Desire and Anxiety

Martin Kippenberger, Des tètons, des tours, des tortellini (1982/83)

‘Love is part of desire and desire is always cruel.’ – Neil Gaiman

‘On to the female body have been projected the fantasies and longings and terrors of generations of men and through them of women, in order to conjure them into reality or exorcize them into oblivion.’ – Marina Warner

‘[A] Welshman called Ernest Jones, had an idea that, interestingly, sort of disappeared. He believed that everybody’s deepest fear was loss of desire, what he called aphanisis. For him that’s the thing we’re most acutely anxious about, having no desire.’ – Adam Phillips

‘She Is Suffering’ is seldom discussed at length in writing about The Holy Bible. Widely judged to be the least lyrically and musically arresting track on the album, it has been criticised by the band themselves and few critics have been inclined to consider exactly how it works within – and against – the style of the album.

To the casual listener the song might simply be taken to be vaguely feminist in intent, its title and repeated lead chorus line seeming to highlight a woman’s turmoil. But there is little else to sustain this line of thinking; nothing resembling the critique of female exploitation offered on the band’s earlier single ‘Little Baby Nothing’. Nicky Wire has derided the song on more than one occasion, framing Richey Edwards’s lyric as an ill-judged attempt to assume the role of the male saviour. Ten years after the album’s release, he told the webzine ireallylovemusic.co.uk: “I wish we’d left it off there. The lyrics are shit. Richey didn’t even think much of them at the time. It’s kind of like a bloke riding to the rescue of the woman, as was his wont occasionally.” [1] While it is not necessary to counter Wire’s withering assessment of the song in general, especially in the context of the rest of The Holy Bible, it is hard to parse any of the lyrics in a way that would warrant this bizarre summary.

Aside from the bitter domestic picture suggested by the line ‘Lovers wrapped inside each other’s lies’ (which might just as easily have fit on the single’s B-side ‘Love Torn Us Under’) and its longing for untroubled days of youth, ‘She Is Suffering’ simply depicts beauty in a negative light; ‘spoiled,’ according to writer David Evans in his monograph on the album, ‘by some rather clunky imagery of carrion and rotting flowers’. [2] It is hardly characteristic of Edwards and Wire’s lyrics. No caustic commentary on consumerism, monarchy or faded cultural figures. No frank first-person perspective on the malaise of contemporary life. It seems out of step too with the image of Manic Street Preachers and their famous slogan: ‘Stay Beautiful’.

Edwards uses the pronoun ‘she’ throughout the lyric, rather than the usual ‘I’ or ‘you’. The use of female forms to represent concepts, emotions and values, both positive or negative, is nothing new of course. In her 1985 book Monuments and Maidens, Marina Warner surveys an array of myths, statues and artworks across the centuries, from Hesiod’s Theogeny to caricatures of Margaret Thatcher, discussing the ways in which even vaunted ideals such as Truth and Liberty have been more often than not depicted as female, whether in stone or paint – as against the realities of the status of women and the circumstances of their lives throughout history. Edwards’s writing is in keeping with the longstanding uses of personification throughout the literature of the Greek, Latin and Romance languages, the critical depictions of womanhood in Judeo-Christian texts, as well as the modernist poetry of Baudelaire (cf. ‘La Beauté’) – even his contemporary, the comic book writer Neil Gaiman, who depicts Despair, Delirium and Death as sisters to his popular Sandman character. But given the band’s embrace of femininity, their awareness of macho tropes in popular culture, and their bold use of Jenny Saville’s artwork for the album’s cover, one might expect Edwards to have sidestepped such cliches. Rhian E Jones has remarked on the possible misogynistic readings of both ‘She Is Suffering’ and ‘P.C.P.’ [3] Daniel Lukes has also considered the contrasting ways in which the female form is presented across The Holy Bible:

‘It walks a line between the radical and feminist move of desexualizing femininity in a pop music context, exploring female spaces and consciousness with empathy and identification, and appropriating and colonizing these very tropes to mask and re-assemble classic white male self-loathing and fragility.’ [4]

It is clear from his public comments that Richey Edwards had a complex perspective on sexuality and sexual politics – and was forthcoming about the contradictions and hypocrisies in his outlook, as when he was confronted by journalist Barbara Ellen about his use of a prostitute during the band’s visit to Bangkok. It is also obvious from his extraordinary lyrics for ‘4st 7lb’ and ‘Yes’, and later on ‘She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach’ – in which ‘she’ would seem literally to refer to a particular, suffering individual, possibly someone known to him from his stay in Whitchurch Hospital – just how empathetic he could be in writing about women, still rare among male songwriters.

Joanne Celnik, Balance (1992)

For the inlay of the single release in October 1994, Edwards selected the painting Balance by Joanne Celnik. This phantasmagorical image is composed of expressionistic strokes of green, grey, yellow and blue and appears to depict a crucified figure merging with a tree or other personal ‘cross’ of some kind. One arm, or wing, of the figure is aglow, burning brightly at its edges; the other appears dull and charred. Although the title might hint at psychological equilibrium, the picture conveys the opposite, but it would be hard to interpret it outright as expressive of female suffering in particular. The sense of an underlying Christian motif in the painting is present but also vague. And even so, any coherence is disrupted further by the overarching visual design for the album’s singles – each one presenting as its front cover image a canvas by the subversive German artist Martin Kippenberger. In the case of ‘She Is Suffering’, Des tètons, des tours, des tortellini (in English: ‘Tits, Towers, Tortellini’), which is itself oblique, but plays with the use of the female figure in art history and advertising. As Marina Warner explains, ‘the first posters selling goods began to appear, and their visual style was determined by the conventions of official art, including the affixing of meaning – any meaning – to a pretty girl – any pretty girl.’ [5]

What underpins the song, however, is a Buddhist notion of desire – which gives rise to a strikingly different interpretation. In contrast with his later comments, Wire had already explained this at the time of the album’s release. He told Melody Maker:

“It’s quite a simple song, both musically and lyrically. It’s kind of like the Buddhist thing where you can only reach eternal peace by shedding every desire in your body. I think the last line, ‘Nature’s lukewarm pleasure’, is Richey’s view on sex. I can’t really explain it, but that’s the way he sees it.” [6]

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‘She Is Suffering’ might be illustrated by an image of Jesus in the accompanying CD booklet of The Holy Bible, an ‘Ecce Homo’ postcard in keeping with the biblical imagery and evocations across the album, but the words reflect an interest on Richey Edwards’s part in influential texts outside the Western tradition and how they might inform a critical response to contemporary life. Indeed, the same chapter of The Teaching of Buddha on ‘Human Defilements’ that undoubtedly shaped some of the song’s content is also the source of another quote which appears on the final page of the lyric booklet: a philosophical fragment on the perils of ‘greed, anger, foolishness and the infatuations of egoism’, printed over a hammer and sickle graphic based on a Soviet Veteran of Labour medal, which would double as a logo for the band throughout 1994.

Detail from The Holy Bible. Quote taken from The Teaching Of Buddha

This provocative overlap of Christian iconography, revolutionary politics and Eastern wisdom, like the blurring of left and right-wing perspectives across The Holy Bible, may well cause confusion. But Edwards was unequivocal in his tour programme notes: ‘”She” is desire. In other Bibles and Holy Books no truth is possible until you empty yourself of desire. All commitment otherwise is fake/lies/economic convenience.’ [7] The opening track on The Holy Bible, ‘Yes’, warns of the way in which social status and exploitation are interwoven in the world of prostitution (‘power produces desire’). More generally, ‘She Is Suffering’ reflects on the pain brought about by any feelings of desire. The band had already linked the idea with the culture of consumerism on ‘Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds’: ‘The more you own the more you are lonelier with cheap desire’, a line which finds an echo here: ‘The less she gives the more you need her.’ But rather than drawing on the commandments of the Bible – ‘Thou shalt not covet’ – Edwards takes his intellectual cue from a different religion entirely. As can be seen in the archival materials reproduced in both the tenth anniversary reissue and the twentieth anniversary boxed set of The Holy Bible, there were plans to use an image of a ‘Bangkok Pain Taker Buddha’ to accompany the lyrics to ‘She Is Suffering’, taking inspiration from the sleeve design of The Pogues’ 1993 release Tuesday Morning for the layout. [8]

Detail from The Holy Bible 20 (2014)

Speaking to Music Life in 1994, Edwards elaborated on his thinking behind the song:

“We never knew anything other than Western religion, but when we went to Thailand and Japan, we got interested in Eastern religions and picked up some books on it. It was all so simpler and written in a way that was easy to understand than what I was used to. I found it much better than the Christian Bible. According to these teachings, in order to become someone who has the abilities to judge and accomplish things on their own, a person must first start from ‘nothing’.” [9]

The simplicity Edwards refers to is evident also in his own writing here – as compared with the streams of compacted syllables, references and axioms found elsewhere on The Holy Bible. Referring to ideas he was absorbing from these Eastern religious writings, Edwards nevertheless maintained his sobering commentary on modern life in the West. Drawing upon the same spiritual philosophy that requires its adherents to dispense with passions such as vengeance, ‘She Is Suffering’ might also be heard as a warning, albeit futile, about those destructive human instincts that are the source of some of the album’s other songs – in particular the righteous, militant misanthropy of those which bookend ‘She Is Suffering’: ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘Archives of Pain’. [10] Edwards also evidently saw a connection between this more general idea of ‘desire’ as destructive and the difficulties of maintaining a romantic relationship in the modern world – a pessimistic view of love which he would express in a radically different way on the song ‘Revol’, and in his final lyrics and writings which appeared on Journal For Plague Lovers. As he explained in the same Music Life interview following the writing of The Holy Bible:

“I was thinking about the high rates of divorce in Western countries. People are placing more and more value in financial aspects and outward appearances. “I want to sleep with him because he’s good-looking” or “I want to fuck my girlfriend” – there’s no way a relationship can last when it’s based on that. I’ve been single for 26 years, because I know I couldn’t spend my whole life with a partner if there’s no passion.”

‘Desire’ is a recurring word in the Manics discography and ranges as both a positive and negative emotion – from the ‘patrolled desires’ of consumers on ‘Methadone Pretty’ and ‘A Vision of Dead Desire’, to the ‘European desires’ of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ and the ‘monochrome desire’ of the Yves Klein-inspired ‘International Blue’. The word would have sit easily within James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore’s musical arrangement, but it is in fact never used on ‘She Is Suffering’. Tasked with putting music to Edwards’s lyric, Bradfield struggled to relate to the intent of the song; like Wire, criticising its central motif of ‘defiled feminine purity’. Speaking with Keith Cameron for Mojo, he admitted:

“That thing of using ‘she’ and ‘beauty’ as a metaphor never really sat that well with me. I thought we were a bit out of our depth and I didn’t think it was one of Richey’s best lyrics (neither did Nicky or Richey).” [11]

The difficulty in finding a satisfactory musical form for the song, the eighth-note patterns failing to lift the rather staid rhythm; its comparatively vague statements; and the way in which that crucial underlying Buddhist influence is further obscured by the graphic selected to sit alongside the printed words – giving the references to ‘lust, vice and sin’ an equally Christian evocation – all contribute to the effect of the song: lacking any of the urgency, musical experimentation, journalistic detail or brutal subjective accounts that characterise the rest of the album.

Surprisingly, Wire has described the optimism he felt at the time of its release, that the song might land as a Manics-own ‘Every Breath You Take’. [12] Produced by Steve Brown, responsible for the band’s ambitious debut album, the song’s main arpeggiated chord progression does bear a slight resemblance to the smash-hit Police track; its theme is related too – alerting the listener to the suffering that voyeuristic desire entails. But it was not to be. Bradfield confirmed: “We convinced ourselves it could be a gothic ‘Every Breath You Take’. How deluded we were because it’s probably one of the worst tracks on the record.” [13]

One standout moment comes when Bradfield cries ‘No thoughts to forget when we were children’, conveying the same type of disillusionment and sense of loss that gives ‘Die in the Summertime’ and ‘This Is Yesterday’ their uneasy atmosphere of nostalgia. The recurring Manics theme of prelapsarian childhood corrupted by young adulthood, which David Evans has also commented on with regard to ‘She Is Suffering’, comparing it to a ‘Blakean song of innocence and experience’, is countered by the darker undertones of some of Edwards’s statements: on the lasting influence of the fire and brimstone sermons of his local church, and that stark admission in ‘Life Becoming a Landslide’: ‘My idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography’. That song, the last single to be released from the Gold Against the Soul era, also precedes ‘She Is Suffering’ in its bleak view of romance: ‘There is no true love/Just a finely tuned jealousy’.

Just as ‘Die in the Summertime’ seems to derive its title from a short story collection by Yukio Mishima, one of Edwards’s favourite authors, so too does ‘She Is Suffering suggest a trace of the Japanese writer’s influence on The Holy Bible – following on from the direct reference to his work in Mitch Ikeda’s artwork for Gold Against the Soul. As with the return of the imagery of Valerie Solanas on ‘Of Walking Abortion’, we are reminded of the short span of time between Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible, and the ways in which the seemingly dramatic change in the Manics in 1994 nevertheless carried with it many of their longstanding ideas and themes. The epigraph to Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, which Edwards listed among his favourite books, is taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It begins with the stark line: ‘…Beauty is a terrible and awful thing!’ [14]

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The slow tempo and more softly intoned verses of ‘She Is Suffering’ only intensify the contrast that it forms with another song on the album, ‘Faster’. The stark difference between the two might also contribute to the sense among critics and listeners that it doesn’t fit on The Holy Bible. Rhian E Jones has described ‘She Is Suffering’ as ‘plodding, murky drudge… which comes close to sounding like filler, or at least a non sequitur, with little connection to the rest of the album’. ‘Faster’ by comparison is a blazing edict, the declaration of a powerful ego determined to transcend the impositions of modernity, the violent present in which ‘Man kills everything’. But though there is difference, there is connection too. Or rather there is a certain tension. The values of ‘purity’ and ‘truth’ that ‘Faster’ asserts, as well as its variation on a Japanese proverb (‘If you stand up like a nail then you will be knocked down’) might be thought to align the song with the discipline that is called for in Buddhism, as a way of reaching nirvana. But ‘Faster’ is at root dominated, like the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’, by an ‘ego-personality’, for whom even an accepted emptiness – that ‘nothing’ that Edwards learned one had to start from in the Buddhist tradition – does not mean an absence of the self, but rather is clung to for a sense of self: becoming ‘my nothing’. In his teachings the Buddha also warns of the ‘passion for analysis and discussion by which people become confused in judgement’ and the ‘passion for emotional experience by which people’s values become confused’, which stem from ignorance and desire. But it is precisely analytical frenzy, self-assertion, unequivocal judgements, the furious articulation of confusion, which define The Holy Bible; which inspires, motivates, harrows and consoles listeners. The absence of any desire might be the onset of acedia, of depression. It might signal not the highest achievement of spiritual dedication, but the hollow feeling of the narrator of ‘Yes’: ‘I don’t know what I even enjoy.’

The Teaching of Buddha (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966)

Edwards seems to have been trying to expand the field of vision beyond the West and its Christian inheritance, seeking the truth elsewhere since the old truths seem to have reaped so much destruction. It is one of the more obvious, though rarely mentioned, shortcomings of The Holy Bible as an artwork intended to deal with the “truth”, about “the way the world is” – as Edwards claimed in an interview for Swedish television – that its survey of post-war twentieth-century history is narrowly focused around Europe and America, with almost nothing to say about the Middle East, Africa and Asia, for instance – save for passing mentions of ‘Amin’, ‘Hussain’ and ‘Pol Pot’, and the band’s questionable fascination at the time with Maoism. A quote attributed to Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz, one-time ambassador to India and a noted critic of the Soviet Union, also appears on the ‘She Is Suffering’ single sleeve, citing his essay on Mexican culture and history, The Labyrinth of Solitude:

“There was the other culture, a culture destroyed but still inside us alive. In this sense I knew not only with my intellect, I knew with my senses and my body that the West was not the only civilisation.”

It is possible that Edwards had never read Paz before finalising the design. He did not refer to the poet as an influence in interviews, or elsewhere in his published writing – as he did with other writers such as Albert Camus and Osamu Dazai. Moreover, the lines do not appear in The Labyrinth of Solitude at all. Edwards may simply have taken the quote from James Park’s encyclopedia Icons, published in 1992, which features the same misattributed quote word for word at the end of the entry for Paz. A brief reference to Paz’s engagement with Asian cultures may have provided a vague connection. While this is certainly in keeping with the collage aesthetic of the album and Manic Street Preachers throughout their career, it only further adds to the muddle of meaning in the case of what is ostensibly a simple song. Similarly, the addition of a spoken word sample of the scientist and technologist John G Bennett on the US mix of ‘She Is Suffering’ (one that does not appear on the original UK release) somewhat diminishes the unique force of The Holy Bible – which arguably contains the best selection of samples of any rock music album – since it had already been used in a blandly repetitive way on ‘Exposure’ by Robert Fripp, the guitarist of progressive rock band King Crimson. [15]

Promoted with an underwhelming promotional video – featuring animated artist’s models, young women lying on artfully lit beds photographed from above, a cropped solo, and the band playing, blank-faced and uncharacteristically still, in a candlelit room – ‘She Is Suffering’ does not meet the passionate force, the abrasive post-punk attack, the lyrical and musical complexity that defines most of The Holy Bible. Still, one only has to watch the band’s performance of the song on the UK television show Butt Naked to be seized again by the self-confidence and articulation that Manic Street Preachers sought to convey in writing and performing the album. Bradfield’s voice rages on the final ‘suffering’. And one can also hear how allowing the space for him to stretch his vocal range and hang on single words – with fewer syllables to sing, no breathless passages such as those in ‘Mausoleum’ or ‘P.C.P.’ – would shape the band’s sound in the years ahead.

Notes:

[1] Doran, John ‘Holy Moley’, ireallylovemusic.co.uk 2004. Accessed online at http://www.ireallylovemusic.co.uk/interviews/manic.html (6 November 2020)

[2] Evans, David The Holy Bible (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019)

[3] Jones, Rhian E ‘Unwritten Diaries: History, Politics and Experience through The Holy Bible’ in Jones, Lukes, Wodtke Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017).

[4] Lukes, Daniel ‘Fragments Against Ruin: The Books of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible’ in Triptych.

[5] Warner, Marina Monuments and Maidens (George Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, 1985)

[6] ‘Manics’ New Testament’, Melody Maker, 27 August 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Manics%27_New_Testament_-_Melody_Maker,_27th_August_1994 (23 November 2020)

[7] Edwards, Richey The Holy Bible tour programme, 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=The_Holy_Bible_Tour_Programme (15 December 2020)

[8] Both sleeves were designed by Simon Ryan.

[9] Akao, Mika, ‘Richey Edwards talks about The Holy Bible’, Music Life, September 1994. English translation by M. Jun, accessed online at https://juritr.web.fc2.com/manics/94musiclife.html (15 December 2020)

[10] The Teaching of Buddha warns: ‘Misfortune always dogs the steps of one who gives way to the desire for revenge.’

[11] Cameron, Keith ‘B-Sides: Manic Street Preachers’, Mojo Collections, Spring 2001. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=B_Side:_Manic_Street_Preachers_-_MOJO_Collections,_Spring_2001 (23 November 2020)

[12] Doran, John ‘Holy Moley’

[13] Rosen, Steven ‘Sometimes You Need Some Creative Failure to Spur You On’, Ultimate-Guitar.com, 26 March 2015. Accessed online at https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/interviews/manic_street_preachers_james_dean_bradfield_sometimes_you_need_some_creative_failure_to_spur_you_on.html (23 November 2020)

[14] Mishima, Yukio Confessions of a Mask (New Directions, 1958)

[15] The band had already re-purposed an existing sample on the original version of ‘Spectators of Suicide’. The excerpt of Bobby Seale had appeared on the McCarthy song ‘Throw Him Out He’s Breaking My Heart’.

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