The Momus Questionnaire

Gallix, Andrew. “The Momus Questionnaire.” Minor Literature[s], 3 November 2017

Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabutt and Andrew Gallix, is an academic investigation into the legacy of punk, featuring contributions from Penny Rimbaud of Crass, Tom Vague, Mark Fisher and many more. Investigating the philosophical lineage of punk, and the matrix which it provided for its adherents to explore fashion, politics and art, Punk is Dead brings together some of the most astute and insightful critical thinkers on punk in one volume. Andrew Gallix is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of 3:AM Magazine, and lectures at the Sorbonne.

The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.

Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?

My own, rather than someone else’s (then again, je est un autre). I promptly crush such occasional bouts of rebellion by expecting the unexpected, thus defeating the object.

What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?

Or, more fittingly in this instance, like Sid! Pointing is rude, but a recent ill-judged collaboration with a soi-disant friend does spring to mind. This dispiriting experience was an eye-opener worthy of Un Chien andalou, if you see what I mean. After all, vitreous humour is no laughing matter. As Flannery O’Connor observed — through her sizeable spectacles — some people ‘are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what’. Let them eat deadlines; I prefer mine alive!

What creative achievements are you most proud of?

My son, William.

If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?

Being separated from my mother as a child was terribly traumatic. The pain was unspeakable, and it left me with a pervasive feeling of unreality. Being sent to France, when I did not speak a word of French, also left me with a lifelong sense of exile. Punk, which came along when I was 11, provided a refuge from all that. It was a home for the homeless. In his recent Asperger’s and Me documentary, Chris Packham talks about how punk allowed him to materialise his difference and flaunt it in the face of the world. I can really relate to that. I think that partly explains why the phenomenon was more important to some people who were involved than others.

If you had to make a rap song boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?

As a filthy liar.

Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?

How long have you got?

Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.

I can’t think of two public figures who would really fit the bill offhand, but I can relate an odd anecdote that occurred, if memory serves, in the early 90s. I was walking in a local park, in South London, when I came upon a guy who was the spitting image of me. We walked past each other, then both stopped in our tracks and turned round at the same time. We faced each other — I myself and he himself — in shocked silence for a few seconds, then turned round and walked on again. I sometimes wonder if my doppelgänger (the word means double walker in German) is living the life I would have led had I remained in England. Has he stolen my life? In Johan Grimonprez‘s film Double Take, written by Tom McCarthy and based on a short story by Borges, we are told that ‘If you meet your double, you should kill him’. Is he still out there somewhere — and does he want to kill me?

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

My collection of music papers and magazines that I began in 1977. When my mother moved into a smaller house, in 2012, I had to get rid of quite a few of them, but I managed to hold on to all those spanning the glory years of 77-81 and took pictures of all those that I disposed of. I know exactly where I was when I read a specific issue or article and, for some reason, they have always been of considerable importance to me. A tangible link to my past, no doubt. It’s also the interface between writing and punk that makes them so special. I was fascinated by people like Mark Perry, or Patrick Eudeline in France, who navigated from the page to the stage. I wanted to be a fanzine writer more than a musician. When my mother died, earlier this year, I had to bring the papers back to my place. I am surrounded by them now, and the realisation that they will never have the same significance to anyone else once I’m gone is rather disquieting. You keep all these things that mean the world to you, fret over losing them, and then you die.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

Quotations. ‘”Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,” the Consul liked to say’ (from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano). ‘Awesome is the God who is not’ (from George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books).

Proverb. Never trust a punk with a property portfolio (from experience).

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

My favourite portrait hangs in London’s Courtauld Gallery, sort of. On one occasion, I seemed to be the only visitor in the museum. Each new room I entered was empty, except one. At the far end stood a very elegant lady, probably in her late thirties, wearing an outsize New Look-style hat. She was gazing intently at a small golden frame in which one might expect to discover a little gem by one of the lesser masters. She looked round towards me, before departing, and I was able to see that she was also stunningly beautiful. I rushed towards the picture that had caught her attention for so long only to discover that it was a mirror.

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

This appeared in the Irish Times on 30 December 2017, p. 24:

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

The vintage fingerprints and splashes of egg yolk adorning my Ladybird edition of The Three Little Pigs. The wild flowers pressed between the pages of a Danilo Kiš. We measure out our lives with books as well as coffee spoons. Those we have read, those we have not; above all, those that have read us. “To my right is a small stained pine bookcase,” writes Damon Young at the beginning of The Art of Reading. “It contains, among other things, my childhood.”

On the latter subject, and his subsequent development, he remains rather tight-lipped. Reading, we learn, was initially “a prop in [his] performance of superiority” and, crucially, a “liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence”. At the age of 11, he sought refuge from his father’s “morning screams” in ninja books and make-believe. As a teenager he was “Prufrock avoiding Prufrock”. Finally he alludes to his wife’s “grave illness” which rendered him incapable of finishing AS Byatt’s Still Life. There ends the confessional: this is a portrait of the author as a reader.

In the expository chapter Young navigates his way round the labyrinthine shelves of his own Library of Babel, travelling back and forth in time, both personal and historical. His early passion for Sherlock Holmes was shared by William Gibson, whose evocation leads — “[t]wo shelves under” him — to Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on childhood perusal and then on to Edith Wharton’s — “[t]wo rooms behind and one century before him” — and from thence to Rousseau, Sartre, de Beauvoir (close to the former “in [his] library as in life”) and so on. Taking in Batman as well as Heidegger, the breadth of reference is impressive, but never overbearing, thanks to the Australian philosopher’s lightness of touch, self-deprecating humour and endearing deployment of the word “bunkum”. Having traced a desire path through a lifetime of books, Young reflects upon six Aristotelian virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice) that reading requires, exhibits or promotes.

The Art of Reading is not just another bibliomemoir; it is also a manifesto of sorts. The author shuns a utilitarian approach to his subject — regarded as “an end in itself” — summarily listing its ancillary benefits with a commendable degree of scepticism. After all, “bastards enjoy fiction too” and, as he cheekily points out, some of them are authors. His ambitious goal is to re-enchant an activity which, “cosmically speaking”, is very much “against the odds”. Reading, he laments, is grossly undervalued, its wonders all too soon forgotten.

It tends to be thought of as a rudimentary skill, acquired in early childhood, rather than a lifelong project to be honed from Miffy to Proust. It has the added disadvantage of being a largely invisible pursuit, incapable of competing with the social cachet conferred by authorship, or rather the “fantasy of publication”. A text, however, is “only ever half finished by the writer”; it is the reader who brings it to life. Should the human race be wiped out, books would be “lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read”.

Young contends that the reader’s demiurgic power is not only forgotten, but also repressed, because of the anxiety it generates in highlighting the contingency of our books and lives: “Giddiness arises as I become aware of my responsibility for affirming one world and not another, and the fragility of whatever is chosen. Every string of letters can be an existential challenge”. What Michel Foucault called the “author function” is thus “a way of making reading safe”. Words become “someone else’s job”: the book “just means this, end of story”.

If Young explores how Rousseau or Sartre became fully aware of their existence through reading, he also considers how fiction may provide an escape from the confines of the self — Dickens’s “hope of something beyond that place and time” — and the increasing encroachment of the actual upon the possible.

In order to truly appreciate a text we must also “overcome our egocentrism”, which Virginia Woolf signally failed to do vis-à-vis Joyce, whom she initially read through the prism of class snobbery and rivalry. The philosopher concedes, however, that Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” has its limits. We are “partial beings” whose “incompleteness varies” with age, so that some novels — Henry James’s in the case of Evelyn Waugh — need to be grown into.

Most importantly, perhaps, literature enables us “to stifle the little oligarch” within. Villains — in fiction as well as fact — “see all things as a means to an end”, which is always “some vision of perfection”. Reading teaches us to accept that things simply are, and that they may end without concluding: “Only the Library of Babel continues. It makes sense to restlessly move between artworks, never believing that any one is perfect.”