Glow sticks, superclubs . . . and Bruce Forsyth

Mark Watson is wrong about dancing.

 

Mark Watson's most recent New Statesman column describes his angst at how suddenly everyone, everywhere, seems to be dancing -- with Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, and the new competitive shows on the BBC and Sky that are seeking out "Britain's best dancer":

At what point did dancing earn the right to be presented as a matter of such importance? And how come I missed the meeting?

Oh, Mark -- you missed the meeting by several thousand years! I do hope you at least sent your apologies. Some minutes were taken by Hieron, the 6th-century BC painter, mostly in the form of ceramic vases.

Watson is half right when he says we're in the midst of "the most widespread and inexplicable dancing mania in at least 400 years" -- but what's wrong with that sentence is the word "inexplicable".

As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her wonderful book Dancing in the Streets, dancing, music-making, dressing up ("costuming") and taking narcotics with others are hard-wired into the human DNA.

It's an evolutionary necessity for human beings, prefiguring speech as an agency of social interaction. In order to avoid being viciously mauled by that inconsiderate sabre-toothed tiger down the road, our ancestors had to assemble in groups larger than just the family unit, typically groups of ten to 15 people. To do this, they had to learn to get along with people they didn't share DNA with. And so, to help them become social animals, human beings learned to dance.

In strictly Darwinian terms: dancers survived and wallflowers got EATEN BY TIGERS. (Do stop me if the science is getting too technical.)

After we learned to dance together, we learned to speak; and as time passed, we started to construct civilisations. We built roads and sanitation systems, created hierarchies and governments. Eventually, we invented glow sticks, superclubs and Bruce Forsyth.

 

Make it funky

The impulse to dance is ever-present in human history, lying dormant for periods and then flaring up at points when alienation from power elites becomes more acute.

In this context, the dance mania of 2010 makes perfect sense: it is literally a knee-jerk response to the sedentary shackles of our "spectacular" culture of passivity. It's true that all of Mark Watson's examples of dance manias are TV programmes -- but we must hope this leads to more than just people wiggling their toes from the comfort of the sofa.

Certainly UK Funky, the genre-tag for some of the most exciting dance music being made in Britain right now, has become defined by its "skank" culture: this is a grass-roots movement to create and disseminate simple, choreographed manoeuvres that yell out, "For God's sake, do try this at home!" But not just at home: in IKEA, at KFC, in clubs -- at any rate, in public.

A generation of urban youth alienated from public spaces by privatisation, Asbo culture and de facto gated communities in their own backyards are now striking back. And they're doing it feet-first.

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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder