‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’ by Tom Jenks (Zshboo Press)
Tom Jenks is one of the funniest and most innovative poets operating today. His latest book is another illustration of why. It’s a collation – via search engine - of tweets posted or sent in the month of January containing the word ‘melancholy’. Each chapter of the book – and there are 31 – represents a day’s worth of tweets. Jenks – who has long been interested in exploring the interface between poetry and technology – is here modernizing and re-interpreting Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. When Burton was writing in 1621, melancholy was seen as one of the four ‘humours’ forming the basis of Hippocratic medicine. Melancholia – believed to be caused by an excess of black bile – was viewed as a physical and mental illness. Methods of treatment for the condition, even as late as the eighteenth-century, included bloodletting and applying hot cups to the skin. Burton’s book, though purporting to be a text book, was nothing of the sort. It had a stream-of-consciousness feel and consisted of a collage of different writings. So far so similar to Jenks’ book. The difference with Jenks’ book is it gives us An Anatomy of Melancholy Fast and Furious.
On the basis of the tweets presented in Jenks’ book, melancholy in the twenty-first century is a life-style choice and one very much publicly performed. Reading the book is a bit like overhearing the collective unconscious, with the reader occupying a window seat. What makes it so ‘now’ is the performative quality. All the twitterati have two selves: ‘The ‘you’ God Made and Your Social Media self’ – and keeping up can be exhausting. Sometimes one feels the sender is advertising his/her sensitivity or self- promoting; at other times the reader is presented with a glimpse of something approaching real heartbreak: ‘She doesn’t even say bye anymore. All I hear is ‘ok’ – dial tone.’ This is a generation that only exists insofar as it is compulsively sharing experience (in a mediated way) - pictures, thoughts, music and movies – in an unending stream. Senders of messages feel and experience melancholy by tweeting it. It’s self-conscious, yes, but also affecting. Here’s a random sample:
I am weak, melancholy, soul sick, profoundly a failure in many ways. But one thing was given to me. I’m down 6lbs!!! Yay best feeling…
Cereal: a great night time snack, but just a melancholy breakfast. Morrissey cancelled his show in Minneapolis tonight, making all his fans melancholy. So in a way, Morrissey didn’t cancel. ‘Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.’
Why Would Someone Delete you from BBM or Unfollow You on Twitter and You Get All Melancholy? It’s Just A Social Network. Calm the fuck down. I can go any further than this, I want you so badly is my only wish!!!
The language is very dialogic: conditioned by anticipated responses. So often the reader finds him/herself listening in on what sounds like a private argument. As with all technology-mediated language, it blurs the dividing line between speech and writing. It sounds spontaneous (as with text-ese). It’s writing that imitates speech: it’s full of vocal effects, spelling mistakes or phonetic spelling (‘Yay’) and expressive punctuation (conveying non-verbal communication). Ellipsis (‘cereal: a great night time snack’) and clipping signal the informality. Questions and imperatives frequently occur (sentence types strongly associated with real speech). Registers frequently clash and collide and inadvertent pathos abounds. The language is also full of humour (‘the saddest vegetable of all time: melon cauli’). There’s a sound-bite quality and a sense of people writing a blurb for their own lives.
All the texts show an extreme awareness of intertextuality. Twitter interacts with Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, different platforms for newly released records, photos etc. The tweets often consist of or are based on quotes from other writings. The result is often a complete elision of the differences between real and unreal.
People always ask me how Stefan Edberg is. Same old Stef…Boyish looks, sensitive, melancholy. Sells calculators just outside Stockholm.
I always look at the classic shows that I grew up on and get a little melancholy when a cast member dies.
The reference to the one-time tennis champion Edberg here is strangely moving. It is impossible to tell whether the sender of the message is talking about the real Edberg or someone who looks like Edberg. But the image created is richly and bitterly ironic: the idea of a former Wimbledon champion reduced to selling calculators. The reference to the death of a TV show character presupposes that fictional characters are just as real as family members. Celebrity and TV are therefore not separate from our lives, but deeply integrated.
Structurally, on one level, each chapter is an apparently random jumble of messages, colliding and sometimes in dialogue with each other. But, on another level, the messages do form a kind of whole. The repetition – created, in part, by retweets - is hypnotic. It’s like entering a giant kaleidoscope. All the lines recur at random intervals with increasing, decreasing frequency. They rotate and re-appear in different combinations. Everything therefore acquires that seen-before patina and feels re-cycled. For example, the tweet ‘Nothing as Melancholy as a derelict football ground: Aylesbury Utd’s Buckingham Road’ underpins and provides scaffolding for chapters 14/15. The line – through its reproduction and replication - goes from being a fresh and startling observation to becoming a signifier of itself. There’s a sense of what Baudrillard calls the ‘hyper real’. The real is that which has been already reproduced. Similarly, a parody and pastiche version of the lyrics of the Beatles’ song ‘Hey Jude’ becomes one of the book’s refrains: ‘Greetings Jude. Do not make thy present situation worse. Take a melancholy tune, and improve its quality.’ The playful re-writing of the song here – making it formal and somehow soulless – brings home the sense of language haunted by its own ghosts.
Overall, the messages teasingly address and luxuriate in the common belief that winter months are the months of increased depression (and suicides). The content is sad and beautiful, trivial and important, at the same time. Joy is shown as intimately connected with pain. The aesthetics of melancholy is also a sort of theme, inspired by the Baudelaire quote: ‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy’. Sadness is shown as an inevitable by-product of change and loss. (This is enacted by the form itself which is the very definition of fleetingness. There is nothing as old as an old tweet.) All of these are concerns Burton would have recognised. There are therefore all sorts of continuities between the two books.
Jenks’ book, though, is very much a book of the here and now. It’s a clever, timely and prescient illustration of the interface between poetry and technology – and shows how technology mediates and conditions language. There’s a surprising, effortless, and self-conscious lyricism to the language, at times, despite and often because filtered through techno-speak. At times the language can be a bit Purple Ronny. At others, the language is co-opted by product placement and promotion, consisting of repeated plugs for some new record/movie/art exhibition. The texts illustrate, on one level, how we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. The very language we use to communicate with each other has itself become a marketised product. Because of constraints imposed by the technology, this is sometimes language in absurdly reduced form. But that hasn’t stopped real art going into making the language powerful, creating a sense of life haunted by ‘the three weird sisters: melancholy, chagrin and regret.’
The witty epilogue alone makes Jenks’ book worth buying. Apparently consisting of wingdings, scrambled bits of Greek and Arabic font, Chinese hieroglyphs, symbols (excised hashtags) and emoticons rotating and recurring in exactly the way the tweets in the main body of the text do, it is a visual illustration of the disposable and manufactured quality of language, the arbitrariness of its meanings and, above all, its magic. In Jenks’ hands, even the rubbish bits of language are a kind of gold dust.
Copyright © 2013 Gareth Twose