The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

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What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)

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A book review by other means: Politics of the Asylum, by Adam Steiner

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When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).

So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?

Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.

As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.

Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).

Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!

Professor Wu (PW): 

Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!

Tom Andrews (TA):

Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?

‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze  of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’

It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road).  He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.

PW:

I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.

For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.

This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.

I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.

I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.  

“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews

TA:

I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.

However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.

The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.

‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’

I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.

There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.

“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu

PW:

Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.

So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).

My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?

Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.

Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.  

TA:

The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.

Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.

It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.

Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –

https://adamsteiner.uk/2018/02/08/politics-of-the-asylum-one-month-to-launch/

 Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!

Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/

Poetry as protest

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We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery.

The cries against this state of affairs are often silenced or minimised precisely because there is a lack of available tools to articulate an effective challenge. Beyond the obvious decline of trade unions and collective action, there is also a lack of control over language itself; we are unable to change the terms of argument because we are not in control of the narrative or discourse in which we find ourselves.

The reason for this is two-fold.

Firstly, the mainstream media is controlled by elite corporate power – 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK. The media therefore has none of the independence or freedom that is supposed to make it a tool of the people to challenge power. Noam Chomsky explains this problem pretty succinctly:

“The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”

Secondly, the rise of social media – which was trumpeted by many as a means of empowering the people and removing the power of corporatized media – has not delivered an age of enlightened thought. In fact, the opposite has occurred; with a rise of misinformation, and the creation of siloed communities of likeminds who more often than not confirm, rather than challenge, existing biases held by individuals. Rather than open people’s minds to new ways of thinking, social media reduces our willingness to be open minded and reinforces our entrenched opinions. Recent studies have shown that documentary maker, Adam Curtis, was perhaps right when he claimed the internet and social media were doing the opposite of what they were created to do:

 “[They] facilitate communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits.”

If the problem lies within articulation of thought, therefore, the solution must be one which enables effective expression of ideas just as effectively as the political language of our current demagogues currently delivers a succession of political victories for neo-fascists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party that currently finds itself leading the UK with an unelected Prime Minister.

And so this leads us to poetry – which perhaps may be surprising, given we live in a time when poetry is so often dismissed as being irrelevant.

Yet while poetry may now be found on the margins of public discourse, it is no less important. This is because poetry, like political language, is rarely spoken without intention. Furthermore, poetry has advantages and intrinsic attributes that political language and rhetoric lacks: including – but not limited to – a drive towards articulating a truth that is universal. Consider the words of the brilliant activist and poet Audre Lorde:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Rather than seek to confuse the listener and disguise meaning in order to achieve malicious objectives, in the way politicians so frequently use ‘triangulation’ and jargon to cover their true intentions; poetry by contrast seeks to make clear that which was uncertain or hidden.

Unlike political speech, poetry cannot afford to misuse language. Should a poet do otherwise, they sacrifice the very reason for a poem’s existence. Because above all else the language used in a poem must be precise and accurate. Every word must be chosen with the utmost care. Every word must count towards an ultimate goal – which is the delivery of meaning to the reader or listener of the poem. Above all, this goal must be towards truth – as Wilfred Owen wrote: “true poets, must be truthful”.

The poet must therefore labour over exact, precise articulation – since the poet understands that every word used creates a world, creates a meaning (to follow Derrida and Lacan), and that each word added or removed alters this meaning, and alters the world.

This touches upon what makes poetry so powerful as a tool of protest – as a weapon we can use to challenge the malicious powers that have risen to prominence in this age. Because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

Of course, the idea of poetry as protest is not new. In 1819, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

More recently, the swinging sixties and the Vietnam war also saw protest poetry emerge and blossom. See, for instance, Adrian Mitchell’s Tell me lies about Vietnam (available for free via The Guardian), a few lines of which are printed below:

“Every time I shut my eyes, all I see is flames
I made a marble phone-book, and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam”

Then you have the searing, satirical masterpiece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, featuring lines that simultaneously call for change while comically critiquing the current state of affairs:

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

Scott-Heron’s lines work on the page; but they are also made more powerful by his own incantatory delivery of them. His voice electrifies the poem and gives it new meaning, and – for some – makes the possibility of revolution and protest more real.

Yet the performative element of spoken word poetry perhaps is also one of the charges sometimes levied against it. Scott-Heron’s poem even serves as an example here: precisely because his call for the revolution not to be televised will for most people be watched on television screens (or, in this age, on computer screens). There is a touch of cynicism to Scott-Heron’s poem, too – an acknowledgement that his poetry lives in a world in which a protest against mainstream media is the exact sort of thing that will be broadcast across mainstream media.

This, of course, is a paradox of modern capitalism, touched upon by the late, great political theorist and writer Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, who uses the example of Kurt Cobain to illustrate the point:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”

Fisher’s outlook on our future hinges on our ability to effect radical social change. Yet he is pessimistic mainly because he does not identify a clear tool or solution to help us achieve this. He does, however, hint at what any theoretical tool must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

The final sentence is crucial, here – because it highlights the way forward. In order to overcome the capitalist system that has produced the age of Donald Trump and ‘alt-facts’, it must be shown to be unreal – it must be shown to be false.

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Will writers lead the next revolution against the world of alt-facts? Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

Once again, poetry appears as a real solution – for it is perhaps only poetry that has the ability to reveal this reality effectively. To return once more to Lorde, by revealing those in power for what they really are, poetry can become more than protest – it can incite the radical change needed for revolution:

“I want my poems–I want all of my work–to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her–that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”

Regardless of whether the revolution is televised or not, if it is poetically led, it will become irresistible; and if it becomes irresistible, then perhaps it will also become inevitable.

So, where is this poet-warrior-led revolution going to start? And where are the poems to inspire it? Well, we’ve launched our Haikus for the NHS’ poetry project to – hopefully – ignite the initial revolutionary flames. Why not let the spirit of poetry as protest burn in your inkwells and get involved ahead of the national demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service on 4 March?

Rewriting fairytales: the bloody chamber

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These are no children’s bed time stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic and gothic. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

“I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode” -Angela Carter

Reading Angela Carter’s collection of opulent short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), is like riding an exhilarating roller coaster. You think you can predict the twists and turns of the ensuing ride, but are instead taken on an electrifying, exotic journey that will stimulate you from beginning to end. The Bloody Chamber injects new energy into traditional tales and motifs by deconstructing and transforming some of the core elements that support such stories. This essay intends to explore how Carter’s text presents us with a complex and original expression of a forceful feminist vision. It dismantles and explodes long-established depictions of women within the fairy tale genre, which “encoded the dark and mysterious elements of the psyche” (Makinen).

By re-shaping these tales, Carter was “deliberately drawing them out of their set shapes, out of the separate space of children’s stories or folk art and into a world of change” (Sage); these are “no children’s bedtime stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic [and] gothic” (Gamble).  This is specifically achieved in the intense and vibrant title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which tells the story of a young woman’s seduction into – and escape from – a deadly marriage. Subsequently, Carter also “attempts to decolonise our habits of thought” (Makinen) by working within and against fairy tale conventions in her bid to expose how Western culture has “shaped limiting concepts of gender and sexuality” (Bristlow and Broughton).

As a woman who personally and publically identified herself as a feminist, it comes as no surprise that Carter’s stories within The Bloody Chamber are informed and influenced by her feminist principles. Indeed, she has declared:

“It’s been amazingly difficult… trying to sort out how I feel that feminism has affected my work, because that is really saying how it has affected my life and I don’t really know that because I live my life, I don’t examine it” (Carter ‘Notes’).

Indeed, as Alison Easton has noted, it is important that we understand Carter’s explorations of gender and female sexuality in The Bloody Chamber within “the context of the many different, contested positions that feminism has taken over the past thirty years”. Within this continual feminist debate, issues surrounding pornography, sexuality, violence and the representation of women intensified in the late 1970s and 80s which would have significantly influenced Carter’s work and prompted critics to readily respond to The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, which were both published in 1979. While many feminists agreed that pornography “reflected a sort of distilled essence of the entrenched binaries of patriarchal gender relations, the conflict revolved around the extent to which pornographic representations could be appropriated” (Benson 37) to adequately critique it and suggest alternatives. Subsequently, for many feminists who saw pornography purely as the eroticization of male power and female weakness, the stories in The Bloody Chamber, which are permeated by sexual violence, sexual gratification, erotic desire and sadism, were unsuccessful in achieving a feminist objective.

The question of what precisely Carter’s objective was with The Bloody Chamber, has also divided critics. Never occupying a particular or specific feminist position and being continually influenced by contrasting ideas and notions relating to gender and sexuality, Carter was able “to critique phallocentrism with ironic gusto and to develop a wider and more complex representation of femininity” (Makinen). Yet some early critics, such as Robert Clark and Patricia Duncker, saw her wide ranging feminist agenda as too ambiguous, the latter felt she was “rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures” (qtd. in Makinen) and remained unconvinced that Carter was able to completely escape the conservative gender stereotypes often exemplified in traditional tales and motifs. Others stated that she failed to make the old bottles explode in the spectacular way she had hoped and “gets locked into… conservative sexism despite her good intentions” (Makinen). Also, that the strong pornographic nature of her tales and the fairy tale genre itself, could not be appropriated to critique and map alternatives to gender binaries, especially considering the role of fairy tales “in the installation of these very traditions” (Benson).

Nevertheless, such evaluations of Carter’s work can be seen as dangerously missing the powerfully ironic point she puts across in her transformation of traditional tales and motifs. Yes, she uses narrative structures that are based on old-fashioned notions of women and men’s sexual roles; but Carter utilises such story lines as working construction sites in her renovation of such concepts. Carter chose to use elements from fairy tales because those were the stories that developed through oral tradition and she saw them as “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world” (‘Virago Book of Fairy Tales’). Therefore, by tackling such deep rooted customs and concepts, the reader is forced to respond due to familiarity with the old story when faced with the implications of the new one.

Moreover, considering patriarchal distain for the proto-feminist actions of the witty, salon women of the 17th Century, from which fairy tales began to circulate, “it is ironically apropos that Carter, a feminist, should now speak through Perrault’s tales” (M. Roemer and Bacchilega), and cleverly undermine their core principles. Although her intense and colourful writing style may not suit everyone and “the savagery with which she can attack cultural stereotypes [is potentially] disturbing, even alienating” (Makinen), it nonetheless remains brilliantly perceptive and invigorating to read. Makinen also argues that those critics who fail to understand Carter’s subtle ironies do so because they fail to “position themselves outside phallocentric culture”.

Angela CarterFrom the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality

 

Carter’s marvellously gothic title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist re-write based on Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy tale, ‘Bluebeard’. Her story also heavily draws on the eccentric life of the French aristocrat and sexual libertine, the Marquis De Sade. The Marquis’s chamber is also “that private slaughterhouse of his” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and signifies the dark, fetishized world of Sadeian erotic fantasy. Carter expanded on representations of sexual violence and her interest in the Marquis de Sade in The Sadeian Woman (1979). This too received mixed criticism from feminist critics, and Susan Kappeler condemned her depictions of women as mere objects of male pornography. However, what Carter depicts in The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman is an alternative view of women’s sexuality as entirely unrelated from their reproductive and biological role. Indeed, “during the 1970s, Carter had been re-reading fairy tales and Sade in tandem and bleakly contemplating the fate of good, powerless girls, the Red Riding Hoods and the Sleeping Beauties of the world” (Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale’) .

‘Bluebeard’ is a well-known European folktale which has contrasting characteristics depending on its origin, “in Norway the husband is a troll, in Italy, a devil, and in an ancient Greek version, death itself” (Lokke). However, Carter uses the basic elements from Perrault’s tale, namely the rich and powerful man who marries a series of young wives, gives them the key to a forbidden room but prohibits them from entering it, thus testing their obedience to him. Each woman gives into her curiosity which is revealed by the blood stained key, yet while the previous wives are killed by Bluebeard and locked in the chamber, the cycle is broken when his current wife is rescued just in time and he is then killed.

In comparison to ‘Bluebeard’, then, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is far more sexually violent and pornographically explicit. Carter once said “you mention folk culture and people immediately assume you’re going to talk about porridge and clog dancing” (qtd. in Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy tale’) and that in actual fact, “the latent content of those traditional stories… is violently sexual” (qtd. in Ozum). Indeed, similar to many fairy tale motifs, the ‘Bluebeard’ story is “grotesque in essence” (Lokke), so as readers we are prepared for the evil in the narrative. Carter then cleverly uses these inherent expectations to alter how we view the intensified sexual descriptions and violent images in her tale; subsequently we are forced to question rigid sexual binaries and gender definitions.

bloody-chamber

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. Photo via Spike_dennis via photopin cc

 

In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, though the female protagonist is potentially a victim to male pornography and is an object of male property at first, she is able to surpass this oppression and realise her own potential for independent sexuality. Moreover, the Marquis’s “victimisation of women is overturned and he himself is vanquished by the mother and daughter” (Makinen). The traditionally old, domesticated fairy godmother who solves all the problems in fairy tales such as Cinderella, or the valiant hero or future lover who saves the day is transformed and rewritten in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. In true feminist fashion, it is the fearless, Amazonian mother who rides to the rescue, “a wild thing… skirts tucked around her waist… as if she had been Medusa” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). This intervention of the mother is unusual in The Bloody Chamber and in Carter’s other work where mothers are typically absent from the plot. The other stories in the collection contain either a lost mother or no mother at all, similar to her novels such as Wise Children or The Magic Toyshop in which the former skips a generation to focus on grandmothers and the latter deals with mother figures in place of biological mothers.

Unlike in ‘Bluebeard’ where the bride’s brothers come to the rescue, the Marquis is overcome by female autonomy, he is “impotent at last [as the] dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Indeed, “with his removal, the rigid dichotomy of his eroticised power games is shattered and the space he once occupied is recovered and reconfigured” (Gamble), the female protagonist comes to realise that she does not need a rich husband and refuses to be the victim of a “puppet master” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). By contrast, in the original ‘Bluebeard’, the woman immediately marries “an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she had with Bluebeard” (Perrault) emphasizing her continual reliance on male authority. Therefore, as Lucie Armit argues, it is critics like Duncker “who remains ensnared” in patriarchal narratives, through their inability to recognise the powerful transformation the female protagonist undergoes in this story.

Furthermore, while Perrault’s tale is narrated in third person and we remain relatively distant from the woman in the story, Carter’s story is narrated retrospectively by the woman herself. This shifting focus towards the woman’s physical and mental journey is “foreign to the traditional fairy tale” (Lokke) and provides us with an exuberant reading experience that “actively engages the reader in a feminist deconstruction” (Makinen). We experience the protagonist’s transition from innocence and dependence to maturity and independence. When initially asked by her mother if she is certain she loves the Marquis, she replies, “I’m sure I want to marry him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), thus demonstrating her initial fixation on marriage because it is the next stage in her socially conditioned female role. However, by the end of the story she is happy to give away the inherited money from her dead husband to various charities and runs a school for the blind at the castle. Therefore, the typical fairy tale journey of poverty and unhappiness towards wealth through marriage is here remodelled so that female autonomy rather than wifely subservience is the happily ending.

Moreover, while in Perrault’s tale the woman accepts she “must die”, in Carter’s, she tells the piano tuner “I’ve done nothing; but that may be sufficient reason for condemning me” (‘The Bloody Chamber’), she shows a lot more female gumption and is less prepared to receive punishment for her curiosity. Therefore, while Perrault is warning his readers or listeners against over inquisitiveness and wifely disobedience, Carter is conveying the opposite. The murderous Marquis also represents all symbolically murderous marriages where the man destroys independent female desire for his own corrupt purposes. Indeed, Carter is redefining the basic associations of women in fairy tales, innocence is inferior to knowledge, sexuality is empowering not degrading and the knight in shining armour may be a “indomitable mother” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) riding to the rescue or even the heroine herself in her conquering of individual fears or social convention. Such deconstruction results in an entirely new collection of stories which convey liberating realities for women, where they can live independently of patriarchal dominance or exist simultaneously through mutual desire, as shown in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘The Company of Wolves’.

The Red Riding Hood character in ‘The Company of Wolves’ displays confidence and self-assurance. She bursts out laughing and says “she knew she was nobody’s meat” (Carter) in response to the traditional exchange between the wolf and herself over the animals large teeth which are “all the better to eat you with” (Carter 138). By utilizing the older tale and transforming the meaning of such fundamental elements to convey the sexual freedom of the modern Red Riding Hood, we can see how Carter enhances her own feminist narrative by such recognition and transformation. Subsequently, she critiques conservative and limiting depictions of women and gender notions through a complex interplay of old and new.

The Red Riding Hood of Perrault’s tale is described as an innocent, little girl whereas we are told that the girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ had “just started her woman’s bleeding”(Carter), that “her breasts have just begun to swell” and though she is a virgin, “she has her knife and she is afraid of nothing” (Carter). Therefore, Carter remaps the stereotypical female victim into a woman who is in control of her “magic space” (‘The Company of Wolves’). In her assertion that she is “nobody’s meat” (‘The Company of Wolves’), she refuses to be the victim or prey, she gives in to her desire “freely” (‘The Company of Wolves’) and therefore embodies independent female desire. Moreover, the female protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is arguably more ignorant and passive at the start of the story, before she has come into contact with sexual violence, however she soon possesses a “dark new-born curiosity” (Carter) about the forbidden chamber after her first sexual experience. E.B.Manley argues that she is “a woman in process, someone who is exploring her subject position and beginning to tell her own story” and this desire for knowledge and truth is empowering. It allows her to eventually recognise her potential for corruption if she remains the female object, she does this by discovering what lies inside “the kingdom of the unimaginable” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and eventually overcoming her husband’s patriarchal power games.

Furthermore, once the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ and the wolf have recognised and fulfilled their mutual desire, when she has “laughed at him full in the face” and “ripped off his shirt for him”, she is able to sleep sweet and sound “between the paws of the tender wolf”. This is because she is not a female victim or object; she is an independent sexual woman who has transcended the traditional, subversive woman commonly depicted in traditional fairy tales and it is clear that “both male and female benefit from the transformation of the old power relations” (Gamble).

Despite Duncker’s opinion that the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ simply sees rape as inevitable, “she wants it really, they all do.” (qtd in Gamble) and that Carter fails to transcend ideology, this particular reading of sexual awakening feels incomplete and limiting. Robert Clark also maintains that though the Red Riding Hood figure embraces her sexuality, she does so at the cost of “accepting patriarchal limits to women’s power” (qtd in Gamble).  However, it is important to remember how “later re-writings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions” (Makinen). Indeed, Carter is showing that the women in her tales do have autonomous desire. At the end of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the tiger’s licking of the woman’s skin causes the woman who was “unaccustomed to nakedness” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’) to expose the female tiger that lies within her as an individual. She is left with a “nascent patina of shining hairs” and sees her new fur as incredibly beautiful, unlike her culturally constructed, innocent skin which she was so “unused to” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’).


So, instead of giving into male desire, Carter is showing how the woman in this tale is satisfying her own polymorphous desire, so it is “not women re-enacting porn for the male gaze, but…woman reappropriating libido” (Makinen) for themselves.


While mirrors are only mentioned briefly in ‘Bluebeard’, they play a vital role in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as the female protagonist transitions from female object to female subject, E.B. Manley argues that “the mirror scenes establish the protagonist as oscillating between girlhood and womanhood, between a patriarchal view and her own definition of herself”. Indeed, they force the protagonist to reflect on her innocence and increasing desire as the story progresses. On the night before her wedding, at the performance of Tristan and Isolde, she catches herself in the mirror and sees herself through the eyes of her fiancé who watched her “with the assessing eye of a connoisseur” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), a gaze which suggests his carnal desire to consume and feed off her innocence.

She sees:

“the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood… [and] sensed in [herself] a potentiality for corruption” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’).

This image also forebodes the Marquis’s wish to decapitate her at the end of the story. However, even at this stage she realises it was “my innocence that captivated him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and it is all part of his plan to corrupt her for his own pleasure. Attraction to innocence and naiveté is perhaps a reflection of mankind as a collective and is a motif which is traditionally represented in many fairy tales. I believe the protagonist is representative of the female collective in the mirrors of her bedroom, indeed, she watches as “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber), thus insinuating an entire history of women who have been victims of unhappy marriages or violent abuse and therefore signifying a universal need to alter the way society understands female sexuality.

Recognising the innocent image in the mirror as one that has been socially conditioned to meet the needs of a phallocentric culture which itself desires domination over the female object, along with her increased knowledge of sexuality and violence due to her experience in the chamber, all help to increase her female independence. She almost succeeds in seducing her husband, by using the male desire for innocence against him, “a dozen vulnerable, appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors… if he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Faced with the reality of death as a result of female submission, she is no longer naïve.

By contrast, Perrault’s female character “almost fainted with terror” and flings herself at her husband’s feet, “weeping and imploring him to forgive her for having disobeyed him”. Consequently, Carter portrays powerful female sovereignty through the heroine and her brave mother, and therefore reconfigures the traditional motif of female weakness in traditional fairy tales.  Though both women are frightened by their experience, Perrault’s heroine does not progress as a character, unlike Carter’s.

The protagonist of ‘The Blood Chamber’ is extremely isolated in “the faery solitude of the place…cut off from land for half a day” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), whereas in ‘Bluebeard’, the woman is continually surrounded by “amusements…hunting and fishing parties, banquets, dances and suppers” (Perrault) and therefore has less need to soul search. Carter’s protagonist is forced to face internal conflicts and confront the woman in the mirror. Moreover, although we are told that the woman in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ goes on to live with her mother and the blind piano player, she is not reliant on either of them and is not victimised by the male gaze due to his blindness. Therefore, “the marriage of wealth and power, standard goal for fairy tale heroines, is rejected. She has been allowed through her initiation in the chamber, to understand and survive the deadly peril that kind of marriage holds for her” (Renfroe). By contrast, in Perrault’s tale, the young widow immediately “married an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she has with Bluebeard” (Perrault) conveying the notion that dependence on a man was a traditional motif that Carter wanted to eradicate.

Nevertheless, the end of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has caused some debate among critics. The red heart imprinted on the woman’s forehead due to the blood stained key causes her shame, but shame over what exactly is open to interpretation. It may well be the mark serves as a reminder to all women to never become victims of the bloody chamber, if indeed it represents sexual confinement or dominance by men. Lokke argues that the heart is a “badge of courage” and the shame can therefore be seen to result from her initial subservience to her violent and unemotional husband. The mark is a constant reminder of her knowledge of the human heart and forces her to realise she need not give into marital convention just because it is socially acceptable or economically beneficial. Indeed, even though her innocence becomes “subtly tainted” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), this realisation and knowledge leads to her “recognition of the evil within her” (Lokke), that all men and women have the potential to succumb to, embrace or resist. Coming to terms with her potential for corruption signifies her maturity and “acceptance of responsibility rather than destructive self-depreciation” (Lokke). Therefore, the heroine’s experience of violent and sexual perversion, followed by her ability to recreate the castle into a school for the blind, shows how Carter is metamorphosing traditional images of the heroine marrying the prince charming, into modern projections of female knowledge and independence as the perfect happy ending.

Indeed, Carter takes emotions that have simmered just below the surface of classic fairy tales, of suggested carnal desires and sensuous cravings, of cruelty that is left to the readers imagination, and presenting them to us in rich, juxtaposing ways. We are thus forced to question the depictions of gender, violence and sex in traditional tales and motifs. The grand castle we see in numerous fairy tales is redefined and here becomes the larger container of the bloody chamber itself, it is seductively captivating, yet eerily isolated, it seems to exist “neither on the land nor on the water, [it is] a mysterious, amphibious place” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’ 9), illustrating how Carter re-appropriates core elements of traditional motifs for her own purposes.

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. The awakening of desire is felt from the very first sentence when the protagonist tells us how she “lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, [her] burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow”. She also says how the pounding of her heart mimics “the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train” as she is borne away from Paris, “away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage”.

The protagonist’s experiences in the castle continually transition between the sensual and the violent and the language is extremely perfumed and poignant. As the story goes, our senses become even more heightened to the evocative language on the page, much like the vivid colours of a Disney fairy tale; we are drawn into the this particular story by vivid descriptions and intense images, which combine to produce an unnerving, yet exhilarating effect. The uncanny, sallow descriptions of her inhuman husband’s “waxen face”, which seemed like “a mask”, his resemblance to “one of those cobra-headed, funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum, his leather covered, pornographic library with its “rugs…dark panelling…lulling music…flames” and the “ruby necklace that bit into [her] neck”, are all images that heighten our horror and anticipation due to the foreplay of sensual language. The husband’s association with lilies which have phallic and death like associations, and the way he makes the bedroom look like “an embalming parlour” conveys his overall destructive nature and oppressive sexual perversion, in stark contrast to the heroine’s vitality. The protagonist is eventually able to overcome sexual perversion and defeat death and her husband, who is the embodiment of death itself. Lokke argues that by “acknowledging the glamour of sado-masochist self-annihilation as well as its ultimate brutality, ugliness and misogyny”, Carter maps before the reader how imperative it is that both female and male sexual desire is redefined on the grounds that the women is not the objective victim as she is often depicted in traditional tales, she should have control over her own sexual desires rather merely playing the sexual role a man has assigned to her.

In conclusion, by writing stories about fairy tales, which each reader would have previous assumptions and associations, then subverting the original messages, Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality. The fixed gender binaries and stereotypes often depicted in oral and literary tradition are exploded in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the rest of the short stories. While new wine in old bottles was a motivation and underlying principle in all her work, this logic was epitomised in these revolutionary tales which are incandescent throughout. Despite the ethereal quality to her work, Carter once wrote that she was “in the demythologising business” (‘Notes’) and was determined to break down the “lies [which are] designed to make people feel un-free” (Notes). Indeed, by critiquing and transforming traditional tales and motifs, The Bloody Chamber forces us to interrogate conventional narratives and decolonise our ideas surrounding sexual freedom and the depictions of women within the fairy tale genre.

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Comedians should be allowed to be offensive, they just shouldn’t be

Microphone-Whealans

When it comes to comedy, is “being offensive” really a quality?

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in myself after a year of regularly performing comedy is a broadening of my comedic tastes. If you’d asked me a year ago what comedy I thought was good I would have replied with very strict and narrow parameters. “Stewart Lee is good.” I would have said, “I like all those British alternative comedians. People with clever, nuanced material. I’m not a fan of the more observational, mainstream comedians. I’m not a fan of ‘edgy’ comedians like Frankie Boyle.”

Often, looking back, I defined my taste more through what I didn’t like, rather than what I did. ‘What do you like?’, ‘I don’t know exactly, but I can tell you what I don’t like and in great detail.’

A year in and I basically just enjoy good comedy. Of course, I still love many of the alternative comedians; people who are doing interesting and clever stuff, but honestly I’m happy enough listening to observational comedy done well. A couple of weeks ago I shared a bill with a comic who did a long bit about the different mouth shapes men and women make when thanking people. It was little more than ‘look how different men and women are! Look at this weird thing we all do!’ A year ago I would have scoffed at it, but  I enjoyed his set a great deal. It was well performed, it was slick. If there’s one thing that trying to succeed in comedy teaches you it’s that comedy is bloody hard. I respect anybody who can do it well.

There is, however, one type of comedy which I retain a strong dislike for, anything that defines itself by how edgy it is. Anything which seeks to offend, to push boundaries for no reason other than the idea of doing so. As soon as anybody describes themselves as a dark act, or difficult, or offensive, I steady myself for a five minutes that I will not enjoy.

There’s probably a couple of people reading this thinking, “hang on Dan, we’ve seen your act. You’ve got plenty of offensive jokes. You’ve got more than one gag involving paedophiles, you’ve made light of the Syrian refugee crisis, hell, the routine you’ve done the most, your ‘feminist routine’, is basically just you saying sexist stuff for about four minutes. You are a hypocrite. How can you look at yourself in the mirror. You are a disgrace.”

Firstly, calm down. Secondly, it’s difficult to justify one’s own, possibly offensive, material directly without coming across as more than a bit of a pompous tit, so I’ll attempt to do so indirectly over the next few paragraphs and hopefully only come across as a tiny bit of a tit.

I’m not annoyed by self proclaimed edgy comedians because I’m personally offended by their jokes. There’s not much that offends me, honestly. I am a white, straight, able-bodied (with a few caveats), relatively good looking (with a few more caveats), upper middle-class man. There aren’t really many jokes which can be made at my expense, and those which can are usually some variation on the theme of: “look how great you’ve got life, you massive privileged twat.”

I’m not really even much offended on the behalf of other people. I usually don’t feel that it’s my place to feel outrage on the behalf of marginalised groups. I’ll stand up to bullies when needed, but l sometimes feel that it’s difficult to know what crosses the line when you aren’t the person a joke is directed at. Offence is a complicated thing and it’s probably best to leave it to the marginalised and support them when needed. Life is too short to do take up every cause and claim it as your own.

Obviously I hate racism and whatever as much as the next man (and the next man to me happens to be Nelson Mandela) but there are plenty of comedians I love who do material that skirts on the edges of the various isms. Broadly, I feel that intent matters most with this material. People often speak of a punching up, or down, dynamic but I think it’s possible for a member of a more privileged group to do a joke about a less privileged group as long as the joke is not intended to belittle. In my year on the stand up circuit, watching hours upon hours of comedy, I don’t think I’ve seen any comedian make a joke which has actually offended me.

So my gripe is not with the existence of dark material but with its deployment for its own sake.

What I love about comedy is its inclusiveness. That you can unite a room full of strangers in laughter with ideas that you’ve conjured up in your own head. I cannot understand why anybody would enter comedy with the intent of making jokes that are going to make a lot of people unhappy.

Jokes should be written with the express intent of being funny. That’s what they are, they’re jokes. Obviously with that comes a whole load of other stuff, underlying subtext, a political point or whatever, but the laughter is the actual point of doing the comedy. If the through-line to that laughter comes across something difficult, or offensive, then so be it, but that’s not the end point.

Daniel Kitson, as is his way, said all of this far more sufficiently and better in his show ‘Weltanschauung:

“I find anything that proclaims its own danger in comedy or art or music just immediately just a bit tedious and wearisome. Ooh it’s dangerous, ooh it’s edgy. Ooh it’s dangerous and edgy. Is it? Wouldn’t it be better if it was just good?”

I’m distrustful of anything which has the central selling point of possibly upsetting somebody. A total reliance on something other than the actual quality of material, or performance, to carry an act. Of course comedy can have qualities to it other than raw humour, my favourite acts sell themselves on that very thing, but is ‘being offensive’ really a quality?

The ludicrous interpretation that what was good about Bill Hicks was not, “he was really funny and had an interesting unique way of expressing his viewpoints” but instead “he sure ruffled a lot of feathers.” By all means ruffle feathers but don’t break into an owlery with the express intention of doing so.

Furthermore, I’ve always felt there’s a smug superiority to writing material that you’re certain is going to be ‘too much’ for your everyday, BBC2 watching, people-carrier driving, chain restaurant-eating chumps. As if they’re thinking “I can make and enjoy this material because I am better than you.” That the comedian is some kind of worthy pariah, that they are making a necessary sacrifice, their own popularity in exchange for some higher artistic goal. That without their voice saying these things some vital part of public discourse would be missing. There is nothing of great importance found in being abrasive. Anything worth saying can be said to everybody.

There are lots of caveats to all of this of course. Firstly, as a response to the predictable braying of the ‘PC Gone Mad Brigade’, I’m not calling for offensive comedians to be banned. I’m not attacking free speech. I’m just calling them a bit shit. Secondly, there are lots of comics I love, respect and have gigged with who have emptied rooms because the audience felt they were offensive. Just the other week an audience member, after a gig, said that my material was offensive and sexist. This man was a fucking moron. There are always going to be audiences that misunderstand intent behind great comedy, and that’s not a shame. Some things are divisive, that’s just not all they should be.

About the author of this post

danoffenDaniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

How not to write about music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. "

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. “

Firstly, gratitude: Extensive thanks to Dan McGurty for his help with this piece.

Musical epiphanies

Musical epiphanies are fun. I mean specifically like when you just get a song where you never did before, which I often find happens when listening to the song in question out of its usual context – say you always listen to the whole album and this song’s maybe three-quarters through by which point you’ve stopped properly paying attention how you do to the openers, or you haven’t listened to this band in years and back when you did this was one of the ones you skated over, or, or – but whenever it happens, at least that first time, it is an out-of-nowhere fist clenched round the sternum, is like a body of water you long since convinced yourself was placid empty now suddenly come thrashing all leviathan, and all you can do is sit back and behold. But this I tend to find comes mixed in with a kind of regret, and also a kind of anxiety: lost time, coupled with the possibility that this is only temporary, the attunement will pass, and both of these down notes are maybe not just inevitable but actually necessary for the proper shape of the rush in that they make it that much more vital, immediate. And this is all pretty much instantaneous, which is kind of trippy. So: fun.

I’m pretty shit at listening to music so I’ve had probably six or seven musical epiphanies with Don Caballero (or Don Cab, if you prefer, which I do) alone, two of which were with the same song (The Peter Criss Jazz.) (Both of them, incidentally, happened when I was falling asleep; I don’t quite know what that says about me, or it, or anything, but probably not that much.) The first one – which was during the second movement – I was on a train, (somewhere in Yorkshire I think,) and actually it wasn’t so much that I was falling asleep as I was shifting back and forth between sleep and not, where you don’t entirely know where you are, or what that would mean, and then it doesn’t matter because where you really are is carried on the movement of this music, fluting and wind and gorgeous in the way of something behind glass and refracted and then I properly woke up. The next one – the first part of the song – I didn’t get until probably a couple of years later; I was mostly asleep on a floor, (in Edinburgh this time,) drifting again, and I think one of the speakers was like right next to my head which probably influenced matters somewhat, but the song it just opened up like I’d never quite heard before; like the mouth down into a cave, or I guess like a story.

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I don’t know if this is a particularly common thing or not – based on the (again kind of few) people I’ve spoken to about it, I’m not sure that I know anyone else for whom this is true, but that might just be me explaining it badly – but I tend to (kind of, sort of, a bit) experience or conceptualise music visually. As far as I can tell this isn’t synaesthesia; there aren’t actual sense impressions or associations, particularly. More it’s as shapes, or as a series of lines. Picture an xy line graph, like plotted from a polygraph or a richter scale in many films. The line shifts over time, peaks and troughs, goes back on itself, overlaps, evolves. It’s like that, only it’s not the same because a graph is just that – is a graphical representation of data, which data is something and somewhere else. The graph is a signifier; the music – the image – is itself.

Only that seems somewhat incomplete, at least in that music itself doesn’t just exist; somebody made it, or somebody made the instrument that made it, or the device through which you listen to it, and so on and so forth but which would mean that the shapes are, in fact, a representation of something else: some data, or else information, whatever was in the musician’s head when they made it. Crappy morning. Argument between the bandmates. Relationship: complicated. Financial pressure. Producer’s insane. Extensive drugs. Any and all of these things are there because nothing about music – as all art – is inevitable, and however much it’s refined, however much that which is not the statue gets stripped away, it’s still fundamentally contingent. Only I’m not convinced that matters? However too much coffee the drummer had before the band started jamming, whatever phone call the singer got, the pianist’s sister’s pregnancy, it is or it can be basically meaningless in the listener’s experience of the music. (You don’t have to ignore biography, but it helps.) So at least in the event of experiencing, the shapes are shapes; are music; are themselves.

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Depression is a funny thing. (Debatable). (But it kind of really is). There are explicable, empirical reasons for it, and it (both the state and specific episodes, or bouts) can be traced to triggering events, and to an extent it can be understood, sometimes fought (if that’s a useful way of describing it, which it may well not be) or otherwise dealt with, but I can’t help feeling like these are to depression – the experience of it – as the hangover the band had when they went in to record is to the experience of listening. The state of depression is itself. A concrete phenomenon, yes; separate from the fact of the chemical imbalance (or possibly more accurately the altered chemical balance,) the sensation itself is (sometimes, for some people, maybe) all but physical – something like nausea, but also something like pressure, and also like you exist twice: you are, and you are slightly – say five centimetres – shifted left, occupying or overlapping the same physical space, pulled simultaneously toward and against, unable to reconcile and unable to maintain that tension, but it’s really not as if you have much of a choice. (Whether one or the other of these iterations takes precedence – is the “real you” – is I guess up for debate, but me personally, I would say not.) But it is a dislocation beyond or beside the physical, as well; a separation from time into only moment. There is this, now, and it is unconnected to any then, because to suggest that there even could be a then in any direction would be to imply that now, that this, could be other than it is. Could be not this adrift. And colourless; or not so much colourless as no colour in itself but a muting or a greying of others, dragging all surrounding into its own leaden unevent. Flat, but also warped; wrong like an angle but at the same time inexorably right. This is it. This is what you are. Do I contradict myself. Very well I contain zero. I contain entropy. Depression is a slowing; is the inside of a collapsing mouth.

The first full movement of The Peter Criss Jazz – after the intro with the harmonics (I think that’s what they are) over the drums, in I think 6/8 or possibly 4 with a triplet feel, with the drill-sound tremolo bass hits underneath the layered guitar, at the edges the chords bleeding in, and over the top, around, the throughline guitar melody, coiling and fractured and barbed like a voice, like someone saying I can’t go on I’ll go on I can’t I’ll on I can’t I will can’t I: this – if music is noumenon, or is as close as we can get to direct experience – is the sensation of depression. Or if depression refers not specifically or not solely to the emotional state, but – as a clinical diagnosis – the concomitant physical effects, the triggers, all of it, then those two and a half minutes, stumbling and cyclical and subdued and a lurch through tangled water and with no promise of an end, are despair.

The second section’s something else. Tenser, more urgent, I think; the bass loop through the whole is nervy, hunted, and above that mark the repeating four-note melody colliding with itself in bent reflections on like a wire-edge balance, dancing round a vortex, step to keep above, always on, and it’d be frantic enough without the drums in cardiac landslide under, beating from the wire, but see where in the first section they were a structure underpinning, were the bones, here they pick up where that chanting melody left off: centre-stage, a torrent dragging through and where despair strips you of time, anchors you in windowless grey, here in this stretched-shape anxiety you’re hyper-aware of the passing, it’s all you can do to keep moving, to find anything like a stable footing, to keep up to the impossible evershifting now with the blood like caustic blink thrumming in your ears and your chest gone echo and your eyes patchwork out until it settles.

Which is in itself a key difference: in some way, this section resolves. Where the first movement spirals on itself, layering chords and loops and shaded by the leading melody but never really undergoing any fundamental change from where it starts, the second stays more stripped-down the whole way through while the drums build into a climax; and then there is a shift, and that four-note melody, at the end, has moved forward by one beat from the off- to the on. Surer footing, maybe. A different balance achieved. Story: someone climbs up a tree, comes back down from said tree having changed. It arcs out, this part, held just together with the loop but it’s an orbit deranged to shatter, to battering cascade and when it comes back round it has learned something out there in the dark.

*

The whole album is a classic

It sounded like a narrative to me, I guess is what I’m getting at, when I was mostly passed out on the floor. There’s a third movement to the song – after an interlude with these ghost-colour harmonics that curve and pan from left to right – and it is maybe best described as happy. All major-key swung rhythm and clatteringly bombastic fills over walking bass and the melody tangling over and this would make sense, as a conclusion, or a reward; through despair, then panic, into primary-colour relief. But it’s not; there’s no resolution, no single cathartic moment, it just continues into fade and the melody never exactly repeats but works through the chord always off-kilter, pushed back to where it nearly falls off the beat every time but just about makes it. Not calm; happy, sure, but no less tense, no less of a balancing act than ever before. It’s work; it is always going to be work. – but I mean this is projection, this is all subjective, this was no insight into the true nature of anything it was just I was half-awake and stoned and dumped and fucked up, and no one experience of anything whether music or depression or any anything can necessarily ever meaningfully map onto another, so, like, what the fuck. But then if music is a direct experience of some kind – not an expression of any one person’s particular emotional state, but a capturing of something that actually is – even then it doesn’t follow that we can hear it as such. By what mechanism could anyone, observed as we are, actually grasp it? Wouldn’t we just fit it as best we could into the shape of our own experience, twisting it where we have to, maybe widening ourselves where we can? Or: you hear what you hear; I guess I heard something that sounded familiar, and maybe some thoughts about getting better. Or maybe not so much getting as staying. (Which – to be clear – most likely requires somewhat more than a song.)

It is a bit of an odd one, though, even-especially within the context of the rest of the band’s music; I guess embedded within/necessary for the idea of a musical epiphany is the fact of not initially being that into the music in question, and I strongly did not get this song for, like, a while. (As previously noted: shit at listening to music.) You can maybe hear aspects of it prefigured in the stuttered, uncertain close-out of No-One Gives A Hoot About Faux-Ass Nonsense, or the swirling-embers-into-night end sequence of In The Absence Of Strong Evidence To The Contrary, One May Step Out Of The Way Of The Charging Bull but I don’t know you’d ever guess that they’d lead into this. Ian Williams (guitarist) has talked fairly extensively about taking influence from composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, particularly in terms of cyclical structures; he and Damon Che (drummer) famously despised each other, and given the different musical directions they pursued after Don Cab’s breakup – respectively, Battles, and a reformed (and significantly more straightforward math-rock) Don Cab – it’s difficult, as much as anyone might want to ignore biography, not to hear a tension in the architecture of the song. Personally I always visualise it as a line, and horizontal. Overhead are brief lights, like moments of frost formed and then gone in the air, which silvers at its edges; the line is both black and white at once, and it rises at intervals to the glow but always returns to flat. In between the line and the light are, variously, empty space; interruptions of tangling, like minor clouds by cross-hatching, and dense; an asemic scrawl of one symbol insistent, and repeating, and lit; and another line, like a ribbon, maybe paper and with both edges torn, and unfurling.

About the author of this post

David Greaves

David Greaves’ poetry and fiction has appeared in ‘Valve’, the ‘Verge’ anthology and ‘From Glasgow To Saturn’ journal, and his prose-poetry pamphlet, ‘Hinged’, was released by the New Fire Tree Press in 2011. He mostly doesn’t tweet at @dgrbolith

The role of the creative and our place in culture

'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35'

‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35’

Creatives of all forms remain in a constant, symbiotic tango with human nature and culture. All of human thought remains distinctly entwined with that strange, living thing we call culture. Literature, art, music, photography – these strands of culture both reflect who we are, in our values, our hopes, fears, ideals, and shapes who we become by influencing us and immersing us in what becomes an agreed upon notion of how we define ourselves. Culture mythologises certain values, while negating others – shaping our perceptions of the world, and in turn leading us to create – through writing and art, etc – our own culture.

This is rather succinctly summed up by E.B White, co-author of the must-have book for all aspiring writers ‘The Elements of Style’. In considering the responsibility of the writer, White asserts: “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

In nuce, then, what we have is a constant dialogue between our nature and what we come to believe is our nature. A notion captured by physicist Dave Bohm in a 1977 lecture: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… what we believe determines what we take to be true.”

The role of the creative

Within these constructed realities, then, creatives find themselves in a curious position of being at once channellers of a culture they did not create, and simultaneously being creators of that same culture. For writers and creatives, then, such a position comes with much responsibility. As White notes:

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down […] The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.”

“A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

The creative custodian

Creatives, then, can see themselves as custodians, or secretaries, or interpreters, of culture. There is an ideal at the heart of this notion: that the role of the creative is to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why.

Yet, in a digital world of easy blogging and clickbait headlines, there must surely be a concern that the responsibility creatives have for maintaining standards and baked-in accountability has fallen away, replaced by journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. The easy, instant gratification of Tumblr and other mediums also perhaps denigrate the creative integrity of photography and art – as writer and photographer Mike Dodson opines in an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook: “The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer.”

There is an implicit accountability instilled within the heart of the creative that must, therefore, be recognized. A kind of truth standard that should be adopted before putting pen to paper, paintbrush to easel, finger to iPhone camera and Instagram upload. Ultimately, of course, the choice is ours as to which standards and expectations we adopt in creating whatever art we use to define ourselves. But it should be remembered that these choices will, fundamentally, “inform and shape life.”