Entry from October 29, 2002

In suggesting that Marshall Mathers, professionally known as Eminem, is “the world’s best rapper,” the New York Times cites as corroboration the opinion of a Mr José Gallardeo, a 16 year-old pupil at the James Monroe High School in the South Bronx, who has a particular admiration for his favorite artist’s poetic descriptions of raping his mother and killing his ex-wife. This, says José, is “the kind of music that makes you stop and say, ‘Is this dude for real?’ . . . He”s not like everybody else.”

Yet, elsewhere in the same article the author, Lynette Holloway, quotes another denizen of the South Bronx, 17-year-old Manaury Reyes as saying that Mr Mathers is particularly to be admired for “rapping about life — you know, stuff that we go through out here. Some of it’s a goof, but some of it’s real, and it sounds like it comes from the heart, you know. A lot of us can relate to that.” So it would appear that Eminem’s appeal is founded on his being not like everyone else — at least everyone in the South Bronx — and like everybody else at the same time?

The solution to this apparent contradiction is quite simple. These youngsters have been taught by our culture that the hurt, the self pity and the fantasies of violence are the realities of daily life for “everybody else,” and that Eminem is simply more daring and honest and clever than anyone else in giving expression to them through his quasi-musical self-display. It has become an unstated assumption at the foundation of the culture that the violent and the sexual, and especially the violently sexual, are more “real” than the inhibitions and the social norms and the necessary restraints of family and business that usually keep these things out of everyday life.

Accordingly, we make of them a fascinatingly forbidden world into which the popular culture — and the high culture too — pretends to give us access in movies like Hannibal or Red Dragon or rap music with its bad language, violence and revenge fantasies. Where did Messrs Gallardeo and Reyes learn this view of the world? Somehow I doubt that it was from T.S. Eliot, who is famous in more exalted social circles for having said that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” but you can bet that they learned it from someone who learned it from someone who learned it from Eliot.

And where did Eliot learn it? Possibly from Freud, who believed that what he called the id — the psychological seat of sex and violence — was “true psychic reality.” Or possibly from Nietzsche, who likewise assumed the priority of what he called the Dionysian to what he called the Apollonian. At any rate, people a hundred years ago were suddenly ready to adopt some such model of “reality” because it was wonderfully liberating. All at once the civilizational achievements in which the human race had been wont to take the most pride were reduced to mere camouflage, a pleasingly painted screen designed to hide a reality accessible to everybody, or everybody with the audacity and honesty to tear the screen away and discard it along with the accumulated cultural junk of millennia.

The popular culture has therefore only belatedly picked up the worldview with which the high culture has been stuck for most of the last century. That’s why Sylvia Plath wrote of her suicide attempts in “Lady Lazarus” that

I do it so it feels like hell
I do it so it feels real

There is therefore some unconscious, or perhaps conscious, humor in an interview in the Daily Telegraph with Miss Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, now also a poet, whose poem “Lazarus” is appended to the interview and expresses not a desire for the closer embrace of such grim “reality” but a fantasy of her father, Ted Hughes’s, return from the dead so that he could witness how his widow, Frieda’s step-mother, is dragging her feet about the allocation of shares in his copyrights to his children. Well, times do change. But still Miss Hughes speaks of her poetry in rather Plathian fashion as “peeling off my layers one by one.” Clearly, whatever happens about the copyrights she is in on the family business.

Other artistic layer peelers, though less personal and confessional, still aim straight for the peeled viscera as the touchstone of the “reality” they seek. Such, for example, are the British brothers, Dinos and Jake Chapman who are interviewed in the same day’s Telegraph. They are celebrated for things like F****** Hell, a charming composition which was one of the featured pieces in the Royal Academy’s Apocalypse show and which consisted of 30,000 plastic soldiers cut up to look as if they had been maimed or killed in battle and formed into the shape of a swastika. Or various other sorts of mangled dummies, unclothed mannequins with sexual organs for faces, a brain with a hammer buried in it and connect to a limp male member.

Though the brothers speak slightingly of the paintings of Francis Bacon as “retarded 1950s English existentialism,” they certainly have a lot in common with a man who described his artistic purpose as an attempt to “deform into reality.” What makes such stuff any more “real” than the real, everyday stuff that makes up everyday life for most of those not caught in the middle of a war. There is nothing intrinsically more plausible about this view of reality than there is about the older view, ultimately derived from Plato and the Greek tragedians who had experienced a similar liberation to that of our great-grandparents, only in reverse, in discovering a superior reality in the rational and the humanly constructed as opposed to the dark animal and chthonic forces which enlightened human thought was always in the process of overcoming. Have we got the right to pick and choose between them?


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