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.


The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten


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


“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.