Tade Thompson’s new book JACKDAW is a fictional grokumentary where the protagonist, who is also the narrator, called “Tade Thompson” is writing a novella based on the works of Francis Bacon. The resulting story shows just how far the fictional author is willing to go in the attempts to understand Bacon from the inside, as a method for writing the book.
The question of method, the search for a method adequate to the task, crops up at the very beginning. Our narrator, the in-story “Tade”, tells us about the tiny incident that triggered his authorial journey. His literary agent Tarquin calls him up about a proposition to write a book based on Francis Bacon’s work, he replies:
The scientific method dude or the Screaming Popes guy?’
‘What scientific method?’
‘Instauratio Magna? Lord Bacon? None of this rings a bell?’
‘I’m talking about the twentieth-century artist, Tade.’
‘So Screaming Popes guy.’
The irony is that in the name of scientific method the fictional “Tade”, who like the real-world author is not only a well-known author of body-horror themed SF (so “Screaming Popes”) but also a practising psychiatrist (so “scientific method”), is going to go all out Screaming Popes.
MONSTERS FROM THE ID
If FORBIDDEN PLANET had not been a science fictional film retelling of THE TEMPEST but an autofictive autogrokumentary meta-novella retelling of Francis Bacon’s autofictive autogrockumentary paintings we would get something like JACKDAW.
This may seem complicated but the story itself is a quick, easy, and fun read:
Having accepted the task of writing a novella, the fictional narrator/author (called “Tade”, “Thompson”, “Tade Thompson”, or “Double-Tee”) goes on a “weird psychosexual journey” and falls prey to monsters from the id (as FORBIDDEN PLANET called them). These monsters from the id (the intradiegetic, or in-story, author calls them hauntings, obessions, compulsions) spiral Tade’s life into chaos.
“Tade” falls victim to “compulsive masturbation”, a metaphor perhaps for compulsive writing (or painting) – unless from the id’s perspective it is the writing that is a metaphor. He looks at photos of Bacon’s studio and sees only a mess:“I looked for some order, some organising principle, but all these photographs told me was that this person used whatever was at hand to create whatever he wanted“
Our narrator (a clinical psychiatrist) that Bacon acted out his id and drew on it to paint. He chooses to do the same, in order to write his novella, as if by a method of sympathetic magic:“In order to write this, I must access and give full rein to my Id. Full subconscious release. Stab the superego to death”.
His experiment in voluntary disinhibition (a little like Arthur Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses) leads him to visions and hallucinations, and speeds him on a “weird psychosexual journey”, from compulsory masturbation, through participant-observation in sado-masochistic sexual experiences, then paying a “rent boy” to beat him up and sodomise him.
I see JACKDAW as itself embodying an act of conceptual buggery. In the novel it is “Tade” the character who is paying to be sodomised by a dominatrix (before moving on to harder stuff with the rent boy) as part of his “research” into writing a novella based on Francis Bacon’s life and work. But as his dominatrix, “Danni the Destroyer”, remarks:“This isn’t a binary state, Tade. Being either Dom or sub isn’t a switch”.
I think that Tade Thompson the real-world author is also doing the Dom and being the sub in an act of conceptual buggery with Francis Bacon.
This method of “conceptual buggery” was famously put forward by philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who wrote important studies of several key figures in the history of philosophy, before writing books expressing his own philosophy, some of them quite crazy-seeming (at least to some literal-minded eyes).
Deleuze tells us:“I suppose the main way I coped with it at the time was to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child had to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed”.
I would add that in Deleuze’s case, as in Tade Thompson’s, this process of buggery is in both directions and it is a conceptual or psychic process. In the case of the conceptual character “Tade Thompson” the process was literal for the major part of the book.
Note: by the expression “conceptual character” I am echoing (and probably misusing) one of Deleuze’s terms, and using it as a de-literalising device, to distinguish the author Tade Thompson from his fictional double. I am not using it to describe what “Tade Thompson” calls his “anthropologist” perspective, one of “participant-observation”. Danni the Destroyer quickly demolishes such defensive notions as being those of a “tourist”.
In order to avoid the dead-end of a superficial tourism the pathologising has to go deeper. But does the pathologising have to be literal?
THE ARTIST AS JACKDAW
There is no mention of birds or jackdaws in the novella, but we can find Francis Bacon using the word in a conversation reported by John Russell (in FRANCIS BACON, page 71):“I think of myself as a kind of pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed. I believe that I am different from the mixed-media jackdaws who use photographs etc. more or less literally or cut them up and rearrange them). The literalness of photographs so used — even if they are only fragments — will prevent the emergence of real images, because the literalness of the appearance has not been sufficiently digested and transformed”.
One could read this as Francis Bacon saying that he is not a “jackdaw”, but it is perhaps more interesting to say he is not like the “mixed-media jackdaws”. Francis Bacon is his own type of jackdaw. He does not exclude collecting, cutting up, rearranging materials, nor taking them literally at some time, only using them literally. He thinks these procedures do not go far enough.
Francis Bacon’s jackdaw is also a “pulverising machine”. The complete creative process is collect, cut up and rearrange, ingest, digest, transform. Literalism is not enough. It does not suffice to free us from the cliché.
Tade Thompson is also a jackdaw/pulverising machine. This is my answer to the question of who is the “jackdaw” referred to in the title of Tade Thompson’s new book JACKDAW? The answer is Francis Bacon, “Tade Thompson” the protagonist (a very literal-minded writer), and Tade Thompson the author.
I do not wish to spoil the ending except to say that in appearance the Lord Bacon’s scientific method wins over the in-story author’s attempt to imitate the artist Francis Bacon’s method. Both are “empirical” in one sense of the word, so it may be that scientific empiricism wins over existential empiricism, and that this is the contribution of the real-world author to the meta-structuring of the story. In that case it would be the scientific equivalent of “it was all a dream”. I prefer to see the ending as showing that pathology is not a foolproof path to creation, even when it is taken metaphorically, and that happier models (cf. the in-story author’s collaboration with his son on an illustrated children’s book). Some have criticised this ending but it is not the true ending.
Part of what the novella shows is that the phenomena that filled Francis Bacon’s life and work can look very different to people with different experiences – coming from a different part of the world (or another subculture) where violence is more widespread and more horrific, “deviant” sexual practices are banalised, vices (such as gambling) are transformed by more modern technology, communion with phantom, and spirits is less psychiatrised.
The real end, the “final end”, of Tade Thompson’s discourse on method, is not the scientific explanation nor the family-life flourishing (with the ambivalently named son “Trap”) but “Tade’s” failed attempt to contact his dead father, leading to a non-Oedipal “peace”.
The final word I leave to Deleuze (DIALOGUES, page 119):“My ideal, when I write about an author, would be to write nothing that could cause him sadness, or if he is
dead, that might make him weep in his grave. Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar. Give back to an author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent. So many dead writers must have wept over what has been written about them. I hope that Kafka was happy at the book that we did on him…”
Tade Thompson wrote JACKDAW not to identify with Francis Bacon like a histrionic artist and not to study him like an academic psychiatrist. He did it to think of him so intensely that he could not take him as a model or an object.
The ending leaves us feeling, as Camus did for Sisyphus, that we must imagine Francis Bacon happy.