Friday, June 29, 2012

Mythmaking and Morrissey

Q: How often does the seriousness end and the irony begin in your work?
A: Many times. I have a grand and endless capacity to find myself slightly ridiculous. I'm not pretending to be some wallowing prophet, for heaven's sake. I think we all have to sit down and look in the mirror and think, What is that absurd monstrosity?
- Interview with Morrissey,
Details magazine, 1992

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
- The Critic as Artist, Pt. II, Oscar Wilde

One of the things that has always intrigued me about the career of one Steven Patrick Morrissey is just when is he taking himself seriously and when is he playing a huge joke on all of us and taking the piss. Certainly Morrissey has indicated and demonstrated that he can be deadly earnest,whether it's his opinions on the rights of animals (he's for them) or the chances of The Smiths reuniting (zero).

And yet... and yet.

I would go out tonight
But I haven't got a stitch to wear
- "This Charming Man," The Smiths

Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.

- An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before," a single1 off of the Smiths' fourth and final studio LP Strangeways Here We Come, somewhat follows the formula of most Smiths videos up to this point: put a lot of attention on Morrissey (who likes the attention) and relegate the band, workmanlike, into a supporting role. "Stop Me" takes this one step further and dispenses with Mssrs. Marr, Rourke, and Joyce altogether.

To put the "plot" of this video as simply as humanly possible, it's a bunch of people dressed like Morrissey riding around Manchester on bikes with the real Morrissey. While that's going on we get some posed and composed shots of the aforementioned quasi-Morrisseys, photos of idols of Morrissey's, and places in Manchester that Morrissey seems to like. That's it.

Post-postmodern-perspective-wise, this video has always blown my fucking mind. It's Morrissey, literally taking every single juicy morsel of the myth of him being an aesthete and narcissist and exploding it. Not "exploding it" in the traditional sense of the word (denying and refuting it) but blowing it up to absurd proportions. In this video, Morrissey has a posse. With him are a about a dozen other young men, also with 50s-style quiff haircuts, NHS-style glasses, painfully dorky looking bicycles, and a somewhat revolting tendency to pose, posture and preen. And most of them are wearing Smiths t-shirts. Haven't they ever heard that indie precept that you never wear the t-shirt of the band you're going to see? Let alone the band whose singer you are going to act as narcissistic doppelganger for?

I say a lot of things I don’t mean.
- Morrissey, 2003

Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.
- Oscar Wilde in a letter to James McNeil Whistler 

So here's where I ask the question again: is Morrissey taking the piss? Specifically, in the video above? At this point in his career, and keep in mind that's only a 7-8 year career at this early point, it doesn't even matter. In my opinion the self-mythologizing is being done in such a blatantly obvious and seemingly ironic way that it comes back around from parody back toward sincerity again. Let me count the ways in which Morrissey constructs and deconstructs his own myth in less than three and a half minutes.

  1. Punctured bicycle/crashed down on the crossbar: First the use of the bicycle in both the lyrics and the video deliverately echoes the lyrics of the song for which the Smiths first became (in)famous: their first ever Top 40 single "This Charming Man." On British TV institution Top of the Pops, Morrissey somewhat scandalized the assembled TV viewers by Byronically opening up his shirt and thrashing himself with gladioli. A conscious set of bookends to his career with the Smiths and a kiss-off to his bandmates who he'd grown to loathe? I'd have to think so.
  2. The cycling tour of North Cornwall Manchester: Yes, this... is Manchester. But is it a Manchester of the late 80s where the Madchester scene was in full swing and had revitalized the streets of the drab Northwestern city? While by no means safe, sparkling, and crime-free, Manchester in 1987 for the most part certainly didn't look like the streets of a 1950s British black-and-white kitchen sink drama. Morrissey's Manchester in this video looks like it's just been bombed by the fucking Nazis.
  3. Re-issue! Re-package! Double-pack with a photograph: Also as they ride around Manchester there is the tyranny of image everywhere. Three-second cuts of the Morrissoids posing like wan Hollywood stars on the swoon. Conveniently placed posters of figures that Morrissey reveres (Oscar Wilde, Elvis, etc.) but this is part of the Smiths (more accurately Morrissey's) branding plan for the band all along: every single Smith's album contains a cover photo not of someone in the band but instead pop culture heroes, preferably from the 50s or 60s. Likewise the locations in the video: the roundabout to Strangeways and Salford, the Salford Lads' Club (from the inside cover of The Queen is Dead), the betting shop run by Albert Finney's dad have now become sites of pilgrimage and/or iconic images for Morrissey fans nearly 25 years later.
  4. Send in the clones: I don't think I have to explain how incredibly, almost laughably narcissistic it is to recruit a dozen young people (and keep in mind at this point Morrissey is pushing age 30) dressed exactly like you, who were probably fans of your band and have them ride around with you, again posing and preening in unison the whole time. Creepy. Funny? Ironic? Sincere?
In the end, this video defies categorization. When you've run the whole gamut of sincere feeling to high camp to ironic self-parody and back again, not over course of decades, but of three-and-a-half minutes, there's no way to tell which is real and which is the illusion. Which I suppose is wholly the point.

Who said I'd lied, because I never!
- Morrissey

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
- Oscar Wilde

1Actually, it never got the chance to be a single, at least in the UK, because of a reference to a mass murder in the lyrics and the then-recent Hungerford massacre in the UK. Plus ça change, eh?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

That Explains Everything

Click to enlarge. Even then, get ready to squint.

I'll try to explain this next week, and I'll post a link to its creator, but for now I think it's more fun if I just provide it without explanation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Dismemberment of Germany, Part 1: Churchill-Morgenthau

So as I was surfing through Wikipedia last week (if this blog had a drinking game, you would be asked to take a shot right now), I came across the page for the Yalta Conference. As a particularly savvy (or so I'd like to think) World War II buff, I thought I'd known exactly how the plan for the division of Europe happened; Stalin rooks Roosevelt, Churchill fumes, film at 11.

The truth ends up being a tad bit more complicated than that.

Yalta was a series of committee meetings. And out of those committee meetings some unusual plans were hatched. Check out these four partition plans by the "Committee for the Dismemberment of Germany" (wow, that's an evocative name, no?)

Listen, I'm a sucker for maps. Moreover, I'm a HUGE sucker for alt.history maps. What would the next 70 years of European history have been like under these plans? (I'm conflating the Churchill and Morgenthau plans because they were basically two versions of the same idea: conquer, divide, and cripple the new German states by dividing it along a north-south axis).

Churchill/Morgenthau: The old bulldog got his way, and Stalin seethed. A demilitarized, deindustralized, and denazified triad of German states emerged from the conquered Nazi regime. North Germany would take the brunt of the deindustrialization. Allied troops smashed machines, dismantled factories and enforced population movement out of the cities and into the countryside in a bizarre cross between Ludditism and Soviet forced collectivism. The Southern state, a mix of Bavarian, Austrian, and Hungarian ethnicities, floundered under the burden of two official languages and multiple cultures, much like the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. But, unlike North Germany, it was entirely more cosmopolitan and urban since it had less industrial backbone to break.

Throughout the 50s North Germany remained a poor backward state, its economy and culture even more moribund than grey and drab Great Britain post-war and post-Empire. Post-war America, however, thrived. Wholly American-owned corporations invested carefully in North Germany, using North German labor for rock-bottom prices. The raw materials of the Ruhr remained, even if the Nazi factories had been razed. Cheap food, harvested by the superior American agricultural technology of United Grain, flooded European and Middle Eastern shops and ports, leaving Germany relying on UN food aid and airlifts.

It was under Khrushchev that the Soviets began plants agents provocateur of the First Chief Directorate in the mines, factories and collective farms of North Germany. Taking the form of friendly industrial and agricultural "advisors" (which were allowed under the post-war Churchill-Morgenthau Agreement concocted at Yalta), they infiltrated the trade unions (also explicitly allowed under the Agreement, although they were not permitted to form political parties) and fed Communist dogma to the workers. By New Years' Day, 1959, the time had come for the coup. The American/British puppet North German Provisional Parliament was overthrown; Berlin mayor Herbert Frahm, a Resistance hero and avowed socialist, became the President of the new North German Democratic Republic. The Soviets now had a client state 90 miles from Paris. The early 60s would see crisis after crisis in President Nixon's first term, including a disastrous American-British-French invasion of Luxembourg and the infamous Frankfurt Missile Crisis.

Meanwhile, South Germany thrived. Unburdened by the enforced deindustrialization of the North, it became a cultural center, rebuilding its schools, hospitals, and cultural attractions to great effect. As such, South Germany became a meeting ground for spies from both sides of Churchill's "Iron Wall." But South Germany was also becoming the playground of the rapidly growing jet-set. Vienna was attracting prominent modern artists, becoming an artistic center for Europe as it was at the fin de siècle. When a young British rock 'n' roll combo wanted to have a taste of the decadence of the continent, they came to Vienna and played in its famed red light district.

I'm only taking this alternate history up to 1963, as I'm feeling like it would end up going very much like our timeline after this. North Germany remains Communist up until the present day even after the fall of the Soviet Union, just like Cuba. Sort of a "DDR Forever" kind of thing. And South Germany would probably start receiving the American investment that was lost under Willy Brandt, and turn into a combination of 1960s Las Vegas, pre-fall Saigon, and modern Amsterdam.

Coming Soon: Part 2, the Roosevelt Plan, or Westphalia II: or, Back in the old H.R.E.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Inside My Haunted Head

There’s a house that’s been in my dreams off and on for the past year or two. At least I think it has. I’ve never written anything about it down or spoken of it to anyone, so who can say if my memories of dreaming of the house are real or if it was just part of the dream that I’ve been visiting this house off and on for months now.  And actually now that I sit to write about it, it’s not even a set house, but a room that keeps moving from house to house.

The first dream I can recall about the room (with the above caveat) involved my wife and I being shown a house by a realtor. It was a large yellow folk Victorian farmhouse and a sweeping wrap-around porch sitting somewhere near the edge of a ravine. Gorgeous house although the stairways were narrow and the wiring needed some work. The master bedroom was up on the third floor.

And on the left-hand side of the room were four steps leading up to a small door set about halfway up the wall.  Beyond the little door were stairs leading into an unfinished attic room with a high peaked ceiling (although it came down quite steeply and it was difficult to stand up fully along the sides of the room) and a twin bed there in the middle.  And that attic room was haunted.

By this I don’t mean I saw a ghost in there or things started flying around or whatnot. But it felt haunted. I knew it was haunted. That attic room was emotionally terrifying without any evidence as to why it should be.

I don’t recall the rest of the dream other than the bone numbing terror I felt standing at the top of the steps.  But some time later I saw the room again. This time it was accessed from the second floor bedroom of a ranch. I remember the layout of this house very well and I think this particular version may have come back a few times.  I was visiting a friend there, and I remembered that I’d looked at the house before but decided not to buy it.  The living room was on the right as you entered, kitchen around back with a door leading out into the back yard. If you turned to the left when you came in the front door you came to the stairs leading up to the second floor where there were two bedrooms. And in one of them that little door up the half flight of steps.  This time I didn’t (couldn’t) go up. I knew what was there.

And several other times that I think I remember. Each time the house itself was slightly different, each time there was the thought that I had seen the house before and thought about buying it, and each time that little door and the steps and the attic with the neatly made bed. And the haunting.

That particular two story ranch configuration of the house, or something similar, returned last night. Again a friend was living there and I knew I’d looked into buying the house before she did.  Last night’s was the first time I recall the house’s inhabitant being aware of the attic room or the haunting. My friend was similarly terrified by the attic bedroom. She tried to tell herself the sounds she heard up there were only squirrels and had hired an exterminator, but there were of course no squirrels. And, she admitted, there had not even been any noises. If there were, if she’d had something concrete to be afraid of, it would maybe make it a little better.

Of course, last night I also dreamt that Adam West Batman was incognito and on the run in Imperial China because a corrupt magistrate had declared him a criminal, so it may not be worth analyzing my dreams too deeply.

Two Roman out-of-place artifacts

A news story came across my Google Reader a couple of days ago: "Roman jewelry found in ancient Japan tomb." Not exactly startling stuff, not even if we take the time to consider the purported Japanese tomb of Jesus Christ. Trade networks in the ancient world were perfectly capable of transporting a few glass beads from the Roman Empire to Japan. I filed it away and thought of it as an interesting story to kick off this blog, nothing more.

Then I happened upon a Wikipedia article (I'm guessing a lot of posts on this blog will start off this way) on odd Roman artifacts dubbed the "Roman dodecahedra." They're sculptures of either bronze or stone, shaped like the twelve-sided Platonic solid familiar to gamers and Carl Sagan fans everywhere. Following on the heels of the well-publicized (again, at least among gamers) discovery of the twenty-sided Roman die a few years back, the mystery of the Roman dodecahedron is much more profound. Found only in Gallo-Roman territories, their purpose is ultimately unknown, despite some interesting agricultural theories. Are these strictly out-of-place artifacts? No, but with their purpose unknown, any number of possible origins, including occult ones, could be contrived for them. Remember, the dodecahedron was the symbol of the quintessence and the Aether and in more modern times was theorized to be the actual shape of the universe. A mystery wrapped inside another mystery? That's the way to kick off a blog, my friends.

Renfusa: An Introduction

Welcome to Renfusa.

We take our name and inspiration from Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis, a travelers' tale of a distant mysterious Pacific island (called Bensalem) where scientists and wonder-makers research the natural world and compile knowledge in order to help all humanity. One of the visitors to Bensalem asks how could this distant island possibly be full of Christians.

So the tale goes in Bacon's text, twenty years after the death of Christ, a holy apparition, in the form of a pillar of light, appeared off the coast of Bensalem. One of the sages of Salomon's House, the fraternity of technologists on Bensalem, went out on a boat and decided to offer a prayer to this pillar. The pillar vanished, and in its place appeared a cedar ark with a set of complete canonical Old and New Testaments, including books which hadn't been written yet.

The sage who prayed to the pillar of light came from a city called Renfusa.

Bacon and his contemporaries of the early 17th century sit astride that line between alchemy, mysticism, allegory and symbolism and the coming scientific revolution. We too wish to develop a distinctly liminal and bisociative point of view, and thus look at the weird through the lens of history and history through the lens of the weird.

Likewise, we'll also examine the modern world, popular culture, and our own particular obsessions with the same irreverence and curiosity we give to the historical.

Again, welcome to Renfusa. We hope you enjoy your time here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.

- The New Atlantis, Francis Bacon