Jonathan Bowden’s Last Interview, Part 1: TranscriptJonathan Bowden
Welcome to Counter Currents Radio. I’m your host Greg Johnson. With us today is Jonathan Bowden. First of all, I need to ask you is it “Boden” or Bowden?
JB: Depends where you are in England basically, if you are in the North of England you say “Boden,” but if you are from the South of England, and I’m from the South of England, you say Bowden.
GJ: Bowden, all right Jonathan Bowden. I know Jonathan Bowden as a writer, as a painter, as an orator, but I don’t know much about his past, and so the first thing I’d like to do is find out where you’re from, what kind of educational background you have, what kind of family you have, and so forth.
JB: Yes, I was born in Kent in southeast England in 1962, and we moved about a bit, moved to Sussex for a while. But I grew up in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, which are counties in Southern England to the west of London. I went to a Catholic Grammar school which was a private school in British terms and went to Cambridge later on, although I regard myself as essentially self-educated in the sense that it never stops. [Jonathan was having me on. He never went to Cambridge. In 1983–84 he completed one year toward a B.A. in history at London University’s Birkbeck College, then quit.–GJ.]
GJ: Right, what did you take your degree in?
JB: English and History.
GJ: So what did you focus on in your studies of English and History?
JB: English was very much some of the early Modernist writers such as Wyndham Lewis and some of the late Victorian ideologues and pedagogues like Thomas Carlyle. This is my own schooling of the course, if you like, my own use of the thing for my own purposes. And in history, the English Civil War.
GJ: Tell me, are you influenced by writers like Carlyle and William Morris, certain critics of industrial civilization in the 19th century?
JB: Yes, although part of me perversely likes industrialization in an Ayn Rand sort of a way. I’m critical of the ugliness and debauched modernity that it’s led to, a sort of barren and desiccated quality. But on the other hand there’s a part of me that admires thrusting modernism, and its energy and achievement, and I’m torn between the utilitarian, sort of dourness that a lot of modernity has become, and the freshness and energy that transpired at its beginning, so I tend to take in a Nietzschean way from different concepts like Romanticism and modernism, things which I like. I tend to view things positively rather than negatively. I tend to be dialectical, so there are parts of modernism which I choose to admire and revere, and there’s parts that have led on to things which I dislike or despise. So my view doesn’t tend to be either or. It tends to be synthetic in a sense, or syncretic, whereby I take up all sorts of tendencies and use them in a firmament of becoming. That’s my own notion anyway.
GJ: I share that same kind of ambivalence. I’m very much attracted to modernism in its more heroic and idealistic manifestations, but there is also a kind of leveling utilitarian modernity that’s blighted cities and societies.
JB: Yes, cube-like blocks of endless sugar cubes of concrete festooning cities across the globe.
GJ: Which modern architects do you like, or modern city planners?
JB: After the spirit of Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, in a way I like Mies van der Rohe. I like elements of Le Corbusier, but one thing that’s always mistaken with him and with the concept of brutalism in particular, is that the concrete has to be finished, it has to be painted. In England there’s been an enormous cult of brutalist concrete architecture lasting from the late ’60s until the early ’80s; throughout the ’70s anyway — and the whole point of that unfinished concrete structure and superstructure was that it should be painted; it should be light; it should be ethereal; it should dance in the sun. There’s not much sun in England of course. That’s one of the problems. But they just left it in an unpainted and dour state, and it’s sort of NCP car park architecture.
GJ: Do you like Frank Lloyd Wright?
JB: Yes very much so. In particular the private houses that he developed for millionaire clients, but there’s two types of modernism, as Bill Hopkins the art critic said to me a long time ago. The modernism for the rich and modernism for the masses, who tend to be poor or poorer. The modernism for the masses tends to be rat-runs and tunnels and sorts of architectonics which are similar to J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise where you cram human beings into these enormous blocks in the air and allow them to fester and engage in tumult with each other. And there’s the modernism of the rich, where everything works, and it’s light and spacious and ethereal, and these blocks which were put up in the 1920s and 1930s in areas like Kensington and Chelsea in West London still work, and are still perfect today.
GJ: One thing that struck me about From Bauhaus to Our House . . .
JB: Oh, Tom Wolfe . . .
GJ: Yes. One thing that struck me about Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House is that he begins by talking about how the rich in the past were really absolute dictators of taste and that if they wanted a mansion, they would get it in whatever chateau style that they demanded. And then with the beginning of modernism, suddenly architects were dictating to the wealthy the kind of buildings that they would live in, the kind of buildings that they would house their factories and offices in. And it struck me that what was going on there was a certain loss of self-confidence among the bourgeoisie that provided an entree for modernism to come in. Does that make sense to you?
JB: Yes, I think very much so. Also it’s the concept of the auteur in film applied in a different way. It’s the romantic ideal of the individual genius artist imposing upon clients, particularly rich clients who are paying for the deed in the first instance. It’s always been a fantasy of the 19th and 20th centuries, if nor before, and you had a lot of these modernists who dictated what the new taste was to people who had no idea and were quite scandalized by it but didn’t wish to appear as reactionary or as unknowing or as unsophisticated. So they partly privatized their own taste to these artists, who moved in and dictated to them what it should be.
GJ: It seems that an analogous thing happened with modernist painting. Most people when they look at modern art think in the privacy of their own soul, “I don’t really like this; I don’t find this beautiful,” and in the past I think people would have openly stated that they didn’t find this beautiful, but there is a sense of a lack of self confidence in traditions of judgment about what’s beautiful, and therefore people became in some ways intimidated into accepting it. One person that I think is very interesting is Gertrude Stein. There was a big exhibit in San Francisco last year on the Gertrude Stein art collection and the collection of her family. They were great patrons of Matisse and Picasso and other Modernist artists. I wandered through this exhibition, and it just struck me that these people were highly susceptible to modern art because of a certain insecurity about their own status and identity, and I thought that that might be a factor in the rise of modern art. Do you think that that makes sense?
JB: Yes, it’s partly an outsider’s vision. It’s partly a psycho-pathological vision which is re-routed and made to suit insiders. It’s also the fact that it’s one of the first aesthetics since high Christian art where ugliness is part of the picture. In Christian art of course the ugliness is demonic and it’s the depictions of the devil and his realm and is the depiction of the hellish in a Hieronymus Bosch sort of way, or in a way of Bruegel or Grünewald.
But in modernist art of course, ugliness is integrated into it because modernist art is dialectical, so it deals with what is traditionally regarded as beautiful and what is traditionally regarded as ugly and plays games between the two of them.
Modernist art is also concerned with concepts like fury and power. Power instead of beauty, or power as beauty, and these aesthetics are not popular. They are elitist aesthetics, but they are elitist aesthetics of the modern world rather than the early-modern, the medieval, the feudal, or the ancient.
And yet they have always existed in art. The depictions of the Gorgon’s head in Ancient Greek sculpture is the realization of ugliness, the demonic, and the ferocious as a new type of transgressive beauty.
GJ: You are a painter, and a lot of your paintings, all of them really, are modernist. I like some of them quite a lot. I actually bought several of them from you. Yet I am not necessarily a big fan of modern art. I do like Italian Futurism quite a lot; I like its dynamism. I go and look at Picasso though, and I just think, the man doesn’t draw very well, he has a penchant for ugliness. So I am a bit of a naive person when it comes to appreciating modern art. Can you give me a sense of your views of modernism in painting? Who do you think is great, who do you think is bad? What are the standards by which you judge these people?
JB: One of the problems of course is that there are no standards, apart from inbuilt critical reflexivity over time whereby a mass of critics — a critical mass — build up to deify some work and demean others. What’s fashionable, what is perceived to be good, what people will spend money on, what has become retrospectively critically acclaimed. These are the taxonomies of the modern. But there’s no intrinsic valuation as to what is good or bad in art after about 1860. You can make judgments, however, and my judgement is whether the work makes you feel alive when you look at it or more deadened when you look at it.
I don’t care for Picasso particularly, although he has some fine pictures in his overall oeuvre, and he’s a man of multiple styles rather than one style that’s worked out in different areas.
My point about modernism is there are certain works and certain artists who are quite literally extraordinary, and their paintings have never been painted before, and their images have never been seen in the human mind before. It’s the belief that things can be made over again. Not in perfection but in ecstatic imperfection.
Take Francis Bacon, for example. Bacon’s work is ugly and repellent to many people, and yet the fury and the energy, particularly in the early canvases, is such that some of those images have never been seen before, and they’re images which sum up quite a bit of the 20th century in quite an unsentimental way as well. And I regard that as the extraordinary achievement of a type of painting which may well have come to an end.
A couple of hundred years from now, Modernism may be looked back on as a cul-de-sac actually, that doesn’t relate to previous forms of art and doesn’t move forward towards anything new. If you look at painting today, the conspicuous thing is its absence. Modern art in the student context is all film and video and installations, which actually relates to more traditional narrative and replicatory and representational forms of art.
Art’s about dreaming while you are awake, and quite a lot of Modern Art, quite a lot of Surrealist Art for example is nothing more than the reification of dreams.
GJ: Who in your opinion are the greatest Modernist painters? Who are the ones who make you feel more alive when you look at their paintings?
JB: In British terms people like Piper and Vaughan and Bacon and Sutherland and Wyndham Lewis and Roberts, but they’re just in the British context. In the global context, I reckon Dalí is probably the greatest modern artist of the 20th century.
GJ: I’m a great fan of his work too. There was an exhibit of his I saw a couple of years ago in Atlanta of his work, spanning his whole artistic career, but they had a lot of the very large canvases from his later years, and they were extremely religious and extremely nationalistic, and it hit me why Dalí became a declassed and unfashionable on the Left because of the Spanish Civil War and the side he took in that.
Who are some of the other painters who you think are really exceptional before the 20th Century?
JB: Before the 20th Century I think who influenced me are the most imaginative painters. People like Blake, people like Fuseli, people like John Martin, people like Bosch, Grünewald, and Breughel. People like Medieval manuscript illuminators and this sort of thing who are anonymous as far as we are concerned because their names don’t come down to us but who can alternate between the angelic and the demonic in marvelous and meaningful ways.
If you take Rembrandt for example, many of the paintings are indescribably beautiful in their way, and yet the emotional impact for me would be a work like The Ox Carcass which would be dismissed as ugly or inhuman or transgressive, in relation to many prior codifications of what people go to art for.
I go to art for a more delineated and expectant form of life. I go to art to see energy and to see energy realized in form. But my tastes tend to be a bit strong really, and I tend to like work which is rather visceral and over the top and imaginative and surreal. But let’s put it this way, Botticelli is probably a greater artist than Bosch, artist qua artist, and yet Bosch is the most extraordinary artist in the Western tradition, emotionally speaking from my own point of view.
GJ: Would you say that you are more drawn to the sublime in art rather than to the beautiful?
JB: Yes, the sublime and the demonic.
GJ: You are also a writer of fiction and of essays. How would you categorize your fiction for people out there who haven’t read it yet and might be curious about it?
JB: They are sort of Gothic fictions really. They are intellectual horror novels and stories. Although I don’t care that much for horror as a genre, but I do like the burlesque extremism of it and of the better element of the Gothic tradition. I don’t like the way modern horror has developed in the Stephen King sort of way, but I do like intellectual horror that goes back through Lovecraft to Poe and involves people like Ambrose Bierce and people like Algernon Blackwood in the English tradition. I also like the creepy ghost story tradition in English letters which is still not exhausted and you could do quite a bit with.
But I’m interested in the concretization of dreams and the use of narratives that embody fantasy. I think that the point of fiction writers today is to put the reality into life because people are living such fictional lives. I agree with J. G. Ballard that people live through television screens and through video and through the internet to such a degree that it’s fantasy piled upon fantasy, and yet the way out of that dilemma is to put some realism back into the fantasy, and that may involve even greater forms of surreality and surrealness.
GJ: You’ve mentioned Ballard a couple of times, what do you like about his work, and who are some of the other contemporary fiction writers whom you follow?
JB: I’ve always admired Ballard. He was one of the first adult writers that as an adolescent I came across and who spoke to me directly. It’s because he believes that the ferocity of the imagination is the most important artistic attribute, and he’s not interested in psychologically realistic and representational work. If you take an earlier work like The Drowned World, it’s incredibly lush and self-sustaining. It’s baroque and overdone in all sorts of ways. It’s a rococo and baroque performance, and I do like that “painting in words” element which is very current in his fiction.
As for other people I like William Golding. I like Anthony Burgess. It’s always difficult with people whose reputations are not completely formed by critical opinion because they are too close to the present day. But in American letters, I quite like Truman Capote, even though there are things about him that alienate me, but I quite like his work. I also like the poet Robinson Jeffers, the Californian neo-pagan extremist who corresponded with D. H. Lawrence and is, rhetorically anyway, the most extreme pagan poet in the English language during the last century.
GJ: Do you have any fondness for the writings of Flannery O’Connor?
JB: Yes, very much so. As a Catholic in the deep south of the United States of America, looking at these crazed, Billy-Bob Protestants, I like all that sort of thing because she’s drawn to extreme you see. She’s drawn to outsiders. As a Catholic in an ultra-Protestant environment, she feels a bit of an outsider really and yet she’s fascinated by these people who wrestle with snakes in church and fire guns into the roof of the church and can be swayed by these evangelical passions of maudlin excess and emotional debauchery.
GJ: (Laughs) Let me just gather my thoughts here! I had all kinds of images rushing through my mind when you were saying that! Flannery O’Connor has a wonderful essay called “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” where she quotes Thomas Mann saying that the grotesque is the ultimate anti-bourgeois style. By that she takes him to mean that the grotesque is what resists the whole modern narrative of moral progress and also technological and scientific progress. The progressive mind believes that we are going to create a world where everybody’s healthy with gleaming teeth, their minds are healthy, and evil is progressively mitigated. And so she cleaves to the grotesque because she wants to disrupt the kind of modern optimism and instead give you a sense that there’s another order of the world that resists that kind of ironing out and straightening up.
JB: Well there’s bound to be a Protestant element in a Catholic who’s so transfigured by Protestant culture, so she’s bound to be a bit of a Jansenist and a bit of a pessimist. A sort of emotive pessimist; and yes the grotesque is within the Romantic sensibility and the early modern sensibility a way of projecting anti-bourgeois sentiment and morally licentious extremism in prose, on film, and in pictorial art.
Yes, I suppose I am a bit of an anti-bourgeois artist in a way. I’m not conservative when it comes to aesthetic matters but then I regard myself as a revolutionary conservative in any respect.
GJ: Another contemporary person who’s aesthetic is I think very Flannery O’Connoresque, and for the same metaphysical reasons and with the same kind of political agenda that’s anti-progressive, is the film maker David Lynch. What do you think of Lynch?
JB: Yes, I like Lynch. The cultivation of the supernumerary beheading is part and parcel of his attitude towards life. I think that the intrusion of the surreal and the overheated into otherwise normative narratives is what makes them startling, what makes them forbidding. They’re dreams, although dreams are often not that interesting in a strange sort of way. What’s interesting is lucid dreaming, dreaming while you are awake and sentient.
J. G. Ballard has a doctrine called The Death of Affect and he has another doctrine called The Normalization of the Psychopathic and both are evident in Lynch’s cinema and similar types of grotesque, post-modernist art in certain respects. The Death of Affect is the fact that we are surrounded by such an overkill of media that it’s only by retreating into the private fantasies of the living mind that we can find an individual way out though all of these other myths that people would have us live within. And the psychopathological urge is the fact that people are bored. There’s a comedian in Britain who has a slogan for the mass of the population which is “Live, Work, Consume, Die. You are bored, this is the antidote.” And a lot of art in contemporary circumstances is an attempt to get people to live more realistic fictions.
GJ: So let’s talk about film. Who are you favorite film makers? And what do you think of the aesthetic nature and the aesthetic potential of film.
JB: Film’s aesthetic potential is limitless. I’ve made a few films of my own. I’ve made one film called Venus Flytrap, which is about a mad scientist who wants to take over the world with plants that feed on human flesh. It’s a sort of Roger Cormanesque B movie but with Nietzchean and Odinic themes and shot in a sort of post-modern way. I made another film about Punch and Judy called Grand Guignol. Punch and Judy has always obsessed me because it’s part of the British Folk Tradition. But it’s also so unbelievably violent and demotic and anti-bourgeois in its unconstrained glee, sadism, pitilessness, and love of the burlesque.
Filmmakers who influenced me, I like Syberberg’s work a great deal, I like Tarkovsy’s work a great deal, I like Powell’s work a great deal. It would be Michael Powell rather than David Lean for me in terms of British cinema, just to look narrowly at one’s own national tradition. I like a lot of film noir. I like Fritz Lang, particularly the films he made before he left Germany which are quite truly extraordinary. I like the early Soviet cinema as well.
I like Riefenstahl’s films, even though she’s a sort of, almost a delinquent Romantic in a way. The Romanticism is so obsessional and so ur-conscious and so yearning, it’s almost amusing in a way. I know that sounds a bit blasphemous in relation to a film like Triumph of the Will. But there is a sort of undercurrent of yearning expectancy that is explosively anti-bourgeois in its fullness and extent, and although I’ve got a certain sympathy for the bourgeoisie as a class, and I’m not anti-bourgeois politically, culturally and aesthetically, I’m always drawn to the extreme and to that which is partly outside the circle of what is accepted. But I wouldn’t consider my own tastes to be counter cultural in a leftist sense. I consider them to be counter-current in terms of what might be said to exist in the mainstream, that ought to be mainstream and is the most interesting part of the mainstream.
GJ: Let’s talk about opera. One of my favorite Riefenstahl films is Tiefland which is actually a film based on a Romantic opera. Do you like opera and if so, what sort of opera? What composers, and what do you think is aesthetically powerful about opera? Why does it work?
JB: It works because it is so unconstrained, and there is no constraint placed upon the remit of its emotional extremism and lustful range. In terms of contemporary opera I like Harrison Birtwistle quite a lot. He wrote an opera called Punch and Judy which is very violent and episodic and picaresque. Wagner I suppose above all, and in the 20th Century, people like Berg. I like Wozzeck and Lulu, again for their extremity and their coming to terms with the nature of man in a way which is stylistically accomplished but very near the edge of what can be expressed.
GJ: Yet for all of your interest in modernism and art and painting and sculpture and architecture, you are also something of a traditionalist and a conservative. You are one of the leading people in the New Right scene in Great Britain. How do your reconcile these things? Most people would think that that is simply contradictory and makes no sense.
JB: Yes, it’s an odd one. I think that the only way that things can be reconciled is to say that I am an elitist and an inegalitarian, and the moral Left in art, if there is such a thing, tends to egalitarianism and equality in its judgments. So if I favor the modern world or parts of the modern world, I want the modern world to be as unequal as possible and elitist in spirit. and therefore what appears superficially to maybe be Left wing, from a very sort of staid and conservative perspective, is nothing of the kind.
It’s a sort of very radical revolutionary Right wing, in that all forms lead onto other forms which are above them, and the degree to which you can never quite take out the prospect of something which is above something else, because there will always be at least the prospect of something above you, and above that which you might seek to achieve, so I see a commitment to certain aesthetics as non-transgressive in the usual way. I don’t see an easy parallel between a commitment to the radical revolutionary Left in art and a commitment to the modern and the new in art. Anyway, moderns only stand on the shoulders of giants that existed before them that enable them to cut loose and do their mad capers so everything builds on something that existed before you and without the concrete that is underneath your feet you’re lost and aimless and atomized.
GJ: So, you think that modernism is traditional in the sense that it is an outgrowth of a past tradition rather than being something that is revolutionary, Leftist in a revolutionary sense and you think that modernism is not leftist because it is not egalitarian meaning that it is not easy for the masses to appreciate. If that is the case what do you think would be the most consistent artistic style if you were a revolutionary egalitarian leftist?
JB: MTV [laughs]
GJ: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. It is very peculiar how a lot of people who profess radical egalitarian ideas cleave to radically inegalitarian forms of art, and maybe it’s a bit of repressed elitism, sublimated elitism on their part. It was quite extraordinary how the high tradition of Western classical music and opera for instance, was kept alive in communist countries. You’d think that that would be the first thing to go and it would all be replaced with MTV or pop music. Yet they were very anti-Beatles in the USSR and very pro-Tchaikovsky. They weren’t pro-modernist, but they were pro-high art.
JB: Yes. They had the view that the people, the masses could be raised to a higher cultural level and the masses might be capable of being raised to a higher cultural level. I don’t give up on that possibility, although you’d need to control the mass media and certain parts of the internet in order to do that. But it would be an indoctrination. High art is not for the masses and is not for the majority of people, and it can’t be and it is only an ideological statement to say that it ought to be. You could impress these things upon people, you could raise people’s cultural level, you could educate them better, but a lot of that is tokenistic.
In the end, the cultural industry, as Adorno once described it — which we have all around us, and which follows us from cradle to grave and is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty odd days a year — this sort of cultural industry is what the masses partly want. It’s not just imposed upon them, it’s their level which is being appealed down to and they’re being brought up to meet it with the cash nexus as the commercialization of the thing which propels it along. But the idea that the masses are degraded by this material is only partly true. It’s a degradation that they wish to enter in to with fecund glee and foreknowledge, and so I’m very much a conceptual elitist of rather a stark sort.
GJ: I very much like a lot of Socialist Realist art. I like a lot of Socialist Realist painting. I like a number of the composers who composed in the USSR, and in some ways I think that Stalin had fairly good taste in art. I think that Shostakovich was heading in the wrong direction before Stalin scared him into writing his greatest symphony, which is the Fifth Symphony.
JB: But they’re all about Stalin those works, aren’t they?
GJ: Yes. Do you think that there’s value in socialist, specifically Soviet art?
JB: Yes, unfortunately in a way, because it doesn’t always fit my thesis in other respects. But you can be steeped in the classical and you can be steeped in the modern. The problem with viewing everything undialectically is to think that you have to make a choice. You have to go with that which is perceived to be classical or that which is perceived as modern. There’s no art that’s more hated than Neo-Classicism amongst the present parvenus of the modern, and yet in actual fact, Breker and Kolbe are not outside the remit of the modern at all, even in their use of planes and their use of the dynamic tension in the body. You seek or relay correlatives with elements in modern art but that’s not really the important point. The important point is that you can do excellent work in all sorts of areas. It’s the energy that you bring to things and the degree to which you can impress a vision of life and death upon the spirit of the material before you.
The eugenic element in Soviet art is probably what makes it interesting because they were attempting to raise mass taste. Which means that you have to go down to meet mass taste in order to be capable of raising it up. Where they made a mistake, in my view, is preventing people from individual self-expression and contributing to art in a modern way by the sort of ludicrous specificity whereby the regime imposes the aesthetic tastes on the entire intellectual avant-garde. That never works. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, they all reverted to doing what they wished to do anyway.
So my view is that you take the best work from all sorts of areas and you corral it together because work’s never acceptable and never respectable all the way around. Aesthetically, if you could depoliticize it, Nazi sculpture for example, is — post Rodin — extraordinarily close to what mass sensibility and the concept of the beautiful is and yet there’s nothing more shocking, nothing more appalling to the contemporary liberal mind than that sort of work.
GJ: I don’t know of any great Soviet painters or sculptors, but I do know of a number of great Soviet composers. I think that Shostakovich was a great composer, I think that Prokofiev did some great work in the USSR. I like a lot of Khachaturian’s compositions. What do you think of them as composers, and why do you think that there was greater music composed in the USSR than there was say, visual art or sculpture or architecture?
JB: Because you could express yourself in a way which the regime couldn’t tease into censorship because music works on another level. It was harder to censor as long as you didn’t make ultra-modernist quotations and as long as you didn’t veer into what they regarded as sheer formalism, you could get away with quite a lot of an emotional range. So Shostakovich could do anthems to the Soviet Police, and yet they could be fine works. Those are just titles, portmanteau titles that could be taken off the work retrospectively and largely, in terms of Shostakovich’s Western reputation, have been.
I think that the reason that Soviet music reached such heights is partly the restrictions that were placed upon it. So although I don’t really agree with putting restrictions on artists, if you want great work, you often have to put certain restrictions on. It’s like the Hollywood code for films, because they enforced bourgeois standards of taste and decency, and because they enforced a degree of compulsive sexlessness, they made film makers extraordinarily imaginative in their recrudescence of the erotic. When you allow people to be very blatant, and to be very crude, which is partly what has happened, you lower the tone and you lower the standards all the way round.
GJ: Isn’t Classicism in the broadest sense simply the creation of those kinds of constrictions and rules that allow the imagination to express itself by giving it a channel through which it has to focus itself. It actually can stimulate creativity rather than constrict it.
JB: Yes, although sometimes classicism can sort of devour itself, like the Promethean eagle devouring the vitals. There is a degree to which at times classicism can become tired, and it needs to be renewed. The modern movement was an attempt to renew, it’s the cleaning of the blades prior to the cultivation of new work.
GJ: Who are your favorite poets?
JB: I like T. S. Eliot, although emotionally I don’t warm to him, I like D. H. Lawrence although he’s probably a greater prose writer than he is a poet. I do rather adore Robinson Jeffers although he’s an acquired taste, I admit that. I like Emily Dickinson actually, in various ways. She amuses me, although there is a sort of innocent minded nature worship and pantheism to her work which isn’t necessarily that interesting. What is interesting is the Calvinist spirit of death consciousness that lurks at the heart of tiny little poetic haikus about bees and birds and what she’s seen going on in the garden of her reclusive life. Who else? I like . . .
GJ: Do you like Blake as a poet as well as a painter?
JB: I prefer him as a painter really. Blake is probably England’s greatest artist actually. In terms of sheer imaginative power. And he created his own religion; he created his own world. Blake’s art is very close to madness in the sense that it’s the desire for solipsism in the creation of a totally alternative space within which art can be itself. I think that you’ve got to be a little less pure than that, otherwise you are shading over into insanity. But art and insanity are very close, and the entire modern movement is partly based, sub specie aeternitatis, on the art of the insane.
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