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

17 May 2020

On D. H. Lawrence's Sandals


There's an interesting post on the D. H. Lawrence Society website, by Kate Foster, concerning Lawrence's favourite footwear; namely, a pair of primitive-looking, thong-style sandals of tan coloured leather, that he either picked up on his global travels, made for himself, or was gifted by his friend Earl Brewster.

Well, I say interesting, though, as a matter of fact, I have no interest, personally, in a pair of old shoes held in the Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham as if they were a bona fide religious relic; i.e., the personal effects of a saint.

For whilst Lawrence's books certainly deserve to be read with close critical attention and his astonishing achievement as a writer should be acknowledged, he was no saint or person deserving of religious veneration and the way we show our indebtedness to singular individuals like Lawrence is - as Zarathustra teaches - by losing them and finding ourselves; not by attempting to follow in their footsteps or by putting (proto-hippie) footwear on display in a glass case.  


Having said that, there's no denying that shoes are, of course, objects of great cultural significance (and, for some, fetishistic fascination). They are not simply worn to cover or protect the feet and allow us to walk about more easily. They are worn also as indicators of class, gender, and identity and tell us something about a person's values, tastes, and even sexual preferences.   

So the fact that Lawrence chose to wear sandals is, I suppose, not without interest; they betray his bohemianism, for example, and the fact that he loved to go a little bit native when in sunny foreign climes.   

And, I suppose, if one wanted to get a bit Heideggerian, one might suggest that Lawrence's sandals have something of the same aura about them as a pair of Van Gogh's boots; they enable us to genuinely encounter a shoe as a shoe. That is to say, as something worn and rich with life and equipmentality - that primordial modality of existence via which we are intimately involved with the world.

In other words, when we reflect on Lawrence's sandals, we are obliged to ask not only what are they made of and where did they come from, but what is their purpose and what world do they open up and belong to ...

14 May 2020

Collaboration Horizontale (With Reference to the Case of Arletty)

Arletty (1898-1992)

Mon cœur est français, mais mon cul est international!

Sleeping with the enemy or, as the French like to call it, collaboration horizontale, is invariably a problem when a country is under foreign occupation.

For despite all the horrors of war, romantic relationships and brief sexual encounters are bound to occur between naturally flirtatious young women obliged to think with their hips during desperate times and young soldiers flushed with victory, but feeling lonely and a long way from home - particularly if the latter happen to be highly cultured German officers, such as Hans Jürgen Soehring, with their stylish uniforms and impeccable manners.

As Elaine Benes would say, they're just so good looking ...

Thus, I can entirely sympathise with those thousands of women throughout France who collaborated in this manner and think the public humiliation and violence they were subject to after the War, at the hands of their own countrymen, despicable and deplorable.*

Women, such as Léonie Marie Julie Bathiat, the actress, singer, and fashion model known professionally as Arletty (adapted from the name of a character in a story by Guy de Maupassant). For she too was found guilty of having an affair with a German officer during the Occupation, officially branded a traitor, and imprisoned for 18 months (the authorities believing they had to make an example of her).

I'm delighted to note, however, that rather than regret her illicit liason and apologise, Arletty told those who judged her: My heart is French, but my arse is international!

*Note: Heaven knows I'm not a Christian, but on this point I'm with Jesus: Let he who is without sin shave the first head and judge not, lest ye be judged. It's never honourable to act with vengeance, spite, or malice in one's heart.

13 May 2020

The Shocking Case of Sacco and Vanzetti

Sacco e Vanzetti
Solo gli anarchici sono carini ...?


I recently published a post discussing the racism and discrimination faced by Italian immigrants to the United States, detailing the manner in which they were regarded as not quite white enough for good society and, if not inherently inferior, then almost certainly natural born criminals: click here.

Such thinking, which was widespread and particularly virulent during the late 19th and early 20th century, ultimately has tragic consequences. I mentioned the New Orleans lynchings (1891), but I have been reminded also of the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; two Italian anarchists who were controversially convicted of armed robbery and first degree murder in 1920 and, seven years later, executed by electric chair in Charlestown State Prison (Boston, MA).  

Were they guilty? I don't know. Probably. But what does seem certain is that anti-Italian sentiment (to some degree at least) influenced the jury verdict and sentence passed by the trial judge. A series of appeals were denied, but, as the case increasingly drew global attention, Sacco and Vanzetti found themselves the centre of one the greatest causes célèbres in modern times. In 1927, protests in support of the pair were held all over North America and Europe, as well as in Tokyo, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, and many other major cities.

Writers, artists, and academics all jumped aboard the Sacco and Vanzetti bandwagon and pleaded either for a pardon or, at the very least, a new trial (whilst also, of course, promoting their own work and signalling their own virtue). [1] Even Mussolini was prepared to speak up for them! Finally, a commissional investigation was launched, but, after interviewing the judge, lawyers, and several witnesses, the original verdict was upheld.

And so, at round midnight on 23 August, 1927, the pair were introduced to Old Sparky ... To their credit, both men, as atheists as well as anarchists, refused the attendance of a priest. Whilst Vanzetti thanked his guards for their kindness, Sacco went to the chair bidding arrivaderci to his mother. 


That, however, was not the close of the case - even if it was very much the mortal end of the two men concerned. Investigations continued in the following decades and the belief in their innocence intensified. Finally, on the 50th anniversary of the execution, the Governor of Massachusetts (Michael Dukakis) proclaimed that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that "any disgrace should forever be removed from their names".

One might just point out, however, that guilty or not of the murder for which they were eventually executed, they were followers of Luigi Galleani, the Italian anarchist who advocated violent revolution and had no qualms about political assassination, bombing campaigns, and even the mass poisoning of class enemies. So whilst Sacco and Vanzetti - a shoemaker and a fishmonger by trade - are now regarded as angels by those devoted to their memory, they were at best angels with dirty faces (and blood on their hands). [2]

For at the very least they imagined themselves as terroristas and, when arrested, although they told the police they didn't own any firearms, each was found to be carrying a loaded weapon. It should also be noted that following their indictment for murder, anarchist comrades began a campaign of violent retaliation; including the Wall Street bombing in September 1920, that killed 38 people and injured over 100.       

And whilst one might well imagine their being peeved at being found guilty of a crime which they (possibly) didn't commit, I'm not sure it's legitimate (from an ethical perspective) to then call for the death of the judge and demand revenge against those who have wronged them. [3]

Such petty vindictiveness is not very pretty to my eyes ...


[1] Most commentators who have studied this topic now believe that Sacco and Vanzetti were involved at some level in the Galleanist bombing campaign, although their precise roles have not been determined.

[2] In October 1927, H. G. Wells wrote an essay that discussed the case at length, comparing it to the Dreyfus Affair; one that tested and displayed the soul of a people. The following year, Upton Sinclair published his novel Boston (1928), which condemned the American judicial system and made use of Vanzetti's life and writings. However, whilst his fictional portrait of the latter was sympathetic, Sinclair failed to absolve Sacco and Vanzetti of their crimes - hugely disappointing their more fanatic supporters. Years later, he claimed that he had been told (off the record) by their lawyer that the two were, in fact, guilty and he was inclined to believe this was the case. Guilty or not, intellectuals and artists continue to revere Sacco and Vanzetti and there are numerous plays, poems, songs, and films continuing to push the line that only anarchists are pretty.  
[3] Following their deaths, several bomb attacks did in fact take place; on the New York City Subway, for example, as well as in a Philadelphia church and at the home of one of the jurors.

Thanks to David Brock, editor of The Lawrentian, for suggesting this post.

10 May 2020

Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair

 Floral headpieces designed by Joshua Werber
Leis designed by Lauren Liana Shearer
(For more details see Note [1] below)

It's highly likely that even before people thought to paint their faces and adorn themselves with handcrafted jewellery, they wore flowers, leaves, and twigs in their hair.

In other words, mankind's fetishistic obsession with stylising the body was born of his floraphilia and that which D. H. Lawrence contrasts with the rage of self-preservation; namely, a will to excess via which we spaff our resources, with no thought for the morrow, and seek our own blossoming into splendour: "If this excess were missing, darkness would cover the face of the earth." [2] 

It's heartening, therefore, to discover that the tribal peoples of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia still love to wear floral garlands, make shaggy wigs from dried grasses and headcoverings from giant leaves. If there's a practical reason for this - protection from the sun, for example - or perhaps a sacred-symbolic motivation, it's undoubtedly done primarily for the sheer pleasure of looking good and becoming-poppy. 

And it's this same pleasure in transforming ourselves with elements of the natural world that we find in the sophisticated world of fashion. As the journalist Ligaya Mishan notes:

"Decorating ourselves with flowers may be one of the few things that still unites us as humans, as one tribe across the world - our capacity to transform ourselves with nothing more than a handful of fallen petals; to find, in a bloom slipped behind an ear, glory." [3]


[1] The model on the left in the above picture wears a headpiece of aspidistra leaves and lily of the valley, paired with leis made of white crown flowers and scarlet Ixora blossoms. The model on the right, meanwhile, is wearing a crown of dracaena leaves and purple clematis, with leis strung with octopus tree berries, Sodom’s apple and ice plant. Photo: Gosha Rubchinskiy. Styled by Mel Ottenberg. 

[2] D. H. Lawrence, 'Study of Thomas Hardy', in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 11.

[3] Ligaya Mishan, 'The Power of Wearing Flowers', New York Times (Feb 16, 2018): click here.

8 May 2020

On Lost Girls and Swarthy Italians


Although not published until November of 1920, Lawrence completed his sixth novel - The Lost Girl - 100 years ago this month (May 5th). 

In letters, he repeatedly describes the work as quite proper and expresses his hope it might actually be a popular success. Perhaps that's why, for me, it's the most boring of all his fictional works and one I hardly ever return to. If only Alvina had been morally lost, then maybe it would hold more interest. 

Still, her decision to marry an Italian and "move towards reunion with the dark half of humanity" [1], is something we might discuss ...


Exogamy and the idea of interracial relationships always fascinated Lawrence and there are many instances to be found in his work of wealthy white women running off with Mexicans and dark-skinned gypsies, etc.

Thus it is that in The Lost Girl - which Lawrence had at one time thought of calling 'Mixed Marriage' - we are presented with the tale of Alvina Houghton, daughter of a widowed Midlands draper and fleapit theatre owner, who decides to throw in her lot with Ciccio, a travelling performer from southern Italy:

"His skin was delicately tawny, and slightly lustrous. The eyes were set in so dark, that one expected them to be black and flashing. And then one met the yellow pupils, sulpherous and remote. [...] His long, fine nose, his rather long, rounded chin and curling lip seemed refined through ages of forgotten culture." [2]

Fleeing with Ciccio to the Old Country, Alvina abandons her life in Woodhouse and enters a new world of desire ...   


Now, of course, contemporary readers in England, many of whom are used to thinking of themselves as European and who regularly fly off for long weekends all over the Continent, will ask what's the big deal about this: is there really any significant difference in terms of culture and ethnicity between an Englishwoman and an Italian? 

Probably not.

However, when Lawrence was writing - despite many centuries of mixing and mingling between peoples of different blood and opposing spirit - there remained, in his view, a gulf in existence and in being between two essential European types: "The dark-eyed, swarthy, wine-loving men from sunny lands" and the Germanic peoples, "born of the northern sea, the heavy waters, the white snow, the yellow wintry sun, the perfect beautiful blue of ice" [3].  

And, crucially, at the beginning of the 20th-century, it wasn't just Lawrence who thought along these lines, separating ostensibly white Europeans into distinct races. In the United States, for example, Italians, particularly from the south (and especially from Sicily), were still regarded in some quarters as racially suspect; i.e., if not black exactly, then not-quite white either. Italians were sometimes refused entry to schools, cinemas, even churches and were invariably described in the press as wops and regarded as innately inferior.

In the Southern states, they even found themselves subject to shocking violence; in March 1891, for example, when Lawrence would have been six years old, eleven Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans, resulting in a serious diplomatic incident that brought the US and Italy to the brink of conflict. As one commentator on this incident notes: "The New Orleans lynching solidified a defamatory view of Italians generally, and Sicilians in particular, as irredeemable criminals who represented a danger to the nation." [4]

I suppose the key point is that racial categories are mostly the product of cultural mythology, rather than biology: whiteness - like blackness - is a political designation rather than a natural fact. And whilst Lawrence fetishistically exploits these categories for an erotic rather than a racist motive, we should still be alert to the dangers of so doing.     


[1] D. H. Lawrence. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. III, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, (Cambridge University Press, 1984), letter number 1985, to Compton MacKenzie [10 May 1920], p. 521.

[2] D. H. Lawrence, The Lost Girl, ed. John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 160.

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Movements in European History, ed. Philip Crumpton, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 44.

[4] Brent Staples, 'How Italians Became "White"', The New York Times (12 Oct 2019): click here to read online.

6 May 2020

Francis Davey: the Vicar of Altarnun

James Duke as Francis Davey 
(Salisbury Playhouse 2004)


Albinism or, as it is sometimes known, achromia, is a rare congenital disorder characterised by the complete or partial absence of melanin in the skin, hair, and eyes. It is believed to affect approximately 1-in-20,000 people, mostly in Africa where it is often still regarded with superstitious fear resulting in persecution and acts of atrocity.

Having said that, the portrayal of people with albinism in Western culture is also largely negative and there are legitimate concerns that this engenders or, at the very least, reinforces, prejudice and discrimination.

It was, therefore, a little dispapointing to discover Daphne du Maurier exploiting the evil albino plot device in her celebrated novel Jamaica Inn (1936), although it would be unfair to expect a woman born in 1907 to share 21st-century concerns surrounding this issue.

And besides, even if Francis Davey, vicar of Altarnun and criminal mastermind, is something of a fictional stereotype, he remains a truly fascinating figure ...


I think the first thing to note is the manner in which Davey's albinism is used to distinguish him not from the heroes of the book - for in truth, there are none - but from the darkness of his cohorts in evil and, indeed, the elemental darkness of the Cornish landscape itself. The whiteness of his skin and hair makes him stand out, but is not, of course, a sign of innocence; it is, rather, a sign of his unnaturalness.

Thus, while Joss Merlyn may be a monster, he remains all too human. Davey, on the other hand, is a freak who has something inhuman about him. Du Maurier, a mistress of the uncanny, is always good at blurring the line between brutal realism and queer gothic fantasy and with Davey she gives us a character about whom nothing is certain: he might be just a man after all; or he might be a fallen angel or demon. He certainly presents himself as both outcast and anti-Christ and it's his dark paganism rather than white hair and skin, that ultimately capture our interest.       


Although his concealed presence has previously been sensed in an empty guest room at Jamaica Inn, it's not until she is lost on the moors that Mary Yellan finally encounters Davey in the flesh - and even then he is a ghostly figure "lacking reality in the dim light" [94]. Softly-spoken, his voice nevertheless contained a calm, persuasive authority and Mary can tell he is a man of good breeding. But then she notices his blind-looking hypnotic eyes for the first time:

"They were strange eyes, transparent like glass, and so pale in colour that they seemed near to white [...] They fastened upon her, and searched her, as though her very thoughts could not be hidden, and Mary felt herself relax before him, and give way; and she did not mind." [95]   

His house - to which he escorts her - is strangely peaceful and enchanting, but at the same time it is also unreal: 

"This was a different world from Jamaica Inn. There the silence was oppressive and heavy with malice; the disused rooms stank of neglect. Here it was different. The room in which she was sitting had the quiet impersonality of a drawing-room visited by night. The furniture, the table in the centre, the pictures on the walls, were without that look of solid familiarity belonging to the day." [97]

After speaking of her life at Jamaica Inn, Mary is driven home by Davey and she is shocked to discover a reckless quality to his character:

"He made no effort to rein in his horse, and, glancing up at him, Mary saw that he was smiling. 'Go on,' he said, 'go on; you can go faster than this'; and his voice was low and excited, as though he were talking to himself. The effect was unnatural, a little startling, and Mary was aware of a feeling of discomfiture, as though he had betaken himself to another world and had forgotten her existence." [104-05]

He was certainly not like any parson she had met before and she "wondered why he had not used the conventional phrases of comfort, said something about the blessing of prayer, the peace of God, and life everlasting" [166]. The answer, as we discover, is because Francis Davey is a devil in disguise; his face itself is nothing but an expressionless white mask that doesn't even betray his age.   

Until the very end, however, Mary continues to trust him - even after looking at his uncanny paintings with their alien atmosphere and discovering a sketch in his desk that depicted his congregation assembled in the pews and himself in the pulpit:

"At first Mary saw nothing unusual in the sketch; it was a subject natural enough for a vicar to choose who had skill with his pen; but when she looked closer she realised what he had done.
      This was not a drawing at all, but a caricature, grotesque as it was horrible. The people of the congregation were bonneted and shawled, and in their best clothes as for Sunday, but he had drawn sheep's heads upon their shoulders instead of human faces. The animal jaws gaped foolishly at the preacher, with silly vacant solemnity, and their hoofs were folded in prayer. [...] The preacher, with his black gown and halo of hair, was Francis Davey; but he had given himself a wolf's face, and the wolf was laughing at the flock beneath him." [261-62]

This picture - regarded by Mary Yellan as blasphemous and terrible - provides good reason to rather admire Davey; he may be a murderer, but at least he has a sense of humour and artistic talent and these things compensate for a good deal. In fact, push comes to shove, I might prefer the company of Davey to that of Jem Merlyn. The latter may have a certain rogueish charm and knicker-invading smile, but he has many depressing limitations.

In other words, if I'd been Mary Yellan, I just might have taken my chances with the vicar rather than thrown in my lot with a horse thief who promises only hard times and homelessness; "'with the sky for a roof and the earth for a bed'" [299].

For Davey not only offers an experience of the wider world - "'You shall see Spain, Mary, and Africa, and learn something of the sun; you shall feel desert sand under your feet ...'" [282] - but access to another world altogether; a primeval world of pagan splendour, when men were not so humble "and the old gods walked the hills" [274].     

Both men, by their own admission, spoke a strangely different language to poor Mary Yellan; the latter's romantic nomadism in contrast also to the former's pagan esotericism. I have, in my time, been a sucker for both, so I understand the appeal of each; the open road versus the road to hell paved with purple flowers.

It's not an easy choice, but, in this instance, Davey's offer of a queer alliance is arguably the more interesting. Jem offers Mary the chance to live like a gypsy; Davey promises that he'll teach her how to live "as men and women have not lived for four thousand years or more" [278]. Mad neo-pagan fantasy ...? Perhaps. But still his words "found echo in her mind" [280].   

Ultimately, however, Mary doesn't have have to make the choice: Davey, who has abducted her and taken her onto the moors, is shot and killed by Jem Merlyn and it's his wagon she hops on board in the end (whilst recently buried Aunt Patience turns in her freshly dug grave) ...

See: Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn, (Virago Press, 2003). All page numbers given in the above text refer to this edition of the novel.

3 May 2020

Gordon Ramsay and D. H. Lawrence Versus the Cornish


Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has apparently received a warning from the Cornish Coastguard for repeated violations of the government's insane lockdown measures put in place primarily to protect the NHS even at the cost of wrecking the British economy and suspending the socio-cultural interactions of everyday life (like Peter Hitchens and other voices of dissent, I'm not convinced that these measures do anything to save lives or stem the spread of Covid-19).     

A Coastguard official told a reporter that Ramsay had been spotted 'multiple times in several places' and had even dared to seem happy and relaxed whilst out strolling on the beach with his wife, cycling on his bike around country lanes, and shopping at the local fishmongers.

Neighbours have also complained to the police of loud noise coming from the £4 million Ramsay home in Trebetherick: 'Why can't he just keep his head down, stay indoors, and be quiet like everyone else?'

Sadly, this sorry tale reveals much about the absurd yet profoundly sinister state of affairs in the UK today; overly zealous officials and fearful, resentment-ridden citizens happy to act as police informants. I'm sure the good people of Cornwall are not the only ones gripped by this viral hysteria (spread by the media), but it does remind me of another incident, in Zennor, that happened a century earlier ...


The novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence lived in Cornwall for almost two years during the First World War and had high hopes of building a new life in the bare, primeval land with his wife Frieda: "When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land." [1]

Unfortunately, the neighbours were suspicious and eventually hostile towards this stranger who wrote controversial books and was married to a German woman. The vicar of Zennor, in particular, hated the Lawrences and was largely responsible for them being investigated by the authorities. 

They were suspected of espionage and possibly signalling to U-boats off the coast. Despite pleading their innocence, their cottage was searched (not once, but twice) and some personal papers were removed. The Lawrences were also served with a military exclusion order under the Defence of the Realm Act, forbidden them to reside in Cornwall (or any other coastal region). They were given just 72 hours to leave the county.

Naturally enough, Lawrence found all this hateful and humiliating - just as I'm sure Gordon Ramsay must find the press intrusion, public gossiping, and police snooping in the name of health and safety intolerable - and doubtless Lawrence was reinforced in his initial impression of the Cornish people, which violently veered from love to hate and back again:  

"The Cornish people still attract me. They have become detestable, I think, and yet they aren't detestable. They are, of course, strictly anti-social and unchristian. But then, the aristocratic principle and the principle of magic, to which they belonged, these two have collapsed, and left only the most ugly, scaly, insect-like, unclean selfishness, so that each one of them is like an insect isolated within its own scaly, glassy envelope, and running seeking its own small end. And how foul that is! How they stink in their repulsiveness, in that way.
      Nevertheless, the old race is still revealed, a race which believed in the darkness, in magic, and in the magic transcendency of one man over another, which is fascinating. Also there is left some of the old sensuousness of the darkness, a sort of softness, a sort of flowing together in physical intimacy, something almost negroid, which is fascinating. 
      But curse them, they are entirely mindless, and yet they are living for purely social advancement. They ought to be living in the darkness and warmth and passionateness of the blood, sudden, incalculable. Whereas they are like insects gone cold, living only for money, for dirt. They are foul in this. They ought all to die." [2]       

Kernow a'gas Dynnergh


[1] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. II (1913-16), ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1981), letter number 1187, to Lady Ottoline Morrell (25 Feb 1916), p. 556.

[2] Ibid., letter number 1155, to J. D. Beresford (1 Feb 1916), p. 520. Amusingly, Lawrence confesses at the end of this astonishing description of the Cornish: "Not that I've seen very much of them - I've been laid up in bed."

1 May 2020

Make Way For Pengallan!

What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it! 
And tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallan!


It can never be stressed enough: a novel is one thing and a film is something else; even the most faithful of screen adaptations is a radically different work of art and can only be analysed in and on its own terms. Thus, whilst it can be amusing to compare and contrast the book with the movie - or the movie with the book - it's a largely pointless exercise.

I was reminded of this whilst recently watching Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939), his version of Daphne du Maurier's novel published three years earlier, based on a screen play by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison.    

Many critics dislike this film; Michael Medved lists it in his fifty worse movies of all time, which, I think, is ridiculous. Having said that, Hitchcock himself was far from happy with the work and du Maurier was also less than pleased with the adaptation. [1]

Personally, however, I think Jamaica Inn has much to recommend it and contains some memorable scenes, all of which involve Charles Laughton as the astonishing figure of Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the amoral (and possibly insane) mastermind behind a gang of murderous shipwreckers working the Cornish coast who uses the proceeds from the sale of the stolen goods to fund his lavish and decadent lifestyle.


When asked to make a toast to the ideal of Beauty by a guest at his dinner table, Pengallan instructs his butler, Chadwick, to bring him his favourite porcelaine figurine, so that he may be inspired. When challenged by the same guest  - "But Sir Humphrey, it is not alive" - he replies that it's more alive than half the people round his table and fondles it with fetishistic fascination, like a genuine agalmatophile. 

Pushed to provide an example of living beauty, Pengallan decides to introduce his beloved Nancy: "The most beautiful creature west of Exeter." This turns out to be a fine-looking horse, rather than the young woman anticipated, much to the bemused astonishment of his guests. One thinks of Caligula and his horse Incitatus ...  

Pengallan, is, however, also partial to young women. No surprise then when he takes an immediate shine to Mary Yellan, played by the lovely nineteen-year-old Irish actress Maureen O'Hara. When Mary arrives unexpected and uninvited at his house, he half removes her coat in order to admire her exquisite shape, as if she too were a prized object or animal. Keen to display his literary leanings, Pengallan then quotes to her from Byron:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes [2]

Unimpressed, Mary amusingly responds: "Thank you, sir, but I didn't come for poetry, but for a horse."

My favourite scene between Mary and Penhallan happens towards the end of the film, however, when the latter kidnaps the former, ties and gags her, and tells her that he plans to make her his own now that she has no one else in the world. He drives her, still tied up and covered by a heavy cloak, to the harbour, where they board a ship bound for France. It's what's known in BDSM circles as a Sweet Gwendoline scene. [3]  

But my favourite scene of all comes at the climax of the movie and involves Pengallan jumping to his death from atop a ship's mast rather than surrender to the authorities. Addressing the crowd below, he says: "What are you all waiting for? A Spectacle? You shall have it! And tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallan!"

If and when I jump to my own death - which, as a philosopher, would be my preferred method of suicide (thereby continuing a noble tradition which can be traced from Empodocoles to Gilles Deleuze) - these are the lines I shall recite.   


[1] Although when interviewed Hitchcock referred to Charles Laughton as a charming man, one doubts he was happy with the latter's meddling with the film's script, casting, and direction, which, as a co-producer as well as the lead actor, Laughton doubtless felt he had every right to do, insisting, for example, that his own character be accorded greater screen time and that O'Hara be given the role of Mary. Laughton's method of acting - described in some quarters as ham and in others as camp - was also a problem for Hitchcock, though, again, I love his portrayal of Pengallan as a dandy libertine mincing around to the beat of a German waltz. 

As for du Maurier, she was so disappointed by the adaptation that she briefly considered withholding the film rights to Rebecca which, as film fans will know, Hitchcock directed the following year, 1940, to great critical acclaim (and du Maurier's complete satisfaction).  

[2] Byron, 'She Walks in Beauty' (1814). Readers who wish to read this short lyrical verse in full can click here to access it on the Poetry Foundation website.

[3] Sweet Gwendoline is the chief damsel in distress in the works of bondage artist John Willie, who first appeared in Robert Harrison's girlie magazine Wink from June 1947 to February 1950, and who invariably finds herself tied up and in need of rescue. I am aware, of course, that in this era of #MeToo such scenes of sexual sadism involving violence against women are no longer viewed in the same way. 

Readers who are interested in watching Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn can do so on YouTube by clicking here. The scenes I mention above are are at 9.30-14.50, 1:26-1:28, and 1:37-1:38.