2 Jun 2020

Schopenhauer and the Sea Turtles

An Indonesian sea turtle and a 19th century German philosopher

As everyone knows, Schopenhauer thought the world a manifestation not of God, but of will. And by will he meant a blind impulse or force which is not only not divine in origin, but might best be characterised as demonic.

And life? Well, life too, according to Schopenhauer, is a manifestation of a hungry will, concerned only with its own continuation. Thus, we witness innumerable species and individual organisms caught up in an endless feeding frenzy in order to survive and reproduce others of their kind. 

In order to convey the pointless horror of this scenario, Schopenhauer famously tells the tale of an explorer in Indonesia who comes across an immense area littered with bones. At first, he thought it an ancient battlefield, but soon realised that what he had discovered were, in fact, the skeletons of large sea turtles that had come ashore in order to lay their eggs.

Unfortunately, in so doing the turtles frequently fall prey to wild dogs "which combine their efforts to tip them onto their backs, tear off the lower carapace and the small scales on their bellies, and devour them alive".

Not that the dogs get to enjoy their meal in peace for very long: for often a tiger will be attracted to the scene and will then prey on them in turn. This scene, an incessant struggle full of prolonged suffering and violence, repeatedly played out across millennia, will only end, says Schopenhauer, when "the crust of the planet again bursts open".

It is not only absurd, it is atrocious. And yet it is this way that the will - expressed as a will to life - objectifies itself.

As Michel Houellebecq amusingly suggests, this passage from The World as Will and Representation should be dedicated to those animal lovers and ecologists who imagine that the earth would be some kind of paradise if only mankind were to stop interfering or vanish altogether.


Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, ed. and trans Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman, and Christopher Janaway, (Cambridge University Press, 2010). The lines quoted are found in Vol. 2, Ch. 28.

Michel Houellebecq, In the Presence of Schopenhauer, trans. Andrew Brown, (Polity Press, 2020), Ch. 3, pp. 32-33. For Houellebecq, Schopenhauer's passage on the turtles is "one of those that can provoke a stupefaction, a final coming to awareness, like a lightning crystallization of the scattered feelings left in us by the experience of life ..." 

Without even addressing Schopenhauer's metaphysical philosophy, he was wrong on at least one point in the above. For whilst wild dogs may still feed on sea turtles, there are no longer any tigers on Java to worry about; they became extinct in the 1970s. It didn't require the end of the world, therefore, to break this feeding cycle, simply an expansion of rice-growing humanity: the population increasing from 28 million at the beginning of the 20th century, to 85 million by 1975. Ancient forest, meanwhile, which still covered a quarter of the island in the 1930s, had by this date shrunk to just 8% and existed only in small patches, unsuitable to sustain a tiger population. 

Portrait of Schopenhauer by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl (c.1815).

30 May 2020

In the Presence of Michel Houellebecq in the Presence of Schopenhauer

Front cover of the Polity Press edition (2020)
designed by Adam Renvoize


The fact that Michel Houellebecq loves Schopenhauer and that the latter has had a profound and enduring influence on the former's own work reinforces my view that French literature and theory is almost wholly dependent upon a reading (and often radical interpretation) of German philosophy.

That's not a criticism, or an attempt to denigrate the suppleness and courtly charm of French writing, just an observable fact. Certainly, as Michel Onfray has demonstrated, the whole of Houellebecq's oeuvre can be understood in terms first set out in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung two centuries ago, a text described by Houellebecq as "the most important book in the world" [2].

As Agathe Novak-Lechevalier notes:

"In both cases, suffering is taken for granted, and there is the same pessimism, the same conception of style, and even the same central  emphasis on compassion as the general basis for ethics; we also find the same salvific character of aesthetic contemplation, and the same impossibility of 'being at home' in the world." [xii]

Although I've never been quite as passionate about Schopenhauer as Houellebecq, I accept that "even if you ultimately find yourself in disagreement with him, you cannot fail to be deeply grateful to him" [4-5].

But then, as a Nietzschean, I would say that; for although Nietzsche stages a decisive break from Schopenhauer, it remains, nevertheless a break from Schopenhauer and not from Hegel or Schelling, for example. Schopenhauer, as Nick Land says, provides Nietzsche - and those who come after him, including Freud - with a philosophical tap-root.

It's surprising, therefore, and a little disappointing, to find Houellebecq confessing his hostility for Nietzsche: "I found his philosophy immoral and repulsive, but his intellectual power impressed me. I would have liked to destroy Nietzscheanism, to tear it down to its very foundations, but I did not know how to do so; intellectually, I was floored." [2]

Eventually, Houellebecq finds someone to take him beyond both his nemesis Nietzsche and his hero Schopenhauer - Auguste Comte; "gradually, with a kind of disappointed enthusiasm, I became a positivist" [3-4]. Which is, perhaps, something that happens to us all when we leave childhood behind, and wake up ...


Having said that, Houellebecq admits that he rarely reads Comte; and never with that simple, immediate pleasure he gets from Schopenhauer. He also attempts to demonstrate, via a selection of favourite passages, "why Schopenhauer's intellectual attitude remains [...] a model for any future philosopher" [4].

Of course, Schopenhauer has long been a favourite amongst artists and writers (a fact which has often undermined his status amongst philosophers). For Schopenhauer dares to speak about those things many philosophers think either unknowable or unworthy of serious reflection; such as love, for example.

What's more, he does so - as Houellebecq reminds us - from an aesthetic perspective, thereby entering the field of "novelists, musicians and sculptors" [12]. Schopenhauer knows how to look at things attentively, allowing his entire consciousness be filled with 'the peaceful contemplation of a directly present natural object' - which is in itself something of an art (and the origin of all art, according to Houellebecq).

The artist, in other words, isn't simply one who makes things; he's one who loses himself in things. In other words, contemplation is the key and the artist "is always someone who might just as well do nothing but immerse himself contentedly in the world and in the vague daydream associated with it" [16].

The essential difference, argues Houellebecq, between the poet and the non-poet, is that the former "alone among grown-up men, retains a faculty of pure perception which is usually only met in childhood, madness, or in the subject matter of dreams" [17]. This form of intuition, born of contemplation that is free from all conscious thought or desire, is central to Schopenhauer's philosophy and is "as far removed from classicism as from romanticism" [24].

That may or may not be true, but the question is how far does Houellebecq buy into this neo-Buddhist bullshit? One might have assumed his later reading of Comte would have alerted him to the constant danger of falling back into metaphysics (including such an artisten metaphysik as Schopenhauer's, ever reliant upon metaphors borrowed from the world of theatre).

Perhaps if Houellebecq had (re-)examined Nietzsche's break with Schopenhauer (and, indeed, Nietzsche's rejection of his own early work, still written under the spell of the latter and of Wagner), he'd have produced a more interesting study than the one given us in this abandoned commentary - conceived primarily as a homage - from 2005, which remained unpublished until 2017 and probably would never have seen the light of day were it not written by (arguably) France's greatest living novelist.   

Ultimately, as Novak-Lechevalier rightly says, the book is valuable not for what it tells us about Schopenhauer, but for what it tells us about Houellebecq and his concerns:

"Little by little, the analysis emancipates itself from the letter of the [Schopenhauerian] text, and what we find is the outline of an investigation into the problems posed by splatter films and the representation of pornography in art, a criticism of the philosophies of the absurd, and, a little further on, a reflection on the emergence of urban poetry, the transformations of twentieth-century art, and the 'tragedy of banality' which 'remains to be written'." [xiii]

Thus, in this way, the book is an intensely personal exercise that reveals a number of distinctly Houellebecquian obsessions.

See: Michel Houellebecq, In the Presence of Schopenhauer, Preface by Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, trans. Andrew Brown, (Polity Press, 2020). All page numbers given in the text refer to this edition.

29 May 2020

Who Knew (that Maupassant was an Objectophile)?


As the clinical sexologist Amy Marsh rightly points out, whilst objectum sexuality is often regarded as a relatively recent phenomenon, it actually possesses a much longer cultural history, as revealed, for example, in classic works of literature, such as Victor Hugo's queer gothic novel of 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris, in which Quasimodo is as passionately attached to the bells of the cathedral, as he is to the beautiful sixteen-year-old gypsy girl Esmeralda: 

"He loved them, caressed them, talked to them, understood them. From the carillon in the steeple of the transept to the great bell over the doorway, they all shared his love." [1]

However, I think my favourite instance of objectophilia in 19th-century French literature occurs in Maupassant's short story Qui sait? (1890) ... [2]


In this tale, the anonymous narrator - confined in a psychiatric unit - confesses that he has always been something of a loner, but possessing no particular animosity towards his fellow human beings: 

"I have always lived alone because of a certain creeping unease I feel in the presence of other people. I don't know how to explain it. I am not averse to seeing people [...] but if I feel they have been near me for any prolonged period of time, even the closest begin to get so much on my nerves that I have this overwhelming, increasingly urgent desire to see them gone or to go off and be by myself.
      It is actually more than a desire. It is a real need, something absolutely essential to me." [275-76]

I used to believe, like the narrator, that there must be many thousands of people who feel this way. But, actually, it turns out that most people don't; they are perfectly content, rather, with being part of a vast, seething mass of humanity. It's only a rare few souls, for example, who cannot travel on a rush hour tube, or step into a crowded lift; and only a queer type of person who finds solitude blissful, rather than a huge, unremitting burden to bear.  

Similarly, despite the narrator's insistence on the perfectly normal nature of his (introverted and solipsistic) psychology, it's actually very unusual - or what we might even term perverse - to become emotionally and/or erotically attached to inanimate objects. (It should be noted that I use the term perverse here without any negative connotation or moral judgement attached.)

The narrator informs his readers:

"My house has, or had, become a world in which I lived a solitary yet active life, surrounded by familiar objects, furniture and bibelots as lovable to me as human faces. Little by little I filled my house with these things and I lived in their midst as happily as in the arms of a beloved woman whose warm, familiar embrace has become a prerequisite to a calm, untroubled existence." [277]

That's very lovely, I think. Unfortunately, the tale takes a bizarre twist when the beloved objects stage a revolt and abandon the amorous subject by one night marching out of his house, whilst he watches with astonishment from the garden:

"What I could now hear was the extraordinary sound of steps coming down the stairway and on to the parquet and the carpets - the sound not of shoes or of human footwear but the clatter of wooden and iron crutches clashing like cymbals, or so it seemed. Suddenly, what should I see waddling over the threshold of my own room but the big armchair in which I used to read. It came out into the garden. Others from the drawing room followed it and were followed in turn by low settees crawling crocodile-like along on their squat little legs. All my other chairs leapt out like goats, with footstools lolloping alongside.
      You can imagine what I felt like! I slid behind some shrubbery and remained crouching there watching the procession continue to pass by, for they were all leaving, one after the other, quickly or slowly, according to size and weight. My piano, my full-size grand piano galloped wildly past me with a musical murmur in its flank; the smallest objects such as hairbrushes and crystal chandelier droplets crawled like ants on the ground accompanied by glass goblets on which the moonlight cast little glow-worms of phosphorescence; curtains, hangings, tapestries spread like pools and stretched out octopus-like tentacles of fabric as they swam past. My desk hove into view, a rare eighteenth-century piece now containing some photographs and all the letters tracing the sad history of my painful love-life. 
      I suddenly lost my fear. I threw myself on it and held it down as if it had been a [...] woman attempting to flee. However, there was no stopping it and despite all my angry efforts I could not even slow down its inexorable progress. In my desperate struggle against this appalling power I was thrown to the ground, then rolled over and dragged along the gravel. In no time, the rest of the furniture [...] began to trample all over me, bruising my legs in the process. When I let go of the desk the rest of the pieces careered over my body as a cavalry charge mows down a fallen rider." [279-80] 

Talk about revenge of the object ...! Is there anything else even remotely like this in all literature?

The tale's English translator, Siân Miles, reminds us that the French composer Paul Dukas used the idea of a "mysterious and threatening proliferation of avenging objects" [3] in his symphonic poem L'apprenti sorcier (1897) and that Bret Easton Ellis also incorporated a scene into American Psycho (1991) in which Patrick Bateman is stalked by an anthropomorphised park bench, but that's really about it (I think, though would love to know of further examples). 


[1] These lines from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, translated by  Walter J. Cobb (Signet Classics, 1964), are quoted by Amy Marsh in her article 'Love Among the Objectum Sexuals', in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, (Vol. 13, 1 March, 2010): click here.

[2] Guy de Maupassant, 'Who Knows?', A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, trans, Siân Miles, (Penguin Books, 2004). All page numbers given in the text refer to this edition.

[3] Siân Miles, Notes to 'Who Knows?', by Guy de Maupassant, in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, ibid., p. 320. Miles mistakenly claims that Dukas composed his work twenty-five years earlier than Maupassant wrote his short story, but, as a matter of fact, he only completed it in 1897, i.e., seven years after Qui sait? was first published. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, as it is known in English, was, of course, based on Goethe's poem Der Zauberlehrling written in 1797. 

Those interested in knowing more about the role of objects in fiction and the manner in which inanimate things infiltrate our desires, fantasies, and concepts of self, might find Babette Bärbel Tischleder's The Literary Life of Things (Campus Verlag, 2014) worth reading. I agree with the book's central argument that one of the most important things about literary texts is that they "encourage us to see our practical, emotional, and imaginary engagement with the nonhuman environment in modes that resist any clear-cut distinction of subjects and objects, the physical and the metaphysical, the animate and the inanimate" [18]. 

28 May 2020

I Wanna Destroy the Passerby (Notes on Johnny Rotten as Good Samaritan)

John Joseph Lydon 
(aged six)


Just as Johnny Rotten's self-description as an anti-Christ is rooted in his ethnoreligious background as the son of Irish Catholic parents - and not, alas, in Nietzschean philosophy - so too does his ambition of wanting to destroy the passerby display traces of lessons learnt in Sunday school by a good little boy in shirt and tie; particularly, of course, the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (10: 25-37) ...


As everyone knows, the story concerns an unfortunate individual travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is robbed, stripped, and severely beaten by a gang of thugs who leave him for dead by the roadside. First a priest, then a Levite, pass by, both choosing to ignore the injured man (perhaps concerned with their own cleanliness or safety; perhaps simply indifferent to suffering).

Finally, however, a Samaritan happens upon the victim of this brutal mugging and, full of compassion, he decides to stop and help, which, of course, is the right thing to do in the circumstances (if not always the most convenient). He attends to the man's wounds and then transports him to an inn where he continues to care for the fellow and, the next day, generously provides funds for his continued care by the innkeeper.

This, says Jesus, makes him the man's true neighbour (despite not being Jewish) and blessed in the eyes of the Lord. He recognises that he has a moral obligation to others; including strangers and even those who might be regarded as enemies.           


Having said all this, it could be that Rotten is not preaching a creed of human solidarity, but, rather, showing his contempt for those who refuse to get involved or directy participate in events. This, actually, would seem to be closer to the do it yourself spirit of punk in which passivity was despised (audience members at a Sex Pistols gig were constantly berated by the singer until provoked into a response of some kind).
Like early Christianity (and, indeed, like fascism), punk obliges everyone to adopt a position and take a stand; it compels to action.      

Play: 'Anarchy in the U.K.', single release (EMI, 1976) by the Sex Pistols and found also on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Virgin Records, 1977): click here

And to watch their classic performance of the song on So It Goes, in August 1976, click here. Note Rotten's instructing the audience to get off their arses at the beginning of the performance.  

27 May 2020


Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures

Yesterday, on the bus, someone looking (and sounding) like Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko sat behind me. As he stood up to leave, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked for directions to the police station.
      'It's over there,' I replied, pointing out of the window.
      Expressing his gratitude in a slightly over-effusive Slavic manner, he offered me his hand to shake; a provocative gesture in present circumstances. It felt like a challenge that one was obliged to accept.  
      'I like you,' he said. 'You don't wear mask and are not afraid like these other idiots. You are a brave man, like me.'

Stephen Alexander (May 2020)

This post is part of the Adventures on the 174 project. 


26 May 2020

Baby Shoes (A Brief Note on Flash Fiction)

Image via id-iom on flickr [1]

Flash fiction is a literary genre defined by its brevity that divides into subcategories based on word count; for example, the dribble is a work of 50 words, whilst the drabble is twice the length.

For those who, like me, love all forms of fragmented writing - including aphorisms, epigrams, haiku and micro-blogging - flash fiction possesses a unique quality of suggestion that isn't always present in longer tales where characters and stories are more fully developed.

It's not that less is more, but that less hints at so much more than the material on the page and teases with infinite possibility. In other words, flash fiction is a kind of virtual genre played upon the actual surface of language. I'm tempted to also suggest that flash fiction can be thought of in the same way that D. H. Lawrence conceives the poetry of the present:

"In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. [...] The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither. [...]
      There is poetry of this immediate present, instant poetry [...] whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit." [2]

This poetry of the present is, like flash fiction, radically different (not just in form) from more carefully considered and constructed work; "there is no static perfection, none of that finality which we find so satisfying because we are so frightened" [3]. There is, rather, just the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment.

In sum: flash fiction, at its best, helps set us free and if there is something a little discordant and unsatisying about it, well, these qualities also belong to life ...


[1] Ernest Hemingway, who included 18 pieces of flash fiction in his first short-story collection, In Our Time (1925), is also believed (probably wrongly) to have written this tragic six-word tale of unworn baby shoes for sale. 

[2] D. H. Lawrence, 'Preface to New Poems', The Poems, Vol. I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Appendix 1, pp. 646-47. 

[3] Ibid., p. 647. 

24 May 2020

On Disappointment

Philosophy begins with an experience of disappointment 
- Simon Critchley

I. La déception

It's arguable, I think, that the human condition is ultimately marked by a sense of disappointment; for our expectations and hopes are never quite fulfilled and everything, everyone, and everywhere lets you down in the end (I was going to say even the things, people, and places one loves most, but, of course, it's especially the things, people, and places one loves most). 

Some psychologists, concerned with decision analysis and who study disappointment in terms of causation, naively believe that we might not only learn how to deal with the stress and anxiety that it induces, but avoid disappointment altogether. But I'm afraid that's not possible: life is disappointing (and death isn't all that it's cracked up to be either).

Best, then, to curb your enthusiasm and acknowledge that the world is imperfect and indifferent (if not actually malevolent); meaning that all great expectations are false (nothing good awaits you) and all high hopes are in vain (God is dead and you, my friend, are not special).   

II. Syndrome de Paris

Is there any city on earth that disappoints more than Paris?

The French capital is, in fact, so triggering of disappointment that a Japanese psychiatrist, Dr Hiroaki Ota, working at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Centre, coined the term pari shōkōgun [パリ症候群] in the 1980s and even published a book on the phenomenon. 

Syndrome de Paris is a condition exhibited by some individuals - particularly Japanese tourists - who, when visiting the city, discover to their dismay that it's not as sexy, nor as stylish, nor as romantic as they anticipated. The condition is often characterised as an extreme form of culture shock and produces symptoms including acute alienation, anxiety and paranoia (as well as nausea, vertigo, and rapid heartbeat).

In 2004, Libération published an article on the syndrome in which Mario Renoux, president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association, blames popular culture and the media for creating this syndrome by endlessly perpetuating a myth of Paris rooted in la Belle Époque, rather than present the contemporary reality of crime, overcrowding, outrageous prices, air pollution, poor service, etc. This leads to huge disappointment and, for some, physical and mental disorientation.  

III. Une aventure parisienne

Of course, those with some knowledge of 19th-century French literature will not need shrinks and medical professionals to inform them about this ...

In his short story Une aventure parisienne (1881), Maupassant tells the tale of a "little provincial woman who had led [...] a boringly blameless life [...] looking after her family" [41], but whose heart was ravaged by an all-consuming desire to experience life in Gay Paree. Above all, she was fascinated by the promise of illicit pleasures:

"From where she lived, she looked on Paris as representing the height of all magnificent luxury as well as licentiousness. Throughout the long, dream-filled night, lulled by the regular snoring of her husband [...] she conjured up the images of all the famous men who made the headlines and shone like brilliant comets in the darkness [...] She pictured the madly exciting lives they must lead, moving from one den of vice to the next, indulging in never-ending and extraordinarily voluptuous orgies, and practising such complex and sophisticated sex as to defy the imagination. It seemed to her that hidden behind the façades of the houses lining the canyon-like boulevards of the city, some amazing erotic secret must lie." [42]  

After long and careful preparation, the woman decides she simply has to go to Paris ... But she is, of course, quickly disappointed:

"Up and down the boulevards she walked, seeing nothing particularly wicked or sinful. She cast her eye inside all the well-known cafés [...] But she found nothing that might lead her to the great orgies she imagined actresses and artists enjoyed all the time." [42-3]

Then, however, her luck changes and she bumps by chance into a famous author in a shop selling colourful Japanese ornaments, trinkets and knick-knacks (or bibelots as the French call these things). Seizing her opportunity, she latches onto Monsieur Jean Varin and cleverly persuades him to take her first for a walk in the park and then for a glass of absinthe. Naturally, she was wild with joy.

Then he takes her to dinner and, afterwards, to the theatre. Finally, they retire to his home and, without speaking, climb the stairs to his bedroom, where she quickly disrobes. Alas, things do not go well. She was as sexually naive and inexperienced "as only the lawful wife of a country solicitor can be", whilst he - no longer young, no longer handsome, no longer elegant - was "as demanding as a pasha with three tails" [46], which, even if I don't quite know what that means, I'm assuming to be very demanding indeed.  

Afterwards, by the light of a Chinese lantern:

"She looked in dismay at the tubby little man beside her, lying on his back with the sheet draped over his hot-air balloon of a belly.
      While he snored like a pipe-organ, with comic interludes of lengthy, strangulated snorts, the few hairs he possessed, exhausted by the onerous responsibility of masking the ravages of time on his balding skull during the day, now stood perkily on end. A dribble of saliva flowed from the corner of his half-open mouth." [47]

She got up and dressed as soon as dawn finally broke. As she does so, M. Varin also wakes. It took a few seconds for him to recover his senses, but when he does so, he asks her what her game is. To this she replies: "'I always wanted to know what it was like to be ... wicked ... and actually ... it turns out to be not all that much fun ...'" [47]

With this confession of disappointment, she ran from the room and out into the streets of Paris once more, just as an army of sweepers advanced towards her:

"They swept the pavements and the cobblestones, driving all the litter and filth into the stream of the gutter. [...] And as she ran through street after street, still they came to meet her, moving like puppets on a string with the same mechanical, mowing movement. She felt as though something inside her, too, had now been swept away. Through the mud, down to the gutter and finally into the sewer had gone all the refuse of her over-excited imagination.
      Returning home, the image of Paris swept inexorably clean by the cold light of day filled her exhausted mind, and as she reached her room, sobs broke from her now quite frozen heart." [47-8]

See: Guy de Maupassant, 'A Parisian Affair', in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, trans. by Siân Miles, (Penguin Books, 2004). All page references given in the text refer to this edition.

22 May 2020

Clap Trap

It's a clap trap Billy - and you've been caught!

The (now almost compulsory) communal clap-along in support of our NHS heroes and other key workers (since when did locksmiths become so essential?) is a form of collective virtue signalling almost designed to irritate those of us who hate public displays of sentiment and moral correctness as well as the sight of people applauding like well-trained seals hoping to be thrown a fish. 

Doubtless, many clap with naive sincerity and a sense of civic duty and are not just showing off with their saucepans and fireworks, but the entire performance is being cynically orchestrated by politicians and the media and I would rather have a dose of the clap than stand on my doorstep and join in with this depressing (and sinister) display of solidarity.

Like James Delingpole, though I'm never entirely certain what I'll be doing at 8pm on a Thursday evening, there's one thing I know for sure I won't be doing; for like Lionel Shriver, I've always had immunity to the herd. [1]

And if my non-participation annoys the neighbours and marks me out in their eyes as some kind of anti-social ingrate who wouldn't deserve treatment in the event of falling ill with coronavirus, that's unfortunate, but fuck 'em. This is still - despite the hysteria and lockdown - a free country: and freedom is often best expressed as refusal and not-doing, because as Barthes powerfully reminds us: fascism is the power to compel activity

It's precisely because I'm not a citizen of the People's Republic of China that I don't have to enthusiastically join in with ritualised adoration of the State and its institutions. Happily, even some healthcare workers are beginning to feel uncomfortable with where all this is going and "don’t care if people clap until their hands bleed with rainbows tattooed on their faces" [2].

They recognise that the NHS shouldn't be transformed into a sacred cow and that the people working within it shouldn't be exempt from criticism; nurses aren't angels and doctors aren't saints or miracle workers and, in fact, to insist otherwise is ultimately insulting to the (all too human and thus sometimes fallible) men and women who perform these roles.


[1] See: James Delingpole, 'No, I Won't Clap "Our NHS"', Breitbart, (14 May 2020) and Lionel Shriver, 'I have herd immunity', The Spectator, (18 April 2020).

[2] 'I'm an NHS doctor - and I've had enough of people clapping for me', anonymous letter in The Guardian, (21 May 2020): click here

For a related post to this one - on protecting the NHS - please click here.

21 May 2020

Notes on Malcolm McLaren's Paris


We are, of course, far removed in time from the Paris that enchanted so many writers and artists in that period between 1871 and 1914 known as the Belle Époque; the Paris that continued to haunt the cultural imagination as a culmination of luxury and corruption [1] - as well as radical thinking - for many years afterwards.  

Indeed, for Malcolm McLaren, Paris always remained the capital of the 21st century. Or, at any rate, the place in which he felt most at home and often sought refuge: Paris loves anyone the English hate.


In 1994, McLaren released a unique musical tribute to the city. Part easy-listening soundscape, part love letter, the album - entitled, somewhat unimaginatively, Paris - was loosely inspired by the work of Erik Satie, Saint-Saëns, and Serge Gainsbourg. As well as expressing his great passion for the city itself, it revealed his fondness for the grandes dames of French film and music.

McLaren's biographer, Paul Gorman, describes Paris as the most mature work of his career: "Paris presents bewitching melodies, rhythms and lyrics with warmth, reflection and humour ..." [2] Interestingly, Gorman also reminds us of Malcolm's own concept of the album:

"'It was a way of acknowledging a debt that the English try hard not to make. I don't honestly believe that any of the bands that made up the British invasion of rock 'n' roll would ever have happened without the Parisian tinge, that extreme angst, that very dark, vengeful, bored attitude. I don't even believe that Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison would have existed without having some kinship spirit to what was one of the most influential, nihilistic and valid forms of rock 'n' roll philosophy which the French invented.'" [3]

To seek the origins of rock 'n' roll in existentialism, rather than rhythm and blues, is, I think, a daring and original move and almost as amusing as his claim that it was Oscar Wilde who first discovered rock 'n' roll in America in 1882. [4]


Towards the very end of his life, McLaren gave us another work - this time a film installation - in which his Francophilia is again made evident; one that took its title from a famous text by Walter Bejamin which he mistakenly misread as Paris, Capital of the XXIst Century. Although he later realised his error - Benjamin had, of course, written nineteenth not twenty-first - McLaren wisely decided to stick with his more contemporary title.     

Whereas Benjamin sought in all seriousness to uncover (and critique) a dreamlike history of modernity understood in terms of urban architecture and commodity fetishism in 19th century Paris, McLaren was more interested in taking a delirious and playful stroll through the city via a collection of old 35mm films consisting mostly of cinematic commercials.

I'm not quite sure what the German Marxist philosopher would have made of the English punk anarchist and his work; for if McLaren sometimes expresses a desire to rebel against consumerism and what he terms karaoke culture, at other times he seems to delight in bad taste and banality and secretly acknowledge - contrary to his own statements on the subject - that art ultimately draws its inspiration not from authenticity, but insincerity. [5]      


[1] I think the French original reads une apothéose de luxe magnifique et corrompu and is a line found in Maupassant's short story Une aventure pariesienne (1881).

[2] Paul Gorman, The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren, (Constable, 2020), p. 664.

[3] Malcolm McLaren, speaking on Australian TV, quoted by Paul Gorman, ibid., pp. 669-70. 

[4] See Paul Gorman, ibid., pp. 572-74.

[5] Paul Gorman is right to point out that while McLaren often appears to oppose karaoke with authentic cultural expression, he recognised that they needn't always be mutually exclusive:

"'Karaoke and authenticity can sit well together, but it takes artisry to make that happen. When it does, the results can be explosive. Like when punk rock reclaimed rock 'n' roll, blowing the doors of the recording industry in the process. Or when hip hop transformed turntables and records into the instruments of a revolution.'" - Malcolm McLaren, '8-Bit Punk', Wired, (November 2003), quoted by Paul Gorman, ibid., p. 693.

Musical bonus: Malcolm McLaren and Catherine Deneuve, 'Paris, Paris', from the album Paris (1994): click here. Video directed by David Bailey. Anyone who can listen to this song and watch this film without tears in their eyes has a heart of stone. 

18 May 2020

Notes on My Cousin Rachel (1951)

Rachel Weisz as Rachel Ashley
My Cousin Rachel (2017)


Cousin Rachel: what is she; lamb, witch, or vixen? Possibly all these things: probably none. [1]

That, of course, is the fiendishly frustrating charm of du Maurier's beautifully ambiguous novel; we don't know and can never hope to find out whether Rachel is as liberal with her use of poison as she is extravagant with other people's money. Il n'y a pas de hors-texte - and this text refuses to reveal its secrets.

As Roger Michell, director and screenwriter of the 2017 film adaptation, writes:

"Did she? Didn't she? Was she? Wasn't she? This simple device fuels the novel's spectacular slalom ride of unclarity. It's a brilliant trick played out with smoke and mirrors: candles, fires, moonlight, low light, back-light, characters moving up and out and into the darkness." [2]


When reading of the affair between Philip and Rachel, I was reminded of the pure young fool Arthur Dimmesdale and the beautiful seductress Hester Prynne; though I suppose if Rachel had a scarlet letter 'A' embroidered with golden thread upon her black dress it might stand for avvelenatrice rather than adultress. 

Like Hawthorne, du Maurier writes romance. But neither The Scarlet Letter nor My Cousin Rachel  are pleasant, pretty little tales; they are, as D. H. Lawrence would say, earthly stories with a hellish meaning - although what the meaning of the latter work is remains hidden and uncertain.

Ultimately, perhaps all it tells is beware of beautiful strangers and be careful about drinking too much herbal tea ... Or perhaps it echoes Wilde's great lesson: Each man kills the thing he loves - for it should always be remembered that it's Rachel - not Philip - who lies dead amongst timber and stone at the end of this tragic tale. 


[1] The witch aspect of Rachel's character is certainly played up in the book by du Maurier; her extensive knowledge of herbs and remedies, for example, is enough for Philip to exclaim at one point "'That's witchcraft!'" And she does seem to be a dangerously seductive feminine force, if not an out-and-out malevolent spirit; as Lawrence says of Hester Prynne, her very love is a subtle poison. Thus, if Rachel bolsters Philip up from the outside and helps make a man of him, she destroys him from the inside (with or without the use of laburnum seeds).

In a crucial passage, Lawrence writes:

"Woman is a strange and rather terrible phenomenon, to man. When the subconscious soul of woman recoils from its creative union with man [following a miscarriage, for example, as in Rachel's case], it becomes a destructive force. It exerts, willy nilly, an invisible destructive influence. The woman herself may be as nice as [a cup of tisana], to all appearances [...] But she is sending out waves of silent destruction of the faltering spirit in men, all the same. She doesn't know it. She can't even help it. But she does it. The devil is in her. [...] A woman can use her sex in sheer malevolence and poison, while she is behaving as meek and as good as gold."

This, of course, is very similar to the conclusion reached by Philip: "I saw her [Rachel] as someone not responsible for what she did, besmirched by evil." 


D. H. Lawrence, 'Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter', Studies in Classic American Literature (Final Version), ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 89-90.

Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, (Virago, 2017). Lines quoted are on pp. 150 and 319.  

[2] Roger Michell, Introduction to My Cousin Rachel, Ibid. p. vi. 

This post is for Ann Willmore in recognition of all the good work she does on the Daphne du Maurier website: click here