speak here of how one reacts to a great work of art or writing – or, in principle, to a great idea or concept encountered in science: the always pre-written supposedly blank slate.

Clark quotes Heidegger: “It may be that one day we shall have to move out of our everydayness and move into the power of poetry, that we shall never again return into everydayness as we left it” (Gesumtausgabe 39: 22, cited by Clark [2011: 103]). This falls under the category of what Heidegger called the ‘pre-reflective’, what Sartre also called the non-thetic, what Husserl called the ‘lifeworld’, and what one finds somewhat helplessly but arrestingly called ‘lived experience’ in other phenomenological and existential texts (cf Sartre 1966: 397). It has also to do with the sheer or absolute specificity of the world, existence, and being (to crudely associate three words with quite precise definitions; see footnotes). Great art works so well because it takes advantage of heightened moments in the intensity of lived experience. As Flaubert and Rimbaud respectively described in wonderful aphorisms and poems22, during the realization of the poem or the artwork, crystallizations or distillations of much larger and sharper experiencing occurs – magically, world-openings, as it were. Reality is a matter of degree. Heidegger relates this ‘power of poetry’, first, to the unassailable insight of the absolutely specific or particular, without which there is no phenomenology, no existentialism, and no great art, and, second, as I have mentioned, to the absolutely unpredictable creations that are also discoveries, seemingly out of time, or from profoundly contextualized ‘lived experience’, and manifested by precisely those elements in great writing and art that – and here I paraphrase both Heidegger and Clark – take transformative possession of and overwhelm us, heightening or carrying us out of ordinary or quotidian existence to a more intense and complete or holistic sense of or connection to existence. Rimbaud – like a primordial rock star influential to youths in the provinces around much of the world in each generation since his death – certainly was one for whom the cognizance of the ‘turn of history’23, which Heidegger so cherished in Hölderlin’s poetry, was evident. In a few select and ever-quoted phrases from his famous letters about the task of the poet, he asked, “If wood wakes up a violin, is it to blame?” “If brass wakes up a trumpet, is it to blame?” Together with his equally famous dictum, consciously employing what one might call ‘deranged’ grammar, Je est un autre (“I is someone else”), the juxtaposition of first person pronoun with third person verb conjugation effectively declares that the entire supposedly subjective world is objective and absolutely specific, but, also, universal!. The distinction between abstract media, ‘wood’ or ‘brass’, and the specific forms we encounter of these media, ‘violin’ or ‘trumpet’, make clear how the specific or particular is the single most completely resonant or felt fact of life and the universe to the point of extraordinary emergence out of time and larger than any so-called real world thing-of-fact. Clark mentions Shelley (2011: 154) – in the same context in which, unfortunately, he also seems to miss the point, that he mentions Baudelaire’s poem, ‘Correspondences’. Shelley famously declared, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” – as idealist a statement as can be, but not a Platonic idealism, rather, a phenomenological and specifically, one might say, a Heideggerian one24.

Conclusion

From here on the verdict will depend on the endurance of the abstract constructions Heidegger’s work produced and attempted unavoidably to systematize – the bones of the skeleton of the meaning we continue to find in his work and historical place. Likely it will not depend on the ‘new language’ he said he needed to invent because of the novelty and the somehow Ur-fundamental nature of his philosophical program, famously declaring, for example, in Being and Time, that his task is to examine the nature of being – the ‘being of being’. Fall of those concerned about profound and unprecedented humanly caused planetary climate change, Clark declares, in addition, that “Heidegger is a major thinker of [the negative aspects] of globalisation” (Clark 2011: 2)25: [“p]ervading all of Heidegger’s work is an intense sense of crisis, or living at a grimly decisive time for the future of humanity” (Clark 2011: 3). But because he excluded the dialectic, and, impractically, did not consider the dialectic of history (as in Marx), neither can it rely on the urgency he declared was his principal motivation – to decry ‘techno-science’ and the ‘nihilism’ of the modern human project to appropriate, master and control ‘nature’ and ‘life’.

Most of the accusations of obfuscation with nothing behind the language and nothing of real content in his philosophy relate to the somehow much more immediate experiencing of life that he advocated so urgently. If his work is found of major value despite the errors and omissions I have noted, is his work ultimately is not found to contain large and encompassing ideas that resolve outstanding philosophical questions, he will suffer the fate of many others before him who became artifacts of particular times, places, and paradigms. Instead of overcoming the age, the age will have overcome him. Clark, himself, believes that understanding and deployment of Heidegger’s philosophy is still “working itself out” (2011: 3). In response to Clark, in a more trivial way, I will refer him back to his own admonitions that Heidegger and his philosophy purposely resist paraphrase or reduction. How do you interpret a thinker without rewriting him to some extent perhaps at least in the sense of putting in what ‘ought to be there’? In partial answer one could counter that since Heidegger was, first and foremost, a phenomenologist, he studied his own subjective impressions, as it were, and then tried to generalize from them to categorical modalities, stimmung, ‘care’, etc., just as Sartre did with ‘anguish’, ‘shame’, ‘love’, and ‘nausea’ (or, more fundamentally, ‘having’, ‘doing/making’ and ‘being’). Ultimately, from what I have suggested, because of the dialectical nature of human experience avoidance even at the level of paraphrase or linguistic reduction is not possible unless the human individual organism disappears as such26.

As suggested, ironically, it appears at least to this reviewer that, without more or less worldwide social revolution, international capitalism, working hand-in-hand with powerful states, seems well on the way to accomplishing not only the inhospitability of the planet as we comfortably survive in it but precisely the disappearance of humans with individual or existential consciousness. Heidegger the reactionary quite simply was wrong to urge a return to a somehow simpler but more direct relation to the universe. If trends and processes continue, the only individuals left standing will be the plutocrats – the international finance-capital class – and with techno-science, mostly financed by private capital and/or by neo-Liberal capitalist nation-states or superpowers, continuing to discover and identify the constituents of the human organism, including genetic sequences that are patented for profit. (One envisions warehouse factories where humans are hanging, immobilized, as DNA extraction milks them dry.) Accordingly, the individual human organism may be disappearing as such, depending, again, on whether or not one is situated within the superrich class and/or those individuals who benefit greatly from historical legacy like the Bush family, privileged to pass on their genes intact.

Ironically, indeed it may be that Heidegger’s project as a philosopher has ended up contributing to the radical techno-scientific distancing of humans and consciousness from the authenticity he advocated, this because so few people actually understand how information age technology works and, yet, increasingly use and rely on it. In this epoch of cell phone texting, already dating Heidegger is his stand against techno-science and the nihilism of the violence of Western Enlightenment rationality, the “absolutism of modernity’s drive to know” (2011: 4) rather than ‘to be’. Heidegger laments the death of God proclaimed by Nietzsche and wishes, in the ensuing emptiness, for a return to what could be construed as a more primitive existence by means of “what other modes of being and thinking, if any, might be conceived beyond [the Western tradition] … closed off and repressed by [it]” (ibid.). Ironically, our language seems dictated ever increasingly by information technology and the instrumentalism of computing. More and more, our grammar and spelling suffer from too quick email composition27. Heidegger’s post-Being and Time investigations of Hölderlin and of poetic language now seem almost embarrassingly antiquated – eclipsed – beached high and dry on the arid shores within the ocean of Capital of Crusoe-like islands of as yet unsold and unquantifiable meaning that turn out, sooner or later, to be a mirage anyway (virtual reality, predigested content for sale). He seems at risk almost of Luddite oddness. Today, mostly we love the Simulacrum and the Machine28. Heidegger missed how the human individual and collectively continues from the existential dialectic and lived experience is always, or at least up till now, in a race with those powers that label him ‘consumer’ to remain unassimilable.

That a reactionary – maudlin-sentimental? – Heidegger29 urgently proposed return to a more direct connection to meaning, or to a somehow newfound immediacy of life, has raised the risk of applying to him the axiom that the louder and more fevered the urging – and for a tenuously obtainable or practicably clear goal – the less serious we can take him and the less well he will fare over the long term; certainly he has not been the only critic of modernism (or neo-Liberal capitalism) and its effects. It is still uneasily possible to see Heidegger the Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg, the dispatcher of his mentor and philosophical father, Husserl, looming out of the defacing darkness of his ideological proposals, looking at us menacingly30. The maudlin, itself, is violent. On this score, Heidegger’s peculiar connection to German Jewishness beyond his Nazi badges is fascinating. The Jews in Heidegger’s life – two of them, at least, from whom he personally benefited enormously – were Husserl and Hannah Arendt, his pre-war lover and confidante31. Another, ironically, was the poet, Paul Celan, who wrote about the Holocaust32. Still another – unknown to Heidegger but important in twentieth-century critical thought – was Benjamin. It is not too far-fetched to understand that Heidegger’s various connections, potentially ruthless and maudlin, to his Jews partake somehow of the existential dynamic of self and other that has characterized the duality first recognized in the West by the pre-Socratics. This is the Western romantic impulse as manifested not only in European philosophy but in literature and the other arts. It is also the other, and very bloody, side in world history of the psychologically profoundly deep impulse in human consciousness to objectify or ‘kill’ the other – to construct out of another self or person, or tribe, ethnicity, or gender, the object which one ‘kills’, psychically (think of American commercials for beer and how if you buy and drink a certain brand, a beautiful woman appears for your use), and/or physically, and on which the individual or collective consciousness nourishes itself – for the sake of existential transcendence, the continuation of the for-itself to flee from being even as it feeds on it. One almost cannot help but wonder what went through Heidegger’s mind when he dedicated Being and Time to Husserl, when Arendt was receiving his embraces, when he was praising Celan to Celan’s face.

Further Reading:

References

  • Harman, Graham (2007) Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing. Peru, IL
  • Inwood, Michael (2002) Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press
  • Mulhall, Stephen (2005) Heidegger and Being and Time. 2nd ed. Routledge, Abingdon, UK
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul (1984) War Diaries. Verso, London
  • White, Carol J. (2005) Time and Death. Heidegger’s Analysis of Finitude. Ashgate, Aldershot, UK/Burlington, Vermont

  1. Continental philosophy is contrasted with analytic philosophy. ↩
  2. Reality’ is placed in quotes here to signify all and every definition or conception combined or intended by the term. I will not employ the quote marks for the word after this unless it is used with a specific, formal meaning.  ↩
  3. Contrary to most commentators and interpreters, Heidegger did closely follow his teacher and mentor, Husserl in many fundamental ways. For example, just as Husserl stressed “bracketing” the “natural world,” Heidegger stresses a “bracketing” – for analysis – of the entire “metaphysic” of Western rationality as this has been and is busy constructing as close as possible a copy of the real or of reality. Advisedly I use the term, ‘simulacrum,’ because Nietzsche and literary critical and postmodern philosophers such as Baudrillard use this term to mean an inevitably distorted version of something. ‘Copy’, here, for better or worse, is used, then, simply to mean the product of the human effort to understand and depict reality, that is, with the presumption that a neutral term is possible, heuristically, in discussions about the relation between human consciousness and the conceivable entirety of what it can be conscious of. I understand many criticisms can be made of this statement but I stress I use it simply for the purposes of advancing an argument and that criticisms might be reserved until this entire review is read and digested. I do believe, as I stress here, that Heidegger, like Husserl and like Sartre, assumed unquestionably the existence of a single reality even as he urges the denial of the construction of that reality by traditional Western thought. ↩
  4. ‘Being’ is in quotes, also, because not only is it in the title of Heidegger’s principal work, it is the central focus of his oeuvre before and after Being and Time. I suggest that by ‘being’, Heidegger means reality as it is experienced by human consciousness – or ‘human reality’ – and can be contrasted with positivist Western science’s term, ‘[the] reality’ or ‘the universe’. Kant, of course, is pertinent for this distinction, as is all post-Kantian Continental thought. What joins the two terms is the assumption that both refer to ‘what is’. One can also distinguish these two meanings of ‘reality’ otherwise joined as meaning ‘what is’ by understanding that Western science tries to remove what it considers the contamination of the observer in interpreting reality while Continental thought requires the principal inclusion of human consciousness in reality. The former is pragmatic, applied, and instrumentalist, the latter is holistic and has, as its single goal, knowing the entirety of reality. ↩
  5. ‘World’ has a specific meaning for Heidegger and “…[I]n the early work [of Heidegger is] often close in meaning to ‘being’. It means no particular entity (it is not the planet or the globe itself) but is that presupposed and disregarded space of familiarity and recognition within which all of the beings around us show themselves, are for us” (Clark 2011:16, italics by Clark). To this I would add the, to me, very important advance in thinking Heidegger has provided us with his notion of ‘there’, as in the Dasein, the ‘being there’ of consciousness, and which, in very good effect, extends Husserl’s great prior advance in thinking in identifying the intentionality of consciousness to the unanchored intentionalities of (individual) human consciousness and of the ‘world’ it finds itself always in prior to any construction by particular reflection upon or reasoning about. The ‘world’ is what is always ‘there’ and we are always a priori ‘there’ in the ‘world’ as existential fact. ↩
  6. See Notes 3, 5 and 6 and cf. Clark 2011:106-107 for discussion of this term as a ‘singular force’, the sense of which is accessed, to Heidegger, in the poetry of Hölderlin. ↩
  7. The author of the work reviewed here, Clark, refers to Heidegger’s “shabby academic politics” which must mean his treatment of the Jewish Husserl.  ↩
  8. By capitalizing the word I intend the ‘scientific’ or processual character of the human past; hence, the equation with quanta. ↩
  9. “[T]he inaccessible and recalcitrant mode of Heidegger’s writings makes any attempt to relate Heidegger clearly but also nonreductively to literary and critical debate a considerable labour of re-description and elucidation. So, even if it did not wish to be so, this book cannot but be original in the elucidations and redeployments it makes”. ↩
  10. Now, this is not such an absurd hortation if we consider that a human individual might not, as part of her/his working life incorporates these foci. Perhaps, indeed, Heidegger becomes more plausible in his recommendations or requirements of us that we become renaissance women and men. ↩
  11. See his War Diaries (1984). This is the case although Sartre could refer to the ‘barbarity’ of Heidegger’s method of discourse (1966:300). ↩
  12. Heideggerians today may forget that post-existentialism began with Levi-Strauss’s structuralism which was fatally flawed by being ahistorical. ↩
  13. See my earlier article in Spike on the Sokal Hoax for elucidation of this distinction; and cf. Sartre (1966:300). ↩
  14. See N. 5.  ↩
  15. I propose, here and now, that whenever we hear the word, ‘consumer’ – one of the biggest lies by its positive implications – we repeat the slogan, “the consumer is consumed” – by Capital, of course. We can understand Heidegger’s value here because he was not a neo-Liberal capitalist. ↩
  16. That Sartre became, for a time, a Marxist demonstrates his advocacy. ↩
  17. ‘Mechanics’: I suggest AI researchers not only to continue to build by greater software code and feedback loops, but also to try to incorporate this continuing dialectic so that the computer or the robot goes about this creation and appropriation of the Other. ↩
  18. E.g., “I am anguish in order to flee it” (Sartre 1966:53). Sartre continually refers to Hegelian ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence’ as co-joined or as functions of each other. The phrase, “immanence is transcendence” popped into my adolescent head many years ago. ↩
  19. This term used cf. Clark (2011:36). ↩
  20. My conversations with AI researchers suggests that the kind of holisms on the inaccessible or thus far unreproducible quality side of the quality versus quantity divide will be overcome by sufficient quantity in the same sense that changes of state, ice to liquid water to steam, for example, can occur with changes of quantity from heat. Interestingly Marx and Engels observed the same rule to apply in social-historical material process. ↩
  21. ‘Magical’ in the sense Sartre, at various places (e.g., 1966: 143) uses the term to mean both not-logical and not-possible, for example, that it is not possible to “re-enter the past not be because some magical power puts it beyond my reach but simply because it is in-itself and I am for-myself”. ↩
  22. “Love is the atmosphere of genius” (Flaubert), and the prose poem in Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations, ‘Genie’. ↩
  23. The ‘turn’ thus refers to what makes stand out ineluctably and amazingly the narrative of the individual life, where meaning occurs – at the intersection of life (consciousness or the for-itself) confronted by nothingness. ↩
  24. Again, strangely, Clark himself uses the word ‘legislate’ in making exactly the point Shelley made without acknowledging Shelley (cf. 2011:103). ↩
  25. Similarly with respect to ‘reality’, quote marks around these two terms are intended to combine, in effect, all of the many different meanings that exist and have been used in many different contexts, formal and informal. ↩
  26. ‘Human individual organism’ here meaning biologically and/or socially constructed or constituted. ↩
  27. Or as we become habituated if we are not already to reliance on word processing programs’ autocheck of spelling and grammar. ↩
  28. And perhaps we are building our own contexts of meaning that will befuddle quantification of the non-capital transactions of humans that existed in the fairytales of pre-Capitalist history. Our own – science fiction – modalities of experience may yet bring on the Socialist society, as predicted by Marx as inevitably coming. The science fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, wrote The Dispossessed, the only book I have ever read in which utopia is not dystopian, in which ‘communism’ is shown somehow to truly work for the benefit of both individual and the collectivity. It is an absolutely fascinating tour-de-force by a major writer of our time – a genius, I am convinced – for the shrewdness of her imagination in exemplifying through the narrative of fiction central problems confronting us, that is, for example, in The Dispossessed, how we move from capitalism to socialism. ↩
  29. By his emphasis on the life of the peasant, it is Interesting to compare Heinrich Himmler’s notorious mystical belief in the German or ‘Aryan’ farmer.  ↩
  30. I have been studying Husserl since I was about sixteen years old. I thought then – in my then very uninformed but curious intellect – and I continue to think, now, that Husserl is one of the great foundational figures in twentieth-century philosophy and has too easily been kicked to the curb. Cartesian Meditations warrants re-reading by everyone with an interest in Continental philosophy.  ↩
  31. Hollywood might want to consider a movie about Heidegger and Arendt such are the contradictions of the relationship and the dramatic background of historical events. ↩
  32. As well as being a Jew, he was, with Benjamin, a suicide. Celan’s role in Heidegger’s life is most interesting because Heidegger considered Celan a great poet and because many of Celan’s poems dealt with the Holocaust. Their two meetings late in both men’s lives must have been taut with extraordinary tension occurring within the compressions of great historical events of the most extreme drama, existential despair, and ‘turns in time’. A play or a film, also, might be envisaged consisting entirely of the conversation, amplified from the published accounts or the unpublished notes. For you have in this encounter two extraordinary sensibilities tethered to events and identities – truly ‘deep history’ – that put them in diametrical opposition except for an overlap of sensibility. One can also see the relationship as a bookend to Heidegger’s affair with Hannah Arendt: either it was a stereotypically German ‘fuck you’ to Jews – pretending to praise while actually denigrating or degrading – or else it might reinforce the case for Heidegger’s lack of anti-Semitism. Ambiguity was not left behind with the apparent demise of the dialectic and modernism. ↩

Dog Man’s A Star: Howard Hardiman’s The Lengths

The Lengths

A comic book that tells the story of dog-headed gay male escorts living in a London world of sex, drug dealers and porn stars isn’t going to be the easiest sell to a casual reader. Certainly The Lengths won’t be for everyone, but Hardiman has taken this dark and potentially bleak backdrop and created a book that’s warm, sometimes funny and ultimately very engaging. Kes Seymour reviews

Eddie is an art-school drop-out who is starting up a relationship with an old friend, Dan, who he hasn’t seen for a few years. As well as having to deal with the usual insecurities that arise at the start of any relationship, Eddie is also trying to keep his other life as ‘Ford’ the male escort a secret from Dan. The struggle that results from leading two very separate lives, and trying to juggle the relationships within both, underpins The Lengths. Has Eddie immersed himself too far in one world to allow himself to find happiness in a loving relationship in the other?

What could be an insular proposition for a story is made accessible by Hardiman’s brilliant characterisation. You may not have a male escort or a drug dealer in your life (what sheltered lives some of us lead…), but you will certainly know an Eddie or Dan-type and empathise with their day-to-day relationships and dilemmas and it’s this familiarity that draws you in to an otherwise potentially impenetrable world.

Hardiman has said that The Lengths is based on interviews with people in the sex-trade as well as his own experiences and there is a definite sense of just how personal this story is. The characters feel real (which is even more remarkable as they sport the heads of dogs!) and are instantly recognisable in both their actions and inactions. I’m not sure how much of the character of Eddie comes from Hardiman himself but you can almost feel the author’s frustration at Eddie and his questionable choices. “I’m a fuckwit,” Eddie thinks to himself after further jeopardising things with Dan and you can’t help but agree with him. As a reader you want to reach into the page and shake Eddie to stop him making bad decisions that will ultimately lead him too far down a path he won’t be able to return from.

As well as having to “work weird hours” as Ford, we learn that Eddie’s insecurity comes from his previous romances. These are explored through flashbacks and remembered conversations with former lovers and boyfriends. Eddie is obsessed with Nelson, a bodybuilder and fellow escort, but this love is unrequited and has left Eddie in freefall. We also get to see glimpses of Eddie’s previous relationship with James, a laid-back character who gives Eddie free reign to do as he pleases which seems to cause their undoing. These experiences have left Eddie in an emotional crisis and play a huge role in undermining his fledgling romance with Dan.

LengthsBut while the relationships between Eddie, Dan, Nelson and Ford are what draw the reader in, it’s the characters’ relationship with the city that I found the most fascinating. London looms large in The Lengths. Its presence is felt in almost every panel, towering over the players, making them seem very small and isolated. This is a very separate London to the everyday. It’s a lonely place that feels hard and uncaring; the isolation further highlighted by the absence of any women or children in the story. It’s an unfamiliar London. All of its landmarks can be seen but there’s a sense of foreboding about them; the art portrays the characters looking lost among the buildings as if being penned in and trapped.

I’ve painted The Lengths as being quite austere in tone, but there is a genuine humour present here that’s often quite unexpected. I found myself laughing quite a few times at things that maybe on the surface don’t lend themselves to comedy. Even the fact that the characters are held so much in London’s grip leads to a surprise funny moment with Eddie fantasising about spending a lottery win on an annual Oyster Card. There are some funny references to popular culture that fanboys will enjoy (Eddie’s Yoda ringtone always makes me grin and there’s a comical intergenerational conversation about Doctor Who) along with a knowing nod to the idea of comics themselves (“Do I tell him, or try to lead this stupid double life? Like a superhero”).

Of course, the question that continually arises is ‘Why dogs?’ Hardiman has said that “people care more about dogs than humans”, but I think he may be slightly tongue-in-cheek when he says this. Considering this story is based on real life experiences, the dogs certainly allow a level of anonymity to the lives being written about. It also cleverly lends itself to being able to recognise character traits by just looking at what type of dog they are; for example the muscular, but slightly dangerous Nelson is portrayed as a rottweiler/bull terrier type, whereas the safer, more faithful characters such as Dan and James are portrayed as friendly, loyal breeds (highland terriers and retrievers/spaniels – sorry, my knowledge of dog breeds isn’t that great!). I’m dying to see what sort of character a poodle would be. Or a chihuahua.

Over the course of the first three issues of The Lengths you can see a real progression with both Hardiman’s storytelling skills and his artwork. With the first issue you can sense that he is finding his voice and learning how to pace the story, while the art feels slightly sketchy and lacks confidence. A lot of The Lengths is told in flashbacks and its portrayal is slightly unclear, requiring a second or third reading to make complete sense of the narrative. But these are minor quibbles with what is obviously an ambitious and complicated story that is trying to be told. Certainly by the second and third issue, Hardiman’s storytelling skills have sharpened and his art becomes bolder and starts to flow beautifully across the pages.

I like The Lengths a lot and I really recommend you hunting it down. It’s certainly not your average comic book but while being set in an initially unfamiliar world, The Lengths reveals itself to be a tale that is easy to empathise with. Hardiman tells a very human story with his dog-headed characters. With a focus on relationships, both at their cautious beginnings and messy ends, and the insecurities felt and the mistakes made, it is ultimately a story that readers can relate to.

I’ve read somewhere that The Lengths is going to be limited to just eight issues. I certainly hope that this isn’t the case as Hardiman has created an intelligent comic with thought-provoking characters that can challenge and entertain for a good while yet to come.

Ipswich Zero 6: A Meeting with Ray Hollingsworth

There’s nothing new about writers using real crimes for research, but Ray Hollingsworth’s involvement in the high-profile murders of Ipswich working girls became a lot more personal. Jeanette Hewitt met the author to find out more

Ray Hollingsworth Ipswich Zero 6In 2006, my hometown of Ipswich was catapulted into the global media by a serial killer preying on the working girls of the red light district. In 2011, Ipswich Zero 6 was published, a personal and factual mix of real-life documentation, poetry, filmscape and scintillating records of conversations with the police, the media and the girls themselves.

Ipswich Zero 6 was born out of Ray Hollingsworth’s original idea for a screenplay–part fact, part fiction–set in the Ipswich underworld. For accuracy, Ray spoke with the women and, from the excerpts in his book, they were honest and willing to talk, and didn’t seem to mind that Ray was basing his writings on them.

I read Ipswich Zero 6, along with Ray’s previous book of poetry (Dirty Blonde at the Cash Machine) and although I’d followed the tragedy on the news when it was happening, I discovered a lot more from the book and my subsequent conversations with Ray. It portrays these women as human beings, not simply prostitutes. The book goes straight to the heart of the story, beginning with the realisation that girls were going missing, some of whom Ray had gotten to know on a personal level. It narrates how Ray, at one point a low-key suspect, offered his help to the police as, from his research and subsequent friendship with them, he now knew these people and the area very well, and becoming almost a regular on Sky News as an on-the-scene correspondent.

Interestingly, the book is broken up into 6 parts. ‘Mediascape’, a general background as to what was happening in and around Ipswich in December 2006, Ray’s interviews and correspondence with the media, the arrests that were made and the subsequent charges brought against Steve Wright. The second part, ‘Voices’, includes conversations with the girls, mostly between the summer of 2005 and spring 2006; a collection of interviews which are sometimes humorous, some frightening, some touching but each brutally honest about the lifestyle these girls have chosen. The ‘Soundscape’ section is an eclectic mix of thoughts and poetry set against a backdrop of audio, which one must imagine and embrace when reading this part of the book. For example, the sounds range from an amusement arcade and police sirens to heart monitors in a hospital. ‘Poetics’ was written between the summer of 2005 through to 2007–a collection of poetry, again, very honest and beautifully written.

‘Soundscape’ is probably the section that captured me most of all. At Ray’s own admission, the idea for the film was born out of a failed relationship that made him turn to the twilight underworld of Ipswich, a deliberate form of escapism on his part, and one that he described as becoming almost an addiction. It is very clear at this stage that the line between the film and reality blurred somewhat, and it is hard to tell at points which is real and which is the fantasy. This however, makes reading all the more compelling. The final instalment of the book, ‘Reflections’, is just that: reflecting. Ray’s ideas on how some of the lives of these women could have been saved are especially poignant.

I met with Ray a few weeks after reading the book. For authenticity and to set the scene, we arranged to meet outside the convicted killer’s former home. Steve Wright’s old house is in the heart of what was the Ipswich red light district. It is now, I’m assured, defunct. Ray’s interest in crime scenes was apparent immediately, as he asked me if I would like to look behind the house, the car park area, which had been cordoned off on his previous visits around the time of the murders. As we surveyed the area and discussed what Ipswich was like at that time, Ray talked animatedly about his involvement with the girls. He was very much a friend to them, at a point in his life where I deduced he also needed a friend. Some of them stayed at his home, although never for longer than about eight hours, he pointed out, as this was when their drugs would begin to wear off and they would need to hunt again. Sometimes he looked after them in an almost fatherly way, washing their hair, feeding them and sometimes there was sex. Although Ray freely admitted to having sexual relations with the women, I got the impression this was not first on his list of priorities. These women were people first in his eyes, prostitutes to him almost as an afterthought.

Ray Hollingsworth Dirty BlondeIpswich Zero 6, like all of Ray’s previous five books, is self-published. Prior to our interview, I read that Ray received one rejection and never tried again. As somebody who kept battering at the publisher’s doors for almost ten years before my work was accepted, this difference of opinion interested me. I asked Ray why he had not pursued more publishing houses. His answer was that he “doesn’t like the publishing industry”. As Ray is more centred towards poetry, he confessed that he found the British poetry industry rather political and, as his work is quite edgy, he felt he wouldn’t stand a chance at getting his foot in the door and being accepted. Rather than waste time, he simply published his works himself, which I found refreshingly honest and true to oneself. I also asked Ray if he had to seek permission for the use of the content in Ipswich Zero 6 or whether he had a free reign on it. He didn’t know, and didn’t much care!

As we spoke, I discovered that Ray has a passion for crime scenes, in particular those that are unsolved, or where a miscarriage of justice has occurred. He told me of extensive research that he has done on the case of Madeleine McCann and Jeremy Bamber among others. We discussed theories and case points in great detail covering a lot of subjects, most of which Ray still has a hand in.

What impressed me most is Ray’s drive and determination. If he wants something, he goes after it with a vengeance. After completing Dirty Blonde at the Cash Machine, for example, he was in London with a friend, when he saw a woman walk past and knew instantly she was the model that he wanted to portray the ‘blonde’ in his book. He followed her, waiting whilst she went into MacDonald’s and when she emerged, he approached her, telling her that he had followed her and explaining his interest in her. Some young women would have run at this point, but Ray has a direct, honest way of speaking, getting straight to the point and posing no threat whatsoever. This lady, Julie Patterson, was the model featured in the photo shoots for Dirty Blonde. Another example of Ray’s persistence is his marketing of his book. By telephoning Waterstone’s himself and delivering stock, he succeeded in having the major book retailer stock Ipswich Zero 6.

There are many adjectives that one could use to describe Ray and his slightly off key-style of existing both in life and in his words: crazy fool, fearless, determined, passionate, admirable. Take your pick. My conclusion is that more of us might learn to live like him.

Further Resources:

  • Interview with Ray Hollingsworth for the BBC

Jill McGivering: Far from my Father’s House

Jill McGivering is a BBC foreign correspondent and has reported from all over the world, including some of its poorest and most conflict scarred countries. In Far from my Father’s House, her second novel, she employs her wealth of experience in the field to tell tale of Layla, a young Muslim woman, and the destruction of her family life by the Taliban. The author answered a few questions about her life and career as a writer.

Jill McGivering

As a foreign news correspondent for the BBC you’ve travelled all over the world and must’ve seen horrifying and extraordinary things: can you give us examples of humanity at its best and at its worst?

I have witnessed first hand many instances of the horrific treatment of vulnerable people in my work as a correspondent: young girls being enslaved to work as prostitutes, babies being bought and sold, the mental ill being kept in chains and villagers murdering fellow families because they’re from a different caste or religion. And that is not counting the suffering and violence associated with armed conflict and, in a different way, with natural disasters.

It would be easy to have a cynical view of human nature. But what heartens me is the knowledge that I am not the only person who finds such stories distressing. In all these environments, I have come across many examples of people who are brave enough to take a stand against injustice and fight for other people’s rights and safety, often at great personal risk. I’ve also seen great acts of kindness – for example, families who are desperately poor themselves but who willingly take in a family of strangers and feed and shelter them, just because they are in need – or, during murderous riots, people who risked their own lives by intervening to try to defend those under attack. In a less direct way, it is also humbling when I have broadcast a report and afterwards “ordinary” people, who live thousands of miles away in a different culture, get in touch with me to ask how they can help or how they can send money to the people in need.

You’re currently based in London: do you prefer to be at home and travel on assignments, or do you prefer long-term postings abroad, such as those in Delhi and Washington, DC? Would you like to leave the UK again and, for that matter, do you consider the UK your home?

I definitely consider the UK to be home. I was born and brought up here and my family lives here – and has done for as far back as we can trace the family tree. I loved living overseas for almost all of my 20s and 30s. It was exciting and I learned so much about other cultures, about people, about news and, of course, about myself. But now I am very happy to have the best of both worlds: living in London but having the chance to travel often for work and pleasure.

To what extent are the characters, locations and situations described in your novels based on your experiences as a journalist?

I try to draw on elements of my own experiences to give my novels credibility and authenticity. My real life experiences help me, for example, to give a strong sense of place and describe what a particular environment feels, smells and looks like. It also feeds the books in terms of developing key themes and ideas.

My first novel, The Last Kestrel, is set in Helmand Province during the current conflict and it would have been really hard to describe a village in Helmand, give a sense of the local culture and reflect an experience of a journalist who is embedded with the British military if I hadn’t experienced these things for myself.

But it’s also extremely important that the actual events, the plot lines and characters are all fictional. It’s almost a case of knowing a place to start with – then taking a big step away from the real world, going into the imagination and only then starting to write. Also plot is very different from real life and needs to come to reasonably satisfying resolutions and conclusions.

Far from my Father’s House is a case in point. I’ve spent time in relief camps in North West Pakistan, interviewing people who have escaped from communities which had been taken over by the Taliban and some of the stories I heard and the women I met made me inspired, some time later, to sit down and imagine a set of fictional characters and the journeys they might take.

Do you write your fiction with an agenda? That is to say, are you trying to create a work of art or raise social issues? ‘Both’, of course, is an entirely reasonable answer.

I don’t want to pursue an agenda. That would imply for a start that I thought I had the answers – and a theme in the novels is that no-one really does. Agendas are too simple. The moral landscapes in all my novels are very grey. There are no good or bad characters. The characters are all people who are doing the best they can to survive and to pursue their dreams in very difficult situations and while they are coming under immense internal and external pressure. I’d like readers to have a sense of the humanity of these characters – with all the complexities and struggles that humanity involves. So they’re not intended to deliver simple social messages – that would be unrealistic and too convenient.

Who are the writers that you admire and enjoy?

I used to love Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager – especially To The Lighthouse. Her use of language was so lyrical and groundbreaking. More recently I’ve really enjoyed the novels of Sarah Waters – probably Fingersmith is my favourite – for their clever plotting and very clean but evocative use of language.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road blew me away when I first read it. It’s harrowing but also a very moving examination of a man’s love for his child.

One of my favourite recent books was Wolf Hall – a very worthy winner of the Booker Prize. She has such a gift for narrative and for character. I felt bereft when I finished it – and can’t wait for the sequel to come out.

Do you feel that any of them influence your style?

I suspect that all these years as a working journalist have influenced my style more than other writers. My writing used to be more lyrical when I was younger and I was interested in language for its own sake. Now I see language as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The narrative and the characters matter and the words only serve them. Journalism also taught me the discipline of sitting down and getting on with it.

Finally, as a journalist, do you think the recent phone hacking saga will make the public wary of the media as a whole, or reinforce trusted organisations like the BBC?

There’ve always been good and bad journalists, some who are very ethical and some who are less so. I think the public has the sense to realise that good journalism is valuable, in fact essential, and needs to be safeguarded. The current scandals are a terrible shock for the profession but hopefully it will lead to wider debate about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what’s genuinely in the public interest and what is not.


Far From My Father's House

As McGivering says, all her characters are fictions pulled together from strands of reality and this is most evident in the central character of Layla who is presented to us through the first person. The author gives Layla a very convincing voice which makes the relationship between the girl and her family so engaging, and equally evocative are the descriptions of Pakistan itself. Layla is educated as the son her father never had and sometimes wishes that she indeed been a boy so she could work and travel as the men of her people do. Gender inequalities are a central theme of the book but McGivering is able to avoid ever sounding like a preaching churl of Western values who thinks Muslims have everything wrong.

Layla’s father attempts to resist the Taliban but, despite his courage, his school is crushed by the oppressive agents of that glorified crime ring. There are more attacks on education later in the novel, highlighting that under all totalitarian regimes freedom of thought and expression must be crushed in order to protect the thugs who would seek to control every aspect of their supporters’ lives.

Ellen, a British journalist, and Jamelia, Layla’s father’s first wife, are the other two voices in the book – this time in third person. Sometimes it can be a distraction switching between first and third perspectives but one must ask oneself would anything be lost if it were written in one or the other? In this novel the answer is yes, if the novel were written all in third person then we would lose the keen insight into Layla’s thoughts and feelings; conversely, if it were written in first person from Ellen’s perspective this would be too easy for McGivering.

Throughout the book the author builds tension well and the opening chapters are an immediate hook for the reading – Layla’s fear of being seen by Taliban supporters, even on the first few pages, is especially well rendered. The events surrounding Ellen are narrated equally vividly, however, certain plot twists were somewhat too loudly signalled: the use of the character Adnan by the Taliban and the involvement of the sinister aid huckster Quentin Khan, for example. However, Jamelia was another credible character who lent her strength and wisdom to the men of her family and struggles to overwhelm their inertia in the face of the Taliban.

If there was an off-putting branch of the narrative it was the relationship between Ellen and Frank; this felt superfluous to the overall plot and was not required to keep the reader engaged. One might say that this novel was aimed towards a female audience but the lives of the women themselves are remarkable enough to stand without a love angle.

Perhaps the book could have probed further into issues such as equality for women and education for girls but, as she says above, McGivering does not write with an agenda and literature is not an engine for social change. It is enough to have written a satisfying book that encompasses mystery, adventure and suspense whilst making you think – and all set in a country which every Westerner thinks they know, but which might yet yield some surprises.

Caitlin Moran: How To Be a Woman

Bible, manifesto, rant, autobiography, and instruction manual rolled into one. Reviewed by Vikki Littlemore

Caitlin MoranCaitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman, putting water on the fire of my own year-long hope, is far from a how-to guide to being anything. What it is, essentially, is a reminiscence of a woman’s life, told with an ingeniously comic voice, holding the added bonus of granting immense comfort to all those women who wanted the reassurance that they aren’t weird, that other women think and feel the same things, do the same things, like masturbate in the afternoon, just like Caitlin, a person they can respect. Basically, it’s Harry Potter for women.

To those who read Moran every week in The Times, or follow her face-splitting and blazingly ‘normal’ extemporisations on Twitter, this book is a perfect progression. It offers Moran’s disciples (growing in number every day) three benefits: 1. An insight into her life. 2. A holy and cleansing feeling of “Me too” in almost every line. Even reading her tweets, one constantly feels compelled to shout aloud “I think that!”, “I do that, too!”, and the book is no different. 3. A feminist elucidation, in which bra burning is made old-fashioned, and a set of principles for the modern, intelligent woman is proposed.

Moran is brave. She has to be, her reputation and career depend on it. She earns high respect, and (one assumes) high wages by not shying away from difficult ground. In the book she faces subjects head-on; from wearing her mother’s secondhand knickers as a teenager, because it’s all they could afford, to holding her lack of guilt after an abortion up to the limelight of a whole chapter. If the respect she’s earned by being fearless, and open was ever subject to re-evaluation, it’s surely still intact. This book proves that Moran deserves the balls she’s so often credited with, and in a way that makes it ridiculous for it to have ever been up for question.

The book starts with the obligatory ‘period’ chapter, something which has, over the years, given feminism a bad name. Whether it’s necessary or not to discuss menstruation, Moran is forgiven, because she handles the subject with such linguistic skill and humour that you almost forget to squirm. Instead of rolling one’s eyes at another feminist wrenching of blood and guts in the name of women, one laughs, and feels warmth, and the subject is given a new lease of life. As with every subject she takes on, Moran wrestles with the subject matter with fierce gumption, and wins. Moran isn’t just funny, though, there’s a sadness behind every joviality that makes you feel close to her, sometimes makes you want to cry. “‘I don’t think Judy Garland ever had a period,’ I tell the dog unhappily, later that night. I am watching myself cry in a small hand-mirror. ‘Or Cyd Charisse. Or Gene Kelly’.” The woman who dressed as Beyoncé and attempted to learn the Single Ladies dance routine for The Times (the video of which appears to have vanished completely from the internet), unashamedly and humbly introducing herself as “Caitlin Moran, a mum from North London”, truly earns her dues, in terms of comedy and raw honesty.

Moran discusses the many self-explorations involved in growing up, especially sexual ones, and also her parents and siblings, with sometimes cringe-worthy naked honesty. However, a fraction of a second before your face screws up and you form a gut feeling of embarrassment or pity for this clumsy ingénue, you remember that you did or said exactly the same thing many years ago. What’s more, you felt the same, too. Moran’s biggest asset, apart from being nifty with words, is her deep connection to honesty and normality. She describes growing up in a council house with no money and so many siblings that they shared beds, and one realises where her humility comes from.

The book is being called a “feminist manifesto” by almost everyone who’s reviewed it, and it’s easy to see why. Moran uses every ‘C’ word on the list, with the proud guffaw and Greerist austerity of what she calls a “strident feminist”, without ever losing the gentleness of a mother. She manages to embody tender frumpiness, learned from the council-estate, and also leopard print, metropolitan, spiky glamour, learned from London. It’s so tempting to feel that it is her rightful place, on the monolith that allowed her to write a book entitled How To Be a Woman, duly inaugurated as 21st-century London’s perfect example of womanhood. Perhaps, one thinks, she is the perfect woman. Certainly, to many, she is a role model. Without lectures, or demands, or demonstrations, Moran teaches young women, and old alike, that you can have a brain and use it. As Margaret Thatcher said: “If you have to tell people that you’re a lady, you aren’t”, so Caitlin Moran proves that you can be intelligent, hilarious, and nurturing to your family, and she does it without kicking her feet, or chaining herself to a building, as her feminist predecessors had to. She does it while admitting that she doesn’t hate men (another misinformed axiom heaped on feminists): “I love boys. They’re funny and can lift heavy things”, and that she felt right and morally justified to terminate her pregnancy, because it wasn’t the right time in her life to have another baby.

Moran discusses feminism and its few heroes with contemporary awareness, one foot in modern society, the other in history. She talks about feminist heroes, and everyday women, with realistic practicality, rather than stereotypical convenience: “I started reading Sylvia Plath, who everyone agrees is one of the few women who can write as well as a man, but who also keeps trying to kill herself”. How To Be a Woman is affirming, comforting, and empowering for women; giving them permission to feel confidence in being who they are, rather than a pre-formed mould of the perfect woman to conform to, and funny for men and women alike. Bible, manifesto, rant, autobiography, instruction manual; this book can be so many things to so many people, the only invariable is that it will do something significant to you. It’s one of those books that you can’t not read.

Red Heat: Alex Von Tunzelmann

Alex Von Tunzelmann serves up a thrilling take on the Cold War. Reviewed by Vikki Littlemore

Red Heat coverNotwithstanding the racy title, it’s possible for Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Red Heat, a substantially detailed account of politics in the Caribbean, to appear intimidatingly opaque, or Everest-like, to the non-expert reader. Halfway down the first page, however, the fear is put aside. Von Tunzelmann writes with such excitement and energy that the grey and factual expositions become an adventure. Instead of relating dates and figures with dispassion, creating educational but lifeless non-fiction, Red Heat is invigorating, and becomes a page-turner instantly. Harnessing the energy and romanticism of Che Guevara and The Motorcycle Diaries, Von Tunzelmann uses the rich drama and revolution of that period to create spell-binding reading, without losing facts. Red Heat somehow manages to combine the intricate and vital details, with a compelling and fantastical story, making it a valuable resource on many levels.

The prologue, called ‘The Secret War’, immediately introduces the reader to Alex Von Tunzelmann’s unique talent for merging historical illustration with wit and the finesse of a good, contemporary fiction writer. She begins with a trick. “The plot was aimed at New York” are the first words of the book, and they begin a paragraph which appears to depict the terrorist attacks of September 2001; “The plot was aimed at New York: the most famous city in the richest nation on earth, and the most sought-after prize for any anti-American terrorist”. However, after lulling the reader into the assumption that the paragraph is talking about 9/11, the record is set straight; “The date was 17 November 1962″. In this self-aware, socially connected way, Red Heat, guides the reader along what is undoubtedly a journey; from the youthful strivings of Fidel Castro, through Spanish wars of 19th-century Haiti, and slave trades, to the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. Every historical event is related with pure clarity, cool needle-sharp precision in dates and facts, and most importantly, an exuberance that compels the reader to carry on.

The detail in every episode suggests an incredible amount of research and in-depth expertise from Von Tunzelmann. Not a single word is wasted, every sentence holds a vital, precious seed of information. There is no fluff, or vamping, because there is no need to find fillers and incidental pulp. Von Tunzelmann expresses encyclopaedic and unfailing erudition, while never being academic or lofty. Each sentence is filled with fact, but simultaneously breath-holding with thrills and drama, living up to its title; ‘Heat’ is exactly what it has. This is something very unique in a writer; the exhilarating suspense and story-telling of a top-notch whodunit, combined with the flawless factual knowledge of a valuable reference resource. It makes the material accessible to readers coming from any approach, for any purpose. One can read Red Heat as part of academic research, or as a revolution fan on the back of The Motorcycle Diaries.

Von Tunzelmann moves seamlessly from high-office political chess manoeuvres and the intricacies of men in suits in Washington or Santiago, to the sweat on the backs of unwashed and exhausted guerrilla forces following Fidel and Che through mango groves, carrying ammunition for their next terrorist strike. There are despotic villains manifested in international dictators; Trujillo, Batista, and sweaty, idealistic heroes to make women swoon. The book is exciting, and brings together far-reaching worlds; wars on tropical islands; (“The question that must be asked about 1962 is not whether it is feasible that the government of the United States might have resorted to such techniques- evidently, it might–but what could have been going on among the palm trees on a couple of islands in the Caribbean to provoke a superpower to such extreme action”), the uprising and revolution of oppressed people all over the continent, and the Kennedys, the Cold Wars, and politics, and Missile Crises that involved and frightened the entire world, not just its leaders. Red Heat incorporates them all, and submerges you, totally, in the action. The narrative voice, because that’s what it is, even though this is non-fiction, is not only passionate and erudite, but casual, so much so that the book feels like a conversation with a clever friend. Von Tunzelmann is always affable, and filled with rapt joy in her subject.

Red Heat is enriching, whether you’re a student, romantic, or just enjoy literature. This is one of the first books to absolutely capture my attention, so fully that I lost awareness of my surroundings, which is surprising given that this is a non-fiction book in an area that I’m interested in, but by no means well-educated in, the extent of my knowledge being that Che Guevara was from Argentina. One feels captivated, and educated, all at once.

On Curling Up In A Ball: Ronald Dworkin: Justice For Hedgehogs

Ronald Dworkin’s latest book attempts to engage with moral truths and the pursuit of a meaningful life. Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews

No mention of Professor Dworkin’s latest work, Justice for Hedgehogs, can pass by without the following:

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.

So goes the old fable. The hedgehog, or cat, in some versions, knows his one defence but the fox, even with all his tricks, is torn apart by dogs. Dworkin’s foxes are Sceptics and Nihilists; his hedgehogs, however, are people who believe in one big thing: that the good life and living well, justice and morality should be viewed through a holistic perspective.

Justice for Hedgehogs explores all of these elements and more; how do we come to moral truths? How we know these to be truths? What responsibilities do we have? Any book of philosophy worth reading provokes questions, and after reading this book one could go on asking questions like these of ourselves, with guidance from Dworkin, until we have blown the examined life out of all narcissistic proportion.

Indulge me in a hypothetical argument: It is a moral truth that more people should read books authored by philosophers like Ronald Dworkin than those by people like Alain de Botton (or Alain de Bum-Bum as Will Self has rendered me unable to otherwise call him) because the latter add nothing to the pursuit of living well and reflecting on the good life in a meaningful way and, furthermore, that they are the philosophical equivalent of the novels of Martine McCutcheon and Katie Price. How would one, hypothetically of course, come to such an argument? It would depend on one’s education, personality, tastes and background; moreover, it would rely on a wider conviction that philosophy and art come from a deep wellspring and are integral to the good life.

Clearly the example above is slightly facetious – even if the argument behind it is an important one. It does, however, raise another point: could a layperson – of the “ordinary view”, as Dworkin puts it – tackle Justice for Hedgehogs? Well, yes. The book is, as would be expected, full of philosophical terminology but Dworkin has an extraordinary gift of inserting either direct or more discreet explanations throughout the chapters, which, at the start of each, are themselves summarised. It is also worth remembering Dworkin’s early assertion that, despite the necessity to discuss other philosophers, the book is not a book of what others think but rather what he thinks.

Naturally many people will always say that the good life should be lived not pondered about; but living well is not having everything you want and the good life is not one exclusively of pleasures material and flesh, nor is it an Aristotelian one spent in full-time contemplation. Living well is living with dignity and with a respect for other people’s lives; striving for a good life, more than any attainment, is what should count. If a scientist never produces any hard evidence for his theories, has he still lived well through their pursuance?

Of course there are those that take comfort in religion and have no examined life and live well only to the extent permitted by whatever celestial power they bow their heads before – but they, as Dworkin says, have not lived well if they have not at least considered the motives behind their religious instincts. They are no better than those who, like our foxes, default to scepticism or believe that nothing matters at all – but such people often forget to consider their own conclusions with the same degree of examination with which they came to them. These lives, Dworkin proposes, lack dignity because they lack self-respect, i.e., there is no self-respect in living for the dangled carrot and blind assumption of an afterlife – where any validation is, by definition, after the fact.

Professor Dworkin’s book is a vast fusillade of erudition that bears re-reading, and re-reading, and re-reading to fully grasp the breadth of the arguments contained. Not to mention the inevitability of seeking out other works to balance against it. Perhaps consideration of the following will encourage you to do so:

“I assume… that you suppose that it is important how your life goes. You want your life to be successful because you think its success is important, not the other way around. Is my assumption correct? Can you plausibly interpret they way you live as reflecting the rival assumption that it is only subjectively important how you live – important that you live well only because you want to live well? Please take some care over that important question”.

Answers on a postcard.

Charlie Hill: The Space Between Things

Reviewed by Declan Tan

The Space Between Things book coverCharlie Hill’s debut novel seems already to have been pigeonholed as a love-story, a certainly tragic one, between its narrator, Arch (a character who has already made appearances on the independent literary scene) and Vee, the counterpoint to Arch’s solipsistic, inward-looking existence.

Set in the early 1990s, the novel begins at a party in Birmingham’s alternative district of Moseley to celebrate Thatcher’s tearful resignation and the hope of upheaval that followed. Arch encounters Vee for the first time.

This inchoate, anti-romantic relationship however, seems merely to be the axle that the novel wishes to rotate its wheel of ideas on.

And so begins their intertwining. She resists his placid Beat-quoting and Bukowski-infused conversation to confront him on his easy, ready-made beliefs as to how the good man lives, and how one ought to connect with the outside world. From early on, his reading, his knowledge and his ideas represent the kind of universal influences still batted about today, along with their relation to the 90s youth’s view of history: that seemingly nothing came before the Beats, before the 60s, or before the current uprising, a cycle that finds its repetition in all youth movements since.

This taking of universal influences – still popular in equivalent crowds today – lends an allegorical slant to Arch’s false journey of the self. Locking in contemporaneous ‘End of History’ sloganeering and the ‘End of Politics’ chat, we’re offered an insight not only into Arch’s psyche but also Moseley’s easy-answer, misguided disconnection from the world.

Hill’s depiction of the place is written as a kind of Brummie precursor to London’s boho, hipster-glamourised Hoxton of the noughties, where ostentatious angel-headed hipsters fart around at changing the world, playing at making a difference, all amongst the green smoke, chemical raves and mute squeals for revolution. And Arch, though he keeps an aloof distance from the ‘believers’, is sucked in when Vee calls him out on his go-nowhere, existential ennui. After a night of quick connection and zappy sex, she leaves him and returns to Yugoslavia to cover the ongoing war there, leaving him with the impression that to have her, he has to move his ideas forward.

Meantime, Arch endeavours to make more of his position in this Moseley whirlpool of ideology and revolution, throwing himself into the inbred vortex of poseurism, becoming a ‘believer’ in the cause and evangelical in his limited concepts. He becomes involved in the street protest movement, his false and forced awakening coming at the weeklong free rave at Castlemorton, his transformation induced under the leadership of the volatile Stripe and his vacuous girlfriend Sorrell who epitomises all that he wants to avoid in his newfound, self-satisfied belief of making a stand against ‘The Man’.

He gets into the techno-rave scene and finds intellectual and emotional solace in the engirdling ideas of fellow protester Ig’s civil disobedience vs. Stripe’s brand of direct action – revelations that he thinks will change Vee’s wilted view of him. And so he busies himself with the self-serving, delusional journey from lugubrious impassivity to the ‘anything is possible’ system of beliefs spouted by the movement. He is convinced by the likes of Ig and Stripe of the real, genuine personal responsibility the individual has, slotting neatly into his new box of ready-made views.

And when Vee returns, she furthers his ‘almost’ connection to the outside world, he wants to show her how he has changed, how he has been brought out of his near-sighted slumber, without realising he has merely moved into a different kind of ideological somnolence. It seems Hill’s charge here is that it is just another easy out to go from one kind of complacency to another, easy in these communes of self-belief to continue living within this pipe-dream.

But this ideological transition is not as prosaic or didactical as I seem to let on. Hill’s style is bright with humour, he has a natural ear for rhythm as well as a depth of slang both playful and unobtrusive, slang that has seen the novel compared with Welsh’s Trainspotting, a book overtly referenced by Arch’s culturally voracious squat-mate, Mike. At first, Arch’s narration reads, at times, as an updated Burroughsian Junky, though (initially) softer in its drug of choice, the melange of characters indulge in whatever they can get their hands on. As Arch’s ideas begin to twist into his zealous evangelism, the prose takes on a journalistic intensity, albeit at times a little too pedestrian in its delivery of real events. But these instances are rare, and Hill handles Arch’s clay-footed leap of consciousness and ensuing distress with remarkable pacing and emotion.

The central crux of Arch’s futile journey embodies a very real search for answers. And Arch seems to think he has found them, though they are as illusory as his relationship with Vee, which ends, as made clear in the opening, with loss and stillness. But Arch holds onto his ideas for as long as he can, this impermanent state of mind that has a ragged edge when bordering on a complacent sense of conviction. And this state of mind, no matter what side you are on (if there even are sides) is merely that, a momentary belief in a momentary something, no matter how poor placed or how convincingly argued, and it all becomes a “shit-eating grin” of complacency and self-satisfaction.

Hill deconstructs the ideologies through his characters, each seemingly representing one way or another, and pokes a stick at the inward visions of a hipster crowd like that in Moseley.

Perhaps it is over-simplifying the complex and enigmatic character of Vee, who is never really a part of the protest scene, to say that she is merely the opposite of the Arch. But it is this ‘pipe dream’ of changing the world that brings these characters together, albeit from differing points on the Moseley political spectrum. Vee, with her ‘Endless Inquisition’ and outward view vs. the movement’s limited ‘Finding, Latching on and Believing’ plays out as a battle of ideas that has no feasible winner.

It is easy to see why The Space Between Things has been viewed as a love story (the couple’s penchant for Velvet Underground brings to mind the song ‘I Found A Reason’), but Vee, Arch and the rest of the misfit gang are narrative tools for Hill’s multifaceted scepticism. It is a bleak tale (for the reality is bleak) that can relate directly to the intermittent and possibly futile calls for uprising within protest movements today, its questions true to the questions that face all protest movements, particularly where, like here, few seem fully prepared to put it all on the line. Though that doesn’t mean Hill doesn’t hope we/they do:

“We don’t live in a world of simple answers and I’m wary of those who think we do. We don’t have it in us to create a utopian society, in which the freedom of the individual is not subject to any limitation and the needs of those who can’t provide for themselves are met. The way in which we interact with other individuals and other communities is characterised by compromise – moral, intellectual, emotional. As a species we don’t do intellectual purity. We are flawed. We do fudges and suck it and see.

Acknowledging that this is the human condition doesn’t mean that we should give up on the idea of change – or changes – for the better. I just think we’ve got to accept that striving for improvements in the way in which we organise ourselves is an ongoing and ultimately frustrating process. I think it all comes back to that Beckett line about trying again, failing again, failing better. And I think that on a practical level, if we accept our limitations, we have to be prepared to work with  – and not just against – what we’ve got, however unsatisfactory that may be…”

Repackaged Misogyny: Natasha Walter: Living Dolls

Jacob Knowles-Smith considers whether gender politics have lost their direction and clout through the prism of two recent books

Anyone who has even the briefest acquaintance with nightclubs in recent years will have seen girls dressed as Playboy bunnies in almost just their underwear, replete with stockings and suspenders, quite as frequently as one will see girls who are, indeed, dressed only in their underwear or a bikini. Perhaps less often, one will see girls on dance floors kissing each other in order to garner male attention. The latter scenario usually creates quite a scrum of groping limbs where not an eyelash is batted by either side – though some may be fluttered.

Of course, it could be that this reviewer consorts with the seamier side of society but, more probably, it illustrates that the subjects of Natasha Walter’s book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, are commonplace in modern life. The same also goes for pornography, strip clubs and, probably less common, but not much more taboo, prostitution. In her chapter about pornography Walter gives statistics from a 2007 Canadian report showing that 90 per cent of boys aged 13-14 and 70 per cent of girls the same age had viewed pornography, so it’s no great stretch to imagine that most people have seen porn at some time (take a look at Spike’s most popular articles). No stag night, or business lunch, for that matter, seems to be complete without a visit to a strip club – but if that doesn’t do it for you, then why not take a plane to Amsterdam to really see the groom off with a bang, so to speak.

Indeed so commonplace are these elements discussed in Walter’s book that to object to them is viewed as the highest prudery. Therefore, it is testament to Walter’s skill that she is able to maintain a non-judgemental perspective throughout the book and repeats that there is obviously nothing wrong with the desire to appear attractive and that, with something like pornography, it is the individual’s choice whether to enjoy it. And it would seem that the promoters of lad’s mags and pornography alike are keen to emphasise that the whole thing is a matter of choice.

It is this idea of ‘choice’ that Walter opposes: the choice to be ‘empowered’; the choice not to be stuck in a dead-end job if you can use your body your make more money; the choice to divorce emotion from sex (both professionally, if you are, say, a pole dancer, and in your personal life); but it all seems to boil down to the choice to accept the notion that, in order to be a liberated modern woman, you need to be hyper-sexualised and turn yourself into a parody of a glamour model or even an R&B performer – this misogyny repackaged as feminism. As one burlesque performer interviewed in Living Dolls puts it, “serving up misogyny with a tasteful package of feathers”. Whilst more literal in the burlesque dancer’s case, it nicely illustrates how this has become part of the status quo, right down to the marketing of the provocative Bratz dolls to little girls.

The two most prominent arguments about working in the sex industry seem to be of the ‘it’s just a bit of fun, and everyone wins’ kind or the ‘it’s unfortunate that they have to do it, but they do get paid’ kind. If we discount the idea that women get into it because they like sex as risible (though that could be one reason for initially entering the business), money is obviously the chief preoccupation and is an understandable concern. But, as Noam Chomsky points out, arguing that it’s a good thing because they get paid is like arguing in favour of sweatshops because those workers (usually women) are paid and consented; and that we need to eliminate the conditions where women cannot get good jobs. There is, of course, the caveat to that argument that not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer and, taking our society as we find it, some people have to perform minimum wage jobs – so what are they to do? Not counting exceptions such as Jenna Jameson, who produces her own pornography films, for every performer whom we might think of as well paid, imagine how much money the owners of production companies make. Even the most autonomous female performer, director or producer is still fuelling the needs of an industry that, in the vast majority, caters to the male desire. As Chomsky flatly states, women in pornography are “degraded as vulgar sex objects” and this is echoed by Ellie, a lap dancer interviewed in Living Dolls, “If you say it’s really degrading, and you did that, it says so much about you, or it feels as if it does. But it is degrading.”

In 1971 a debate about feminism (filmed as Town Bloody Hall – see link below) was held at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Speaking were prominent proponents of feminism and women’s rights Jackie Ceballos, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling and, the biggest draw, Germaine Greer. Chaired by Norman Mailer (described by Greer as an embodiment of “the most powerful figure… in male elitist society, namely, the masculine artist”) on his best form, the atmosphere captured in the film almost crackles with passion, there’s something of the rock concert about the whole event and I struggle to imagine a packed hall with such intensity of feeling, banter and heckling flying between Mailer and the audience, happening today. In 1970 Clive James, in a review of The Female Eunuch for The Observer, airs his concerns that the real message of Greer’s work will be obscured by the deluge of publicity surrounding the author. Is there any room in the modern media for feminism between Katie Price busting out of the gossip column and ‘boys will be boys’ stories about the sexual practices of footballers?

So has feminism stalled?

One might be led to think so by Martin Amis’s last novel The Pregnant Widow, which suggests that the sexual revolution somehow lost its way, and by the somewhat shrugging acceptance of the empowerment theory by people like pornography director, Anna Span: “Women are exploring their bodies more”. However, one of the most affecting voices in the book, a teenage girl called Carly, rebuffs this idea. For Carly the pressure placed on young women to conform to a certain type of image of womanhood is “just like you don’t have any choice”. Thus, the only ‘choice’ women really have is to conform.

Another girl points out that she didn’t have the voice to speak out against her friends, boys and girls, that she didn’t know there was anything wrong with the pressure put upon her, like Carly, to look a certain a certain way and become sexually active. This seems to be the crux of the matter, girls need to be equipped with enough knowledge to speak out when they feel objectified and not just about the biology of sex. As Walter says, there is nothing intrinsically with wrong with strip clubs, porn, etc. but, while they can be fun, “in the current context, in which women’s value is so relentlessly bound up with how successfully they are seen as sexually alluring, we can see that certain choices are celebrated, while others are marginalised, and this clearly has a major effect on the behaviour of many men and women”. As for men, obviously one could never, nor would want to, stop them desiring sex, but if, as Walter suggests throughout, women are truly empowered at an early age, given the full range of real life choices available to them and taught that they don’t need to be, or idolise, so-called sex symbols, then perhaps that way there can be a complimentary, gradual effect on the male psyche.

The point is, however, that feminism cannot be rushed and is, and always has been, a continual struggle. Walter points out that those who criticize the status quo suffer opprobrium and are branded with that most disdainful tag of ‘elitist’, hopefully it will be clear from this article that this author is not afraid of such things.

Further Resources:

Monster’s Ball: Trouble in the Congo

Greg Houle reviews Jason Stearns’ troubled history of the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.

Book CoverIn one of the final chapters of Jason K. Stearns’ significant new book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, the author writes about a battle in the central Congolese city of Kisangani during what is now known as the Second Congolese War in 1999. The battle, which was actually fought between the Ugandan and Rwandan armies – Congolese troops were not involved – resulted in the death of hundreds (if not thousands) of innocent Congolese people. During a conversation with a pastor named Philippe, whose son had been killed in the crossfire, the author asked whom he blamed for his death. “There are too many people to blame,” Philippe tells him.

It is a succinct statement that, nonetheless, aptly explains the enormous tragedy that is Congo. On a continent famous for its stories of calamity the Congolese tale is perhaps the saddest one of all.

This enormous country, the size of western Europe, has always had a habit of seducing foreigners. From David Livingston and Henry Morton Stanley, who explored its vast and deadly jungles in the 19th century, to Belgium’s King Leopold II, who brutally ran it as his own personal fiefdom (despite having never visited himself) until the early 20th century, outsiders have always had vast influence over Congo. And, as Stearns points out, this hasn’t changed much over the years.

Since 1996, when the conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide seeped over the border and started what is now known as the First Congo War the result has been an enormous and epic calamity – the size of which the world has not seen since the Second World War. Some reports claim that as many as five million people have died in Congo as a result of this complex conflict involving the armies of no fewer than nine governments and well over a dozen rebel groups. The vast majority of the victims of this war – now sometimes called “Africa’s World War” because it has drawn in so many surrounding nations – have not been killed in combat but instead have died from preventable disease and famine as a result of the fighting. In addition to the staggering number of casualties, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped as a brutal instrument of terror.

How does one explain such a tragedy? And how exactly does such a tragedy fly almost completely under the radar as it has in most of the rest of the world?

Stearns, an American who spent a decade in Congo working for the United Nations and local human rights organizations, has made a valiant attempt at answering these daunting and difficult questions. He probably understands the complexities of the Congo conflict better than most. But, as he adeptly points out in the book, the brutality of this war – stories of rape, cannibalism, and people being burned alive is most often the focus of the conflict’s paltry media attention – often reduces what is happening in Congo to mere wanton savagery without context. The Congo becomes the very setting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where people engage in brutality without cause.

Stearns has worked tirelessly to show us that this isn’t the case at all. He interviewed countless people – soldiers, government officials, and others – to get to the heart of this vastly complex and multi-faceted conflict. While there are no simple answers here, if he had to give a single raison d’être Stearns concludes that it is ultimately Congo’s lack of visionary leadership that has done it in. A situation largely born out of centuries of politically destabilizing forces, from the slave trade to its hasty independence from Belgium to the brutal three-decade rule of Mobuto Sese Seko who sucked the country dry. This vacuum of leadership has led other nations – mainly Rwanda but also Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and others – to exert their own political will on this land rich in mineral wealth. The result has been the birth of numerous rebel groups within Congo that have been introduced into the morass of foreign influencers and corrupt puppet governments. All of this has led to a murky and protracted struggle for control.

The complexity and fatalism of this conflict turned off the rest of the world long ago – if indeed the rest of the world was ever actually interested at all. Simply put, while Congo has been tangled in a quagmire for over fifteen years, few have cared about why it is happening. Jason Stearns works hard to try to change this reality, probing deeply into the causes of the conflict, and skillfully moving past its shocking brutality to get at its nucleus.

Whether or not Dancing in the Glory of Monsters will shake the world from its apathy about Congo remains to be seen but Stearns should be commended for trying to explain the most deadly conflict the world has seen in generations – and perhaps the most deadly conflict the world has ever ignored.

Greg Houle is a freelance writer living in New York. Find out more about him at www.greghoule.com and follow him on Twitter @greghoule