Unless they have the good taste and decency to be French and/or have a vague interest in music, the main, and by main I mean only, thing people have said to me about having written a book on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson is, “Why are you writing about that crazy old pervert?” There’s a number of reasons, not least the one implied in the question that renders it almost rhetorical. They say ‘crazy old pervert’ like it’s a bad thing. Or something that someone would struggle to write about. If the person was trying to be a bit more discerning they might ask, “How can you write about music? How can you put in words something as ephemeral and emotional as music?” Part of this is an old Romantic aversion to science “unweaving the rainbow” (as Keats accused Newton), that by writing about something mysterious you destroy the magic therein, that beauty and knowledge are somehow irreconcilable.
One of the best criticisms to be hurled back at music critics is the claim that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s a quote that gets attributed to Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson or Elvis Costello but probably goes back much further. It’s a fine, funny, barbed remark, second only to Brendan Behan’s “A critic at a performance is like a eunuch in a harem: He sees it performed nightly, but cannot do it himself” (a quote I’ve written about previously for 3:AM Magazine, for the masochistically-inclined among you). At this point I should declare I’m not a music journalist or a critic or even really much of a writer and, for all my love of the writing of Greil Marcus for example, I wouldn’t know music criticism if it repeatedly violated me. The Gainsbourg book is really a bastardised essay of some kind, with chapters as much about Surrealism, Nabokov’s Lolita, L’Inconnue de la Seine, the Holocaust, Les poètes maudits, Fantômas and Cargo Cults as Gainsbourg himself.
For all it’s commendable cheek and undeniable accuracy, the main problem with the ‘dancing about architecture’ line is that it assumes that this is a bad thing. Those who use it never consider that it actually sounds entertaining. It displays an absence of imagination. Dancing about architecture sounds like something David Byrne might do. Or it might resemble the diagram below – the Bauhaus architect Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Gesture Dance’ from 1926. Or the photograph above from his 1922 Triadisches Ballett. Who wouldn’t want to see someone attempt something as idiotically-glorious?
Some critics build their entire careers on willfully-moronic, cliched and reactionary assumptions. That’s besides their real faults. If you banned the words ‘Is this the death of… ?’ (fill in the blanks with books/poetry/cinema etc), you’d have starving hacks in rags in the gutter weeping, trying to gnaw passing shoes. One of the more slappable mistakes they make is continually relaying positions of strength as weaknesses. I may be a misanthrope but the perpetual reminder that only a tiny minority of people are interested in poetry is neither a surprise (it’s always been like that) or a situation that should be greeted with lamentations and the gnashing of teeth. When considering the state of poetry, I’m reminded of Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World, “Well maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.”
What is genuinely surprising is not when a critic mistakes a positive for a negative but when a writer does. Last year, Martin Amis, an author I have a lot of time for, did an interview with The Yale Herald in which the following was discussed,
“YH: What role does poetry play in your life?
MA: A diminishing one. There’s plenty of reasons for that. History has speeded up in the last generation, and that is antithetical to poetry. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does is stop the clock and say we’re going to examine this moment. Pssh! Stop the clock. And people are too hyper for that now. They don’t like to stop the clock. The clock is running too fast for them.”
Amis has taken a battering down the years from critics, often unfairly in my opinion. First it was for being born privileged as the son of a great writer (much as I hate campus novels, due to my lack of third degree education (sobs), Lucky Jim has some of the finest drink-related writing ever written), a situation he did not choose, then for the ‘controversial’ nature of his writing, then for his teeth, his sex-life, his imploded friendships and, last of all, his misfires. Along the way, I have admired his unwillingness to concede ground to his detractors. The above quote about poetry is an unwelcome concession, most probably made because he is not a poet and hopefully not a sign that the critics have gotten under his skin. There is, at least, the implication in his statement that poetry has the power of demanding attention to such an extent that it slows or even stops time. It is an acknowledgement of poetry’s great contemplative strength but he admits, in a rare and uncharacteristic moment of defeatism, that the conflicting pace of life and information these days has diminished his interest in the medium.
What Amis has missed, possibly in his aversion to Marxism, is a dialectic view of things. Just as Paul Virilio pointed out that the invention of the car also resulted in the invention of the car crash so too do technological developments and a change in the pace of life (Amis has said modernity is accelerating) create their own antithesis. There are and always will be oppositions and exclusions. People who opt out of every apparent advance, who do not put fetishising the new above all other considerations. We have heard the death knell sounded for many things (painting, vinyl, books, walking etc) that have proved far more resilient than predicted, perhaps because they offer a sense of depth, authenticity or simple antiquity, however much of an illusion these may be, that people want.
Aside from personal preference, this is the reason why I don’t doubt the survival of books as physical objects, despite the convenience of e-books. Indeed I retain my prejudice against the latter, believing every Kindle should simultaneously explode in its reader’s face. It’s not a question of luddite conservatism but rather a forward-looking understanding of what the future will contain. Whether you like it or not, the future will be full of old shit as well as new. There are inevitable drags and inefficiencies. One of the great revelations of Orwell’s 1984 is that even in a future dystopia, things are grubby and complicated and, bar the forces of surveillance and repression, often don’t work. Yet in those liminial areas, in those places and things and people who have fallen through the cracks, you might find something resembling freedom, if only for as long as you can keep that clock stopped.