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Tome On The Range

Out Of Our Dwam: An Interview With Momus
Oscar Gaynor , March 29th, 2015 08:28

Oscar Gaynor speaks to the authorial element of writer/musician Momus' multifariously-split artistic personality about his new free-to-download book, Herr F, the limits and possibilities of fog, arts culture post-Here Comes Everybody and the social functions of acting

Herr F is Momus’ latest novel, and has been released solely online as a free ebook through experimental arts publisher Fiktion, and there is another on the way imminently. His rate of production is bacterial—each strand of his gesamtkunstwerk growing exponentially and tangentially. Essays and diatribes pop out like unruly weeds; poses for the webcam in his new apartment in Osaka proliferate. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Momus, but each time I do some aspect of his appearance is different. Head resting on his palm, staring into the lens—his archetypal self-shot—he arranges on himself a huge array of headwear and interchangeable eye patches. His sartorial swatch book is composed of diverse and unmixable textures and weaves—kimonos, shepherd’s waistcoats, harem pants, snoods, plaid smoking jackets, fluorescent cycling gloves.

Like Momus’ online persona, stretching and breathing since the dawn of the internet, with a series of extensive blogs, each new project articulates a form of modelling. As a musician, Burroughs sits on his shoulder (with over thirty albums to date) as much as he does as a writer. Deep in the dark and dusty closet of each album and book is an interest in the results of the re-combinations of fragments and their potential effects. Like a deranged hobbyist engineering his model train to run off the tracks each time to crush the village and the innocent bystanders with binoculars to their eyes. In UnAmerica from 2014, God, displeased with its current state, propositions a man in a restaurant chain to enact the discovery of America by Saint Brendan from Ireland, in reverse, in a coracle, to uninvent it.

Momus is Nicholas Currie, born in Scotland with Hebridean chin. But Momus is also a Greek god of writers and poets with a reputation for ill-formed criticism and damning rebukes of those in the loftiest seats of power. He mocks Aphrodite, goddess of love and pleasure, for the creakiness of her sandals. As a god, Momus flies above all of his inconsistencies, embodying both the lyre and the liar as tools for disseminating wild speculations about past, present and future. His self-made kosmos enables him to be all things at once. But where does this literary boomerang, Momus, as mentioned by Bacon, Bulgakov and Kafka, return to in the end? We exchange questions and responses about his books via email.


A scenario: Waking up to find one's part of town shrouded in heavy fog, you cannot see anything clearly past an outstretched arm—everything has seemingly disappeared. I’m interested in the place that fog can put us into—perhaps a place in which we can test our absence from our normal lives. How do you think words, or a book, can model this world, the world as a tabula rasa? And what are the limits, if any, to the possibilities?

I think Beckett did that better than anyone, but — like Cage in music — he found that silence (or emptiness) is an impossibility. This seems to have been the universal discovery of Minimalism: that you can never go all the way down to nothing. There is always going to be some “clutter”, and what’s interesting is what you end up with. In my life, I take great pleasure in whittling things down to absolute minimums. For instance, when packing for a month in Europe, I take a ridiculously small bag. I find that the really essential thing is my laptop, but sometimes I don’t even take that. I can get by with an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard. I love asking “Could this be eliminated?” and finding that it could. When you eliminate habitual things, you’re forced to open up a bit to what’s provisional, what surrounds you, and to other people.

In Herr F, there’s a recurring vision of death (or fame) as a landscape of moss, stretching on all sides to the horizon. That’s the closest I’ve got to your “fog”. It’s an image of soothing dullness, of eternity, of ultimate aspiration which is also just one big zilch.

In UnAmerica, Brad, after reading an account by Colin Wilson in Supernatural of a poet that learns of his capacity to fly through the air, tries it himself at work and cooly begins gliding upwards. In all of your books there seems to be a relinquishing of gravity—a comedic lightness, possibly—an elevation by increasing levels of farce—but most of all, a freedom for disparate things to bump and crash into each other. The effect is in that it often resembles collage. What do you think are the possibilities or virtues of collage?

I think genre is far too powerful in our society. Most successful artworks are simply obeying well-established rules of genre, which work okay when you accept their particular codes and habits. In order to see the presuppositions and stereotypes built into them, we need to jar the rules into visibility using incongruous juxtapositions. So, for instance, I start UnAmerica with a scene that juxtaposes a South Carolina Tastee Freez with a picnic in an English field in the 1940s (which comes from Denton Welch). This might sound pretentious, but I’d like to cite Hegel here: “Identity is the identity of identity and non-identity”. So this clash between South Carolina and Essex actually makes South Carolina more Carolinian by confusing its identity. We break genre only to re-establish identity at a higher level, perhaps.


You are a prolific writer in many different forms, but what was it that made you want to write your first book?

The immediate reason was that it was commissioned by a French editor, Xavier Belrose at La Volte. Knowing that it would come out was crucial for me: I didn’t want to be the kind of person who wrote novels on spec and accumulated them in a drawer. As a literature student specialised in Modernism, I’d been discouraged by everything I’d read in interviews about the so-called literature of exhaustion, writer’s block, literary suicide, and the advice not to write unless it’s an absolute compulsion. I took all that to heart. When I started writing The Book of Jokes, though, I found that writing was very easy, and absorbing, and fun. I have to conclude that all that writers say about the difficulty and joylessness of writing is a kind of machismo. Or maybe I’m writing in a different genre than they are?

Can you see relative merits of artists writing literature, as opposed to authors writing about art? Does writing reign in some meritocracy that visual art has withered from?

My sense is that visual art has declared itself the exemplary locus for originality, freshness and innovation in our culture. The mantle of originality can get passed around; when I started making records, for instance, it seemed to be independent record labels that were popping up with fresh ideas. Pre-internet, you went to 4AD or Factory Records to get the absolutely newest sensibility, the nowness of now. Maybe in the 1960s it would have been the drug counterculture, or gurus of the new like Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. In the 90s it was the net and technology, but that’s cooled somewhat in the Here Comes Everybody era of digital culture, and I think currently art carries the torch. So yes, if drug-addicts should have made (and did make) literature in the 1950s and 60s, artists should be the ones making it now. Insofar as we actually want “contemporary” literature, anyway. (I think I do.)

Do you look upon your books as successes or failures? Can they be both?

Yes, both. I could imagine some nasty critic saying I was a “failed Calvino” or something. But people mostly say they’re funny, good, thought-provoking… I often use the word “silly”. The strategic use of silliness. The clown’s license to ill.


Things are taking shape, one might say of a plan in formulation. Taking something’s shape, one could also say, is the task of the shaman, the mimic or the conman. Tracing the contortions of a form, in objects that possess varying levels of legibility, may also be a door for the critic into paintings, videos or sculptures. The texture and colour of writing and its flip-flopping from style to style might be one of the objects of discourse in contemporary ‘Art Writing’.

I think the scenarios that you create often work themselves up into being sculptural—or the intrigue into moving into the next line seems to be the aesthetic result of an event.

This is a very interesting observation. The reason I started writing so late is that the literary world as I knew it (in Britain, and as an MA in English Literature) didn’t inspire me. That world seemed conservative compared with the world of Bowie and indie labels. So I went into music. And then I got more and more interested in the art world, and started doing “live writing” in galleries in New York, spinning yarns in real time. I found that was exciting, and “performative”. It went back to the roots of storytelling — keeping an audience interested, using oral forms — but also had the art world’s interest in originality and craziness. So I started writing books very much in the spirit of the art world, and with an art world audience in mind. That sense of the books as extensions of the visual world is important to me. When I imagine the tales coming out of the art world, I feel they have more right to be fresh, and to foreground absurdities and originality which the literary world is too fuddy-duddy to allow.

Is there a consistent kind of 'germ' that begins you thinking about writing a new book, or is it found again by chance each time?

I need a story onto which I can hang ideas that genuinely interest me. For instance, just now I’m writing a book (Popppappp) which is about design, and the contrast between the utopian vision design has of the good life and the messy realities of existence. Design has been important to me through my life — I’ve even been a design journalist and commentator — so it’s something I want to think about in a more speculative way. The book started with the idea of Ettore Sottsass and the colours he used. There’s something inherently uncapturable about colour, in text, and that challenge interests me. I’ve considered including pantone swatches with the book.

Often it’s been countries that have started me off. Scotland, Japan, Germany. I approach things (nations, disciplines, jokes) that have a clear generic identity, and then begin to add layers of uncertainty via lies. That seems to be my technique. It’s a march from over-definition to confusion, and from semi-fascism to something usefully diffuse.


There is an interview conducted by Truman Capote with Marlon Brando from the New Yorker where they spend an evening together in the actor’s hotel room in Tokyo after a day of filming. Capote’s speech is laconic, but his descriptions of Japan in the text are sparkling. Brando responds to the short questions with reeling diatribes about himself that seem to fill up all the empty space. But, he has a recurring phrase: “I only mean forty per cent of what I say.” The fascination with the lives of actors in the media is enormous. What do you think makes for such a wide interest—is there something here about roles or being actors in our own lives?

I think it’s got something to do with the fact that society asks us all to be actors. In the ways Sartre outlined. And also that hearing an actor speak in his “natural” voice is something inherently magical, like hearing Chaplin speak. Actors are somehow mimes, or puppets, or ventriloquists’ dummies. For them to have their own words seems mildly miraculous, but it’s also comfortingly banal: we realise that there are scriptwriters for a reason.

Is there some split in the conception of the self you notice between East and West?

Oh God, yes. A huge difference. The Japanese thing is not to be a selfish asshole. It makes a huge difference to urban life, when you’re amongst people who are somewhat considerate. People are so nice to you in stores, for instance. Nobody eats the last cake on the plate, in case you might want to. Asked to describe themselves, people self-deprecate furiously. And there’s endless bowing and scraping, which you find yourself copying as soon as you arrive here. More generally, people in Asia are much more identified with their social roles. If they have religious feelings — and they do — they infuse those into the daily actions they have to take in their jobs, or roles. So society has a feeling of secularised spirituality built into it. That’s very pleasant and makes for a lot of harmony. In the West, we’ve seen religion as something outside of human society, a court of higher appeal. That was useful for the development of post-protestant criticality. But it also makes for people who are half-hearted and brusque in their social roles, somewhat absent. The “worldly asceticism” Max Weber talks about.

Here’s Brad again: “I think I’m having an identity crisis. Since quitting my job I have no idea where I am, who I am, or what I am”. He’s floating again. I can’t help but thinking of the omnipresent high street coffee shop and their peculiar tentacles into contemporary life. The contractual bonhomie between ‘team members’, or an alarming study that found students employed by Starbucks working there on their days off. Do you identify with the oft-quoted statement by JG Ballard—"The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality"—as a motor for writing novels, with your observations of life in mind? And are we really 'going to the dogs'?

I think I prefer McLuhan’s idea that we are alienated from the present, and that only artists and avant-garde techniques can really show us what’s going on right under our noses. People are shocked by things as they are, and tend to cling to the teleological framings of the recent past. Art which feels wrong often turns out to be right, and art which feels right is often already irrelevant: the “rightness” was simply a leaning back on laurels, a use of outmoded ways of seeing, feeling, being.

I don’t think we’re going to the dogs, but I think we have a tendency to be lazy, and to celebrate lazy art. We need slappers, to slap us out of our dwam.

Herr F is available to download now, in various formats, published by Fiktion in English and German