Sunday, July 31, 2022

Joy Press - The Belligerati: Martin Amis + Christopher Hitchens - Village Voice - October 26 2001

Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché

Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

Buried in Martin Amis's memoir, Experience, is an anecdote about his old friend Christopher Hitchens. They've driven all the way to Vermont to visit Saul Bellow, Amis's hero, but the evening goes terribly wrong when the dinner conversation turns toward Israel. After 90 minutes of Hitchens's "cerebral stampede"—a tirade on the crimes of Zionism directed at one of America's Great Jews—"a silence slowly elongated itself over the dinner table. Christopher, utterly sober but with his eyes lowered, was crushing in his hands an empty packet of Benson & Hedges. The Bellows, too, had their gazes downcast. I sat with my head in my palms, staring at the aftermath of the dinner. . . . My right foot was injured because I had kicked the shins of the Hitch so much with it."

This set piece dramatizes the differences between the two chums. Where Amis exalts literary genius (incarnated by Bellow) and believes "there are times when manners are more important than [political differences]," Hitchens values truth and justice over all else—including tact and the feelings of his best friend. You don't have to squint too hard to see the bonds between Hitchens and Amis. They both came of age in early-'70s London and worked together on The New Statesman, a then influential left-wing magazine. Britain's champagne socialists hadn't really shed their traditional disdain for pop culture yet; this was the last generation for whom Keats would still beat Dylan in a culture clash. For young guns like Chris and Mart, it must have been a befuddling moment. In The War Against Cliché, Amis writes of his early years as an assistant at the Times Literary Supplement: "Even then I sensed a discrepancy, as I joined an editorial conference . . . wearing shoulder-length hair, a flower shirt, and knee-high tricolored boots . . . but I always had about me my Edmund Wilson—or my William Empson."

Both men have retained their reputations as enfants terribles, probably perpetuated by their cruel-lipped, scowly poses in publicity photos. Looking at this essay collection, however, it's clear that Amis was always more considered and considerate than his angry young man aura suggests. With a title like The War Against Cliché, you expect Amis to sharpen his spiky prose on the soft underbellies of hapless authors. Yet that sneer has vanished along with his rotten teeth. War is peppered with small English cruelties, sure, and the occasional assassination (on Malcolm Lowry: "To make a real success of being an alcoholic . . . you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure, and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help."). But this book also introduces us to a gentler side of Martin. "Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power," he writes in his introduction. "You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember."

In some ways the book's aggressive-sounding title is apt—Amis is a warrior when it comes to language, declaring a fatwa on incorrect usage and poorly placed commas. He takes down his beloved J.G. Ballard for sloppy repetition and Iris Murdoch for her "train-wreck adjectives," while attributing Elmore Leonard's brilliance to his use of the present participle, and delectating over James Joyce's chewy, "reader-nuking" prose.

Amis's short book reviews aren't the best showcase for deep thinking; many feel stunted and swollen with plot description. The patchwork of pieces doesn't have the coherence of say, James Wood's recent collection, The Broken Estate, but Amis's prose combines a liveliness and vulnerability that's rare in criticism. There are a handful of authors he reviews numerous times over the book's 29-year span, and watching his opinions fluctuate and coalesce over the years is fascinating—like time-lapse criticism. When he actually has room to spread out—in his poignant, personal piece on Philip Larkin (a friend of his dad, Kingsley Amis) or the essays on "great books" like Don Quixote—his arguments inject charm and energy into fatigued subject matter.

His literary values are surprisingly traditional for a former lit thug, though. Who namedrops Leavis anymore? Amis repeatedly bemoans the influence of ideology on the critics and creators of literature. "Most literary criticism tends to point beyond literature towards . . . Marxism, or sociology, or philosophy, or semiotics," he complains in a review of Nabokov's lectures. "Nabokov points to the thing itself, the art itself." Amis also obsesses over the concept of talent until it becomes tedious: Novels only fail "when talent fails," "there is only one type of writing—that of talent," ad infinitum. Which sounds unarguable, except that the kind of people who go on about "genius" and complain about politicized readings (think Harold Bloom) tend to be cranky guardians of the canon. Somehow women and non-white writers rarely make it through the barricades. Give or take an Austen or Naipaul, The War Against Cliché is wall-to-wall white men: Its inadvertent argument is that talent is unequally distributed.

"Elitist" is a charge frequently hurled at Hitchens, too, but he mounts a hefty case for the defense in Letters to a Young Contrarian. The accusation "no longer has the power to sting me," he claims, explaining that since popular opinion is constantly manipulated by those in power, "one must therefore be willing to risk the charge of 'elitism' " in order to reveal truth to the duped masses. As far as Hitchens is concerned, there are slimier things to be than an elitist—a liar, for instance. Letters to a Young Contrarian is a short book based on Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, with Hitchens addressing an imaginary student protégé who seeks advice on standing up to power. As deeply steeped in the Western canon as Amis, Hitchens leans heavily on quotes from dead sages like Zola, Bertrand Russell, and George Orwell. His erudition is dazzling, but you have to wonder if this plethora of literary references would really inspire a young wannabe revolutionary today; lyrics by Kathleen Hanna, Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha, or Mos Def would probably be more effective.

Letters shows Hitchens's best and worst sides. A born contrarian, he makes entertaining mincemeat of self-satisfied politicians, and shreds received ideas and media-spun consensus with a fearlessness that is invaluable in our mealy-mouthed punditocracy. But there are times when that innate oppositional streak seems purely knee-jerk. As much as one savored the callousness of his infamous phrase "the Spencer girl" to describe the newly deceased Princess Di, Hitchens was clearly blinkered by his own rationality, refusing to grapple with the real popular emotions behind the Diana cult.

The self-portrait that emerges in Letters is of Hitchens as a man's man: a lover, a fighter, someone as happy roughing it in a war zone as savoring fine wine in the company of famous dissidents. He's a swashbuckler who makes radicalism look macho (though obviously it doesn't have to be—plenty of activists have ovaries). Amis attests to Hitchens's combativeness in another Experience anecdote: He recalls going "mano a mano" with the Hitch when the latter deserted the lefties at New Statesman to work for Tory paper The Daily Express. Amis and Hitchens stood "looking implacably into each others eyes, squeezing [a wine glass] till it began to creak." Amis soon backed down, "Because I suddenly knew that he would not desist, not in a million years, and when we went off to Casualty together . . . Hitch would have no regrets, no regrets about that gashed palm, that missing finger. . . . "

Real politics, though, involve compromise, negotiation—methods for resolving conflict that are traditionally considered female, and ones that Hitchens rejects. He argues the usefulness of taking an extreme position and being "well-equipped . . . because if you are not then the 'center' will be occupied without your having helped to decide it or determine where it is." This looks fine on the printed page—but back in the real world of blood and sinew, we might do well to be more wary of collateral damage, more timorous of sacrificing limbs for principles.

Mocking machismo in The War Against Cliché, Amis disses Robert Bly's Iron John, with its calls to the warrior inside every man. He writes of Bly in terms that sound rather Hitchens-esque: a "strong personality" whose " 'hurricane energy' . . . sweeps all before it. Would you want to tell Zeus to take out the garbage? Would you want to ask a hurricane to wipe its feet on the mat?" Yet a footnote reports an encounter with Iron Bob himself after Amis had read this lecture at Harvard. "Standing tall, Bly asked me why I was so frightened of male grandeur. I wanted to say, 'because it's so frightening;' instead I shrugged and mumbled, feeling I had already answered his question." "Because it's so frightening"—such a sweet and startling admission, you almost miss it.

Hitchens's stridency and certainty will always be politically potent, but Amis's willingness to commit his vulnerability and confusion to the page ultimately makes him the more subtle and resonant writer. Letters is a primer on How to Be Christopher Hitchens. The War Against Cliché is a motley heap of literary judgments that nevertheless offers us a peek at the evolution of Martin Amis.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Mark Fisher - Darkside Hardcore - New Statesman - March 11 1994


I believe this is Mark Fisher's first piece ever published in a proper magazine (i.e. not a college magazine or renegade academic samizdat publication of his own creating). From 1994!

Friday, July 8, 2022

Richard Meltzer - The Clash (and PiL, and Throbbing Gristle, and The Fall) - Creem - September 1982

Richard Meltzer 

The Clash, Combat Rock

Creem, September 1982

Overpowered by Mere
Far and away the two most important musical whatsems of the seminal anti-deathculture late-70’s UK scene were the Sex Pistols and (it says here) Throbbing Gristle. In addition to turning the necessary stomachs (Bill Graham, Jann Wenner, etc.) the Pistols helped their cause (and ours) immeasurably by ceasing to exist as a rock ‘n’ roll whatsem at all, self-destructing with incredibly perfect timing and (in the case of Mr. Lydon) metamorphosing into the second most anti-arch of practicing whatsems, PiL. First most arch was – and still is (even in its own belated non-existence) – the above mentioned T. Gristle, who never for the merest second surrendered to the merest lure of mere success, never in fact allowed itself to be perceived as a rock ‘n’ roll beat group (or even a “group”) in any possible mainstream sense of the word. As people with ears and nervous systems life everybody else, both Lydon and the T.G. folks are certainly capable of enjoying music-for-mere-entertainment sake (Lydon, for inst, purportedly maintains one of Britain’s largest reggae collections and T.G.’s Genesis P. Orridge is an avid collector of – say hey – Martin Denny) but they have always been more scrupulous in their steadfast avoidance of that deathtrap called ROCK ‘N’ ROLL as a context and occasion for personal expression of same, and for that we really can’t salute ‘em enough.
Moving right along to now, the only shamefacedly brazen keepers of the anti-etc. UK flame anymore are the Fall, whose gamekeeper/groundskeeper Mark E. Smith recently wrote me in a barely legible scrawl: “Our last LP got best critical reaction yet, which surprised me, as it was mean to be a huge SOD OFF (his caps). Established celebrity status for 1st time around here, & honestly it cut me up much – people staring at me in the 1st/last domain, the pub, where formerly I’d go to forget. But it’s isolated me at last, i.e., I’m careful where I go & trust no-one again.” R&R fame and fortune is, to Mr. Smith, the lamest goal available to one of wit and spark and the man’s music extends his rejection of conspicuous achievement well beyond rock-out lifestyle to the pure plain of rock ‘n’ roll form: avoidance of hooks like you wouldn’t believe, riffing as neither expedient cyclicality nor reference to Bo Diddley or the Velvets (not intending generatrix of sperm-meets-ovum, nor Enoesque “minimalism” in a nutshell, not…you name it), the usage of pop as a more arch “out” factor than it is with Mingus or Albert Ayler, etc., etc., etc.
What I’m taking my time to get to (I guess) is if you take even a sloppy look at the last six years of anti-deathrattle UK ferment I can’t see placing the Clash at the forefront of either stage one or stage n + 90. Somewhere in the middle’s maybe a different story, like Sandinista! has gotta be the most arch subversion yet of a major label’s time and money for forcibly arcane purposes, plus it’s easily the fullest realization of specifically black (i.e., Jamaican dub), anti-mainstream, non-homogenized, non A = A, non-Anglo-Am-dead-end PRODUCTION VALUES in the annals of whiteboy recording per se, for which these guys certainly deserve a round of claps. But this new one, the one I’m supposed to be reviewing, doesn’t exactly put them at the forefront of anything unless you’re talking forefront of mere (qua mere) ROCK ‘N’ ROLL PRODUCT, a forefront/storefront shared by an enormity of hack pros equal to the population (at least) of say Bayonne, New Jersey.
What we’ve got here (pure and simple) is the merest mere ever perpetuated by a group of louts who weren’t purveyors of mere to begin with. Any by mere I’m not even talking thin in qual or product-for-product-sake (like to merely satisfy a contract or whatever), I’m just talking rock ‘n’ roll (regardless of qual or state of cynicism) without any lingering irony other than lyrical – and lyrics are (often) the biggest whore of all. ‘Cause like here’s the band that once sang “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977.” I mean it was them and nobody else, and here they go shaking the same threadbare booty shaken by each of the three fabled no-no’s: mere rock ‘n’ roll to the mere goddam hilt.
With Combat Rock the Clash have finally (officially) opted to work from WITHIN THE BEAST, to pull the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of GOING CLEAN FOR GENE (hint: 1968), to let the deathculture destroy them because (as they shabbily defined things) they could no longer hope to destroy it. Which actually come as much of a surprise, ‘cause in spite of an ever-droning refusal to “play ball with the company” they’ve ALWAYS been titillated to the short-hairs by 1. The ever-growing lure of total rock-out rockhood as at least a possible turf for the post-boho experience and 2. the debilitating fantasy of a nouveau-political power base, a potentially useful internationally visibility attainable for the continuing small fee of an increment here and there of artistic integrity. The (unintentional) irony of their whole-hog submission to the non-ironic rock ‘n’ roll “trip” is what CBS has ultimately gotten out of them independent of its own attempts at ultimate same: alternate Springsteen meets surrogate Nugent (y’know: anonymous ball-playing “boogie band” w/passably “thoughtful” lyrics). That the company still won’t know how to market them will only be their just dessert.
Which is not to say they ain’t swell people, and it really is too bad it had to be them as the first true martyrs (on any kind of true martyrdom scale) of punk sellout w/out laughs. Their swellness is manifest on virtually every cut, as they double over backwards to radically educate (without bravura or condescension) their new audience of rock ‘n’ roll sheep per se, a functionally lobotomized herd so many others have insincerely led by the nose (to slaughter or worse).
Okay, seeing as how I still haven’t said a goddam thing (“pro” or “con”) on the album as an album (mere merely rated) all I can say is this is their fifth album now. If they wanna be taken seriously for their mere-dimensionality, it wouldn’t hurt to stack ‘em up against some classic meres in their fifth outings. Fifth Beatles LP (excluding Hard Day’s Night) was Beatles ’65. Fifth Stones was December’s Children, Fifth Dylan was Bringing It All Back Home. If you want to get more thorough, fifth Doors was Morrison Hotel, fifth Dead was Workingman’s Dead, fifth Byrds was Notorious Byrd Brothers. In each case you’re talking about some level of departure (other than surrender), you’re talking buzzwords like thrust and self-assertion (with nary a second guess, generic or otherwise). Most of all you’re looking down the barrel of anywhere from eight to twelve great cuts.
So. Since the Clash offer at most 3.4 even decent cuts, since the fairest you could be about their sound is that it feels submerged in standard-issue rock-cut ruts, since their lyrical imagery could without difficulty be described as watered down, since the closest this LP comes to any of the above is the fact that two-thirds of the time you could easily be listening to the post-Beatle George Harrison, this mere word-jockey rates Combat Rock (by standards the Clash’ve brought on themselves) a RELATIVE PIECE OF SHIT.