My Chimerical Romanticism: Part One
On triple j, culture boffin Craig Schuftan does his best to palatably package the history of revolutionary art, literature, film and music into bite-sized snippets for an audience who can barely sit still long enough to get through an average Muse song.
His second book, Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone! does the same, marvellously so. Like his first book, The Culture Club, which sifted modern art through modern rock’n'roll (examining both Franz Ferdinand the archduke and Franz Ferdinand the Scottish art rock band), Hey! Nietzsche! gambols across centuries in each page. But this time Schuftan examines the nature of youth, the function of emotion, hell, the purpose of life, by dissecting Weezer lyrics and Wordsworth ballads.
In part one of our engrossing interview with Schuftan, we debate his scattered style, how he rediscovered his emo roots at 34, and why today’s panicked parents are like the pitchfork-wielding peasants who persecuted Frankenstein’s monster.
The Enthusiast: This book could be a really palatable way of teaching kids about all those supposedly boring, stuffy parts of art and history. Are you trying to get this on the curriculum?
Craig Shuftan: [Laughs] “Oh, you’ve discovered my secret! I guess because I’ve been working at triple j for such a long time I always write and plan things for a younger audience. One of the good things about triple j is that we don’t have the money to research our audience like a lot of other stations do in focus groups. The only way you can figure out if something’s good is to work out if, when you were 15, you might’ve liked it. Which is what I do all the time.
“I think back to high school, I was into art and music and didn’t know a lot about it and had a lot of trouble learning because of the way it was taught. I wasn’t being told the things I wanted to know about. But I remember seeing a couple of articles and books that allowed me to see those things in a totally different way. The big one for me was Robert Hughes’s The Shock Of The New. For a couple of years there, it was like the bible to me. I loved that book because he is a great storyteller and presenter. He found a way of taking the whole story of modern art and made it exciting.”
There’s a certain way intellectuals try to protect their knowledge to retain their cachet. There’s almost an active shunning of accessibility so that they don’t lose their position as cultural arbiters.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on that because I didn’t go to universities. I’m not an academic. I just think it’s sometimes sad when I go to a gallery and read a catalogue and I don’t understand it, because I should understand it; I really love art and I spend a lot of time reading about it and thinking about it. For me, writing is about communication, not just with your peers but with a variety of people. I’m not on a bandwagon as far as writing about art and music goes but I do try to make it accessible.”
Is the style a construct then? Both The Culture Club and Hey! Nietzsche! flit deftly between subjects. It’s a vast, wandering interconnected conversation. Is this an active attempt to retain people’s interest?
“It wasn’t nearly as premeditated as that, but that’s been the result. I probably have a tiny attention span and I like to put ideas together in a collage. When I was planning the book I was really making a collage – finding quotes and song lyrics and sticking them together. Lining them up and seeing the way they talk to each other when you do that. I tried to preserve some of that feeling in the book, where you have a story about the Cure beside a story about Keats and reading them next to each other you find the connections and links across those hundreds of years.”
“I also think about making mixtapes or DJing. That thing that happens when you’re playing music for someone and the connections seem quite arbitrary, the only thing they have in common is that you like them all, but there are those moments where you notice that certain things speak to each other – whether it’s a sound or an idea of a lyrical hook. That’s another structural idea, like the idea of a playlist.”
There have been suggestions that you should attach a CD to the book.
“Yeah, it’s a good idea. I regret not doing that actually. Quite a few people have said that to me.”
Actually, I had my iTunes on the ‘cover flow’ mode and began to notice the amount of album covers I had that featured skulls and bats. It made me think “What sort of person am I?”
“Yeah, and that’s one of the things I’ve attempted to get to the bottom of in this book. I’ve always wondered about that. It’s funny, we always take it for granted but those images of death and despair and horror are a huge part of rock n’ roll. And not just areas where you think you’re going to find it, like metal. Skeletons and graveyards are staples of rock and pop music. What I find interesting about that is that it’s something a nineteenth-century music or poetry lover would have understood straight away. They would relate to the feeling of wanting to see those images or wanting to hear about them in poetry. Whereas an aesthetic spectator a hundred years before that would have no time for it. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to compare the Romantic period and rock’n'roll to discover what is similar between the two ages, and why audiences want the same things.”
Okay, obviously with adolescence and hormones and feeling like an outsider in their own body, teenagers are ripe for goth and emo.
“At the very simplest level, when you’re growing up and your body becomes unfamiliar to you, you start to feel like a monster or a freak. It speaks to you. You feel like an outcast and you find comfort that, in lyrics or in music, somebody understands you.”
[Laughs] “There’s something very incongruous about it. The main reason I wrote the book is because of that song ‘Welcome To The Black Parade‘ and how much it knocked me out. Certainly, it made me think because, to put it bluntly and to not generalise too much about the band or their fans, I’m not their demographic. It just made me realise that all that stuff that we all like to think we’ve grown out of – you grow up and become a more useful member of society, you stop obsess about your emotions and death and get on with the business of living – I don’t know how much that feeling goes away. A lot of what is really great in art and music speaks exactly to those things: that maybe I’ll never understand the world and I’ll always feel like an outsider.”
“I think a lot of people are haunted by those things throughout their lives. That’s why this can still speak to people. Some of that music is almost frightening. Those early-’80s Cure albums that I talk about in the book, Pornography and Faith and Seventeen Seconds, I hadn’t listened to them in the longest time. There was a moment of trepidation before I put Pornography on. [Laughs] I don’t know if I’m ready to go back to this thing! Because it’s a scary thing. Music when you’re a teenager is exciting and you can really get swept up in it in a way that I don’t know we always allow ourselves to later in life.”
I guess when you get older you can’t be as self-obsessed as you’re allowed to be when you’re young, because you have responsibilities.
“There’s an argument, and I would certainly agree with this, that Romanticism was essentially a selfish philosophy. It kinda had to be for historical reasons. It is, in some ways, incredibly childish. It puts the self at the centre of your philosophy. In extreme cases, like in the case of Nietzsche, that there is no greater good, that what is good is simply what is good for me right now. That’s pretty frightening. But that’s what makes Romantic literature and poetry exciting. That’s the hook in Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster is a very Romantic character. The threat of Frankenstein is the idea of this creature who just acts on his desires. And the monster is emotional, he kills for emotional reasons. He feels like an outsider, abandoned, and was brought into the world and he doesn’t know what he’s doing there. And because society is so hostile to him, he kills. And that’s Romanticism taken to its most frightening conclusion.”
“In a lot of ways, that helped me to understand the whole panic about emo that happened in the couple of years that I was writing the book. At first I thought ‘Oh, this is ridiculous, this happens like clockwork every five years, like Marilyn Manson, heavy metal in the ’80s.’ It was always the same thing: suicidal messages in music affecting your kids. But in the case of emo, more than the other things, the threat is of Romanticism and a selfish philosophy run rampant.”
Well, we’re both Generation X and we can gripe about the generation succeeding us. There’s this argument that Gen Y grew up self-obsessed with coddling parents in an overly PC world. Is this why emo is so popular? Because kids are a bunch of self-centred sooks nowadays?
[Laughs] “It’s interesting to frame it in those terms. I hadn’t really thought about it that way but that makes a lot of sense. I have to relate it back to my feelings as a teenager, and try to understand it that way, but I do remember at a certain point realising the things that had been sold to me when I was growing up weren’t completely true. That you’re being herded in a certain direction: you were being told to go through school, then you’d continue your education, then get a good job and ‘contribute to society’.”
“There is a point where you see that very clearly, or what seems to you to be very clearly, and you think ‘I don’t know that I believe in that stuff, or that I like the world and what it produces or how people live’. That’s certainly something that happened, almost as a generation, to the Romantics. They got completely disillusioned by the idea of progress in society and the idea of perfectibility of making society better through cooperation, which is why their philosophy became so self-centred.”
What about the counter-argument: that the resurgence in Romanticism is like Ludditism? We’re more dehumanised by technology than ever before, so it’s not the kids’ fault.
“Oh, and the world has been a bit rotten in the last few years. I’m generalising a bit here but you can’t ignore that. Particularly if you were growing up in America over the last five years. That would be incredibly confusing and disillusioning, if that’s a word.”
Also Romanticism was born from a world where God was no longer responsible for structuring it. And they had to structure it themselves.
“Romanticism was the result of a lot of things; that’s one of them. The Enlightenment‘s chickens coming home to roost. Over the previous hundred years, throughout the eighteenth century, rationalism had dominated the world. And that was really good. People believed in logic and science and reason as a way to solve human problems. Inevitably that belief spread to every area of life, so it was applied to religion as well. That’s where you get into really tricky territory. As anyone who has thought about it for two seconds knows, if you try to take a rational approach to the Judeo-Christian God you wind up in a lot of trouble. [Laughs] You end up being forced, on a very simple level, to work out that problem of why, if God designed the universe in such a way that it’s meant to work, why it doesn’t work. Is he evil or just like seeing us suffer? What’s going on?”
“There was a very widespread loss of that old-fashioned sense of faith. But that wouldn’t be a problem if the romantics didn’t need very badly to believe in something. The alternative, the world that had been created by progress and technology, was bad for them as well. They could see the implications of where that was heading. So they could really do with belief in something, and that wasn’t really available to them anymore. In some ways that’s the key to Romanticism.”
(Part two of the interview is here)
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