Houellebecq in 2019

In January 2019, Houellebecq publishes his latest novel, Sérotonine (Flammarion), the follow-up to 2015’s controversial Soumission.

This rentrée littéraire looks set to be dominated by the writer. I’m publishing my book on Houellebecq, as well as a few scholarly articles on him this year. First to appear will be an issue of the journal Modern and Contemporary France that I’m co-editing with Carole Sweeney (Goldsmiths). As a teaser, you can find my article on Houellebecq, Soumission and ‘dog whistle’ politics here.

Punk and politics: the Série Noire in 2016


The Gallimard publishing house is a French cultural institution. Its historic Left Bank building, surrounded by Parisian pavement cafés, serves as a shrine for aficionados of high literary culture. For over a century, it has been a centrepiece of the literary establishment, welcoming names as renowned as Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel Proust and Albert Camus into the canon, by publishing them in its iconic ‘Blanche’ collection. Appearing under the famous white cover is a mark of acceptance by the bookish elite.

Gallimard, however, also has a darker side. While the famous blanche cover suggests a certain conservatism, finesse, and avant-garde purity, its Série Noire crime collection, known for its deathly black colour-scheme, stands for a world of transgression, corruption, and immorality. In a hunched office, lost in the labyrinth of the Gallimard HQ toils Aurélien Masson, director of the Série Noire since 2005. Here, Masson sits making the final edits to a manuscript, drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette. As you might expect, the walls are piled high with books. Rather than the traditional Gallimard icons, Charles Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lemmy from Motörhead gaze down from the walls. As a young, metal band t-shirt wearing, tattoo-sporting longhair, Masson is the black sheep of a publishing house known for its focus on belles lettres, but his publishing savvy, confidence, and passion for crime fiction has revitalised the collection, making him a valuable commodity within both Gallimard and the broader world of noir.



Photograph – via Libération


The Série Noire, of course, has its own long and illustrious history. Set up by its first director Marcel Duhamel in the wake of the end of the second World War, it was created to host translations of the biggest names of English language crime fiction into French. Chandler, Cheyney, and James Hadley Chase were published in the first couple of years. Goodis translations, starting with Le Cassse (The Burglar), became a staple of the collection from the 1950s onwards. As demobbed Yankee soldiers brought black American jazz to the nightclubs of St-Germain-des-Près, the Série Noire too became synonymous with a post Liberation trend for the English speaking world. Duhamel was a jazz fan, as was the Chandler translator, writer (of the notorious I Spit on Your Graves, no less), and jazz trumpeter Boris Vian. The early years of the collection were soundtracked by both bebop and the hammering of typewriters converting hip English prose into French.

Little by little, throughout the 1950s, home-grown French writers began to make their mark in the collection, though Serge Arcouët and Jean Meckert originally made their débuts under English-sounding noms-de-plume: Terry Steward and John Amila respectively. Albert Simonin became a cult figure and his stylish use of underworld street slang caught the ear of the French cinema industry with his Touchez Pas au Grisbi! (Don’t Touch the Loot!) adapted for the screen in 1954. As a result of increased competition for the reader’s attention, the 1960s and 1970s were a fallow period for the Série Noire, but the attempted student revolutions of May 1968 in Paris, and the subsequent political radicalization of a generation saw a sharpening of the collection’s political focus. Some element of social critique has, as Ernest Mandel demonstrates in A Social History of the Crime Story, has always played a role in crime fiction; but writers such as Manchette and Didier Daeninckx, Thierry Jonquet, and Frédéric H. Fajardie who followed in his slipstream were particularly nourished by a diet of classic crime and whispered tales of police battles and nights on Left Bank barricades.


The world, of course, has changed several times since the inception of the Série Noire which marked its 70th birthday in 2015. As well as 1968, the collection has witnessed Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin wall, two Gulf Wars, intervention in Afghanistan, not to mention the changing cultural logic ushered in by the televisual revolution, the Internet, and the change of reading habits forced through by e-books and Kindles: people are watching more, but reading less.

Despite this, the Série Noire persists. As well the strong cultural legacy of the collection, this is in no small part testament to Masson’s involvement. He is, however, quick to distance himself from such quick praise: “I’m suspicious of editors who say, looking back, that they had such and such a vision, wanted to achieve such and such a project”. He tells me, through a cloud of smoke, “I don’t think I’ve brought a great deal of preconceived ideas to the table, but what I have been able to do is stay true to the fantasies I had about the Série Noire growing up as a voracious reader in the 1990s: I want to keep the collection both socially relevant and bad-ass”.

Pausing for a second, he takes another drag; “In some ways I’ve been lucky that there is an interesting generation of French crime writers who have been inspired by the novels of James Ellroy and the films of Martin Scorsese. If I’ve brought anything to the Série Noire, it’s a taste for taking risks. I don’t want the collection to rest on its laurels and be only concerned with translating popular English language psychological thrillers or ‘Nordic Noir’, I want to go on adventures with writers who will take me in different directions, whether they are DOA, who writes 500-page novels about the Afghan war, Antoine Chainas’ hyper-sexual novels or Caryl Férey’s epic adventures. I see the Série Noire as a collection of diverse individuals, all of whom care very much about their writing, all cohabiting in a shared orbit”.

In its first 1950s and 1960s heydays the Série Noire was known for the almost industrial levels of its production, with up to 60 titles published a month. Duhamel even found it necessary, on occasion, to apologize to his readers for the inconsistencies in the quality of the novels he issued. A distinct politique d’auteur, a policy that puts the authors first and avoids such production-line publishing, has been at the heart of Masson’s curatorial approach. Early on in his directorship, the collection abandoned the policy of numbering each new novel on its spine, with Masson preferring to focus on author names. “I’m into spending time with writers, developing their careers and producing great books, that’s where I add value as an editor. I’m also into the long game; I don’t necessarily expect writers to completely flourish with their first book – the first Rolling Stones album, or the first Beatles album wasn’t their best, for example. I like the idea of a body of work; you used to wait for the new David Bowie album because it was a Bowie album. Sometimes you were disappointed, but you recognised that all the records formed part of his oeuvre. I see the Série Noire as a space where the writers have the freedom to produce great work”.

How does Masson reconcile the Série Noire of 2016 with the collection’s political and radical past? The editor does, after all, have a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital prominently on his desk and, in media interviews, talks passionately about his love of the punk mindset. “I’m certainly not insensitive to the punk way of doing things”, he grins, “but I’m certainly not an anti-market idealist, either. As an editor, I know I’ve got to find the right balance between books that are more commercial, and more experimental crime fiction by the likes of Frédéric Jaccaud. I do, however, have the audacity to believe that the value of a book doesn’t just depend on the number of readers it has”.

As well as politics, the Série Noire has a complex relationship with the US. While it was established as a channel for the publication of translations from America, many of its later writers, such as Manchette, have been critical of rampant Americanism. Masson is determined to keep the French focus in the collection: “The heart of the Série Noire certainly does still beat in France. If I have a criticism to make of the contemporary American crime novel it is that it is less concerned with social critique that in the days of Chandler and Hammett. The writers I work with all, to some extent, criticise a certain part of contemporary France experience, whether that is Benoit Minville’s focus on rural France or Jerome Leroy’s book exploring mainstream politics. At the Série Noire, we don’t make novels to help people relax. They are certainly entertaining, but they also have depth”.

If there is a political line to the Série Noire today, it encourages readers to reflect, rather than telling them what to think. We are a long way from the red flag-waving days of the 70s and 80s. “Before working in publishing I was trained as a sociologist. I think that a good social critique, good sociological practice, is based on asking questions, but then giving readers the space to drawn their own conclusions, rather than dictating answers. The Série Noire encourages its readers to think about the chaotic status of the world today and make up their own minds”.

As the collection’s politics have evolved, so too has its soundtrack but, despite its director’s own rock and roll stylings, the overall mood is apparently more inclusive. In contrast to Vian and Duhamel’s jazz leanings, Masson’s taste, as the images of Lemmy and Ozzy suggest, is more doom metaller than ‘50s hepcat. “Writers come to me and say: ‘I’m sorry, Aurélien, I’m not rock and roll enough for the Série Noire, I’m not into tattoos’. Of course, that’s not important, there is also room in the collection for hippies for, people who listen to jazz, whatever, what counts above all is that people MAKE SOME NOISE’. Whilst the nature of its noise has changed since 1945, the Série Noire looks set to continue making a discordant racket throughout Gallimard’s hallowed halls and its perpetual place at the heart of noir culture looks assured.

[This piece was originally written for to coincide with Masson’s appearance at the 2016 NoirCon crime literature convention, and appeared in the event programme]

Translating Houellebecq, a panel discussion

Almost two years ago, Michel Houellebecq published his sixth novel, Soumission (Flammarion). This novel, a piece of speculative fiction which imagines a near future where France elects an Islamic government, is a provocative work. This is as a result of how the novel taps into many of the tensions and concerns that animate both contemporary France and the broader Western world. The novel will be remembered, I suspect, for the circumstances of its publication as much as for its literary value: it was published concurrently with the Islamist attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher super market. Houellebecq was, coincidentally, on that week’s cover of Charlie, too.

There is clearly a great deal to say about Soumission: I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement (February 15, 2015). With the support of the American University of Paris where I work, in particular its Center for Writers and Translators, I organized a panel discussion, Translating Houellebecq, to discuss the reception of the novel and some of the critical challenges posed by Houellebecq’s work. I chaired the event in March 2016 which featured the participation of Lorin Stein (editor, The Paris Review, and translator of Soumission into English) and Nelly Kaprièlian (literary editor, Les Inrockuptibles).Full details can be found at the following link: https://www.aup.edu/news-events/events/2016-03-15/translating-houellebecq

I’m very happy that both Lorin and Nelly have agreed for me to share the recording of the discussion which can be found at the link below.

The rentrée littéraire 2014 and “l’effet Trierweiler”

Below is a piece I wrote for an international newspaper about the 2014 French literary season back in September last year. Here it is in its full, unadulterated form. Many thanks to the kind contributors.

When memories of lazy, sunny summer afternoons sipping pastis by the pool start to fade, the Paris literati braces itself and plunges headlong into the yearly rentrée littéraire. This is the season where the French publishing world kicks back into life in earnest and sees publishers large and small issue a cornucopia of new titles in what amounts to a three-month long nationwide book festival. This year’s jamboree has been part-rocked, part-electrified from an unexpected source: Valérie Trierweiler. The ex-partner of beleaguered French president François Hollande has published Merci Pour ce moment [Thank You for This Moment], her insider account of life with the head of state. Café terrace gossip is naturally Trierweiler related, but there is also a concern that her publication, inevitably taking up much of the time and space reserved for book discussion in the media, will occlude the “really” literary in what actually amounts to a promising 2014 crop of new writing.

Source: Nouvel Observateur

Source: Nouvel Observateur

This year’s rentrée littéraire sees 607 novels – new and in translation – published in France between late August and early November. The season, a uniquely Gallic phenomenon, which has gradually emerged since the 1950s, generally expects some kind of headline-grabbing scandal. In recent years, these have reliably been instigated by the notoriously provocative writer Michel Houellebecq, variously accused of defamation, plagiarism and Islamophobia. Houellebecq isn’t publishing this rentrée, his latest novel is planned for release in January, but no one anticipated that France’s ex-first lady was going to take his place and dominate press coverage. Her launch was a stage-managed publishing coup that effectively kept her book a secret until two days before it hit the shelves to ensure maximum press impact and, with a reported 200,000 copies printed, her team undoubtedly hopes for maximum sales too.

When I sat discussing la rentrée with Natacha de la Simone, manager of the Atelier bookstore in Paris’ edgily fashionable Belleville district, she was dismissive: “Trierweiler has absolutely nothing to do with it, her book is just a political document, not real literature. The problem is, it might wipe out any intelligent discussion of the other, more interesting, books”. Despite Trierweiler’s media maneuvering there is a real sense of optimism around the 2014 book season. This is vital for independent bookstores such as the Atelier which traditionally does 60% of its yearly business in the run-up to Christmas, making la rentrée a crucial showcase for literary talent. The optimism is perhaps surprising in an industry that is still recoiling from French publishing group Hachette’s ongoing dispute with Amazon. The French government has recently also taken steps to protect independent bookstores, such as reinforcing the 1981 Loi Lang, which already bans retailers from discounting books by more than 5%, by forbidding online sellers from also offering free delivery on their book sales. De la Simone, however, isn’t impressed by the legislation: “it’s a complete joke. Independent bookstores aren’t protected at all by the government”.

Leaving aside the politicking, the optimism in literary circles comes very much from the feeling that the crop of new novels could mark 2014 as a vintage year. Nelly Kaprièlian, literary editor for the influential culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles, herself publishing her debut novel this rentrée, Le Manteau de Greta Garbo [Greta Garbo’s Overcoat], told me she regards the wealth of new texts as a “sign of life” from French writing, “the literary season is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on literature. France is the only country in the world to give as much attention to new writing as it does and I’m proud of that”, she added. Buzzed about writers this year include Emmanuel Carrère, whose Le Royaume [The Kingdom] explores the early days of Christianity, Éric Reinhardt, whose L’Amour et les forêts [Love and Forests] is a stylish novel about a woman in an abusive relationship and Frédéric Beigbeder’s fictionalised young romantic life of J.D. Salinger, Oona & Salinger. This year also sees volumes from Thomas Pynchon, David Peace and Haruki Murakami published in translation.

This spotlight alluded to by Kaprièlian takes the form of literary prizes, such as the coveted Prix Goncourt, but also an unprecedented breadth of newspaper column inches and even mainstream TV and radio exposure. There is, however, a literary hierarchy that tends to dictate affairs, as writer Aurélien Bellanger, publishing his second novel, L’Aménagement du territoire [Regional planning] confides, “out of the hundreds of authors publishing, it’s only a select ten who feel the full glare of attention. This turns the rentrée into a bizarre game where a competitive spirit dominates, but to which no one dares admit. Such hypocrisy can be tiring, but hating each other without admitting it is a French national pastime”, he adds, playfully.

Aside from Trierweiler, who might get the sales, but is unlikely to win any prizes, the chosen few who jockey for the Goncourt and the prime coverage, traditionally do so with the support and behind-the-scenes lobbying from the heavyweight Parisian publishers: Gallimard, Grasset and Seuil. Kaprelièan doesn’t necessarily agree that such influence always prevails: “I found L’Amour et les forêts magnificent, much better than many other novels published for the rentrée and that’s why we put Reinhardt on the cover of our magazine. The size of his publishing house [Gallimard] didn’t come into it”. Carrère’s novel, published by the smaller P.O.L house was, according to the trade magazine Livres Hebdo, leading the sales charts in early September, at least before Trierweiler’s book hit the shelves.

Reinhardt, one of the forerunners for the Goncourt, is relishing the literary season, which he describes as “une fête nationale de la littérature”. Reinhardt is a seasoned campaigner, having attracted a great deal of media attention for his 2007 novel Cendrillon [Cinderella]. He is highly conscious of the possible benefits and pitfalls of the season: “Cendrillon was the most talked about novel of the season in the media and I became known as a writer almost overnight”. Reinhardt is also frank about the risk the rentrée poses for a writer: “It is a gamble. Publishing during the rentrée littéraire can make you a star, but if you aren’t one of the chosen few, if your book isn’t discussed by critics and enjoyed by bookshops, then it’s very simple: your book is still-born, it doesn’t exist; you are invisible”. Bellanger shares a similar, if more philosophical, view about the unforgiving literary machine: “because of its inherent cruelty, there is something almost sacrificial about the literary system. But publishing a book remains a very honourable sacrifice, all the same!”.

The centrepiece of the season is the announcement of the Goncourt, which takes place on November 5, at the Drouant restaurant in central Paris. After then, Paris will take a deep breath, start daydreaming about next year’s long summer break and begin to assess the impact of l’effet Trierweiler on this year’s season.

Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty : a reckoning (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011)

Artists working against the backdrop of modernity have been preoccupied with cruelty. The target of this cruelty is consistently displaced from artwork to artwork. In can be the artist himself as in Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) a performance piece which saw Burden shot at close range in his upper arm by an assistant wielding a .22 calibre rifle. Cruelty can be directed towards an audience as in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) where the viewer’s desire for vicarious bloody violence is fulfilled, over-fulfilled and ultimately laughed at. A work of art can also be cruel with regards to its represented subject as Sade’s gleeful exploitation of his fantasies in a work such as Les 120 journées de Sodom (1785) or the seemingly offhand racism and misogyny of characters in Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules élémentaires (1998) demonstrates.
Maggie Nelson’s long, thoughtful text is an intensely personal attempt to get to the bottom of, to fully understand what is at stake when we talk about cruelty. Her approach, scholarly but still immensely readable, is somewhat more sympathetic than her more reactionary forebears. Paul Virilio, for example, in La Procedure silence (2000) over-simplistically described the output of the contemporary art world into two mutually-exclusive hemispheres: “pitiless” art, concerned with cynically exploiting art’s capacity to shock, and “pitiful” which evokes a degree of compassion for its subjects. For Virilio, who cites the work of the Viennese Actionists and the Young British Artists as evidence of such “pitiless” cruelty, the majority of contemporary artistic output falls into the former category, which excludes any redemptive pity. Whilst the art she considers could fall into Virilio’s category of “pitiless”, Nelson’s approach is far subtler, taking what she sees as the full complexities of cruelty into consideration: it might not necessarily exclude the “pitiful”. This book is an attempt to get a deeper appreciation of cruelty as artistic method by not dismissing it offhand, but rather by working with it and evaluating the legitimacy of such an approach. Indeed, Nelson suggests that her real aim in The Art of Cruelty might not only to be getting to the bottom of cruelty at all, positing that her real goal may be to get a greater insight into compassion, cruelty’s “far enemy” (p. 8). In such a way, whilst Nelson’s aim is frequently to investigate the bloody, the offensive, even the appalling, her approach is characterised by a clear optimism, a consideration of where the value really lies within the artworks under consideration.

The “reckoning” of the book’s title is, then, less a conclusive settling of scores than a critical consideration from all possible angles. As Nelson is quick to admit, this highly subjective approach is not always productive; she doesn’t have all of the answers. This refreshing honesty lends a slightly elliptical edge to the text: by embracing the cruelty of the artworks she discusses Nelson isn’t always immediately able to suggest clear conclusions. Discussing the work of American artist William Pope.L, which frequently explores identity issues affecting black American males, Nelson admits, “[…] this says something. What on earth it says, I have no idea. I like it, though, because it bothers me, and I’m not sure why” (p. 204). Such inconclusive conclusions are not unequivocally a bad thing, and, whilst it could prove frustrating for readers looking for immediate answers, who might be better served by Virilio’s text, are certainly preferable to disingenuously forcing a critical position. The ambiguous response is, as The Art of Cruelty argues, a valid one.

Nelson’s overall stance is most coherently articulated in the closing pages of the text. Rather than looking to take sides for or against cruelty within art, Nelson proposes a third way: “[…], a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things” (p. 269). In an age driven by snap media-fuelled judgements of a predominantly anti-intellectual mainstream where one is forced to assume a false position ‘for’ or ‘against’ art, arguing for the right to make an enlightened choice, to turn away, walk out, or close the book. Nelson’s approach is inspired by critic Roland Barthes’ late work on neutrality which proposes a less confrontational critical position. Nelson errs consistently on the side of thinking and making informed choices; filing the book on a high shelf rather than burning it, her text is thus an assertion of what she sees as the empowering potential of neutrality.

That’s not to say, however, that Nelson’s work is necessarily opposed to cruelty per se. Rather she seeks to provide a challenge to what she describes as of the dominant principles of the twentieth century avant-garde, the roots of which she traces to Antonin Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’. Nelson’s target is the assumption, which she describes, recalling the military strategy of obliteration of the enemy as “shock and awe” art, that artistic cruelty is somehow a therapeutic response to the alienated subject in society. She challenges the notion that art, through shock or violence, has the capacity to provide the individual with access to a higher or transcendent truth. Nelson quotes Haneke’s memorable, if abhorrent, description of the process of “raping the viewer into independence” (p. 4). There are, for Nelson, different shades of cruelty, and the subtlety with which she reveals the spectrum of cruelty is the true value of this text. Nelson’s analysis seeks to articulate a use-value for cruelty, to ascertain when it can be truly artistic or valid approach and moves beyond the shock, the point Virilio’s analysis stops. She is sceptical of works that claim to reveal or impose truths, instead aligning herself with artworks that provide new ways of seeing or understanding the predicament of the contemporary subject. Through reference to the work of RD Laing she describes such art as “works that give clear pictures of these knots or binds, rather than those that hope to offer a map out of them” (p. 11). Acceptable cruelty for Nelson, whilst it may be intensely visceral, is primarily intellectually enlightening rather than cynical, mindless or idiotic. Nelson formulates it as art:

“[…] which dismantles, boycotts, ignores, destroys, takes liberties with, or at least pokes fun at the avant-garde’s long commitment to the idea that the shocks produced by cruelty and violence – be in in art or political action – might deliver us, through some never-proven miracle, to a more sensitive, perceptive, insightful, enlivened, collaborative, and just way of inhabiting the earth, and of relating to our fellow human beings” (p. 265)

This is at odds with the predominant culture of idiocy, or an “idiocracy”, “[…] in which low-grade pleasures (such as the capacity to buy cheap goods, pay low or no taxes, carry guns into Starbucks, and maintain the right not to help one another) displace all other forms of freedom, even those of the most transformative and profound variety” (p. 30) [Author’s italics]. Whilst Nelson’s text offers a study of the cultural field, there is much more at stake; her text consistently brushes with the societal implications of the observations she makes.

Nelson’s text is rich in its examples of artistic cruelty, both redeemable and otherwise. Her analysis, however, recognises that her examples can be viewed from either perspective. The visual work of Francis Bacon and the poems of Sylvia Plath are repeatedly explored and problematised, with Nelson, in both cases highlighting how the cruelty of their work has aspects which can be viewed in terms of both their brutal horror and the insight their work provides. As an example of idiot or purely thoughtless cruelty, Nelson posits cynical cinematic “torture porn” such as Roland Joffé’s fillm Captivity (2007).

One of Nelson’s most pertinent observations is the association she makes throughout the text between cruelty and clarity, citing Artaud, she asserts, “cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination” (p. 6). Her cruelty is one that stimulates thought; whether the starting point takes the form of physical violence or presents its viewer with complex truths and provocative questions, articulated by Nelson as the “brutality of fact”. Indeed a consistent thread running through Nelson’s text is a consideration of the legitimacy of the apocryphal equating of kindness with cruelty. Redeemably cruel art is, for Nelson, that which, whilst it may contain a certain shock value, cuts through the superfluous, discovering, if not truth, then alternative discourses, or another side to what is presented as truth by dominant discourse. As an example from within society Nelson cites the activity of the Yes Men, an activist group which launches media hoaxes to draw attention to the duplicity of corporate discourse. In 2004, the group, claiming to be representatives of the Dow Chemical company, gave a BBC interview revealing a $12 billion compensation payout for the 120,000 victims of the Union Carbide pesticide gas leak in India. This duplicitous declaration forced the genuine Dow to publicly re-assert its position that it “still had no intention of helping the people of Bhopal, or of detoxifying their land” (p. 158). The chemical company branded the Yes Men’s stunt “cruel”, illustrating the true ambiguity of the world; where does the real cruelty lie? In the stunt or with the chemical company? Similarly, Plath’s poems, albeit on a more intensely personal level evoke a poetic brutality, she wields not only a “scimitar of clarity” (p. 262), but the “meticulously coiled internal rhymes and consonance” of her poems are described as razor blades (p. 218).

In Plath’s case of course, given her ultimate suicide, these blades also prefigure very real self-harm. This metaphor, the linking of the act of incision to perform a search for latent truths or nihilistically demonstrating the fact that no such truth exists, has itself been consistently reformulated in the work of transgressive visual artists. It is characteristic, for example of the work of Damien Hirst whose 1993 work Mother and Child Divided comprised a bisected cow and calf and placed in gallery vitrines filled with his trademark formaldehyde. It equally calls to mind the performances of musicians such as GG Allin and Iggy Pop, known for their on-stage self-mutilation, cutting themselves in front of an audience to heavy rock soundtracks. As her example, Nelson selects, the work in the 1960s of the Viennese Actionists whose films of their “actions” from the period feature: “[…] multiple forms of mutilation, beatings, penetrations and bloodletting” (p. 21), and whose later work such as “actionist” Hermann Nitsch’s Six-Day Play (1997) has continued this spirit but within the context of performed rituals designed to explore and even create the mythic.

This relationship between art and truth is particularly pressing for Nelson’s consideration of the links between art and extremity. Nelson makes a clear distinction between an older generation of artists, such as Nitsch, who seek to use ritualised transgression at the centre of their art as a way of exploring or uncovering truth, and a younger generation epitomised by tRyan Trecartin whose work, which all plays out within the hyperreality of his videos suggests, and even celebrates, the impossibility of transcending the media spectacle to find any such truth. Nelson’s response to the ‘canonical’ trangressors, such as the Actionists and their theoretical forebears Nietzsche and Bataille, is pleasingly iconoclastic, and is not adverse to ridicule; Bataille and Nietzsche are criticised for the implicit misogyny of their work, whilst the supposedly provocative work of the Actionists is frequently held up as pompous, mindlessly offensive or just worthy of being laughed at.

Indeed laughter is posited by Nelson as an important and, as she argues, a valid response to “shock and awe”. The pantomime qualities of Nitsch, Sade and Bacon’s work, their tendency, intentional or otherwise to provoke laughter, are repeatedly noted by Nelson. Laughter is for Nelson a legitimate response to extreme art, particularly when that art is po-faced and dictatorially performed in the name of enlightenment. Laughter as response, however, can naturally be misconstrued as dismissive or inappropriate as with the case, which generated a media-led furore and recounted here, of a group of adolescents who responded in that way during a screening of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Legitimate laughter as opposed to mocking derision as a response to artistic extremity is a novel consideration, as is Nelson’s interest in the spaces around the video screens in an installation of Paul McCarthy’s gory and gloriously anarchic Caribbean Pirates (2001-2005) rather than the on-screen action. Nelson’s work is most interesting when it takes a similarly tangential or unorthodox approach to its object of study. The notion of brutal honesty, in the form of “right speech” (p. 155) is also a key component of Buddhist ethics and Nelson’s analytical position in The Art Of Cruelty is informed as was Barthes’ work by Eastern thought systems. Indeed, the metaphor of incision considered above can be extended through the Zen notion of swordsmanship (pp. 207-208). This is particularly relevant from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism where, for example, the Bodhisattva Manjushri is often depicted with a flaming sword. Nelson notes: “[i]ts task is to keep slicing through all of the ways in which we attempt to hold onto a sense of solid ground, all the ways in which we resist the fundamental impermanence of all things” (p. 209). In a way, the Buddhist approach is in itself transgressive encouraging, as it does, a perspective which strives to allow the individual subject to cut through the superfluous within experience, to move beyond the discourses and desires generated by contemporary society to find neutral balance and in so doing discover the innate fluidity of truth, rather than higher or imposed truth. This is the same role that Nelson appears to cast for her artistic form of compassionate cruelty which gives an insight into man’s predicament, rather than forcing a solution. Transgressive Buddhism is just as violent to our notion of reality as the works of Bacon or Plath, but this violence differs in terms of its practicality, offering a direct possibility that our perception can be changed rather than offering an experience that remains within the cultural.

Nelson also makes a number of valuable ethical observations relating to complicity and the key role played by our consent with regards to extreme art; more specifically the consent a gallery goer, audience member or reader gives to be shocked by a piece of art. She observes, for example, that there is a fundamental difference between the way we respond to literature, where the mind is frequently fully imaginatively engaged in the production of a text’s effect, producing emotional feelings of guilt and collusion, whilst an ‘assault’, felt as a shock most frequently comes via an explicit visual image. There is additionally an undercurrent of politics to Nelson’s work, arguing that the contemporary US climate (Nelson is an American, writing in America) notably propagated by the foreign and domestic policies of the Bush administration can arguably be defined in terms of its cruelty.

Nelson’s exploration of cruelty also has implications for the role we expect art to play within society. For all of The Art of Cruelty’s insistence on art that crosses boundaries, the corpus of Nelson’s study, why it does on occasion refer to mainstream cinema and TV (such as the series 24), is broadly confined to the intellectual worlds of literature and art, which the vast majority of her examples are drawn from the world of so-called high art. Despite her compassionate intent, Nelson explicitly turns a blind eye to what she terms (p. 10) “stupid cruelty”, the targets of whom are arguably most eagerly in need of a compassionate response. “Stupid cruelty” for Nelson is “misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia [and] racist norms”. The sad fact is that “stupid” or ignorant cruelty is a dominant force within contemporary society, certainly more of a force than the redeemably cruel art that Nelson advocates in her book. The rise of social media has, for example, seen the regrettable rise of “trolling” with individuals deliberately looking to provoke or shock the sensibilities of others with upsetting Tweets or blog posts. Equally, the worldwide phenomenon of reality TV where candidates are subjected to humiliation after humiliation for the dubious honour of ‘celebrity’ and the monomaniacal outpourings of Fox News or the Daily Mail are symptoms of a world where cruelty is a particularly pressing issue. The Art of Cruelty is an impressive attempt to delve into the implications of a dominant artistic trend. A fully compassionate study of cruelty will, however, be one that gets to grips with, and perhaps offers a way out of the stranglehold it has throughout society.

Mayhem, Le Divan du Monde, Paris, May 22 2014

It’s been about eighteen years since I last went to a heavy metal gig. Even back then I was more interested in the relatively mainstream output of Metallica, Sepultura and the (still) hilariously-named Pantera. Unsurprising, then, that I was a feeling a little trepidation, maybe even slightly scared as I dithered outside the Divan du Monde for a gig by Mayhem, ready to investigate the darkest realms of the genre: Black Metal. Back in the mid 1990s, I’d only really flirted with the dark side, leering fascinatedly at the pages of Kerrang! which detailed the exploits of the band which, along with Burzum, came to represent the radical Norwegian scene. Mayhem became notorious for their extreme brutalist metal, having pigs’ heads on sticks onstage, wearing corsepaint, making sinister declarations and liberal use of Satanic imagery. There is more than just a whiff of the macabre about Mayhem: they are best known for their off-stage behaviour: the very real-life suicide of their original singer, the appropriately-named Dead, and for their guitarist Euronymous’s murder by Burzum’s mainman Varg Vikernes.


            Now, I’m old, but curious and (mostly) without fear, I’ve been recently revisiting my old interests in metal, as part of a broader appreciation of sonic extremity. I thought an intimate gig by the black metal legends, generally associated with slots at Eastern European enormo-fests, on their thirtieth anniversary tour was an opportunity not to be missed. I temporarily put my rabid objections to some of the members’ abhorrent comments to media over the years (more of which later), to one side to see what the appeal was and dive headlong into the black void. Loitering on the pavement outside the venue, however, and watching the motley assortment of black leather-clad metal heads, mostly unsmiling and including a fair number of really sinister looking fuckers, traipse into the venue, I was having my fair share of second thoughts. Not the least of these was down to feeling massively underdressed. I’ve never been known for my sartorial elegance, but I thought sporting a specially-purchased Mayhem t-shirt underneath my tatty anorak was going to be enough to let me pass under the radar. How wrong I was, once I shuffled into the already packed venue, I became aware that I stuck out like, well, a university lecturer at a Black Metal gig.

            The venue was also part of the appeal. I’d last been to the Divan du Monde for a sparsely attended gig in what must have been 1999, but back then I hadn’t known that the venue was originally known as the Brasserie des Martyrs, a popular drinking spot for the mighty French poet Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century. Baudelaire, lest we forget, was a highly scandalous figure, perhaps most famously for his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) which is liberally and intentionally provocative, blasphemous, anti-Christian and makes liberal use of darkly Satanic imagery. It is highly appropriate, then, that Mayhem, who do all of the above in their art, are strutting in exactly the same space as their poetic forebear. Le Divan du Monde has been renovated since my last trip, but is now a pretty place, too pretty for the black metal hordes, and has been re-done in a post-colonial style. There is a pretty shallow irony in the interior design, since the décor features busts of exoticized black slave characters, gazing down from the upper balcony. Mayhem’s drummer, Jan Axel ‘Hellhammer’ Blomberg, is on record as saying that ‘Black metal is for white people’. Statements such as these deserve, of course, to be treated with wholehearted contempt. While the venue’s décor is crass and nostalgically twee, comments such as those from ‘Hellhammer’ are acutely damaging and idiotic but deserve repeated mention. Highly inappropriately, and more amusingly, for a black metal public no doubt raised on strong cider, animal blood and freshly-roasted human sacrifices, the bar had a special offer on glasses of house white Vouvray.

            The bill promised ‘Mayhem and Merrimack’ which, quite frankly, sounded more like an Incredible String Band song title or a folk dancing troupe rather than an evening of evil entertainment, latently racist or otherwise. French black metallers Merrimack were first up. It was a solid example of the genre: they were loud; it was ugly; the complex guitar parts and the drums appear to be going in radically diverse directions and the singer, who had the filthiest hair imaginable, half screamed-half barked his way through the songs as expected. The band made liberal use of corpsepaint, which was pleasing to see. I’d have been disappointed if there hadn’t been any in evidence tonight. There is, though, a pretty good reason why grown men are generally wary of face painting – despite the very clear temptation, you rarely see anyone post pubescent queuing up for the make-up artist at church fetes or village hall events. The reason, of which Merrimack are a sorry example, is the unhappy relationship between face paint and facial hair. You never see photos of Baudelaire with stubble – was it, one wonders, to facilitate the corpsepaint?


            While Merrimack pressed all the right black metal buttons musically, they were also a shining example of a key problematic of the genre. The big bloody (corpsepainted or not) elephant in the room when it comes to Black Metal and, one suspects, metal more broadly is that it is also deeply, frequently hilariously, absurd, an absurdity that also often spills over into laugh-out-loud ridiculousness. There was a moment near the end of Merrimack’s set where all the guitarists stood at the front of the stage in formation, each one foot on the monitor à la Nigel Tufnell, and I actually found myself stifling a giggle. It is just this ridiculousness that is symptomatic of the genre and, for all of its po-faced seriousness and offensive media comments, is naturally tempting to question just how seriously the BM practitioners take it. I suspect the answer, is very seriously. I’m reminded, for example, of how Mayhem bassist and founder, the hilariously named Necrobutcher, responded on having his band described as ‘the Village People in hell’ by journalist John Doran. For all of the songs about death, murder, Satan and suicide, there is indeed something deeply pantomime about Mayhem that seems to undercut the seriousness: Hellhammer’s oversized drum kit/cage, for example, which comes in bigger than many Parisian apartments and (probably for the best in the light of his comments) completely obscures the drummer from sight; the fact the merch-stand sells Mayhem-branded ‘sexy’ knickers and the stern hyper-seriousness of the guitarists Charles (ex-Cradle of Filth) Hedger and Teloch who flanked the stage, one unsmiling, the other actually wearing a monk’s cowl but you can bet he wasn’t grinning like a crazy man underneath.

            That said, for all of their absurdity, Mayhem certainly pack a significant punch live. Paris audiences have a reputation for being somewhat staid, but there was a genuine buzz around the venue as the lights dimmed and the band’s traditional entrance music, Silvester Anfang, actually composed for the band by Tangerine Dream’s Conrad Schnitzler, kicked off before they raced into Pagan Fears, arguably the standout track from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994). Happily, the band played a smattering of tracks from this album, also arguably their best, as well as from the semi-legendary Deathcrush EP (1987) alongside less impactful and more generic tracks from their more recent work, including the most recent Esoteric Warfare (2014).

            The centre of the Mayhem circus is undoubtedly vocalist Attila Csihar, who has both a presence and a vocal range that transcends the genre and keeps the band from lapsing completely into pantomime. Indeed, it is pretty much exclusively the presence of the Hungarian Csihar, a respected vocal artist in his own right and soon to release his debut solo album, that makes Mayhem a compelling live proposition. I’d even go as far as saying that his presence, here dressed as a blood-splattered ancient Pagan priest and carrying a human skull and doing his distinctive brand of Black Metal voguing, in at least some small way rebuilds at least a small part of the band’s credibility following Hellhammer’s offensive offstage comments. His performance – vocally and theatrically – for the iconic My Death – as he stalked the stage swinging a noose was, aside from the opening track, a highlight of the evening. He certainly provided a more credible counterpoint to Necrobutcher, oafishly swigging from a bottle of champagne and moronically introducing a song by declaring ‘This song is for your girlfriend….she’s a WHORE!’. C’mon, Necro.


            In short, Mayhem are a tight and impressively marshalled band but without Csihar’s presence, I’m not sure they’d have sustained my interest for the duration of the set, right up until traditional set closer Pure Fucking Armageddon. For all the dark trappings, the music is at best not much more than a very heavy punk. For me there is, as Spinal Tap memorably declared, a fine line between ‘stupid’ and ‘clever’, and this is exactly the line that Mayhem seem to walk and, despite the best efforts of their frontman, repeatedly stumble over. As my journey into the dark heart of rock continues, I suspect this will be a recurrent trend.