WRITING THE RESISTANCE (4)
THE PUNCH AND JUDY MAN
1st August, 2020
He looks back gratefully – grateful to his wandering, his austerity and self-estrangement, his far-sightedness and his bird-like flights in cold heights.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
All real identity is underpinned by what existed before you.
Jonathan Bowden, Western Civilisation Bites Back
There is something in the late Jonathan Bowden of Punchinello, the trouble-making, fun-poking clown from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. In his many essays and transcribed lectures, Bowden was anarchic and playful, mixing erudition with ideological aggression, and always in touch with a Dionysiac humour so often missing in Right-wing political thought.
In discussing remedies for the lack of appeal of the Right, when it should currently represent the rebellious other for which youth are supposed to strive, he talks about an appealing reason why the Left should constantly be attacked (not physically), derided and lampooned;
‘It is life-affirming to attack it… It’s entertaining, and that’s one of the things that people have to realise that will attract many people to our side’.
A mere trickster god then, Bowden, or a mischievous Robin Goodfellow? Possibly, but one who would have known the cultural provenance of both those mythological figures. His essays and lectures constantly flit between epochs and disciplines, peppered with living ideas distilled from the dead.
Born in Kent in 1962, and growing up in the Home Counties, Bowden had a fairly standard middle-middle-class upbringing, attending a Catholic grammar school and moving on to London’s centre of academic philosophy, Birkbeck College, before reading English and History at Cambridge, but on neither occasion finishing his degree. Despite this, he regarded himself as self-educated, and the eclectic and eccentric range of his reading is that of a classic autodidact.
Of all our subjects so far in Writing the Resistance, Bowden is undoubtedly the closest to what is now termed ‘the far Right’. Among other groups, he spoke to and was involved with the Monday Club, the New Right (London), and the British National Party. Of the nature of his conservatism, he said, ‘I’ve always been too revolutionary to be a complete conservative and too conservative to be a complete revolutionary’.
Bowden is not a systematic writer. There is something adolescent about the way he picks at culture, duffs it up a bit, and puts it back slightly altered. Comic books, Leni Riefenstahl, his Bohemian coterie, Nietzsche, they are dealt with in one cavort, a cheap-seats la ronde interspersed with classical allusions and working-class put-downs. Bowden is a rough and ready writer and speaker, part street tough, part eccentric intellectual.
Bowden is a self-proclaimed Nietzschean. Of course, one has to be careful naming one’s allies. Our last subject, Guillaume Faye, was also of the faith, and shares with Bowden the belief that a crumbling European civilisation requires an affirmative counter-movement, the animation of which is to be found in Nietzsche. But Hitler also revered the philosopher. The photograph of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche giving her brother’s walking-cane to the Führer alone is enough to damn Nietzsche for those too dull-witted actually to read his often explicity anti-German work.
Bowden will be led to discuss the legacy of post-war Germany via his discovery of Nietzsche in Credo: A Nietzschean Testament. This essay also points at a side of Bowden which shows, perhaps, the murkier side both of his beliefs as there is an anti-Semitic side to Bowden, one which is an undercurrent among the tattered camp of the Alt. Right.
Nietzsche, writes Bowden, foresaw the coming collapse of Christianity and, although he welcomed it personally (the Lutheran pastor’s son perhaps abreacting a very Freudian response to his father), he also predicted the void it would leave, the ‘abyss’ the West must avoid gazing into lest it become that void, and the resultant nihilism that has led to what Bowden calls an ‘empty technological colossus’. There is a cultural answer, a remedy for a dying civilisation, and it is to be found within Europeans, not via their absurd governments or the trinkets offered by technology;
‘What our people are crying out for isn’t really a religion or a belief system, it’s a form of mental strengthening in and of themselves, to overcome the disprivileging mechanisms that don’t allow them to think and also allow them to reconnect with core areas of identity’.
The vitality of identity is a constant for Bowden, and Europe is having its identity censored and disallowed. It is typical of his approach that the following, worth quoting in full, comes from a long speech largely about comic books, and entitled Pulp Fascism;
‘I personally think that a great shadow has been cast for 60 years on people who want to manifest the most radical forms of political identity that relate to their own group, their own inheritance, their own nationality, their own civilisational construct in relation to that nationality, the spiritual systems from the past and in the present and into the future that are germane to them and not necessarily to the others, to their own racial and biological configuration. No other tendency of opinion is more demonised in the entire West’.
Like Guillaume Faye, Bowden sees the ongoing collapse of Western culture as a largely self-inflicted wound. The West has ‘created a modern world that has been taken away from what it could have been’. And, like many contemporary Right-wing commentators, Bowden takes the 1960s as the ruinous tributary that has created the poisoned well of the present;
‘Everyone who is alive now realises that there was a social and cultural revolution in the Western world in the 1960s, where almost all the values of the relatively traditional European society, whatever side you fought on in the Second World War, were overturned and reversed in a mass reversion or re-evaluation of values from a New Leftist perspective’.
The controlling mechanism of this reversal is, of course, ‘political correctness’, that lazy and inaccurate phrase that has dogged this millennium thus far and adds to Bowden’s description of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ as ‘affordable shorthand’.
Political correctness is not optional, but a ‘white European grammar we’ve been taught’, and it has been ‘designed to restrict the prospect of a thought before the thought has even been enunciated’. He invokes the spectres of Mao and Lenin, both of whom knew the power of ‘magic words’. The power of taboo in society has been known at a tribal level – although Bowden does not mention this – since Frazer’s treatment of the subject in The Golden Bough, and the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi Strauss. It controls linguistic behaviour viewed as propriety, and thus is a tool of mastery over thought itself;
‘It’s not just that Political Correctness polices the grammar of what people think and write. It’s that to many people who receive a higher liberal education – and obviously the bulk of writers of the present and the future will be such people – even to have such thoughts is regarded as “unthinkable”.’
We are, of course, in Orwell’s catchment area, and Bowden echoes Orwell by titling an essay Why I Write. Self-expression is the obvious answer, but that is an itch a lot of writers have tried to scratch. As well as the work considered here, Bowden also produced short fictional pieces and even short films, which are largely Dadaist conceits but show a man searching for the creative inner to counter the oppressive outer world forced on him by a society he largely rejects. What is the point in thinking, he seems to say, if you can’t enjoy yourself?
And Bowden can be extremely funny, at his best when taking swipes at the political class from some counter-cultural backwater. Here, he is discussing the work of Robert E. Howard, American pulp-Gothic writer famous for creating Conan the Barbarian;
‘There’s an interesting moment when Conan is helped by Murilo because he’s so hurt and wounded in the fight with Thak, and Conan pushes Murilo aside and says, “A man walks alone. When you can’t stand up it’s time to perish.” That’s not an attitude you heard from the Blair government too often, is it?’.
Despite his fascination with pulp fiction and comics, Bowden is unashamedly elitist, both in his adherence to Nietzschean intellectual aristocracy and his preference for high art which is, he says in his last interview, ‘not for the masses and is not for the majority of people’. The importance of intellect, in Why I Write, births one of Bowden’s most endearing cultural types;
‘Truthfully, in this age those with intellect have no courage and those with some modicum of physical courage have no intellect. If things are to alter during the next 50 years then we must re-embrace Byron’s ideal: the cultured thug’.
Introducing Jonathan Bowden, I compared him with Punchinello, but the comparison is really Bowden’s own. His essay The Real Meaning of Punch and Judy is such a perfect encapsulation of his combination of veneration for the traditional and a semi-anarchic yet erudite presentational style Bowden could not help but notice it himself;
‘[W]hat the Punchman is doing is he’s improvising on certain tropes, certain themes, certain set pieces. He’s fixed them together in various ways. But the way in which they occur, rather like the way I speak at these meetings, is not predetermined’.
The cultured thug and the Punch and Judy man; a fitting epitaph for a man who enchanted many readers, not least those at the website Counter Currents, who have made of Bowden a patron saint, and who he himself described as ‘a sort of free access Right-wing university on the internet’. Bowden remains an obscure figure, but his maverick approach and earthy erudition may keep his flame alive.
He recognised, before his death in 2012, the creeping Sovietisation we are now living through. Twenty years ago, ‘political correctness’ and speech codes were a risible irritation. Break the rules of cultural Marxist unofficial legislation now, however, and your employer may be forced to let you go, allowing you to go home to where a mob may have gathered after you have been ‘doxxed’, or had your personal details advertised on the internet, which is increasingly playing the role of a dangerous village stocks. For the dissident, these are genuinely dangerous times in which ‘everyone who speaks in Europe and wishes to avoid a prison cell has to adopt in some ways a stylised and rather abstract form of language’.
For the enemy is no longer just the usual suspects, the Left-wing celebrities and the indoctrinated social workers and the teachers smilingly reading Kevin has Two Mummies to an eager class of infant tabulae rasae. The Left have changed tack, and the world outside your window is increasingly resembling the streets of the Weimar Republic in which;
‘[U]tterly nihilistic, ruthless, virtually criminal types who want to use the structure of power when they get it to crush those underneath them, don’t give a damn about ideology, and are actually amongst the most misanthropic people you could ever meet. And you have the extremes of the innocent lovey and the sort of sadistic amoralist in the same group’.
Bowden saw the future and it is now.
So farewell then, Jonathan Bowden. You were well summed up by the obscure Viennese writer Robert Walser in one of his signature tiny fictions, Country Fair;
‘You can’t help laughing at every prank or blow Punch deals out with his monstrous whip… Punch gets off with a bit of a beating. At the end of the performance he bows to us courteously and invites the crowd to witness a brand-new, absolutely unprecedented play. I love his unchanging, rogueish face’.
Goodbye, Mr. Punch.