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News and Commentary

3 October 2010

Jonathan Bowden's The Fanatical Pursuit of Purity

John Michael McCloughlin

(From Counter Currents)

Jonathan Bowden
The Fanatical Pursuit of Purity
London: The Spinning Hat Club, 2008

This book was published in 2008 by the Spinning Top Club in London. It is a Gothic or picaresque novel of 178 pages. This book can be considered in two basic ways. The first revolves around purely literary considerations. These have to do with an external or diachronic quality which Wyndham Lewis first explicated in the ‘twenties or before. His aesthetic — very much influenced by his career as a painter — views mankind from the outside. A strategy that is intimately related, in turn, to the portrait painter’s desire to get closer and closer to the sitter — almost in a manner which portends a threatening encounter. To wit: in this regard, one remembers Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill after the war. It was destroyed by Clementine and the Churchill family — thereby setting back the British tax payer £80,000 (quite a sizeable amount in the ‘fifties). Churchill hated the painting. He declared grandly: “It makes me look thick — and I ain’t!” Always the joker, eh? Nonetheless, the revisionist biography of Churchill by Professor Charmley from Cambridge University features this portrait on the cover.

The point of this digression is that a “Rightwing” view of letters often leads to an exteriorisation of Style. This tends to concentrate on a grotesque or Baroque build-up of language which both Lewis and Céline accessed in their fiction. In no matter how crude or dialectical a way (in cultural politics) this was contrasted to the interior monologue or consciousness stream in James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, for example. Perhaps the most gargantuan and gross attempt to do this was Wyndham Lewis’ satire, The Apes of God. This gigantic tome anatomized English culture in the late ‘twenties with a painter’s or an externalist’s eye.

Bowden’s novel, on the other hand, deals with a retinue of puppets in a marionette show who are marshalled by the late Eric Brammall. (Note: he was a very famous puppeteer from North Wales who wrote extensively about this folk art in the British ‘fifties). Like superheroes in graphic novels, the purity of puppets means that you can be as extreme, heroic, or trans-rational with them as you like. This gives free rein to violent, illiberal fantasy or the need for escape!

An important point was made by the British militant and nationalist Joe Owens in a recent post about a Batman film review on this site . . . he regarded undue immersion in fantasy as negative, counter-propositional, even set up by one’s enemies. This is an important point and was well expressed by him. Yet I believe that Bowden would disagree. Liberal humanist societies — as currently perceived by those who live in them — are incredibly boring. Most citizens, subjects of the Crown (or whatever), seek escape from the above brown fugg. Nor is this only marked in adolescence or childhood — although it may be most obvious then. I think that the real point is the nature of the fantasy engaged in and heroic, violent, semi-conscious, militantly engendered (i.e., radically male or female), and elitist material of this sort worries critical establishmentarianism. Hence we see the fact that most Western arts faculties have a methodology (post-structuralism) through which to view it so as to always end up with the “correct” interpretation. War literature — for example — is regarded as qualitatively dangerous in many a Cultural Studies department.

Nonetheless, the use of a heroic puppet called Phosphorous Cool in Bowden’s narrative (with legions of minor or supporting characters) in two basic plot-lines, leads to variously transgressive outcomes. All of these relate, en passant, to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty which relates very much to cinema directors like Alfred Hitchcock. For Hitchcock, as Camille Paglia has observed, the real point is to paint on screen with the actors available. This is another exterior vision — one which does little to ameliorate the imagination’s authoritarian bias.

The other of the two points about Bowden’s fiction, in my opinion, is the anti-dualism of the main antagonists. There are few heroes or villains in his work but combinations of the two instead. If you were to take this Superhuman or In-humanist notion out of fiction altogether . . . you might end up with some interesting ideas. Almost everyone grows up with the idea that Wilhelmian Germany (Prussianism and so on) was “bad”; the Allied powers are correspondingly benign. The same idolatry or Aunt Sally tactics are used again and again. What if these things were more grey, indeterminate, powerful, non-Christian and Pagan in specificity (à la Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil). Isn’t it at least a fact, if only provisionally, that if you approached Second War historicism from a different prism one might understand today’s world better? Mightn’t the truth lie dynamically between two texts at either end of a metaphoric book-shelf — perhaps Martin Gilbert’s Churchill biography and David Irving’s The Mare’s Nest?

If one begins to view the heroic urge in this way then one foregrounds the screenplay writing of John Milius, for instance, but one can also proceed beyond it to Ernst Jünger or Guy de Montherlant. For, if one takes these artistic notions of reprisement on board, then might Bowden be described as doing artistically what certain revisionists are attempting in more factual or non-fictional ways over time. Who knows? Anyway, when Professor George Steiner wrote his play, The Portage of A. H. to San Cristobal, over thirty years ago he implicitly recognized that criticism wasn’t enough.

For those who have ears to hear — let them hear!

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