More Thanatos Than Eros
Ewan Morrison interviewed by Andrew Gallix.
[Photo by Paul Harkin.]
3:AM: You’ve mentioned being brought up in a “hippy household” and wrote that, at one point in your life, you “blamed [your] downfall on the permissive society that Miller had helped spawn through his influence on the Beats” (which is reminiscent of Houellebecq’s critique of the 60s). Could you tell us about that?
EM: Houellebecq was a wake-up call for me as he showed that you could write about and against the values of the 60s generation. It’s still a real fight to do this as so many of the baby boomers are in positions of power in the media and don’t like having their hypocrisy exposed.
Houellebecq’s ‘hippy parents’ were more hedonistic than mine; the problems I had were more to do with utopianism, its failure and aftermath. My parents tried to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ and headed north to the most remote part of Scotland in 66 in a Volkswagen Beetle in an attempt to find an authentic culture unspoiled by consumerism. They were reading Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. They set up a poetry and folk music festival and started revolutionising the library service in the Scottish highlands.
All of this sounds very progressive, but the downside was the fallout from their failure, which was twofold. For one, the locals despised my parents and this found its most vivid expression in the ritual victimisation of the ‘hippy kids’ — i.e. me. (If I had lived in a country more accustomed to litigation I would now be a multi-millionaire from having taken almost the entire community to court for GBH, harassment, physical and psychological abuse.) I was practically beaten every day for three years and developed a chronic stutter. I was unable to speak even my own name. This was exacerbated by my parents’ hippy values: they simply believed that if I explained non-violence to the local kids, then peace would reign.
Secondly, the real damage came when my father hit the bottle and started screwing around. This was an inevitable outcome of the failure of his beliefs and one that impacted even more on my sister and me. I watched him become utterly crushed, guilt-ridden and alcohol-addicted as I grew into adolescence. Fear of failure and of projected utopias, mixed with a total lack of direction is unfortunately my inheritance. Having said that I do seem obsessed with finding alternatives to modern bourgeois culture in the books, so in a perverse way I’m perhaps keeping the hippy project alive.
3:AM: You’ve had a very successful career in film and television (you’ve even made 3 videos to promote your latest book). How did it come about? Were you writing fiction at the same time, or did that only really start when your film career suddenly collapsed? Maybe you don’t make a big distinction between writing a script and writing a novel — it’s all writing?
EM: Funny how it could look like a really successful career in film and TV when it was a daily struggle to get work and try to do something a bit different with the limitations. Having said that, I look back on some of the programmes I made and think, yeah, well somehow I did manage to get flown all over the place to interview Sonic Youth, Ivor Cutler, Douglas Gordon, Mary Harron and Hal Hartley so that must be some kind of success. I also picked up a few awards for some short films I wrote and directed but, as I say, each project felt like starting from scratch and it was a surefire path to total burnout.
I was pleased, in 2001, to be able to step back from directing and concentrate on feature film writing when I got a gig in New York with a film company who gave me a salary for two years, a Fifth Avenue office and promised a budget of up to $1.5 million for my first low-budget indie feature. This didn’t quite work out, for reasons as much to do with the economy and the neo-cons as anything else.
Yes, there are similar structures between novels and scripts — the 3 acts etc — but, really, scriptwriting is more like writing by ‘corporate think-tank’. There’s always a wealthy yuppie baby-boomer boss leaning over your shoulder, telling you to make your characters more ‘sympathetic’ and to give them a clearer ‘life goal’. After ten years of attempting to do the opposite, struggling to write scripts in which aimless, unsympathetic characters went looking for goals, I realised that the world really didn’t want to know about anti-heroes and so maybe script writing wasn’t for me. This was aided by the fact that the feature film script I’d been working on for three years which was slated for production in New York in 2003 died a death when the company went bust, taking my marriage and pretty much all of my future plans with it.
It was only when I got back to the UK and started building myself back up from the rubble that I realised that among my prized possessions was a box of notebooks I’d been carrying round since the age of eighteen. I’d though they were just ideas for scripts, notes, essays etc, but there was a lot of fiction in there, little sketches, dialogues, short stories even. Without realising it I’d been writing fiction for almost twenty years. Sitting down to deliberately write short stories from scratch, in what became the first book (The Last Book Your Read) was like waking up on a clear-skied perfect day. The book pretty much wrote itself and was ridiculously enjoyable. No one was telling me to make my characters more likeable; in fact I tried to make them as fucked up, nasty, selfish and downright lifelike as I could. The irony was that people often told me after that they found them very ‘sympathetic’.
On the film front a feature script for Swung has been developed with Sigma films and Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Spread, Hallum Foe). I think if I ever stepped behind a camera again to direct I’d have a heart attack, so I’ve decided to leave it all up to those who are tough enough and smart enough to survive in what is one of the hardest, most ruthless businesses in the world.
3:AM: In an interview you said that “Reading Generation X was a relief; it was strangely enough the story of my own life but told from the other side of the world”: could you speak about your influences, be they literary or otherwise?
EM: Gen X, the book, was another wake-up call. It made sense of the disaffection I and everyone I knew felt in the early 90s — a whole zeitgeist that saturated every waking moment. Dead-end temp jobs, the deregulation of the employment market, Saatchi’s advert universe, irony as a strategy for survival, political impotence. Everyone I knew was angry and confused by the whole ‘End of History’ philosophy — the Fukuyama credo that global consumerism is as good as it gets (Fukuyama went onto to become a neo-con). I was reading a lot of Jean Baudrillard and he concurred with Fukuyama, although in an ironic post-leftist way. Fatal Strategies was an important book and all of its slogans: ‘Banality is Saviour’… Me and my friends really did believe that we had to buckle in for a future in which struggle was futile and the whole globe would become one immense shopping mall. In Art I was drawn to everything that dealt with consumerism. So there was Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer (again her slogans like ‘protect me from what I want’).
Looking back, a lot of the other material I was getting into was absolutely typical of middle class Gen X kids in every city from Seattle to Berlin. Call it slacker or grunge, but the apathy-is-the-only-form-of-resistance attitude was actually a kind of mirror of globalisation — everywhere the malls were built Gen X hatred of consumerism sprang up. So, I was reading Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, lots of information on Baader-Meinhof, and Charles Manson, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs — as I say, almost stereotypical for a twentysomething nihilist-wannabe in the nineties. Music was the same, everything I was into had to be extreme: hardcore, grunge, kitsch and avant-garde: Einstürzende Neubauten, Suicide, Jesus Lizard, Scott Walker, Parliament, the Revolting Cocks.
To be honest, literature didn’t interest me, unless it dealt head on with the horrors of consumerism then it seemed to me to be just decorating the walls of our prison. As Debord said, nearly all of our cultural products are simply the reproduction of existing values. As Saul says in the novel: why add more crap to the stockpile of what our culture calls culture? To this day I still think if a book does not confront the crisis of purpose in contemporary life then it must go to the bin. I despise works of nostalgia or fantasy, there is so much historical revisionism going on and people are entertained by it. In history, our era will go down as the beginning of the time when western culture turned a blind eye to its present day and started feeding on and regurgitating the past as a form of entertainment. We have to ask ourselves why the present is so hard to document, why it is so apparently difficult to make culture out of. Perhaps it is that life under western consumerism is so anonymous, featureless, and passionless; that it does not offer us any forward-looking narratives. It is a cycle of endless repetition, forgetting and consumption. This is why we have become so obsessed with the past. I value any authors that have the guts to face up to the present and document it in all its emptiness: Delillo, Houllebecq, James Frey, Hanif Kureishi. I find theorists of more use than novelists; I’m reading a lot of Žižek right now.
3:AM: In the same interview, you explain: “Gen X was brought up with a sense of values that it saw collapsing, so we have a kind of nostalgia, I guess, for something a bit more solid, although we’re very suspicious of it. I think generation X are the most fascinating generation that I’ve come across. I have a vested interested in saying that, being one myself”. I really like that point of view. Do you think Gen X writers are different from other generations as a result of this?
EM: God (may he rest in peace) — yes! I really worry for Generation X right now. I think we really did have a different experience of life than the generations that preceded us and the ones that have come after; and now our history is in great danger of being erased. The baby boomers have a lot in common with Generation Y. Both have a real sense of positivity and self-belief — whereas for the boomers this was all about changing the world (and they ended up opting for ‘self-change’ through private enterprise), Generation Y is extremely well adapted to life under capitalism. Both the boomers and the Y-ers believe, totally unselfconsciously, and uncritically, that they can ‘change the world’ through their ‘free choices’ as consumers (canvas bags, fair-trade teabags, recycling etc). They also believe that the future is a better place, one unified by technology and communication. Those of us in Generation X were skeptical about such things: we grew up at the very tail end of the Cold War and can recall what opposition there once had been to capitalism and the violence on which the global free market was based. I recall, sitting watching the Berlin wall coming down on TV with some friends and we were all saddened at the sight of these Eastern Bloc citizens celebrating: they were singing “Keep On Rocking in the Free World” by Neil Young, but without any of the irony and skepticism Young had intended; it had in fact become a capitalist anthem. The Gen X worldview just doesn’t fit with the world as it is now. We thought, in the 90s, that being ironic and cynical was a mark of integrity, but now irony is used in advertising to sell everything from soft drinks to cars. To the coming generations, X-ers look like miserable self-loathing people who don’t believe in anything and who are always trying to deflate other people’s enthusiasm. Generation X is going to be seen in history as a small sad accidental moment in the ongoing positive march of progress, equality and human happiness. The boomers are hooking up with the Y-ers and forging an all-singing all-dancing sexy promiscuous consumer universe. Richard Branson and Girls Aloud will save the world.
The baby boomers do their best to stop Gen X voices from being heard. They really hate that our characters propagate a certain disillusionment with the world as it is: they love books that are about ‘real people’, usually indigenous peoples from areas of the world that have not yet turned into shopping malls, breaking through to ‘express themselves’ in wholesome and positive ways, expressing identity, belonging and authenticity (ironically, as such exotic authors become popular and the ‘real places’ they write about become open to the expansion of capital, then the authenticity will die and the boomers will have to look into darker, more remote places to find their fix of cultural otherness and authenticity). The Gen X message is non-belonging, inauthenticity and a desire to escape from identity. The world doesn’t want to hear this, so perhaps us Gen X-ers are going to end up just talking to ourselves. You can see this with Douglas Coupland now, his new book Gen A is a desperate attempt to prove that Gen X attitudes will live beyond us and be passed onto others, but it is not convincing.
3:AM: Please tell us how your writing career got off the ground and, more specifically, how your collection of short stories (The Last Book You Read) came to be published.
EM: I was reading Henry Miller in 2004 and his advice was ‘Write like you speak’. Around the same time I’d just shown one of my films to a girlfriend and she, rather disappointed said, ‘Gee, Ewan, I wish you’d written it just like the way you talk’. Girlfriend and Miller both saying the same thing within weeks of each other freaked me out, and so I took it as a wake-up call. Since I’d just had a mental collapse and was really just piecing things back together again — my possessions literally fitted into three boxes and I was living in a rented dive with a 19-year-old student, vermin and a leaking roof — I suppose I had quite a lot to write about. Like for example: how the hell can this happen to someone who has spent 18 years trying to ‘work for the man’. So that was The Last Book You Read. It started out with me just writing the way I talked and then other voices started, so I listened to them and wrote them down. To be honest, I felt quite humbled by it, like all I’d done was take dictation from voices in my head. Chance had it that a small Scottish publishing house who specialized in non-fiction were wanting to start a fiction wing. A friend of a friend who I knew from my TV years lived a block away and was a friend of someone who worked for this small publisher. They gave me enough to pay my rent for two months and so I gave them the book and that was our deal. To my knowledge they don’t do fiction anymore, even though we sold every book they printed. It was just a modest coming together of different things at the right time. I really have to try to get the book back into print again; you can get it in Australia but not the UK.
3:AM: No, quite the opposite. Like many people I started off with internet dating and then got curious about taking it one step further (all those flashing banners for sex with strangers, sex with couples etc). Something about swinging seemed to reconnect with the Swinging 60s and my hippie parents, and since I’d just gone through a divorce I really wasn’t wanting to get straight back into a conventional relationship. I guess I was on a year-long quest to just try everything out. To see if you could actually exhaust desire. The good news is that you can, I came out of the other end of it with no more repressed urges and with a greater sense of compassion for people (So much of consumer culture is based on the parade of sexual titillation — look but you can’t touch, window shop but you can’t buy).
I made quite a network of swinging friends and ultimately I wasn’t even interested in having sex anymore, I was more fascinated by the processes of hooking up, and of encouraging and facilitating other people’s experiments. I sort of became a fixer or pimp for my new friends. Anyway, it was only after about a year of this that I realised that swinging had given me a lot of great material, which could be turned into a book. People never believe it when I tell them that: they think I picked a scandalous topic then did some research, but the opposite is true. It was my project to de-scandalise the whole scene, to get rid of desire. I can recommend it to anyone that is burdened with the need to be promiscuous — a good dose of swinging will put an end to that.
EM: Probably because my father was such an idealistic believer in Authentic Scottish identity, Scottish poetry and fiction, I built up a total revulsion to all things Scottish. He was into Norman MacCaig, the paintings of Joan Eardley and Scottish folk music. And I was into William Burroughs and Andy Warhol and Suicide. Welsh was the first person I came across in Scottish fiction who created work out of a real trash aesthetic — rave music, Iggy Pop, the Velvets — all of that was a brilliant experience for me. Again as a Gen X-er I battle with this whole authenticity thing all the time. There is this school of thought in Scottish literature that it is the role of Scottish writers to appreciate, elevate and speak the truth of the Scottish experience in the unique Scottish vernacular. Welsh blew that apart because although he used vernacular (one of many), his books are jam packed with disposable modern culture, crassness, vulgarity, TV movies, adverts and all of what really is life in modern Scotland. The construction of an authentic Scottishness is totally phony: the reality of daily life anywhere in the western world is that is it saturated with ‘inauthentic’ globalised media-generated images and experiences. If all Scottish writers had to write about their own backyard, we’d be back in the old 1950s Scottish Renaissance of MacDiarmid and all that concern over preserving indigenous tongues.
This is almost like a modern country trying to prove that it is an old colony or oppressed ethnicity: look at us, we are oppressed! MacDiarmid had a showdown with Alexander Trocchi in 1962, in which MacDiarmid accused Trocchi of being ‘cosmopolitan scum’. I’d be on Trocchi’s side in that one, which is where I see Welsh as being. This divide is still present in Scottish fiction and is becoming ever more politicised. The good news is that a new lit magazine in Scotland called Gutter has come out in defense of ‘cosmopolitan scum’, even going so far as to cite Trocchi in its manifesto. I don’t even think of myself as Scottish. I was born into the start of globalisation and every kid I grew up with danced to AC/DC not to Scottish folk music.
3:AM: Could you tell us a little about Distance, your second novel which is about a long-distance relationship? Was that also partly based on personal experience?
EM: Yes, there’s some real experience in there in as much as I was in a long-distance relationship at the time of writing it, but both characters were really just sides of me from different times in my life. So Tom, the guy trapped in making corporate videos for Edinburgh Council was partially me in the 90s, and Meg, the New York, script-doctor was partially me in my New York years. I wanted to see if these two sides of me could get it on and get on. Tom expresses some opinions in Distance which are not mine, but which I felt needed to be said: ‘Sell Scotland to the world, why not, yes, every tree and bush, every blade of grass, privatise the lot!’ So he’s pro-capitalist against the forces of Scottishness. While Meg, in contrast, is appalled at her own country, the all-American patriotism, and has a dream to escape it and be somewhere more authentic — Scotland. So it’s as much a book about fantasy and politics as it is about my own personal experiences of being in a long-distance relationship. Anyway, I had to give it a different ending than the relationship it was based on. The book had to have an ending whereas my long-distance relationship still goes on.
3:AM: Sex is one of the major themes in your fiction to date. Do you really believe that “men write better sex than women”? I’m often surprised by how open and, dare I say, polymorphously perverse some contemporary female writers can be, whereas many male writers seem to have more taboos. I read that your new novel, Ménage, was inspired by the ménage à trois between Henry Miller, his wife June and Anaïs Nin. If that’s the case, I guess the female protagonist — Dorothy Shears — loosely stands in for Miller and the two central male characters — Owen and Saul — play the parts of the two women, which is interesting given the cross-dressing scene. However, it remains a very heterosexual threesome with two men having a relationship with the same woman, and not even at the same time. The relationship between the two men themselves is key, of course, but I get the feeling that the homosexual dimension of the equation hasn’t been fully explored. In one scene, for instance, Owen wakes up between Dot and Saul — “literally trapped in the middle” — and wonders “what subconscious desires might have that night been acted out under the alibi of amnesiac drunkenness”. Owen’s reticence seems to be shared by the narrator and, perhaps, by the author himself. My hunch is that a woman would have just gone for it…
EM: The Miller/Nin connection is more to do with the shifting of power dynamics within a ménage à trois, which was something I wanted to do in Ménage — the idea of the understudy surpassing the master and the ménage as a breeding ground for a kind of ‘studentship’. Nin, was at first in awe of June and Henry Miller, showering June with gifts, wanting to become her, and it was Miller that brought her to life sexually and, as she claimed, taught her how to write. Ultimately, Nin learned from, then triumphed over, both.
Yes, female writers are more polymorphously perverse, I think here of Kathy Acker, who has been a kind of influence (although at heart she is a bit of a hippie). Her bisexuality and gender-fucking have been influential. However, women writing about sex, seem to me to write from the inside of the experience, as feminists (Irigaray etc) would claim, whereas men objectify bodies. Acker’s sex writing destroys all boundaries between bodies, is a kind of ranting orgasmic ecstasy. I’m much more interested in all of the awkardness and the problems of objectification, of me, you and him and who we think we are, and the problems we face as we attempt to merge and dissolve.
I wanted the sexual tension between Owen and Saul to be repressed. This is not because I have any reservations about homosexual acts. I’d come out as a bisexual male if (1) I believed that coming out was a useful strategy, and (2) that you could actually come out as something that by definition is unresolved. I’m not shy or ashamed of writing about any of these things and in Swung I graphically described gay fellatio and sodomy. The main reason I wanted to keep the attraction understated and unexplored between Owen and Saul is because what we hear of it in the book is all from Owen’s perspective, looking back. There is a sense that he might have edited or revised it. This was partly because I showed a draft of Ménage to some gay friends and they said ‘The whole story is motivated by Owen’s desire for Saul: why don’t you make him come out?’ I think that straight and gay are just two polar extremes in what is a seething mass of unresolved bi or poly desires, and while I understand that the gay movement had to make a stand, it at the same time (as Foucault said) overdefined and bracketed a part of human experience that is so much more ambiguous, irresolvable. Straight/gay is a polar opposition, which is blown apart by the triad. You can’t have a stand-off either/or situation in a ménage a trois. The gender-bending and the role-swapping that all the characters do is an opposition to this very limited idea of straight and gay. All of the characters are queer in different ways. Saul probably most of all because he’s not even interested in sex.
So with Owen and Saul I wanted there to be desires lurking which were not so easily identifiable or so easily resolved: the desire for power, for celibacy, for surrender, to become someone else, to swap genders, to be shared with two others, to have revenge, to destroy yourself. If Ménage were to be seen as a story about Owen’s thwarted and repressed love for Saul then none of these things could have been addressed. I kept him repressed so that other passions could boil away under the surface. More Thanatos than Eros.
3:AM: Returning to the Miller-June-Nin triangle: if memory serves, Nin wanted to be June. In the same way, in Ménage, Saul and Owen could be construed as two aspects of the same person. In your latest 3:AM essay, you reveal that the person Saul was based on never existed, or rather was a reflection of “who [you] used to be” in the early 90s: “In fact my friend didn’t die. That was a lie. He never existed. Or rather he was who I used to be. I killed my friend a few years ago because if I hadn’t done so, he would have destroyed me”. I was wondering if you had consciously resorted to a Jekyll and Hyde pattern which may, of course, have particular resonance for a Scottish author?
EM: I like that idea a lot, especially Owen and Saul as two sides of the same person, but then again Dot is also the other side of Saul: she is mindless action while he is mindful apathy. All three characters mirror each other — a three-way mirror not a two! Is that even possible? As for Doctor Jekyll, I have to admit to only having seen the movie and the artwork of the movie by Douglas Gordon, and I’m not sure that schizophrenia is any more prevalent among the Scots than other people. Didn’t one of those post-modern theorists — or maybe two of them — say that consumerism was inherently schizophrenic? Certainly going to the supermarket as a guy who gets panic attacks whenever he’s subjected to newspaper images of celebrities is a weekly schizophrenic experience This takes me back to the question of Gen X. Saul, for me really embodies a lot of the ideas of Gen X, but taken to their nihilistic conclusion. To this day I’m still killing Saul, so it is like Jekyll and Hyde, Saul won’t really go away. He’s always lurking there to cast a shadow of doubt or to make an ironic quip that will shoot down my plans. I fear him because if Saul is left to his own devices he will sit in a corner, taking drugs and drinking, lying naked in front of the TV, screaming at it, wearing fishnets and heels, choking to death on his own vomit. Then again, as with Jekyll and Hyde, if I was to really kill Saul for good I’d have killed myself too.
3:AM: In The Times, you reveal another source: a real-life ménage à trois you were once involved in: “In 1993, I was 22 and a recent arts graduate, when I walked, quite by chance into a ménage. Carol, 30, and Jake, 44, were artists, bohemians and also my landlords — I lived in the flat above their home in Camden, North London. Jake had been a successful artist in the 1980s but had fallen out of fashion when the new Young British Artist scene took over”. How much did this influence you?
EM: All the people I’ve known have influenced me and parts of them appear in the books in different forms. I’m coming to the conclusion that if you don’t have a philosophy for survival — a belief in something bigger than yourself — or if you don’t believe in ambition and the ‘self’, then living through and for other people is probably the only solution to the lack of purpose in one’s own life. I don’t say that ironically or negatively. This is why all the books are always social, about relationships between people. If I ever write a book about a solitary individual then it’ll be a cry for help and someone should probably knock on my door.
3:AM: Instead of leading to a feeling of liberation, the ménage à trois you depict is a kind of imprisonment, isn’t it? In a way, the whole book is about how Owen attempts and fails to “erase himself and Saul from Dot’s history” and actually ends up doing the contrary.
EM: It’s only a kind of imprisonment in as much as these people are utterly dependent on each other; at first for the basics of survival, and latterly for any sense of identity at all. Their experience together was so closed, so much of an imaginary intimate space that blocked out reality, that they have only ghost-like presences in the real world. They only really exist when they are locked in combat with each other. It’s a prison, but a kind of intimate one. They’re more terrified of being alone. I think the solitary self is a much greater prison.
Yes, Owen comes to the realisation that he’s actually got to take their history together, take responsibility for it, because without him as its author, the story (a story) may never be told at all. The sections about the past are authored by Owen and could be a very partial view: we have to ask whether they are totally biased or if there are even lies within it. He was a victim of both Saul and Dot and of the fixations and obsessions they had, but ultimately their lives are material for him to finally shape. Even within that act, though, he is still tied to them, being the weakest of the three. There’s a sense that Owen can’t really breathe without the others.
3:AM: Another interesting aspect of this ménage à trois is its innocent, presexual nature. There is a longing, at least on Owen’s part, to return to that prelapsarian “state of joy” they had known before the other two characters “had paired off” — a paradise which may, or may not, be regained at the end.
EM: That state of joy you describe is precisely what we are losing sight of in this culture with its drive towards the sexualisation and commodification of all experiences, the atomisation of society, the isolation of individuals, the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of all against all. That joy is really the ghost image of something that was once called friendship, and it exists only beyond the face-to-face showdown of ‘the couple’. The part you are referring to is one of my favourite sections in the book. Owen is almost nostalgic for this experience that seems so dated, so out of tune with the time:
“The desire to kiss her was at times unbearable. I saw it on Saul’s face too but our gentleman’s agreement kept us from crossing that line. She was neither mine nor his. Every time she hugged one of us she would hug the other. We were as chaste as children, living without ownership or envy. Was this what life was like a hundred years ago? When lovers had chaperones and could not kiss in public? My God, I thought then, if I never have sex again, if I could just live like this in this constant repression of the urge. In which it grows and finds its way out, blossoming, not in acts of selfish possessiveness but in generosity, to two not one. If I could live like this, forever seeing the struggle in Saul’s face, to resist possessing her, to not betray me.”
I’d like to take that nostalgia and reinject it into the present. Really, the book is about saving these innocent, extremely uncool, un-postmodern moments from oblivion.
3:AM: This nostalgia we’ve just mentioned mirrors Dot’s desire, as an artist, to “return to the power of that first work, where she walked blind and alone into the darkness”. Do you agree that too many artists just churn out work in order to confirm their status as artists, to reaffirm their brand?
EM: Artists who become their own brand — I guess we have the modernist masters to blame for that. Picasso should have just stopped after his three thousandth painting and his third villa and probably should have put a gun to his mouth. This whole branding and machine production is really a burden that’s placed on artists these days, we see this most in music and in many ways the suicide of Cobain was a product of that, of being caught on the treadmill of production when all desire to create had been bled dry. Jean Michel Basquiat was the same: he was killed by his success and having to reproduce paintings in his ‘unique style’. I don’t really blame the artists for this, they’re just happy to be successful and in demand, and their egos get caught in the trap. They don’t realise the damage they’re doing to themselves, or for that matter the damage they’re doing to the culture as a whole by letting themselves become ‘symbols of success’. Of course, there is a whole new generation of artists now who have no scruples whatsoever, who are no better than people like Jade Goody or any of the other reality TV stars who are famous for being famous.
I’d like to think that at the heart of every artist there is a need to return again and again to where it all started, the well of creativity the ‘power of the first work’ etc — a kind of checking in with yourself about what the hell you’re doing. Artistic activity should always be about trying to recapture some of the innocence and joy of pure creation that was the thing that made the artist want to make art in the first place. The curse of contemporary art is that it is a commodity. All the clever strategies of post-modern artists, all of their self-conscious commentary on the end of art, and the obsolescence of art, the complicity of art in consumerism etc are all missing the point and these artists are tying themselves in knots. Art has to return to something simple and innocent, to process not object. This kind of art may not make money. The first step is to disentangle art from the cult of the millionaire art celebrity — such people are not creative, their art and their message is destructive.
3:AM: Would you agree that, within this love triangle, power shifts from Saul to Dot and then, in extremis, to Owen?
EM: Absolutely, Saul is at first all-powerful. Owen is at first the student of Saul and his ways. Saul teaches him his aphorisms and the rules of his ‘aesthetic tyranny’ (his strict surreal codes of dressing, of music choice and what to read: the Marquis de Sade, Abba, Nietzsche and Winnie the Poo pyjamas with motorcycle boots). In return, Owen sacrifices his freedom, he becomes Saul’s femme de ménage. When Dot arrives, she supercedes Owen, and he worries that he will no longer have a role, but as Dot starts to ‘surpass Saul, the master’, Owen ends up having to take care of both Dot and Saul, quite literally cooking cleaning and tidying up the mess after their huge fights. Ultimately however, Saul and Dot can make nothing lasting out of their conflict, and it takes the discreet, slow, methodical Owen to turn their lives into a work of art. The other two for all their excess are dependent on Owen as their spectator, carer and ultimately as the one who documents their lives, for posterity.
EM: No, But I’m flattered. As I understand it, his idea of mimetic desire is that there is no direct desire in human behaviour, it is always mediated by society or by another person. “Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person — the model — for this same object”. This means that in a sense every couple is involved with a third party, whether this be a friend, enemy, an ex who haunts, or whether it be an idol, role-model or judge. The third is also they eye of the society, watching determining the roles which will be aped. I come at this from a different angle; in Ménage it’s not just that Owen desires Dot because Saul has her, or that Dot desires Saul because Owen adores him; their relationships are mediated on more levels. They are involved pretty much every day in mimesis — literally miming along to images of their icons. So Dot tries to ape Edie Sedgwick and the Duchess, Saul tries to ape Wilde, Duchamp and Bataille. And at one point it is revealed that Saul has unknowingly been aping Withnail. Owen in turn tries to ape Saul. This aping is interesting in the context of ‘outsiders’ like Owen, Dot and Saul in that they see the outside world as populated by zombies and automatons who ape/mimic popular culture, but to rebel against that they have to create their own set of icons and gods. They act out scenarios from books, they film themselves as if being watched by another, and their adherence to this miming is perhaps even stronger than that of the dumb clones in the outside world. They are postmodern characters and their situation is one of mimesis: everything is mediated. There is no direct relation to anything without a pre-existing image, all desires are preconditioned etc, etc. As Wikipedia says “… [Girard] stressed the role of imitation in humans and this was not a popular subject when Gerard developed his theories”. I think that’s still the case, no matter how much neuroscience and behavioural science have proved he was right, our culture (even though it creates nothing but mirror images for mimicry) does not like the idea that we are copycats. One of the myths of consumerism is that we have a direct and unmediated desire for commodities, that they express our uniqueness. The last thing we want to know is that we are just copying everyone else, and doing what our masters tell us. It’s deeply disturbing to think that we only desire something or someone because someone else does. I’d be interested to see what happened in society if for some reason, one day, all the images stopped and there was no one there to tell us to desire more.
3:AM: In another recent article, published in 3:AM, you wrote that you had “witnessed many of [your] friends, enemies and drinking buddies become YBA stars”. Did you get involved in that scene while studying at Goldsmiths and what was the nature of that involvement?
EM: The involvement was more at Glasgow School of Art where I did the majority of my degree. There was a group of people who all hung out at the Transmission Gallery and most of them were in the Environmental Art Department: Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Ross Sinclair, Nathan Coley, Tony Swain, Claire Barclay, Jonathan Monk, David Shrigley, as the list goes on you see how many have been nominated for the Turner Prize or gone onto international acclaim. It’s pretty phenomenal when you bear in mind that when we were all at art school a career prospects study had just come out that showed that 97% of us would never work in an art related field. For a bunch of Gen X-ers, my peers were incredibly productive. I was in a group show with most of these people, but was never part of their gang. They were into Adidas trainers, rap music and getting a life, I was into fishnets, cowboy boots, the Jesus Lizard and not getting a life at all.
3:AM: Your timing seems spot-on what with Blur getting back together again and renewed interest in Britpop. Are the 90s ripe for revival?
EM: Jesus, that makes me laugh (or weep). I guess the 90s are coming back whether we like it or not. We’ve already seen 80s retro nights and apparently you can go on Goth pleasure cruises now, Retro raves are staring up, and bands like Sonic Youth and Slint are doing tours where they play ‘the album’. To be honest, I’m pretty pissed off that I missed the Slint (re)Spiderland tour. Then again, it would have been deeply unsettling to have been there, aged thirty nine, being in a room full of people with ironic T-shirts and goatee beards, all re-living a lost moment. As for the rest of 90s culture — the irony is that given that the 90s was the first really postmodern decade, i.e the one in which there was very little actually
created but all other eras were reprocessed within it, the idea of the 90s coming back is really the 60s and 70s coming back too, for the third or fourth time. Each time these things mean less and less, which is fine. We probably overinvest meaning in what these eras were anyway. When I look at the 60s now, I see the invention of ‘youth markets’, washing machines, global distribution, the pill — basically all just inventions that changed behaviour — and all of the culture that came from that era seems not very liberating at all, more like a by-product of material changes in the culture. So what’s good about the 90s coming back is that maybe we’ll start to see that the products of the culture industry have been overblown and are overrated, in fact it’s mostly a smokescreen to hide the workings of global corporations. When I look back on my own life, a lot of the culture that I thought was so powerful, radical, defining of myself — the whole indie rock and alt.lit vibe — pretty much all of it was just typical stuff that someone in my demographic would consume. P.I.Bs as the advertisers called us: People in Black. We’re somewhere down the demographic scale between d23s and e30s — between urban gentrifiers and inner-city ethnics.
3:AM: Saul — who is Dot’s main inspiration — turns out to be a “charlatan”, a “plagiarist”. This, presumably, makes Dot even more bogus…
EM: Well, the funny thing is that, at that time in Art (1993), there was such a rebellion against the idea of the author, the self and authenticity, that artists were deliberately claiming to be plagiarists, using other people’s work, sampling (Douglas Gordon’s slowing down of Hitchcock’s Psycho in 24 Hour Psycho etc.) There were even shows called things like ‘unexpressionism’, which now looks pretty ridiculous. But there was something at the heart of it that made sense: these artists were trying to deny the art world the very sellable myth of artistic genius — a kind of shooting yourself in the foot strategy — like: ‘You want me to be an artistic genius, well fuck you, I’m a plagiarist; in fact we all are, we’re all just little capitalist clones churning out the same pre-commodified crap’. Of course this and every other ‘strategy’ in po-mo art didn’t work, and these kinds of artists just ended up selling the documentation of their own rebellion; selling, in fact, themselves as a brand identity for authenticity.
One of the things I tried to do with Dot’s Art, was to show how much it really was shaped by what was going on in the world around her. On a very banal level, the invention of domestic video recorders and video projectors made it possible for her to document their lives in a way unimaginable a decade before. Is she an artist or just a girl with a video camera? One could ask the same question of an artist like Gillian Wearing. In the 90s she made a video called Dancing in Peckham, which was footage of her dancing in a shopping mall. In 2009, on YouTube, there are now 67,600 recordings of people dancing in shopping malls. Are they all artists?
I liked the idea that Dot’s value as an artist was questionable: was she really in any way responsible for any of these artworks, was she just documenting an experiment in living, were not all of these artworks in fact coauthored, or were they really just cultural events that could have been made by anyone at that time with a video camera? They are empty artworks or mirrors to the culture — I had to make them like that because I wanted to show the way that Art got emptied of meaning in the 90s. We became culture addicts, consuming culture that was itself just a mirror of culture that had been made before — recycling to fill the void.
3:AM: The book is, among many other things, a reflection on the relations between art and life. Dot’s compulsive “video-making”, for instance, is a product of her “inability just to live”. Isn’t this inability a condition of employment for an artist or a serious writer? Saul offers another means of bridging the gap between art and life (a central question for all the major 20th-century avant-gardes) — he turns himself into a work of art. Were you consciously offering two different models?
EM: The whole question of the relationship between Art and life was so crucial in 1993. It all came from Duchamp and his project ‘to turn your life into an artwork’ and from the Situationists who made a huge nostalgic comeback at that time. I wanted an opposition, or two contrasting models, if you like, with Dot and Saul. She is the one who has the energy but no ideas; she records everything as though that invests her life with meaning. Saul, on the other hand, has ideas but no energy, no ability to transform his ideas into life. Between the two is a gap, a real failure to just live which is where Owen comes in; he takes Saul’s ideas and Dot’s energy and creates something out of it. The irony is that only one person can be ‘the artist’ but their lives are totally interconnected. They are three people who have become one artist; three lives that have become an artwork.
Yes, the inability just to live is the condition of any artist, which is why even though these books have been attempts to find a better way to live, if I do finally get there it will be the end of creativity for me. That might turn out to be a good pay off, but until then I’ll just have to keep generating writing. I’m currently exploring communal living, so the Art and life question continues.
3:AM: Is Ménage to be read as a roman à clef? Let me ask you the question you’re probably already sick of: is Dorothy Shears based on a real artist? Also, did you have a real band in mind when you invented The Duchamps? Were you ever in a band yourself?
EM: Ha, you’ve caught me there. Yes, Ménage is a roman à clef: ‘real life hiding behind a façade of fiction’. The real life and fiction antithesis, here, is a bit of a problem though. I mean what happens when you’re telling a story about some real people who lived lives modeled on fictions?
The Duchamps are possibly the most pretentious band in the history of music, and I had friends when I was in art school who would make it their life’s work to find the most obscure, impossible-to-listen-to albums. We’re talking Nurse with Wound, Current 93 and then really camp tragic things like albums by Telly Savalas or Leonard Nimoy. It was the cult of the obscure, of failure — a very Gen X thing. Something was only good if no one had ever heard of it, if it could never be co-opted by capitalism. I guess the Duchamps with their falsetto voice, audio samples, kiddies electronica, excessive costumes and make-up and embarrassing local accents would be a cross between Suicide (the early basement recordings), Psychic TV and Steve Strange (“Fade to Grey”).
I was never in a band, although I’m currently learning how to play the guitar as I’m afraid that my son will soon be better at it than me.
[Trust from Ménage.]
As for Dorothy Shears, some of the artworks in the book were originally artworks that I’d planned making in the 90s; one of them, I did manage to make (Trust). Dot was modelled on at least three women that I knew and also on myself. She’s very gender-ambiguous as a person and I don’t find it a problem to take elements of my own life and give them to a woman. There probably should have been a real Dorothy Shears in the art world: she would have been somewhere in between Gillian Wearing and Sam Taylor Wood, with maybe a bit of Steve McQueen, and a tiny bit of Warhol.
3:AM: Saul is probably the most memorable character in the book. Do you agree, and is it a case of the devil always getting the best lines?
EM: The devil always gets the best lines because God (may he rest in peace) just churns out the same old certainties. Yes, I fell in love with Saul and he made me laugh a hell of a lot when I was writing. “Work enobles man you say, yes, but have you ever seen a noble that worked?” “Damien [Hirst] Darling, you’re flogging a dead horse with this art of yours, why don’t you just in fact exhibit one”. Even though he seems the smartest and speaks in aphorisms, I probably feel sorrier for him than the others. His humour is nihilistic, always based on negating what others believe and say, and this ultimately becomes his undoing — he’s utterly dependent on others and is terrified of being left alone with his lack of faith in anything. Also Saul’s pinched almost everything he says from Wilde and Nietzsche and all the other aphorists. It may be that the devil and the right-wingers have the best sense of humour. I spent an evening in stitches chatting to an old man only for my stone-faced Guardian-reading friends to express their horror, afterwards that I had been so amused by a famously ruthless right-wing journalist. Perhaps being mature, politically-engaged and left-wing is a grim, humorless affair. Saul, at times, spouts things that would make any liberal mind cringe: “Fuck the Serbs and the Ethiopians too, bomb the lot of them”. But that’s why I love him. Our PC attitudes are killing off the wits and the nihilists.
EM: Cravan’s history is outstanding and outrageous — the fake poet of Surrealism who claimed he was the citizen of twenty countries, who pretended he was Eurpean boxing champion and with no training fought the world champion, for money; who was spotted many times in many different countries after his mysterious death/disappearance in the Atlantic, whose entire life was filled with fake identities, artworks and poems. (One story is that he sold forged Oscar Wilde originals and may have lived under the name of Dorian Hope.) For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the paradox that many of the people who inspired artistic movements were not great artists themselves, but eccentrics and freaks who were ultimately written out of history. Cravan should have been the inspiration for Saul but I only came across him when the book was well underway. I was researching Surrealism and I had come across someone else who may have actually known Cravan in the 1920s who became that source. Not a man but a woman: the character called The Duchess in Ménage, who is the subject of a horrific and explicit fake biography that Saul and the others are obsessed with, was based on ‘The Baroness’ — Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven — a friend and one-time lover of Marcel Duchamp. Like Cravan, The Baroness led a life of scandal, was a poetess, model, sculptress and prostitute; she had many fake identities, inspired many ‘geniuses’ but amounted to nothing and died in obscurity — some claim she was murdered. Also like Cravan she was credited with being the living embodiment of Surrealism, and it was said that Duchamp’s transvestite alter ego Rose Sélavy was her invention and that it was her who sent him the famous urinal. The real histories of The Baroness and of Cravan are rife with speculation and mixed with total lies, so I felt justified in fabricating a new character based on a real one who would be the muse of both Duchamp and a century later — Saul.
Saul wasn’t quite as active as either of these two eccentrics but similarly, through his cult of ‘constant reinvention’, his exuberant destructive behaviour and his belief that ‘who you are is not in the past, it has yet to be discovered’, he finds his role in inspiring others who can make something of his chaotic, aimless life.
3:AM: I have a little theory that partly explains Saul’s philosophy (“Stop being creative and embrace the beauty of destruction”). In the 19th century, Art was increasingly seen as a surrogate religion. Artists, however, were soon forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, which led some of them to consider destruction as the truly human creative urge. Do you think there’s an element of that in Saul?
EM: This sounds like Georges Bataille, which is a good thing, I spent years trying to get my head round Eroticism and The Accursed Share. Bataille was obsessed, as Dostoevsky was, by the vacuum created by the death of God; through his involvement with the Surrealists he even planned a real murder, as a bonding experience for the Surrealist group. They had an anonymous victim picked (the event was cancelled as the advent of war made it seem futile and ludicrous). A cult of destruction runs right the way through from Nietzsche in the 19th-century to Baudelaire, the fops, Aesthetes, Decadents, Dadaists, Surrealists, all the way through to Saul in 1993, who has studied them all. Saul’s acts of destruction are petty and lack the social revolutionary ambitions of the earlier destroyers. There was a sense among the Dadaists and Surrealists of aiming to overthrow society through a redemptive gesture of total destruction — the Surrealist act is to run into the street with a gun and shoot strangers at random etc. Having lost the social dimension and justification for this destruction, in Saul, it becomes a personal aesthetic, his art is slow death by alcoholism and the petty destruction of everyone else’s beliefs and ambitions.
But yes, I feel that there is a revolutionary anger in him which has its roots in the death of God and modern man’s need to step in to fill the hole. Also there is a childishness in Saul’s desire to destroy as there was in Bataille — now that the father is dead the angry abandoned child has too much freedom and so destroys his own house.
3:AM: Even though you’ve left the Saul part of your personality behind, I get the feeling that you regret it a little, hence Ménage…
EM: Indeed, and I wandered around for quite some time once Ménage was done, mourning Saul’s exit from my daily routine. I really still have to put to rest the idea that I could write another book about Saul. “Ménage 2”? (3 sounds more appropriate.) I probably could do it, but it would just be me not letting go of something I wrote the book to leave behind in the first place. I miss him though. Perhaps I’ll write a book under his name. “The Book of Rants” by Saul Metcaff. I’m so pissed off with the way things are right now that it would probably do me some good. However, I see that Douglas Coupland has a list of aphorisms on his website, so maybe he’s beaten me to it, and all as Saul says has been done and said before, even saying ‘it’s been done before’. The world according to Saul. I don’t know, it sounds familiar!
3:AM: Where do the video-installation pictures come from? Did you take them yourself?
EM: Yes and no. I made the final images, but I stole all of the bits that made up those images. In keeping with the plagiarism and fakes in the lives of the characters, all of the images are taken from other places. Many are from non-art contexts: people’s photos that I found online etc, and then all were photomontaged into something that looks like authentic gallery art. There is one exception, which is a picture of me in a wig with Jesus written on a Rizla paper that’s stuck on my head. That’s about as close as I’ve come to turning my life into an artwork.
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 New Orleans balcony (mainly in his dreams). He is not currently working on his debut novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 28th, 2009.