‘‘Today, anyone who wants to read a book that’s worthwhile, has to write it themselves. No one who fears new ideas need be afraid of the lifeless commodities thrown onto the mass market by those publishing houses active in Britain…They throw one Martin Amiss imitator at us after another, and hype this garbage as the future of English fiction. This is a joke, English fiction has no future… The literary establishment is eaten up with tension, with frustration at not been talented, at not being capable of pleasure of any kind, eaten up with hate – not rational hate that is directed against those who abuse, insult and enslave – but irrational, indiscriminate hate, hatred, at bottom, of their own worthlessness.’ (1) Stewart Home, like Andrew Marr after him (See ‘Buzzwords’) makes out the English literary scene as a place of sorrows, a root out of a dry ground, without form, comeliness or beauty, despised and rejected, truly a place of sorrows and grief. .
What it needs is redemption. So. .
We read Borges’s scholastic, parabolic, blasphemic joke ‘Three Versions Of Judas’ (2) as a way forward out of this catastrophic situation . The final version of Judas comes out like this - ‘God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history: He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; he chose an abject existence: He was Judas…what infinite punishment would be Runeberg’s for having discovered and revealed the terrible name of God?’ (3) .
Redemption through the most damned of the damned. In order to redeem mankind God has to be the most despised, the most fallen, the very bottom line. ‘ The book’s general argument is not complex … God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might then presume that the sacrifice effected by Him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit His suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.’ (4) And so it runs on until the inevitable conclusion is reached. This is a serious joke, one where the concluding inversion of meanings is hardly less forceful and compelling than the supposed truth it has overturned. .
So God is with Judas, with the most rejected of all. The difficulty of the position, its paradox, is of course the unstateability of it. For as soon as you recognise Judas as having God on his side then the meaning of Judas is exchanged for its opposite and the force dissipates. Only if Judas remains the damned and despised figure does even the posing of the question ‘Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?’(5) have any momentum at all. Its unstateability is the same as we find in an Escher print where we are confronted with water that simultaneously runs upwards and downwards. There’s a kind of metaphysical contradiction going on in these situations. .
Here we are in the realm of the ‘transcendental argument’ of philosophy, a phrase first used by JL Austin in a 1939 Joint session symposium on ‘Are there A Priori Concepts?’ where the argument aims to show the impossibility of certain claims a sceptic wishes to assert in order to undermine what a non-sceptic in turn would normally like to assert about certain aspects of the world. There is nothing real really, other people don’t exist, we actually know nothing, time is just an illusion says the sceptic. Judas had God on his side after all, says the theological sceptic. Her question runs everything into the ground and good is bad and bad is good – which seems to be just one way of running out the nature of the extraordinary nature of the Borges story and the Dylan question. .
Try saying the sentence truthfully - ‘ I’m not speaking this sentence.’ There’s an Escher quality to that. It’s not merely a physical impossibility, it’s a logical one. Similarly with the Judas statement. The doubt doesn’t get off the ground. .
The superb book ‘Understanding Human Knowledge’ (6) by Barry Stroud examines these intricate and potentially nightmarish philosophical questions. Where do we end up after examining these kinds of arguments? I quote Stroud who after looking at top transcendentalist philosopher Donald Davidson whose view is that ‘ …our beliefs about what the world is like in general and our beliefs about what thoughts and beliefs there are in the world must go hand in hand…’ argues that ‘…the actual truth of most of our beliefs cannot be derived solely from fulfilment of the conditions of our attributing them to ourselves and others, at least not without a doubtful transcendental argument that would appear to depend on some form of idealism… an anti-sceptical argument could still succeed by demonstrating, not the truth, but only what I have called a certain kind of invulnerability of the beliefs in question.’ (Stroud xvii) .
Borges then is resisting the ‘invulnerability’ of the beliefs in question in his short story. The paradoxical quality of Borges story – a key element in all his fiction – is his delight in writing the unwriteable. We catch a side of this element to resist invulnerable thoughts even in his real life. We read Christopher Hitchens who remembers ‘… sitting with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires, as he employed an almost Evelyn Waugh-like argument in excusing the military dictatorship that then held power in his country. But I had a feeling that he couldn’t keep up the pose, and not many years later wrote a satirical poem ridiculing the Falklands/Malvinas adventure, while also making statements against the junta’s cruelty in the matter of the desaparecidos. It wasn’t just another author signing a letter about ‘human rights’; it was the ironic mind refusing the dictates of the literal one…’ (7) That idea of the ‘ironical mind refusing the dictates of the literal one’ is the gift we’re looking at here. .
Perhaps it’s another of Hitchen’s heroes, the socialist, gay Irishman Oscar Wilde, who gets us furthest to the point – the sense of resistance to invulnerable ideas through wit and irony in for example his exchanges with that brutal invulnerability of Protestant rectitude Sir Edward Carson. It happened during the trial that destroyed Wilde, one of many such moments – ‘’Do you drink champagne yourself?’ asks Carson. ‘
‘Yes, iced champagne is a favourite drink of mine – strongly against my doctors orders,’ replies Wilde.
‘Never mind your doctor’s orders, sir,’ fulminates Carson and Wilde finishes the exchange with a brilliant -
‘I never do.’ Other examples of the wit that can not speak its name – ‘I am dying beyond my means’ and (perhaps) ‘Either the wallpaper goes or I do’, these two spoken on his deathbed, exiled in Paris, making a laugh out of his imminent cruel dying. And of course it’s the underlying seriousness of the situation, the despair and the pain, that tears us apart. .
This joke then, turns itself against logic and necessity in order to strike against a perceived wrong. The outsider mocks the failure of what forces her onto the outside whilst at the same time knowing that there is no real space for either the centre or inside – because the joke also asserts that we’re all in the shit together really, no matter what anyone else says. Neat separations, be it logical or social, are precisely what are being assaulted, resisted here. .
Hence when Wilde remarks that ‘ …one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted…’ (8) (quoted by Hitchens in turn quoting the critic Desmond MacCarthy) we hear the idea without the humour, without the paradox – but it suggests paradox, gets close and so strikes hard enough to make a difference. The Borges story is thus a joke – a theology that can not speak its name, just as his right wing bastard pose is a politics that can not speak its name. .
Returning to the main subject, the failure of the modern English novel bemoaned by Stewart Home, Andrew Marr and company – Home suggests a new writer and a new writing as an act of resistance to the invulnerable idea of the current idea of the English novel. It’s clear that what gets written is going to depends on what you think is actually wrong with the current state of affairs. But humour is one way of showing up the failure, humour that works a paradox – and the Judas joke is one way it might work out. .
To pull this feat off the novel must be in a very real sense an thinkable failure. It must top the supposed failure of the current batch of novelists, must go further down and be in a sense unspeakably, irredeemably terrible. Its joke will lie in that and nothing else. This is a central premix of the Attack! Book stable of books where its editor and mad creative genius Steven Wells demands that the offence be of such a proportion that the books are hardly described as books, as literature, as fiction, as pulp, as anything at all. They are almost by definition unspeakable acts of violation whereby the very idea of the English novel is horribly gutted, twisted, eradicated even. .
Wells writes thus of his project: ‘Magazines, books, TV - it's all boring wank or dumbed
down bottom-feeder cak. And in times of cultural
stagnation it is the duty of the punk rocker to stir
shit. That's why we set up Attack! … Like Little
Richard - 1950's, distinctly effeminate and mad- eyed black rock'n'roll hero - setting fire to his piano in deepfried Southern hellholes and then shagging the blue eyed and blonde haired daughters of the local KKK luminaries. Fuck yes! Confrontation! Mind-fuck! Word-pox! Push the language envelope till it bursts!
And stuff.’ .
When asked ‘Why do you hate "serious novelists"? he replies, ‘Because the word "serious" is used here to describe a form of fiction that is stunted, conservative and wilfully dull - and yet regards itself as inherently superior to writing that is a) actually about something b) where shit actually happens and c) isn't as boring as fuck. David Lodge, for instance, is (or was - is he dead yet?) an English Lit prof who writes books about English Lit profzzzzzz...excuse me, I dozed of there. .
The serious novel is monotonous. Literally. It's a one trick pony. It's obsessed with the
psychological. Attack!'ll give you the psychological, sexual, social, political and visceral 12 times per mad para plus huge guns, massive tits, enormous cocks, deranged rhetoric, gasping cunts, ginormous explosions, insane aliens et-frikkin-cetera. MORE IS MORE!’ .
So where does this get us? This is what is interesting about this joke – it drives itself back towards writing that is considered valuable – it works to cut out a path to some other place. So for Wells, where is this other place, what are these writers he feels we need to go to? (9) .
He writes – ‘Most of truly great novelists - Defoe, Swift, Orwell, Leyner, Shelley, Stoker (blah blah blah) were HACKS slamming out GENRE writing for a mass audience. Science fucking fiction for the most part. Is there anybody out there who seriously thinks Rushdie is fit to eat the sweetcorn out of William Gibson's shit? That Amis is qualified to lick Alan Moore's boots clean? That Virginia Wolf contributed a single character with as much emotional depth and impact as the impoverished hack who banged out Superman? Come on? Really? .
When we talk about "serious" literature we're talking about a self-perpetuating ponce oligarchy of mutually back-slapping semi-talents with an incredibly conservative aesthetic and a truly pathetic grasp of the language's potential. .
If you study Eng Lit at university - do you discuss
comics? Does Alan Moore's Watchmen even get a mention? Can you imagine doing a media studies course that ignored television?
We are pro-intellectual. We are pro-literate. Dumb-up - you semi-educated elitist fucks.’ (10) The paradox is embedded in this mad, energised polemic – the Judas pulp joke will revitalise the scene and burn away the invulnerable ideas of modern writing and reveal something better. .
Taste, decency, commercialism, small time anti-ideas - all the sacred cows of the damned English novel are assaulted in this genre. Here’s what we find on the blurb, again written by the seething Steven Wells, of ‘Raiders Of The Low Forehead’ (11) by Stanley Manly, one of the first batch of Attack! Books. .
‘Sicker than an outbreak of ebola in an orphanage, funnier than a napalm strike on the Comic Relief studios and punctuated by acts of such unspeakable ferocity that there’d have Hannibal Lecter coughing his guts up in disgust – ‘Raiders Of The Low Forehead’ is in your face, down your trousers and up your arse like a shit-eating rabbit on speed.’ .
Now I’m not sure this is quite what Andrew Marr was asking for when he called for a new kind of writing. This, though, is the equivalent of the Borges/Dylan Judas joke – get further down than before and claim hell has God on its side. Watch the enemy froth at the mouth and fall down dead at your feet in shock and disgust. .
Manly’s short book is structured around the three headings of ‘Sex’, ‘Food’ and ‘Violence.’ Each chapter is headed by one of these, in that order. So chapter one runs like this:
She was hot.
He was randy.
She was easy.
His meat was hard.
He met her on the quay side when she knocked-off work.
She gutted fish like a real ‘un.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s do it.’
Then they went for chips.’ (12) .
This is a thorough anti-literature. This is writing that has the dumb ‘what you looking at’ rude-twat populist insolence necessary to sink low and then some. It resists the easy and immediately compromised post-modern position of ultra-extreme obscurity fashionable amongst certain sectors of the literati – where although we might sympathise, for example, with Kelman’s (13) left-wing cred, there’s a terrible sense that the last people who’d read anything he writes are the very people he stands up for given that, as someone once said about him, he’s like Billy Connolly without the jokes – so as it goes on it denies cred and denies being a commodified negativity. It’s that bad. And it never reaches further than this. It remains all the way through crude, rough, and badly written. It is this quality, the deniability of thinking of it as anything other than crap – no amount of ironical reading will salvage it surely – that makes it the ultimate Judas pulp of the Attack! Book stable. .
Just how this is so can be further suggested if you compare it to the ‘Brute’ (14) fictions of Malcolm Bennett and Aiden Hughes from the eighties. When ‘Raiders’ first appeared there were some who thought to identify Manly with Bennett. But a quick glance at the brilliant prose of the Brute fictions soon puts this idea to bed. What Bennett did was write very short novels (no more than a thousand word each!) and collect them in brilliantly illustrated slim volumes. Here’s one such ‘novel.’ .
‘Tale Of The New Man.’
She hit me. I went down. Then she kicked me. Twice. I blacked out. When I woke up I apologised quickly and hoovered.
“Stop cleaning and fuck me!” she screamed sensuously.
“I…I…I can’t!” I stuttered sheepishly. “I…I…I’m on…”
The End.’ (15) .
A crazy story but even in this, one of their shortest efforts, there are moments of literary invention – that ‘…and hoovered’ hovers throughout as something disorientating, strange, perverse and of course funny, as well as that sense of closure achieved through the mad logic developing throughout the narrative set up from the very title. It all works as a piece, resolving itself in a finely wrought exercise a poet would be proud of. .
In the Manly nothing really pulls it together. Even that last deflationary line ‘ Then they went for chips,’ really does nothing save wobble the story on. It’s a weak joke – if it’s a joke at all, whereas in the Bennett there’s a perfect line running through the gag which is conscious of cadence and rhythm, that of the spoken as well as the written word, stuff all lacking in Manly’s prose. .
Which is precisely the point. Manly’s book is not trying to ingratiate itself within the outré avant-garde postmodern ironists – not even the extremists like Stewart Home or William Burroughs, to name but two of the greats – have gone so far as to be so rejected, so out of it, so over the line, as this. Manly’s prose is hardly drafted once, never mind lacking a redraft – the music is broken and the jokes are thin. What strikes you is the contrast between the novel and its book blurb – the blurb is by far the superior moment in terms of quality of writing. Here is Swells’ synopses of the novel; ‘Welcome to the rugged Northern wasteland where Gazza is considered an effete intellectual, Elvis would qualify as a health food freak and Kosovo looks good for a winter break. .
Trashing all before them, the psychotic Raiders Of The Low Forehead maim, dismember, disembowel and slaughter the local cops and pensioners with gusto – and only one man can stop them. .
Looking like an Oxfam poster-child with worms, seven stone weakling Vince stands in their way. The world’s least likely sex God is on a promise of guaranteed fingers and tops for life from Sharon – but only if he can bring the Raiders to justice And free the unjustly imprisoned. But he faces another problem – banged up Little Johny wants to stay in his cell and in his gorgeous cell-mate.’ .
There is nothing of the energy of this prose in the actual body of the text. It remains inert and drab, a sullen piece that retains its mood and anti-style throughout. In doing so it turns its back on the ‘charms’ or otherwise of even the most outlawed of outlaw prose. This truly is Judas pulp. Which is of course where we came in at the beginning. The critic is confounded by this; disabled from saying the book fulfils its purpose of exposing the emptiness of English novels yet at the same time, as an Attack! Book, precisely doing just that, we are at the Wittgensteinian place where there is nothing that can be said and all that is left is silence. .
No amount of irony can redeem it, and so it is redeemed!
- Stewart Home ‘Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis’AK Press 1995 p 155
- Jorge Luis Borges ‘Three Versions Of Judas’ in ‘Collected Fictions’ Penguin Books 1998 p163-168
- Borges op cit
- Borges op cit
- Bob Dylan ‘With God On Their Side’ from the album ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ 1964
- Barry Stroud ‘Understanding Human Knowledge’ Oxford University Press 2000
- Christopher Hitchens ‘Unacknowledged legislation. Writers in the public sphere’ Verso 2000 p xviii
- Hitchens op cit p 5
- Steven Wells from The Attack! Books website.
- Steven Wells op cit
- Stanly Manly ‘Raiders Of The Low Forehead’ Attack! Books 1999
- Manly op cit p 5
- See for example James Kelman ‘How Late It Was, How Late’ 1994
- Malcolm Bennet and Aiden Hughes ‘Brute!’ books e publications and Titan Books.
- ‘Malcolm Bennett and Aiden Hughes ‘Brute 7 : Pert Hot Botty Special!’ e publications and Titan Books 1989 p 15