19 Aug 2017

Practically Perfect in Every Way: Notes on the Case of Mary Poppins

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins (1964)

As a child, I didn't much care for Mary Poppins as portrayed by Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney film. In fact, it was a movie I scrupulously avoided watching whenever it came on TV, as I did that other Dick Van Dyke vehicle - no pun intended - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and the Disney follow-up to Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

And I'm not alone in disliking this portrayal; indeed, even the Australian-born author of the books upon which the film was based, P. L. Travers, hated the Disney adaptation of her work, finding it sentimental and silly (particularly the use of animation). She also claimed the movie-makers entirely misunderstood the character of Poppins.

And, according to Guardian features-writer Emma Brockes, Travers had legitimate grounds for complaint, as the original character, "like the woman who created her, was difficult to the point of obnoxious". A woman who never wastes time being nice and has little sympathy or affection for children, birds or beggars; sharp-tongued, short-tempered, humourless, and bullying - that's Mary Poppins!

"The biggest difference between the book and film versions of Poppins, however, was one of class. In the guise of Julie Andrews, you would call Poppins posh; all those crystal-cut vowels and crisp consonants. The original Poppins was nothing of the sort. Travers, an Australian immigrant to London, placed her heroine further down the social scale, as she herself, in that era, would have been judged to be. This is unequivocal. The original Poppins, in the accent that so magnificently eluded Dick Van Dyke, refers to the birds as 'sparrers'."

Perhaps this is key to my dislike of the film; the prim and proper poshness (or posh prim and properness) of Poppins as portrayed by Andrews would have jarred with me as a child, whereas now, of course, I appreciate its pervy appeal.

Then there's the smugness and much-noted narcissism; the fact she prides herself on being practically perfect in every way and wants to sugar-coat reality by pretending that chores can be pleasurable. Poppins appears to bring magical, anarchic fun, but, really, just reaffirms traditional values and reinforces the social niceties over afternoon tea as order is restored at 17, Cherry Tree Lane.

As for the other characters, I hate them even more: the children, Jane and Michael; the parents, Mr and Mrs Banks; and - most of all - Bert the cockney jack-of-all-trades, with his irritating Chim Chim Cher-ee line of bullshit

In spite of all this, I'm happy to concede there's an important story waiting to be told about Mary Poppins; one that occupies the darker moral universe that Travers describes in the books; one that emphasises the inhuman coldness and witchiness of the character and gets her out of the nursery and the company of irksome cor blimey cockneys; a Poppins whom even I might learn to love ...

See: Emma Brockes, 'Mary Poppins: not sugary, but sharp and subversive - on the page and the screen', The Guardian (15 Sept 2015): click here to read online.

See also Larry Fahey's article 'Something Steely, Unsympathetic, and Cold: A Reconsideration of Mary Poppins', The Rumpus, (June 22, 2010): click here.

Note: I am grateful to Simon Solomon for inspiring this post and providing fascinating insights into the character of Mary Poppins.

17 Aug 2017

On Modest Fashion (Or OMG! I Agree with Julie Burchill - Again!)

The Dolce and Gabbana Abaya and Hijab Collection (2016)

I suspect many of those currently promoting modest fashion know full well that this is essentially a euphemism for clothing that is compliant with Islamic rules governing what a woman should and should not wear in public; or, more accurately, what parts of her body she should or should not be allowed to expose.

Clothing, in other words, that collaborates or knowingly flirts with an oppressive and misogynistic form of theocratic stupidity. Designers, fashion editors, and celebrities desperate to be on trend are all implicated in this shameful and cynical game that combines cultural cringe with cultural appropriation in the name of cultural diversity and the new femininity.  

As Julie Burchill writes, women who have previously "plunged it down to there, slashed it up to here and left no part of their bodies unscrutinised for years" are dressing in a way that suggests they have suddenly discovered not only modesty, but religious piety too!

Now, just to be clear: as a Nietzschean, I love stylish, elegant women who understand that Truth does not, in fact, love to go naked and so carefully avoid exposing too much flesh. Having said that, I don't want to see women and even very young girls covered from head to toe and very much doubt that a burka can be chic, no matter who designs it.

What's more, like Burchill, I have a problem when the concept of modesty is used aggressively to shame women into modifying their behaviour and, clearly, when used within the context of clothing, "the word implies, by default, that any other form of dressing is immodest, that is, tarty, exhibitionist and 'wrong'".

It's at this point that the craze to cover up "goes beyond the whimsy of fashion" and becomes rather sinister; an insidious attempt to persuade women that there's something courageous and liberating about surrendering their freedom. But there isn't. And those Western women who decide to conform to this trend - including those Muslims who talk about rediscovering their cultural heritage or identity - are unwittingly lending their support to those men who would cover their flesh in order to strip them of their autonomy and their dignity.

As Burchill wrote in an earlier piece: "Modesty be damned. If you've got it, you've got every right to flaunt it." And, arguably, in this new age of puritanism and Islamism, one has a feminist duty to do so. Zarathustra says: don't be demure - live dangerously and be brazen!


To read Julie Burchill's Daily Mail article on modest fashion (28 June 2017), click here

To read her piece in The Guardian on modesty written five years earlier (23 Sept 2012), click here.

To read the post in which I agreed with Ms Burchill for the first time, please click here.  

15 Aug 2017

On Moral Turpitude (with Reference to the Case of Sebastian Horsley)

Sebastian Horsley at home in Soho (Mar 2008) 
Photograph: Steve Forrest / Rex Features 

Having an immoral past or criminal record is bad enough. But flaunting one's queer and amoral dandyism in the faces of American customs officials is probably not the wisest thing to do if one is hoping to enter the United States ...

For whilst America is the Land of the Free, it retains a puritanical sensibility that has long required visitors to behave in a manner that doesn't threaten to gravely violate or undermine the accepted standards of decent society. They even have a concept - moral turpitude - woven into U.S. immigration law which specifically addresses this issue.

Whilst this concept eludes precise definition, it's clearly intended to keep out the base or depraved individual; i.e., the kind of man who don't respect the customary rules that govern civil society and feels no sense of duty to others; the kind of man who has worked as a prostitute, consumed copious amounts of controlled substances and had himself crucified in the name of art; the kind of man whose only concession to American sensibilities upon arrival was to remove his nail polish; the kind of man, in short, like Sebastian Horsley ...

One hundred and twenty-six years after Oscar Wilde breezed through customs at New York (declaring nothing except his genius), and thirty years after even the Sex Pistols were eventually allowed to embark on their ill-fated American tour (despite the authorities' initial reluctance to issue visas), Horsley found himself interrogated for eight hours at Newark before being refused entry, declared a persona non grata and deported back to the UK - on the grounds of moral turpitude.

Wearing his favourite outfit, which included a top hat and long velvet coat, Horsley wisely resisted the urge to unbutton his fly when asked if he had anything to declare (Nothing except my genitals), but couldn't resist being facetious when asked what he kept under his hat (My head). US Customs officials - be it noted - are not known for their sense of humour and do not appreciate irony, sarcasm, or flippancy.    

It's such a shame, because Sebastian was genuinely excited to be going to the USA - which he thought of as a friendly, generous nation - in order to promote his best-selling autobiography Dandy in the Underworld. "I have always felt American in my artificial heart," he wrote on March 12th (2008), but seven days later he was obliged to abruptly revise this feeling. And two years later he was dead ...

Anyway, here's Sebastian looking beautiful but slightly deflated having just returned from the US, addressing the American audience denied him. Sometimes, alas, taking civilisation to the barbarians isn't as straightforward as one might hope ...

14 Aug 2017

Taking Civilisation to the Barbarians

Two Irish poets pictured whilst on tour in America: 
Oscar Wilde (1882) and Johnny Rotten (1978) 

When the Sex Pistols set off on their ill-fated American tour in January 1978, manager Malcolm McLaren had determined that the band would avoid playing major venues in New York and Los Angeles in front of audiences likely to be receptive and would, instead, head to the Deep South and perform in front of hostile rednecks in cities including Atlanta, Memphis, San Antonio, Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Tulsa.

For Malcolm wasn't interested in building a new fan base, or simply increasing record sales; he wanted, rather, to cultivate hatred, incite conflict, and cause as much chaos as possible amongst the barbarians who invented rock 'n' roll: "The idea was to get lost in the swamps and the badlands, making it impossible for the myth of the Sex Pistols to be exposed", as he puts it in the Swindle. 

Of course, any one familiar with the above film or the history of the band, will probably know this already. But what fans might not know is how this idea - often mistakenly said to be ill-conceived - was inspired by Malcolm's love for Oscar Wilde, who in 1882 went on his own (far more extensive, far more profitable) US tour that also brought him into amusingly close contact with some of the colourful locals, including farmers, miners, and gun-toting cowboys.

For despite his pretensions and poses, there was nothing snobbish about Wilde and he took great delight in meeting such people and not just fellow authors, such as Henry James and Walt Whitman. Indeed, one of Wilde's most interesting trips was to a mining town, high up in the Rocky Mountains, called Leadville, the story of which Malcolm was fond of retelling ...

Back in 1882, Leadville was a genuine Wild West town of some 30,000 inhabitants; most of whom had recently arrived and all of whom were hoping to strike it rich following the discovery of thick veins of silver in them thar hills. Strangely, however, as well as the customary saloon and whorehouse, Leadville had (and still has) its own opera house and it was here that Wilde was booked to speak - dressed, according to contemporary accounts, in a purple smoking jacket, knee breeches and black silk stockings.    

His chosen topic for the evening: The Practical Application of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration with Observations on Dress and Personal Ornament. Unsurprisingly, the talk didn't go down very well. Depending on which account you choose to believe, either the audience eventually fell asleep or Wilde was pushed off stage into the orchestra pit.

Either way, Wilde himself was much amused when, after reading passages from the autobiography of the great Italian artist Benvenuto Cellini, the miners expressed their disappointment that the latter wasn't going to be making an appearance: "I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry 'Who shot him?'"

Like the Sex Pistols, Wilde liked to meet and mingle with his audience afterwards. When it was discovered that he was a man who not only liked but could handle his liquor - he manfully drank all of those who jeered at him for being a sissy under the table - Wilde became an instant hero in the town and the next day it was agreed to name a new silver vein in his honour.

This apparently involved a ceremony in which Wilde was lowered to the bottom of a mine in a bucket, where he proceeded to eat a meal and smoke a cigar. "I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in [the lode], but in their artless untutored fashion they did not."

Upon returning to the surface, Wilde and his new pals retired once more to the saloon where he saw what he described as "the only rational method of art criticism" he'd ever come across; over the piano there hung a notice reading: Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.

"I was struck", says Wilde, "with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified ..."

Whether there's anything Wildean about the Sex Pistols is debatable. But there's certainly something punk rock about Oscar and his sexy, stylish, subversive aesthetic.  


Photo of Oscar Wilde, by Napoleon Sarony (New York City, Jan. 1882).

Photo of Johnny Rotten, lead singer with the Sex Pistols, by Roberta Bayley (San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 1978).

To find out more about Wilde's American adventures, click here

To watch the Sex Pistols perform their song New York at Randy's Rodeo, in San Antonio, Texas, (8 Jan. 1978), click here

This gig is notorious for the fact that Sid Vicious hits a member of the audience over the head with his bass guitar. 

For a sister post that provides a kind of PS to this one and refers to the case of Sebastian Horsley, click here.   

12 Aug 2017

The Wisdom of Solomon 2: On the Grain of the Voice and Further Remarks on Lunacy

Simon Solomon (aka Dr Simon Thomas)

Dublin-based poet, critic and translator, Simon Solomon, has been kind enough to leave several lengthy comments on recent posts and I would like here to respond to some of his points, hopefully demonstrating the same intelligence, humour, and breadth of reading as this rather shadowy figure ...

I: On the Grain of the Voice [See: Bootylicious]

As a matter of fact - and I'm not entirely convinced I said anything in the Bootylicious post that implied otherwise - I'm not affirming "the beauty of male Welsh choirs for their proximity to the coal pits and the dust of Mother Earth". Barthes may love what he terms the grain of the voice, but I don't want to hear the blackness of the lungs, or the phlegm in the back of the throat, thank you very much.

In short, I don't like earthiness: but nor do I like those big, booming voices which tremble with powerful emotion and technical brilliance, or have what people like to think of as soul. If people absolutely must break into song, I prefer they do so quietly in a non-expressive, non-showoffy, slightly hesitant, slightly shy manner (perhaps not always hitting the right notes).

I don't care whether someone has a talent for singing because, ultimately, like Larry David, I can't stand the sound of the human voice; a trick of the larynx that, as you rightly point out Simon, is no longer so impressive in a predominantly visual culture.  

II: Further Remarks on Lunacy [See: On Lunacy]

I'm perfectly happy for you to number yourself amongst the lunatic fringe, Simon. And it's clear from some of your - shall we say more poetic - comments made in response to my post on the Moon and it's supposed effect upon human biology and behaviour, this is where you belong ...

So whilst, obviously, I'd rather be beneath the stars with Sylvia Plath than Roger Scruton, I'm not sure I'd want to attend a dinner party made up of "myth-making mavericks". Nor would I choose to consult with the latter if I wanted to learn something factual about the Moon (i.e., about the real body orbiting the Earth and not the spooky object that some think is made of cheese).

Can you not at least concede the possibility that one might discover something more amazing about the Moon from astronomers and physicists, than from artists and poets? Or do you really believe that even William McGonagall has more to offer us than, for example, Brian Cox?

Actually, despite the two studies you cite, there really is scant evidence for any significant lunar effect on either surgical or criminal activity and the thirty-three-year old article by C. P. Thakur and Dilip Sharma is - I would have thought - clearly nonsense. See Eric Chuder, Bad Moon Rising: The Myth of the Full Moon (2014), which explains why this is so.

As I indicated in the post, there are many people - including politicians, doctors, and police officers - who believe in the lunar effect; just as there are many otherwise perfectly respectable and perfectly reasonable individuals advocating alternative therapies, including homeopathy.

Your argument from intuition that because the Moon's gravity "can move something as vast as an ocean" it must be able to affect "our small and frangible human bodies", is the exact opposite of how things actually work - a kind of pataphysical denial of reality or, at the very least, a misconception regarding the laws of physics in relation to scale.

(Just so you know, the gravitational pull of the moon on a human body is less than that exercised by a mosquito on your arm; measurable, but bordering on the infinitesimal. Or, to put it another way, when a mother holds her new born baby in her arms, she exerts approximately twelve millions times more tidal force on the infant than the moon overhead.)  

Finally, yes, of course, the human body is an open system; otherwise, as you rightly say, we'd "all be living like autists, psychotics and sad, solitary sacks" (in fact we'd not be living at all, as we obviously need to eat, breathe, and excrete waste materials to sustain our existence and these activities require openness and exchange).

But it's quite a leap to then say there are "no such things as individual bodies" and humanity is "one collective cosmic contagion"... This may be true at a philosophical-libidinal-psychic level, but it's certainly not the only truth. For there's also the truth of singular being; that I am I, you are you, and I am not you, you are not me, and that the Universal Oneness of Humanity is a lie (and a dangerous one).

Every man and every woman is a star, wrote Aleister Crowley. Which means, according to Lawrentian protagonist Rupert Birkin:

"'At the very last, one is alone, beyond the influence of love. There is a real impersonal me, that is beyond love, beyond any emotional relationship. So it is with you. But we want to delude ourselves that love is the root. It isn't. It is only the branches. The root is beyond love, a naked kind of isolation, an isolated me, that does not meet and mingle, and never can.'"
- D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love

In other words, if you want to live a cosmic life, burning like a tiny sun or as cold and mysterious as the Moon, then you must become starkly inhuman; beyond speech and feeling, beyond responsibility and obligation, beyond understanding ...

We don't need to open ourselves up to others, Simon, or serenade them by the light of the silvery moon; we need, rather, to come into a strange conjunction or equilibrium with them as singular beings. Or something like that ...

Note: readers interested in part one of this post - On Sincerity, Authenticity, Black Sheep and Scapegoats - should click here.

11 Aug 2017

The Wisdom of Solomon 1: On Sincerity, Authenticity, Black Sheep and Scapegoats

Simon Solomon (aka Dr Simon Thomas)
Dublin-based poet, critic and translator, Simon Solomon, has been kind enough to leave several lengthy comments on recent posts and I would like here to respond to some of his points, hopefully demonstrating the same intelligence, humour, and breadth of reading as this rather shadowy figure ...

I: Sincerity and Authenticity [See: Comes Over One an Absolute Necessity to Move ...]

I think, Simon, we might trace Lawrence's insistence on honesty to a rather old-fashioned form of moral sincerity, born of his nonconformist Protestant background, rather than the more modern, post-Romantic "cult of authenticity" to which you ascribe it.

In other words, he wants to say what he means and mean what he says, more than he cares about being true to some kind of ideal model of self. However, let's not get all Lionel Trilling about this and drive ourselves crazy trying to precisely define and differentiate each term.

Besides, either way, you're absolutely right that Wilde ironically mocks both ideals and exposes the ambiguities and contradictions to which they inevitably give rise. Sincerity or authenticity, authenticity or sincerity - let's call the whole thing off and pull up a couple of deckchairs in Eastbourne.

PS: As for honesty always being described in terms of brutality, this is probably just a cliché - unless, of course, we imagine the truth as something terrible (as, arguably, Lawrence himself imagines it; thus his insistence that when one speaks sincerely, one does so with the voice of a demon).

II: Baa, Baa, Black Sheep etc. [See: Separating the Black Sheep from the Scapegoats]

Despite the language drawn from analytic psychology, which, as you know, is anathema to me, I liked your reading of the black sheep as one who exists "in a state of ambivalent internal exile within the family constellation".

That's kind of how I feel: and, I suspect, kind of how you feel too. Indeed, this is probably a common feeling amongst all those who envy orphans and know that the most beautiful words in the world are those spoken by Meursault: Aujourd'hui, maman est morte.        

You're absolutely right to remind us of the scapegoat as a pharmakon (or, more accurately, a pharmakós); i.e., the unfortunate individual (often a slave, a cripple, or a criminal) either driven into exile, or ritualistically sacrificed in order to redeem the community and save it from disaster (be it plague, famine, or invasion).

I was interested, also, to read your take on René Girard's work on mimetic desire and his development of the so-called scapegoat mechanism. Your brilliant description of him "dragging the ancient Jewish scapegoat bleating and whimpering out of Leviticus into a libidinally saturated post-psychological age", made me smile and wish that I could write sentences like that.

And yes, as you rightly conclude, whether its Jews, queers, witches, or communists, history demonstrates that the scapegoat mechanism "is gloomily indispensable and only the targets change".

PS: I'm not entirely sure I understood the part about Christ and the redemption of desire, but, I suppose the story of Jesus is the ne plus ultra when it comes to scapegoat mythology. His attempt to universalise the idea and redeem all of humanity via his sacrifice could only ever fail. And his resurrection surely defeats the whole point, exposing the fraudulence not only of the scapegoat mechanism, but also lying at the heart of Christianity. If he died for our sins, then the Nazarene should at least have had the decency to stay dead.

Note: readers interested in part two of this post - On the Grain of the Voice and Further Remarks on Lunacy - should click here.

10 Aug 2017

In Praise of the Ballet Flat

Brigitte Bardot wearing her red Repetto ballet pumps 
in And God Created Woman (dir, Roger Vadim, 1956)

I have voiced my aesthetico-political objection to flip-flops elsewhere on this blog; a kind of anti-shoe masquerading as a sandal, which makes even the prettiest female feet look flat, tired, and unattractive.  

As I said, it's not the bareness of the feet with which I have a problem - but neither is it the flatness of the shoe per se. Were this the case, then, obviously, I wouldn't care for ballet flats either and, as a matter of fact, I love this form of shoe with little or no heel, which achieves the impossible of making comfort appear chic.

Also, unlike the flip-flop, which is born of a nostalgie de la boue, the ballet flat demonstrates that even the simplest of designs can add sophistication and style ...

Dating back to the 16th century, when flats were worn by both sexes, they went out of fashion amongst the rich and powerful following the introduction of the high heel; an innovation in footwear credited to fourteen-year-old Catherine de Medici, who had a pair of shoes designed for her wedding day in 1553 that would add to her stature and provide a sexy swagger when she walked.         

Two-and-a-half centuries later, however, after the ill-fated shoe lover Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine in a pair of heels, wealthy women decided they didn't want to be seen dead in them - and so the ballet flat was back in vogue ...  

Fast forward to 1947, and Rose Repetto gave us her brilliant take on the design, hand-stitching a pair of ballet flats for her son, the renowned dancer and choreographer, Roland Petite. Soon, bright young things all over Paris wanted a pair.

And when, in 1956, she created a special version - known as the Cinderella Slippers - for Brigitte Bardot, Repetto conclusively demonstrated that when God created woman, he created her wearing ballet flats ... not flip-flops!  

Note: those interested in reading the earlier post - Life is Ugly in Flip-Flops - click here.

9 Aug 2017

On Lunacy

The Moon: lovely to look at but ineffective

Still, today - even in Parliament - there are people who subscribe in all seriousness to the so-called lunar effect. In other words, they believe there's a magical correlation between the Moon and human biology and behaviour. As above - so below, as those with a Hermetic leaning like to say ...

However, a considerable number of scientific studies have found no evidence to support this belief. Thus, despite the insistence of poets, occultists, filmmakers, and various lunatics, it seems that the light of the silvery Moon does not make some individuals go crazy and others become excessively hairy.

Nor does the Moon control menstruation in the same way it controls the tides and Camille Paglia's claim that a woman's body is "a sea acted upon by the month's lunar wave-motion", is laughable. For whilst it's true that women's bodies are (like men's bodies) mostly water, so is it also true the Moon only affects open bodies of water - not water contained in bodies (and even if this weren't the case, there'd be an issue of scale to consider).

So, sorry Camille, but moon, month and menses are not synonymous and do not refer to one and the same phenomenon. It's simply coincidental that the menstrual cycle in women and the lunar cycle are both 28-days in length - and, in fact, even that's not quite the case; for often the length of the former varies from woman to woman and month to month, whilst the length of a synodic period is actually a consistent 29.5 days.

If it's surprising to find Ms. Paglia perpetuating lunar mythology in relation to female sexuality having built her model of feminism upon biology and constantly stressing the importance of hormones, it's no surprise to discover D. H. Lawrence was a great exponent of such baloney, believing as he did that the Moon is "the mistress and mother of our watery bodies".

Lawrence also upheld the popular belief that the Moon is somehow intimately related to questions of madness and suicide, particularly with reference to modern individuals who have, he says, lost the Moon. For it is the Moon which governs our nervous consciousness and soothes us into serenity when we are mentally agitated or disturbed:

"Oh, the moon could soothe us and heal us like a cool great Artemis between her arms. But we have lost her, in our stupidity we ignore her, and angry she stares down on us and whips us with nervous whips."

Thus, according to Lawrence, it's the the angry Moon which is responsible for young lovers committing suicide; "they are driven mad by the poisoned arrows of Artemis: the Moon is against them: the Moon is fiercely against them. And oh, if the Moon is against you, oh, beware of the bitter night, especially the night of intoxication."

To be fair, even Lawrence knows that this sounds like nonsense. He insists, however, that's because we're idiots. If only we opened ourselves up once more to the cosmos, then we'd understand that the Moon is a not just a dead lump of rock with an iron core, but a "globe of dynamic substance, like radium or phosphorus, coagulated upon a vivid pole of energy" and that there exists "an eternal vital correspondence between our nerves and the Moon".

Break this relationship, says Lawrence - though I'm not sure how one might do so, anymore than one might counteract the pull of gravity simply by refusing to acknowledge its reality - and the Moon will have her revenge, like a cruel mistress.

The problem is that whilst Lawrence's lunacy sounds harmless enough, Quentin Meillassoux has shown how such correlationism has crept into and corrupted all post-Kantian philosophy making objects conform to mind - something, ironically, that Lawrence loathes and fights against elsewhere in his work.

Ultimately, it's not a question of wanting to disconnect or come out of touch with the universe; rather, it's about acknowledging the latter exists without us ...


D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 

D. H. Lawrence Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, ed. Mara Kalnins, (Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2008).

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, (Yale University Press, 1990).

5 Aug 2017


Oh my gosh! Look at her butt!

Nicki Minaj sleeve photo for her smash hit single 'Anaconda
taken from the album The Pinkprint (2014)  

Curb Your Enthusiasm has taught me that for a man to comment on a woman's ass is always to invite trouble and misunderstanding. For as Cheryl points out to Larry, a woman's ass is very personal and it's simply inappropriate to make even a lighthearted reference to it. This is perhaps particularly the case when the ass in question belongs to a woman of colour.

However, at the risk of being mistaken not only for an ass man - and I'm not an ass man - but also for a middle-aged white man with a fetish for young black girls, I would like to defend and celebrate the bootyliciousness of women such as Beyoncé Knowles and Nicki Minaj, particularly in the faces of those who denigrate and seek to body shame such women in a manner that often betrays underlying misogyny and racism. 

For example, I read a piece recently by a (white male) music critic in which he laments the passing of truly gifted black female singers including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Gaynor, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Nina Simone, and Dinah Washington. Which is fine, if a somewhat predictable and uncontroversial list of names that no one with ears is going to seriously dispute or raise objection to. 

Unfortunately, however, he can't resist taking a dig at today's performers, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj, whom, he says, have helped pornify popular culture and become famous "not for their soulful voices or beautiful faces, but for endlessly twerking and firing lasers from their grotesquely over-inflated behinds". These women, he says, "have none of the talent, none of the charm, and none of the sophisticated intelligence" of their predecessors.            

This may, perhaps, have some element of truth in it. But, it seems also to display a puritanical fear of the flesh; particularly female flesh and particularly the black female bottom. One wonders if the writer is simply scared he'll not be able to handle all that jelly or what we might term corporeal excess - the too-muchness of nature, that Camille Paglia writes of in relation to the Venus of Willendorf.   

In a sense, then, the critic is right - the performers of today are earthy in every sense of the word and they drag us down and drag us back with their crude, uninhibited, anally-fixated sexuality. Whereas the great artists mentioned earlier elevate the human spirit with their soulful voices and beautiful faces and 
represent "the triumph of Apollonian image over the humpiness and horror of mother earth".

In the end, you pays your money and you takes your choice ...


To watch the scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm (S2/E2) in which Cheryl confronts Larry about his ass fetish, click here

To listen to the track 'Bootytlicious', by Destiny's Child, taken from the album Survivor (2001), click here

This song popularised the term bootylicious as an approving neologism and it has now entered mainstream English, as has a greater appreciation for women with larger hips, thighs and buttocks (i.e., a body type culturally associated with black and Latina women, though there are plenty of European women who also pride themselves on a fuller, more Rubenesque figure). 

See: Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, (Yale University Press, 1990), Ch. 2, 'The Birth of the Western Eye'.

4 Aug 2017

Separating the Black Sheep from the Scapegoats

Chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel famously closes with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: 

"When the Son of Man comes in triumph, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." [25: 31-2] 

This distinguishing between two types of creature - be it farmyard beast or human being - is something that Christians, as obsessive moral dichotomists, love to do. But it's made a little trickier to divide into the good and the evil when dealing with black sheep and scapegoats.

For which of these deserves to be saved on the Day of Judgement and which is worthy of damnation; the one who (allegedly) brings shame upon his family, or the one who is burdened with sin by the family in order to take it away?

Some amongst the faithful will doubtless insist there is very little (if any) real difference between these two things - that they are effectively synonymous. Thus we should probably just kill 'em all and let God worry about the finer details: Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius, as Arnaud Amalric famously put it. 

Indeed, even some psychologists - who should know better - argue that the black sheep and scapegoat are one and the same animal (or at any rate two sides of the same archetypal coin). But I don't think so. For whilst many individuals who bring disgrace and cause disharmony within a group due to their wilful and sometimes perverse deviation from the accepted norms and values of that group are often scapegoated, not all scapegoats have dark wool.

And, further, as I indicate above, the scapegoat performs a crucial role within the group. For by accepting the blame for all wrongdoing as their own, they absolve the others of guilt and allow them to unite in innocence. That's not so true of the black sheep who often seeks to expose collective hypocrisy and make others feel bad about themselves as group members.

That said, in the long term groups also need their rebellious, decadent, and stand-out individuals who challenge perceived ideas and conventions; otherwise they really do become subject to flock behaviour - which is fine for real sheep, but not so desirable for men and women.

D. H. Lawrence, for example, describes the human flock in which oppressive conformity and insulated completeness is the rule, as the enemy and the abomination. It is, he says, not the leopard or brightly burning tiger - and not the black sheep or overweening individual - whom we should fear, but the masses of fluffy white sheep who bully and compel in the name of Love and Oneness.   

See: D. H. Lawrence, 'The Reality of Peace', in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988).