Carnal to the Point of Scandal by Kevin Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kevin Jackson had me at “Hello”.
(It’s tempting to say that he had me at “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias” (p. 129) – of which more anon – but it’s not strictly true. He got me roughly 128 pages sooner.)
Carnal is a collection of essays spanning the last twenty-odd years, essays on film and photography and writing and more besides. Individually, they are sparkling vignettes of people and the worlds they create. Assembled, they are a powerful, penetrating commentary on the social and cultural forces that have shaped the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
It may save you time if you just accept that Dr Jackson knows everything. It is probably true, though unprovable, since the scientific instrument has not yet been invented that can accurately measure the scope of his knowledge. (In the words of the Preface: “I have heard it plausibly suggested that were the last 1,000 years of Western literary culture, and all of its cinematographic culture, to disappear from the earth, one of the things you’d need to be able to recreate it would be the contents of his brain.”)
It can go one of two ways, that kind of omniscience. It can lead either to insufferable one-upmanship or, as in Jackson’s case, to an unparalleled generosity. He is neither brash nor self-effacing about his omniscience; he has too much to share with us, and is having far too much fun sharing it. He moves fluidly, effortlessly, from the Simpsons to the occult, from graffiti to vampires to money, from George Melly to Georges Méliès. He is a true polymath among polymaths; he describes one of his subjects as “only interested in everything”; it is an epithet which applies equally well to Jackson himself.
He has a knack for treating every subject, however populist or arcane, with equal respect and without fear, witness, for example, his essay “The pataphysical Flook” or his treatment of Maya Deren’s research into voodoo. Moreover, however mainstream or obscure his subject matter, he has a gift for explaining both it and its cultural context to a reader who, whilst moderately well-educated and well-informed, may have little or no previous frame of reference for some of the material under advisement.
Items on my newly- and vastly-expanded bucket list include… well, I think to do them justice I would need to be kidnapped and held hostage in an undisclosed location, with unlimited access to his collection of books and films. Films too numerous to mention, from Kind Hearts and Coronets (which I last saw when I was a skinny youth) to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which I last saw… er, to my shame, never). Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan; William Hayward’s It Never Gets Dark All Night. Gilbert Adair’s Buenas Noches, Buenos Aires (not least for the tantalising statement that it is “the only novel I can think of in which the emotional power of the last line – which is considerable – turns on a question of typography”). Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Donald Davie and Charles Cuddon. The entire literary and musical output of Anthony Burgess… Enough to keep me going for a lifetime or two. And, of course, Jackson’s own films, starting with Exquisite Corpse (yes, I promise to read the book too).
Three particularly delicious morsels stand out amongst this smorgasbord. There is the inspired parody of Prufrock – The Lahv Song of J. Arfur Rank – which concludes his essay on Eliot. There is the opening of “Cocktails with Genesis”, describing his encounter with Genesis P-Orridge. Both led to helpless laughter in public places, and the latter resulted in extensive coffee-damage to my shirtfront. You have been warned. No spoilers for either: buy the book and see for yourself.
And then there is the revelation that Sir Christopher Frayling (another polymath, of course, lately Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chairman of the Arts Council) had, upon being knighted, selected as his motto “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias”, translated by the College of Heralds as “Proceed, varlet, and may the day be perfected for my benefit”, and by Clint Eastwood as “Go ahead, punk, make my day”. I have had huge respect for Sir Christopher since hearing an RSA lecture he gave ten years ago (which contributed largely to the provocation of my own thought), and I would go more than a few miles out of my way to hear him again; but this little nugget makes me see him in an entirely different light, and really did perfect the day for my benefit.
It’s important stuff, this, for two reasons. Firstly, because Jackson’s vocabulary – like Russell Baker’s – is the language of wit, not of hate. He can and does deploy his huge critical talent without needing to belittle, snipe or trivialise. Secondly, because his commentary on the cultural oxygen we all breathe – whether or not we are aware of it – is an essential counterbalance to the omnipresent online narratives of social entrepreneurs and political commentators – always passionate, sometimes coherent – who would otherwise have us believe that the entirety of human experience can be defined in socio-political terms. (Pergite, sceli…)
Which brings me back to Christopher Frayling, who first introduced me (in that RSA lecture in 2005) to Ruskin’s statement: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. … [O]f the three the only trustworthy one is the last…”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kevin Jackson’s Carnal, the book of our art. It is a wholly trustworthy book.