In 2011, Owen Jones, Guardian columnist and identitarian leftist, published Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. In the book Jones lays bare the chattering classes disdain for ordinary people. “It seems” he writes “as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about.” Chavs was lauded a significant work, The New York Times called it “a work of passion, sympathy and moral grace.”
But 2011 seems such a long, long time ago. So long ago that Jones appears to have forgotten he actually wrote it. Chavs belongs to a very different time and a very different place. It belongs to a land long forgotten, a land that existed BB -Before Brexit. For Jones, initially an advocate of Lexit (a ‘left wing’ campaign to leave the EU), Brexit was the game changer. Why? Because it allowed ordinary people, chavs included, an equal say in how the country should be governed.
A couple of years ago I reread Chavs. This time round I couldn’t help but feel that Jones’s “passion” for the ordinary classes was actually rather paper thin. Like so many of his ilk, Jones thinks ordinary people should be pitied and patronised, but perhaps more so, they should be kept firmly in their place. God forbid they should be given a say, let alone even listened to. Like many within the ‘liberal’ media and ‘creative’ industries, Brexit shattered Jones’s cosseted world view and exposed the Hameau de la Reineesque nature of his radicalism. Brexit allowed Jones to jump ship – he was never really onboard anyway, so it wasn’t much of a splash. He could now say what he really thought of the working-class, without fear of censure or admonishment. Low and behold they were chavs after all, and racist bigots to boot. And for the last 6 years Jones has been a dedicated foot soldier in the demonization of ordinary British Brexit voters.
So, it is hard to read Jones latest Guardian article on the coronavirus and social inequality without the cynicism it deserves. This is Jones at his best, the working-class put firmly back in their place – poor, pitiful and to be pitied.
Not only has Jones bought into the caricatures of ordinary people he once sought to expose, but it is pretty safe to say that over the last 9 years or so since the publication of Chavs, he has been at the forefront of the leftist demonization of the British working-class as unconscionable other.
Much of the criticism of the UK Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been shaped by ideological predisposition rather than balanced scientific evaluation. But Jones does take the biscuit. He writes:
“A decade of austerity, and a social order that deprives millions of citizens of a comfortable existence, will mean many more deaths in the coming weeks and months that could have been avoided.”
Given that he has spent the last 6 years attempting to deprive millions of British citizens their democratic rights, these are weasel words indeed. The absence of any modicum of self-reflection on Jones’s part is impressive, but not surprising.
Owen Jones belongs to what writer Douglas Murray has called the wokerati – a self-selecting, self-serving cabal of illiberal identitarian moralists. Not only has Jones bought into the caricatures of ordinary people he once sought to expose, but it is pretty safe to say that over the last 9 years or so since the publication of Chavs, he has been at the forefront of the leftist demonization of the British working-class as unconscionable other.
In 2014 Jones followed Chavs with The Establishment: And How They Get away With It. You’ll find it in the autobiography section.
“Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that”
Lux Interior, Napa State Hospital 13th June 1978
In 1968 Johnny Cash played a free gig for inmates of Folsom Prison, a show that yielded the legendary album At Folsom Prison. Almost ten years to the month, in June 1978, New York’s The Cramps – “the hottest things from the North to come out of the South” – with support from The Mutants, played a free show for some 300 inmates at Napa State Hospital, a psychiatric facility situated on the Napa Vallejo Highway in California.
Recorded on a Sony Portapak black and white video camera by San Franciscan art collective Target Video, fragments of the show found its way onto very hard to get video, and in 2001 was released on DVD. Utterly compelling, and unsettling at the same time it is easy to see why the show is widely regarded as if not the greatest live show in the history of rock and roll, then certainly its craziest.
New York psychobilly meets psycho-patient and morphs into a whole bunch of people having one hell of a good time. I doubt that such an audaciously thrilling expression of human enjoyment would be allowed today.
Now some 41 years later the Napa State show has finally been remastered for limited vinyl release. Available on Cthulhu Fhtagn Records, M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M Mad Mad Daddies Live at Napa State Hospital, boasts bonus interviews with inmates and ‘real crazies.’ Live at Napa State makes for difficult listening, and that’s allowing for the very dodgy sound quality. Each of the 7 tracks is segued with extracts of interviews with hospital patients. The young man with homicidal tendencies is particularly attention grabbing as he fades out to the fuzz and menace of The Cramps finale, T.V. Set.
Oh baby, I see you in my TV set. Yeah baby, I see you in my TV set. I cut your head off and put it in my TV set. I use your eyeballs for dials on my TV set. I watch TV. I watch TV. Since I put you in my TV set
As the final cacophony of T.V. Set rings out and Lux attempts to leave the stage with a celebratory ‘Good Night!’, a voice can be heard amid the frenzied whoops of delight from the audience. “That’s what we need right there!” exclaims the obviously exhilarated onlooker.
A young San Franciscan music journalist, Howie Klein was there to review the show for the New York Rocker. Klein’s review captures the very unique if not politically incorrect premise of the whole show. John Waters eat your heart out.
“Let’s drive up to the funny farm. The Cramps and The Mutants are doin’ a concert for the nuts: should be loads of yuks”. I wanna take the rap for going up to the show at Napa State with the attitude of wanting to see the pinheads and cretins. I had even tried to talk the mutants into doing ‘Cretin Hop’. As long as the loonies didn’t touch me or drool on me it was all gonna be a load of laughs…
What I got instead was the greatest new wave show I’ve ever seen. I’m just sayin’ than I’ve never seen a show where the audience and the bands and the music and everything were so totally tuned in on the same plane…
I’ve never seen so much audience participation. During the Cramps’ incisive ‘What’s Behind the Mask’ one lively young lady jumped on Lux’s back and held on for the whole song, screaming melodically into the mike over his shoulder…
Meanwhile two patients escaped over a fence and were seen running down the highway. (“We don’t go after ’em anymore. They don’t have any money and they’ll be back in a couple of days.”) …
Both bands agreed it was the best show either had ever done. The excitement and energy level went sky high and a more appreciative, enthusiastic and open-minded audience will never be found (although there were some disc fans frowning on the side lines). And I wanna say something a little personal. When one 45 or so tear-old lady came over – as her group was being led back to wherever they take them to calm down – and kissed me goodbye. I kissed her back and told her to come to the Mabuhay when she gets out. “Oh honey, I ain’t never getting’ outta here,” she laughed.”
In the summer of 1977 – the summer of Sam – The Cramps were at their creative best. They had just recorded the seminal Gravest Hits EP with Alex Chilton and were about to go into Philips Recording studios in Memphis (again with Chilton at the desk) to record the even more seminal (if possible!) debut album, Songs the Lord Taught Us. The Napa show included their distinctive two guitar, no bass reverb soaked sound and featured the classic line up of Lux Interior (Erik Purkhiser) on vocals; his wife and only surviving member, Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kirsty Wallace), and Bryan Gregory (Greg Beckerleg) on guitars; and Nick Knox (Nicholas Stephonoff) on drums. Knox, an integral element of The Cramps tight, rhythm heavy sound, would leave the band in 1991, and they were never the same again. The Cramps would finally call it a day in 2009 following the sad death at 62 of Lux Interior. The band had however played their last live show in November 2006.
The Cramps were a unique band and the Napa State show a clear statement of intent. Live at Napa State drips with menace. Sonically The Cramps pull no punches, but neither do their audience. Listening to the L.P is a disconcerting experience. A sense of unease nags the liberal sensibility. You ask yourself ‘should I be listening to this? Isn’t this wrong?’ And then it suddenly dawns. New York psychobilly meets psycho-patient and morphs into a whole bunch of people having one hell of a good time. I doubt that such an audaciously thrilling expression of human enjoyment would be allowed today.
M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M Mad Mad Daddies Live at Napa State Hospital (Cthulhu Fhtagn Records) is available from www.trashwax.com … if the crazies and pinheads don’t get you first.
In June I attended the inaugural International Persona Studies conference hosted by Newcastle University. Below is a slightly longer version of the paper I presented. It points to the increasing tendency towards the weaponisation of celebrity culture, and in particular the largely liberal, woke demonisation of American rapper Kanye West that followed his appearance on Saturday Night Live in September 2018.
This paper is concerned with what might be termed a post-racial weaponization of celebrity and focuses upon the condemnation of American rapper Kanye West’s highly publicised support for American President Donald Trump. Particular attention is given to a selection of comment pieces that appeared in the British liberal newspaper, The Guardian, in the days immediately following West’s pro-Trump ‘rant’ on the American satirical sketch show, Saturday Night Live (SNL), broadcast on 29th September 2018, the paper proposes that the liberal othering of West’s political persona is consistent with rather than contests the post-racial color blind narratives associated with the emergence of a neoliberal racialized subject. Following Paul Gilroy’s (Belcher and Gilroy 2016; Gilroy 2013) critique of the neo-liberal turn in black radicalism this paper suggests that The Guardian’s reportage privileges a form of identity politics that reaffirm neoliberal constructions of racial difference.
The contemporary weaponization of celebrity disempowers and delegitimates expressions of popular/populist dissent, and serves to highlight the ascendency of a new (post) liberal Woke orthodoxy predicated less upon ‘…a command of an intellectual and political tradition, but on its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot’ (Lash, 1983) (‘Liberalism in retreat, in Liberalism Reconsidered, ed Douglas Maclean and Claudia mills (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Allanheld).
The apparent demonization of Kanye West’s support for Donald Trump, by sections of a Woke celebrity ‘community’ and liberal press are largely cast through the language of therapy – as personal failings on West’s part and evidence of his emotional pathology. The ironic but profoundly worrying dynamic here is that this form of critique both appropriates and circulates in a more socially palatable form, the very same neoliberal tendencies it claims to call out as at ‘post-racial’ mode of representation is adopted to delegitimise West.
Although not a part of the original
broadcast West’s speech received fairly universal condemnation, particularly
from fellow members of the celebrity community. Chris Rock, filmed West’s
impromptu political protest, on his phone and then posted it to You Tube was
said to have sniggered throughout and raised an eyebrow to the content (find
quotes and find other examples). Much of the media reporting of the incident referred
to West’s speech as a ‘rant’.
West, who also announced on the
same show that he wished to be known as Ye (the title of his 8th
album released in June 2018)), wore a Make America Great cap throughout
his performance. A couple of days after the show was broadcast West tweeted that
the 13th Amendment 13 of US Constitution– that outlawed slavery –
should be repealed. Predictably the tweet received similar celebrity ire.
The singer Lana Del Rey, who had
performed at West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian in 2014, tweeted that whilst
Trumps election was a ‘… loss for the country’ Wests endorsement of Trump was
‘a loss for the culture’.
West is no stranger to controversy.
His pro-Trump speech on SNL one of many ‘off script’ politicised performances.
In 2005 whilst taking part in the NBC fundraising telethon in aid of victims of
Hurricane Katrina, West proclaimed ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black
people’ (cited in Jackson 2014, p142); in 2009 he crashed Taylor Swift’s
acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards,
claiming he was highlighting the racial politics that informed the ways in
which the music industry recognised talent (Cullen, 2016).
Swift too found herself subjected
to similar disapproval when in November 2017 she was ‘outed’ by The Guardian
(Friday 24 November 2017 Editorial: ‘The Guardian view on Taylor Swift: an
envoy for Trump’s values?’) as a ‘…musical
envoy for Trump values’, and a recruiter for the alt-right.
But The one thing that condemns Swift,
above all others, was not her actual support for Trump – there is no evidence
or utterance of Swift ever having any opinion on Donald Trump as President or
not. Indeed, Swift had, until then, taken great care to cultivate a
deliberately a-political public persona. Publicly supporting ‘liberal’
positions on ‘women’, ‘gay marriage’ and
picking up the odd award for her philanthropic work, Swift has kept her voting allegiances
very private – it was not her support for Donald Trump that so irked The Guardian
editorial. Rather it was that, unlike the majority of her celebrity peers, she
has not followed the required cultural script of publicly condemning him.
Writing for the American website Political,
Genevieve Glatsky (‘The weird campaign to get Taylor Swift to denounce Donald
Trump’) placed The Guardian’s editorial within the context of an
American entertainment industry increasingly homogenized in its public views
and seemingly compelled to visibly distance itself from anything and any one
vaguely Trumpian. Every now and gain a member of the celebrity tribe will
wittingly or unwittingly transgress this cultural script, only to be shamed
into submission or shot down in flames.
According to Glatsky Swifts
non-condemnation of Trump marked her out as a very visible anomaly amongst her
celebrity peers. Saying nothing, not performing to script was interpreted as
tacit approval. In such a rarefied culture, Kanye West is not only an anomaly
he is a veritable anti-Christ. Yeezus indeed!
Unconscionable otherness: Trump and the civility conundrum
It is clear that the election of
Donald Trump to US Presidency in 2016 has problematised the orthodoxies of race,
gender and class within increasingly neo-liberalised frames of reference. One
particularly pronounced aspect in this being the emergence within public life
of a ‘new civility conundrum’ (Negra 2016) – a rupture in the performance of a
politics of respectability. Trump constructed as ‘…grotesque, unnatural and
unruly’ without the ‘..staid, controlled and civil behaviour’ required for
Presidential Office (Dubrofsky, 2016) – highlighting the often problematic and
uncomfortable intersection of race, class (and gender):
reality TV genre is seen as trashy, featuring people without class in behaviour
and often in social and financial status. The presidency, however, is for the
elite white upper-middle or upper class (usually male) – Barack Obama
negotiates the politics of respectability to fit the ideal. Popular press
articulations of Trump belie the uneasy alliance between elite whiteness and
white behaviour marked as working class or poor (Dubrofsky, 2016).
The narratives that surround both Swift and West are underpinned by the conundrum of Trump (as other), and those who associate with or are associated with him – the deplorables – a form of otherness that is unconscionably (and literally) ‘beyond the pale’.
West’s otherness was thrown into
sharp relief, when Taylor Swift finally broke her political silence and announced
via Instagram at the beginning of
October 2018 that she would be voting Democrat in the forthcoming midterm
elections. The Guardian were ecstatic. Casting the forthcoming midterms
as some sort of Celebrity Death match – (The Guardian Kanye West V Taylor
Swift: From the VMAs to the White House, who is winning now? – 9 October 2018).
So as West was meeting with Donald
Trump to talk prison reform Swift was being reintegrated into the celebrity
In an article (The Guardian, From Joan Baez to Taylor Swift: How musicians found a political voice – October 13 2018) that placed Swifts name alongside that of Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, amongst others- Ed Vulliamy breathless extoled the pop singer’s democratic conversion as ‘Strong, brave – and true’. Furthermore, Vulliamy suggests Swifts intervention in the US midterms is evidence of of a ‘moral left’ renewal (). A conversion of Damascene proportions – on both counts given that the same paper had readily condemned Swift as a front for the American alt-right only 11 months earlier.
What distinguishes the SNL
performance from these others is that where previously West had largely been
perceived as ‘calling out’ racial injustice, the pro-Trump stance according to
some, sees West put ‘the slave-master’s interests above his own people’ (Nadifa
Mohamed , Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October). As
noted by Paul Gilroy (2013 We got to get over before we go under. Fragments for
a history of black vernacular neoliberalism. New formations) and Lester
K. Spence (2015 Knocking the Hustle) black radicalism has recently taken a
particularly neoliberal, conservative turn – similarly so hip-hop and rap
activism. This turn is often contradictory, however. Perhaps more so than other
artists in the genre, West has constantly problematised the attempt to fix his
construction of black spectacle within authorised knowledges and discursive frameworks
(Curry 2014, Jackson 2014).
Julies Bailey e(d. 2014 The Cultural impact of Kanye west)has
suggested that West ‘…is of interest to
cultural theorist for his challenges to racial stereotypes, and social
structures… (2014, p xix); his ‘…human elasticity allows for non-racial
positioning of virtues and values often associated with the quest for success…’
that other black artists [such as Michael Jackson failed to master’ (2014, p
Moreover, this ‘elasticity’ may be
in part due to an apparent failure or struggle to develop a ’…consistent and
concrete persona or branding image in the American public sphere’ (2014 p xviii).
Bailey suggests West’s ‘…public and professional image ‘ ( clean cut soft
middle class – is often at war with his own highly publicized personal demons
of self-perceived defects’ (veered wildly between clean cut good guy/angry militant
activist/fashionable ladies’ man/eccentric ego-driven artist/ bad boy wannabee
Significantly Bailey draws attention to West’s voicing of a explicit rejection/ rejoinder, in his work, to the ‘… tacit and blatant attacks upon black maleness that seek to render an essentialised ontology of it as pathological…’ (2014 p xx). West in part formulates a ‘…revolt against the blackman’s acceptance of an identity that is a menace to society (2014, p xx) and a society that constructs it as a menace.
Whilst West’s political
machinations and unsettled public persona might appear erratic, they are both broadly
consistent with the unorthodox position West has assumed within American
popular culture. Within rap, West cuts a particularly non-conventional figure –
his clean cut, self-consciously suburban ‘middle classness’ contrasts sharply
with the hardcore street hustler image that dominates the genre (Bailey, 2014,
Jackson, 2014). Jackson (2014) suggests West’s ‘off-script’ suburban aesthetic
is integral to the space he occupies as ‘hip hop activist’. The son of a former
Black Panther and English professor and ‘educated in and around historically
black colleges and universities’ (Jackson 2014, p 145-146), West has developed a
particular critical reading of black history that underpins the unique
narrative that inform his art (Jackson 2014, p145-46). Not the orthodox black
male rapper, West similarly problematizes idealised notions of enlightened
‘Blackness’ (Curry 2014).
Paul Gilroy argues (Interview ‘in search of a not necessarily safe starting point’. Open Democracy) ‘Blackness’, has become an essentialised and orthodox position within black radicalism, which robs black experience of its socio-political specificity, has come to dominate contemporary black radicalism (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). Gilroy argues that expressions of black liberation now take their cue from the identarian shift in American politics, and bear little relation to the forms of anti-racism that informed historically informed articulations of black struggle. Moreover, the emphasis upon ‘Blackness’ accentuates a tendency towards seeing difference as generic experience – often predicated upon the ‘moral authority’ of the victim – and ‘a way of thinking about racial identity which makes African Americans in this sort of instance absolutely interchangeable with one another’ (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). ‘Blackness’ provides a cultural script that in effect actually negates the material structures that differentiate African American experience rather than exposes them.
post-racial liberal narrative replay these themes, codifying West’s otherness
as personal trauma and emotional pathology. Ripped from its socio-political
context, TheGuardian’s negation of West’s political subjectivity reaffirms the
processes of racialized subjectification that underpin the contemporary
The Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen (2018. Kanye west needs care, not being put in front of the cameras. The Guardian Sunday 14 October) went so far as to describe West’s views on welfare, prison reform, and the thirteenth amendment as a form of mental illness. His ‘confused diatribe’ – a result of his struggle, Ellen claims with being ‘misdiagnosed bipolar’ – were ‘more of a symptom than an opinion’. Without any pretence to irony Ellen asks, ‘So why is it acceptable to treat West as rent-a-ramble dancing bear, someone it’s OK for liberals to laugh at?’. Her concern hardly a cover for her contempt, and what better way to dispense with any attempt to engage with a political opinion than to patronize it as something that requires pity? The irony of a white middle class journalist lecturing a black American rap artist that his pronouncements on race are those of a (literal) madman exposes the (de)racialization that characterize the neo-liberal narrative. Less a concern for exposing inequality and ‘calling-out’ privilege, Ellen’s critique, underpinned by essentialised notions of black behaviour, functions as a form of colour blind censure, turning Kanye the protagonist into Kanye the victim.
However, it would be wrong to
dismiss this as simple ‘white privilege’. Indeed, the Somali-British writer,
Nadifa Mohamed (2018, Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October), in a
piece which appeared in The Guardian
a day after Ellen’s article, continues the pathological arc. Mohamed argues
that West, ‘desperate for love and care’, appears more like an ‘orphaned child’
(a reference to the death of West’s mother, Donda, in 2007) ‘lost in the
fantasy land that his Kardashian in-laws live within in Los Angeles’. Although Mohamed
cannot help but conclude that the rapper’s ‘manic episodes’ may be a ‘carefully
contrived strategy to stay in the headlines, his flirtations with Trump possibly
as manipulated as his wife Kim’s nude photos’.
of West’s off-script blackness – proper black people don’t support Donald Trump
– serves to negate the rapper as both political subject and black spectacle. Dissent
has been a central theme in West’s construction of his blackness. However, the
Trump moment sees the rapper not only speaking off script, but off cultural
script too. In this
sense West’s dissenting blackness conforms with but also problematizes the
logics of post-race society. As a performance of black spectacle Kanye West
confounds the idea of ‘Blackness’ (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). He is black, but
Andrews, D.L., 2013.
Reflections on communication and sport. On celebrity and race, Communication & sport, 1 (1,2),
Bailey, J., 2014.
Preface: the cultural impact of Kanye West. In: J. Bailey, ed. The
cultural impact of Kanye West. New York: Palgrave, xvii-xxvii
‘The transformed individual makes a transformed world….Sooner or later you have to be willing to accept the responsibility for your own life.’
In May 2018 I wrote an article on American novelist, Hubert Selby Jr. Published by Spiked on the anniversary of the UK unbanning his first novel ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, in 1968. The article remains one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences I have had as a writer. As for many, Selby remains both an influence and an inspiration. Above all Selby rejected the lot that ‘God’ had given him. A life stricken by ill health, and riddled with addiction – Selby’s notorious drug habit was ironically a result of his mother’s determination to keep him alive when he contracted tuberculosis, from sick horses (some accounts suggest he contracted the illness from cows – however the official record of the subsequent court case Selby took out against the US Government list the carriers as horses) , whilst in the Merchant marine. Buying drugs only available on the black market, his mother’s love kept him alive, but condemned him to a life of chronic addiction. But Selby was never one to bear grudges. As he was to reflect later he was ‘born dying’.
In late 60s he kicked his dependency upon drugs and alcohol, only to reflect later that ‘I haven’t had a drink for more than 30 years, but I still love alcohol’. This very Selby like statement comes from an article I found in about 2003ish, written by Selby on his deep, almost religious love for drinking, in the journal Addiction Research (2000, Vol 8, No 6). Finding the article resulted in a very brief but thoroughly thrilling email exchange with writer Nick Tosches, who was then curating an online Selby archive.
“Fifty years ago this July, John Mortimer QC successfully appealed the banning of Hubert Selby Jr’s first novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). It had originally been published in the UK in 1966, by publishers Marion Boyars and John Calder. But within a few months, Wimbledon MP Cyril Black brought a private prosecution against Last Exit’s UK publishers under the Obscene Publications Act. Mortimer’s subsequent and victorious appeal is said to have changed the legal and moral framework of censorship in the UK forever.
judgement is understandable. Last Exit was the last work of literature
to be prosecuted for obscenity in the UK. So its unbanning was a significant
milestone. Yet one should also note that the Obscene Publications Act was
widely viewed at the time as an increasingly prudish piece of legislation, out
of step with contemporary tastes and mores. It was also notoriously vague, with
a remarkably low threshold as to what might be defined as likely to ‘deprave
problem with the subsequent notoriety of the book, and its status as a cause
célèbre of British anti-censorship, is that this has overshadowed Last
Exit itself – the visceral power of its prose and the profundity of Selby’s
not to say its content is unshocking, even by contemporary standards. Set in
decaying inner-city postwar Brooklyn, Last Exit comprises six short
stories and tells the often violent tales of four central characters –
Georgette, the doomed drug-addicted drag queen; the exploited but equally
rapacious teenage prostitute, Tralala; Abraham, the Negro pimp; and Harry, a
violent, out-of-control union agitator with homosexual tendencies.
Anthony Burgess – a witness for the defence in the original 1967 obscenity
trial – put it in his 1968 introduction:
‘It is unfortunate that so many newcomers to Last Exit to Brooklyn will be
approaching it in a muddle of expectation that, thanks to its long ordeal in
the courts, has more to do with what has been said about the book than what the
book itself says.’ (1)
‘muddle of expectation’ surrounding Last Exit has resulted in a view of
the novel as, at worst, titillating pornography – on its publication in the US
(in 1964) by Grove Press, Time magazine called it ‘Grove’s dirty book of
the month’ – and, at best, as a novel intent on exposing social injustice. Both
do Selby and Last Exit no favours.
abound of the misleading characterisation of its content. Following Selby’s
death at the age of 75 in 2004, the Guardian’s obituary referred to Last
Exit as a ‘raunchy novel’. Even the most libertarian eroticist would be
hard pressed to find ‘raunchy’ the story of a gang rape of the 15-year-old
Tralala, violated with a broom stick and left for dead, ‘naked, covered with
blood and urine and semen and a small blot forming on the seat between her legs
as blood seeped from her crotch’.
perhaps the most pronounced misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Last
Exit has come in the guise of praise. Its US publisher, Grove Press (home
of William Burroughs, John Rechy, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), characterised
Selby as if not a Beat per se, then certainly Beat-ish. Selby was dogged
by this claim that he was some kind of missing link between, as one critic puts
it, ‘the naturalistic literary agenda that began with Stephen Crane and Frank
Norris in the last years of the 19th century [and the] counterculture that
began with the Beat Generation in the 1950s and exploded in the 1960s’. (2)
Allen Ginsberg heralded Last Exit as a novel that would ‘explode like a
rusty hellish bombshell over America’. However, despite his proximity to the
Beats, Selby is the most un-beatified of the writers who were to emerge in
postwar America. He was born in Brooklyn in 1923 to parents he, tongue in
cheek, described as middle class ‘in the same way that 95 per cent of Americans
during the Depression were middle class’ (3). Selby, who left school at 15 to
join the US Merchant Marine in 1944, is an ill-fitted companion to the largely middle-class,
university-educated, drop-out Beats. While they sought aesthetic alterity in
illicit substances and Eastern spirituality, Selby’s love-hate relationship
with narcotics, alcohol and God was a very real matter of life and death.
age of 18, while in the Merchant Marine, Selby contracted tuberculosis in both
lungs. Given but a few months to live, he was shipped back to the US to die.
But after three years in a hospital bed, one lung and 10 ribs lighter, and
addicted to highly toxic prescription drugs – which impaired both his vision
and hearing, and left him unable to walk unaided due to the petrifaction of his
muscles – Selby was to reflect: ‘All in all I have spent a lot of time and
energy, as well as money, just staying alive. But here I is.’ (4)
later, he was readmitted to hospital this time with extreme asthma – his one
remaining lung now failing. But, as Selby quipped, ‘dying was a way of life’,
and he refused to keel over just because a doctor had told him to. Still, his
proximity to death terrified him, not because he would one day die, but because
the inevitability of death brought the fact that he had done nothing with his
life into sharp relief:
thought that I would live whatever number of years and look back on it and see
I hadn’t done anything with my life, had wasted it, was something I just could
not live with. So I decided to write.’ (5)
of Beethoven, Selby nurtured the fantasy of becoming a composer, but only nine
years of schooling and no musical training did for that. He did know the
alphabet so, he figured, why not try writing. After all, lying on his back for
years in hospital, Selby had little time for anything else but books –
everything from the hardboiled tough-guy fiction of Mickey Spillane to Gil Sorrentino’s
postmodern metafiction. (Sorrentino was to become Selby’s close friend and
mentor, and Last Exit is dedicated to him.)
himself a portable Remington typewriter, and taught himself to write. The first
thing he wrote was a letter, to which the addressee replied, so he wrote
another. The first piece of fiction he wrote was a suicide note. Writing, like
much of Selby’s life, did not come easy. But it was keeping him alive.
narrative style, a form of typography that ‘would work as musical notation’ – a
direct development of his love for classical music – dispensed with the
conventional formalities of dialogue. Selby had a profound dislike of the
simplistic and unrealistic ‘he said, she said’ device. Selby’s characters speak
with an idiosyncratic flow. Each can be identified by their own rhythms of
speech. The form and structure of dialogue is specific to the feel and flow of
emotion that shapes each character’s inner life. Of ‘Tralala’, the story of the
eponymous teenage prostitute, Selby wrote:
pages long, took 2 1/2 years to get to that point. The story starts with a very
short, flat line, then starts to open and flow as she does, until eventually
the line never ends as she starts to disintegrate and the final line is a
couple of pages long, having the feeling of utter chaos, and never really ends,
but stops… When I finished ‘Tralala’ I was in bed for two weeks.’ (6)
as naturalistic in theme, but highly modernist in technique, Last Exit
has been misinterpreted as socially aware fiction – its protagonists the
victims of the cruelty they experience and endure. As this orthodox reading
goes, Tralala, Georgette, and Harry – trapped, brutalised and condemned by the
cold, corrupting squalor of the inner city and the society that built it –
should be pitied. Their depravity and self-loathing are the determined
consequences of their squalid environment.
those who sought to prosecute Last Exit misrepresented or at best misunderstood
its subject matter as obscene is one thing, but it is not without Selbyesque
irony that those who jumped to its defence, and have promoted it as art, also
ended up condemning him. So in his defence of Last Exit, Anthony Burgess
extols its biting exposé of the cruelty of modern society:
‘Last Exit presents social
horrors out of reformist zeal, not out of a desire to titillate or corrupt.
Those who found the book capable of debauching its readers were evidently most
debauchably and regrettably cut off from the desire to expand their charitable
propensities… Those who now approach Last Exit with open minds will soon
consider that there is plenty of reforming to do well east of Brooklyn, and our
professional reformers must be the first to be reformed.’ (7)
characterisation of his work as social realism was something Selby railed
against. In an interview with John O’Brien, he claimed his characters were not
victims. They were not victims of plot – because there was none – nor were they
victims of circumstance – because this would simplistically mean that if their
circumstances were to change then they would have lived better lives. This is
too easy an answer, a convenient get-out that avoids the uncomfortable and
often traumatic responsibility of self that underpins Selby’s humanism. He
the things I find insane is that we seem to believe in this country that if we
change the society, then the individual will be changed. That doesn’t happen.
The transformed individual makes a transformed world. All these people I write
about are looking to outside forces to do something for them. Not one of them
wants to know what he can do for someone else… Of course the sociologists say,
“Look at the society and what they’re born into” – which is true; but
ultimately that doesn’t mean anything because that society is made up of
individuals who have made those decisions. Sooner or later you have to be
willing to accept the responsibility for your own life.’ (8)
It is the
failure to take responsibility that condemns the inhabitants of Last Exit,
not their environment, circumstance or immorality. As Selby argues: ‘All of the
people in my novels fail because of [a] lack of control. Not because they are
immoral by anybody’s standards, but because they lost control. The lack of
power is their dilemma.’ (9)
This is the moral heart of Last Exit, and the spirituality that informs its humanist whole. Selby castigates his characters for their continued ‘surrender [of their] problems to God’. It represents a recourse to external causes to explain away or justify their refusal to take responsibility for their actions. Selby, a devout Christian, claimed that writing Last Exit was a way of ‘going to war’ with God, an attempt to resist his own ‘surrender to God’ – ‘the hatred helped keep me alive’, he later acknowledged (10).
idiosyncratic, experimental style – flowing unending sentences; the use of the
back-slash rather than the apostrophe because it was both nearer at hand on the
typewriter and expressed Selby’s sophisticated but violent sensibility – was
not a rejection of the world, but a steadfast attempt to connect with it. He
understood the world as a painful place. But, unlike the Beats, he embraced the
pain and strove to transcend it. He understood that the mundanely traumatic
struggles that shape our internal lives are essential aspects of being human.
It is the inner lives of his characters, not their external circumstances, that
shape their worlds.
Precisely because of its visceral obscenity, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a fundamentally humanist novel. And as such, it is far closer in spirit to the Enlightenment than the beatific sensibilities of 1960s counterculture. Indeed, its steadfast refusal to sentimentalise its subject and its visceral insistence on individual moral responsibility make it a necessary antidote to the increasingly solipsistic disavowal of subjective agency that increasingly characterises the contemporary moment.”
(1) ‘Introduction’, by A Burgess, in Last
Exit To Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr (Calder & Boyers, 1968, pXVII
Hubert Selby Jr, by JR Giles, South Carolina Press, 1998, p11
(3) Cit. Understanding
Hubert Selby Jr, by JR Giles, South Carolina Press, 1998, p7
‘Introduction’ to Last Exit to Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr, Bloomsbury,
‘Introduction’ to Last Exit to Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr, Bloomsbury,
‘Introduction’ to Last Exit to Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr, Bloomsbury,
‘Introduction’, by A Burgess, in Last Exit To Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr
(Calder & Boyers, 1968, pXVII