On Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Edgar Allen Poe, Big Freedia, and What's Left When We're Out of Words
I have a reputation for graphomania, and many assume that this must mean writing comes easily to me. But this is not quite fair, and certainly not correct. I’ve spent the last week fretting and pacing, convinced I’m worthless for being unable to find my way through to the end of the revision of a long piece I’m writing for a magazine. I finally did it, and sent it off, and now, in the coming month, I have two more to go, for two other magazines, and the anxiety of not finding anything, or at least the right thing, to say is already building up.
This triple-slam of writing projects comes at the same time as I am trying to advance on a new book proposal to be submitted by the middle of November. None of these four projects would have taken the precise shape they did if it were not for Substack, and yet they have also required me to slow down my efforts here, for which I feel some guilt, not only in view of my fiduciary responsibility to my subscribers, but also because the weekly discipline of writing here serves not so much as an indulgence of my graphomania, as rather a force that shapes that otherwise lamentable disorder into something that is, I hope, curious and edifying for others.
These writing projects also mark the passage into a period of unprecedented success in this ambiguous second career of mine, the career of writing, which sits uncomfortably alongside my primary career as an “academic”. From a business point of view it’s pretty clear that publishing functions as a sort of minor leagues relative to the higher strata of the content industry, and books and even long-form magazine articles are seldom greenlighted without any consideration of their potential to pass from there into other, shinier media. So I suppose it’s a further mark of success that one of the more unhinged intellectual properties of mine, from a piece of fiction that I debuted here and that was subsequently republished by WIRED Magazine, has entered the early stages of discussions towards optioning for film or television. More about that anon, no doubt. I’m mostly just bemused by it all, and happy about the possibility of supplementing somewhat our modest retirement savings.
I usually try to conceal this second career, always leaving even its most significant moments off of even the most exhaustive versions of my professional CV. I’ve always insisted that what I’m doing in my second career is not “public outreach”, which is something universities increasingly value, and which probably would give me easy cover for every non-peer-reviewed writing endeavor I undertake if I were simply to give in and describe what I am doing under that umbrella term. But I refuse. And if I dislike “outreach”, “public philosophy”, etc., I feel nothing less than violent hostility every time I hear someone use the word “hobby”. What a failure it would be, to live a life so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented with a hobby! No, it has always seemed to me, if a given activity is not a necessary and central part of who your are, then you must banish it altogether.
So, if not the public-outreach branch of my one career, and if not a hobby, then I suppose “second career” describes best what I am doing here, and in the projects that emerge out of here. Yet I remain ever uncertain and uneasy as to the propriety of having a second career, and as to the long-term viability of such a dual-track life. As to propriety, I suppose I can see how it would be a problem if, say, the Secretary General of NATO were running, say, a Phil Collins fan page. That is a position of sufficient dignity and importance (and presumably, too, of sufficiently high remuneration) as to reasonably require of its holder that he or she abandon other public pursuits. I’m sorry, but a common academic career is just not a comparably high-stakes affair. As to viability, there is the simple question of time, of the number of hours in a day. But there is also for me a growing sense of objective tension, between different modes of engagement with ideas, and a sense that academia requires engagement within such a narrow frequency that anyone who really cares about ideas, or wants to engage creatively with them, must sooner or later venture out of its bandwidth.
So I am not exactly a NATO official, and I hope you will agree that what I do in this space has little in common with a Phil Collins tribute site — though now that I think of it it might well be worth my while to devote some effort here to figuring out what the hell “Sussudio” means. Here, unlike in the hypothetical and admittedly rather extreme case I have invented, there is significant overlap between the things I am “supposed to be doing”, and the things I am in fact doing , and so, again, it would be easy for me to defend what I am doing as a sort of public philosophizing, or at least as a sort of loose-cannoned philosophastering that would anyhow pass the litmus test for the “community service” part of my professional life, since it’s not exactly as if anyone is enforcing strict standards as to what is to count. And yet I refuse, because I am stubborn, because I am incautious, and because I have a ridiculous and romantic attachment that I will not give up to the ideal of intellectual and creative autonomy, which is to say of a public life beyond a job.
I bring all this up to try to impart a bit of why both writing on Substack, and likewise not writing on Substack, make me anxious. Each course of action or inaction seems a betrayal, of someone, or some institution, or of some Big Other, and of the internalized sense of duty that helps to keep us on this side of the pale of upstandingness. And this in turn brings me to what I really wanted to talk about, namely, that while this particular tension, which keeps me always feeling as though I am doing what I am not supposed to be doing, or not doing what I am supposed to be doing, may just be my individual experience of a much more general fact: that the writing life is intrinsically ambiguous, a bit shameful, tinged with an indelible suspicion of dishonesty. This is surely what Karel Čapek had in mind in his lovely little essay, “On Literature” (which I can’t find, and I’m starting to fear now may not be Čapek at all, but perhaps Bohumil Hrabal, or someone else yet; help?), when in a few pages he describes how much he enjoyed, in his childhood, peeking through the windows of the noble blacksmith, and the honest cobbler, and the cooper of his village, and then, in the final sentence, noting that he has been a writer for several decades now, and never once has any little boy peeked through his window to see what he is up to. The implication is that there’s something unseemly about it, that a writer’s house is covered in a miasma, like the one all the parents of a neighborhood know to avoid when they take their kids out trick-or-treating. Even when writing is sweet as candy, you can never quite be confident its confectioner has not slipped a straight-razor in there somewhere.
I don’t generally like writing on writing —I like writing on cephalopod evolution, and the history of silver-mining in Peru— and if I’m doing it here today that’s only because, as I’ve confessed, my other writing commitments have taken all I’ve got. Yet as it happens the piece I just finished, whose venue I will not reveal yet, is also about moral ambiguity in art, and among artists, and about how much we lose when we expect our artists to be morally pure. Coincidentally, the primary example I develop there concerns the life and work of Jerry Lee Lewis, who just died two days ago, and about whom I wrote at great length in a Substack piece of January, 2021.
I hate to arrive at the point where, to paraphrase Shostakovich on his symphonies, all my Substack posts are epitaphs. I am aware that the last time I hit “publish” I had just been eulogizing the great Bruno Latour (I forgot to mention two weeks ago the time when, having told Bruno I had taken a permanent position in France, he had the wit and the honesty to say back: “Mes condoléances”; so this legacy of “suffering together”, in irony but also in sincerity, seemed to me to make a eulogy, when the time came, not only appropriate, but practically obligatory).
In another remarkable coincidence, Bruno and Jerry Lee have long been on my mind as two of the three people whom, I have thought, when the time is right and their lives have been lived out, I will wish to memorialize. You will know who the third and final of these people is, I suppose, when the time comes. I am certainly aware that the internet has a tendency to transform eulogy into tawdry scavenging, where the praise people offer up to the dead barely conceals their glee at having the opportunity to offer it up. But here again we see the predicament, in “death-writing”, that I have claimed attaches to writing in general: what else can the living do, confronted with death, but either risk saying too little, thereby denying ourselves proper acknowledgment of our human suffering-together, or saying too much, appearing unseemly, courting analogies of cannibalism?
Anyhow my plan to write something on the specific occasion of Jerry Lee Lewis’s death has somewhat been thwarted by the fact that I’ve already said all I really have to say about him, both in the 2021 piece and in my forthcoming essay. I still think that alongside Little Richard he is the greatest figure in the history of rock and roll, and that the two of them together show how deeply important Louisiana in particular was for engendering this new art-form. I think the art-form began to degrade at the moment certain artists, notably British ones, started getting the peculiar idea that rock lyrics must be meaningful, which soon enough eclipsed our understanding of the archaic aesthetic power of musical nonsense: “Ready Teddy”, “Tutti Frutti”, etc. Music comes to structure our world even before we know how to talk. It is the “ritual without meaning” that Frits Staal conjectured was an earlier and more primordial element of human experience than any literature or late-coming philosophy. It is fitting therefore that the best music should incorporate not complicated lyrical ideas, but only babbling.
I’ve been thinking recently about the great Big Freedia, Queen of Bounce, whom I saw in concert a decade ago, thanks to some dear old friends in Tucson, and had the honor of meeting for just a split second. He is clearly, in so many respects, the latter-day incarnation of the spirit of Little Richard, and more than anyone else currently working understands and channels the vital musical potential of repetitive nonsense, with such perfect and inspired lyrics as “Yaka yaka”. However little I’m able to get excited about Beyoncé’s music, it is really just wonderful that she is so earnestly committed to paying her respects to regional subgenres such as New Orleans bounce, and in that respect helping to return our deepest American musical culture to its roots in the sort of genius that flows directly from the body and circumvents useless propositional speech.
I think the most powerful performances in the history of rock and roll occurred in the mid-1960s, at a moment when Jerry Lee and Little Richard had already been surpassed by other more “sophisticated” iterations of the art, and that these performances were delivered by the throw-backs themselves, —Jerry Lee in Hamburg in 1964, Little Richard in Paris in 1966—, angry and exiled from a world that had moved on from them. This is when art is often at its best, I think: when it is already on its way out, and unhappy about that.
I suppose I can share here at least some of the paragraphs that I ended up excising. Here I am discussing Jerry Lee Lewis and Edgar Allen Poe together, both of whom help me to make an argument about the relationship between artistic creativity and moral transgression, and the latter of whom, incidentally, has also been on my mind recently as provisioner of the Urtext behind this little fiction I shared on Substack a few weeks back. I’ll be talking about Poe’s “Berenice”, “The Man That Was Used Up”, and some other stories still, on Jennifer Frey’s excellent podcast, “Sacred and Profane Love”, at some point in the next few weeks. More on that anon too. For now, here is some of what I would have said about these two devils if I had had infinite space in that already very generous magazine’s pages:
At least two artists who mean a great deal to me share the ignominious distinction of having married —or “married”— their thirteen-year-old first cousins. Nor can I reassure myself that their transgressions are irrelevant to my assessment of their work.
Jerry Lee Lewis was on absolute fire for the years of his virtual banishment from the United States, when he played in London and Hamburg a sort of boogie rock already rendered archaic by the sweet and redemptive Beatles (yawn), and he found just the most evil chords on his piano and pounded them in sinful rage, and the young Europeans loved it not in spite of the fact that he was a psycho yokel American, but because of it. Just listen to the opening seconds of “Mean Woman Blues” from the 1964 recording of his concert at the Hamburg Star Club, with the incredible Nashville Teens (from Surrey, in reality) as his backing band. This was not a concert, as one raving critic noted, but a crime scene. It was a diabolical desecration of the same venue at which the Fab Four, the lovable Liverpudlian mop-tops (etc.), had only recently completed their first apprenticeship and moved on to global stardom. It was the very purest distillation of all the dark energy rock and roll had conjured into our world like another Bomb. Nothing else has ever come close, before or since — not Hendrix, not the Stooges, no one. It is not “proto-punk”, but the very Form of Punk, a transcendent rupture amidst all our small-minded measurements of before and after. And it all depended entirely on who Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Killer”, was as a human being.
Edgar Allen Poe, too, fuelled the fire of his art in part with the vicious suffering he inflicted on young Virginia Eliza Poe, née Clemm, which like most such suffering redounded back upon the one who caused it. Just before Poe's cousin-wife died in 1847 at the age of twenty-four, she cited his cruel infidelity as much as her own tuberculosis as the cause. He followed her in death two years later, drunk and disconsolate at her loss. Earlier, in 1835, the year the two were married, Poe published “Berenice”, a story that is at once the purest expression of his artistry as a writer of short fiction, and his most extreme and shocking contribution to the genre of Gothic horror. In it a man lives, shut in and isolated in a dark decaying mansion, with his beautiful first cousin. The two eventually marry, a decision he knows in his bones will damn them both, but that he makes anyway. Soon she begins wasting away from some unnamed disease, and of all her parts only her teeth remain as perfect and white as before. He becomes fixated on them, and —short story short— ends up prying them out one by one before burying her alive. The precise pathways by which life becomes fiction are complex, and ultimately are known only to the author, but we may at least be confident in saying there would be no Berenice without Virginia, nor any Poe, such as we know him, without Clemm.
For a long time the prevailing liberal view in American culture held that we must, and indeed usually can, separate the art from the artist, and that once we do so we are free to appreciate the immoralism of the imaginary worlds the artists depict. This is broadly the attitude that shaped me. I must have been in 6th grade or so when Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” of 1843 was assigned in my English class; I believe already the year before we had read Roald Dahl's “Lamb to the Slaughter”, first published in this very magazine in 1953. These stories featured characters who were plainly not “villains” such as we find in the black-and-white moral universes of, say, Marvel Comics, or Soviet socialist realism. They were committing murders just for the hell of it, because the indifferent universe permits them to do so — a common trope of literature that Dostoyevsky, the most well-known of its deployers, neither invented nor exhausted. I can recall thinking that these tales really were not sending a good message to us children, but that the adults must know what they are doing and surely have their reasons. Though I was not able to do so at the time, I now see these adults in their historical context, as post-1960s liberals, confident in their ability to overcome all of our inherited uptightness, and certain enough of the basic natural goodness of humanity, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, to read stories of moral transgression as nothing more than stories, unconnected to our lived reality, and perhaps even edifying as a tool for the cultivation of imagination.
Somewhat to my own surprise, I find myself in strong agreement with certain elements of the post-liberal “progressive” view. I find the older line, by which the liberals assured themselves that Edgar Allen Poe, say, is safe for children, safe for anyone, simply because those teeth being pulled are not “real” teeth, to be hopelessly naive, and ultimately a failure to reckon with the true power of his art. The liberals could only make art safe by, so to speak, removing its teeth, though in a very different sense than what Poe's narrator does to Berenice.
Lest you conclude in light of what I have said so far that I must be a “bad” person, a “garbage human being” as they love to say on Twitter, perhaps this is the moment to assure you that, if I could, I would not hesitate to call Child Protection Services on these monsters I have admitted to valuing as artists. In the unlikely circumstance where I encounter a writer I might reasonably expect to become the next Edgar Allen Poe if left alone, and who is in the course of harming a child, I would also call Child Protection Services, at risk of squelching his potentially epoch-making career. I suppose I would call the authorities on the adults in the Capulet family too, who sought to marry off their Juliet at the age of thirteen — if the Capulets were real people, and if the authorities in Renaissance Verona could be expected to find this behavior objectionable.
But it is annoying to have to provide these assurances, as to do so implies acceptance of the general frame in which art, and its relationship to morality, are understood in our society. This frame, whether its upholders know it or not, shares with socialist realism, and with earlier nineteenth-century nationalist attitudes towards arts and literature, the presumption that to value a work of art must at the same time be to wish to give the person who made it a medal, when he still lives, or to build him a statue when he dies, or to name a prize after him or even a university.
And then come a few paragraphs that did make it into the final version of the essay, and which I hope my editor will allow me to share here, both as appropriate to this particular moment of Jerry Lee Lewis’s death, and also, if we’re looking for a more practical justification, as a sneak-preview of what’s to come in print a few months from now (unless it gets edited out, which is of course always a possibility):
Jerry Lee’s talent is in some respects sui-generis, yet he fits a clear mold, one that also shaped Al Green, to some extent Elvis Presley, and indeed Little Richard, who is without doubt Lewis's closest musical and spiritual kin. All of these men were fundamentally formed by church music, and inevitably also by the vision of the world transmitted in this music's lyrics. Jerry Lee was born into a deeply religious evangelical family in Ferriday, Louisiana. One of his first cousins was the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, and together as boys they felt out their first musical ideas on the piano. Lewis’s own defining moment is sometimes said to be his boogie rendition of “My God Is Real” at the Southwest Bible Institute of Waxahachie, Texas, which led to his immediate expulsion. This is the same gospel standard that Al Green would some years later turn into what sounds at least like a strangely sexy love song, full of sensuous yearning far more than the doxastic certitude implied by the song's title.
Lewis and Green have similar life paths: stellar break-out careers in popular musical forms, trouble with the law, regret and yearning for redemption, a return back to gospel and other styles of musical expression that hold out a promise for such redemption, more trouble with the law, another return to secular music, and so on. Elvis, too, when he saw rock and roll's dark energy being siphoned off into flower power, manifested his total rejection of the new spirit of the summer of love with How Great Thou Art, his 1967 gospel album, perfectly poised at the boundary between the corny and the sublime. If we are going to shift from the evil power of rock and roll to a quest for redemption in love, the thought seems to have been, let this be through a return to the Christian expression of it that first shaped our musical sensibilities, and not through the slapdash neo-paganism of our surrounding culture. Even Bob Dylan converted to Christianity for a while just so he could get in on this redemptive arc, which for a while functioned as a milestone in the career of any rock-and-roll star who aspired to mythic status. But Little Richard was a true pioneer in this regard, having first given up secular music as early as 1958, gone off to Alabama to study theology, and embarked from there on an evangelizing mission across the United States. Black, queer, and anything but proud, the former New Orleans drag performer known as “Princess LaVonne” emptied himself out, hit the road to spread the good word, to sing gospel and to sing the gospel at once.
What binds all of these characters in life and art is that they are, on their own self-understanding, sinners, and this is the fundamental condition that brings their art to life. In light of this, to pick any one of them out as “problematic”, as you might wish to do in Lewis's case in particular if you open his Wikipedia page and relive the cousin-marriage scandal of 1958, seems not so much beside the point, as rather a direct undermining of your initial hope that disinterring this awful story might serve the cause of deplatforming him. So he's problematic? Jerry Lee could have told you that himself. In fact he has been doing so, in his art, on stage, in the public eye, before the world, presumably before his God, for the past seventy years.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’ll be back with more original, problematic, and unseemly essays and storytelling in this space in the coming weeks, notwithstanding all the other commitments of both of my full-time careers.
Do note, also, that I will be speaking with the furtive Jonathan Simons about my most recent book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is at the American Library in Paris this Wednesday evening, November 2, at 19h30. Note that this is a hybrid session, and even if you are far from Paris you will be able to join us (note also that here in France we just today ended daylight savings, and are now only five hours ahead of New York, not six). While I would much prefer to see butts in seats, as one of my most dreadful nightmares involves speaking to empty auditoria, I’ll also be happy to see you “en distanciel”.
Bonne fête de la veille de la Toussaint, you ghouls. Don’t marry your cousins, watch out for the straight-razors and the fentanyl, and good lord mind your teeth.
Justin E. H. Smith's Hinternet is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.