Tag Archives: tomas weber

Roland Barthes and the generosity of pornography

A couple of evenings ago Tomas Weber tweeted: “roland barthes said there was no genorosity in pornography. discuss” and I indicated (on only two large glasses of red wine) that I’d like to ‘discuss’ – a suggestion warmly welcomed by Tomas. Think I need to make a couple of things clear before we proceed:

  • Roland Barthes was French and wore a black leather jacket. A lot;
  • Tomas Weber is one of those annoyingly but outrageously talented poets that we ought to be very grateful for;
  • pornography is a movable feast;
  • Barthes was writing about photography and makes a distinction (being French) between the “‘heavy’ desire of pornography and the ‘light’ (good) desire of desire of eroticism”

Now, the temptation is enormous in this discussion to try my hand at some distinctly Gallic meanderings in consideration of porn and literature but instead I’m going to get personal. I think first of all we need to mark some distance between pornography and material (in whatever format) that disturbs. I’m accepting here the entirely sensible OED definition of pornography which is:

The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.

Of course, here we have the moveable feast- did Joyce intend only to stimulate aesthetic feelings, can aesthetic feelings also be erotic feelings, what (exactly) is an erotic feeling?

If I understand the reactionary position on porn correctly, it is that this material causes its users to become in some way depraved or defective. In the UK recent murder trials have increasingly featured the accused’s use of ‘violent’ porn as conclusive proof of his inherent badness. I therefore worry about Barthes’ bracketed ‘good’ as quoted above.

For me, there’s a line between that which arouses me and that which disturbs me. Given my professional background, there isn’t much of human behaviour that disturbs me but there are two passages of prose that I haven’t been able to remove from my head. Thirty or so years ago I read something by John McVicar (reformed bank robber) describing a riot at Durham prison where he and others got access to the files on Ian Brady (moors murderer, subject of ongoing moral panic etc etc) that contained transcripts of the tapes that Brady had made whilst torturing his victims, who were all children. The only specific aspect of this that was described has disturbed and upset me ever since. The other disturbance is much more recent and occurs in Bolano’s 2066- one aspect of one of the very many serial murders that he describes has had an equivalent effect.

I don’t think that I’ve been depraved by either of these, I don’t want to carry out these acts and I can accept that others would not be disturbed whilst a very (very) small minority might be aroused hence the ‘moveable feast.

All of the above is reasonably standard ‘enlightened’, middle ground, Guardian-imbibing stuff, I even feel a surge of reasonableness welling up within me as I type and then we come to the Jonny Liron problem.

Before we get to this particular point I must digress to the fact that Barthes was writing with specific reference to one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s early photographs:

This boy with his arm outstretched, his radiant smile, though his beauty is in no way classical or academic, and though he is half out of the photograph, shifted to the extreme left of the frame, incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the “heavy” desire of pornography from the “light” (good) desire of eroticism; after all, perhaps this is a question of “luck”: the photographer has caught the boy’s hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimetres more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic
body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire.

I’m of the view that the shows/gives juxtaposition says much more about the author than it does about the subject and that any assertion of generosity (or otherwise) is more than a little spurious because it misses the ‘point’. I’m going to try and open up this point with the honourable example of J Liron:

            unforgetting skin banner boys in
            oh, you fell and broke your leg so
            your polychild made up the last
            wake up poem ain't attacked to any
            menopause / touched to the scum
            hilt of infernal chauvinism like it's
            not an issue because . universe .

Enter warchild; war child is naked and dirty, covered in flesh and old blood
and oil, soil and some of Leonardo Di Caprio's bone fragments. A ragged fore-
skin hangs out of his mouth, he is fucking himself with the severed head of
Leonardo De Caprio, he has already tied up war girl and is making her kiss the
dead head of Leonardo Di Caprio. She cums into a cup which war child drinks
before fucking her and then squatting and taking a shit while war girl tries to
fuck the head of Leonardo De Caprio, she unties herself and starts to smear her
cunt with the fresh faeces of war child who masturbates as she does this. War
child is tied up and then fucked by war girl, the faeces on her cunt mingling
with his smeared small cock when they both cum.

           language and theories de cauterize
           and un captivate the attention of a 
           child bent fixed hell for leather of
           fucking like a pretend dog, this should
           be what you stand for, not the press 
           or forgetting.

I have a bit of a history with the above, I wrote one piece condemning this as (and I paraphrase) as a highly mannered piece of attention seeking – then I read more of Liron’s work in ‘Better than Language’ and recanted because I had arrived at the view of his strategic importance in whatever the future of English poetry might be. There are many people who would consider the prose paragraph as pornography in that it is explicit and depicts some activities that could be considered as depraved. I’m of the view that (as with Joyce and Bataille) these things do need to be viewed in context and read with authorial intention in mind.

Just realised that I’ve neatly glided over the ‘generosity’ problem- I am tempted to appreciate the Gallic paradox: the more you reveal the less generous you become but this assumes that generosity is a quality that can or should be applied. It isn’t. Discuss.

Better Than Language, the Jonny Liron problem and the excellent Tomas Weber.

For me some poets are problematic. Paul Muldoon is problematic because he’s extremely talented but some of his stuff seems to be more more about displaying this talent rather than saying anything useful John Ashbery is problematic because part of me thinks that there’s been a long downhill slide since ‘Some Trees’ but there’s another part of me that really admires him for not caring, in an extreme way, about what anyone else might think and some of the later work is very good. Problematic poets are the ones that I don’t know what to think/feel about their work, this is very, very different from the very long list of poets that I dislike. I’ve bought loads of Ashbery and Muldoon but don’t possess (for example) any Zukofsky, Arnold or Basil Bunting.

My wife is a psychology graduate and tells me that first impressions are really important when meeting new people and I think this goes to the heart of my Jonny Liron problem. At the end of June I bought a small fold-out collection from the excellent Grasp Press. This features work by Timothy Thornton, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna and Jonny Liron which was written between October and December last year. I was familiar (ish) with the first four but Liron was a completely new name to me. I therefore read his stuff first and came across a passage that I found shocking and disturbing. Before I quote from it I’d like to explain why this then developed into a problem. My initial reaction was that this was someone who had set out deliberately to shock just for the sake of shocking and, as such, I wasn’t really interested. Of course I may becoming increasingly reactionary and grumpy in my old age and the ‘point’ of this material is precisely to shock people like me. I did read the other poems in the collection but my first impression was difficult to get around. Liron has ten poems in ‘Better than Language’ and it now becomes clear that there is a project under way that isn’t ‘simply’ about shock but remains very subversive indeed.

This is the initial shock:

Enter war child; war child is naked and dirty, covered in fresh and old blood and oil, soil and some of Leonardo Di Caprio’s bone fragments. A ragged foreskin hangs out of his mouth, he is fucking himself with the severed head of Leonardo Di Caprio, he has already tied up war girl and is making her kiss the dead head of Leonardo Di Caprio. She cum into a cup which war child drinksbefore fucking her and then squatting and taking a shit while war girl tries to fuck the head of Leonardo Di Caprio, she unties herself and starts to smear her cunt with the fresh faeces of war child who masturbates as she does this. War child is tied up and then fucked by war girl, the faeces on her cunt mingling with his smeared small cock when they both cum.

(Italicized in the original).

So, initially I wrote off Liron as someone who was more interested in causing shock and distaste. To be fair the rest of the poem is a fairly oblique political attack but I failed to see how this middle section could be justifed. It could be argued that it’s intensely parodic of a number of aspects of pornography and the cult of celebrity but in this instance I found any kind of message overshaowed by the content. I’m also happy to accept that my reaction is distinctly middle aged and may not be shared by others.

Better Than Language contains ‘0520’ which is dated 13-1-11 and demonstrates that Liron is a poet of real talent and that he can mange to write with great eloqence when he wants to. This is the first stanza (of three);

sudden miasmic triptych up tight begets better woes
Dalston pain heat washes the coalition of love to
throwing out vomit free for all tin cans around the
neck of history and we deserve far worse anyhow
than having to fend for yourself in the trash of loves
real underbelly the scum of love downgraded to a
simple lo-fi rub of envy and jealousy and I want her.

This, I would argue, is the sort of poetry that takes your mind for a walk without really knowing it and which challenges the way we think about being alive. I welcome the challenge but what is also present is an accomplished use of language that manages to say some quite complex things about the political moment and the confusing and contradictory nature of desire. The rest of the poem sustains this quailty right down to the last three words- “shattered image born”. So, my reaction would have probably been entirely different if I’d just read the material in the anthology but I didn’t and my problem is compounded by the fact that some of his other poems in the anthology do seem to be more about surface glitter than depth, but that’s probably the point.

I now turn to Tomas Weber who is much more straightforward but equally skilled and challenging. The anthology contains a long prose poem which is titled from Hole which I’m taking to indicate that there’s a fuller version somewhere, if anybody knows if the whole thing has been published, could they please let me know? I’ve chosen a longish section from the middle because it manages to do several things at once:

“Remember when we told each other our fears and they turned out to be the same fears? That we don’t yet fit into any geopolitical conflict analogy, that everybody will suddenly decide to vote for us and we’d have to become the Prince? Come back / perfect / you are anarchy. The eagle is here, crying to you. You are the sly one, dog-slut, running about through architecture, picking your favourite sorts of sleep. We can even act out that fantasy, you know, the one where I’m music. Though I would much rather, I don’t know, structure. Gather the smallest syllables / for Jesus. You see? Eagle’s great. Aren’t you at least glad I am not as far away as landscape? How do we get there, anyway, the place where the dogs are always barking brighter than a pack of burning wolves.”

According to the anthology Weber was born in 1991 which means that he’s twenty or thereabouts. It’s that fact and the sheer insane quality of the above that gives me real hope for the future of British poetry, the reason why this is a landmark publication is that it heralds the advent of a swathe of incredibly talented young poets. I’d like to draw attention to the way that the above expresses things in a number of starling ways. What does it mean to fit into a conflict analogy and does this apply to me? How can somebody be anarchy or music? What’s being music like? Why should Jesus want the smallest syllable, doesn’t he want the larger ones as well? How can youi be as far away as landscape? Is this a specific landscape or the general idea of one? Is there more than one ‘you’ being addressed? Why is everything expressed as a question?

This particular extract is four pages long and all of it throws up similar challenges. I think it’s really good and I wish that I’d written it.