‘I do not wish…my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories’: Dame Edith Sitwell on ‘Naked Lunch’

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It was John Willett’s review of William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch, in the Times Literary Supplement, that led poet and writer, Dame Edith Sitwell to make her famous statement about the book, in 1963.

Willett was a writer, critic and, most importantly, translator of Bertolt Brecht’s plays. His translations so impressed the playwright that it led to their collaboration on the Berliner Ensemble’s historic 1956 London season. Yet, for such a seemingly radical critic and writer, Willett hated Naked Lunch and made his thoughts well known in a review headlined “Ugh!”:

“[Naked Lunch]...is not unlike wading through the drains of a big city . . . [It features] unspeakable homosexual fantasies . . . ...such things are too uncritically presented, and because the author gives no flicker of disapproval the reader easily takes the ‘moral message’ the other way…..If the publishers had deliberately set out to discredit the cause of literary freedom and innovation they could hardly have done it more effectively…”

Appearing not long after the controversial trial and publication of D. H. Lawrence’s infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, it seemed to many of England’s older and moneyed class that their world was under very real threat from the Barbarians at the gates.

One such figure, was Dame Edith, who upon reading Willett’s review fired off the following missive to the TLS:

To the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement

[published 28 November 1963]

Sir,

I was delighted to see, in your issue of the 14th instant, the very rightminded review of a novel by a Mr. Burroughs (whoever he may be) published by a Mr. John Calder (whoever he may be).

The public canonisation of that insignificant, dirty little book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a signal to persons who wish to unload the filth of their minds on the British public.

As author of Gold Coast Customs I can scarcely be accused of shirking reality, but I do not wish to spend the rest of my life with my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories.

I prefer Chanel Number .

Edith Sitwell, C.L.

What Dame Edith failed to grasp was that to a generation of young, free-thinking individuals, this letter was the perfect encouragement to go and buy the book.

Though Mr. Burroughs and Mr. Calder had made no small an impression at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 (though arguably upstaged by the legendary spat between Communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid and Beat writer Alexander Trocchi), it is fair to say, this letter was amongst the best publicity they could have had for Naked Lunch.

Edith Sitwell is sadly neglected today, and her poetry, biographies, and one experimental novel are now mainly left to the reading lists of academics. Yet once, Edith and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, were the English Avant Garde—but time, fashion, politics and a World War soon usurped their position.

The poem mentioned in her letter, Gold Coast Customs (1930), was Sitwell’s own (almost Ballardian) tale of the horrific barbarism lurking beneath the artificiality of civilized humans in the city of London.

The following clip is of Dame Edith discussing her life, her parents and Marilyn Monroe, in 1959.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

‘Whaur Extremes Meet: A portrait of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid


 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘Whaur Extremes Meet’: A Portrait of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid

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When Hugh MacDiarmid died in 1978, his fellow poet Norman MacCaig suggested Scotland commemorate the great man’s passing by holding 3 minute’s pandemonium. It was typical of MacCaig’s caustic wit, but his suggestion did capture something of the unquantifiable enormity of MacDiarmid’s importance on Scottish culture, politics, literature and life during the twentieth century.

Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps best described by a line from his greatest poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), in which he wrote:

‘I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.

It explains the contradictory elements that merged to make him a poet.

Born Christopher Murray Grieve, on August 11, 1892, he changed his name to the more Scottish sounding Hugh MacDiarmid to publish his poetry. He was a Modernist poet who wrote in Scots vernacular. One might expect this choice of language to make his poetry parochial, but MacDiarmid was a poet of international ambition and standing, who was recognized as an equal with T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak and W. H. Auden.

In politics, MacDiarmid had been one of the co-founder’s of the National Party for Scotland in 1928, but was ejected when he moved towards Communism. He was then ejected from the Communist Party for his “nationalist deviation.” He maintained a Nationalist - in favor of an independent Scotland - and a Communist throughout his life.

As literature scholar and writer Kenneth Butlay notes, MacDiarmid was:

..as incensed by his countrymen’s neglect of their native traditions as by their abrogation of responsibility for their own affairs, and he took it upon himself to “keep up perpetually a sort of Berseker rage” of protest, and to act as “the catfish that vitalizes the other torpid of the aquarium.”

 
In 1964, the experimental film-maker Margaret Tait made short documentary portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, which captured the poet at home in Langholme, his sense of childish fun, his socializing his the bars and public houses of Edinburgh (the Abbotsford on Rose Street).
 

 
More on Hugh MacDiarmid, plus poetry and reading, after the jump…
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Mark E. Smith: A brief tour of Edinburgh

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Mark E. Smith has occasionally claimed that Edinburgh is his favorite city. He lived there between 1988, when he performed I Am Kurious Oranj, with The Fall and Michael Clark’s Dance Company at the Edinburgh Festival, until around the mid-nineties, when he returned to England. Edinburgh has long captured the imagination of writers and artists - in part because of the city’s mythic history and role as “the Athens of the North” during the Enlightenment. But also because of its darker and more murderous associations.

This symbolic division is reflected in the city’s design of Old Town, with its original fortress and fishbone wynds off a cluttered HIgh Street; and the New Town, to the north, with its Georgian and Victorian splendor. This physical division symbolically underlines the duality at the core of the Scottish psyche and literature.

It was G Gregory Smith who first noted and defined the division in Scottish psyche and literature as Caledonian Antisyzygy - the “idea of dueling polarities within one entity”:

“...[Scottish] literature is the literature of a small country…it runs a shorter course than others…in this shortness and cohesion the most favourable conditions seem to be offered for a making of a general estimate. But on the other hand, we find at closer scanning that the cohesion at least in formal expression and in choice of material is only apparent, that the literature is remarkably varied, and that it becomes, under the stress of foreign influence, almost a zigzag of contradictions. The antithesis need not, however, disconcert us. Perhaps in the very combination of opposites - what either of the two Thomases, of Norwich and Cromarty, might have been willing to call ‘the Caledonian antisyzygy’ - we have a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered. If therefore, Scottish history and life are, as an old northern writer said of something else, ‘varied with a clean contrair spirit,’ we need not be surprised to find that in his literature the Scot presents two aspects which appear contradictory. Oxymoron was ever the bravest figure, and we must not forget that disorderly order is order after all.”

This notion of “a zigzag of contradictions” was further developed by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid who saw it as a key influence on Scottish Literature, for example R L Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It was also a theme in MacDiramid’s greatest poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, in which he wrote his own definition:

“..I’ll ha’e nae half-way hoose. But aye be whaur extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken…”

Jekyll and Hyde may be set in London but it is one of the best novels about Edinburgh and the Scottish psyche. Here is a fictional representation of such infamous Edinburgh characters as Deacon Brodie, who was a cabinet-maker by day and a burglar by night, or its Resurrection Men (Burke & Hare), and indeed, of Stevenson’s own experiences as a visitor to brothels with his student friends, one of which, a respectable family man, was implicated in the murder of a prostitute. This split continues today Irvine Welsh and his Edinburgh of Trainspotting, Filth and Porno.

Unfortunately, in this quirky and very brief tour of Edinburgh, Mark E. Smith only highlights his rather superficial likes and dislikes. His main dislike is the statue to Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the First Earl Haig, on the Castle Esplanade. It was Haig’s whose mismanagement during the Battle of the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres, that led to the needless slaughter of thousands of soldiers during the First World War.

However, Smith does like the military statue to Blackwatch Regiment, situated at the top of the Mound. Smith’s old man was in the Blackwatch, and he claims he likes to visit it when he feels sentimental. But it’s the Scotch Malt Whisky Society that Smith describes as favorite location in the city.
 

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Bonus track ‘Edinburgh Man’ by The Fall, after the jump…
 
With thanks to Alan Shields
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion