By Peter Wild
‘Max Nordau makes me hot,’ she said. For maybe fifteen minutes, Joffe couldn’t speak, couldn’t lift his head from her ample busom, could only snuffle about her young flesh like a hirsute pig on the trail of indigent truffles in a melon patch. Max Nordau makes me hot. The nerve of the girl. Here they were, side by side, a-bed, holidaying in the ‘fearful place’ that put a supposed end to master detective Sherlock Holmes, a teacher and his pupil looking to snatch indelicate and transient joys while the days apportioned to them unspooled – and here he was, Joffe, looking to take up one such unspooling moment in order to edify and challenge the girl (his student, after all), scooping up a book – Psychopathologie des Fin de Siècle. Der Kulturkritiker, Arzt und Zionist Max Nordau – from where it lay, neglected, like a Bavarian roof transplanted in a storm, in order to take her through Nordau’s theory of degenerate art – ‘Entartete Kunst,’ he’d began, her hand sliding across the hairy, swollen omphalos, his belly, her fingers scampering through his pubic thatch before finally coming to rest between his legs, gently cupping his balls, relaxing with her head upon his chest, her entire demeanour saying, now, now I can relax, now you can start with your Entartete Kunst – only to have the girl mutter dreamily (as Joffe took up the case of Egon Schiele, imprisoned in April 1912 for distributing pornography to minors), Max Nordau makes me hot.
Max Nordau – born Simon Maximillian or Simcha Südfeld on 29th July 1849 in Budapest, most famously remembered as the man responsible for giving the World Zionist Organisation a democratic character but also, it has to be said, renowned for his publication Degenerate (first published in 1892) which took the lead from the pseudo-scientific blather of people like Lavater (whose own theory can be neatly summed up in the expression, clothes maketh the man) that sought to attack what was at the time perceived as the irrationality and amorality of philosophers such as Nietzsche and playwrights such as Ibsen and Wilde; Max Nordau, a bald, stern-looking Jewish man with a silver, oddly centre-parted beard and moustache, whose theories of Entartete Kunst inspired the Nazis to mount a tour of what they regarded as ‘un-German art’ in Munich in 1937, featuring modernist artworks chaotically hung and insultingly labelled; Max Nordau – makes her hot.
Joffe dropped the book – somewhere, it didn’t matter – and turned, noticing as he did so that her hand gripped his balls all the tighter, to feast upon her once more, his eyes closed against the lush warmth of her skin, his hungry mouth tasting and testing whatever it blindly found, her words (Max Nordau makes me hot) echoing, resonating, humming about his infrathin, as the acorn between his legs, the acorn recently satisfied between her legs, grew stout once more.
From such small acorns do entire oak trees grow.
He never admitted, of course, where or when the idea first struck him, choosing instead to regurgitate the line most recently attributed to Tofts, of a ‘folding and unfolding of ideas as a sequence of anachronous moments, where remembered associations coalesce with newly-formed combinations, forestalling decisive outcomes or closures’.
But her saying Max Nordau makes me hot. That was where it started. The idea that a pre-eminent, fundamentally moral and philistine, thinker could engender sluttish lasciviousness, that was the first fold. The fact that the theories of the aforementioned thinker, a man who went on to co-found the World Zionist Organisation, remember, inspired the Nazis – that was fold two. Each of these folds were joined with subsequent folds and elaborations – the CIA funding outsider art in the US in the 50s, the way in which modern galleries sought to impress upon people the value of tradition, the library hush with which art should be revered – folds and elaborations that provoked in Joffe the need to write, the need to paint, the need to inform and influence, the need – the urgent and anguished compulsion – to shake things up, turn things on their head, set things on fire and, he hoped, set them free of the awful, repugnant stasis – the hemiplegia, he wrote, aping Joyce – that gripped the modern world like a tiger in a vise.
The problem, as Joffe saw it, was this: art – all art, all important art – had backed itself into a corner. You could exhibit plaster cast thumbs and let your audience work out whatever it was you were trying to say. Everything was ambiguous. Both/and rather than either/or. Such had been the way of things for the better part of a century. Audiences everywhere had become used to art that required only three of your five senses.
Joffe called time, said enough was enough. Art is a relationship, Joffe wrote in his pamphlet, ‘Getting Your Hands Dirty – The New Heroism’, between two people. Each has a part to play. You have to imagine them fucking. Imagine two people fucking. What they produce is art. But what happens if they never change the position in which they fuck? You get missionary art. Boring art. Worthless art. It’s time, Joffe wrote, to change the position. It’s time we got down on our hands and knees. It’s time we were bound and gagged and tied to the bed. It’s time for art that buggers us, art that rapes us, art that takes us without our consent and won’t let go. That, said Joffe, is what the New Heroism is all about.
Reeve Gauche was the first major artist of any repute to put the quaint formal triangles of New Heroism to good use.
She mounted an exhibition, ArtKlass, at the ICA in which the entrance to the main room was all but blocked by an enormous floor to ceiling oil painting of a cock and balls. I say, all but blocked. There was a gap of six inches to the left and to the right. If you were to lean over and glimpse along said gap – many did not dare – you would see that the gap stretched the length of the gallery. To enter involved sliding between the oil painting and the wall, involved covering yourself in oil paint, involved smearing the bottom of the gigantic shaft about your person. But that was only the beginning. The exhibition was labyrinthine, like a country maze. To make it from one side to another, you had to smear yourself along every wall, smearing naked figures and castrated horses and all manner of wounds and extrusions about your person. Younger people got it, Reeve said in an interview with The Observer magazine. Younger people got naked and thrilled to the feel of the oil paint on their bodies.
At the time, it felt like a glorious first sally. But of course it was a last hurrah. The art world had no time for New Heroism.
New Heroism only really came alive when it was formally introduced to the written word.
Aubrey Tandem was perhaps the most ‘conventional’ – quote / unquote – of all the New Heroes. His own ‘take’ on proceedings was that what Joffe was calling for was a marriage between the most conventional of forms and the most irrational and amoral of content. And so what you found – in novels like National Grid and Nine Black Alps – was decadence, debauchery, death and disgrace. Many commentators (even at the time) thought Tandem to be a tired hack looking to jump upon a bandwagon and make a name for himself, and these days he is largely remembered as someone who did just that.
Of much greater interest to the casual historian is CM Kirkie. Taking the baton left off by Reeve Gauche (who swiftly retreated up a formalist back-alley and disappeared from view), Kirkie experimented with ink and gouache to create formidable texts that resisted any conceivable, straightforward reading (designed as they were to remain wet in perpetuity, thereby allowing the reader – thereby granting the reader – the good grace to smudge the words all the way to Hell and back). Her debut InmkStinmk was just the start, however. Rapidly coming to understand that the obliteration of her message limited the potential of that self-same message, Kirkie employed paper that stood the test of time – for a short period of time – but decayed beneath the reader’s fingerprints. So you could read her second book, Cleopatra, once but the artifact would be obliterated a short while after you had finished (unless of course you were a slow or lazy reader given to fits and starts, catching ten minutes here and ten minutes there over a period of many weeks – the occasional grease from the tips of your fingers would be enough to dissolve the book long before you reached Apadravya, the jaw-dropping mid-section in which Gravy, the book’s central character, has a bone inserted transversely across the head of his beautiful penis).
The folding and unfolding of ideas as a sequence of anachronous moments being what it is, though, it wasn’t long, figuratively speaking, before Kirkie left paper behind altogether. One Bushel of Cotton, The Building of a Pyramid and You’re thinking about Voodoo were all written for online media and designed to evaporate as you read them. A timing device was attached such that a reader was compelled to read at a certain speed, could not look away and pause for breath or make coffee. You read until the reading was done and when the reading was done the story was gone. At which point, CM Kirkie started deleting her work as she wrote it (or so the legend goes) and disappears, stage right, from our story – but she did inspire the last (and some would say greatest) flourish of New Heroics.
Joffe had a pen pal. A pen pal who was, at that particular moment in time, incarcerated in the Richard J Donovan Correctional Facility, just east of San Diego; a pen pal who, furthermore, went by the name of M-Dollar. San Diego is the SPAM capital of the world and M-Dollar was King of SPAM, leastways until he was caught and imprisoned for various minor offences involving identity fraud. The final historical convergence worth noting before we complete this brief history of the New Heroics concerns the Richard J Donovan Correctional Facility itself, which is affiliated to Kairos, a charitable movement that seeks to provide an inter-denominational helping hand to those unfortunate enough to find themselves behind bars.
M-Dollar received a postcard from Kairos and a small package containing ‘Getting Your Hands Dirty’ on the same day. The postcard from Kairos explained what the word Kairos meant: there are two words for TIME in the Greek language, the postcard read, CRONOS which refers to hours and days and weeks and KAIROS which refers to the time set by God. M-Dollar disposed of the card, flicking it like a discus into the toilet, despite the fact that the postcard from Kairos was the first fold.
Next M-Dollar read the pamphlet from his screwy pen pal, Joffe. It was a little bit over his head (and up its own arse), but he thought he got the drift of it. Of much more interest was a small selection of news-clippings attached to the inside of the pamphlet detailing CM Kirkie’s more recent outings. The pamphlet and the news-clippings were the second and third fold.
The three folds eventually gave birth – three weeks after M-Dollar’s release from the Richard J Donovan Correctional Facility – to a virus, which – thanks to an emotive and revealing email in the early hours of the morning from Joffe – M-Dollar named MaxNurd. The virus was a peculiar beast. It would only infiltrate your computer if you specifically invited it. You had to want the virus. And if you wanted the virus, you were treated to a piece of art – a short story or a poem or a scanned doodle – which you could read, think about, absorb while the virus destroyed your hard drive.
MaxNurd was followed in rapid succession by MaxNurd1, MaxNurd2 and MaxNurd3. This was the point at which others started to jump on the subscribed virus route. The MaxNurds gave way to BushelsOFcorn. The BushelsOFcorn gave way to 9BlackALPS, ArtKLASSES, InMkStinMks and the now legendary Apadravya 1 through 10. All over the world viruses grew and all over the world people subscribed, choosing to destroy their home computer equipment in order to glimpse, just once, a piece of art that no-one else would ever see.
Today, of course, the New Heroics are just a footnote in the paragraph about what came next which is itself just a digression within a chapter about what came after that, and the book itself is remaindered because, after all, nobody reads anymore and text is dead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Wild is the co-author of Before the Rain and the editor of The Flash , Perverted by Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall and The Empty Page: Fiction inspired by Sonic Youth. His writing and award-winning fiction has appeared in NOO Journal, Nude Magazine, Alt Sounds, 3:AM Magazine, and others. He is the co-founder of Bookmunch.