Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Beyond The Pale
Some people have recently suggested that I've been a bit glib about the Romantic movement, dismissing it with the terse zeal of a recent convert to some new and less pallid religion, when in fact, were I to share a pale ale with the ghost of Lord Byron, I'd quickly discover we had a lot in common.
Okay, it's fess up time. I was a teenage Romantic. I have my pale, alienated misunderstood genius side to this day. But I've learned to hide it. My ambition is to go beyond the pale.
The Romantic Rebellion
It all began in my mid teens. Before reading Sir Kenneth Clark's The Romantic Rebellion (a Book Of The Month Club recommendation which made life in a Montreal suburb a bit more tolerable) I was only aware of art as a big, unitary thing which was, perhaps, the opposite of life. (I liked the Douanier Rousseau.) I didn't realise that art could also be the opposite of itself, divided into schools, transient movements and intellectual fashions.
That revelation may have made some people nervous. Art should be above fashion! But actually, it reassured me. I realised that high art is no different from pop, where Glam goes out of fashion and Disco comes in. Clark's book had the added excitement of a football match, with the Classicals ranged against the Romantics.
As a teenager, of course, I was predisposed to side with the Romantics. Weren't they revolutionaries who rebelled against an authoritarian Ancien Regime? (A 14 year-old could easily identify that stultifying power with his parents.) Weren't they outsider-geniuses, self-willed exiles untarnished by commerce and compromise? (I didn't have to do anything compromising for my pocket money, and refused to see my paper round as a sell out.) And the Romantics were also romantic with a small 'r', much sexier than their Classical counterparts, those fawning spaniels of the royal court.
Final Score: Classicists 2, Romantics 0
The following year, however, I got obsessed with calculators and communism. I read Isaac Asimov's 'I, Robot' and a biography of Chairman Mao and began to see Romantic rebellion as, like, really over. It occurred to me that the 20th century had arrived, and I filled my bedroom at 490 Lakeshore Drive with the sound of Kraftwerk. I began to realise that, in cybernetics and communism, the dream was a more collective one. Utopia would never be built without teamwork, collective responsibility, and centralised planning.
Later, back in Edinburgh, I fell in love with the daughter of the Spanish lecturer at the university. You can hear the virginal beginning of our relationship in 'Lucky Like St Sebastian' and its ludicrous ending in 'Tragedy And Farce'. Paula did two things: she 'hurt me into song', and she lent me a copy of Brecht's 'The Good Person Of Sechwan'. And so, with romantic fervour, I discovered one of my great anti-Romantic mentors, a writer who, after 'Baal' (based on the relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud, it's one of the most Romantic plays ever written) rotated 360 degrees and became a communist.
Kraftwerk and Brecht may not be Ancien Regime, but to my mind they're Classical artists, inclined towards serenity, lucidity, satire, wit, objectivity and impersonality.
Truth Is Concrete
Even as a schoolboy, Brecht showed the irony and detachment which was to characterise his mature style. Asked 'What draws us to the mountains?' he replied 'Funicular railways'.
For Brecht, truth is concrete. Alienation is not the distance between the genius and the mass, but between the ordinary thinking man and his oppression. Alienation is good because it gives us space to think about how we can change the world. Brecht proposed what he called smoking theatres where proletarians could sit back and watch drama with lucid, critical objectivity, puffing on cigars. He wrote 'Mac The Knife' because the actor playing Macheath in 'The Threepenny Opera' insisted on wearing a raffish blue cravat which gave the character too much roguish charm. Wanting people NOT to identify with Macheath, he devised a catalogue of unforgiveable crimes and had a street singer come on stage and sing them. (I later did the same with Momus. Are people identifying too much? Quick, write another murder ballad!)
In contrast to the bourgeois individualism of Romanticism, Brecht stressed collaborative work. One of the most stupid pieces of criticism I've read comes from John Cary, whose book The Intellectuals And The Mass accuses Brecht of stealing ideas from Elizabeth Hauptmann, Helene Weigel and the other women he surrounded himself with. For Cary, this makes Brecht an exploiter, a chauvinist and a fraud. In fact, Brecht was always totally open about the collective nature of his work. He valued women more than men as collaborators because he respected their sense of the social, their realism.
You can read him talking himself out of his Romanticism in his Reader For Those Who Live In Cities, written when he had just moved from Augsburg to Berlin. He was hanging out with the boxer Samson Korner, and had adopted a tough guy image. His poem 'Four Invitations To A Man At Different Times From Different Quarters' ends:
When I speak to you
Coldly and impersonally
Using the driest words
(I seemingly fail to recognise you
In your particular nature and difficulty)
I speak to you merely
Like reality itself
(Sober, not to be bribed by your particular nature
Tired of your difficulty)
Which in my view you seem not to recognise
That might as well be the voice of the 20th century itself, the voice of adulthood, the voice of objectivity. It is the opposite of the prima donna tantrums of the Romantics, with their adolescent narcissism and nationalist vainglory (Byron dying for Greece), their increasingly myopic subjectivity (Turner's murky, semi-abstract seascapes). It's a wake up call, and it reminds us that we owe more to the people who give us unpleasant facts than those who try to rally our spirits with propaganda or encourage us to bury our heads in the sand. To quote one of my own lyrics, 'They've lost the taste for clarity in the late 20th century'.
(Another Brecht poem, written during the war and addressed to a portable radio, details the worsening news of Nazi victories and Allied defeats, but ends, 'Radio, promise at least you won't go dead again'...)
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
Fast forward to the 1980s. I'm at university in Aberdeen. I'm shy, pale and interesting. I have a few friends and even a lover, but mostly I'm extremely alienated. (Bands like Joy Division, Section 25 and Dome don't help much by making my alienation fashionable.)
But when I get really down, I don't comfort myself with poetry but with books of behaviourist psychology; Adorno's dryly empirical The Authoritarian Personality reassures me that, although I may be an outsider, at least I'm not a fascist. Studies of Creativity convince me that my 'desurgency' and 'internal locus of evaluation' put my creativity beyond that of the sample group of architects studied. I perform well on the 'Unusual Uses For Objects' test without the use of LSD, though giggling uncontrollably.
It's not all good news, though. Harry Guntrip's Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations And The Self tells me that my tendency to read several books at the same time and wear bizarre combinations of clothes is some sort of moral failing, and Fenichel's Psychosexual Neuroses terrifies me with its catalogue of vices (each with a polysyllabic greek name).
The Varieties Of Temperament
My favourite work, though, has to be William Sheldon's The Varieties Of Temperament. (Not only is this fantastic book now out of print, I'm told that Princeton has destroyed the research it was based on.)
Sheldon made precise measurements of the bodies of undergraduates and derived from his findings a three part typology. He called fatties 'endomorphs', musclies 'mesomorphs' and skinnies 'ectomorphs'. He gave each body a rating between 1 and 7 on each of the three scales. So a Meatloaf might be rated 741 and a Momus 117.
What really interested me, though, was Sheldon's next mission: the attempt to correlate body type to personality. With comical scientific caution, he reiterated the stereotypes we've all known since Aristophanes. Endomorphs (whose guts and entrails make up a larger proportion of their bodies) are creatures of habit who value comfort and social harmony. Mesomorphs are adventurers always in search of a new challenge, braggards and swaggerers, risk-takers and entrepreneurs. And Ectomorphs (whose personality Sheldon calls Cerebrotonic) are dreamers, fascinated by their own mental processes.
Cerebrotonics are Romantics. Because, as a proportion of total body weight, they actually have more of the outsides of their bodies exposed, they're over-sensitive shrinking violets. They're introverted and aloof. They're bright geeks. Most flattering to a young ectomorph like myself was Sheldon's suggestion that we may be hyperevolute, a preview of a future state of humanity. (Current trends in the US suggest the opposite -- the future looks more likely to be populated by couch potatoes than Roswell men.)
Jarvis and I
Of course I've grossly simplified Sheldon's research and theories, and he in turn simplified life's diversity (as all typologists must). But I still think you can make a convincing case for the relationship of body type to personality. On a TV show the other day, asked to account for Jarvis Cocker's kind words in the documentary Momus: Man Of Letters I joked 'That's because I invented Britpop. Jarvis knows that!'
Actually I think any similarities in our work come from the fact that Britpop was a movement composed of (and inspired by) ectomorphs. The Britpoppers, like the New Romantics before them, were geeky narcissists, pale and interesting types who got beaten up at school by mesomorphs for listening to, and dressing like, David Bowie.
Jarvis and I, with the wasted yet oversensitive bodies of paraplegic flamingos, naturally sometimes prefer to hide in the wardrobe and watch. Our perversion and our detachment are the same thing. For people like us, they're both eminently sane. Our best writing is an amused, adult, ironic take on the impetuous and self-centred romantic drama of our teenage years. We've learned to laugh at ourselves.
We're pale, we're interesting, but we're also beyond the pale.