Women Behaving Badly: the allure of the Diva

Female celebrity meltdowns are depicted very differently from male ones – but is it such a bad thing to be a diva?

We've long argued that there is really no such thing as a 'guilty pleasure'. After all, if you felt that guilty about it, then it wouldn't be a pleasure - and if it's a truly, wholly pleasurable activity, then presumably you don't really give a toss about what anybody else thinks. And pure, unadulterated pleasure is how we both feel about international singing sensation and boundless warbler Mariah Carey. It is a love that will last until the end of time, transcending the occasional troughs that have marred an otherwise illustrious career. Yes, even Glitter.

Now that we've got that bombshell out of the way, we'd like to talk about divas. It is a label which, perhaps more than any other singer, has followed Mariah around like a slimy little paparazzo since the beginning of her career. As a term, its operatic origins have been relinquished in favour of its use as a moniker for any female singer who dares to forthrightly express an opinion on anything, ever. Granted, that opinion is more often than not related to the number of scented candles in one's dressing room (or, in the case of one particular rumour, a strong preference for only one colour of Smartie, thus presumably necessitating the employment of one lucky lackey whose job it was to filter out all the other Smarties colours in a hundred tubes). Nevertheless, the way in which stories about diva behaviour compare with coverage of male meltdowns does raise some important questions.

Lists featuring the top ten celebrity tantrums are often female-dominated, despite the fact that paps have documented male paddies on behalf of everyone from Russell Crowe (not impressed when the BBC cut his televised poem) to Alec Baldwin (numerous toys-out-of-pram offences, most notably calling his daughter a 'rude, thoughtless little pig' on a leaked voicemail) to Hugh Grant (baked bean brouhaha - we'll say no more). According to the media, male meltdowns are either comedy fodder, entirely justified on the basis of papparazzi harassment, or, in the case of Charlie Sheen, concerning spirals into mental illness. Where women are concerned, such distinctions are hardly made, and instead seem to fall under a group umbrella of 'diva behaviour' regardless of the underlying reasons. As recent coverage of Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan demonstrates, somehow, 'troubled' has become a euphemism for 'spoilt'. Meanwhile, alcoholism is a serious affliction in a man, but explained away as 'a tad unladylike' in his female counterpart.

But who is the 'classic diva', and why? In a world where examples of the media ridiculing 'women on the verge' abound, it's important that we distinguish bad behaviour from actual cause for concern, not only because failing to do so perpetuates a lack of understanding about mental illness, but also because tales of bad celebrity behavior are hilariously, cringingly entertaining (of which Reese Witherspoon's drunken don't-you-know-who-I-am footage is a prime example.) Yes, very bad behaviour should be condemned, especially if you're Trudie Styler and your reaction to your pregnant chef's inability to make you soup is reportedly, 'Who the fuck does she think she is?', in a bizarre reflection of the aforementioned Witherspoon incident. Proper Diva Behaviour, however, can probably be exemplified by Beyonce's recent attempt to remove some ugly pictures of herself 'from the internet'. We've all been there, B, and therein lies the nub of diva-ishness. The diva demand should be completely and utterly divorced from reality, but also, at some level, relatable in its audacity. Hence our sympathy with Mariah, who once reportedly insisted that she be lowered onto the GMTV sofa by members of her entourage. Fair play. After all, who would sit there of their own free will?

The other important facet of the diva is, of course, her apparent willingness to pit herself against other divas. Mariah's name has been sullied all over Twitter by that challenger to the throne, Nicki Minaj, but ultimately we all know that Carey has spent so much time being pitted against other divas already (see video) that we don't fancy Minaj's chances in the latest Mail-sponsored CELEBRITY CATFIGHT. Perhaps, like the girl Rhiannon's boyfriend overheard on the phone in a bar last week, things will go 'literally apeshit', which I think you'll agree is something we'd all like to see.

It should go without saying that the 'diva philosophy' plays directly into the narrative which asserts that in order to be successful, as a woman, one needs also to be a mega-bitch who hates other women. Space is limited at the top, the logic goes, and nobody wants too many kittens in showbiz; they'll have to get their claws out. So women 'throw tantrums' (because it's childlike); men 'fume' silently, or 'become enraged' with enough provocation, safe in the knowledge that there's room for them when they're done. Divas have probably gained an inflated sense of self from PMT-induced fervour; shirty men have 'complicated stories', and most likely 'psycho ex-wives' who drove them to it. In other words, male frustration is seen as personal and explicable in a myriad of ways, whereas female frustration should be seen as a veiled attempt to trample on her sisters, a cry for the continued attention of Daddy Media to the detriment of others.

Back when the diva *was* a temperamental opera singer who had to be pandered to because of her extraordinary talents, things were a little different. Her ilk were seen as fairly discerning, if dramatic, with little tolerance for incompetence in her peers; nowadays, her demands are seen as all the more impudent because of an altered definition. The 'celebrity diva' of the 21st century is a fairly replaceable pop-star, often of apparently questionable talent, with a trailer full of make-up artists and an eagle eye on the photographs of herself presently circulating in cyberspace. She is ridiculous because she is both high-maintenance and dispensable. The thrill of hearing about Naomi Campbell's latest altercation with airline staff lies in the knowledge that she's treading a much more dangerous line, not as the prima donna in an isolated theatre but on a global stage full of worthy competitors. At any moment, her star may fall, or indeed be knocked down by the girl behind her in a continuation of the diva circle of life (see Carey and Minaj.) The audience to modern-day 'diva behaviour' isn't just rolling its eyes; it's baying for her blood.

Clearly, it's unfair that the two-dimensional diva role lies at the female door, telling its same old celebrity magazine story about pigeonholing 'emotional women'. Still, many would argue that if the role is foisted upon you, why not play it? With all these myriad expectations, it's no wonder that Rihanna's taken to reclining on a white six-foot sofa surrounded by animal furs before she does another chorus of 'Rude Boy' at her latest venue. After all, it's clear that the myth of The Diva and its ardent subscribers aren't going to die out any day soon - and there will always be a few performers who just can't resist feeding the trolls.

Nicki Minaj, sitting on a cloud. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain