Sunday, June 22, 2008


I piss on the evil of that film. He's raped my childhood

Anonymous Star Wars fan .

There is a theory, held by some ancient Greeks and the majority of modern geeks, which says that there is no difference between aesthetic and moral judgment. If a work of art is aesthetically bad; then it is also immoral by definition. And if a work of art is immoral then it is necessarily an aesthetically and creatively poor piece of work. The Phantom Menace is a Bad Film; therefore George Lucas is a Bad Man because he made the Bad Film. It follows that if I go and see the Bad Man's Film, I will be a Bad Man too. This is a very good theory because it allows us to make critical judgements about films, books and comics without actually going to the bother of reading them.

"Our aspirations, cunt? Folk on t'fucking dole

Have got about as much scope to aspire

Above the shit they're dumped in, cunt, as coal

"Aspires" to be thrown on t'fucking fire."

Tony Harrison

In 1987, one Mary Whitehouse wrote to the Independent to complain about the publication of V, a poem by Tony Harrison, which the author had also read out loud on Channel 4. The poem (an imaginary dialogue between the poet and a skinhead who had vandalized his parents' gravestone) contained an unusually large number of very rude words.

The sainted Mrs Whitehouse wrote:

"It seems to me a matter more of aesthetics than morality, except in so far as an unsolicited affront can always raise moral issues. The four letter word, referring as it does to sexual intercourse, has with in its very sound, let alone context, a harshness, even brutality, that negates and destroys the nature of the love, sensitivity and commitment which is or should be its very essence."

Her first point – that printing the word fuck over and over again in a national newspaper is bad manners, is debatable. But her second point -- that fuck is a Bad Word and that just saying it (in any context) "negates" human sexuality -- borders on the pathological. If she is correct, you don't need to think about what the poem says, or the way in which it says it. Once you know that it contains the Bad Word, you know that it is a Bad Poem, that it was written by a Bad Man, and that reading it will make you Bad. (See Note 1)

And there are lots of other Magic Words apart from fuck.

When, long ago, the gods created Earth

In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.

The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;

Yet were they too remote from humankind.

To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,

The Olympian host conceived a clever plan.

A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,

Filled it with vice, and called the thing a nigger.

H.P Lovecraft

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of the finest works of gothic horror ever written. (The Call of Cthulhu is more famous and more influential, but The Shadow Over Innsmouth is better written.) The theme – that there are some questions that it would be better not to ask – is as old as Oedipus Rex. The hero investigates strange goings on in an isolated town and spots that many of the inhabitants have strange heads and funny eyes. By degrees, he learns that this is because there has been intermarriage between humans and sea monsters called "deep ones". The fish-faced people are the off-spring of these unions, and they will eventually lose their humanity altogether. Inevitably, on the final page the narrator learns that his own family have links with Innsmouth, and that he himself will one day turn into a fish-man.

On a first reading of the story, it's possible to ignore or glide over its unpleasant sub-text: the fear of outsiders, the revulsion towards those who look different from you and above all the terror of miscegenation, of learning that you have impure blood. (People who believe in the Unity of the Literary Virtues often also suffer from Sub-Text Blindness, also known by the technical term " Oh stop reading things into it it's only a bloody horror story.") But once you know that the author of The Shadow Over Innsmouth also wrote The Creation of Niggers, the sub-text pretty much jumps out and hits you in the face. What follows?

1: The Creation of Niggers is a Bad Poem. Therefore Lovecraft was a Bad Man. Therefore, Shadow Over Innsmouth is a Bad Story. If you read Shadow over Innsmouth, it will make you Bad.

2: Since Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good story, Lovecraft must have been a good man, so The Creation of Niggers must be a good poem. Therefore, I must give at least some degree of consideration to the idea that people with dark skin are sub-human.

3: Since the author of Shadow over Innsmouth also wrote The Creation of Niggers, it is irrelevant whether or not Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good story. Lovecraft is a Bad Man and you shouldn't read the Bad Man's work, even when it is good.

Knowing that Lovecraft wrote the racist poem unquestionably affects how your read his horror stories. Does it necessarily determine whether you read them? (See NOTE 2)

"Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions."


Some theorists see the Unity of the Literary Virtues in economic terms. "If I read the Bad Book, I will be giving the Bad Man some of my money," they say. "Since giving money to Bad Men makes you Bad, I will not read the Bad Book even if I'm actually quite interested in it." Some people qualify this and say that reading Bad Books only makes you Bad while the author is still alive. It's okay to read Shadow Over Innsmouth now Lovecraft is dead and can't profit by it; if he were alive, it wouldn't be. I don't know whether the fact that he was on a page rate rather than a royalty scheme affects his badness one way or the other.

I have no particular problem with consumer boycotts – refusing to buy a particular product in order to make a particular political point. But you should be very careful not to confuse the political with the aesthetic. I might very well say "I will not buy a Marvel Comic until the company credits Jack Kirby as creator of the Fantastic Four". But I would not add "Since Kirby deserves to be credited, 1602 is badly written" or "Since you think that 1602 is well-written, you obviously think Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four."

Ideological boycotts are much more slippery. It sounds fine and dandy to say "Insulting the Prophet Mohammed is Very Bad. The man who wrote the book insulting the Prophet Mohammed is therefore a Very Bad Man. Therefore no one should buy, read, display, publish, print or distribute the Very Bad Man's book. But obviously, that isn't the same as censorship." After all, if Islam is true, then insulting the Prophet is very bad: much worse than saying that women shouldn't have the vote. If Christianity is true, then denying that Jesus is God is very bad, maybe as bad as denying the Holocaust. If God is a delusion, than promoting Catholicism is (I read in an impeccable source) even worse than sexually molesting children. So it follows that Muslims should abstain from reading anti-Muslim books; Christians from anti-Christian books; and atheists from...well, from practically everything. No-one should read anything except things they already agree with.

When I refuse to read books which I don't agree with, I am exercising reasonable choice as a consumer. But of course, when you do it, you are being narrow minded and bigoted.

There is no such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written . That is all.

Oscar Wilde

Works of art contain ideas.

Those ideas are part of the work. "Siegfried contains anti-Semitic ideas" is a true fact, as true as "Siegfried contains a French Horn solo."

But we cannot easily go from "Siegfried contains anti-Semitic ideas" to "Siegfried is an anti-Semitic work". The ideology of a work doesn't reside in a single image, a single scene, or a single word. Mrs. Whitehouse thought that counting the number of "fucks" was a good gauge of whether or not a poem was obscene. (If the number was greater than zero, it was.) Dr Wertham said, in so many words, that if a comic book depicted a crime being committed, then it was a "crime comic", and that "crime comics" made kids criminals. In fact, if an opera or a comic book has an ideology, it must be contained in the whole work. Many of the Batman comics that Wertham wanted to protect us from were actually highly moralistic. The views about language expressed in V were actually not a million miles from Mrs. Whitehouse's own. The only way you can find out what a book "says" is by, er, actually reading it.

In fact, I am very doubtful whether any artistic work can ever be said to "say" something in such a narrow sense. Does Macbeth say "Political violence is sometimes a necessary evil" (which would make it a Bad Play) or "Your crimes will always catch up with you in the end" (which makes it a Good Play)? Or does it say "Don't trust your wife", "Don't try to force your spineless husband to get on," "Beware of soothsayers" or "I think James will be an excellent King so could I have a job please?"I don't think that you can say what Macbeth says in less words than the actual text of Macbeth.

But even if you can extract "The Meaning of the Work" from the Work Itself, I doubt whether agreement or disagreement with that Meaning is particularly relevant to your appreciation of the The Work. The Taming of the Shrew says "Strong women are ridiculous". Does it follow that those of us who do not think that strong women are particularly ridiculous cannot find the play funny? Does our approval or disapproval of political assassination determine in advance whether or not we will think that Julius Caesar is a good play. Can members of Amnesty International watch 24?

Writing about music, as the fellow said, is like dancing about architecture.


One the nasty things about grown ups is that they can't believe that children have any sense of justice; indeed any opinions of any kind. If Jimmy complains that he had been queuing politely for 20 minutes and then Joey came along and pushed to the front of the line, grown-ups are inclined to say "Oh, you kids, always finding something to quarrel about. Put a sock in it or you'll both get a slap."

The BBC's recent docu-drama about Mary Whitehouse seemed to treat everyone involved as quarreling children. What occurred during the 1960s was an argument about ideas. One side thought that the state funded public service broadcasting company in a Christian country should broadly reflect Christian value -- or at any rate the consensus values of the people who paid for it. The other side thought that it was the BBC's duty to produce high-quality, cutting edge artistic work, which (by definition) would sometimes offend people. The play chose to represent the argument as a private spat between the head of the BBC (a comedy dirty old man) and a "clean up TV" represented by a dotty old biddy. Whatever the argument was about, it wasn't about that.

Oh: and she was quite right about "Tomb of the Cybermen."


It is a truism of the Unity of the Virtues theory that once we know that a work is morally bad, we can assume that it is aesthetically bad. So it's probably worth saying that "The Creation of Niggers" is, in its lavatory-wall kind of way, not a bad piece of work. The rhymes (birth/earth designed/humankind) trip of the tongue reasonably well and the scansion doesn't feel too forced. Lovecraft cleverly uses strong rhymes to make us anticipate the end of the sentence before we get to it, and saves the Bad Word to the very end of the poem. We hear "semi-human figure" and think "oh...he can't be going to...he did." (A reasonable amount of music hall comedy involves using rhyme to make us expect a rude word, and then not actually saying it.)

A great deal of Lovecraft's work is about language -- over and over again, a complete collapse of syntax signifies that the the heroes of his stories have learned something that it would have been better never to have found out. And of course, his demons have weird names that are all but unpronounceable. When people see the Great Old Ones they often announce that they are unspeakable, ineffable, "unnameable." It is rather interesting that, when deliberately trying to be offensive, Lovecraft should structure a short poem around a word which is "unspeakable" in a different way.

1 comment:

Andrew Rilstone said...

Can we hold off comments until I get to the end of the sequence? Thanks.