Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Death of Jonathan Bowden

The Beast of Berkshire

I first saw him in London, in April 2008, at one of the bimonthly New Right meetings—a metapolitical forum he’d been chairing for three years. I had never previously attended the meetings and I had never previously heard of Jonathan Bowden.

Due to railway network delays, we arrived late. It was a gloomy day. The room was dark, steamy, pre-Victorian, crammed with middle-aged men—serious and angry to the last.

As all seats were taken, we took a standing position.

Lady Michelle Renouf stood up front, holding some fifty printed pages in her hand, performing an exegesis of the Treaty of Lisbon’s legalese.

My gaze wandered around the room.

There was a man to the right of the speaker, in a grey suit, seated on a window sill. He was sullen, deep in thought, his eyes slits behind pebble-like spectacles. He had curly brown hair, wild, like a madman. A wooden pendant, with a carved rune, hung around his neck. He struck me as authoritarian. It seemed a storm was brewing inside him.

Suddenly, a member of the audience, seated in the front row, interrupted the speaker. He stammered question. The question was answered, more politely than was deserved. However, the inquisitor was not satisfied, and butted in rudely with another question. At this point the man by the window came to life, and barked an order to keep quiet and save questions for later. The man’s voice was loud and aggressive, his manner abrasive, impatient, overbearing. Like a fly whacked flat by a rolled up newspaper, the inquisitor fell silent. The man by the window, resumed his position, arms crossed. There were no further interruptions.

A break followed, during which the room partially emptied allowing us to seat ourselves on a table someone—an angry man—had slammed against a wall at the back of the room. I had a clear view to the front. Some five to ten minutes later, loaded with pints of lager and bowls of chips, those who had gone down to the bar returned to their seats—punishing, coccyx-crunching wooden chairs of disparate vintage and design, good only for smashing on backs in a barroom brawl. By this time the man with the rune had replaced Renouf at the front.

And before I knew it the audience was clapping and getting up to leave, Jonathan Bowden, having kept us enthralled for an hour with a stellar presentation about the life and work of German film-maker Hans-J├╝rgen Syberberg, ‘not exactly a household name, it has to be said’.

I was well impressed. The power, the breadth of knowledge, the pyrotechnic oration, the mastery of the language—I had not seen any one speak so manfully and yet so learnedly about an artist or any cultural figure before. Maybe I realised it then, maybe later, but a whole new world opened in front of me that afternoon; this is what the future had to sound like!

I was also somewhat terrified. That man, harsh, loud, illiberal, able to channel erudition into blasts of Nietzschean ferocity, was no man at all—I imagined he was a beast, or a demon, likely to kill any sap who dared casually greet him.

From then on I attended the meetings semi-regularly, and each time I went back home further to research the topic of his talk. At first I only saw Jonathan at these events, but I came to know him over time, perhaps a little better than some.

I also came to see what a compulsive performer he was. His conversation was not only erudite and instructive, but also filled with anecdotes and hilarious impressions. The first time I observed this he was talking about Northern Englishmen, whom he perceived as dour, laconic, and semi-incomprehensible through their reliance on obscure regional dialects. These Northerners, at least the primitive harshness he imagined in them and which he seemed to admire, were objects of fascination for him, the Byronian intellectual thug.

First Conversation

Later that year I was invited to a garden party. The host was a certain well-known military historian, who appears in Mister. He was launching a new book—his prison memoirs. Jonathan was also there. After cocktails and conversation, the host expressed his intention to begin. I told him it was too cold to have his talk outside, so he directed us to his lounge. I sat in a corner, almost facing the audience. Jonathan was directly in front of me, in the front row, sitting on a garden bench with his head slightly tilted back, an amused half smile on his face. The historian, a large man in a pinstripe suit, proved an entertaining speaker—but I knew that from YouTube. I cannot remember what triggered it, but Jonathan’s reaction was pure Bowden: everyone was silent, having laughed at various jokes, but Jonathan heard something half-way through the presentation that amused him and he blasted out a single laugh: ‘HAH!’ Two hundred decibels. Pots and pans crashing to the floor in the kitchen. He was completely unselfconscious.

Afterwards, I saw Jonathan standing a pace away from me, so I introduced myself. The monster proved surprisingly amiable, and I found it easy to converse with him on the topics that interested me; I found, in fact, we had much in common, besides politics.

The Human Hand Grenade

One day, out of the blue, Jonathan emailed me, wanting to see if I was interested in us cooperating in art projects. I was too busy, but I was interested in knowing the artist. Next time I saw him, we had our respective diarists book a date for a meeting, to be held a month hence.

We met by at a pub near where I lived, in July 2009. Jonathan arrived in a white delivery van, accompanied by his driver. I imagined the van was loaded with corpses. Jonathan was clad in a crumpled grey suit, with a forty-something’s tie and a white, pleated shirt—the kind that one wears with a dinner jacket. The shirt had a big yellow stain on it, so I imagined Jonathan had been at a gala dinner event the previous evening. The pub was closing, so I suggested we went to the next village.

We spent seven hours there, conversing about numerous topics. Jonathan was a like a pressure cooker: inside him, at forty-six atmospheres, was a library of esoteric knowledge, sharp insights, and funny anecdotes; once you opened the valve these keep on coming. But maybe he was more like a hand grenade: you released the catch and it went off, obliterating everything nearby. I later learnt that if you had things to say, you had to be brutal and forcefully interrupt, and keep on talking even if you sensed Jonathan snapping at the heels. He was a Nietzschean, so respect was bought with ruthless force.

If I remember correctly, during this conclave, after I gave him a copy of my novel and my two most recent albums, I took a moment to collect a book he had sent me, which was by then waiting at my postal box in the village. The book was The Art of Jonathan Bowden, Volume One. When I later showed it to my wife, she said the artist was insane.

If so, and not unusually, he was also a genius. His novellas and short stories are almost unreadable, but all the same the prose is incredible, uniquely pyrotechnic—that word again—in its use of metaphor, vocabulary, and striking juxtapositions. Years later, while reviewing Tarr, a novel by one of his favourite authors, Wyndham Lewis, he would write:

Try and have a Tarr day, in which everything you utter to everyone is fresh and aggressively original, and you’ll find yourself dismissed as a monster by the end of it.

I think this applied to him. And my wife, a lover of literature, was certainly astounded by the demon’s prose.

Little did we know that he had less than two years to live.

Fire and Glory

Our next meeting was three months later, at an event in Atlanta, United States. Greg Johnson, then editor of The Occidental Quarterly, had organised an editor’s dinner. Jonathan arrived with Adrian Davies, shortly after I did. I was pleased to see him because he was the only person I really knew at that event—everyone else was a new face, or I knew only virtually or reputationally.

Soon another of Jonathan’s eccentricities became apparent. At the buffet, Jonathan grabbed a tiny dessert dish, onto which he placed a few items. Maybe a potato and a leaf of salad. This was repeated at breakfast the following morning, and again the day following. I remember that when we met in July, he had not eaten either, even after his driver and I, by then both starving for hours, ordered our dinners. After witnessing this four times, I had to ask: did he ever eat? He explained that in his part of country, people did not grow very tall, but did grow sideways. Later he mentioned that he had expected to see many 30- or 40-stone Americans, and was disappointed he had yet to see any. Evidently, fascinated by extremes as he was, his interest had been piqued by exaggerated news reports in Britain. Maybe he expected British pub meals and American cuisine to cause instant obesity. Not unlike me, Jonathan had a wild imagination.

Jonathan was also an obdurate technophobe. I was shocked to discover his mobile telephone was at least a decade old, and could not be opened. He told me he had no internet connection at home, and that, although he had a laptop, it dated from before the last Ice Age. ‘I believe in planning my own obsolescence’, he said. One evening I found he did not even know how to operate the coffee machine in his room—he wanted me to help him with it. Or did he? Perhaps he wanted conversation, and this was his excuse. I was too tired to stay for long, despite his amusing impressions of Ian Paisley and some other Irish cleric he once knew. As I closed the door, I saw him seated at the table, head tilted back, with an arrogant half-smile on his face, staring back at me.

History was made during that visit to the United States. At a private event that same weekend, Jonathan was due to deliver a banquet speech on the Saturday evening. That was his first time in the land of the unfree and as an orator he was as yet unknown to the audience. I had the quiet satisfaction of knowing Jonathan would perform a mass decapitation.Fasten your seatbelts, I thought, looking at the wholly innocent Americans. I observed him closely: back in June he had suggested that I spoke at the New Right meetings, and, although I did not think I would be any good at it, I had not discarded the idea either, thinking my brain would one day click—perhaps in two years’ time—into public speaking mode, so I wanted to see what happened in the minutes before he was due to go up behind the podium. I knew this was an important event for him, and that future invitations would depend on his ability to knock out in the next hour. As the minutes passed, Jonathan became progressively silent, surly, bad tempered, even. At the cocktail he had said people often remarked how prior to speaking his manner became harsher. I could certainly sense pressure—the dark demonic force, the Vril—building inside him. Jonathan’s alter ego, Kratos, was taking over.

What followed has since become part of American nationalist folklore. Jonathan was introduced by Jared Taylor, who, unfamiliar with Jonathan’s biography, had earlier approached him for details. Jared delivered his introduction in his characteristic genteel style. Jonathan waited by his side, looking grim, scorning eye contact. Jared’s introduction done, Jonathan stepped behind the podium. His manner was not only commanding, but impatient. He then did what no one had dared to do before: with contempt, he swept the microphone aside. He did not need it.

‘I HAVE A VERY LOUD VOICE,’ he barked, filling the ballroom.

Jonathan then hit the ground running, fast and hard, and orated for an hour. The intensity was electrifying. Everyone was paralysed. Had anyone not been too transfixed to look, not turned into a salt statue, he would have found jaws all over the floor. It felt like history being made. And who can remember what he said? Few would be able to tell you today. Something about dispelling the cloud. It doesn’t matter. It’s the way he said it that counts. It’s the energy he expelled, and what it did to the audience, that was important. From that alone everyone knew how they needed to feel, what had to be done, and, most importantly, that whatever it was that had to be done could and would be done, without half-measures or apology. Jonathan received a standing ovation. Applause went on and on, for centuries, and is still going. And he stood there, sphinx like, the Iron Man, as if nothing.

Last Meeting

Our final meeting was in December 2010. We again met at a village near where I lived. He came with Jez Turner, who now organises the London Forum events. Jonathan arrived caparisoned in a grey overcoat, which he never shed.

Again we talked about numerous topics, but this time we focused on projects. Two ideas were on the table: one was for Jonathan to write a book-length monograph, which I was to publish via The Palingenesis Project, Wermod and Wermod’s non-fiction imprint; the other was for us to produce a series of professional video presentations, similar to his talks at the New Right meetings, but filmed on location and with production.

Jonathan was cheerful during that meeting. He roared with laughter when I said I thought he did not have human legs, but trouser legs, or wooden legs; that I imagined he slept in his suit, with his shoes on, gurning; and that one day, his alter ego, Kratos, would be a character in a children’s fairy tale—a demon who would come at night, in a van loaded with corpses, to take away children who had shown weakness, and whom Kratos would transport to Antarctica, where he would store them and eat them one by one.

In any event, we agreed that he would start working on the monograph and that we would meet again in a month’s time to reconnoitre possible shooting locations. Alas, for different reasons, Kratos caught up with him, and I was later never to see Jonathan again.

To Valhalla

Our last contact was in the Autumn of last year. I had moved to distant hills, and experienced complications, causing me to neglect relations. Yet, these last few days I had thought of finally telephoning him—I had noticed his website was down and I wanted to know how he was doing, what projects he was working on. Sadly, before I ever got round to doing it, someone telephoned me: Jonathan had sailed to Valhalla.

A correspondent who learnt the news just after me said it was as if he’d been punched in the stomach. For me it was different. I was stunned. I stared into space. The man against time had had time against him. He must have known his passage through the Earth would be short. It explains the fury, the output, the fanatical search for purity. Only eighteen months earlier, on his forty-eighth birthday, he’d told me he felt like a shark chasing prey. He was never just fine; he was always, in his own words, ‘Superb and getting stronger!’ There is a lesson there. But he knew that already.

Many have been surprised by their own reaction. For some it has felt like losing a member of the family. Jonathan impacted our lives more than we realised. He did not just educate us intellectually, he also educated us spiritually. His legacy lives on, as he now passes into legend.

Until we meet again . . .  Goodbye, friend.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Guillotining of John Derbyshire: His Thoughts After the Blade

John Derbyshire’s “Talk” column for Takimag last week detonated the ire of commentators on the lunatic fringes of the extreme Left. Ulcers flared and torrents of bile swamped the internet. The roar was even heard across the Atlantic, as the Guardian weighed in, wondering on Sunday why Mr. Derbyshire’s piece was still online. By Monday I was perplexed to find that, amidst the still raging sandstorm of prose, not one journalist or commentator had sought Mr. Derbyshire for comment (though Gawker finally published an interview later that day). What follows is my effort to rectify this omission.

AK: Observers who rely on conventional opinion websites and news sources may wonder how it is that a well-educated, well-traveled, intelligent mathematician, author, and commentator, able to write on a broad range of political-cultural topics, can have heterodox perspectives on human biodiversity and race relations. Surely, “racism” is the product of ignorance.

JD: When the orthodox opinions are arrant nonsense, how can a well-educated, etc. person NOT be heterodox. “There is no biological reality corresponding to ‘race’”? Please. I guess there are no Dachshunds or St. Bernards, either, only dogs. This is infantile.

AK: It seems conservative commentators viewed your column as diverging from their fundamental outlook. Why have they not expressed to you—or indeed the world—the joy of living in all-black neighborhoods? At least some of them must have been eager to share their delight at their kids’ academic performance in that all-black school they enrolled them in last fall.

JD: As I told Gawker.com I think it’s just intolerable despair. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Fifty years ago it was possible to believe that blacks could be lifted up to statistical profiles on behavior, intelligence, etc. indistinguishable from those of whites. All we had to do was strike down unjust laws and give a helping hand (affirmative action, set-asides, etc.)

What all that actually accomplished was to open glorious career opportunities for blacks who are smart and well-adjusted to bourgeois norms, while leaving the rest worse off—in e.g. employment, comparative net worth, illegitimacy, incarceration—than before.

Somewhere in their brains, all whites know this. That’s why their brains steer them to the avoidance behavior you noted, and I recommended. That’s the automatic part of the brain, though; what Kahneman calls System 1. The self-aware System 2 is much more concerned with social cataloging and status-assessing, and with making up stories to present ourselves to ourselves and to others as acceptable members of the tribe. When reality is too painful to bear, we make stuff up.

AK: Also, I have not yet seen a refutation to the points made in your column—have I been visiting the wrong websites?

JD: Why would anyone bother to engage in argument with a RACIST? That would just legitimize their RACISM. To want to do that would be the next worst thing to being a RACIST oneself.

AK: Fellow NR columnist Robert Weissberg was “fired” on Tuesday night for his participation in the recent AmRen conference.

JD: Disclosure: Bob, as well as being a brilliant man and author of a fine book (some trivial mathematical errors notwithstanding), is a good friend of mine.

AK: Writing for Leonard Zeskind’s grim IREHR, Devin Burghart wrote “the positions taken by Robert Weissberg are as noxious as those of Derbyshire.” Twelve hours later, NR editor Rich Lowry explained Weissberg’s firing in this manner: “Robert Weissberg . . . participated in an American Renaissance conference where he delivered a noxious talk.” Is it normal for a conservative editor to get his language and opinions from a commentator on the extreme Left?

JD: Rich Lowry has cut me a lot of slack in the past, so I’ll cut him some. He wants his magazine to be a certain particular thing, appealing to a certain political market sector. If you or I were editor of a political magazine, we would not want our organ to be that thing appealing to those readers. But then, we wouldn’t want it to resemble Field & Stream, either. It’s an editor’s job to steer his magazine in what he thinks is the right direction. If Rich is mistaken about that market sector being sufficient to support that magazine, the miracle of the market will enlighten him. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

AK: The purges of Sam Francis, Peter Brimelow, Joe Sobran, yourself, and other brilliant columnists have all been driven by a desire for respectability. However, far from attaining it, this has led to a loss of respect from the Right and no increase in respect from the Left—on the contrary, one may say that respect from the Left has sunk even lower, since they have learned that conservatives will instantly cave in when accused of “racism.”

JD: Mark Steyn made the same point in his comment on my defenestration. The more you feed the beast, the stronger and more arrogant it grows. Mainstream conservatives are fools to keep feeding it, but they apparently can’t help themselves. Now it may be too strong to defeat. Then we are headed into totalitarianism, because the Left is totalitarian like the scorpion in Aesop is a scorpion: they can’t help themselves either.

At a panel discussion on an NR cruise last year I pooh-poohed something Rich Lowry said about the achievements of conservatism. The movement (I said) had started out with the ambition to stand athwart History crying “Stop!” It had degenerated into a pathetic, timid pack of losers running along behind History calling out “Would you please mind slowing down just a little?”  (Roissy expresses the same idea somewhat more . . . pungently in this comment thread on one of his pieces.) That got good applause from the hall, which ignited a flicker of hope in my breast.

My hope is that this timid, careerist conservatism that scurries to obey when some bigfoot leftist cracks the whip, will soon come to be seen as a faction of losers, which of course they are. Americans hate a loser, so that will be the end of them. I do think this will likely happen, and that there’s some creative destruction up ahead in the conservative movement.

On the other side is my dear friend Paul Gottfried, who thinks the war is lost, that the beast is now too strong to be defeated—that we on the oppositional right are the losers—what the late Sam Francis called us 20 years ago:  “Beautiful Losers.” Pat Buchanan has pretty much reached the same position. I retain some shreds of optimism (!), but I feel a strong gravitational pull coming from Paul’s direction.

The future evolution of American conservatism is at any rate going to be very interesting.

AK: Perhaps I have not understood conservatism correctly, but—isn’t conservatism supposed to be about the data and not about how people feel about it?

JD: Permit me to quote from a book of mine:
Discussing the thesis of my book with one of my friends—a conservative academic (political science)—I encountered total disagreement.  He:  “There’s nothing about traditional conservatism that makes it truth-friendly. In fact, it’s the opposite. Historic conservatism is anti-science, prone to celebrate truth by authority, favors religion over rationalism and down deep sees unvarnished truth as corroding social cohesion—correctly, according to you. Keep the peasants happy with fairy tales and mumbo-jumbo, if necessary.” [That was actually the aforementioned Bob Weissberg.]
AK: Is it not more bound with notions of honor, the martial spirit, and glory, than with a desire to be liked by everyone?

JD: Those notions have passed from the earth, Alex, or at least from Western Civilization. “Martial spirit”? For goodness’ sake, somebody might get hurt.

AK: Where are today’s conservatives in the political spectrum?

JD: To the left of a tad right of the center. Lower taxes! Ban abortion!

AK: What is it like to be on your side of the cannon when “racism” controversies arise?

JD: Nature blessed me with a thick skin. More recently, she cursed me with a life-threatening condition, beside which these tiny internet controversies (my particular one has not made it into any print newspaper or the teleprompt of any TV talking head, to my knowledge) seem pretty trivial. Which, in point of fact, they are.

AK: What expressions of support have your received since commentary on your column first appeared?

JD: Simply tremendous! See the opening grafs of my Takimag column today, April 12, where I declare myself “awash in the milk of human kindness.” Wonderful, miraculous support, marred only by the sure and certain knowledge that I could never acknowledge every single email and donation, if I did nothing else for a month. Bless them all.

AK: In the past, critics would have placed your nape under the guillotine and held your severed head aloft for the delectation of the multitude. Now they will have to make do with the hope that you will spend the rest of your days in abject poverty, sleeping rough and queuing in soup kitchens, completely forgotten. Maybe they dream you’ll end up like Bobby Driscoll, abandoned by all, your skeleton found years later in an abandoned tenement in a big city slum. Will their cruelty be gratified?

JD: Probably. Have you ever been in an old folks home? Helped nurse an Alzheimer’s or stroke patient? I have done all three. The opinion journalist I most admired in my young adulthood was Bernard Levin. He ended up drooling and in diapers. But Doctor Johnson told us all this 263 years ago:

From Marlb’rough‘s Eyes the Streams of Dotage flow,
And Swift expires a Driv’ler and a Show.

And he was imitating Juvenal, who told the tale 1600 years earlier:

sed quam continuis et quantis longa senectus
plena malis! . . .

. . . and Juvenal took his theme in part from Herodotus, writing six centuries before (the Solon-Croesus exchanges) The theme was probably common enough in the Paleolithic. Perhaps even chimps know about it.
Not many of us end well. My hero Enoch Powell was asked in his old age if he had any regrets. He said yes, he regretted not having died fighting in WW2. I am of the same kidney, except for not having had a war to die honorably in. (Powell, by the way, knew his Herodotus. In fact he published a quirky translation of the Histories, all done in 17th-century KJV English—well worth a look.)

I preach “that odd defiant melancholy that sees the dreadful loneliness of the human soul and the pitiful disaster of human life as ever redeemable and redeemed by compassion, friendship and love.” (I am quoting from a different one of my books—hope that’s OK.)

All of that, of course, applies just as well to the young lefty fools who are currently jumping up on chairs and shrieking at the mouse in the room. I have argued elsewhere, in fact, that it will probably apply to their generation with greater force than to mine. I cherish the sweet thought.