Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: Mad by Jonathan Bowden

We are all failures because we all die.
About a year ago, Jonathan Bowden died of a heart attack. He was 49, just a few weeks shy of turning 50.
Politics is a matter of life and death.
Bowden is probably best known for his involvement in various British right-wing movements. At one point, he was the Cultural Officer for the British National Party. He gave several speeches over his political career and was regarded as a master orator by his peers.
Art hates ideologies because it is the one that encompasses all the others.
Bowden's other great passion was in the arts. Many of the speeches he delivered were in regards to the relation of art to right-wing politics. He was also an artist, a writer, and an actor. He acted in two films (which he also wrote), produced several drawings and paintings, and wrote several books. His first book was Mad. Apparently written when he was 18, and originally released in 1989, it was re-released in 2009 by Nine Banded Books.

In spite of his conservative political beliefs, Bowden's artworks have a very modernist sensibility to them. This is very apparent in Mad.

It's difficult to say exactly what Mad is. It's too scattershot to call it a proper essay, and it's too experimental in form to call a polemic. As vague the description is, it would probably make the most sense to call it a prose poem. Though even that may not be accurate.
In short, this is an attempt to understand the Marquis de Sade. A man who was destroyed by the revolution he created. There was something bad in him. Baudelaire was right: when you want to discuss cruelty we must always go back to de Sade.
Mad has three major themes running through it. The first is the inherent cruelty of humanity that civilization is based on. The second is the fact of human mortality. The third is human sexuality.

The first theme is best summed up by the first two sentences in the book.
Terror is the chief motivation of civil behavior. No other explanation does as well.
He bangs on this particular drum very often in this book. However, it's never boring. The phrases and associations he draws from this are amazing. A particular favorite of mine is near the end when Bowden discusses fascism. The part is too long to quote here, but it's essentially about how Peter Brueghel's The Triumph of Death foreshadowed the fascism of the mid-20th century.

The final part of the book is especially fascinating in general, given Bowden's later activities. He engages in a dismissal of almost every major political doctrine. Fascism is "the moral equivalent of venereal disease in the politicals of the body", liberalism is "bourgeois guilt", conservatism "has no ideology except self-preservation" and communism "commits plastic surgery on a face which had not been damaged". His critical view of the state itself even seems to indicate anarchist sympathies.
States are built on mountains of skulls. A state is a revolution against nature; enacted in alliance with nature. States represent nature in so far as no-one rebels against their moral squalor.
It would be interesting to hear how Bowden went from this view to being involved with right-wing party politics.

The third theme was, for me, the most difficult to get a handle on. On the one hand, I admire that the views on gender and sexuality presented would piss off traditionalists and feminist/queer activists at the same time. On the other, this is where Bowden makes the most ludicrous statements in the book. The worst of this is where he characterizes masturbation as a "homosexual act". Yeah, okay.

Something that may be a sticking point for others is the use of punctuation in this book. It's used in obviously "wrong" ways several times. This is coming from a guy who constantly needs to look up rules regarding commas. Yet I don't think they were mistakes. I get the impression he was attempting to create a unique cadence with the way he abuses commas, semi-colons, dashes, and colons.

Even if they are actual mistakes, they don't detract from the book for me. That is the key attraction of this book for me. The complete fury I sense coming from the work. Reading this, it seems like something Bowden wrote in a complete fugue. I can picture him sitting at a typewriter. Eyes wide, teeth clenched, and breathing heavily. Pounding furiously at the keys. Tearing away the filled up paper and slamming it on the table next to the typewriter. Annoyed by the time it takes to load a new page to abuse.

The result is completely enthralling and often very thought-provoking. Because of that, I highly recommend Mad.

Oh and that second theme? I think Bowden is all too familiar with that now.
Sadly, though, moments of ecstasy are rare. Most human-beings are on a treadmill of sorrow. They know they’re going to die, and they have repressed it. They have not taken responsibility for it. They have not realized the truth. They have not understood that men are born screaming; and when they stop; they die.


Vince Stephen said...

That sounds like an interesting read. I came across Bowden on youtube a while back because. There is a recording of him giving an after dinner speech to the British National Party (it's quite appropriate in this context to misread word "National" as "Nazi"), ostensibly on the topic of Stewart Home.

What comes across in his speech is two things - 1.) He is an incredibly eloquent and engaging public speaker. 2.) He knows a lot less about his subject than he pretends to, although he undoubtedly knows plenty more about it than his audience do and treats it with real enthusiasm. It's worth a listen if you haven't heard it.

Ben Arzate said...

I haven't seen that one. I have seen his lecture on HP Lovecraft which was pretty interesting.