James Murphy Handbook for the Damned

Q & A with James Murphy on ‘Handbook for the Damned’

Exit from the Underworld….



   The ‘Handbook’ is a vehement attack on what you see as the failures of Modernism, particularly in poetry. What specifically spurred you to write it?



“Indignation, resentment – the usual healthy motives for a polemic! Over the years, I’ve become more and more incensed, not just by the failures of Modernism, but also by its arrogance as an artistic philosophy – if you can dignify it with that term! Because, it seems to me that the arts are central, vital to a healthy culture, without them you have a sick culture, a culture starving to spiritual death. At the risk of labouring the metaphor, you could say that modern audiences are hungry for genuine ­inspiration, yet Modernism is just offering them junk food.


So what are your alternatives to Modernism?


‘There aren’t any. I’m not anti-modernism: just false modernism. – What we need is a genuine, real Modernism – not a synthetic, plastic one that just plays with surfaces – one that really responds to the deep spiritual needs of modern people.


In what sense do you use the word ‘Spiritual’?


   “Spiritual’, as in transcending the material, the merely sensual. And by ‘sensual’ I mean the debased enjoyment of the senses exclusively in, of and for themselves, without any reference to a transcendent reality above and beyond them, but which they nevertheless point to at their best.  – That’s why cooking can never be an art, by the way! Pace French cuisine!


You’re suggesting Modernism has failed to supply this spiritual sustenance, then?


“The Modernism we’ve got – pretty much across the arts – has failed to seriously engage man’s spirituality for the best part of a century. Of course, there are always beautiful exceptions: some modern dance, some of the latest work by far North Europeans in choral music is sublime, Esslen; then there’s a small amount of modern so-called ‘classical’ music: Arvo Part is sublime at his best; then you’ve got a small amount of progressive, modern music, and the very best – still a small fraction of the whole – of modern jazz, fusion; and, yes, a tiny proportion of poetry, a few novels, make the grade, but these exceptions prove the rule in my book. – Most Modernism has just striven in this rather childish way to rebel against Classicism, by making petty inroads against Classical form, pointedly mocking its forms and values, as it perceived it.


Presumably you hold no truck with the ‘shock of the new’ theory then?


   ‘‘Not unless it shocks by its beauty! Sadly, most of the stuff that hides under that umbrella is just shockingly bad. As I say, it’d be fine if it were shockingly beautiful or shockingly true, but it’s not: it’s the shock of the shallow I can’t stand!


“Most so-called conceptual art, abstract art, installation art falls into this bracket in my opinion. Not only is it shallow, it’s not even original! It hasn’t come any further than Duchamp’s urinal. I mean, Duchamp’s piece of Dada-istic hubris was exhibited in 1917, for god’s sake! And yet today we’re still exhibiting unmade beds and various other fantastically tedious objets trouves as art – not to mention formaldehyde sharks.


‘Yes, of course, I get the fact that Dadaism was a protest against the bourgeois values that inspired The Great War; was a protest against the notion of bourgeois art itself; and yes, modern materialist, consumerist life was – is – meaningless; but does Duchamp’s urinal offer us any vision to replace it? Answers on a postcard! That’s Modernism in a nutshell really. It’s just a protest: it’s not a solution.


But Dada was just one aspect: Modernism’s had many different forms…


‘That’s part of the problem! All the various ‘isms’, Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Imagism, Dadaism, Abstractionism, Expressionism, Realism, Naturalism, Post Modernism, Post-post Modernism – to name but a few! Each with their self-important manifestos proclaiming an exclusive insight into the truth of Art. Whereas what they were each actually doing was mistaking one aspect of Art for the Sacred Whole. And in doing that they distorted Art, and gradually destroyed any understanding of it, any experience of it as a Sacred Unity.


So how do you distinguish authentic Modernism from false, in your eyes?

“You tell me! As I say: no-one knows what is or isn’t art anymore. They have no criteria, because False Modernism denies any. It is completely subjective. I mean, literally, it sets its own ground rules and refuses to submit to any objective judgement. It is literally un-assessable.


“It’s as if Modernism has declared a sort of papal infallibility on an aesthetic level – it literally can’t be wrong, can’t be criticised because it refuses to be judged by any previous values. But actually, that’s been quite a conscious aim of false Modernism: to free itself of all critical criteria so that the previous rules don’t apply. Of course, this suits the people who do it and promote it. It’s what William Blake said about artistic charlatans two centuries ago – these people, these false artists perpetrate a ‘pretence of art to destroy art.’


“What was your question? (Laughs) Oh yes, of course, there are ways of sorting the aesthetic chaff from the grain, and that’s what I attempt to do in the Handbook: establish a few ground rules.


“For example, I think one should be very wary of any art-form that declares ‘innovation’ as a primary virtue in itself.


“Innovation is actually a neutral term: it just means putting in a new thing previously unthought of; but that new thing can be good, bad or indifferent: it depends what its normative value is: simply putting in a new thing is actually valueless in itself. And yet Modernism exalts innovation as a form of virtue in itself.


“To my mind, Turner would be an example of ‘good’ innovation, in the way that his vision added a new transcendental experience of the power and beauty and physical movement of light to classical mythology in his painting. Monet did the same in a later era, of course, though not, perhaps, to the same degree and in the same way.


“As for ‘bad’ innovation? The list is endless! Think Andy Warhol – dilettantes like him across the arts and the decades from all countries – and, as I say, a lot of the worst, most flippant kind of so-called conceptual artists – especially those who’ve won the Turner prize in the past decade!


   To turn to poetry specifically: it would seem from the ‘Handbook’ that you see Poetry as suffering from the ravages of Modernism as much as, if not more than, the other fine arts,


‘Yes, the ‘handbook’ deals essentially with poetry’s experience under the dispensation of Modernism, because poetry is the art form I love best, the one I have the most natural affinity for, if you like. And, as it happens I think it’s the art-form that has suffered most at the hands of Modernism. Even to the point of being killed off by it.


You think poetry is dead?


‘Maybe dead is too strong – comatose. Anyway, certainly on life support.


‘I mean, when you think of literature these days, you don’t think of poetry, you think of novels. Why is this? Poetry was always, and still is, in my book, the summit of a culture’s literary achievement. And yes, before we get into a semantic battle: of course, some novels have a poetic element to them, contain passages that achieve poetic status – but in general they’re not poems: they’re novels. So what is it that makes a piece of writing exclusively poetry? And why do we think so little of the genre these days? My Answer is that poetry was dealt a mortal blow by the conscious destruction of the function of meaning by modernists; and by the resultant wilful obscurantism of Modernism. A blow that has all but killed it. Yes, it might twitch occasionally, even get out of bed and walk around the ward a bit and entertain fellow patients; but for the most part but it’s all so hit and miss.


What do you mean by the “conscious destruction of the function of meaning”?


“Well, to take the classic case and the classic quote, there’s Wallace Stevens’ “A poem should not mean, but be..” That quote sets the key for a multitude of modernist sins! – and that’s not even taking into account the irony of Stevens as a poet resorting to the function of meaning to state that meanings are now out of bounds for poetry – but let that pass! No, Stevens is a poet with infinitely more to recommend him than most modern poets, but he’s also, in my opinion, a great, if not the greatest, abortion of modern poetry we’ve had. So close and yet so far, so to speak.


So there are no modernist poets you like?

“Of course there are! I can think of truly profound individual poems – or bits of poems – by, well, I mentioned Wallace Stevens, but there’s people like Auden, Plath, William Stafford, Larkin, Heaney, R. S. Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings, and more recently, poems by someone like Don Paterson, who is a very gifted poet at times.


“But on the whole the work of modern poets is so uneven, its inspirational quality so inconstant, and the whole philosophy that drives it so blinkered by wrong-headed modernist thinking that it can hardly see straight.


“The result is that the poor old reader wanders in a realm of writing where the quality of light and shade confound each other by turns, as if the poets’ own contact with their own talents, their imaginal talents, are constantly fusing, like light-bulbs blowing.


“Conversely, because so-called ‘classical’ writers very definitely had a clear cultural grasp of what constituted a poem  – they knew the rules, if you like – and there were rules – they were able to keep their channels of inspiration open, their vision of poetry more clearly in mind. Consequently, their work is more even, more consistently great, and their source of inspiration more constant, as I say.


“I’m talking about poets whose grasp of metaphor and facility of expression never loosened, whose sure-footedness on a more lucid and beautiful plane never failed them. Where, on the other hand, are our geniuses of Elizabethan and Jacobean status? Not to mention our Romantics, our Coleridges and Blakes, our Emily Dickinsons and American Transcendentalists?


But didn’t at least some of those poets often bemoan their own lack of inspiration?


“Yes, but even then, they did so in a way that transcended the banal; that had reference to their sense of the sublime.


“That’s essentially what I mean: there’s the sheer lack in most modern poets of what I would call the ‘transcendent visionary sense’, for want of a better term. There doesn’t seem to be any guiding principle behind most of the stuff I read. Of course there exceptions, and exceptional poems; but in general, when you scan the poetry shelf you wince: it lurches from wanton intellectual obscurity on the one hand to ridiculously slight populism on the other.


“Well I think we should look into how this became the norm. Study the circumstances of poetry’s death a little more closely to see if there was any foul play…. Or even if it was suicide! I do thinks poets have been wilfully self-damaging over the past few decades. Anyway, think of the ‘Handbook’ as a pathologist’s report…


Do you see any light on the horizon?

“Always! Human creativity is inextinguishable: ultimately, it’s what we are. And there are no doubt great poems being written as we speak. Added to which, you never know what is around the cultural corner because, as I say, you can never entirely extinguish poetry’s spirit. I firmly believe that this is because to be human is to be born with a sense of the sublime, with a sense of beauty, and the need to express it verbally. But is poetry temporarily dead as a public medium, as even a minority form of artistic expertise? Without doubt. As far As I’m concerned. That doesn’t mean it won’t be reborn of course, as I say. It will be.


Well, I was about to say that many would argue that poetry is already enduring a renaissance at the moment…

“Enduring’ is the right word!


No, but Poetry reading circuits seem to be thriving. So-called poetry ‘slams’ and ‘Rap’ and Hip-Hop are alive and well…

“They don’t conform to the notions of excellence contained in high poetry – at least not as I understand them. It’s not a snob thing. I just don’t think they fit the bill. They’re not reflective enough, deep enough, and the emotions behind them are pretty coarse. I appreciate the energy behind them, and the verbal dexterity on a certain level, but those things alone don’t constitute art in my book.


So the ‘Handbook’ is an attempt to revive ‘high’ poetry?

“No, I wouldn’t claim anything so grandiose. It’s an attempt to understand how we got to where we are, and what we need to do to escape the current impasse, where most intelligent people are just turned off serious art and poetry altogether. That, for me, is the real tragedy: the fact that most people think that Modernism, post-Modernism, post-post-Modernism – or whatever it calls itself these days – is all that Art has to offer, that there’s no alternative. But it’s not, and there is! I just think our artists and poets need to redefine their cultural goals, and then passionately re-orient their work in that direction, because at the moment we’ve lost our way.


All right, if not ‘high art’, you want a return to more Traditional forms in Art in general, and poetry in particular?

“Absolutely not. If by ‘traditional’ you mean the sort of stilted Victorian painting and music and high Georgian poetry that bored everyone to death. I can’t stand that stuff. I’d almost rather have false modernism. – I say ‘ almost’!


“But in the ‘Handbook’ I do make plea for a more traditionally rigorous analysis of what it is that constitutes serious art. Not just for the sake of an academic argument. I’m not an academic, though I have the usual arts degree, etc. No, my point is that Art in general, and poetry specifically, have failed modern audiences – or their potential audiences. Modernism has alienated those it should be inspiring.


“That’s my essential point in the ‘Handbook’: that there was a moment  – a cultural moment – when false Modernism’s essentially duplicitous – even cancerous – artistic philosophy took root; when wrong directions were taken, and I think if we can locate that point, then we can cut it off, and graft whatever’s left of a spiritually healthy form of Art into a new growth.


“To change the metaphor, we need to turn back and find the way back up to the sunlight, because in an Orphic sense, we are very definitely groping around in the dark with Eurydice nowhere to be found. If the ‘Handbook’ is adjudged to have held up even a small lantern in the right direction, I’ll be more than satisfied, because what’s needed more than anything today it seems to me is clarity in regard to the definition of our aesthetic goals.


Lastly, may I ask why you exclude a consideration of movies, documentaries – film in general – in the Handbook? Surely this is the master medium of the modern age?

“No doubt, but what is it the medium of? Mysterious and powerful as it is, film to my mind, is still in its infancy as an artistic medium. It’s still discovering its faculties, still learning what it can and can’t do with those capacities, its ability to express actual light and shade in the context of a script. Should it even use a script? And music? If so, to what extent? Should it conform to linear notions of story-telling a la Hollywood? Or should it follow its own imaginal instincts? These questions have yet to be definitively answered, it seems to me. Perhaps they can only be really answered within the context of a particular film itself – an exceptional, beautiful film shot, directed and scripted by a cinematic poet, so to speak, containing and uniting all these elements of art. Occasionally a film does deliver the cinematic equivalent of high art: I think Terence Malick’s movies are exceptional in this regard, but usually within most even very good films there’ll be faults, mistakes, evidence of lesser hands at work: either the writer’s not up to it, or the acting lets the photography down, or a sentimental score lets the acting down: it’s to do with the composite nature of film making itself: so many people involved. It’s a dangerously composite art.


“So we’ll have to wait and see, I think, because, with occasional, exceptional directors, as I say, I’ve seen no evidence that cinema has yet become the matrix of a new artistic renaissance, in the sense that it hasn’t given birth to consistent cinematic poetic genius yet.


“The exceptions only prove the rule: a Bergman here, a Tarkovsky there, or some of the early Italian stuff – though I find neo-realism stuff like Bicycle Thieves terminally depressing – then there’s French Nouvelle Vague, or a  David Lean or Carol Reed at their best, or a couple of Independent American directors… –


What about Mainstream Hollywood? Coppola? Scorsese?


   ‘Yes, I’ve seen brilliant moments from them: but I’d have to say from a personal viewpoint, their movies deal mostly with low-life: they deal brilliantly with it, no question: Mafiosi, gangsters, et cetera, but it’s still lowlife: it doesn’t elevate: not at all, ultimately: actually it titillates one’s worst appetites in a way.


“Actually, probably my favourite film to emerge backed by Hollywood money is Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’, which is an extraordinarily powerful modern evocation of the timeless chaos in man’s soul. I mean, the enmity between man’s social self and the undifferentiated natural forces in his soul. – The script was occasionally brilliant: written by a poet of course!


“Altman, I also like, but not unreservedly. Spielberg, too, yes, the great populist! He did a spectacularly beautiful, powerful job with ‘Empire of the Sun’ – but the music he chose! Awful clichéd choral syrup. It nearly ruined it. Nearly, not quite: the rest of the movie was so consummate. But, again that’s the problem with our current concept of cinema: as I say, either the acting or directing is great, but the script stinks, or the photography and editing is stunning but the music’s awful. The very composite nature of film is part of the problem: as a work of art it’s got so many chances to go wrong. Without even taking into account the debatable status of a film’s artistic integrity – and even spiritual authenticity – when so many different people have worked on it: to what extent is it a single unified work of art when it is not the product of one mind, one consciousness?


“Actually, I would cite this as another reason why most movie-making fails to qualify as high art, at least in the classical meaning of that term, is that it’s not something you do  – or can do – alone. It’s a composite achievement put together by a team: director, cinematographer, editor, actors, etc, so to a certain extent it cannot be measured according to the same standards and by the same rules as the classical high arts. I’m not sure about this notion – someone needs to consider the criterion of solitude as opposed to teamwork in the creation of art. Yes, the Renaissance masters employed student painters to fill in incidental bits of their canvasses occasionally – but, to use an obvious example, the Sistine Chapel is very much Michelangelo’s sole work!


Subject matter for a follow-up book?

(Laughs)   ‘Maybe. Maybe not!


“I’m just arguing that in these ways, film is still learning to walk and run, it’ll be a while yet, in my opinion, before it can compose a ballet from its own capacities and capabilities, so to speak. Certainly, very, very few movies qualify as high art in my book – which isn’t to say they’re not entertaining. Of course, they are. But what do they entertain? Well, I’d say they entertain the mind’s lower appetites pretty much all the time: vicarious sex, violence, physical excitement, escape from personal boredom, the sheer banality of bourgeois existence, et cetera. Movies are like cheap snacks: they defer a deeper hunger for half an hour, but the deeper appetite for truer, deeper, dynamic spiritual meaning always returns with a vengeance.


“Actually, in this context you could say that cinema has been a fatal victim of its own success. By which I mean, serious movie-making has been cursed by its viability as entertainment, side-tracked by populism and commercial values, so that most movies are driven by mass values.


“To my mind; that’s the definition of what all true art is not: this the great paradox that anyone who loves art must struggle with: art tries to communicate with as many people as possible, and yet anything to do with the masses is by definition anti-art’.