The Music of Prose

This review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C appeared in the TLS.

“Digressions are as pleasant as vacations, but one must return from them before tan turns to burn.” So says Professor Joseph Skizzen, a musicologist and – a little belatedly, because his father tries out for the role first – the protagonist of Middle C, William H. Gass’s third novel in nearly half a century (Omensetter’sLuck appeared in 1966, The Tunnel in 1995). Gass has not exactly taken his own character’s advice: he has allowed his novels to ripen and fatten for years, even decades, at a time, absorbing all manner of speculative, essayistic and self-conscious ruminations. They are in some ways inextricable from the stream of short stories, novellas and non-fiction that he has also published in that time. This latest book is, if anything, even more digressive, with its reflections on libraries, music and the shapes of sentences – all subjects Gass has engaged with in his essays. He turns eighty-nine this summer, and while Middle C may not be a late-stylesumma regarding his work to date, it bristles with many of his familiar topics and tropes.

Not least among these is the sound of literary language itself, which may well be his most abiding concern as a stylist, critic and (now emeritus) professor of philosophy at Washington University in St Louis. Gass’s fiction is often, and not inaccurately, linked to the highest phase of American postmodernism; the stories and novels can be, if not as antic then at least as self-aware as the best of John Barth or Donald Barthelme. What distinguishes them from such company, however, is just how much of Gass’s playfulness is textural rather than structural; if his is still a sort of metafiction, it achieves this at the level of a sometimes extreme concentration on the way his sentences sound; they draw attention to themselves with quite fabulous turns of syntax and prodigious flowerings of assonance and alliteration. As its title suggests, Middle C doesn’t stint on the sound effects, but it is also an essay of sorts on the music of prose.

The novel is, first of all, a story of deliberately implausible displacement. Rudi Skizzen is an ordinary Austrian husband and father who has grown disgusted by the cruelty of his countrymen on the eve of the Second World War. They are cruel, he says, even “in the mug and on the platter, in raucous communal song, immersed in the smell of Kraut, sausages, and beer”. Skizzen knows that many Jewish citizens have fled the country, and so he resolves on a plan: he and his wife, with their two children, will pass themselves off as Jewish, and make their way from Graz to London before the Nazis arrive. The ruse works, and before long the family is installed in England, where Rudi, who had briefly become Yankel Fixel and now takes the name Raymond Scofield, gets a job printing anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets to be dropped on Germany. His wife, Nita, now Miriam, remains “dumbfounded” by these sudden alterations to her identity.

Things turn deviously schematic at this point. Skizzen/Fixel/Scofield is suddenly graced with luck and wins a lot of money on a horse: “after a life of undeserving failure, a sudden unmerited success”. He promptly vanishes, apparently having left for the United States, to which further exile his wife and children must follow. They do so, but they don’t find Rudi. Instead, the novel too swerves and reinvents itself as the story of Rudi’s son Joseph, who is quickly – Gass dispenses briskly with the boy’s acclimatization to his new home in Ohio – established as a hapless student at a small community college and projected forwards to middle age as a music professor of dubious academic credentials with an interest in Schoenberg and certain recurring extracurricular fixations. Joseph’s mother hovers in the background, gardening, and his sister Debbie marries into suburban American cliché.

Gass has some fun with the reader’s expectations here; both phases of Joseph’s life threaten to become comical campus novels in themselves. The young man studies French, and his teacher, Miss Mieux – Gass has an absurd way with the names of minor characters – tries to seduce him, but he flees her plushly cushioned home before the crucial moment. In the parallel narrative of Joseph’s career as a professor, we learn a good deal about the petty rivalries between provincial academics – Howard Palfrey, Morton Rinse – and their fear of overqualified colleagues, which Joseph emphatically is not. His approach to playing the piano, Gass tells us, is “like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks”. But he has managed to convince the college that he is an expert on Schoenberg, with whose exile and revisions of religious identity Joseph identifies.

All of this is entertaining, but you don’t come to Gass for mere academic satire. His real interest lies elsewhere, in style. One is gradually made aware that the novel’s amusements at the levels of plot and character are the merest pretexts for a series of extravagant digressions, scenes in which his characters’ rage for order gives rise to floridly self-generating systems and equally wild sentences. At the library, Joseph works with Miss Moss, a wraithlike older woman who instructs him at length on the varieties of damage that may befall a book during its travels. At home, in the midst of long and loving descriptions of Miriam’s garden, Joseph contemplates the invasive tendencies of violets that are “like immigrants, pushing out established plants and covering the earth with an impermeable carpet of dainty-looking but devilish little flowers whose rootlets, in their eager exercise of total war, throttled worms in their runnels”.

A sort of descriptive metastasis takes over at such moments, and it is present too in the adult Joseph’s obsessive curation of a personal archive he calls his “Inhumanity Museum”. He collects images and accounts of appalling cruelties, lingering, for example, over the historical details in a report of a woman burnt at the stake. His fascination and horror at the viciousness of humanity – a barbarism he and his family have fraudulently escaped – are given a linguistic turn when he becomes obsessed with a protean, ramifying sentence of his own devising. It comes to him unbidden one morning, and he subsequently finds himself, at the start of every working day, “compelled to mess with it”. In its first iteration, the sentence runs: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure”. It recurs throughout the novel, at first slightly altered, as if it were the subject of a lesson in rhetoric or composition, and later substantially expanded, so that in its longest form it spans more than a page, spins off into reeling parentheses, stalls several times in ellipses, and includes a colourful, alliterative crowd of “nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, shucks, shlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again bible bangers”.

What is Gass up to with this sentence and its variants? In an essay entitled “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”, published in his collection Life Sentences (2012), he argues that syntax may be a symbol in itself, and the sound of prose an adequate allegory: “A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a spiral stair . . . . Its plot is its own performance”. The burgeoning sentence in Middle C is manifestly a version of Joseph’s fretful effort to hedge around the horror left behind in Austria with compulsive and obscuring detail, or to focus so hard on the sound of his own language that he will be absolved of its sense. The sentence, we might guess, has the shape of Joseph’s conscience.

But it is also, like Middle C itself, a late, perhaps final, statement of Gass’s belief in the sound of literary language for its own sake. In an earlier essay, “The Music of Prose”, he robustly defended rhythmic and sonic excess in writing: “Some tunes are rinky-dink indeed, and confined to the carnival, but I get the impression that most of these complaints about the music of prose are simply the fears of lead-eared moralists and message-gatherers”. Joseph’s obsessive tinkering with the recurring sentence leads ultimately to the possibility of real writing; but he has first to practise contriving sentences sculpted solely for their sound or shape, as in a gratuitous line he composes at his new computer keyboard: “We ate our farrow and supposed it was a splendidly healthy, indeed toothsome, way to dine”. Sound escapes and becomes its own sense. In “The Music of Prose”, Gass quotes Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has been more exciting than diagramming sentences”. This might be a motto for the locked-in, compulsive and ultimately liberated protagonist of Middle C.

All That Is Solid

This piece on Helen Marten appeared in Artforum.

IN A COMMERCIAL for Weber’s bread from the late 1960s, Linus, the stripe-shirted boy from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, instructs Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, who has forgotten to bring an object to school for show-and-tell, simply to present her lunch: a peanut-butter sandwich. After all, notes Linus: “There is something interesting to be said for everything around us.” And, he adds, the sandwich in question contains enough energy to run four miles. Sally triumphs at show-and-tell, then tears off toward the horizon.

Given its seemingly obvious title, it took me an unconscionably long time to associate Helen Marten’sPeanuts, 2012, with Charlie Brown and pals, never mind to hit online on Linus’s disquisition regarding the uniformly compelling nature of all things and the translatability of overrefined carbs into vim and vigor. Specifically, I had not worked out that a knotty object, a kind of line drawing rendered in metal that sat atop the piece, was in fact an enlargement of Charlie Brown’s torso. I had spotted the peanuts themselves: three intact shells, nestled in a shallow, square declivity of the work’s upper, slanted stratum. On a plane made of various woods and what we might call near-woods (of which more below), the zigzag motif of Charlie’s sweater was rhymed in a bent strip of metal at the left and once more in what seemed to be soft leather—this last iteration draped somewhat queasily on a loaf of bread. There was another loaf to the right, on a little shelf, and in between a pair of supergleamy fake frosted doughnuts. Below, on the floor, was a sheet of beaten copper, and on it a pile of leaflets that looked like they were advertising a pizza joint; the leaflets featured a reproduction of Gerhard Richter’s paintingBetty, 1988.


Perhaps I had not grasped the comic-strip citation because, as is frequently the case with Marten’s materially bristling and various work, I was so preoccupied with figuring out just what it was made of and how. Here is the list of materials from her recent show at Chisenhale Gallery in London: “solid ash, greasy orange Valchromat, sanded Formica, Sepili, Cherry, doughnuts, waxed paper, laser-cut steel, copper sheet, printed leaflets, peanuts, glued, rough sawn pine and foam packaging, metal legs.” The litany is incomplete, of course: no bread. Unless the loaves were made of “solid ash” or one of those proprietary mock woods—I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lumber—that are composed of extremely stressed and extruded particles of actual wood, or who knows what. Among the effects of the profusion of objects in Marten’s sculptural assemblages is the sense that the substances they are made of (sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure) might transmute into one another. In Marten’s Linus-world, all are equally interesting, all equally digestible.

This absurd metamorphosis need not halt at the level of the things themselves—it happens equally to images, ideas, and art. The equivalence Marten canvases is an aspect of contemporary life: All things may be sublimed into immaterial data, then exchanged with everything else, a Richter painting for a pizza. You could posit Marten’s alimentary impulse as an effort to find some physical purchase on the world again in an era of digital evanescence, though that seems a little too tempting: Quite aside from her recourse elsewhere to video and animation, solid things in her work seem just as likely to wink out of their proximate being and reappear as cartoons of themselves.

What else is Peanuts, or what might it become? On its spindly legs at the start of the Chisenhale exhibition, it looked like the support for an explanatory museum text. Or then again, a highly schematic landscape: Mediterranean, dust-hued, with a castellated ruin meeting sky or sea at the left. It’s also a wide but drastically foreshortened console or lectern or desk. It’s an especially sparse buffet lunch, or a kitchen worktop, with ingredients neatly picked out like the terms of an equation.

“A meal is a plotted space of action,” says Marten, “a ritual, and so also a grammar.” That’s it: Peanutsis a sentence to be parsed or a pictographic conundrum asking to be solved. If Marten likes to play with her food till it morphs into alarming states of matter and meaning, it sometimes seems that the ultimate abjection (or perhaps refinement) of her mutant materials is a declension toward verbal abstraction. The title Peanuts denotes foodstuff, comic strip, animated version of same, but peanuts also means “next to nothing”: an insulting return on a transaction or investment. Language in and around Marten’s sculptures can be paltry or extravagant; her inventories of materials point to an absurd overreach on the part of the manufacturers and marketers of the stuff she deploys. (Consider again that list of what has gone into Peanuts: Sepili and Formica might be the names of neglected nymphs, and Valchromat is clearly an interplanetary despot.) But the work itself is also such a text: If sculpture is of necessity made of the stuff of the consumerist world, Peanuts is something like the list of ingredients on its discarded packaging.

Saying almost everything about almost anything

This review of two new books of essays appeared recently in the Irish Times.

On Dolls, Edited by Kenneth Gross, Notting Hill Editions, £12, 186pp; I Remember, By Joe Brainard, Notting Hill Editions, £12, 186pp

‘There is something called the essay,” wrote the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick in 1986, but “it is not altogether genuine in its shape, like fiction or poetry.” Hardwick intended no slight on the form of the essay, at which she excelled; she meant rather that it was not quite a form at all but an experiment or adventure with the idea of a coherent style or genre. An essay could take any shape whatever, and its subject might be anything under the sun.

Of course essays have certain things in common: a personal voice, some commitment to style or self-consciousness regarding their means of expression, a notion (even if ultimately rejected) of truth in nonfiction writing. But if there is indeed a thing called the essay, it must be defined by its freedom – as Aldous Huxley had it, “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”.

I thought of Huxley’s and Hardwick’s efforts at indefinition while surveying these latest arrivals from Notting Hill Editions (NHE). Since 2011, this small London publisher has been reprinting some classic essays and commissioning new ones, and there have been familiar names and genuine discoveries among both groups. So far, the highlights have been Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (written in the weeks following his mother’s death, in 1977), Thomas Bernhard’s scabrous account of being feted by the literary establishment in My Prizes, and the poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s lively and self-revealing essay on humiliation. Among the most recent volumes are a new edition of WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction and an anthology, Say What You Mean, of writing from the New York literary and political magazine n+1.

Perhaps the clearest (because least obvious) picture of the literary scope of the essay, at least as NHE conceives it, may be discerned by setting two of these new books alongside each other. Kenneth Gross’s On Dolls is a fascinating and intermittently creepy compilation of writings on dolls, puppets and other lifelike toys. Here is Baudelaire, in The Philosophy of Toys (1853), contemplating the infant urge to destroy the most treasured plaything: “Finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul? This moment marks the beginning of stupor and melancholy.”

Predictably, Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny is included, though he ultimately uncovers that unsettling sensation not in everyday objects that seem like living things but in more grisly images, courtesy of a bravura reading of ETA Hoffmann’s story The Sandman. Lesser-known essays include Kleist’s odd narrative reflection On the Marionette Theatre, Rilke on curious wax dolls made by Lotte Pritzel and a section from Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria, about the oldest waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s: a Sleeping Beauty based on Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry.

Compact form 

The essay seems an apt vehicle for writing and thinking about these mostly diminutive simulacra, and not only because the essay itself is frequently a compact literary form, covering a great deal of discrepant ground by the shortest route.

It’s also because essayists as a breed appear temperamentally attached to the littlest things. On Dolls includes Walter Benjamin’s delicate and rigorous divagation on the attraction of old toys, but a thorough anthology of essayistic miniaturism would also have to excerpt Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Room and Georges Perec’s excellent essay on the objects habitually arrayed on his desk. And it would need to include the American artist and writer Joe Brainard, whose fragmented autobiography (of sorts), I Remember, evolved from an earlier booklet consisting of 10 drawings of individual hairs from different portions of his body, with captions identifying the parts.

I Remember, first published in 1970 and followed by More I Remember and More I Remember More, is composed entirely of discrete micromemories, often just a sentence long and all prefaced with the same phrase: “I remember a boy who could pull the underside of his eyelids down over his eyeballs . . . I remember stamp hinges . . . I remember rainbows that didn’t live up to my expectations.”

Brainard grew up gay in the 1950s, and many of his memories are tender, unembarrassed recollections of his early sexual experiences. In his preface to this new edition – Brainard himself died of Aids in 1994 – Paul Auster tries to make an inventory of the book’s range of subjects; they include family, food, clothes, movies, school, church, bodies, daydreams, holidays, objects (many of these), jokes and sex.

I Remember, says Auster, is “one of those books that can never be used up”. That’s a banal observation, but it does at least hint at some of the contradictions of the essay form – Brainard’s book is a small masterpiece, at once charmingly casual, or seemingly so, and rigorously arrived at in its repetitive and madly encyclopaedic structure. (Perec spotted its avant-garde heart, and borrowed the technique for his Je me souviens in 1978.)

It’s unlikely that Brainard would have conceived of his little litany as an essay, if he thought of it as literature at all. But like the best examples of the genre, it invents eccentric rules for a form that has none. There are undoubtedly conservative versions of the taste for essays today – a sense that the essay is something well made, or that it represents merely fine writing – but as Elizabeth Hardwick also put it, “there is no end to the essay, and no beginning”.

Son et lumière

This piece on the Hayward Gallery’s Light Show appeared in the Guardian.

David Batchelor's Magic Hour, part of Light Show at the Hayward Gallery in London

In November 1966 the artist James Turrell, then aged 23, embarked on a master’s degree at the University of California. He rented two rooms at the old Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, and set about converting them into a studio. Turrell was working from a hunch, having recently completed a sculpture of sorts titled Afrum that involved projecting light into the corner of a room so that it seemed to become three-dimensional – a solid hovering cube. Now he was intent on studying the properties of light and working out the extent to which he could control it; at the Mendota he began painting out the windows and building pure white walls – a room within a room – at whose edges he installed fluorescent lighting. At night, with the lights off, various apertures let in a little of the city: “The path of the moon, cars, street lights and shop lights.” Turrell had begun to explore what he later called “the thingness of light”.

The young artist already had a degree in perceptual psychology, and in the wake of his Mendota experiments Turrell became involved with the art and technology programme at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There he met Edward Wortz, a psychologist working on life-support systems for the forthcoming lunar missions. Together they began to investigate states of sensory deprivation, and in particular the Ganzfeld effect: the disorientations and even hallucinations caused by immersing yourself in a uniform field of light and colour, without the anchors of horizon or objects. That research has nourished Turrell’s art ever since. He is best known for gorgeously unsettling installations: total environments saturated with light and colour, or rooms open to a framed sky that seems to have become a slab of pigment or a floating sculptural monolith.

At the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition Light Show, devoted to artists of the past 50 years for whom light itself is a medium, Turrell is represented by Wedgework V (1974), one of a series in which rooms are bisected diagonally by a light that looks frozen, as if you could reach out and touch its lucent surface. As the exhibition reminds us, Turrell is just one – albeit the most ambitious in terms of scale – among several artists who in the 1960s started to conceive of light as a malleable substance or vehicle for sculpture.

Conrad Shawcross's Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV

His best-known contemporary in that regard is Dan Flavin, whose 1963 piece The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) is also at the Hayward. Like Turrell, Flavin first thought of his light works – composed, in his case, of bare fluorescent lights – as discrete objects rather than environments, or as if the technological support, rather than the halo it projected, constituted the work. The earliest of Flavin’s fluorescent pieces were attached to the gallery walls as if they were pictures. But he soon began to place them on the floor or use the glowing tubes to circumscribe a lit space; The Nominal Three consists of six vertical white tubes spanning a wall like Roman numerals: I … II … III.

An art made only of light – it sounds airy, not to say metaphysical. But as Hayward curator Cliff Lauson points out in his catalogue essay, the light artists of the 1960s and after were not at all engaged in a pseudo-spiritual exercise. Light was material, not revelation. A work such as Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), with its cinematic beam of “solid light”, depended on the grubby reality of a dusty and smoky atmosphere even to come into visible being. And as Flavin said of his own work: “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else. There is no hidden psychology, no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. It is as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”

Flavin was perhaps asserting the solidity, even mundanity, of his own and his generation’s light art a little too starkly. If it was not exactly a matter of spiritual enlightenment or occult emanations, there was nonetheless a more abstracted level to the work, and a philosophical backdrop – as for others among the minimalist artists of the era – in a phenomenology of perception borrowed from the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In terms of a broader history of art and light such as the Hayward show sketches, you are easily reminded of the intimacy between light and modernity that Walter Benjamin posited in his Arcades Project. To be modern, in the consumerist paradise of the 19th-century mall, meant first of all to be bathed in encouraging rays. The modern city aspired to seethe with light – in 1889 the engineer Jules Bourdais proposed a Sun Tower, 360 metres tall, that would illuminate all of Paris with powerful arc lights.

In the early decades of the 20th century modernity was frequently summarised as a sort of disorienting coruscation. Think of Joseph Stella’s 1913 painting Battle of Lights (Coney Island), or Marcel Duchamp’s assertion the same year (during an unlikely stay on the Kent coast) that his as yet unfinished Large Glass ought to be “illuminated like Herne Bay pier”. Others began to investigate the role of light in sculpture and on film. László Moholy-Nagy‘s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, completed in 1930, was a curious revolving metal and glass machine that threw startling shadows and reflections on the walls around it as it clattered and spun. (When the artist and designer took his “light space modulator” to the US in 1937, he had trouble explaining to customs officials just what it was – in the end he passed it off as hairdressing equipment.) In Moholy-Nagy’s 1932 film of the thing in action, A Light-Play Black White Grey, it whirs away like the chance meeting of an orrery and a cinema projector, surrounded by constellations of splintered light.

Anthony McCall's You and I Horizontal

At the Hayward there are several works that recall, maybe consciously, both the rigour and the faint end-of-pier quality of Moholy-Nagy’s light machine. Conrad Shawcross‘s kinetic sculpture Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV (2009) consists of a dense metal cage from whose interior a fiercely bright light practically spits abstract shadows. But the most economical homage – also the funniest and most moving – is Fischli and Weiss‘sSon et Lumière (le Rayon Vert) from 1990. Atop a motorised cake stand a plastic cup with mock-cut-glass markings lies on its side and tumbles unpredictably as the turntable spins; a small electric torch shines through the cup and casts ever-changing arabesques of light on the gallery wall. Son et Lumière is at once delightfully simple and absurdly beautiful, a miniature spectacle of Romantic import confected out of the most abject industrial materials. Its subtitle suggests – via Jules Verne‘s novel The Green Ray and Eric Rohmer‘s film of the same title – that we ought to be on the lookout for the miraculous flare of a dying sunset among those dancing lights.

Son et Lumière is a coolly comic instance of another direction that artists working with (or in) light have taken in recent decades, away from the sensory estrangements of the 1960s and towards a light art that is more oblique or self-revealing than wholly immersive. Katie Paterson is one such artist; the Hayward exhibition includes her Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008); a single bare bulb manufactured to match precisely the colour and intensity of moonlight shines in the gallery, alongside a stock of spare bulbs calculated to last an average human lifetime – 66 years at the time the work was made. Equally elegant, though decidedly more wry, is Ceal Floyer‘s Throw, from 1997: a theatrical light that projects a cartoonish splat of illumination on to the gallery floor – light become not just material but the stuff of slapstick pie fights and pratfalls.

Floyer’s is one example of a tendency that perhaps definitively separates more recent light artists from the purveyors of environmental light half a century ago. It exists in a frank embrace of the support or ground on which all this light-play happens: the technology that produces it. And not only in the work of artists such as Leo Villareal, with his use of spectacular computer-controlled LED displays. There are works at the Hayward that manage to be both sublime and determinedly, physically present, as in the case of David Batchelor‘s ravishingly coloured light-boxes, stacked in towers and turned to the wall to reveal the clunky obsolete technology on which they depend. Perhaps it’s simply another way of saying, like the light artists of the 1960s, that we are not in the presence of the spiritual. As Batchelor puts it: “There’s always someone who will mistake a bright light in a darkened space for a religious experience. If you can see the plug, then it stops you getting mystical.”

Title 39 US Code 4354

This piece on Aspen magazine appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

In August 1971 the US Postal Service wrote to Phyllis Johnson, the publisher of Aspen, an arts and culture quarterly then in its sixth year, to inform her that the magazine’s right to reduced postal rates had been definitively revoked. Aspen, which is the subject of an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3 March, seems to have fallen foul of Title 39 US Code 4354 on several counts, not least the journal’s increasingly intermittent publication schedule. There was the matter too of its eccentric form; whatever else it was, according to the Postal Service, a periodical was surely a discrete object made of printed sheets, bound together and maintaining more or less the same format from issue to issue. Aspen was a bureaucratically flummoxing proposition: an unpredictable agglomeration of essays and articles on loose pages or in booklets, packaged with flyers, photographs, diagrams, flexidiscs and even in one issue a spool of 8mm film – all housed in a box whose design and dimensions varied from one mail-out to the next.

In short, Aspen was scarcely a magazine at all; it was a work of art. Johnson, a former fashion editor, had started it with the ambition, as an advert in the New York Times declared, of surveying ‘all the ideas that enhance life, that make it meaningful and give it style and verve. Its coverage: everything that can be described as the civilized pleasures of living.’ She named it for the Colorado ski resort that seemed ‘a symbol of the freewheeling life’. The intended or ideal readership, one of its editors said later, was ‘the Sixties’. Early issues are strewn with advertisements for upscaled-hip boutiques (‘Are you confused enough for Paraphernalia?’), articles on skiing and rather languidly campaigning pieces on environmentally threatened portions of picturesque America. Highbrow kicks came courtesy of the likes of Lionel Trilling (‘Cinema – the Andromeda of the Arts’), pop-cultural connoisseurship from a nostalgic essay on Dixieland jazz by Freddie Fisher. But Aspen quickly attracted notable guest editors who recast its cabinet-of-curiosities eclecticism in their own avant-garde images. Andy Warhol oversaw thethird issue, with its ‘Fab’ cover graphics and flip-book version of his filmKiss. Quentin Fiore, who had designed The Medium is the Massage in 1967, put together a ‘McLuhan issue’ that also included a diary of more or less random pensées by John Cage, entitled How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).

With the combined fifth and sixth issues, delivered in an austere white box like a giant cigarette pack, Aspen produced an artefact that was genuinely an addition rather than a deluxe adjunct to the art, literature and thought of the time. Brian O’Doherty, who had considered previous issues ‘interesting, but rather shallow intellectually’, corralled an astonishing number of works and writings by the US and European avant-gardes. There were texts by Susan Sontag, Michel Butor and Dan Graham, recordings by Marcel Duchamp, Alain Robbe-Grillet and William Burroughs, discreet artworks (or conceptual descriptions of potential artworks) by Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt and O’Doherty himself. The lifestyle spreads had gone and the advertisements begun to dwindle, so white space and cool grids dominated: the whole, which is also a sort of exhibition, is a key document in the transition from Minimalist art to text-heavy Conceptualism. O’Doherty asked Roland Barthes for an essay, and he gave him ‘The Death of the Author’, previously unpublished. (Barthes never got paid, despite letters and postcards asking where his fee was that are included in the Whitechapel show.)

At the time of writing, a slightly battered example of Aspen no. 3 signed by Warhol will set you back $22,500 on AbeBooks. (Unsigned you can get it for $1500, and there’s also the whole run minus no. 10 for $9450.) The relative ease with which one can still get hold of the magazine is a little surprising, because the mythology attached to Aspen consists partly in its supposed rarity: O’Doherty has noted that readers were as perplexed as the Postal Service, and most issues were probably thrown away. At the Whitechapel, all ten numbers – publication stopped in 1971 – are tantalisingly vitrined, and there’s an accompanying display of other magazines-in-a-box. McSweeney’s adopted the model of a dispersed periodical in 1998, and for the past decade Cabinet (where I’m an editor) has attempted some of its Wunderkammer mix of essays, artists’ projects and paper ephemera. Aspen itself is among the star items on UbuWeb – Kenneth Goldsmith’s vast and frequently copyright-flouting collection of artists’ texts, films and audio – where its immaterially archived fragments continue to inspire writers and artists still committed to words on pages and actual objects.

Trance witness

This interview with William Klein appeared in Sight & Sound.

William Klein photographed in 1978 by Ferdinando Scianna.Credit: © Magnum Photos

By the time William Klein made his first film Broadway by Light in 1958, he had already revolutionised one medium with his first photographic book, Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, published two years earlier. Klein’s overprinted, grainy and frequently blurred photographs of his native city drew on comic-books and tabloid rags such as the New York Sun for their graphic blare, and on the energy of cinema for their wide-angle compositions and startling montage. Broadway by Light was an early departure from an already improvised and happenstance style: a film about the neon palimpsest of Times Square that Orson Welles described as the first film he’d seen where colour was essential.

Klein grew up in Brooklyn and served in the US Army in Europe after World War II before studying painting in Paris. He went back to New York to take photographs for Vogue, returned to Paris – where his New York book was championed by a young Chris Marker – and went on to make a series of satirical films, beginning in 1966 with Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, a scurrilous farewell to the fashion industry. In 1968 he directed Mister Freedom, an antic and comic-book-styled attack on the cultural and military hubris of his home country. Documentaries followed, on Muhammad Ali (whom he had first filmed in 1964), Eldridge Cleaver and Little Richard. Klein returned to photography in the 1980s and has continued to make films: his “very profane” take on Handel’s Messiah was completed in 1999 and he is planning to shoot his next film in Paris in 2013.

In early November, on the day of the US presidential election, I met Klein at his apartment on the Left Bank, where he spoke about his films of the past 50 years, breaking off now and then to fret about the possibility of a Romney/Ryan win (“I hate all this shit about Jesus and God”) or talk to his elderly cat, Nanou. Klein is 84 and nowadays he sounds slightly more like a New Yorker than the adoptive Parisian who so memorably voiced the English-language version of Chris Marker’s La Jetée in 1962.

Broadway by Light (1958)

Brian Dillon: Your friend and collaborator Chris Marker once wrote of your films that every frame is a perfect William Klein photograph. And you said of your first book that only the sequencing counted, “like a movie”. Were you already thinking of film and photography alongside one another earlier in the 1950s?

William Klein: Well, I didn’t know how to do a book. I was just discovering photography and once I had all these pictures, I showed them to editors in New York and nobody thought it was worthwhile to do a book with these photographs. They said, “What is this shit?” I came back to Paris and discovered there was a series of travel books called Petite Planète. I called them up and got an appointment and I went to this office which looked like NASA. Chris Marker was there with a laser gun in his belt, and he saw the photographs and said, “We’ll do a book!” In fact he said, “We’ll do a book or I quit!” He was like the wunderkind of this publishing house, Editions du Seuil, and he threatened to quit every month, so they gave him what he wanted.

The sequencing of the New York book, and even the composition of individual images, also seems to owe something to comic-books. Was that a taste you shared with Marker?

Him and Alain Resnais. Chris introduced me to Resnais. They were two buddies – they were both tall and athletic, and they met in the army and hung around together. Chris was the first guy who made movies that I’d ever met.

When you made Broadway by Light, they were both credited: Marker wrote the introductory voiceover and Resnais provided ‘technical advice’. How much were they actually involved in making the film?

It was Resnais who said to me, “Now you’ve done a book, you must do films.” There were people in my family who were very hot lawyers and United Artists was their client; they were smart enough to take over United Artists. I did this first film and I wanted my cousin at UA to run it as a short before the feature, and they said, “If we show it, people will leave and they won’t see the feature!” The film was very far from the book, but it was the same subject, more or less. I rented a camera and just filmed what I saw. The idea was to use these commercials in Times Square as readymades, like Marcel Duchamp.

With Marker and Resnais, what happened was they had introduced me to this producerAnatole Dauman [of Argos Films], who had done films with both of them, and I showed him the rushes and he said, “I’ll pay for the post-production, the editing and the music.” Dauman made his films with the help of the [French] government and he had to have French technicians, and so on my film he had Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. But Alain never saw the rushes; he saw the rough cut. Still, he became ‘technical adviser’! Chris wrote those few lines, which were typical French intellectual bullshit, you know?

But beautiful….

Yes, beautiful bullshit!

Your exhibition at Tate Modern includes a quotation from Orson Welles about Broadway by Light: “the first film I’ve seen in which colour was absolutely necessary”. When and where did he say this? Did you meet him?

I was coming back from New York and on the quay I saw this big figure: Orson Welles, with a cigar and an attaché case – no luggage. And I said, “Listen, I did a film. You’re going to take the boat – can I show it to you?” And he said, “Sure.” I showed it to him in the cinema on the boat and he said that: this film couldn’t have been made without colour. Which was true!

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

Broadway by Light is visually ravishing but it’s also, as you have put it, a film about “brainwashing”. I suppose one could say the same about your next film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? – it seems as though it’s the product of an ambivalence about the fashion industry rather than a total rejection or critique.

It’s about fashion and television and media – it’s about brainwashing too. I decided I wanted to do a fiction film and a film about things I knew – which was the fashion world, television, filmmaking and so on. I’d been discovered by Alexander Liberman, who was the art director at Condé Nast; he saw an exhibition of my abstract photographs and called me up. I went to see him and he said, “How would you like to work for Vogue?” And I said, “Doing what?” And he said, “I don’t know. I work for Vogue – I’m a painter and sculptor, but during the week I put on a suit and I go down to the office, and on the weekend I paint and I sculpt. You could do something similar. What do you think?” And I said, “Fine.” I’d never made much money; I’d sold a few paintings, but it wasn’t enough to live on. When I made Polly Maggoo it was more or less the end of this collaboration with Vogue because I made a caricature of the editor-in-chief and the fashion people, so they didn’t really adore me.

In that sense Polly Maggoo is the start of a much more explicitly political phase in your work. But the look of the film, its humour, its absurdism – all of these are quite far from what your friends and colleagues on the Left might have wanted from a radical cinema. That disparity must have only increased with your next film, Mister Freedom, which takes a very stylised, comic-book approach to satirising American imperialism.

Mister Freedom was also more or less prompted by Chris Marker because in 1966 he was contacted by militant students who were organising agitprop meetings against the war in Vietnam. They said to Marker, “We have these meetings and we want to attract students with a film, but most of the political films that are being made are really shitty, grainy and badly done. Would you do a film for us?” And Marker said, “No, I won’t do a film, but I’ll get some friends to work on a film, a group effort.” And so he contacted Godard, Resnais, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens and me – and it became Loin du Viêt-nam [Far from Vietnam, 1967].

But I was frustrated by the film because there was a lot of press and excitement about this collective work, but not many people came to see it. And I wondered how I would make a political film which would be attractive. I thought: do a comic-strip film. In those days, it was a put-down to say a film looked like a comic-strip; nowadays it’s a guarantee of authenticity and invention.

I wanted the film to be seen, to be popular. I would have liked Marlon Brando to play Mister Freedom, or someone like that – Lee Marvin, maybe. [Instead, he was played by the little-known John Abbey.] And for the girl I wanted a pop singer. But Delphine Seyrig was sitting right there where you are and she saw the scenario and said, “What’s this?” I explained and she said, “I can do it!” I said, “What do you mean? You’re going to be like a bimbo? You don’t care?” “No, I can do it!”

She was kind of American – she spent the war in New York and she was really as American as a French girl could be. So she dug the whole idea and she was great and very funny and sexy and everything. She was like my sister; I loved her.

Mr Freedom (1969)

The release of Mister Freedom was delayed.

Because there were some scenes in the street – demonstrations – in the film, so the French censor thought it was a film about May ’68 and revolution in France. So it was censored for nine months, then finally came out.

You were filming in Paris in May ’68. Was it clear at the time that a discrete film project should come of that?

What happened was I was doing the editing of Mister Freedom and in May ’68 the movie industry went on strike; all the film people said, “We will not work on films. We’ll invent a revolutionary cinema.” And so they had what they called the “États généraux du cinéma”, in the suburbs at Suresnes. Everybody gathered to discuss, day and night, how to invent a revolutionary cinema in France.

I went out there, and it was decided that we would do a film – a collective film once again – on May ’68. There were filmmakers who were Trotskyites, Maoists and anarchists, and each group had film and cameras allotted to them. Producers were scared to death of this movement because they thought there was really going to be a revolution in France, and they’d be hanging from the lampposts. So they said, “You want filmstock? Here, we’ll give you filmstock. We’ll give you tapes for sound and we’ll lend you Nagras” and so on.

We were pretty well equipped to make this collective film. However, once May ’68 was over, each group had these reels of film under their arms and they said: “Well, let’s make our own film, and fuck everybody else!” And so this collective operation never really happened.

Eldridge Cleaver (1970)

Your work in the 1970s continued to be satirical: you made The Model Couple (Le Couple témoin), which was rather prescient given the advent of reality TV, but you had also begun a series of films about prominent black Americans: Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, Little Richard. How did you come to make the film Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther in Algeria in 1969?

Loin du Viêt-nam caught the eye of Algerian film producers, and they invited me to make a collective film. In Algiers they had money and they had a film board and they invited representatives from around 15 African countries so we had people from Kenya, from Guinea-Bissau, from all over. The idea of having film directors from different countries working together like Loin du Viêt-nam was a pipe dream because the Algerians didn’t know they were on the blacklist of many countries’ film boards. The Algerian filmmakers were not liked by African filmmakers or by the Cubans: they had lots of money but no lab. So the Cubans said, “Well, fuck you.” The film didn’t work out so I decided to make a mega-documentary on this festival.

I was there in Algeria, filming the Pan-African Cultural Festival, and Cleaver was there. The Algerians’ idea was to have representatives from different countries – the independence movements and revolutionary movements of several countries still under colonial rule – represented in Algiers. They invited the Black Panthers as official representatives of revolution in the US. Cleaver was working with a little group of revolutionary filmmakers, but these guys were tripping over their cables and generally fucking up the film and Cleaver saw us working with our set-up of different directors from all over. He was impressed. He sent someone to contact me and said, “I’d like to do a film to explain why I skipped bail and why I’m here running away from the police in America.” He had this bloated idea of doing a film with him in the middle, delivering his ‘State of the Union’ address.

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1975)

We decided once we’d finished filming the festival we’d do a film with Cleaver – a portrait of Cleaver. I was fascinated by the Black Panthers because I’d been in contact with the Nation of Islam, thanks to Muhammad Ali, and their way of talking was that the whites were the devil and they’d get rid of them once they took over.

I was making a film on Muhammad Ali in 1964 and I went to Miami to film everything around the fight for the world championship with Sonny Liston. I had the good luck of flying down to Miami and there was one empty seat and the guy sitting next to this empty seat was Malcolm X. Nobody wanted to sit next to him because he was on the cover of Life magazine and he was the bogeyman. I spoke to the guy; he was interested to meet a Jewish filmmaker from New York, living in Paris and coming to film the future champion and Black Muslim leader. I spent two-and-a-half hours talking to Malcolm X and he spread the word with Ali’s camp that I was OK, and when I got there I had complete access. We became more or less friends – as much as you become friends with a guy like Ali.

Little Richard with William Klein.

You revisited and expanded the Ali film in 1974 and you made The Little Richard Storyin 1980. Did you have a sense that it was the third ‘portrait’?

No, it came about by accident – but all these things were accidents. I was contacted by a German producer who had a deal with German television to make a series of films about America and he asked if I was interested. I said yes, because I’m always frustrated by the fact that I don’t see enough of America. I thought there was a great opportunity to do some filming in America. The first film he wanted me to do was on Dolly Parton. I went to Nashville and for some reason she backed out.

I was there in Nashville with a producer and a crew and enough material to make a film but no film to make. It was a crazy place and I ran into a guy who was out of it completely and this was Little Richard. He’d been contacted by these two mafia types who were making bibles; instead of giving flowers to families who had lost someone, you would give this big beautiful bible – the Black Heritage Bible – and they wanted someone to pimp for this bible. They found out Little Richard was out of work and no longer a star. Richard jumped at the opportunity because he was very frustrated not to have crowds screaming for him. He went along with these bible people and I became interested in him – we had filmed some stuff in Nashville.

The film looks to me as if you are discovering America for the first time.

I was! In America, kids would go to college and get out and buy a second-hand car and go across the country and discover America. I never did that; I went from New York to Paris, and New York was my America.

You’ve just had a retrospective exhibition of your photographs at Tate Modern and it begins with Broadway by Light. Are you working on a film at the moment?

I’m preparing a film. You know how all the concierges in Paris are Portuguese? I dreamed up a scenario where the Portuguese concierge of a house has an accident outside of work time so she’s not covered by health insurance. She’s afraid of losing her job so she calls up her sister, who’s a film star in Portugal, and the film star comes to Paris to be a concierge in a typical French house. Except it’s not so typical because the building is full of everything that’s happening in Paris: music, art and so on. Each apartment is a different world. It’ll be good!

Energy and Rue

This essay on essays appeared in frieze 151.

Always, with the essay, the problem of beginnings. Absent the consoling incipit of a well-selected epigraph – too many apt quotations to choose – it’s customary to inaugurate an essay on essays with a spot of amateur etymology. But let’s hold off on derivations of ‘essay’ and ‘essaying’ for a paragraph or two, and test instead a fond strategy of the genre, if that’s what it is: blank aphorism, ex cathedra pronouncement, peremptory definition of terms – happily unscrupled by scholarly evidence.

The essay is the most ambiguous literary or artistic form going, or maybe gone. It’s at once an antique, redolent of libraries crammed with dusty tracts and improving pensées, and a way of writing oneself into the unknown, a style or mode that’s all swagger and risk and theatrical conjecture. For sure, there are academic essays, but they become essays at the moment they aspire to be other than academic, when they sideline rigour for the pleasures of seduction and surprise. Essays, that is to say, are well made; they contain ‘good writing’. Except when they don’t, when they scorn what’s considered licit in terms of structure, topic or syntax, when they propel the essayist’s ‘I’ to extremes of subjectivity, or dissolve it entire. Essays are occasional – they may be born of diaries, or gobbets of journalism – but they live to be Selected or Collected, to end between authoritative covers. They may not have been written at all, of course: the film-essay, photo-essay and audio-essay all trouble efforts at definition, even if they also lean on a literary heritage. And let’s end this initial survey of an enigmatic field with an adventurous proposition: the centuries-old form of the essay may well be the genre of the future.

So much for giddy prelims: now for that modest faux-scholarly perspective. The essay, so the dictionaries and textbooks tell us, is etymologically an attempt, a foray, a tryout. A textual sally of sorts. G.K. Chesterton put it like this in 1932: ‘The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark.’ The French essai as the critic Jean Starobinski reminds us, emerges in the 12th century from the Latin exagium, a scale. So the essay’s ‘effort’ is also a kind of testing, weighing or judgment. Again it’s ambiguous, because the leaper into the dark is not averse to making lucid appraisals, arriving at solid or sententious conclusions. The writer shuttles between essaying and assaying. But Starobinski goes further, etymologically speaking, for essai seems related also to the proximate Latin of examen, which means both the needle on weighing scales and, oddly, a swarm of bees or flock of birds. The essay, he concludes, is a risk, a judgment, but also a ‘verbal swarm’.

This teeming or seething quality of the essay obtains both inside and out. The individual text may be worked up on the basis or pretext of anything at all. Michel de Montaigne jumpstarts the genre in the late 16th century by composing essays on the concept of experience, on cannibalism and on thumbs. Charles Lamb wrote an excellent essay on the historical origins of roast pig, Virginia Woolf a reflection on taking to her bed with flu, Georges Perec on the objects on his desk and on wearing spectacles (which he didn’t). The essayist’s aesthetic is that of the collector, or the ‘amateur’ in an archaic sense: such works seem destined for the writerly equivalent of the Wunderkammer – the essayist thrives on miscellanea. Except to say: the discrete essay may itself be an omnium-gatherum; there’s no duty to thematic unity, and because the notion that the essay is necessarily a short text is just a convenient rule easily broken, none to concision either: in hisAnatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton starts composing an essay about a single affliction and ends up writing a book about everything – but everything – he can think of.

What binds all this disparate stuff together – whether it’s been scattered over numerous more or less focused essays or flung into implausible proximity as part of a single work – is tradition­ally the essayist’s personality. ‘It is many years now that I have had only myself as object of my thoughts,’ Montaigne writes in ‘Of Practice’ (1580). In an essay, everything exists to pass – maybe only exists when it has thus passed – through a scrim of authorial ego and curiosity. Which is not to say that all essayists project (or better, invent) and voice this inquiring or narrating ‘I’. But it’s always implicit, and it’s always ambiguous and on the verge of evanescing because it runs up constantly against the reality and diversity of subjects and stories the essayist’s ego wants to compass. Thus Woolf, on ‘The Modern Essay’ (1925): ‘Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.’

This sense of the dispersing or disporting of the self has serious and playful consequences at the level of structure. The essay may drift imperceptibly – as in the peripatetic essay-fictions of Michel Butor or W.G. Sebald – between times and places, or lurch bizarrely into another voice or topic or tale. In ‘On Being Ill’ (1926), Woolf ranges about for several pages on the visionary experience of languishing bedridden with a fever, and then swerves almost without warning into the world of a bad, sentimental novel by Augustus Hare that she has been reading while unwell, so that the piece ends at some melodramatic remove from her avowed theme, with the image of an aristocratic Victorian woman clutching at the drawing-room curtains in grief after the death of her husband in a hunting accident.

But the interior diversity of the essay need not be so unexpected or so fervidly imagined as in Woolf. As the novelist William H. Gass puts it, the montage of voices may be a matter of quotation: ‘You can be assured you are reading an excellent essay when you find yourself relishing the quotations as much as the text that contains them, as one welcomes the chips of chocolate in those overcelebrated cookies.’ In ‘An Essay on Virginia’ (1925), William Carlos Williams disparages the notion of aesthetic unity – ‘the shallowest, the cheapest deception of all composition’ – and compares the abrupt stoppages to which the essay is subject with ‘an infant which fails to continue’. (The analogy seems less peculiar, but no less striking, when you recall that Williams was a family physician.) And this is essential to a definition of the essay: at any moment it may simply expire. Or stop dead and start again, otherwise.


Match-cut now to the contemporary essay – or to one, specifically American, perplex of instances and arguments about the present state of the genre. For the last year or so, us publishing has been bristling with essay collections by prominent writers – mostly novelists and mostly male – who appear to want to situate themselves in this venerable tradition. It seems there is not just a resurgence of the essay – somebody is usually claiming there’s a resurgence of the essay under way, somewhere – but an anxiety about what the form might mean today. I’ve begun to suspect that the recent rash of essays by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Bissell and John Jeremiah Sullivan has something to do with a generational mourning and fret in the absence of a slightly older generation’s best essayist, David Foster Wallace, of whom more below. But it’s also a question, I think, of a combined unease and opportunism on the part of a literary culture that wants to invoke and recover some perceived, apparently lost, authority in the essay as genre.

How else to account for the often inflated claims being made for these books? Of course, a novelist of Franzen’s standing can be expected to capitalize on the success of The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) by having his every journalistic turn adjudged for inclusion in a collection like Farther Away (2012) – actually his third work of non-fiction. And Franzen is at his best a serious and considered essayist; his long investigation, in ‘The Ugly Mediterranean’, of the destruction of southern-European birdlife is evidence of a passionate immersion in his subject, expressed in superior reportage. But there is something vastly dispiriting about the essayistic persona that Franzen frequently wants to project in Farther Away, which is filled with man-of-letters bloviating about certain quirks of other novelists’ syntax, the evils of social media and the failure of audiences at his readings to properly appreciate the torment that is novel-writing.

The far more interesting cases among this recent crop of essayists are those of Lethem – who in The Ecstasy of Influence (2012) weaves his earlier non-fiction into a self-deprecating memoir of sorts – and of Sullivan, whose pieces in Pulphead (2012) on Michael Jackson, Axl Rose and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are never less than engaging. They are also never more than excellent magazine articles with an eye on the more humanist side of Wallace and some aspiration to state-of-nation timeliness. But the merits and failings of these books ought to be seen, too, in light of what seems their generalized nostalgia for the authority of the essay itself, which in the us has long been bound up with an expectation (not so common, for example, in the uk) that really good newspaper or periodical writing may ascend to the heights (or at least slopes) of literature. What’s striking about these recent examples is that even at their smartest or most moving they seem content with the role of the well made, and well meaning, essay – they fail, in the end, to trouble the form as form.

Recall for a moment the background against which these writers must be judged. The history of the American essay is vast of course, and maybe it’s weighting the critical scales unfairly to choose the very best of postwar essayists by way of comparison. But take, for example, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion: writers considerably unalike in style and intellectual temperament, who share a sense that the essay – whether somewhat loftily erudite or built around a wry, neurasthenic persona – is a genre to be dismantled and remade in the context of relatively mainstream publications such as the The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. Or consider a writer like Elizabeth Hardwick, a novelist and critic admired by Didion and Sontag, who in 1976 published an extraordinary essay – a version of which appears in her autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights (1979) – about her youthful acquaintance with Billie Holiday. It contains a passage that reads, among other things, like a definition of the way an artist or essayist transforms subject-matter into form: ‘Her talents and the brilliance of her mind contended with the strength of the emptiness. Nothing should degrade this genuine nihilism; and so, in a sense, it is almost a dishonour to imagine that she lived in the lyrics of her songs. Her message was otherwise. It was style.’

All I mean to convey about such essayists is their commitment to abusing the form even as they seem to conform to and excel at its measured and well made variety: Sontag with her stentorianaperçus, Didion with a mode of hyper-subjective reportage, Hardwick in a certain brittle and strange precision at the level of the sentence. It’s the thing, to get subjective about it myself, that I want most from an essay, this combination of skill and rupture, extravagance with acuity. And it’s hard to find among the writers who style themselves (if only for a book or two) essayists today.

For those recent American examples, the problem – exactly Woolf’s problem: being and not being yourself – is wrapped up in the presence and absence of Wallace, whose magazine essays over a period of about 15 years trumped all comers in terms of voice and invention. According to D.T. Max’s recent biography of him, Wallace had trouble considering his essays as real work at all – merely a distraction from the increasingly arduous task of writing fiction. But this is hard to credit, such is the degree to which he vastly exceeded in terms of detail, thought and craft (not to mention word-count) the remit of a given magazine assignment, whether in his meticulous attention to the rigour and style of Roger Federer, a report from the annual Adult Video News awards or, most famously, the burgeoning, hilarious – and, according to Franzen, partly invented – account of cruise-ship ennui, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ (1996). Wallace’s are bravura examples of what Sontag declared she wanted from an essay: ‘energy and rue’.

Of course, those qualities have not exactly vanished – it’s just perhaps that the conventional literary move of passing off your more ruminative journalistic moments as echt essayism no longer quite convinces. This despite publishers clinging to the clumsy rubric of ‘creative non-fiction’, and creative-writing teachers harping on something even more mushy-sounding called the ‘lyric essay’. The main champion, if not practitioner, of this last – of essays that approach the condition of poetry, and deliberately shirk demands for truth in non-fiction – is John D’Agata. Early in 2012, with Jim Fingal, he published The Lifespan of a Fact: an account of the two authors’ wrangling over the veracity of a magazine piece of D’Agata’s (turned down by Harper’s, taken up by The Believer) that Fingal had been tasked with fact-checking in 2005. D’Agata’s insistence on the essay’s liberating proximity to fiction is a canny move in terms of controversy but an especially dim defence of the essay as form. It’s as if he has not noticed the resources, poetic among them, of art and artfulness available to the essayist – resources that exist quite aside from the temptation to embellish or confect the facts. It’s telling that his favoured adjective for a successful essay is ‘dramatic’: as though the only effects available to literary non-fiction are those of inflation. If D’Agata’s lyric essay were the best or only hope for the genre today, you’d have to conclude it would be better off defunct.

The best recent books of essays, or books as essays, have however arrived from writers who would hardly dream of casting themselves in D’Agata’s aggrandizing mould. Not that they lack for extravagance. The poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s fragmented and confessional book Humiliation (2011) and his ecstatic Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012) – a shot-by-shot analysis of Harpo’s every onscreen antic – are excellent examples of a type of delirious scholarship: ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death.’ And Mark Dery’s collection of essays on cultural curiosities both obscure and mainstream, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (2011), is similarly thrilling at the level of style and persona. In fact, like Koestenbaum, Dery uses voice – in his case a demotic-academic pile-up in terms of image and simile – as an interpretative or divinatory principle: David Bowie is ‘a snaggle-toothed twink with a larval pallor’, bloggers always risk becoming ‘tub-thumping Alpha Wonks’. Dery and Koestenbaum are good indicators of a truth that the whole brouhaha regarding the lyric essay suggested anyway: the best essays are very likely written today with no ambition toward anything so belletristic as the essay as such.


Let’s swerve and start again with the liberty we’ve learned belongs to the essay, and not concern ourselves with either conclusions or comprehensiveness. I still want to hang on to the word ‘essay’: it does a suggestive job in terms of describing the sort of adventure I expect from several sorts of non-fictional writing. (Not least among them art writing, in which discipline we insist on the dignity of the term ‘catalogue essay’, even when that genre maybe better resembles what Gass calls ‘that awful object, “the article” […] the careful product of a professional’.) When we say ‘essay’, we name of course all the history and the contemporary controversies limned above – but we also name a desire.

What does the essay want? It wants above all to wander. Not for nothing are the most celebrated instances of the film-essay – the works, for example, of Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, Patrick Keiller – all records of journeys. But the essay’s vagrancy is not only a matter of its departing from the beaten track of method; nor of something clumsily named ‘interdisciplinarity’, or mere ‘hybridity’ of genre. The point is: the essay, the essayistic, a certain essayism may turn up anywhere – its effect is briefly (usually briefly) to cast into relief the relations between thought, truth, authority and the artifice or style that condition them. Here is the poet Michael Hamburger in ‘An Essay on the Essay’ (1965), describing the form as adventure: ‘The spirit of essay-writing walks on irresistibly, even over the corpse of the essay, and is glimpsed, now here, now there, in novels, stories, poems or articles, from time to time in the very parkland of philosophy, formidably walled and strictly guarded though it may seem, the parkland from which it escaped centuries ago to wander about in the wild meadow.’ Even over the corpse of the essay – here is a form that survives its own consignment to the museum of antique literary forms, one that outlives all local arguments about its relevance. Or maybe we should read that phrase in a stronger sense: here is a form that murders itself at the very moment it is made. (Plutarch: ‘An essay that becomes a lyric is an essay that has killed itself.’)

The essay makes a ruin out of its own conflicting desires for aesthetics and adventure. Writers rarely speak about turning out ‘articles’ or ‘stories’ or ‘essays’; they talk instead about their ‘pieces’. (An ‘odd, useful word’, says Hardwick.) And that, more than anything, is what the essayist aspires to – a life in pieces. 

On wonder

This review of Sir Thomas Browne appeared in the Irish Times.

Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall Sir Thomas Browne, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff, New York Review Books, £7.99

How many eyes has a lamprey got? Is it true that a beaver, escaping a hunter, will bite off its own testicles? Where was the soul of Lazarus during his time in the tomb? And what manner of disposal – burning or burying – best fits our mortal remains for resurrection? Such, and even odder, questions exercised the vagrant mind of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century physician once ranked among the greatest stylists in English literature, now hardly read even by scholars of his age. If Browne is known at all today, it’s because of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book partly inspired by this most curious and humane of essayists. Even a svelte edition of just two of his works is a thing of delightful rarity and strangeness.

Browne wrote at a time of reckless experiment in English prose. His century gave us the delicious Guignol of Jacobean tragedy, the soaring morbidity of John Donne’s sermons, the pseudo-clinical bizarrerie of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Browne can sound like all of these, but outflanks them too in terms of invention and eloquence. Self-tasked with reconciling science and Christianity, or recounting the discovery of funeral urns in Norfolk, he sculpts a new language for his “conjectures” (a favourite word). He famously coined such terms as “suicide”, “bisect”, “precocious” and even “literary”. But it’s the rhythms and phrasings that truly astonish – here he is on the deity himself: “We behold him but asquint upon reflex or shadow.”

It’s formulations like that which amazed later writers. Samuel Johnson, predictably, baulked at Browne’s stylistic excrescences, but Thomas De Quincey aped his genial self-obsession in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Melville filched gobbets of whale lore and a mock-scholarly tone for Moby Dick, and Borges was fascinated by the scope and guile of Browne’s imagination.

If he’s relevant (dread word) today, it’s as much for his confection of mixed genres – memoir and medical tract, popular science and lyric prose – as his bravura style. As Virginia Woolf put it:

“A halo of wonder encircles everything he sees.”

We have channelled these forces

This piece on Tino Sehgal at Tate Modern appeared in the London Review of Books.

For the past decade or so Tino Sehgal has been making museum-bound work that flexes definitions of ‘work’ and ‘museum’, and threatens to flummox that frequently harried personage, the ‘spectator’. Visitors to a Sehgal show may expect to be buttonholed, charmed, cajoled or ignored by the dozens of ‘interpreters’ – not quite actors, nor fully collaborators – whom he employs to perform or embody his work. In This progress, at the Guggenheim in 2010, museum-goers were greeted at the bottom of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramp by one of several children who wanted to chat about the concept of progress. As you ascended, the child handed over to a teenager, who ceded to an adult and so on until you were conversing with an elderly person about a future that, in terms of the work’s extension and duration, was about to run out.

Sehgal’s art is not only discursive or, as the clumsy term has it these days, participatory. He trained as a dancer, and was a choreographer and performer before turning to gallery-based work in 2000. His deployment of bodies in space is well suited to the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, where some of the most successful of the annual Unilever-sponsored commissions have suborned the audience as performers of a sort. (Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project of 2003-4, which turned the Turbine Hall’s concrete floor into a sun-kissed beach, is the best known.) For his piece, entitled These associations, Sehgal has hired and trained seventy individuals of different ages and backgrounds to run, dance, pose and process slowly through the space. They will also accost you with more or less intimate stories and anecdotes. In common with all of Sehgal’s works, this one lacks a catalogue and encouraging wall texts, so it’s a matter of chance whether visitors decide to join in, and unclear whether they’re meant to.

Nobody was joining in when I arrived at the Tate around noon on a Thursday. A moraine of tourists had accumulated just a few feet from the interpreters, who were sitting or lying silent on the gleaming concrete in what might have been a homage to Eliasson’s sunny installation, except that at the moment it was pretty gloomy. Suddenly one of the interpreters unfroze and walked smartly towards me, paused, and began to speak. ‘The concrete thing is where to live; I’ve got to move out of my place in two weeks.’ He had a choice, he said, between living very cheaply as guardian of a flat in Tower Hamlets or sharing a house in Camberwell. ‘There’s always been a lack of rootedness’ – I assume he meant his own – and maybe this time he ‘could just do what feels right’. He was veering towards Camberwell, but there was a cat and he was slightly allergic. ‘Only slightly …’

And with that he was gone, back among his colleagues who were beginning to move about the hall in stiff patterns and poses. Were I to hang around with the rest of the punters it would be some time before another interpreter was bored or dutiful enough to target me, so I started to walk a little warily – I was so far the only one invading the interpreters’ space – towards the back of the room. I tried not to catch any interpreter’s eye, in case they thought I was angling too obviously for an approach – though I had no idea why I was being so reticent. A woman who was maybe in her thirties came out of the crowd and told me she recently spent hours avoiding writing a certain urgent email. She wondered if it was a problem in her character, and whether she would do better next time. Meanwhile she was not getting much from me except some furious nodding and the odd blush at her uncanny eye contact. Without warning, she twirled back into the throng.

At that point a deeper gloom descended in the Turbine Hall: the lights went off, then flickered unpredictably while the interpreters, stock still, started to chant slowly: ‘Electric! Electric! Electric! Electricity …’ It was the first of several such moments during the two hours I spent there; now and then Sehgal’s hirelings stopped dead and started ethereal recitals that seemed obliquely related to their role in the piece: ‘Today we have begun to create … We have channelled these forces.’

The chanting had just subsided when a bearded young man in a checked shirt came towards me. As he came closer I asked: ‘What happens if I speak first?’ He ignored this and started to tell his story. He was nine years old, on a flight with his parents. He’d gone into the toilet with a new book and become so absorbed in it that when his mother came knocking on the door there was a queue of 15 furious passengers outside, and he was horribly embarrassed. It was the first time he’d totally lost himself in reading: ‘Does that ever happen to you?’ I told him it was my job to try and trick myself into that state nearly every day, and he asked when it last happened, so I mentioned the copy of William Gass’s On Being Blue that was in my bag and he nodded approvingly at the name. I half thought that we were getting on, myself and the checked-shirt guy, who sounded like he might be from Dublin. But I blew it when I blurted: ‘So, does your story have something to say about the work you’re part of?’ There was a beardy sneer before he walked off: ‘I have this image of you with your big magnifying glass, trying to work it all out.’

This I hadn’t reckoned with: that an interpreter and I might so piss each other off that I would be left standing in the dark muttering ‘gobshite!’ as he smugly retreated into the now weirdly hostile-seeming space where the others were running in frantic circles or figures of eight, as if the work’s hive mind was abuzz at my effrontery. I felt a bit ashamed. I had guessed, as is standard with Sehgal’s work, that interpreters were not meant to speak about the piece itself – but I was curious. I decided to play along with the next person to come near me, and consequently spent ten minutes talking about autumn leaves and everyday moments of overwhelming beauty with a young woman who sidled up conspiratorially and spoke very quietly indeed.

I was unsure if I was loving or hating These associations. Sehgal can be maddeningly contradictory about the intentions and the details of a work like this: comparing its unpredictable being-together with the spontaneity of political protest, but asserting a level of control that was starting to feel unsubtle and bullying. I was relieved to meet an interpreter who, without once commenting on the situation itself, articulated a good deal of what seemed the slick self-satisfactions at the heart of this piece. She came over as I was planning to leave. She was older than the others I’d met, and her anecdotal gambit put me off at first: ‘I had this very recent awakening or moment of arrival.’ As I feared, it was spiritual. But it was what she left behind rather than what she’d found, or what had found her, that we quickly fell to discussing. (So I rather thought I was enjoying Sehgal’s games again.) She was ex-Catholic, and within minutes we were trading horror stories about the Charismatic movement, and the old-fashioned shame and moralism that lurked behind its evangelical energy and the embarrassing communality of prayer meetings (which I had endured as a child in the early 1980s, she much later). It was not at all obvious that we were talking about These Associations, but it wasn’t clear we weren’t talking about it either.

Cut piece

A shorter version of this piece on John Stezaker, who won the Deutsche Börse Photography prize 2012, appeared on the LRB blog.

ImageAt the Kentish Town studio of John Stezaker, who has won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, there’s an entire wall given over to a photographic archive the artist bought about thirty years ago. Britain’s cinemas had been going out of business for decades, and with them the picture agencies that supplied the industry with film stills and actor portraits. Stezaker snapped up the contents of one such doomed establishment, but so precious is this cache, so redolent of an image repertoire gone by, that he has done nothing with it since. (Though he has plans, he says.) Look around the studio, and you get a queasy sense of the fate that might await those black-and-white prints. Here are forgotten starlets half decapitated, neatly enucleated character actors, scenes from long-lost B-movies invaded by lurid portions of landscape or Kodachrome bouquets. And here and there a scalpel, threatening the surface of an intact print.

Stezaker is not strictly speaking a photographer. (More below on the mild and predictable controversy occasioned by his winning this prize.) Since the mid 1970s – he is now 63 – he’s been engaged on a remarkably consistent body of work that has its roots in the Conceptual art of that decade and the longer history of photomontage: an art almost as old as the medium it cannibalizes. Where the best known monteurs – John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Linder Sterling – tend to be hyperactive at the levels of visual texture and more or less startling juxtaposition, Stezaker’s is a laconic practice, often requiring no more (it’s really quite a lot) than the scrupulous positioning of one picture on top of another.

The results may be enigmatic or absurd, coolly confecting a new glamour from faded pop-cultural memories, or risking a horror that recalls his exposure as a student to grisly medical photography and the montages of Max Ernst. At one comical, uncanny extreme are the works in which he’s placed a colour postcard above a studio portrait or film still, matching certain portions of the main image (the curve of a brow, the jut of a jaw) to tree-lines and the profiles of rock outcrops. In Siren Song V (2011), the monochrome actress’s face is obscured by a hand-tinted wave on a colour postcard, but it crashes just where we guess her hair might be. The effect is witty, but already monstrous, and the more so in the similar Masks series. Studio portraits of the 1930s and 1940s are overlain by Romantic postcard views, so that mellow flesh once subject to the retoucher’s art is gouged by cavernous voids or shredded into foliage.

ImageStezaker’s art is discrete and modestly scaled – he usually shows montaged originals, occasionally rephotographed enlargements – but surprisingly violent. (It is hard not to think of photographs of real facial disfigurement taken by the surgeon Sir Harold Gillies during and after the First World War.) Several series involve pairs of vertically bisected portraits. Moody or grinning half-actors are spliced together to produce oddly plausible, as a result more unsettling, physiognomies. Hairlines, lips and bodily attitudes may align perfectly, as in Muse (Film Portrait Collage) XVIII (2012) or Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) LXIV (2010), but it’s frequently the gazes that diverge, so that many of these new faces suffer a dreamy strabismus. Stezaker seems to have a thing about eyes, perverting his found subjects’ gazes or excising their orbs entirely. This tendency is perhaps another residue of Surrealism: think of the eye-gouging passage in Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye or the optical razor-cut in Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou. Whatever its source, the assault on the eye is a recurring allegory for Stezaker’s own art of judicious slicing.

Given his archival interests and his cruel way with imagery culled from the last century’s romance with the cinematic face, it would be easy to place Stezaker squarely in a still-living lineage of ‘appropriative’ art. And to judge his pictures primarily in terms of the para-photography that has flourished in recent decades – to see him as a bravura instance of the ‘artist who works with photography’ or simply a thesis-ready critic of ‘the gaze’. Those are not uncontested categories – some critics, notably Sean O’Hagan at the Guardian, opine annually that such work is not quite proper photography and has no place on the shortlist for a prize such as the Deutsche Börse. (Though even O’Hagan has this year conceded that the best artist won.) More to the point, they are pretty dull rubrics in which to corral an art that for all its critical acuity about how we read photographs, is also about an almost visionary meditation (ours and the artist’s) on the image: rapt, seduced and ready to do it some wry violence.