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A Quietus Interview

Penny Rimbaud On Crass & The Poets Of Transcendentalism & Modernism
Alex Burrows , November 10th, 2010 06:53

In the second of our Crass features, Alex Burrows talks to Penny Rimbaud about religion, poetry and why today's youth aren't apathetic

Performer, philosopher, writer, poet, and agent provocateur Penny Rimbaud straddled both the hippy counter-culture of the 60s and the punk era of the late 70s. In stark contrast to Steve Ignorant, he was born in 1943 into a world of social privilege as Jeremy John Ratter to upper middle class parents. He attended public school then went on to art school – where he met Crass artist Gee Vaucher.

His adopted name of Penny Rimbaud came about in two ways: Ratter thought about adopting the moniker of the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, but as in 'half' ie ''alf a Rimbaud'. Ratter's brother – an academic studying at Oxford – used to describe Jeremy as a 'toilet–seat philosopher'. In those days it cost a penny to use the toilet so the pseudonym became Penny Rimbaud. In 1965 Penny found the ramshackle 16th century cottage which would become his home – and eventually a commune – on the hinterlands of the Essex countryside. So remote and isolated, it would take the Dial House communards days to discover man had landed on the moon in 1969.

Penny has stated that he doesn't consider Crass as more important than any of the other projects that came out of Dial House – such as the free festival movement of Windsor then Stonehenge and the pre-Crass avant-garde experimentalism of Exit.

Above the door into his studio – located in Dial House's idyllic garden - is the wooden inscription EXIT. It's not clear if this refers to his previous band, his publishing house Exitstencil or simply a warning that you're about to leave the status quo of society and reality itself.

He recently published a new book of philosophy titled This Crippled Flesh, but Penny Rimbaud begins his autobiography Shibboleth (AK Press, 1998): "At a very early age, I realised all was not well…"

Who were the first poets you read?

Penny Rimbaud: Walt Whitman at the age of 14. My early teenage reading was Hemingway, Ibsen and Walt Whitman. A lot of Ibsen's stuff like Brand was written in rhyme. I loved the poetics of Ibsen although, of course, he was primarily a playwright. The thing about all three is that they were all very much people who saw themselves alone with a mission – as are all Hemingway's heroes.

They all encouraged me to that form of individuality, of standing alone. It certainly took me away from any Socialistic future. If I'd shown the same enthusiasm for Steinbeck when I was 14 I'd have probably become a Socialist. As it was, I was led to an anarcho/ libertarian view through my reading.

Did you share Steve Ignorant's appreciation of the angry young men?

PR: The book that was biggest for me amongst the angry young men was The Contenders by John Wain. That really influenced me because whereas my reading had previously been about where I am in the natural landscape, The Contenders was about where we were in the social landscape – and questioning the whole class premise of where one lived. I was introduced to concepts of class.

Steve would have been an exception of his class reading that stuff. Generally it would have been the comfortable middle cases – the usual book reading market – who would have been slogging through that stuff."

Why did you adopt the name of Rimbaud? Was he a big influence?

PR: I like Rimbaud's work, but I like the spirit of his work more than the work itself. I enjoy Baudelaire's more. At the time they were too surreal. Rimbaud was a symbolist – trying to grasp the hidden reality rather than the obvious reality. Rather than a mystical course that someone like Whitman went on, Rimbaud went on a surreal course into profound 'other', rather than profound 'is'.

He was accused of shooting Verlaine. And he became a gun-runner for a while. He had a wild, short life. It was an essence really – he doesn't come up in my 10 top reads. It's a tad too floral for my tastes, even if my current writing is becoming more floral. But I would look back to Shakespeare more than Rimbaud because of that.

How did your poem 'Christ's Reality Asylum' come about?

PR: I started ranting to Dave King (a fellow communard at Dial House). We were sitting around and I started a rant about Christianity, which then involved the state. It was this huge savage attack on everything inside me. I ended up rolling around on the floor screaming all this stuff. When I finished, Dave picked me up and said, 'You wanna write that'. Two days later I started writing it. It ended up as 34 pages of unremitting rant.

What does the title mean?

PR: The whole thing was how the western world is like a concentration camp or asylum. At one point it was going to be 'Christ's Auschwitz' or something. I saw the concentration camps as a template for how it actually was: you had your slaves working at Ford or down the mines. You were perfectly happy to eliminate them through poverty when they ceased to be functioning pawns in your process, or you sent them off to war to be killed. It didn't seem to me to be any different, except with a little bit more room. Basically the western world in my eyes was one fucking enormous concentration camp and if you didn't play the game you were gonna get it.

The full poem is called 'Christ's Reality Asylum', but the Crass track is 'Reality Asylum' or simply 'Asylum'?

PR: 'Reality Asylum' [the Crass track] was a very small part of that book. The actual Crass symbol was not originally a Crass symbol but was designed for that book. I asked Dave King to design a frontispiece which represented the fascism of the state, the fascism of the church, and the fascism of the family.

Was it intended to be deliberately provocative?

PR: No. Not in that sense. I wrote it because I was being provocative towards myself. I was trying to strip myself of all the pretences and illusions I'd had implanted within me in my life up until that point. I realised I couldn't move forward if I was hung up on those issues. That's why I changed my name. It was an outpouring of shit and filth that had accumulated inside me – I probably need to do it again…

Did 'Reality Asylum' become the template for Crass's outlook?

PR: I think it was. In my case that is absolutely true. I wanted to make an individual statement from the start. That doesn't mean I wanted to stand alone – I wanted to make it clear where I was coming from.

Did the rest of Crass mind that it started off the band's debut album, The Feeding Of The Five Thousand?

PR: No other band members had a problem with it starting off the album. Eve Libertine – who narrated the track – thought she might have the wrath of God come down on her! Everyone was cool with it.

What happened with Crass was that I'd fill in the gaps that were left. I ended up writing a huge percentage [towards the end of the band's career]. That's why we progressively moved into the aural landscape which was closer to what I'd experienced prior to Crass. On listening, it becomes increasingly uncompromisingly avant-garde; it gets further and further away from any root of rock'n'roll until you end up with something like Yes Sir I Will, which is really free jazz and 'Ten Notes On A Summer's Day', which is more like Schoenberg.

Why did you ask Eve to narrate 'Reality Asylum'?

PR: It was unwittingly a feminist tract. It was about the male arrogance and ethos and sexual fear. I thought it would be much more powerful performed by a woman. I think it added a profundity.

Who was Christ - if there was one?

PR: There's always been bands of dissenters around and he was probably someone in dissent but has since been conveniently used… my own view is that Judaism couldn't go further than the desert; it was a parched mono-religion. So if you live in a barren desert you'll only have one God. Whereas in Greece you have lot of Gods because it's green and gorgeous and verdant. So it got as far as the Mediterranean and in that sense Christ was a convenient tool for the furtherance of Judaism; Abraham's brothers walk again. Christ was a symbol adopted by Saul – after the event – for the continuation of monotheism.

On his visit to the UK, the Pope described the UK as a "third world" because of its "aggressive secularism" – even though secularism is clearly progressive. 40% of Americans don't believe in evolution; fundamentalism – be it Islamic or Judeo-Christian – is on the rise, supported by international terrorism and/ or capitalism. Is the world regressing? Can we expect another holy war or Crusades?

PR: There's a danger of that. It's a possibility, but what's progressing is modern physics. I think the key is Einsteinian intervention – it's the element of the Enlightenment programme that no-one really wants to drop. A real set of conundrums were set but everything is up for challenge. It's inevitable that you will have the Yin-Yang of creationists and fundamentalism. All the indications in modern physics however are that things are going to explode in quite the opposite direction: that's the new poetry – I'm way behind Richard Dawkins.

The problem with the religious idea of heaven is that it's so tiny. Look at modern physics and it goes beyond the cosmos. That's the key in answer to Descartes' I Think Therefore I Am and the whole Enlightenment programme: it has fallen on its face. It's become dysfunctional; it's devouring itself and we're being devoured by our own industry – in the sense of climate change, economic collapse etc: it doesn't work.

One response is backward-looking fundamentalism, but I find the Paganistic answer as equally distasteful – I don't want to go back there. How long did it take for people to realise the world was round? It's shocking how long it's taking for people to key into Einstein; it's almost 100 years now. 'Well the world you're looking at isn't the world you're looking at: it isn't there'. It's too fucking much for people to understand so instead they're trying to create fucking Lego world.

It's too difficult for people to understand so they're creating something easy and packaged?

PR: Yes, it's too fucking much. They want something easy to understand.

Which by its nature will be simple-minded – which is creationism and fundamentalism. That's the challenge: this huge intellectual grasp. I think the existentialists made a huge contribution to making practical use of E=MC2. They were saying that we exist and then create an essence. We don't exist in an essence that's already been created. That's very close to the conclusion drawn out of modern physics. We're simply going through the pains of the new renaissance.

A renaissance concludes with a religious backlash, which is what's happening now?

PR: It's because a series of new philosophies and sciences suddenly appear. Which pose serious psychological problems. It's impossible for us to understand the psychological problems that perspective and Descartes created. They were saying, 'You're on your own and this is your point of view'. Hitherto that didn't exist. You couldn't scientifically prove you existed in one point in space and time. Perspective proved you could do that through the disappearing lines and suddenly everything became pseudo-three- dimensional.

I'm pretty certain that any major cultural advance is made when someone wants to withdraw their complicity or agreement – and that's how heretics are created. What Einstein did was create heresy against Descartes. Initially no- one like that is going to get any followers – it's too dangerous.

There are an awful lot of mathematic formulae which are absolutely perfect, set in steel, and unbreakable, but they don't have any application. But an application will be found and modern physics has done that. They're perfect and they belong in the perfection of the cosmos. It's just that we haven't found what they actually are. But modern physics does that. That's exactly what Dawkins is about.

People can't cope with this either.

PR: There is a school of people who can cope with it: the skateboarders, the computer geeks and so on. 'Oh look at the young people, they're so disaffected and apathetic'. No, they're not apathetic at all – they're very concerned with their own industrious lives. Skateboarders don't see the horrors of an urban community. What they see is fucking good skating potential.

Same with Parkour?

PR: The urban world becomes a landscape in their eyes – literally. They make mountains and oceans out of the urban shithole.

They're kind of like modern psychogeographers – looking at urbanisation in a different way.

PR: Yes, I think so! And they will change it. The same as young kids who are adept with computers. For them it's a game. That adeptness has parallels. It hasn't got to the speed of modern physics but effectively the brain is being prepared to deal with the future. And just as I see the physical terms of the skateboarders, so you can see it with the cyberspace boarders.

So you are optimistic the current religious fervour is just a blip?

PR: Oh totally. It's the dying throes of Enlightenment thought and I'm delighted to see it happening because it's so pathetically uncreative and so pathetically lacking in any intellectual stamina. Yes, it'll die on its own feet. And God bless it! What will be left is a massive whirling vortex of modern existence. I'm utterly confident about that.

I am an Enlightenment thinker, however hard I try to undercut that. In Descartesian terms I've moved into insanity but that insanity is a natural thing. Frank Zappa said the only way to survive in the 21st century will be as a schizophrenic and that was absolutely right: we're living in two worlds – the Enlightenment world and the post-Einsteinian world and they don't mix; there are no comparisons. What's offered in post-Einsteinian thought would make the internet look like a fucking miniature golf course.

This Crippled Flesh: A Book of Philosophy And Filth by Penny Rimbaud with illustrations by Alice Smith is out now, published by Bracketpress/Exitstencil.

The Crassical Collection re-mastered reissue of The Feeding Of The Five Thousand by Crass is out now on Crass Records. Stations Of The Crass and Penis Envy – the following re-mastered reissues in The Crassical Collection series – are scheduled for release before the end of the year.