Michael Farrell reviews 10,000 Monkeys

26 April 2003

10,000 Monkeys by Melodrama
CD (Independent), 2000
Words and main vocal by Justin Clemens

If everyone went around saying what they thought, the world would end up a Shakespearean tragedy, with none of the major players left standing. Sometimes, of necessity, there is a vast difference between what one says, and what one thinks. But then again, you just might be the right Rabelaisan dog who enjoys breaking the bone to get to the marrow. Michael Farrell takes a sidelong look at Melodrama's CD 10,000 Monkeys.

Reasons To Be Rabelaisan

(Neutrality is only one of many responses.)

'Shit has to be encountered in another way.'
– Peter Sloterdijk, 'Critique of Cynical Reason' (as quoted by Sianne Ngai)

In her essay, 'Raw Matter' (Telling It Slant, Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, Mark Wallace and Steven Marks, eds.), Sianne Ngai argues for a poetics of disgust:

' – disgust has no well-known paradigms associated with it and has largely remained outside the range of any theoretical zone. This is surprising given that this affect often plays a prominent role in structuring our responses to capitalism and patriarchy.' (p163)
'-as a form of pluralism, as an eclectic, all-inclusive critical discourse or signifying economy, “desire” falls short as a materialism. What disgust may have to offer as a poetics is precisely this capacity to function as such … the dirty work … of ideology critique.' (p188)

It's about freedom. The Rabelaisan credo 'Do what thou wilt' is far from common currency in Australia, only blooming occasionally in the poetry of John Scott and Hugh Tolhurst (and I saw it graffiti'd once on a Newtown poet's street). Aussies are caught between the beach and the work ethic. 'Going bush' once had an excitingly subversive air about it, and didn't necessarily involve cattle dogs. Communism and capitalism have been described, and distinguished, as respectively offering 'freedom from' and 'freedom to'. Capitalism has its own freedom-froms: freedom from philosophy, history, and reality. Perhaps this accounts for the scathing tone of Clemens' philosophy: it has to bore through pretty waxy ears and soft heads. Clemens' voice isn't, like Britney Spears', 'so sweet I can't stand it' (Wojciech Bonowicz, Polish poet).

My apologies to the musicians: this won't be a music review. The music's purpose – from the point of view of the words, or lyrics – is serious, not ironic, though several of the tracks are happy-sounding, almost jaunty, emphasising that Clemens is enjoying himself. He's doing a fragment at least of what he wants – being a few monkeys. For the time being, we'll have to make do with anecdotes of ten thousand monkeys till Clemens works out how to be them, for that I think is his vision of freedom. If Hitler had been French, he probably would've distorted Rabelais to support his program, in much the same way that 'democracy' has become a series of 'tragic mistakes'. We are free to applaud, and in our own limited sphere, imitate, as ten thousand sheep.

But there may be a dwarf with a trumpet
with whom you can sing songs about nothing

            ('42')

Nihilism strengthens under stable governments, which absorb any kind of protest with a shrug or mean smile. There seems no other action available but to negate the so-called 'positive values' of power. Yet parliamentary hypocrisy is well situated to deflect negations too. And while shocking behaviour is all too easily achieved, its effect is that of selling more newspapers. Are there answers in reading and thinking?

If it's true what monkey see, monkey do,
Then monkeys have done what monkeys have to –

They've scanned the pertinent literatures,
And made all the requisite erasures;

They've adapted, stolen, borrowed, and begged
From the works of the featherless biped,

Such that, in all these lines, there will appear
Not a single original idea,

Nor stanza, theme, figure, form, or rhythm
That has not been done by algorithm,

Or – for that matter – by something better,
Like Wordsworth, Dowson, Blake, Forbes or Gautier.

'Still, in this Chateau,' coughs dead Mallarme,
'of Purity, Monkeys are here to stay.'

            ('Ten Thousand Rap')

This suggests decay: of thinking and of desire for originality (replaced by novelty), and the value of reading, of knowing your history – or creating it. It's interesting to note that Forbes is included in this list of Romantics. Forbes has joined the dead club — Now who'll excoriate our leaders when they need it most?

Melodrama promises both sensation and violence:

St Catherine on her Catherine wheel

            ('Ave Atque Vale, Monkeys')

It embraces death (hell) – Orpheus' job – The great negation is that of life, but life as we know it is increasingly superficial, if increasingly murderous – so perhaps death is where the real is. For they are the negators: the deniers of death, the beefed-up, image-driven mistake-makers, and the dogs that bark in their wake.

Try to decide if there's really a wood

            ('Breathing, Drinking, Writing’)

10,000 Monkeys is an adult's version of the 'pollution' song: 'Don't drink the water, and don't breathe the air.' This review hasn't examined the songs/poems in isolation (the pressure of reality is too much), but rather tried to describe the spirit: what can I do but try and supplement Clemens' fervour and disgust with some of my own?

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About Michael Farrell


Michael Farrell's I Love Poetry and A Lyrebird: Selected Poems are both out this year (2017): from Giramondo and Blazevox, respectively. His scholarly book, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945, was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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