Simon Jarvis and the Celebrity Problem

I’d like to start by reporting that Neil Pattison now takes full responsibility for the current preponderance of Jarvis related material. I realise that I haven’t yet got round to his suggestion that ‘Dinner’ is ‘about’ the Eucharist but today I want to address the above problem. Current (or reasonably current) celebrities crop up in two Jarvis poems- Paul Burrell and Princess Diana are unsurprisingly featured in ‘At Home with Paul Burrell’ whilst Cheryl and Ashley Cole are mentioned in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

I am aware that there is a degree of elitist snobbery about the nature of celebrity and that celebrities are oftend sneeringly derided as ‘being famous for being famous’. I’m of the view that celebrity is absolutely fascinating as a central feature of our cultural life and feel that instead of sneering we ought to apply some thought as to how it works and functions. I think we also need to recognise that celebrity has been around for a long, long time. One of the more entertaining aspects of Pepys’ diaries is his gleeful reporting of the relative status of the king’s mistresses. Pepys was a senior civil servant and went on to play a prominent role in the Royal Society yet he could become completely absorbed in the fortunes of these 17th century celebrities.
Poetry isn’t at all above this phenomena, the most famous English example is the career of Lord Byron where bad behaviour and rampant promiscuity combined with poetic activity to create his generation’s leading ‘star’. If we think for more than two seconds about the contemporary scene, it is clear that Kenneth (or ‘Kenny’ as Vanessa Place likes to call him) Goldsmith is busily becoming our first celbrity of the 21st century. There are many and various reasons for this but the fact remains that he is far more famous for being Kenneth Goldsmith than he is for his poetry. I can also make a case for Sidney as the literary celebrity of the 1590s which of of sause helped by the fact that he was dead.
I’ve decided that I should first of all tackle the ‘obvious’ contemporary celebrities in Jarvis’ work but also acknowledge that it does contain reference to musical and poetical celebrities too. I also confess that I haven’t scoured all 242 pages of ‘The Unconditional’ and may therefore have missed some that might be considered as contemporay.
‘At home with Paul Burrell’ appears to open with a meeting with him and then veers off into something a little more philosophical and abstract. On page three however we get this-

        The thing shuts down
Or jams
Or squeals like an out of it debt-peon
Fuck me Paul
on for example this pyre of letters beginning with how the correspondent is sure she is sitting smiling down from her cloud
while a pile of floral elegies in the far corner by the power outlet refuses to consider in any other light than as mock
unable to believe in any extent more contiuous more sustained or more meant in the lung and or in the soul than prose
unable to believe in any line of any real extent or any moment but instead wishing to believe in its mock-sober or in those
inabilities and paper sizes as the set of facts about the world not set down but just set into certain irrevocable codes like what
you say when you say with a singular scribble beneath a preprinted paragraphh that 2.5 per cent is paid by you
to card services and that the total amount is the same whatever amount you pay by.

I’ve included the last five lines in an attempt to work out the first six. It would appear to my small brain that “Fuck me Paul” almost comes out of nowhere unless we to liken Princess Diana to an “out of it debt-peon”.

So, a look at some of the more problematic bits might be in order. I have no idea at all what ‘The thing’ is that is referred to inthe first line- the preceding lines aren’t any help as far as I can see. The third line a bit odd, if we are defining ‘debt-peon’ as a Latin American manual or unskilled worker who is drowning in debt then isn’t there something vaguely distasteful about ‘squeak’. If however there’s some kind of tie-in with the last two lines about paying for things with a credit card then this could just as well apply to your average British consumer. Isn’t there a connection with ‘squeak’ and a description of the sound that rodents make?

I’m taking the next line as a request from Diana to Burrell and then we move on to the ‘pyre’ of letters from grieving admirers who are convinced that Diana is looking down on them from heaven (‘her cloud). It’s the next bit that gets odd because it seems that the rest of this passage is describing what the pile of ‘floral elegies’ are unable to countenance or believe. I’ve tried to make these refer to something else but without success so instead let’s consider what it is that these wreaths are having trouble with.

The first thing is that they refuse to consider/believe in would appear to be anything other than prose which is likely to refer to poetry rather than numerical data primarily because of Jarvis’ professional interest in how poetry works. It would also fit in with continuous, sustained and meant although I’m at loss as to what exactly ‘tooth’ is doing in this line.

‘Mock’ is a frequently used term which usually refers to something false and illusory, usually the sort of relativism that Jarvis attacks elsewhere in this poem. I’m a lot less clear about mock-sober unless we’re talking about something that is drunk or intoxicated but pretending not to be, this might also tie in with the ‘out of it’ description of the debt-peon. Given how this passage ends, this thing might well be free market capitalism which pretended to ‘behave’ in a sober and sensible manner but was actually in the process of spinning out of control. In 2007, when this poem was published, this would have been a prescient observation to make.

The whole passage reads as a plea for what is ‘really real’ or authentic over and above that which is ‘set into certain irrevocable codes’, making the point that the financial tricks that we all live by are fictive. So, is there a connection between the Burrell/Diana references and this validation of what actually matters. I’m beginning to think that this might be the case but I’m still of the view that criticism of celebrity as something trivial and unreal simply misses the ‘point’.

We now come to ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and this:

Nearer the city. I turned on the TV. A picture of somebody dying came on, and then Cheryl-something about how her marriage was just breaking up
The stranger was out of it, muttering some deranged incantation and then in between that prostrating himself on the ground. I said look, lets' leave him
He's not in a fit state, but Pen just ignored me and told me to go for the car. The look on his face as I went out the door was just priceless. I asked
For instructions, but unit just told me to go with it. Surely this cannot be right-there were even more lesions now. Stop for a sandwich or something,
You're hyper. But it was as though nothing I said could get to him, there was this glasy look. Seventy thousand civillians and one or two accidents
Were screaming for Cheryl and Ashley to get back together or else for essential supplies of fresh water

Apologies for the formatting, I’m blaming Jarvis for writing such long lines and WordPress for failing to display them properly. All these lines are as long as they occur here.

I think that it is entirely reasonable to assume that it is Mr and Mrs Cole being referred to. For those who don’t know, Cheryl is a singer who is crafting an additional career for herself in television whilst Ashley is her errant husband and a moderately famous soccer player. In terms of UK celebrity, the Coles are more than a little further down the pecking order than the Beckhams.

This passage is from the section headed ‘Messenger’ to indicate which character (of the three or four) is talking. ‘Pen’ is short for Pentheus who meets a gruesome end in the Euripides play about Dionysus but I think the setting here is clearly contemporary and relates to either Afghanistan or Iraq. The first person voice sounds like one of those private ‘security guards’ used by US forces.

The juxtaposition between serious and trivial is much more explicit here than it is in ‘At home’ but this also throws up a number of issues. It is all very well to make the point that we ought to be more concerned about the dire circumstances is which some people live and die than we are about Cheryl and Ashley but this is an easy and slightly moralising position to take because as long as we see ourselves as autonomous individuals then we will always be curious about other individuals some of whom will (for a variety of reasons) become the focus of mass attention.

I’m happy to accept this this reading may not be accurate and I conced that Burrell does appear in one other part of the poem which might change what is intended, in fact I hope that I’m not correct because I think Jarvis knows better.

A final thought- can the early church Fathers be thought of as celebrities?


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