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From Calvin to Calvino – Scottish Review of Books
by Pat Kane

From Calvin to Calvino

October 14, 2009 | by Pat Kane

If you don’t know about Momus, aka Scottish musician, writer and con-ceptualist Nick Currie, then you need to know about him: for me, he’s one of the most challengingly brilliant Scottish minds of the last twenty years. On the trivial, arts-page level, his CV is impressive. Momus was an early star on Creation Records, home of Oasis, and guiding spirit to the ‘Sound of Young Scotland’. His career then became exotic and exilic: Currie has both been a million-selling pop writer for singer Kahimi Karie in Tokyo, and a living installation in the Venice Bienalle, and a wandering conceptualist in New York and Paris. He has been sued by corporations and artists for his controversial albums of ‘folktronica’, which combine an Eno-like intelligence about music with a lyrical extremism that splits the difference between Leonard Cohen and the Marquis De Sade. Momus has written for both Wired and the New York Times (though recently replaced there by, of all people, Bono). He also maintains an extraordinary life-blog called Click Opera. This combines an honest account of the fragility and openness of the modern bohemian life (he currently just about survives in Berlin), with cultural commentary on design, technology, music and politics that rivals any of the greats – Greil Marcus, Paul Morley, Lester Bangs.

But like Alasdair Gray and the masochistic and misogynist fantasies that suffuse his writing, or Ian Hamilton Finlay and his veneration of the murderous Saint-Just in Little Sparta, you have to grapple with the dark, all-too-playful side of Momus’s creativity. His first completed two books are out simultaneously, and I’m glad that the second exists to qualify and contextualise the first.

The Book of Jokes – an unrelentingly taboo-busting Joycean rollercoaster of a short novel – could easily be sucked into the kind of media vortex of fear and loathing that currently swirls around Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. It’s the kind of genuinely disruptive fiction that’s only been attempted a few times in the twentieth century, and for that – as my queasiness and occasional disgust can testify – we can be thankful. The Book of Scotlands is an altogether less alarming, more usable volume of Borges-style ‘fictions’ about the possible Scotlands that might inform a nation heading towards independence. Though I doubt whether the Government will be looking to Momus’s habitual surrealism for any substantive policy advice.

But I can’t deny that I’ve been troubled and perplexed by both books. How to encompass an imagination that stretches from the whimsical and intellectual, to the infernal and pestilential? Rather than reaching for the sick bag, I’ve decided to hang on to some philosophy.

The Italian thinker Paulo Virno can help us conjoin the dangerously extreme parts of Momus’s sensibility. In his most recent book Multitude, Virno writes about the power of the joke in everyday life. The daily role of humour is to easily, casually, turn reality on its head. Jokes thus indicate, for Virno, how humans have a latent potential for innovation, for imagining new courses of action, rooted in their very nature as linguistic animals.

But this potential, Virno cautions, is beyond good and evil. Neuroscience may well show that we have mirror neurons (sometimes called ‘Gandhi’ neurons) in our brain – firing in empathy when we witness the actions of other human beings, whether we will it or not. Yet we are also the animal that can use language to consciously defy these neuronal empathies.

Virno takes the classic Holocaust poem by Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, and twists it round. It is the terrible power of language that allows the Nazi commandant to say about the tearful Jewish labourer at his feet that ‘this is not a man’, negating whatever empathetic firings are occurring in his skull. Jokes, as we know, can also partake of this amoral cruelty. Recall the foul humour that surged through our networks in the wake of the death of Michael Jackson, which (if my feeds were anything like yours) spared no character in his drama -powerful or vulnerable, child or adult – from the flying blades of bad-taste wit.

So is this a counsel of despair about you and I, the forked-tongued animal? Not quite. Virno believes that though our linguistic powers create the poison, language is also the only cure. We can always say,  “this is not not a man”: through another linguistic act, we can “negate the negation”, as Virno puts it. And to say that someone is “not ‘not-human’” is to create a vast space of possibilities for living and understanding. When you do so, you’re looking at a multitude of social phenomena before you, however diverse and polymorphous; and you’re refusing to deny any of it at least some humanity or worth. (As you can probably hear, there’s a radical politics implied here: a zone somewhere between anarchy, Amsterdam and the commune).

What is so challenging about Momus’s output (exemplified by this pair of books) is that it flickers between these two negations. The Book of Jokes delights in trangressing, comedy routine after comedy routine, all the great sexual and physical taboos – incest, paedophilia, bestiality, sadism, masochism, murder. The very point of these taboos (held pretty universally in the human condition) is that they aim at protecting the spaces where human beings can grow through, and within, the empathy of others. If the mind scientists are right, parents and adults have a background neuronal hum of compassion in their dealings with others: how can I hurt  or violate or oppress you, when I automatically imagine and feel your own hurt, violation and oppression?

Yet when Momus launches into another heart-sinking exploration of perversity in The Book of Jokes – the dreadful father of the family, disordering relatives, children, passers-by and geese with his enormous member and rapacious drives; the sweaty Stoppardian double-act of the Murderer and the Molester leading to all-too-graphic conclusions; and much, much more besides – we have to make a choice. We either turn away from his works, in some despair. Or we read this as Momus’s self-conscious, super-aware demonstration of the power of language to negate empathy, to turn other human subjects into manipulable or penetrable objects

Of course, Momus stands in a long and canonically respectable Northern-hemispheric tradition – Rabelais, Swift, De Sade, Goya, Freud, surrealists like Bataille and Artaud, all the way up to Dennis Cooper, Chuck Palahniuk and the Chapman Brothers. These artists attempt to disassemble ‘humanity’ into its constituent parts – flesh, word-and-thought, desire – in order that we might know our inherent strangeness better.

Yet if Momus’s art simply stopped at this first negation – the zero-level nihilism exemplified by Andre Breton’s famous statement, “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” – we could easily pigeonhole him as the dumbest kind of art-player. We could call him just another jumped-up creative simian, childishly thrilled by the infernal powers of human language, buzzing at his conceptual ability to disrupt the basic orthodoxies we require to live together.

But Momus is very far from that. The Book of Scotlands – as well as much of Cur-rie’s other activity as a journalist, blogger and conceptual artist – represents that “negation of the negation” which Virno talks about. That is, in this second book Momus creates a capacious space within which all the differences and possibilities of the Scottish condition, creative and destructive, can be talked through, discussed, deliberated, examined, with calm and dispassion.

There’s a line from one of Momus’s songs, ‘The Cabinet Of Kuniyoshi Kaneko’, from the album The Philosophy of Momus (1995): “In life remain considerate, in art the Devil’s advocate”. So in comparison to the demonic advocacy of The Book of Jokes, The Book of Scotlands is a considerate, deeply generous take on the life of this country and its possible futures. Some of you might remember a short-lived academic journal called Scotlands from the mid-90’s, filled mostly with research-gradable academic pabulum. Momus’s strategy towards the future of Scotland is much preferable, and summed up by his 166th possible Scotland: “The Scotland in which four hundred years of profound influence from Calvin is replaced by four hundred years of profound influence from Calvino”.

From the cover of this beautifully produced book – the words “Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true” printed over an orange Saltire – we are in some very familiar environs of recent Scottish literature. An environment where the virtual, unfinished nature of Scottishness – “living as if we were in the early days of a better nation”, in Alasdair Gray’s famous Canadian re-appropriation – is taken for granted, at least at the level of the writer’s page. But given that this is Momus, the Greek god of mockery and satire at play here – and a writer who’s smart enough to quote the alternative-reality implications of quantum physics in his interviews – we’re hardly at rest in some cosy left-nationalist garden of roses.

Nothing is not possible in Momus’s Scot-land (or as Edwin Morgan might say, there’s nothing not giving messages). The one-liners, to begin with, are coruscating:

The Scotland which is China’s Airstrip One, and hosts her intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Scotland in which every schoolchild can recite, by heart, the tabletalk of R.D. Laing.

The Scotland replicated in miniature by Nova Caledonia, a biodiversity lifeship suspended in geostationary orbit 35,786 vertical kilometers above Perth.

The communist Scotland which re-nationalises all its industries and lives according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

The hypercapitalist Scotland in which one thousand tiny businesses throng every street and every floor of every building, and cater to every possible human need, and never close.

The Scotland in which the national dish is skewered raw horse-meat flavoured with ginger and coriander.

The Scotland in which geese permanently block the sky, and seethe over the ground as far as the eye can see.

The Scotland in which all food is soup. The Scotland in which nobody has any teeth…

Currie, knowingly or not, is joining a welcome recent trend towards speculative Scottish fiction (only developing, of course, what Morgan and Grey had self-consciously begun), in which we can count Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia, John Aberdein’s Strip The Willow, Ken McLeod’s The Night Sessions – and of course, the transhuman comic fictions of Mark Miller and Grant Morrison. For those of us with an interest in the narrative of independence, it’s a hopeful cultural sign. As Frederic Jameson says, science fiction assumes a social (or national) future worth occupying – even if only as an argumentative space, where utopias and dystopias can vie for legitimacy.

Does Momus really care about this particular Scottish future? Only to the extent that it’s a premise for endless invention, or (Morgan again) the production of themes on a variation. There are elegant satires on our need for a national pantheon. We meet Normal McBean the world-class animator, Brent Shouter the fundamentalist dictator, Bonnie Billie Prince who restores the dignity of human work to the roboticised Scottish republic.

There are startling, computer-game-like simulations of the Scottish social contract, each amended in a crucial degree: Scot-lands that are sexually voracious matriarchies, or post-material bohemias, or heritage-freighted backwaters, or now-obsessed malls. There are Scotlands cast in the role of hated Other, or colonised subjects; and Scotlands as fiendish domina-tors, or agents of the McMafia. There is some wonderful morphing of twentieth century history: for example, there is a Scotland where Stanley Baxter, in league with Alfred McKinsey, conducts a national anti-masturbation campaign in the 50’s.

The Book of Scotlands ends in Rabelasian fashion – where giant corpulent babies, the result of our explicit commitment to bad eating habits, roll idiotically around the country, crushing and eating towns and cities: “no more life expectancy, no more life, no more Scot-land”. But the overall feeling is one of uplift: Currie’s powerful, eclectic imagination is still willing to refract his endless, sign-driven curiosity through the prism of the small Northern-European nation of his birth and upbringing.

If he were spun back into life from a scrap of DNA, Hugh MacDiarmid might well be thumping Momus with the same insult – “cosmopolitan scum” – that he landed on a kindred psychonaut, Alexander Trocchi, in the sixties. But I can’t stop thinking of two bits of verse from the old volcano that sum up Currie’s many Scot-lands: “Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?” And this: “I never see een on a lad or lass/But I wonder gin he or she/Wi’ a word or a deed’ll suddenly dae/An’ impossibility.”

Yet as Virno and The Book of Jokes indicate, there are some “impossibilities of the word” that you wouldn’t want anywhere near any possible deeds. The assertion that Currie makes in ‘The Cabinet Of Kuniyoshi Kaneko’ is one that I cannot adequately answer: “A looking glass is not a world/A painted girl is not a girl/In games there can be no forbidden things”. With these books, it’s clear that Momus’s games with nationhood are far safer, and more enriching, than his games with bodies, language and desire. Perhaps there is some indication here that play needs an ethic – that our dangerous capacity for invention should always in some way, as the Luddites used to say, “benefit the commonweal”. And that play without any ethic will lead us into places where you need more sublimation – or indifference, or non-attachment – in the face of excess than this reviewer could often manage.

Let’s recall one of the Greek myths of Momus. In one tale, Momus rails at Hep-haestus, the god of artisanship, for having made humans without doors in their chests, through which their innermost thoughts and feelings might be seen. I imagine the stolid Hephaestus might easily have refused, knowing that what was on offer was a Momus-designed door. I deeply respect the aesthetic coherence of Currie’s work. But I’m glad there are other routes to understanding what it means to be super-modern than this.

To repeat: you need to know the work of Momus. But you also need to know what you’re getting into.

The Book of Scotlands
Sternberg Press, £15.00
pp160, ISBN 9781933128559

The Book of Jokes
Dalkey Archive, £10.99
pp200, ISBN 156478561

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