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Jonathan Bowden’s A Ballet of Wasps

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Jonathan Bowden
A Ballet of Wasps
London: The Spinning Top Club, 2008

A Ballet of Wasps is a collection of four short stories and a play. The stories (including two that are very short) are “A Ballet of Wasps,” “Golgotha’s Centurion,” “Wilderness’ Ape,” and “Sixty-Foot Dolls.” The play in question is called Stinging Beetles and very much relates to the book which follows it in the sequence, Lilith Before Eve. The entire volume appeared towards the end of 2008.

Like all of Jonathan Bowden’s works, this volume supports radical inequality and the courage which is necessary to view life tragically. The entire point of this corpus of stories is to raise courage and instill qualities of Stoicism, anti-defeatism, non-resignation, arrogance, and defeat’s absence. One is reminded of the anti-humanist intellectual Bill Hopkins here, who, in writing in the journal Abraxas commented that “the purpose of literature is to produce new Titans.”

This demarcates Bowden’s efforts from a lot of contemporary material—much of which oscillates between entertainment and a reconfirmation of liberal values. There is an important point here—since Bowden’s work avoids a great deal of the scatological, vegetative, or crepuscular horror of the area which he has made his own. If one compares his work to the eye-ball removing machine in Edward Bond’s Lear, for instance, then his fiction is positively genteel.

Nonetheless, in these particular stories, I believe that Bowden is attempting to go beyond mood music in order to impinge upon the reader beneath the conscious mind. Can authors really influence their readers in this way? It remains a moot point. Yet many people act as if there can be uncontrollable impacts (at whatever level) from work they find disagreeable. A large number of conservatives would be made deeply uncomfortable if they had to read through Bertold Brecht’s The Threepeeny Opera (replete with an Otto Dix painting on the Penguin jacket). Likewise, a fragmentary and volcanic narrative by Louis-Ferdinand Céline would make many a liberal humanist shudder. Imagine quite a few callow PC types having to wade through Castle to Castle or North—never mind Guignol’s Band (set in London) or the even more “transgressive” works like Bagatelles or Celine’s account of his trip to the Soviet Union.

In any event, the very fact of this tremulousness may lead to the idea of deep immersion—particularly in relation to highly imaginative material. I think Bowden’s work is an attempt, fictionally speaking, to re-engineer elements of the semi-conscious mind. Hence we see a certain aggression or voltaic energy which is redolent of many “conservative” creators like Belloc, Lewis, or Mencken, but that certainly alienates a conventional or middle-brow perspective.

Similarly, quite a few authors in the Gothic area—one thinks of Lovecraft or Poe—deliberately engage in mesmerism or a phenomenon similar to a séance. This ramps up the level of abstraction, illusion, dream-material, oneiric wonder, or phantasy via more and more baroque language. Yet is this more than dark poetry? Well, it depends upon how you wish to gaze upon it.

Mister Bowden’s “religious” ideas are not immediately discernible from his work, but certain items do stand out over time. One is the notion that every type of mysticism exists at this level—even if it doesn’t. Another viewpoint suggests that art is the praxis of religion. One has the idea with this creator that, passim. Goebbels, if asked whether human sacrifice was wrong he would answer: it depends how aesthetically it’s done. The British “conceptual” artist Damien Hirst got into very hot water indeed for expatiating on the Twin Towers (September the 11th, 2001) and referring to the aesthetic pleasure they gave him. This is the dandy’s position, if you will. Although my own view is that this author attempts to do more.

My suspicion is that he configures his work as a drug, a transmission mechanism, an occultism, and an estranging mystique. I dispute that he wishes to adopt a mood—rather, in my view, I think that he sees his artistic work as a magical act. This would explain its extreme conservatism—metaphysically speaking—when combined with certain modernist and gruesome aesthetics that many philistines can’t stomach. The old conundrum where ideologues who talk much about Western culture are not able to sit through Aeschylus’ Agamemnon raises its head here.

One is also reminded of the fact that the entire post-modern vista is the ’60s creation, and that Timothy Leary’s adoption of a drug addict’s lifestyle lay at its heart. Narcotics are about many things; over-coming boredom, the tediousness of a liberal society, a desire to escape, personal weakness, etc. Yet, in an artistic sense, I think something crucial is happening here. Bowden as an individual is probably quite puritanical or ascetic, but he believes in the sheer power of the imagination. I believe that if the unsuspecting voyeur opens up to what Michael Moorcock once described as fantasy’s implicit fascism then Bowden has seized a device with which to hook, de-program, turn around, and re-orient a generation. It must be said that your average liberal academic would regard this as preposterous and meaningless. And yet . . . why insist on an anti-essentialist or “politically correct” method for reading literature in every college if this weren’t so?

To finish, “A Ballet of Wasps” concerns a Woodsman’s discomfiture about boasting in front of a vampire. It is set in White Russia. Golgotha’s Centurion” is a Sicilian revenge tragedy which owes something to the sweat off John Webster’s brow. “Wilderness’ Ape” deals with Haitian Voodoo and is quite clearly influenced by Spenser St. John, Revilo P. Oliver, and Lothrop Stoddard in doing so. “Sixty Foot Dolls” explores evolution, degeneration theory, and some of David Icke’s more fanciful conundrums. Whilst the play, Stinging Beetles, turns around the necessity for courage and involves a dilemma or choice at Life’s cross-roads. It is less William Styron’s exemplification of Sophie’s Choice than a man’s desire to rescue a beautiful blonde girl from a magicians’ village. In magical lore, such a hamlet only materializes on a windswept and torrential night.

Perhaps those who believe in the natural goodness of Man and liberal equity should bear in mind the poem at the volume’s start. It exists tucked away on the copyright page.

Study for Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon (1947)

Out they stand in orange
Screaming like blinded bats
Wrapped around in lintel
A mother’s angel sings:
Better were it, indeed, not to be born!


A Ballet of Wasps can be read or purchased here.


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