Review: Golf Ball

Review: Golf Ball

9781628921380 Part of a series entitled Object Lessons published by Bloomsbury and edited by the American academics Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, Harry Brown’s Golf Ball sounds more like the sort of extended essay school students are set when doing detention. It might seem impossible to make such an object interesting but this is just what Brown achieves over the course of 128 pocket-sized pages. His cultural study is an intriguing mix of history, personal anecdote and cutting-edge philosophy, carrying the reader aloft over a range of courses and discourses past and present.

The eccentric approach to his topic is apparent from the off, both in the comical chapter titles (How the golf ball keeps holy the Lord’s day) and a bravura opening passage which begins with an anatopism: a Kalahari Bushman finding an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle in the desert, which is subsequently worshipped by his tribe and leads to jealousy and violence.  The Bushman finally determines to take this ‘evil thing’ to the end of the world because ‘it doesn’t belong on earth’.* This idea of unhuman objects will eventually (and cleverly) be merged by Brown into the new philosophical realm of Speculative Realism, positing the golf ball in a post-human time and space.

The book is divided into two golfing halves, nine outward ‘holes’ revolving around ‘Thing’, and nine holes coming back in entitled ‘Phenomenon’. The first half of the ‘course’ is studded with interesting facts about the ball itself, for example, how the composition of balls have changed over time in relation to the British empire – from leather and feathers to Malaysian gutta-percha to modern polymers, and how these innovations have themselves changed the game of golf, with course designs altering to accommodate the huge distances which the modern balls can now be hit. We also learn about: the profit to be made in recovering lost golf balls (5 million dollars a year for one American company) and the lawsuits such ‘recycling’ and ‘refurbishing’ has led to; the unusual ways golfers mark their balls to differentiate them when playing (the Northern Irish Darren Clarke draws a green shamrock, Nick Faldo a ‘6’ to represent the number of championships he has won); and the cachet certain golf balls carry, such as the Penfold Hearts used by James Bond in Goldfinger, with Brown cleverly linking this ‘cool’ to Marxist notions of ‘commodity fetishism’. I should add that, refreshingly, all facts and quotations are thoroughly annotated via end notes for each chapter.

The second half concentrates on human interactions with the ball and how to hit it, drawing on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology of happiness book Flow, Zen Buddhist notions of hitting it through not trying to hit it, and the impact of various famous golf guides, such as Jack Nicklaus’s bestseller Golf My Way. Brown also speaks of his own golf ball anecdotes: the time he cut a ball in half as a youth reveal its weird rubber band and liquid polymer interior; the trip to the West Coast of Ireland and his metaphysical experience driving balls from a cliff into a sea of fog; how his father hid golf balls in the foundations of a new housing development in order to befuddle future anthropologists. This eccentric action brings us to the really intriguing aspect of this object-oriented book: the golf ball’s durability.

Brown reveals how animals have begun to co-opt these foreign objects into their lives, with lampreys and red-tailed hawks using them to line their nests. He focuses in on a decomposing gutta-percha ball, the product of a Late 19th Century rubber factory, that has become the home of ladybirds:

The earth itself ushers the golf ball to the next stage of its evolution, changing it from an industrial object existing in historical time to an organic object existing in biological and geographic time.

In the final chapter – How the golf ball prepares for Doomsday – he considers how long the millions of lost polyurethane balls will take to degrade and the possible ecological impact of this. Making nods to the ‘speculative turn’ of recent philosophy and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), Brown draws on Timothy Morton’s notion of the ‘hyperobject’, that man-made objects such as golf balls will outlast the species which created them in the cosmic timeline.

The author does occasionally slice a few shots along the (fair)way. An overly frequent point of reference is Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom, which seems to be a sort of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for golfers, with its mystical guru Shiva Irons waxing lyrical about ‘true gravity’, and remaining (paradoxically) an overfamiliar and still obscure figure by the end. Some may also find the personal anecdotes and mystic thinking (Zen, pop psychology references) a little self-indulgent: the aforementioned golf-balls-off-a-cliff incident comes washed in a Kerouac-tinged haze.

But these are minor gripes. In Golf Ball, Brown has some fun with contemporary thinking whilst never getting too bogged down in the sand trap of theory, the philosophical and phenomenological nuances adding an extra heft to a detailed and often perceptive account, leaving us with some intriguing questions to ponder about the objects we use, lose and overlook every day.

*The film cited for this scene, The Gods Must Be Crazy, is a controversial South African comedy of questionable racial intent, something which is not made apparent in the book under review. I am grateful to @Nick_deKlerk for providing this additional context and a link to the relevant scene:


Featured image ‘Alignment (Golf balls)’ by onigiri-kun and is used under a Creative Commons licence.

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Black Seas of Infinity: The Alien Sound-World of Georg Friedrich Haas

Black Seas of Infinity: The Alien Sound-World of Georg Friedrich Haas
https://i1.wp.com/www.musicaustria.at/sites/default/files/bilder/2010/georg-friedrich-haas_c_astrid_ackermann.jpg
Photo © Astrid Ackermann.

Music, always inhospitable to ekphrasis or literary description, seems doubly so when it’s not even typically ‘musical’, which the sound-worlds of the contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas are not. How to capture the ways this weird sonic world emerges almost organically, ex nihilo, like life itself, mutating, growing, pulsing, speeding up, slowing down, or coming suddenly to a stop. These are soundscapes on a vast scale: gigantic rotating planets, slowly warping architectonics, shimmering stillnesses glowing like the aurora borealis. This microtonal music (also referred to as ‘spectral’) finds its forerunner in the micropolyphonic world of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, the eerie sonic hovering between tones of Atmosphères which Kubrick memorably heard as harmonia mundi, the Music of the Spheres, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps the best ekphrasis would be to quote HP Lovecraft’s vision of the cosmos:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Here are those ‘black seas of infinity’, the ‘terrifying vistas of reality’, depicted in sublime slabs of abstract sonic pulses. The shards of pseudo-melody which occasionally emerge seem even weirder when they do. It puts me in mind of the new philosophical school of the Object-Oriented: perhaps Haas is composing sonic hyperobjects, or preparing us for the post-human world.

Screen-grab from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Screen-grab from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Does the word ‘music’ even apply here? Does it even matter?  This will be noise to most, as it would have been to me but a few months ago, when I was all Bach and Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich, and this would have irked me into violent vocal derision. But then something clicked and its almost drone-like emergence, continuation, disappearance, anti-melodic swells of sound, pure, impure, but not noise (whatever that is), and not irksome. It now chimes offering a sort of mental consolation for the fuzzy logic of the world, a counterfoil to modern life’s dissonant overload. To quote Kafka in his Diaries, it bears me out like a friend.

Recommended Listening:

‘Different-Different But Same’: The Will To Homogenisation

‘Different-Different But Same’: The Will To Homogenisation

It’s Saturday night. You head to the new gastropub which has garnered a reputation for offering something different. You order the smoked pigeon. It arrives on some vast alabaster dish that can’t decide if it’s a bowl or a plate. The food is stacked up in the centre, covered in various flowers, crumbs and savoury popcorn, with several blobs of gel and ejaculates of sauce daubed circumferentially around it.

The ‘Mackerel Marsala’ that follows is no different. And it’s the same story down the road at the more traditional boozer: chips are thrice-cooked and served in quaint baskets; burgers come in the mandatory ‘brioche bun’; wooden chopping boards and slate roof tiles act out as plates. Both pubs foreground the locality of the produce on their menus, ‘local’-ness having become just another brand, another way to market your menu as virtuous, ‘ethically-sourced’. Even the seasons aren’t spared: we drown in pre-festival fanfares – Easter, Halloween, Christmas; we are returned to the medieval with seasonal produce, spring greens, early asparagus, what have you. Here, then, is uniform difference: the will to homogenisation on a plate.

Medieval wooden platters are back in demand.

It is tempting to blame MasterChef or one of the many other cookery programmes which cling limpet-like to the TV schedules, to see them as producing a peculiar feedback cycle of demand and supply in terms of proffered dishes and ‘plating up’. The customer has seen those blobs of gel on TV, or had those ‘triple-cooked’ chips somewhere else, and now they want it that way here, too. But I think there is something more fundamental at work here: the will to homogenise isn’t restricted to gastronomy. High Streets, hairstyles, talent shows on TV . . . options narrow down into a blancmange of uniformity. Threatening complexity is reduced to something more easier to categorise and apprehend. The model of neoliberalism and its predatory hyper-capitalism is to assimilate, commodify, monetise until the market is super-saturated, then tweak and repeat. Nothing escapes. Originality, novelty, difference: all becomes subsumed into the homogenising system, fetishised by marketing gurus and media nodes as this season’s must-eat, must-read, must-see, must-do. What begins in one locale eventually becomes ubiquitous, national, transnational: pale baguettes and chewy macaroons on every supermarket shelf.

Anyone who has spent any time in South-East Asia will be familiar with the sales pitch-cum-philosophical mantra, Same Same But Different. The will to homogenisation results in a reversal of this axiom – in seeking to be different-different things become increasingly similar.

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Same form, different colour.

Researching photographs for this essay, I noticed how rare real uniformity is: the windows in those vast housing estates and skyscrapers had a curtain pulled to, a sticker, reflected clouds; the stadium chairs either bore an individuating number or reflected the light differently, turning its aquamarine blue more eggshell; one can imagine up close that each would have unique pattern of scratches, unique fungal knots of hardened chewing gum, graffiti, what have you. Objects seem to resist homogenisation even when mass-production forms them as such. Time and light transfigure them into individuated entities.  The will to homogenisation, borne of capitalism, and thus, borne out of the human condition, is ultimately thwarted, happily so for those who desire difference.  Whereas the complexity of the universe emerged from a singularity, all life on earth from fairly simple building blocks.

Heterogeneity and variation are elemental parts of organic life (evolution through random mutations); the will to homogenise is man-made and finds its purest outlet in the capitalist model, striving for a globalised village of branded stores selling the same branded goods via the same marketing methods. It engenders a dystopian vision of endless rows of sameness on the shelves and on our plates, where the critical room to manoeuvre and think differently enough to critique the system is increasingly diminished. Homogenisation is anti-life, predatory hyper-capitalism a form of hyper-fascism. In the long run, life and difference will win.


Food image by Franek N and stadium chairs by Patrick Mayon. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

Defeating the Object: Public Secrets

Defeating the Object: Public Secrets

On the busy road into Cambridge, as it winds through the suburban village of Trumpington, you pass a pub with a sign that boldly declares it possesses ‘Cambridge’s Best Kept Secret – Great Thai Food’. Of course, for ‘best’ you should read ‘worst’. This self-defeating annoucement was repeated recently in a rather blatant piece of of ‘content’ filler on the Guardian’s website. Piggybacking on another product as so much modern predatory ‘content’ does (in this instance, a new BBC TV series), an article’s headline enquired: What are your favourite secret places in Britain’s countryside?  Some below-the-line commentators saw through the ruse, posting comments along the lines of ‘If I told you, it would no longer be secret!’ Others, however, were only too happy to oblige, divulging their hidden Edens to the wider public. These responses spawned a follow-up article, Your favourite secret corners of the British countryside – mapped, compounding the betrayal of these secret paradises, by mapping them with flags on Google maps.

Not only is the object of a secret is manifestly defeated in these two public annoucements, but what is curious is: 1) how capitalism uses the secret for publicity as a marketing tool; and 2) how readily some of those Guardian readers were to reveal their own private paradises. What is particularly cynical about the latter is how the Guardian connived to get this private information out of them and into its very public domain.  For, along with the contentless nature of modern content, there is another ‘con’ involved: that of its being outsourced, user-generated. Contributors receive the pseudo-creditability of having their work – photos, short inoffensive articles – hosted on the website in its Guardian Witness section, which the Guardian will use to generate statistics to sell advertising space and generate revenue on the back of these contributor’s unpaid work. It’s a curious economic model for an institution that once bemoaned the rise of internships, but in a world of proliferating digital content, those empty text boxes have to get filled somehow, doncha know! Of course, this is equally true of every reader visiting the site: all visits are converted into discrete data flows – clicks, page views, etc. – which are amassed and repackaged to impress potential advertisers. Since it’s still free to read, how are we to complain?

Still, what is troubling about the Guardian’s articles is the predatory nature of it.  In a world where the division between public and private is collapsing through both the ‘lifestreaming’ Instagram culture, a government surveillance assemblage which demands that ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’, and now newspapers encouraging you to feed them content, it would seem that even our secrets are no longer safe.


Featured Image c/o Tralmer Poster Collection (Plakatsammlung) and used under a Creative Commons license.

All Novels Are Not Novels of Ideas: A Rebuttal

All Novels Are Not Novels of Ideas: A Rebuttal

A not-so recent literary event at the LSE Space For Thought festival chaired by TLS editor Michael Caines considered the following question: Is There Life in the Novel of Ideas? After hearing two considered responses from the academic Peter Boxhall and novelist Jennie Erdal (the latter bringing a philosophical sensibility to what it, essentially, a philosophical genre), the novelist and commentator Andrew O’Hagan sought to negate the debate by declaring that ‘every good novel is a novel of ideas’ (35’11). But for the gentle prodding of the chair, the discussion could have wilted and died there and then, such was the declamatory force of O’Hagan’s proposition. O’Hagan then undermined his own case by conflating the novel of ideas with the avant-garde novel and experimental novel.

Image © Penguin Books

At the time I felt that this was wrong-headed but was unable to articulate my ideas on the spot. Well, a month has passed in which those ideas have had time to gestate, so now I’ll try and put them down here. Let’s take Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea. Few would doubt that this is a self-consciously philosophical novel with an all-pervading idea in phenomenology, an idea through which its protagonist and plot are enframed. Likewise, Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is self-consciously tackling the idea of totalitarianism. The idea percolates through every page. Character, plot, dialogue, and setting are all enmeshed within these ideas and help to convey them. Here, then, are two very obvious novels of ideas, one philosophical, the other political. We might also think of the novels of Dostoyevsky and Iris Murdoch. Modern examples might be those that dabble in meta-fiction and deconstruct the idea of trying to write a novel whilst writing one: Paul Auster’s whole back catalogue; Ben Lehrer’s 10:04; Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., and other ‘novels of the No’, to quote a phrase from the latter novel. There are the self-consciously avant-garde, pseudo-philosophical novels of Tom McCarthy – Remainder, C, Satin Island. There is John Lanchester’s political novel, Capital, tackling the financial crisis. There are sci-fi novels dealing with Articifical Intelligence and android ethics, like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The canon is not lacking for examples. What O’Hagan was driving at in his provocative, even wilfully contrarian comment, was that novels necessarily contains ideas, whether or not their authors intend for them to be there.  The thinking here seems to be that when you write down a scenario in which characters engage in dialogue in whatever setting, then ideas will be there, too, in the very fabric of this contrived fictive space. It’s as though he believes dialogue, descriptions, characters, plot are the same as ideas. It seems reductive, far too reductive. More than that, it is a perverse misunderstanding of what is generally accepted to be meant by ‘a novel of ideas’. Which is what, exactly? Interestingly, at no point did anyone in the room, audience and panel alike, attempt to define the term, ‘a novel of ideas’. Neither does the Oxford Book of Literary Terms, nor the OED. Blackwell’s Reference Online uses the term ‘philosophical novel’:

The philosophical novel can be minimally defined as a genre in which characteristic elements of the novel are used as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical questions and concepts. In its “purest” form, it perhaps most properly designates those relatively singular texts which may be said to belong to both the history of philosophy and of literature, and to occupy some indeterminate space between them. Today the term is often used interchangeably with the more recent concept of the “novel of ideas,” though some theorists have sought to establish a clear division between the two (Bewes).

It lists Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Julie, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea as ‘relatively un-contentious examples of the form’. However, the entry does note that ‘the philosophical novel is marked by an exceptional plasticity’, illustrating this point with other less avowedly philosophical novels, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, whichhave also been read by critics in such terms’. We risk veering towards O’Hagan’s point here, but then the ideas of Austen’s novel are surely made apparent in its title; she has clearly built a romantic drama around the negative human traits of pride and prejudice with both moral and satirical aims in mind. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.) also finds room for an entry on this subject:

Image © Penguin

The philosophical novel is usually understood as that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a specific philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, and sometimes aesthetic.

It offers the moral philosophy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as one example, before listing others:

[…] the novels of George Eliot or Proust’s analysis of memory and identity in A la recherche du temps perdu. Characteristically, such philosophical ideas are illustrated rather than asserted, as in Middlemarch, where George Eliot shows us various forms of egoism. In the twentieth century the novels of Sartre presented existential themes more memorably and vividly than his philosophical writing, and Camus’s The Outsider is a paradigm of the philosophical novel.

Crucially, this resource explains what difference this makes from both ends of the writer-reader divide:

The free exploration of literary space in interpretation is thereby placed within bounds set by the philosophical presuppositions of the novelist. Interpretation is not only limited by the text but also by the recognition that a certain philosophical standpoint is involved.

In other words, the author of a novel of ideas reasserts his authority over the text, which would seem to nullify Barthes’ assertion of ‘the death of the author’ usurped by an all-powerful reader free to interpret texts as they please.

§

So where does all this leave Andrew O’Hagan and his reductive view of the novel of ideas? In need of reassessment, I would suggest. It seems to me that those novels like Nausea whose central idea can be summed up in a word or short phrase should be used as a genre benchmark. Other parameters for genre classification could also include the following: how much of the novel is suffused by this central idea? Are the characters motivated by it or engage with it? Does it influence the setting, the atmosphere, the lexis, the plot, or the entire fictive world as ‘totalitarianism’ does in 1984? The ‘novel of ideas’, then, is not really a radical piece of classification. It simply states that a particular novel has an overarching idea as its central conceit, which was purposefully put there by the novelist. Forewarned is forearmed. It both aids the reader in his reading and the critic in his interpretation, and helps secure the writer’s intentions from ‘death of the author’-style postmodernist assault. Everyone wins. Where’s the harm in that?


Featured image by Pimthida and used under a Creative Commons license.

Strange Loops: On GIFs

Strange Loops: On GIFs

Eternity is a child at play.

Uncannily, this Heraclitean fragment captures both the form, and often the content, of the short animated image, the GIF.1 Here is a child at play set to repeat every tenth frame ad infinitum. Others show a cat appearing to pull an angry face. A celebrity looking aghast. A funny dance. And so on, looping round strangely long after the novelty and initial amusement has worn off. What happens here is an extreme form of editing, paring back all the inessentials, the great cacophony of life, to hone in on ‘the moment of a moment’.2

Many GIFs provide the same serotonin hit of Schadenfreude as the ostensibly candid displays of accidents on those erstwhile video camera clip-shows likeYou’ve Been Framed. Being often mere seconds long, however, GIFs deal in the ultra-condensed, micro-plots, fragments of mishap, grimace, event, itself a commentary on the reduced attention spans (or expectations) of the viewer. They are also now being used in discourse, as visual short-hand for ‘reactions’, a sort of evolution of the static emoticon. Earlier this week, it was reported that Google responded to criticism in the Wall Street Post with a GIF of a baby laughing.

It is tempting to write them off as the wind-up toys of the digital age, repetitive gimcracks that tire as quickly as they catch the eye, instantly disposable gratification. There is much one could theorise about here: animation and anima; miniaturisation; cartoonification of discourse, all of which link to infantilisation, a theme of modern life I find increasingly prevalent, but I will concentrate on the element of eternity they offer, something between a strange loop and ouroubouros, the snake forever eating its own tail, which itself resembles the modern loading icons, forging an association between itself and the endless falling through links in the infosphere.

Ouroboros

I often return to something the Bach interpreter, Wanda Landowska, said of Bach’s music in relation to eternity:

There is something eternal in Bach’s music, something that makes us wish to hear again what has just been played. This renewal gives us a glimpse of eternity.3

One hears this in the Cello Suites or the keyboard works, and, curiously, the ear never seems to tire of Bach’s harmonic and melodic variations on the notion of unity-in-diversity. It is possible to immerse oneself in Bach for hours, days, weeks, years, and yet such immersion brings not boredom but a constantly renewed interest in the music. Whereas the eternity that GIFs portray has something infernal in its endless repetition – psychotic, demented, unnatural – which disturbs the direct gaze and peripheral vision alike; hence, none are present on this page.

But is there also artistry here in the thought-provoking usage of time? Often GIFs seem to be aesthetic updates of the impossible geometries of MC Escher and Sir Roger Penrose for the moving image:

 A Penrose Triangle

Examples might include the 3D renders of Francoise Gamma, or those uncanny film screengrabs where only one part of the image moves – water shimmers, clouds drift, hair flaps about in the wind in an otherwise static milieu. The conceit is interesting. We are forced to reconsider anew the Heraclitean nature of identity through flux and the notion of panta rhei: everything flows, something so obvious as to be consistently overlooked. Stillness is actually absent from the world.

Whilst ostensibly offering us an escape from our lives, GIFs actually bespeak our reality and return us to the treadmill nature of our days (wake, eat, work, shit, sleep, repeat), the destiny of human existence (Eliot’s biblical chiasmus in Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end […] In my end is my beginning’). In this way, these superficial loops become unconscious depictions of existential despair at finding oneself trapped in the cycle of cycles (news, consumer, seasonal), refresh buttons, and loading icons.

In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the German critic posited the idea that works of art once possessed an aura through being originals, historical one-offs unique in time and place, usually to a very specific locale: a church, say. With mechanical reproduction, that aura was lost. GIFs, like most digital images, are made to be disseminated, reproduced, go viral, to be non-local and atemporal of the Internet. Such reproduction is a raison d’être – to be everywhere and nowhere, at least as long as the power stays on and the servers remain online. The more they spread, the greater their aura, turning Benjamin’s idea on its head.

If GIFs aspire to art, and others (well, Buzzfeed) have offered this mantle for them, then at some level they have to be able to move you, and, occasionally, these curious amalgams of the Absolute and the absolutely banal do. Take this one of a Chinese street vendor saving a falling infant. Okay, this is film footage, chance reportage, that has been turned into a GIF, but there is drama here, catharsis, humanity, as hope teetering on the edge of tragedy triumphs, foreclosing on Fate and Death for once. It is strangely satisfying and doesn’t diminish with repetition. But is this contingent on its GIFness? Perhaps. The repetition forces us to focus in on its participants: the principle ‘hero’s upwards gaze and outstretched arms, his fixed concentration on the act he has been nudged into performing by chance; the clumsy bumbling shirtless extra trying to help and almost ruining the catch; the suspense generated by the off-screen item which is teetering and about to fall; the woman in the raincoat noticing and screaming; and then, with unexpected suddenness, the successful catch, the panic of it, how its velocity and weight drag the man’s arms down; finally, the reveal: the unidentified falling object is a child.  It startles as all good art should.

But such startling is all too rare in the glowing Technicolor annals of GIFs, where three seconds of celebrity eyebrows being raised, or anthropomorphic cats in beanie hats, constitute the next day-long meme in an increasingly infantilised culture.

  1. Graphics Interchange Format.
  2. Kafka’s Diaries, July 5 1916.
  3. ‘On the Interpretation of JSBach’s Keyboard Music’, Landowska on Music, Stein & Day (1969).

Mozart and the Dormouse: On BBC4 Documentaries

Mozart and the Dormouse: On BBC4 Documentaries

The BBC don’t do book shows, at least not on TV, was a recent (and justified) complaint.

Oh, yes we do! they were quick to retort. What about Wolf Hall?

It was an interesting rebuttal, positing adaptation as literary critique. What, then, is one to make of the Guy Ritchie-fied The Musketeers as a critique of Dumas’s novel? It’s not hard to fathom why the BBC focuses on books as televion drama. Adaptations guarantee an audience, foreign rights sales, repeats ad infinitum, merchandise spin-offs such as DVDs, and ubiquitous media coverage, especially if your cast finds room for a Cumberbatch. How could a show of spoken literary opinion possibly hope to compete?

Furthermore, the once isolating event of viewing television is becoming increasingly communal through social media. Programmes are now hashtagged in media res on Twitter with the viewing public’s extemporaneous punditry. Post-broadcast, these viewers then flock to a newspaper’s episode-by-episode blog to post their long-form opinion BTL.[1] The standard TV critic’s job must now feel rather precarious, at risk of endangerment from the sheer volume and immediacy of ‘citizen criticism’.

A round-table TV show of critics discussing books must, I suppose, be seen as a massive turn-off for viewers by the BBC’s commissioning editors. It’s not something our French cousins have a problem with, not in other European countries. But there the noun ‘intellectual’ is not a dirty word. If its documentaries are anything to go by, BBC TV seems terrified of appearing intellectual or high-brow (not so, Radios 3 and 4, with the gloriously intelligent In Our Time and Free Thinking). I presume they perceive intellectual discourse as being antithetical to its modern-day striving for some wholly arbitrary and artificial notion of ‘balance’ and ‘inclusivity’. Even on BBC4, where anything even remotely challenging to the cerebral faculties gets shipped off to nowadays, the cookie-cutter documentaries all feature Brian Sewell’s much-loathed ‘arm-waggling presenters. The BBC’s film show replaced its serious-minded jumper-wearing critic, Barry Norman, with a slew of increasingly youthful Pretty Young Things (Ross, Winkelman), pop-culture savvy and designed to appeal to some imaginary audience which is always decreasing in age. Perhaps the dream is that, one day, the CBeebies and Arts programme audiences will somehow merge.

Infants certainly stand a better chance of understanding Tom Service’s inane babble in his recent ‘arm-waggling’ Mozart doc, The Joy of Mozart (BBC4). Service was guilty of the very hagiography and hyperbole he lamented in his opening gambit. Highlighting emphatically the hyperbole showered on the Austrian – ‘other-worldly genius!’, ‘divine gift from god!’ – Service sought to remind us dummies that Mozart was a human being, ‘just like you and me’ (thanks, Tom, because I had my doubts). He continues:

‘except he could express the pain and pleasure, the joy and darkness of being human, more completely, and more humanly, than any other composer’.

We are 42 seconds into the programme and after this breathtakingly banal statement, hyperbolic and hagiographic in the extreme, I want to turn it off. Add to this the fact that as he’s saying this piece to camera, a Salzburg waiter is trying to serve him coffee, only underscores the amateur quality of this production.

There were experts in there somewhere – a minute or two of Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the Mozart scholar Ulrich Leisinger – but they were competing with the over-excitable presenter, who even hounded one expert at the British Library until he half-concurred with Service’s intransigent point of view. Banality plumbed new depths with Service using the License Fee to eat a Mozart-emblazoned chocolate in Salzburg, and then speaking with his mouth full, as if this would in any way help to elucidate Mozart for us. The nadir, though, was the accompaniment of the word ‘billiards’ with the sound effect of balls clacking together: a bafflingly infantile addition.

Presenters weren’t always loudly bland arm-wagglers. One pines for Kenneth Clark and Sister Wendy: serious-minded, quiet-voiced, unaccompanied by bombastic soundtrack, given the time to speak at length as opposed to in 30-second sound bites. 2014’s ‘where is she now?’ documentary of Sister Wendy reminded me of how pleasant it is to spoken to, not bawled at, as in those aforementioned carbon-copy documentaries. Scroll through the TV listings and you can’t help but trip up over several. The titles usually employ lists of three – Maps: Power, Plunder, and Possession; Harlots, Housewives, and Heroines – which the producer learnt were good things during their GCSE English Language class, and have stuck to this credo ever since. What we get is some telegenic, hip academic mooning up at cathedral ceilings in exotic locales, or yawping blandishments and hyperbole over bombastically emotive soundtracks, instructing the dunderhead viewer how he/she should be reacting at this point: SPOOKY! EXCITING! DANGEROUS!

All of which brings me to the recent bookish documentary fronted by Martha Kearney, The Secret World of Lewis Carroll (BBC4), which again displayed the downward trajectory of documentary making at the BBC. In the post-Savile era, this was always going to be interesting and came with a stentorian warning: contains adult themes.

Having thus established that only adults should be watching because of the paedophilia content, we were soon watching cartoon rabbits bounding along a river bank in Oxford and a cartoon Cheshire cat smiling up a tree. It could have been a Chris Morris sketch. Although one could see the point of revisiting the riverbank where Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was conjured up on a summer’s day, the addition of the cartoons surely only made sense for a children’s audience.

Then there were the repetitions, as if the audience were suffering from short-term memory loss and had to be constantly reminded of the documentary’s thesis statement: Dodgson might have been a paedophile, we just don’t know, because Victorians had different values to ours. The French refer to all this as allonger la sauce: diluting the story down, stringing it out to make up the format length and, one presumes, keep us on tenterhooks for the only new evidence the story had to present: a nude photograph of Alice’s sister, Lydia, aged 13, which required a visit to the South of France with an expert. [2] Such false suspense appended to the end was clumsy. Why not subvert this tediously formulaic narrative frame and work backwards from this revelation at the start, if only for novelty’s sake?

‘It’s a problem when someone writes a great book and they’re not a great person.’ Will Self

The programme reflected all possible views of Dodgson’s proclivity for photographing nymph-like females, fulfilling that essential BBC ‘balance’. It all felt like so much fence-sitting, awkward justifications for liking Carroll’s work but suspecting the man’s peccadilloes, terrified to take a stance. The nub seemed to be Self’s pertinent comment quoted above and Kearney’s questionable journalistic ethics: ‘I’m such a big fan of his work that I’m quite resistant to the idea of any possible dark side.’ The ‘shocking new evidence’ was not set in the context of a Victorian age of consent, ‘within the range of 10 to 12, but in 1875 the age was raised to 13‘, and again seemed to revert to ahistorical indignation in spite of its professed objectivity.

With all the expense lavished on these mish-mash historico-travel documentaries, and their failure to deliver anything like a coherent argument, one rather pines for the simplicity a round-table book review programme with someone restrained, eloquent, and intelligent chairing it would provide. Is Sister Wendy available?

[1] Below-the-line.
[2] In Kearney’s defence, she did say that the photograph was not allowed to leave the museum.

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare putting the Dormouse in the Teapot, illustration by John Tenniel