Violent heroes: Author David Keenan

The Demented Goddess: David, male violence is seen as a problem in the world. But in The Iliad to War & Peace and the Marvel Avengers movies, an appetite for violence need not preclude empathy or regret.  In what way do you find violence heroic?
A hero is someone who gives themselves to something greater than themselves, or rather, greater than their idea of themselves. A hero surrenders their limited idea of how the story should run to the reality of what the story is – and so they surrender to violence, if it presents itself, and its consequences.

I always interpreted that line from Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law, “As brothers fight ye!”, as being the same thing as what Krishna says to Arjuna on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita when Arjuna recognizes the people he is fighting as brothers and almost loses faith.

Empathy and regret are inextricably tied to violence (except, of course, for psychopaths). Which is why I love boxing; two brave warriors, going at it, then embracing and shaking hands afterwards (in heaven). Playing the roles assigned to us with appetite and passion, while recognizing our own common humanity, is as serious as your life.

The violence of our death; the reality of suffering; the ferocity of everyday life; these are not in conflict with life. Rather, they are in league with it. No happiness without sadness, no beginnings without endings, no knowledge without unknowing, no peace without war.

Life is proof of heroism, because it makes heroes of us all, in the end, whether we think we are brave enough or not. We will die, and we will suffer, and we will experience the death of the people we love, regardless. In our withstanding of that – more, in our affirmation, which is the greatest challenge – we become heroes.

Just as at the end of Ulysses: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

DG: The picture you paint of boxers is charming.  But it’s noble, I think, only when all parties agree the terms. 

In your novel For The Good Times, your protagonist Sammy and his friends kidnap and hold hostage Kathy, the wife of a comic shop owner.  She says, speaking through a pillowcase, “Ireland could do with some fucking superheroes right now”.  In the comic Sammy reads, from her husband’s shop, a blind woman taunts the hero that he’s not “savage enough to be my lover”.  In this novel and your debut, Memorial Device, male sexual savagery is more often accepted than overturned by women.  Partly, all this is male fantasy. Why are you attracted to writing stories where women welcome savage treatment?

I don’t recognize my books in what you say. Kathy clearly does not welcome her treatment.
DG: That’s not clear to me, because the narration is overwhelmingly in the male voice – though Kathy is not entirely powerless, that’s true.
The taunting, the idea that they are not savage enough, comes from the male characters’ own internal dialogues, from men’s competition with other men, and their own fears and weaknesses, feeding back on themselves. Also, it is deliberately ambiguous as to whether Kathy is in fact manipulating things herself, under instructions from the Brits, or is being forced to collude with them.

“Masculinity is often a performance for other men” – drawing of David given to him by a fan in Moscow.

As well as fantasies about what women want men to be, masculinity is often a performance for other men, especially for men not comfortable with their own masculinity. Weak men are the most dangerous because they have something to prove, and tend to take it out on women, and anyone they perceive as weaker than themselves.

I can’t think how that would relate to This Is Memorial Device, where there is a range of female characters who are very different and respond to males (and females) in different ways and across a range of sexual identities. Mary Hanna is the secret hero of the book.

DG: To me, Mary Hanna is a cool, focussed artist.  But in that book, too, there is plentiful voicing, by men, of women as sex things.  One female character exits the story having sex with men in porn films who fuck a hole in her ruined silicone breast.

I am attracted to writing about characters that are rounded, complex, and feel true to life and not mere ciphers or stand-ins for ideas. There is no ‘point’ to my books; this is the liberation of fiction. In For The Good Times I wanted to have characters that you could laugh with, feel for, who had their own struggles and doubts and yet who were capable of acting with sociopathic violence, a lack of empathy, and who were sexist, racist, and misanthropic into the bargain.

Ouroboros.  “There is no act of violence without a victim. For The Good Times is an ouroboros that eats its own tail, forever.”

I don’t believe in caricatures.  I believe every single person, man and woman alike, is capable of savagery, and of violence, as long as their opposite has been correctly othered, and their tribe commands it. I’ve yet to meet an actual pacifist. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t believe that someone else, out there, whether historically, culturally or politically, deserved violence, or even death, even among my supposedly enlightened, progressive friends, whether it’s Conservatives needing to be assaulted or Fascists needing lynching. Yet there is no act of violence without a victim. Perhaps there is no violence without victimhood? Then how do we escape it? For The Good Times is structured as an ouroboros that eats its own tail/tale forever.

Can’t being heroic become a handy excuse for being selfish and shitty?  Achilles  sulks because his slave-girl is taken, then takes to the battle field, to avenge his best friend/consort, Patrocles. Both actions contribute to Achilles’ death and are allowed by the men around him, because Achilles has impressed them, as a hero.  In For The Good Times, Sammy his friends have a hilarious, dream-like orgy in London.  The orgy ends in a man having his head smashed in with a marble lamp because he’s arse-fucked the same woman as another man and it’s construed as gay.   At what point, when conceiving these characters, did you feel their machismo would be tragic?

I can’t see how all of the heroic young men who died fighting the Nazis, and who gave their lives for a cause far greater than themselves, could ever be described as selfish. Yet I’m sure the German soldiers thought their heroism was pretty shitty and selfish.
DG: I’m not sure fighting Nazis is a useful example. The Nazis themselves were masters at selling ‘heroism’.  I agree with the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen.  Being conscripted under the sentiment “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country” is too often dangerous and misleading.  It allows men, especially, to be less than human.
The Second World War was a just and necessary war, there was no way of appeasing Hitler. I think the young men who gave their lives to defeat Nazism and bring the Holocaust to an end and prevent the invasion of Britain are truly heroes
And I don’t think having ingrained ideas that are socially unacceptable or backwards precludes you from being a hero. Actions are more heroic than our ideas about actions. It is possible to hold an idea that your enemy believes to be faulty while still acting as a hero according to the mores of your tribe. To the Loyalist victims of the IRA, the IRA were scum, not heroes, yet to the families they protected in the Ardoyne, they were, even though I’m betting a lot of them held ‘unheroic’ ideas, certainly unprogressive ones.

I think there is something tragic, and true, and something of beauty, even, in the failure of pathetic males to fully inhabit a rounded version of archetypal maleness.  Being a man is hugely challenging, and dangerous. When men fail to live up to it, there is tender, though just as often terrifying, tragedy.

Also, it’s cause he touches Tommy’s penis with his, not cause he fucks a woman up the arse, that Tommy goes mental about him being gay. Just to be clear.

DG: Returning to sublime heroic ideals, you mentioned the Bhagavad Gita.  The struggle facing Arjun is that he must sacrifice his body and his friends and see the Self in all beings and beyond this life.  Your books are quasi-religious about bodies: “I put my head down and I push forward, parting this mass () of mangled flesh, of bleeding bodies, pushing my way through this terrible () gap, this gaping human wound (  ).”

Do you feel that being a bloke, physically, is something to glorify, or something to shed?

Arjuna is worried about karma and believes that through abstaining from action he can escape it. But Lord Krishna tells him that if he enters every situation without lust of result, and with acceptance, then he is not generating any karma.  He is playing the role allotted to him, perfectly, and without a wobbling or heavy heart. Ultimately the lifeforce is an indestructible One.

The idea that spirituality is about escaping the body is a problem with language and metaphor, ultimately, as are so many things.

DG: While your prose glories in the flesh, its frailty, its meat and its dreams.

I believe in the life eternal, but I believe that the life eternal’s vehicle is the body. I believe books are organism. I believe language is what animates them. I believe letters are lonely and words are letters copulating and giving birth to meaning, and drama, and beauty. I believe in Golems. I believe that Burroughs’ Cities Of The Red Night refers to the internal organs. I believe dreams are the imagistic stagings of the states of the organs, and their love-play. I believe the flesh is dreaming the word.

I believe Lord Krishna’s teaching here is similar to Christ’s when he took on the sins of the world. We continue to trespass against others, and always will, because we are  only animals with thoughts and with a conscience and empathy (and now, terrifyingly, social media), even though, as in during the Troubles, we are so much the creation of our surroundings.  We may like to believe that we have thought ourselves into existence, via ideas and willed change, and that we are our own invention.  But this way lies madness.

When we create any kind of aggregate identity, we simplify in order to hate. Because most intelligent people are afflicted with ideas and language, and privilege them above all else,  the default stance towards the world is to see it as a puzzle, something that requires redemption via ideas, so that reality is there to be critiqued.  But it is precisely this disjoint between how it is, and how we would like it to be, that allows salvation theologies and totalitarian systems to spring up, whether it’s Marxism, Nazism, Christianity, Islam, or whatever, they promise a final solution, a Third Reich, a heavenly Eden.

I enjoy my masculinity and I treasure femininity. I think being strong enough to be emotionally vulnerable, tender, and compassionate is a key aspect of masculinity.

“I enjoy my masculinity and I treasure femininity.”

I know there are lots of dicks who are guys. But many men, unbidden by reformist agendas, have succeeded in manifesting all that is best in masculinity while being as complicated and problematic and irrational.  There’s an essential element of roguishness to all that is best and most alive and true, especially in the arts, and music. I think the secret lies in how you channel those masculine energies, whether they are creative or destructive. I think of John Waters encouraging prisoners to focus those same energies that got them into jail into making art of their life instead.

DG: I hate the term ‘toxic masculinity’ because I feel it pushes those energies towards destruction.  Teaching little boys that “masculinity” is harmful can lead to a self-loathing that must be hard to negotiate.

I hate the term ‘mansplaining’. It’s so cynical. My father was uneducated and couldn’t read or write but I could always pick up on his delight when he had an opportunity to teach me, even when his knowledge was completely made up, and faulty, as when he told me that every star was a planet just like ours.  I saw him possessed by that archetypal father, that initiatory male, the Hierophant, that ancient poetic spirit that would make explanation of the world, and I was always moved.

The Heirophant from the Autonomic Tarot set co-designed by David & Sophy Hollington for Rough Trade Books.  “I saw (my uneducated father) possessed by that ancient poetic spirit that would make sense of the world and I was always moved.”

I think it’s hilarious when occultists try to have conversations with demons but get annoyed at their dad as soon as he starts banging on. Magick is here, embodied, in front of you. That’s the true invisible world, because it’s so hard to see it, here, as it is. And that is precisely the nature of the Hierophantic task.

David was talking to Soma Ghosh, Editor of The Demented Goddess.  This is Memorial Device and his new book, For The Good Times, both published by Faber, are out now. 

Follow David on Twitter @reversediorama; Soma @calcourtesan.

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