Jonathan Bowden’s Last Interview, Part 2: TranscriptJonathan Bowden
Transcript by V. S. and S. F.
Greg Johnson: You are an author as well as a reader of comics and graphic novels.
Jonathan Bowden: Yes, when I was a child and an adolescent. Yes.
GJ: That’s a quintessentially popular art form. It’s directed primarily to children and young adults, and yet you think that it has a great deal of aesthetic potential. Can you talk a little bit about your sense of that?
JB: Yes, it’s an interesting one, because that’s very much an art for and of the masses. And although I am an elitist, there are moments when you wish to communicate with the majority of people. I suppose the thing that attracted me to them when I was very young was the heroic. The heroic is denied in our culture, in all sorts of ways, and has been disprivileged. Those forces that animated the great epics and Homer have been forced down to the level of comic books literally. Because the heroic is not seen as a necessary or requisite part of a high culture. When you have liberal values supervising the novel and the elite play and the elite film, the heroic will go down into the lowest forms of mass culture.
And yet really what are comics? They’re films on paper, and in certain cultures, like Japan and so on, they’re considered to be genuine art forms of quite a high sort. That isn’t true in the West, but because they are representational, and yet very imaginative, you can communicate with a large number of people instantaneously, and you can also be stereotypical in relation to the heroic, which is more difficult with more complicated forms.
There is also a degree to which the art can be actually quite abstract, because it’s draftsmanship par excellence, and it’s only lines on paper. And if you look at the imaginative input into what is purely a commercial area, there’s this odd trade-off between the aesthetic quality and the risible quality in terms of psychological realism and sociological appropriateness. But that’s not what these things are about.
They are also a pure form of escape and a pure form of sub-literary escapism, and I quite like art as a sort of escapism because we’re all born, we’re all going to die, and there needs to be something to fill the gap in between.
GJ: The graphic novel has emerged as a more artistically serious form of comic book, and for a long time I have to admit that I was somewhat dismissive of this. First of all, people were touting Spiegelman’s Maus, and I thought that this was very tendentious anti-cat propaganda. How is this an improvement on the comic book, and how is this serious as art? Then I started discovering that movies that I thought were really rather good, like A History of Violence, were based on graphic novels, and so I started looking into them. I really am very impressed, specifically with the graphic novel Watchmen, which I think is. as a novel really. on the level of some 19th century Romantic novels of the highest order. What do you think of the graphic novel, and what do you think its future is, its potential is?
JB: Well, its potential, because they really are films on paper. There’s no denying that they are what it says on the tin. Therefore, the commercial pressures aside, their artistic future is limitless, because it’s as limitless as the capacity to create stories and to visualize them. So, all that will hold them back is the absence of seriousness with which they are viewed by the general, more literate culture. It’s probably true that mass culture is more visual than elite culture. Because elite culture tends to be more conceptual and tends to be bound by words.
Now, in these types of graphic novels you have sequential art with a storyboard that is a film on paper, and so you do have the ability to create films very cheaply. In some ways, it’s a marvellous medium because it approximates to Wagner’s total art form, because with the exception of music you’ve got almost everything combined.
There’s always something slightly ridiculous about comics, even the high-faluting ones that we’re discussing at the moment, but that’s part of their charm. They do have a charm. They do have a kitsch, which is part of their romantic allure. Because the first literature that most children fall in love with actually, long before they come to books, they look at this sort of material. Even if they quickly outgrow it.
GJ: Who do you think are the best graphic novelists and what are the best graphic novels?
JB: There’s a Batman called Arkham Asylum which is by Dave McKean–visually anyway–and which is quite extraordinary. That was done before computers became fashionable. To paint on a computer screen and to print it out is how that sort of art form is now done, but McKean did individual paintings. Each of those panels is an individual painting situated within a larger conspectus.
I suppose Alan Moore. I don’t care for Alan Moore’s sort of politics, particularly, in so far as it’s subliminally present in his work, but he would have to be considered to be a major talent in the area that he’s chosen to concentrate in. Again, you tend to scan this sort of material. You don’t so much read it as you scan it. It’s very much like watching film. You absorb it. It’s like the wind screen wipers in a car–flick, flick–and then you go to the next page and you absorb it almost osmotically. You float in this material and then put it down. In this sense it’s probably more powerful than visual art, although visual art can reach parts of the mind that nothing else can, because it’s not bounded by narrative, and yet if you bound images by narrative, you have the possibility of reaching very large numbers of people. It’s surprising in some ways that graphic novels haven’t even been even more successful than they could be, but that’s probably because television is in the way, and the DVD is in the way. If those forms were less pronounced, probably they’d have an even greater articulacy than they do at the present time.
GJ: You said that the graphic novel is like the Wagnerian total work of art, except that it lacks music, which brings to mind the movies that have been made from graphic novels which of course include music. One of my theses is that the movie really is the thing that most closely approximates Wagner’s idea of the complete work of art, because with Wagner you still had the staging necessities of the theatre that sort of constrict your points of view, whereas film doesn’t have those constrictions, and therefore it’s more versatile, yet it can incorporate all the other art forms like the complete work of art was supposed to do. Do you think that’s a sensible thesis?
JB: Very much so. Yes. Film is the ultimate art form of the 20th century and contains all the other arts within its self. That’s why it was important to try and make films. Film is the most frustrating thing to do, however. Because it involves radical collaboration with other people and with other egos, and it’s costly, and it’s extraordinarily time-consuming to do properly. It involves great technical skill and ingenuity. However, digital film-making has democratized the film industry, even though in the end these films are just cut up and put on YouTube or its equivalent. But you can now make films for very little money. The films that I’ve made cost £800 pounds each, which is totally ridiculous in relation to what film technology once cost in the past.
But, yes, I’ve always wanted to make films actually, because films are the total way in which you can live a dream that can impact upon other people and also can be seen in a relatively short and sequential period of time. It takes maybe 8, 10, 16, 24 hours to read a book sequentially over a period. An image can be accessed in seconds, that’s true. But a film you can put life, death and everything else into a spectacle that lasts for one hour. There is probably nothing like it.
GJ: Let’s switch our topics to some philosophical issues. You seem to be quite conversant with a wide range of ideas, especially ideas on the Right. But there’s a great deal of intellectual diversity and deep philosophical divisions amongst various Rightists. For instance, I know people who are Guénonian Traditionalists, and I know people who are Darwinists, and they have very different accounts of the evolution or devolution of man, for instance. Where do you stand on issues like that? Are you a Traditionalist? Are you a Darwinist? Are you a materialist? Are you a dualist? What philosophical outlook do you think is most adequate?
JB: I’d probably be described by a critic looking on from the outside as a Nietzschean, and as a Right-wing Nietzschean, in love with paradox, possibly for its own sake. I’m not technically a Traditionalist in the purest sense, because I don’t necessarily believe that there’s one tradition that one can get back to. The problem with all forms of Perennialism is that there’s no agreement on what one should get back to in relation to a prospective Golden Age.
But the real division for is between those that are metaphysically objectivist and those that are metaphysically subjectivist. All liberal Left-wing thought is metaphysically subjectivist, which means, put very simply, that you make it up as you go along or that life is endlessly socialized in its impact and import.
Metaphysical objectivism is the idea that there are standards outside life and there are concepts which pre-exist man and his consciousness of himself and that are absolute and that lack variation and can always be subscribed to by looking back at them, whereas Nietzsche had the view that, in a sense, such objectivist standards do exist, but we don’t entirely know what they, because we’re not divine, and we cannot perceive the world from its outside by virtue of the fact that we’re meshed in it and its fleshy and contingent circumstances.
So, what you have to do, is you have to become actualized in the space that you’re in and, by subjectively understanding the possibility of the objective that remains behind you, you achieve maximum insight through a morality of strenuousness. So, that’s what I would tend to believe.
In relation to things like Darwinism or regression of man theories à la Evola, I would take the view that perspectivally both can be right. We’ve evolved from lower forms, but you can also see the apes as falling away from one of our particular trajectories in relation to ascent. But it doesn’t bother me. The animalism of man doesn’t bother me as a concept. You only have to look around you in your local Wal-Mart.
GJ: I think that one way to somewhat reduce the tension between the Darwinists and the Traditionalists is simply to recognize that Traditionalism is not necessarily an account of how things actually happened. It’s first and foremost a collocation and synthesis of mythology, and mythology doesn’t necessarily have to be literally true in order to be extremely useful, and I don’t care how silly the idea of man’s devolution from higher beings is from a biological or evolutionary standpoint. When I go to Wal-Mart it makes a lot of sense, and so it’s got its own power and its own truth, and it doesn’t necessarily have to have the kind of truth that competes with scientific truth.
JB: Yes, that’s right. There are different forms of truth, and it’s a Gradgrind human mind that can’t see that. But that’s inevitable. Politics is a rather dry area, and people who are very politically-minded, on the whole, want rather tough, affirmative single-track causations, don’t wish to mix things together, and don’t want to be too philosophically complicated. After all, in the end, politics is about influencing the mass of people, and these issues are of no importance at all to the mass of people, who wish to see their areas less crime-ridden or wish to see their cities with less immigrants in them or more immigrants in them, depending on their point of view.
But these philosophical niceties are actually very important. Religions are enormous psychic novels, and the myths that sustain them are the poetic tropes that give reality and variety to their endless and teeming dreaming.
GJ: Let’s talk about religion. Where do you stand on religious issues? Did you receive any kind of religious training as a young man, and did it stick? How has your religious thinking evolved over time?
JB: Yes, that’s interesting. Emotionally, I’m drawn to religiosity. Although, I suppose if you wish to be very tough-minded and literal about things then I’m an atheist. But I don’t care for atheism as a position emotionally and psychologically because it’s such a desiccated and empty and banal position. All the musical traditions of any import are on the other side. So, I’m very much close to the Existentialists of the 1950s, who, although they framed all their religious concerns within what might be perceived as a rationalist purview, were obsessively religious in their attitude towards life and yet didn’t have a coherent religious system, Christian or otherwise. I’m a bit like that really.
I went to a Catholic school where, contrary to the idea it was sort of a torture chamber with a bit of added excess and brothers dressed in dresses flogging boys whilst you conjugated Latin verbs, it was actually a very good education and set oneself up for adult life in a very adequate way. But religiously, though I admire the myths, I’ve never really been that much of a Christian, although I can be moved by a film like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which struck me as a genuinely religious film and an extraordinarily accomplished artistic film as well; the two combined.
So, I’m emotionally drawn to religion, but I would not in a hard, factual sense be described as a religious person.
GJ: Are you more drawn to Christian or pagan mythology?
JB: No, I’ve been much more drawn to pagan mythology, although there’s a lot of Christian artistic inheritance that would influence me a great deal. But no, I’m emotionally and belletristically and aesthetically and psychosexually, I’m a pagan.
GJ: We were having a conversation a few days ago about astrology, and you said that you had the astrological profile of a fascist dictator, and that brings me to the next question which is: What do you think the ideal political system is?
JB: That’s very difficult at this moment in time to answer. I think the best political system is the most conservative system imaginable combined with the most revolutionary system imaginable. So, it’s something which is classical and flexible. It will be the equivalent of a Classical Modernism, really, in terms of its stylistic aesthetics, but beyond just style and/or aesthetics, its meaning and its sense of itself. It has probably never existed. It’s the lifestyle of Ernst Jünger conceived as the management of a state.
GJ: Are there historical regimes that you think most closely approximate that?
JB: No, not really. It’s why I’m not in love with any particular dictatorship or any particular form of democratic organization. All of them have positive features. All of them have negative features. I perceive of life as essentially dynamic, and therefore there’s never been a static society which was perfect. But humans aren’t perfect. And there’s no such thing as human perfectibility.
My interest in the grotesque is because man is so lopsided and so deliriously imperfect that the idea of utopia is itself slightly risible and will lead to dystopia anyway. But one should attempt to achieve one’s own utopias as long as one realizes that there always imperfect and approximate. Just as human life begins with childhood and ends with the idiocy of pre-senility, societies need to endlessly renew themselves.
My vision of not a just society but a society that’s come to terms with the nature of its own injustice is a quivering sword in a fencer’s hand; morality and social climbing perceived as a form of mountaineering. It’s a society that’s more dangerous than the present one, even though the present one has all sorts of dangers, and is more alive and is more percussively inegalitarian and elitist.
I suppose the open-minded rule of a traditional aristocracy that partly believed that the patronage of the arts was one of the most important things that it could do as well as officiating at religious ceremonies would be the sort of sensibility that I favor.
GJ: What thinkers or writers have influenced your views of politics most?
JB: The most is probably Carlyle and Wyndham Lewis and Machiavelli and, although he’s not really political in a narrow sense, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georges Sorel as well and Curzio Malaparte and D’Annunzio and D. H. Lawrence. But again, the people who’ve influenced me tend to splurge over into the artistic area and are not narrowly political. I suppose Plato, in a way; both to approximate to, to ascribe to and to reject simultaneously.
Amongst contemporary theorists, amongst contemporary politicians, Enoch Powell was an interesting Classicist who wrote poetry, and there’s an existential subtext to some of his articulations. We’re talking in a British context here. Who else? I’m certainly not influenced by Michael Oakeshott and sort of milksop conservatives of that sort. But then again, I’ve always been too revolutionary to be a complete conservative and too conservative to be a complete revolutionary.
I believe in a mixture of the past and the present. I’m an optimistic person, actually. I believe very much in the future. I don’t share the pessimism that most Right-wing people do. Most Right-wingers are pessimistic people and have a strong streak of Puritanism in their personalities. Although there are Puritanical sides to me, they tend to be part of a starkness and part of an aesthetic that is thrown beyond itself.
To me, artistic things are so much more important than anything else, and politics is a way to achieve certain artistic goals that otherwise would fall fallow.
GJ: Ayn Rand had an essay called “Bootleg Romanticism” where she talked about certain forms of literature in the 20th century that she thought were a refuge where 19th century Romanticism had fled because it had been purged by naturalism and modernism from higher letters. She talks about things like spy shows. I think she talks about The Man from U.N.C.L.E., although she dropped that from the published version that she put it in her book The Romantic Manifesto. She talks about the Bond films. She talks about pulp adventure novels and things like that.
You have a great interest in pulp novels.
JB: . . . Raymond Chandler . . .
GJ: You have an interest in pulp and popular fiction. Is that true?
JB: Yes, partly because its crudity is endlessly amusing and also for its love of the extreme and its love of the radical situation. It’s compelling.
I’m drawn to extremism. I’ve always been an extremist. But I’m not drawn to the usual forms of counter-bourgeois extremism that exist on the Left. So, for me, the elitist spine that has to subsist in everything prevents me from going in a Leftwards direction because egalitarianism is a bore. There’s nothing more boring than egalitarianism. There’s nothing more aesthetically sterile. And that’s why the truth is on the Right side of the equation.
As for popular forms: popular forms can be very mass-oriented and degraded, but they can also be endlessly charming and full of life and brio and energy, and in their very crudity they can escape some of the halting steps that the naturalist’s aesthetic might place upon things. It’s the very abnaturalism and non-naturalism of elements of the popular imagination as perceived artistically in mass culture that can render the grotesque even more baleful, even more illuminating, even more distressingly actual.
GJ: You like Robert E. Howard. You’ve done a lot of writing about his Conan works and other writings. Again, this is a fellow who created a lot of popular literature, yet you are drawn to it even as an anti-egalitarian elitist.
JB: Yes, that’s right. Partly just because of the heroic metaphysic, which is itself a form of elitism, as Rand rightly pointed out. Things are never destroyed in culture. They’re just displaced, and therefore they find new levels for themselves through which they can articulate what they are or might be. So, naturalistic fiction displaced fantasy fiction, which went down into genres like fantasy and science fiction and the rest of it, and then those come up again and become more literary in the hands of somebody like Ballard, whereas popular work and elitist work fertilize each other and interrelate. With me things are never either/or but yes/and, and there’s a degree to which you can see ramifications of the elite in the popular, and you can see dithyrambic populism in elitism. It’s more the treatment and the self-overbecoming which is involved in any creative moment. It’s less where there’s something that’s popular or whether something is populist or whether something is elitist. Life and history will determine that.
Howard is now regarded in part as a sort of, not as an elite writer, but as a qualified elite writer, certainly as a literary writer, which as a pulpster he was never considered to be. Indeed, the triumvirate of the Weird Tales three–Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard–are now considered to be essentially elitist writers who went slumming.
GJ: When I read Rand’s essay it occurred to me that you could run a similar argument regarding music in this sense that in the late 19th/early 20th century Romanticism was dominant in music and then Modernism came in, and the Romantic sensibility was driven off the concert stages, and it showed up in Hollywood, and so you had a lot of film composers who were carrying on the Romantic tradition in ways that more “serious” academic composers were not. What do you think of film music?
JB: I like film music. Partly because it’s an extension of film as the total artwork. It’d be interesting to have film music with a totally blank screen, wouldn’t it? Whereby you actually had a film that was rendered musicological, and then you voided the screen, and just played the music so you had a concert response to what might be programmatic or filmic music.
Yes, I like film music, although its composers are not individually that important, because you can’t abstract it from the film which their product is a part of. But no, a film without music is a deader film. If you ever sit through films which have very little music, you’ve lost a part of the overall experience.
One of the things that interests me a great deal is that ultra-modern music and horror films go very much together. Partly because the Hammer films in Britain could get Modernist composers very cheaply, like Elisabeth Lutyens and this sort of thing, to do these amazing scores which are completely over the top and, from an naturalistic point of view, utterly ridiculous and yet suit that sort of hedonistic and abstracted material even at its most popular and deranged.
So, I quite like that sort of combination of sort of Charles Ives manqué and Hammer horror.
GJ: Kerry Bolton has done a lot of writing for Counter-Currents since our website got started, and he’s published a lot of essays on artists of the Right. We’re going to bring out two volumes of these essays now. He’s written so much that it has exceeded the length of one volume. We’re going to bring out the first volume sometime in the spring.
It is really quite remarkable that some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, especially the first half of the 20th century, were political Rightists and sometimes rather radical Rightists. It’s interesting to me how Counter-Currents as a metapolitical project embraces the attempt to cultivate artists. One of the things that I would very much like to do is to the extent that it’s possible for a journal to cultivate artists I would very much like to encourage a new artistic scene on the Right. It would be very nice if some of the great artists in the 21st century turned out to be Rightists as well.
What are your thoughts about how one can cultivate an artistic/political sub-culture? Do you think that can be cultivated or does that just happen in ways that can never be predicted or controlled?
JB: I think it’s more likely to happen in the latter way in which you just described it. It’s difficult to stimulate such a thing into being, but you can help that which exists. I think that probably works like Bolton’s are very important because what they’re doing is they’re engaging in cultural revisionism. What they’re doing is they’re bringing back into focus all of the people who existed between about 1900 or 1890 and 1945. The great fall off, of course, is the effect of the Second World War. If you wish to get anywhere in the arts since the Second World War you’ve had to have liberal opinions because civilized people couldn’t have illiberal opinions because they could be perceived as leading in a fascistic direction.
But we’re living in a new era now, and we’re living in a post-modern or a post-post-modern or a hyper-real era, and I feel it’s time to bring back all of these titans from the first part of the 20th century to give people the courage and the energy to say that they believe in new forms of art which are radically unequal and radically inegalitarian in their responses to life.
I feel that the best thing that can be done is to take people up when they appear and to manifest interest in their work and to project them without fear or favour when you’re aware of the nature of their existence. I don’t think you can synthetically bring into being a Right-wing cultural and artistic movement, but you can pick and choose from a large number of people who will come forward in the next ten years or so, or who have created silently and without being recognized since 1945.
GJ: It strikes me that things that I can do as an editor of a journal are really two-fold: Publishing articles like Kerry Bolton’s gives people today a whole pantheon of models that they can look to which can be inspiring and the other thing that’s possible is to provide critical feedback and exposure to contemporary artists who are working in a sort of Right-wing sub-culture and I think that’s really the best that I can do. If there’s more, I would like to know. If there are people out there who want to contact me, we’ll do our best to give you critical feedback and to give your work exposure. And one hopes that there’s a genius out there listening; the next Ezra Pound or the next Roy Campbell. And really, that’s the best we can do.
JB: Yes, I think that’s the best that can be done and what ought to be done and what should be done and what is being done.
GJ: Well, Jonathan, thank you very much. This has been very, very enjoyable, and I hope to talk to you again soon for another Counter-Currents Radio show.
JB: Thanks very much.
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