Juvenilia and Other Delinquencies: An Interview With Jon Savage
3:AM: Teenage chronicles the “creation of youth” from 1875 to the end of the Second World War. Like Peter Pan, it is frozen “in a state of suspension, of permanent becoming.” The very structure of your book seems to be a pean to eternal youth: in its end — the birth of the modern teenager circa 1944 — is its beginning…
JS: And with the atom bomb. The destroyer of the old world. Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture was a big influence on me in adolescence, as was seeing Peter Watkins’ The War Game, which gave me nightmares for months afterwards and floated the idea that everything I had been taught was shit. (Not so, of course, but don’t ask adolescents for perspective.)
For more on this topic, see Bob Dylan’s great interview in the Rolling Stone Fortieth Anniversary issue (May 3-17 2007): “the atom bomb fuelled the entire world that came after it…I know it gave rise to the music we were playing”.
I also wanted to end there because that was the time that the New World Order under which we still live was instituted. Re the looping, well that wasn’t necessarily intentional but I am fascinated by loops (see intro to Time Travel and your subsequent question), so…
3:AM: Paradoxically, for a period in life which is usually regarded as a transition from childhood to adulthood, the cult of youth seeks to extend this period indefinitely. You draw a very interesting parallel between Dorian Gray and Peter Pan and analyse the “morbidity that is the inevitable consequence of eternal youth”. Please tell us a bit more about this “powerful Romantic nexus of youth, death, and immortality.”
JS: Youth is sexy and vital. Then people get old, and (so the mainstream discourse goes) not sexy and not vital. So how to prolong it? Well ageing creams and surgery, of course, but dying young is the perfect way of retaining your youth. Premature death has long been celebrated by militarist regimes — all that dulce est pro patria mori etc, or the equivalent pumped out by today’s jihadists.
Several key Romantic works — including Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (which reads, in part, like a Morrissey lyric) and Coleridge’s “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” — mine this deep seam of youthful morbidity that of course has become a major part of commercial youth culture. In part because youth can be morbid and, as G.Stanley Hall put it, prone to “religious conversion”, so if you are going to have youth-oriented products, then they should at least contain some reasonably authentic youthful qualities.
The problems of eternal youth are constantly played out in today’s celebrity media landscape: closer to home, just think how ugly older rock stars like X and Y can be, trying to prolong their teens and twenties into their late forties. It all gets very toxic.
3:AM: You quote the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise who states: “I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again”. This strikes me as particularly significant: teenagehood is the moment when the prelapsarian lapses, once and for all, into the postlapsarian. Would you agree that the obsession with youth is partly due to the fact that teenagehood is a kind of child / adult hybrid — Tadzio with a bit of hair on his chest, Lolita with a proper pair of tits on her — rather than merely a transitional stage between the two states?
JS: Scott Fitzgerald is a fantastic writer, one of my inspirations. Adolescents literally are suspended between childhood and adulthood. If you observe any, you will note the oscillation between childhood dependence on parents followed quickly by quasi-adult assertions of independence. The problems in this area tend to cluster around sexuality, as you note.
(I must admit I always found Tadzio rather nauseating in Visconti’s film, even though he was a big gay icon. Far too pleased with himself.)
However I don’t believe that innocence, once lost, can never be regained. You can retain your innocence, you know, it just takes a bit of mental / emotional effort to avoid being jaded and cynical. You can shed skins.
3:AM: In spite of your numerous references to Wilde, you do not make much of the importance of the cult of youth in homosexual culture. Isn’t the teenager a fundamentally gay figure?
JS: I don’t think that the teenager is a fundamentally gay figure, but that there is a healthy area of crossover. But gay men grow up eventually. If they don’t beyond a certain point, they hit the problems of eternal youth as mentioned above. Plus, the old ageist trope — “no one loves a fairy when she’s forty” etc — has been obsolete for some while. That’s another whole area of self-hatred binned.
3:AM: I noticed that on the dust jacket Teenage is subtitled “The Creation of Youth” whereas if you open the book it says “The Creation of Youth Culture”. Should one read anything into this? Did you start off by writing a history of youth culture and realise, in medias res, that youth itself was essentially a cultural construct?
JS: Uh Andrew it’s called “The Creation of Youth Culture” in the US and the US edition was used as the template for the UK production. The subtitle was decided on after the final edit. So that’s why. I always thought that youth was a cultural construct because I’d read G.Stanley Hall’s Adolescence before I began the book. Plus, give or take a few years, many people go through similar physiological / emotional experiences during puberty. So it’s biology +/? culture.
3:AM: In an epigraph to one of the chapters, you quote Nicky, in Noël Coward‘s The Vortex, observing: “It’s funny how mother’s generation always longed to be old when they were young, and we strain every nerve to keep young”. Similarly, in Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz‘s 1937 masterpiece, the Polish novelist shows that the age-old battle between old age and young bucks (Falstaff upon Gad’s Hill: “they hate us youth!”) was becoming curiously one-sided in that, secretly, the former were now in thrall to the latter. Do you agree with this analysis?
JS: Up to a point. Youth became much more of an ideal in Europe as the American influence increased during the 1920’s. This ideal is very much part of American culture, as the book discusses. However the examples you and I cite are very much in the forefront of thinking during that period. It took a while for the mainstream to catch up.
3:AM: In the arts world, all the avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century embodied youthful rebellion. Dada‘s 1921 show trial of Maurice Barrès could even be seen as an acting out of Harold Bloom‘s anxiety of influence, but we could also mention the Vorticists‘ living-in-the-moment (“With our vortex the present is the only active thing”) or the Futurists‘ vital élan which was predicated on the generation gap. Do you think that the disappearance of the avant-garde (you recently contributed to the ICA’s The Secret Public: The Last Days of the British Underground 1978-1988 exhibition) is linked to the disappearance of a cultural generation gap (as opposed to a merely hormonal one)? Is youth primarily “an ideal beyond biology” nowadays?
JS: I’m not entirely convinced that the avant-garde has disappeared. But capitalism has become so sophisticated at picking up on trends, movements, ideas etc that it’s harder for artists, writers and thinkers to develop their work out of the media’s glare. It’s hard not to become an instant cliché and a part of that which you despise.
I thought The Secret Public was a good idea, but I didn’t see much of an interesting take-up of the implicit polemic. Just a whole bunch of “my 80’s was better than yours” or some such filler. My particular interest — as exhibited in the photos contained in the show [see picture below taken by Jon Savage in 1977 for the second issue of London’s Outrage, his punk fanzine] — is / was in urbanism. London is very hostile to (young) people these days: too expensive, crowded, hyper-materialistic etc.
I’m also not entirely convinced that a generation gap has been eradicated: I know the Arctic Monkeys, say, have united adults and teenagers alike, but what about My Chemical Romance or other bands who are still, rather splendidly, so locked into the teenage psyche that they are in fact adult-hostile?
3:AM: Certain types of artistic rebellions like Surrealism or Punk seem to remain forever young. Did youth culture die, in effect, with Punk? You write, in the introduction, that its “historical collage…marked the moment when the linear forward movement of the sixties was replaced by the loop”…
JS: I wouldn’t presume to say that youth culture died with Punk. I don’t think it did, anyway. Today’s young perceive the world in a very different way to someone of my age (53), which is what you’d expect. They are totally at home with things that might trouble me or pass me by. For instance, they regard downloading music onto their mobiles with equanimity. (I still play vinyl.) But who knows what mutations will occur while they can? I never seek to underestimate the energy and creativity of youth.
3:AM: How does the book fit in with your own involvement in and commentary on youth culture?
JS: Culmination/ meditation/ backstory.
(Picture: Jon Savage by Linder Sterling, 1978)
3:AM: Do you intend to write a follow-up to Teenage?
JS: Who knows? I’m fascinated by the period from war’s end to the year of my birth (1953). But let me get over this one first.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Andrew Gallix is 3:AM Magazine‘s Editor-in-Chief. He writes fiction as well as non-fiction, teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris and lives his life like a string of beads tossed from a frilly balcony (mainly in his dreams).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 16th, 2007.