Will Self: The business of clarification through the Perspex space-helmet of clarity

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

Scrutinising your own fuzzy face in the misty morning mirror, you hear this bewilderingly obscure dialogue emanating from the radio:

“Let me make it perfectly clear –”

“I’m going to have to interrupt you there: when you say you wish this matter to be perfectly clear, how clear do you mean?”

“As I said, I want there to be no confusion on this matter –”

“So, total clarity?”


“The metaphor is a visual one, is it not?”

“I’m sorry?’’

“The metaphor you use to express the idea that you wish your statements to be entirely comprehensible, and without any ambiguity, works by analogy with the visual field.’’

“Um . . . yes . . . well . . . s’pose so.”

“So, if I may pursue that analogy, should we think of this visual field as clear in the way a car windscreen might be clear?”

“Um . . . possibly.”

“In which case is your clarity a function of there being no object blocking the windscreen; or is it a matter of there being no opacity?”

“Ah. This all seems a little involved to me.”

“But minister, you’ve made it perfectly clear that you wish to be perfectly clear, and I’m only seeking to clarify that clarity.”

“You seem to be making the whole business rather murky to me.”

“Would it therefore be fair to say that the windscreen through which you perceive your own clarity is in itself rather murky?”

“That’s not what I meant –”

“But wait just a minute: you granted me the initial metaphor, I then extended it a little, but now you say that your understanding of that image is itself imperfect – ‘murky’ in fact.”

“Look, you aren’t going to bamboozle me – I stick to my initial point: I wish to make it perfectly clear.”

“I think everyone listening understands that, minister – what concerns them is that someone entrusted with such a serious matter is unable to assure the public that he himself is perfectly clear about his own clarity. That is all I wish to establish: are you?”


“Are you clear about being clear?”

“I believe I am.”

“So, there are no splashes of birdshit on your windscreen or any other obstructions ?”

“None whatsoever.”

“And you are looking at this windscreen through a second windscreen that is also free from smut or grime?”

“Yes . . . yes, I am.”

“How do you fit this second windscreen inside the first? Is it warped around your face, like the Perspex of a space helmet – or is it mounted on a curious little frame that’s suspended a few inches in front of your eyes by aluminium struts secured with nickelalloy bolts that are counter-sunk in your cheekbones?”

“I think . . . you’re being rather ridiculously literal-minded about this metaphor –”

“Would you concede that to be literalminded is, in a manner of speaking, to spell everything out?”

“Yes – yes, that’s true . . .”

“Which is surely only another way of being perfectly clear?”

“Now hang on a minute, you’re not going to catch me out that easily – you’re going to claim that I don’t want you to be perfectly clear about the perfect clarity with which I perceive my own perfect clarity, and that simply isn’t the case!”

“Is it complexly the case?”

“Now you’re being facetious.”

“No, no, please . . . nothing was further from my mind – ”

“Is it, I wonder, so far from your mind that you can’t in fact see it with any clarity?”

“Are you being rhetorical, minister?”

“Possibly – although I do find this image amusing: you looking in the rear-view mirror at your own facetiousness, which is hundreds of yards off and speedily retreating, when suddenly you’re broadsided by me, because with this complicated visual prothesis attached to my face, once the bright light of reason begins to shine I’m unable to see anything at all.”

“That’s as may be, but all I’m seeking to establish is that objects – such as my facetiousness –may appear larger in the mirror.”

“I accept your apology.”

“Thank you very much, minister.”

“Thank you, John.”

"This all seems a little involved to me." Photo: Getty

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis