Pretty Vacant Or Spiky-Haired Situationists?

Empire, Kitty. “Pretty Vacant Or Spiky-Haired Situationists?” The Observer (The New Review section), 19 November 2017, p. 36.

. . . Were the art school games of canny old hippies behind punk? Sometimes, but perhaps more in theory than practice. An essay in Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night by fanzine writer Tom Vague retraces McLaren’s appetite for destruction back through the situationists, the lettrists, psychogeography and a tiny late 60s Notting Hill faction called King Mob (a reference to the Gordon Riots of 1780).

Authors Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix have skin in the game; Cabut is an ex-punk (“In the summer of 1977 I am 17 – perfect”) who became a playwright, while Gallix is at the Sorbonne and edits a free-ranging literary webzine called 3:AM (“whatever it is, we’re against it”). The book’s title (Modernity Killed Every Night) quotes Jacques Vaché, friend to the surrealist André Breton. But Punk Is Dead isn’t end-to-end cultural theory; there’s a lot on clothes. Three strands unfurl — papers, essays and first-person accounts. Cabut and Gallix have included historical documents — such as Penny Rimbaud’s 1977 essay, Banned from the Roxy, newly annotated by the Crass drummer — while Gallix argues that punk started ending when it acquired a name. Jon Savage is here, and Ted Polhemus and Vermorel (again).

As that list attests, punk can be a tiresomely Boy’s Own narrative, to which former Slit Viv Albertine’s 2014 memoir was a potent corrective. With the exception of Judy Nylon’s introduction and the reminiscences of go-go dancer turned drummer Dorothy Max Prior, however, this collection is let down by its dearth of female voices. Perhaps the notion to take away from both books — indeed from punk itself — is the one of endless possibility. As an interview with the punk turned philosopher Simon Critchley attests, punk unleashed ideas. It palpably changed suburban teenage futures, rather than ending them.

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Punk Bashing Time

Andrew Stevens interviewed me for Creases Like Knives, 16 September 2017:

Punk Bashing Time: An Interview with Andrew Gallix

It was no less than Garry Bushell himself who wrote of ‘dreading well-meaning graduates with crops and tailor-made crombies’ in Sounds when he met with the teenaged members of ‘Skins Against the Nazis’ in 1978. Stevo had a few less hang-ups about meeting a fully-fledged Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris to go over his new book Punk Is Dead (Zero Books), which in part deals with aspects of skinhead’s troubled history among punk.

But then Andrew Gallix, who also edits the eclectic and punked-up webzine 3:AM, was a little more gracious and even-handed than some of the book’s other contributors when it came to recounting his own experiences.

You begin by taking issue with claims in “certain punk memoirs, [that] the streets of London, in 1977, were thronging with skinheads”?

Well, I was thinking specifically of Viv Albertine’s memoir — possibly the best punk memoir ever published and a truly excellent book in its own right. The dates, however, are not always totally accurate, which, to be fair, is hardly surprising given the breakneck speed of change in those days. Besides, it’s a personal memoir not a history book. I’ve just spotted an anecdote that supposedly took place in 1976 although Johnny Rotten is said to be listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot — an album that only came out the following year. Either the date is wrong or he was listening to another record.

In a chapter devoted to the Roxy club circa 77, Viv mentions night buses being ‘full of skinheads and drunks’, which is highly unlikely. Sham 69 started getting a strong following at the fag-end of the summer of 1977 — they were on the cover of the August-September issue of Sniffin’ Glue following the release of their first single. There was indeed already a smattering of skinheads in their midst, but it was so small they had no real visibility at the time. Teddy boys, definitely — they were all over the place. As I write in the book, I can’t recall ever seeing a skinhead in the flesh before 1978, save for intriguing pictures of Skrewdriver in the music press.

In 78-79 there were also quite a few punks with skinhead-style crops, so there was a lot of overlapping and ambiguity. The guttersnipe hanging out of the open platform at the back of a double-decker in the ads for ‘Clash City Rockers’ (1978) is clearly meant to be a punky urchin, with ‘CLASH’ stencilled on his trousers, but he also has a very short haircut that makes him look a bit like a skinhead. He’s a good example of this hybrid style that reflected a radicalisation of punk in the face of commercialisation and due to an influx of working-class punters on the scene. Paul Simonon himself sported braces and a proper skinhead crop, complete with a shaved parting, at some point in 78.

One of the ideas I develop in Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is that punk was haunted by its lost beginning. If I may quote myself quoting the Cockney Rejects, ‘Punk’s year-zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back’. The radicalisation of the movement that led to the skinhead revival is, in my opinion, part of this quest for authenticity. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Simonon and Weller had all been little skinheads or suedeheads.

I believe there’s another passage in Viv Albertine’s book where she talks about Mick Jones and herself being attacked by a gang of skinheads after a gig on the White Riot tour. I’ve just flicked through the book to check, but alas couldn’t find it. Once more, however, I suspect the date is wrong.

All this is very anal, of course, but I can’t help thinking historical accuracy is important; that the devil is in the (lack of) detail. Maybe it’s because it’s also my own past we’re dealing with here. Yesterday, on Soho Radio, someone was talking about seeing mohicaned punks on the King’s Road in 1977 — another common anachronism which annoys me no end.

But there’s plenty of accounts which claim that skinhead ‘came back’ at the Roxy in 1977?

It’s extremely difficult to say for sure when punk started and ended, but one possible cut-off point is the closure of the original Roxy club in April 1977. I believe Sham only played the real Roxy once, supporting Generation X — that is, Andy Czezowski, Susan Carrington and Barry Jones’ Roxy. I may be wrong, but in any event, they were totally unknown at the time and the whole skinhead thing only really started taking off at the Vortex and at the Roxy Mark 2, when the club reopened under new management, immediately becoming a parody of its previous incarnation.

The atmosphere on the punk scene grew much darker following the ‘summer of hate’, as the NME called it at the time, which had been the movement’s high-water mark. Things started going awry over the autumn and winter, culminating in the Pistols’ acrimonious split in January 1978. These are the bad days when the streets were ‘paved with blood,’ as Paul Weller sang: ‘I’m stranded on the Vortex floor / My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour’.

How old were you when all this was happening? You make reference to boys around your way kitted out in skinhead clobber and the ‘prepubescent, second-generation skinheads in a black-and-white photo spread — doubtless compiled by Garry Bushell — from around 1979’.

Yes, there were little skinheads everywhere! That was in 1979, and I was 14. Skinheads were ubiquitous for a while, and not only in London, of course. Up and down the country. It was absolutely massive, not a fringe thing. Weetabix even had commercials with cartoon skinhead characters: ‘If you know what’s good for you, ok’.

What about in Paris? Who were the ‘once dodgy skinheads’ you mention in your chapter?

I’ve written two chapters somewhat tangentially linked to the Parisian punk scene. One of them is devoted to L.U.V., a fascinating all-girl phantom band; the other focuses on the Bazooka art collective. I wish I could have covered more aspects of French punk. Hopefully in a future book.

The whole skinhead phenomenon was largely lost in translation abroad. What, in an English context, referred back to London working-class culture immediately took on a more sinister, neo-Nazi complexion on the Continent. To be honest, the French skinhead scene had no redeeming features whatsoever. It produced very few bands and they were all beyond crap — initially, Parisian skins followed La Souris Déglinguée, who were not themselves skinheads.

The very first French skins may not have been racist, but they were only interested in fighting. Many of them went on to become drug addicts. The following wave, however, was almost exclusively made up of glue-sniffing fascist nutters. There were also far-left skinheads, calling themselves redskins, whose sole purpose in life was to beat up far-right skinheads. To all intents and purposes, they were the mirror image of their enemies, on whose existence their righteous identity as anti-fascists was entirely predicated.

Those I refer to in that quote are Farid and his gang: la bande à Farid. They were the most interesting on account of being the first and having, paradoxically enough, an Arab leader. As French skinheads, they had a kind of exotic cachet. There hadn’t been any in France the first time round — I understand Australia was the only foreign country to have had an indigenous scene in those days. Most of the members of Farid’s gang hailed from Colombes, a nondescript Parisian suburb. Hanging out in and around Les Halles, they thrived on gratuitous violence, relishing the fear they generated throughout the capital. I remember travelling around Paris, in 1980-81, and wherever we went fellow punks would tell us to watch out because Farid was about. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time!

When the Specials played a gig at the Pavillon Baltard, on 14 March 1980, the French skins were all wearing Onion Johnny black berets to distinguish themselves from their English counterparts. Before the gig, they beat up a mate of mine and stole the white tie I had lent him. During the Specials’ set there was a massive brawl, like in a western, between the French and English skins. You can guess who started the trouble.

Violence is something of a motif throughout the book, for instance both Bob Short and Tony Drayton cite regular skinhead violence against punk squatters (‘gangs of skinheads who would rape and beat at will’). Tony even went so far as to include a manifesto against Oi! and skins in Kill Your Pet Puppy! Did that surprise you?

It didn’t surprise me at all, because violence on the streets was a fact of life back then. If you were a punk, you attracted random abuse and aggression all the time. In 1977, it was teddy boys, football hooligans or outraged members of the general public. I remember seeing blokes stepping off Routemasters on the King’s Road to punch a passing punk, then jumping back on. One of the most famous incidents, of course, was when Rotten was razored by vigilantes. That was part of a widespread anti-punk backlash in the wake of ‘God Save the Queen’. Before that punk violence had been largely symbolic: from the Silver Jubilee onwards, it became literal.

Thereafter, it was usually members of some rival youth cult you had to worry about. The early 80s were very tribal, and there was trouble on all fronts, but skinheads were obviously the worst of the lot. After 1982, almost all the gigs you went to involved some degree of violence at some stage — it just went with the territory. On one occasion, I was walking down Putney Hill with my then girlfriend, when we noticed hordes of skinheads ahead of us on the other side of the road. We were on our way to a gig by anarcho-punk band Conflict — and so were they. Sensibly, we decided to beat a hasty retreat as it would have been a bloodbath. I actually stopped going to gigs for a number of years because it just was not worth the hassle any more.

In all fairness, that adrenalin rush that kicked in as soon as you left home was intoxicating. Boredom may have been a buzzword, but there was never a dull moment: punk really was a revolution of everyday life. After a few years, of course, it started taking its toll.

Around 1985, and still with the same girlfriend, I came face to face with another large gang of menacing-looking skinheads, this time in Brighton. The only way to avoid them would have been to turn round and flee, but I feared they would come running after us, so we walked on petrified. As we got closer I noticed that some of them were holding hands. Nobody had told me that the skinhead look had been subsumed into gay subculture.


Indeed, I noticed David Wilkinson levered in a mention of Nicky Crane’s double life in his chapter on ambivalence of queer in punk. Richard Cabut, who co-edited the book, suggests in his ‘Punk Positive’ chapter’s many dismissals of ‘glue-swamped’ Oi! by ‘lobots’ that by the early 80s skinhead (as one of three ‘tribes’) had become ‘mindlessness wrapped in a dull, grey, lazy uniform of bitterness’. You yourself give the Cockney Rejects more credit, though, i.e. splinter groups capturing original unity.

Yes, I liked Sham 69 and then some of the early Oi bands — Cockney Rejects in particular. The first Oi compilation was really great. The musical boundaries were actually very porous in spite of all the tribalism: mods would listen to punk bands, for instance, and vice-versa. By 1980-81 I was more into the Ants and the anarcho side of things, but I was interested in everything that came in the wake of the initial punk explosion. As I said earlier, the skinhead revival was essentially a response to punk’s commercialisation, as was the mod revival. If I may quote another extract from the book:

Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (Oi!, the mod revival, 2-Tone, no wave, cold wave, post-punk, goth, early new romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, ‘People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement.’ When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were ‘the reality of punk mythology’ — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar the Clash. (Even within the Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when it was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory’s exile would come to an end and literally take place.

Finally, is punk really dead? And did modernity kill every night?

The original title we wanted was Modernity Killed Every Night, but the publisher probably found it a little obscure, so I suggested a series of alternatives. Eventually we settled on Punk is Dead, with the original as subtitle.

Punk is Dead works on several levels. It’s a reference to the early Crass song, which is fitting as Penny Rimbaud has contributed a piece to the book, and an oblique response to the Exploited’s ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ — which, of course, was a response to Crass in the first place. I remember Jordan, around 1980-81, pointing out that the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ slogan was an admission of defeat. I believe this was in The Face magazine.

In fact, when punk was alive and kicking, no one used the word ‘punk’ apart from journalists who had to call it something. Using it was very uncool. In the book I argue that ‘punk died (or at least that something started dying or was lost) as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name — or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing’:

Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in ‘Blank Generation’ had not yet been filled in by that ‘bloody word’ [Jonh Ingham] — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions.

So the whole question of onomastics is an important one, in my view. It is related to the controversial issue of punk’s birth and death. Borges claimed that writers create their own precursors. In the same way, there is a punk spirit that people now recognise in individuals or movements that predate (and indeed postdate) punk. In this book, we wanted to highlight the socio-historical specificity of the British punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Punk’s influence is everywhere today, but for a whole variety of reasons it’s not the same thing as the real thing.

In 1974 Malcolm McLaren contemplated using ‘Modernity Killed Every Night’ as the name of his boutique. In the end he opted for SEX, but the slogan was sprayed on one of the walls inside the shop. It came from a letter Jacques Vaché sent to André Breton during the First World War:

Despite his bovine-sounding name, Vaché (1895-1919) was a dandified anglophile, who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life, by — as he put it — deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side. It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform, and threatening to shoot at random, that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tirésias (1917) on account of its arty-farty production. Apollinaire had coined the word ‘surrealist’ to describe his play, but it was Vaché’s radical brand of criticism that embodied the true spirit of the forthcoming movement. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose, which may have been an accident, but is commonly regarded as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the true originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. After listing his early literary influences — Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautréamont — he added, ‘but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.’ His stroke of genius, Breton maintained, was ‘to have produced nothing.’

 

Abandoning Art

Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Styles of Radical Will (1969)

But the choice of permanent silence doesn’t negate their [Rimbaud, Wittgenstein, Duchamp] work. On the contrary, it imparts retroactively an added power and authority to what was broken off; disavowal of the work becoming a new source of its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness. That seriousness consists in not regarding art (or philosophy practiced as an art form: Wittgenstein) as something whose seriousness lasts forever, an “end,” a permanent vehicle for spiritual ambition. The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a “means” to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art; judged more impatiently, art is a false way or (the word of the Dada artist Jacques Vaché) a stupidity.

[See Blanchot.]

Nothing At All

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This review of Jean-Yves Jouannais’s Artistes sans oeuvres: I Would Prefer Not To appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 25 September 2009 (No 5556, p. 30):

Nothing At All

With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.

Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.

Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or iinflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Jouannais never makes the absurd claim that creating nothing is better than creating something: like Emil Cioran, he has little time for what he calls the “failure fundamentalists”. He does not dwell on the Keatsian notion (also found in Rousseau and Goethe) that unheard melodies are sweeter, or wonder why the attempts at a merger between life and art have so often resulted in death. Jouannais’s “Artists without works” are essentially of a sunny disposition. They are dilettantes, driven solely by their own enjoyment; cultural skivers who never feel that they owe it to posterity, let alone their public, to be productive. They let time do its work and are often militantly lazy — like Albert Cossery, the francophone writer of Egyptian origin who, on a good day, would fashion a single carefully crafted sentence, or the American artist Albert M. Fine who is quoted as saying: “If I did anything less it would cease to be art”. It is this divine indolence which differentiates Artistes sans oeuvres from darker essays on the subject.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book concern those larger-than-life figures (Félix Fénéon, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, Roberto Bazlen) who entered the literary pantheon as characters in other writers’ novels rather than through their own. Cravan, Vaché and Cassady — who embodied respectively the spirits of Dada, Surrealism and Beat — published virtually nothing during their lifetimes. Naturally, phantom works abound here, from Stendhal’s numerous unfinished novels to the unpublished manuscripts of the Brautigan Library (modelled on the library in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion) through to Roland Barthes’s criticism, which provided him with the perfect excuse not to write the novel he dreamed of. Jouannais also considers summarizers such as Fénéon, whose “elliptical novels” were no longer than haiku, or Borges, who compiled synopses of fictitious novels so that no one would have to waste time writing or reading them. In fact, the Argentinian’s entire oeuvre — haunted as it is by the possibility of its own silence — is reinterpreted as a paradoxical “pre-emptive production” designed to spare the already overcrowded bookshelves of the Library of Babel. Borges’s Pierre Ménard (along with Bouvard, Pécuchet and Bartleby) is, of course, one of the patron saints of the copiers, another category surveyed in these pages. The destroyers (Virgil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz et al.) who seek to cover their aesthetic tracks only get a brief look-in, Jouannais being more interested in the long line of erasers starting with Man Ray’s 1924 “Lautgedicht” (an obliterated poem) and including such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Yves Klein’s infamous empty exhibition or Walter Ruttmann’s “blind” film. The author argues convincingly — in a style both eloquent and elegant — that Cravan’s proto-Dadaist provocations, Rigaut’s suicide or Brautigan’s notorious kitchen shoot-outs should be construed as poetic gestures in their own right. Deliberately misquoting Flaubert, he concludes that the works of these so-called “Artists without works” are “present everywhere and visible nowhere”, which may explain why they are so often misunderstood.

Can Artists Create Art By Doing Nothing?

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This appeared in the Art and Design section of the Guardian website on 1 June 2009:

Can Artists Create Art by Doing Nothing?

Félicien Marboeuf, a fictitious author who never wrote a book, is the inspiration for a new exhibition. Andrew Gallix celebrates artists who have turned doing very little into an art form

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More than 20 artists will pay homage to Félicien Marboeuf in an eclectic exhibition opening in Paris next week. Although he’s hardly a household name, Marboeuf (1852-1924) inspired both Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Having been the model for Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education), he resolved to become an author lest he should remain a character all his life. But he went on to write virtually nothing: his correspondence with Proust is all that was ever published — and posthumously at that. Marboeuf, you see, had such a lofty conception of literature that any novels he may have perpetrated would have been pale reflections of an unattainable ideal. In the event, every single page he failed to write achieved perfection, and he became known as the “greatest writer never to have written”. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, wrote John Keats.

Jean-Yves Jouannais, the curator of this exhibition, had already placed Marboeuf at the very heart of Artistes sans Oeuvres (Artists without Works), his cult book that first appeared in 1997 and has just been reprinted in an expanded edition. The artists he brings together all reject the productivist approach to art, and do not feel compelled to churn out works simply to reaffirm their status as creators. They prefer life to the dead hand of museums and libraries, and are generally more concerned with being (or not being) than doing. Life is their art as much as art is their life — perhaps even more so.

Jouannais believes that the attempt at an art-life merger, which so preoccupied the avant garde of the 20th century, originated with Walter Pater‘s contention that experience, not “the fruit of experience”, was an end in itself. Oscar Wilde’s nephew, the fabled pugilist poet Arthur Cravan — who kick-started the dada revolution with Francis Picabia before disappearing off the coast of Mexico — embodied (along with Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady) this mutation. Turning one’s existence into poetry was now where it was at.

“I like living, breathing better than working,” Marcel Duchamp famously declared. “My art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.” The time frame of the artwork shifted accordingly, from posterity — Paul Éluard‘s “difficult desire to endure” — to the here and now. Jouannais celebrates the skivers of the artistic world, those who can’t be arsed. “If I did anything less it would cease to be art,” Albert M Fine admitted cheekily on one occasion. Duchamp also prided himself on doing as little as possible: should a work of art start taking shape he would let it mature — sometimes for several decades — like a fine wine.

Phantom works abound in Jouannais’s book, from Harald Szeemann‘s purely imaginary Museum of Obsessions to the recreation of fictitious exhibitions by Alain Bublex through Stendhal‘s numerous aborted novels or the Brautigan Library‘s collection of rejected manuscripts. There is of course the case of Roland Barthes, whose career as a theorist was partly a means of not writing the novel he dreamed of (Vita Nova). One of my favourite examples is Société Perpendiculaire, co-created by Jouannais with Nicolas Bourriaud and others in the early 80s. This “hyperrealistic bureaucratic structure”, dedicated to the “poetry of virtual events”, had no other function but to produce reams of administrative texts pertaining to projects that would never see the light of day.

The Société Perpendiculaire would have provided a perfect working environment for Flaubert’s cretinous copyists Bouvard and Pécuchet, whose influence looms large in these pages. Just as Jorge Luis Borges‘s Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote verbatim, Gérard Collin-Thiébaut set about copying Sentimental Education in its entirety in 1985. Sherrie Levine also reduced artistic production to reproduction by signing famous paintings or photographs by other artists. Erasure is an even more common strategy. Man Ray set the tone with Lautgedicht (1924), his painting of a poem with all the words blanked out, which anticipated Emilio Isgrò’s Cancellature of the 1960s. The most famous examples here are Robert Rauschenberg‘s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and Yves Klein‘s infamous empty exhibition (1958).

Jouannais’s artists without works are essentially of a sunny disposition, totally at odds with the impotent rage of the “failure fundamentalists”, as he calls them.

Displaying a wealth of material — paintings, sketches, collages, photographs and installations — the exhibition focuses on Marboeuf the man rather than the author. Marboeuf as a beautiful child; in middle age, bald as a coot, with a creepy-looking smile on his face; Marboeuf looking suspiciously Proustian on his death bed; Marboeuf’s grave … This biographical angle is hardly surprising given the author’s limited output, but rather more so when you consider that he is purely a figment of Jouannais’s imagination.

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

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This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too

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“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?

Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.

This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.

The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.

Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.

Living Poetry

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This appeared in the Guardian Books Blog on 25 September 2007:

Living Poetry

If you thought writing was a prerequisite for being a literary hero, think again.

Flaubert famously decreed that the successful author should “live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god”. The enduring appeal of the Beats lies, to a great extent, in the possibility they seemed to offer of living, as well as thinking, like demi-gods. On those grounds one could argue that Neal Cassady — who embodied the mad-to-live “essence of Beat” — was actually the most important creative force in the group, although he never published a single book during his lifetime. Along with Jacques Vaché and Arthur Cravan, he belongs to an unholy trinity of self-destructive, protean pranksters who burned like fabulous yellow roman candles as they turned their existence into poetry.

Vaché (1895-1919) was not simply a dandified anglophile who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. His actual military career, serving with the French army in the first world war, was rather less outwardly distinguished. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life by (as he put it) deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side.

It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform and threatening to shoot at random that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire‘s Les Mamelles de Tirésias on account of its arty-farty production. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose which may have been an accident, but is commonly interpreted as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. His stroke of genius, he maintained, was “to have produced nothing”.

Fabian Lloyd aka Arthur Cravan (1887-1918) put all his genius into his short life; he put only his talent (and a limited one at that) into his works. As David Lalé writes in the recently-published Last Stop Salina Cruz: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form”. Almost too bad to be true, he inspired Gide‘s Lafcadio — the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will — and kick-started the Dada insurrection when he crossed paths with Picabia in Spain.

After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, Lloyd relocated to bohemian Paris where he adopted his pseudonym, partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s heavyweight champion without fighting a single match. Never one to shy away from self-promotion, Cravan ruthlessly exploited his reputation as a pugilist poet (although his boxing was on a par with his writing skills) and got a lot of mileage out of being Oscar Wilde‘s nephew. His antics — including giving lectures during which he insulted, mooned and fired gunshots at the audience — led to rough justice at the hands of an angry mob of avant-garde painters as well as a duel challenge courtesy of poor old Apollinaire. Significantly enough, he printed his literary journal on wrapping paper from a butcher’s shop.

The onset of the war marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. Cravan, the eponymous colossus of Mina Loy‘s novel, had always been larger than life; now, he had taken elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. For decades, he would continue to be spotted in different parts of the world. He is still at large.