by Agustin Chope
He loved growing vegetables. This was the occasion of predictable amusement amongst his enemies in the literary and academic establishments. He told me that no activity other than walking in hills and mountains gave him such pleasure, such relief from the trials and impositions of everyday existence. His love of walking on fells, moors and peaks was also, of course, routinely met with a metropolitan sneer. He would spend the late autumn clearing and preparing the ground for next year’s crop, digging in well-rotted manure and leaf mould, planting garlic and attending to the two huge water-butts on the site, a complicated procedure involving the decanting into plastic containers of such rainwater as remained after the summer, cleaning them with a Jeyes fluid solution (he had doubts and reservations about this procedure, disliking the antiseptic stink and wondering whether the powerful cleanser was hostile to the beneficial components of rain water), repositioning them for optimum collection of rainfall during the winter and, of course, returning the saved water to the huge containers. He would then wait, doing nothing through winter, a season that he loathed, until in late February he would return to lay waste to the weed infestation that would have spread through the cold months. He grew everything – potatoes, chard, onions, leeks, garlic, artichokes, dwarf beans, runner beans, carrots, beetroot, sweetcorn, purple sprouting broccoli, brussels sprouts, lettuce, rocket, radishes, cucumbers, courgettes and occasionally exotics like peppers, aubergines (wrongly called eggplants by Americans) and pak choi – but his real joy was tomatoes and he would lavish exceptional care on these vegetables and their fruits whose flourishing outside of the greenhouse is precarious in a temperate climate. He was reluctant to kill any creature that might threaten his crop. He would remove snails and slugs to distant hedgerows and used netting to guard against whitefly and the larvae of cabbage white butterflies. He took no measures against the moles that sometimes disrupted his planting and he tolerated the nests of ants and wasps. He used no herbicides or insecticides and the only fertilisers he deployed were well-rotted horse manure, the aforementioned leaf mould and liquefied comfrey and nettles. He was not so tolerant of the weeds which abounded on a site which was surrounded by uncultivated, entangled undergrowth and what appeared to me to be overgrowth. He particularly despised bindweed which he described as sly and he loathed the creeping wood sorrel, a pretty little plant to my mind, that, as he put it, scabbed the surface of his plot. He described it as brazen. Nettles, on the other hand, he viewed as honest because they grew out in the open, without disguise, although this respect did not prevent him from hacking away at them with swoe and a barely functional scythe whose blade, frighteningly, flew off at intervals. His assaults on the weeds on his plot were sometimes systematic, but more often, as he put it, frenzied and promiscuous. He often spoke to me of his intense dislike of weeding which he saw as a tyranny imposed upon him by the plot’s positioning amidst rampant, uncontrolled wild vegetation. “Fucking bastard weeds”, he used to say to me.
These recreational activities (they were more than that; they secured his sanity) – the walking, the gardening, as well as his tenderness towards animals and his vegetarianism – were, in the last decades of his life, mocked in the journals and the so-called cultural sections of the newspapers read by literati and the liberal shills of neoconservatism. Cartoons offered their glib analogies, depicting him speaking to plants (and receiving what were intended as humorous answers), stumbling about amidst grotesque (sometimes rotten) vegetables that coiled around his ankles or body, obscured his vision or tripped him up. Carrots stuck out of his ears. Snide diary columns made pert and self-satisfied witticisms concerning the redundancy, the anachronism of his ideas. All this amused him no end, although his friends and admirers felt that it necessarily – gradually and relentlessly – demeaned his art and his thought, lowering them in the public perception. Although he did indeed have many admirers, amongst the less biddable elements in academia, amongst young people and amongst those critics who retain a serious commitment to literature and its fate, the sheer quantity of vituperation he attracted was unprecedented for someone who was neither a sadistic political tyrant nor a career paedophile. The reasons for the contumely heaped upon him are not difficult to identify, although they have rarely been carefully considered. Put simply, he was loathed because he stood, unyieldingly, against the intellectual and moral temper of our times. His work sat as an intolerable anomaly, a scandalous aporia, to borrow a term from the the post-structuralists, a contradictory presence mocking and destabilising the arid cultural settlement of the age we live in. This, rather than his allegedly unruly personal behaviour, was what earned him the unremitting antipathy of conventional thought in its many guises.
His first published novel, Foucault and Me, was initially received with some puzzlement since it made no reference beyond the title to the great French anti-philosopher. Its portrayal of the complex, homosexual relations existing within a violently inclined German anti-fascist cell in 1970s Munich drew initial and wrong-headed comparisons amongst Anglophone critics with the work of William Burroughs. Subsequent better-informed readings established it for what it was, an admiring but critical engagement with the sexually aestheticised politics of Jean Genet. As is well known, the novel, more or less forgotten for a decade, achieved growing acclaim through the nineties as a so-called classic of queer literature. As is also well-known, it was attacked with some venom during the first decade of the new century after its author revealed in a TLS interview that he was not gay and had never engaged in any sort of homosexual activity. His somewhat incautious remark that he had never felt the slightest susurration of desire at the sight or thought of the male body in any of its parts was interpreted by many as an expression of disgust. Almost overnight, as they say – more accurately over the course of a couple of months – Foucault and Me became an attack on gay culture, a hostile expression of heteronormativity and an attempted, illicit, appropriation of a subjugated discourse. The author commented to me that what most struck him, amidst the more informed and thoughtful critiques of the novel, were the denunciations that appeared in the comment and opinion pages of the soi-disant quality newspapers, all of which appeared to take as fact the writer’s revulsion at gay sexuality and all of which commented on his insensitivity to those, especially young, people who suffered for their non-hetero identity. A second novel, The Friends, purporting to be the record of the annually convened excursions of a group of friends over a twenty year period, was met with almost universal bafflement. The book recounts the relentless banter, the stupidities and the mishaps of a group of professional men as they meet to walk or cycle through the hills of the Pennines, Wales and the Lake District (there are two excursions further south, to the Ridgeway and Shropshire, both of which are deemed unsatisfactory). It is difficult – but not impossible – to mount a defence of a novel which reveals the anachronistically adolescent sensibilities of characters who revel in the the prurience, the infantile humour and petty cruelties of a certain kind of male friendship. The novel is narrated by the oldest of the group, a character who is presented as a grotesquely controlling individual who continually passes absurdly denunciatory judgement on the idiocies and moral deficiencies of his companions whilst highlighting his own stainless character. One reviewer described the book – favourably – as Three Men in a Boat meets Viz and the philosopher Zizek commented in passing on its foregrounding of the obscene Freudian father who sits at the heart of every novel. For the most part, however, The Friends was roundly deplored by some for what they saw as its unrelenting disregard for political correctness, in particular its slights against the Welsh and against cyclists and its emphasis on the imagined homosexual proclivities of public school graduates (one of its characters is privately educated and is, in the novel, identified as taking a path on his mountain bike “up Dean’s Bottom”). For his part the author described the novel as a celebration of male friendship and an attack on male idiocy. It cannot be denied that the novel is marked by what one critic called an insistent vulgarity.
In the eighties his academic career within a department of English literature proceeded quietly, and in these years, as is the way within academia, he gradually acquired a measure of recognition and respect from his peers. However, an alert reading of his early work reveals a tendency to step outside the boundaries of his discipline, an impatience with (more accurately, a scorn for) the limitations on thought imposed by Anglo-American traditions of enquiry and an irritation with what he sees as a culturally dominant cognitivism – early indications of the directions that would later lead him into controversy and a more public scrutiny. It was with his move in 1995 to the philosophy department of Lampeter University as a research fellow in the history of ideas that he, as it were, got into fuller polemical stride. The publication of his article “The masturbatory turn: a brief history of research in the late 20th century university” went more or less unregarded for a few years – unsurprisingly, given its placement in what would have been to the Anglo-American academy an obscure Singaporean journal of radical philosophy – until it caught the attention of a senior fellow at a school of humanities in a leading British university (I do not give his name as I have no wish to deepen the humiliation subsequently visited upon this individual) who co-authored with the college’s Principal what was intended to be a magisterial denunciation of Botting’s argument. The ensuing debate took in naïve humanist defences of research in the humanities, Marxian assaults on liberal intellectual culture, Marxian distaste for the article’s grounding in post-structuralist thinking, similarly irked but more blimpish aversion to “Continental”theory from humanities scholars, a widespread regret that anyone should mount such an attack in this difficult period for the humanities and, inevitably, even-handed assessments from academics who saw themselves as able to observe the disputation from an exquisitely balanced position somewhere above the fray. Botting confided in me a few years ago that what most amused him about the affair was the subtly modulated distaste for the sexual metaphor employed in his argument and the fact that no one had commented on the metaphor’s inadequacy. He was saying they were all wankers, happily engaged in the solitary self-pleasuring that the cloistered culture of scholarly publication made possible but he was also saying that the humanities academy was politically inert and determinedly avoidant of addressing the power relations in which it was cradled. Power was having it off with knowledge and scholarly enquiry was pretending it was still in a relationship with its old inamorata, so perhaps, he said, that bit should have been called The Cuckold Turn. The debate eventually attracted some mainly confused attention outside the university. The Daily Mail ran a headline on an inside page, University research useless, says far left academic.
During the 2000s two events led to Botting’s appointment to public notoriety. The first was the long-listing for the Man Booker prize of his novel, Ordinary, and the second was the publishing of his co-authored (with Dietmar Noble) book, A Critique of the Educated Person; the failure of liberal humanist culture. On the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, which devoted a broadcast to discussions of the Booker long list, Lionel Shriver commented that Ordinary shouldn’t have made the list as it wasn’t a novel at all but a loose assemblage of polemics, reminiscences (which she presumed to be autobiographical) and sententious philosophising, “a mess which gets nowhere”. A week later The Guardian published an article in its jaunty tabloid pull-out G2, which alerted its readers to a literary squabble concerning a Booker novel, describing its author as, in the view of some, an insignificant academic with a taste for scandalising the liberal intelligentsia and, in the view of others, one of the last representatives of 1960s recalcitrance. The piece was largely constructed around interviews with the critic John Sutherland and the novelist Adam Thirlwell, the former not quibbling with its place on the long list since its presence might serve to focus the minds of judges on what a novel might be – “i.e., not like this”. It was, he said, a crashingly banal reiteration of dubious experiments performed by the likes of Calvino and “the Hungarian doom-meister” László Krasznahorkai. The novel read like “B.S. Johnson rewritten by Susan Sontag”. (It is interesting that representatives of literary culture, loosening their academic stays in their descent into the public presses, are so ready to invent these fantastical – and lumbering – couplings). Thirlwell defended the novel’s resistance to the “ritualised tyranny” of presenting the reader with “reassuring” conversations and descriptions. He also admired the author’s refusal to “in the familiar cant, get inside the head” of any of the book’s characters other than the narrator. He noted, however, that despite the numerous sexual encounters referred to in the novel, there was a reluctance to describe the details of these episodes. He wondered whether this was an aesthetic or stylistic choice or “a remnant puritanism”. A few wearyingly predictable articles appeared in what were still then – just about – the broadsheets considering whether the novel was dead, what a novel was and so on. One thread, concerning the book’s title, developed when a reviewer in the Observer commented that it was oddly conceived since the main character was presented as a skilled boxer in his youth, a gifted teacher, a serially successful womaniser and, briefly and it seemed by accident, some sort of pimp – “hardly an ordinary curriculum vitae”. Was the author suggesting that all lives are ordinary or, perhaps, that the novel, as a literary form, was, whatever exoticisms it dressed itself in, inescapably bound to the ordinary? The affair would no doubt have petered out had Botting not agreed to be interviewed by Mr Alan Yentob in an arts special on BBC4. The interview was remarkable for two things, firstly that Botting was filmed throughout either from behind or in a subfusc that made it impossible to discern his features or anything much else except that he had large hands and secondly, for the extraordinary recklessness of the interviewee’s opinions. He said that the conventional novel was “clankingly boring”, as was most of the “allegedly experimental” fiction written today, all of which seemed to be experimental only in the sense that it was experimenting to see if previous tiresome experiments could be reshaped into something more palatable – “No, they couldn’t”. He lamented the “relentless tricksiness” of many novels, aimed at pepping up the tedious necessities of satisfying readers’ narrative addiction and said, amongst other things, that he hadn’t read anything interesting in American fiction since Hemingway’s short stories, that he had never been able to finish a book by “those lumbering self-obsessives” Bellow, Updike and Roth and that literary culture, from book clubs to Quote … Unquote to the high tone journals, was “puke-inducing”, its adherents “practising the rituals of a dying faith”, still assuming (“Christ knows why”) the transcendent value, the cultural necessity of their enthusiasm. Yentob, clearly shaken at times, attempted to retrieve something positive from the wreckage by saying that surely the fact that he wrote fiction indicated some sort of valuing of literature. Botting replied that he only wrote to see if he could find some point in the whole business – “so far not much luck”, adding “same goes for my academic writing”. The furore that ensued will be best remembered no doubt for the comments of the Minister for Sport and Culture in a Daily Telegraph article in which she defended the importance of the arts, not least in their contribution to the economy, and made blithely illiterate comments about Yentob and Botting for which she subsequently apologised, prior to being moved to a junior post in the department of Business and Enterprise. Unsurprisingly, Ordinary did not make the Booker short list, although its sales outperformed those of all the short-listed books, except those of the eventual prize-winning novel.
It is often overlooked that before the publishing of A Critique of the Educated Person Botting had ensured his place amongst the most important thinkers of recent times with his masterly For Critique in which he re-wrote the history of that urge to judgement that has run like an electric current, brilliant and dangerous, through Western thought. Essentially an anatomisation of the metaphor of enlightenment, from Plato to Spinoza and, intriguingly, Heidegger, the book charts the excesses, the myopia and vanities of critical thought before asserting its inevitability and functional necessity to the “irredeemably quixotic” enterprise of bringing about a social order based in freedom. Habitually seen as as an argument with the ideas of Michel Foucault, a thinker he admired greatly, he once confided to me that it was more of an engagement with the bracingly sceptical theses of a somewhat less well-known Australian academic whom he referred to, in a characteristically perverse aside, as Quilty to his Humbert Humbert. I will not dwell on the brouhaha that followed publication of A Critique of the Educated Person, a book whose central argument is that the cultivated individual, the ethically constructed intellectual, simulated a moral seriousness, a persona that was expressly designed to avoid enmirement in social and political actualities. The book is in part an assault on the complacency of the university scholar who imagines that the enterprise of knowledge production is an unquestionable good and that his/her involvement in it is thereby an activity of goodness. Referencing Hannah Arendt, Noble and Botting suggest that the great bulk of academic work is produced in willing submission to the requirement that it not arouse “the customary academic suspicion of anything that is not guaranteed to be mediocre”.
Botting enjoyed (his word) a period of relative obscurity during the 2010s until the publication in the Times Literary Supplement of an interview, conducted by the journalist and novelist Jean Collins, an ex-student of Botting’s and an enthusiast for his work, who felt, as she explained in the interview, that re-acquaintance with the Botting oeuvre offered “in a period of political and intellectual stagnation” something radically other than the current positions available to left-leaning intellectuals. The observations which were to cause such commotion within polite intellectual circles, and eventually beyond, came towards the end of the article when Collins, with what was in my view clear mischievous intent, asked Botting whether the current prominence given to identity politics represented a cultural advance, “ a sign of moral progress, a movement towards a more human and compassionate society”, to which Botting replied that no, he didn’t. He had no wish to quibble with many of the understandable aims of the movements assembled under the identity banner but wondered whether “the current obsession in the liberal media” with LGBTQ rights was in large part a matter of what he understood was called virtue signalling and that Germaine Greer and other feminists had a point about male to female gender transitioning. The “unquestioning and unseemly endorsement” of chemical and surgical procedures required for transitioning exemplified the disastrously ahistorical character of contemporary thought. The interview then entered into a somewhat chaotic downward spiral containing the statements that initiated the subsequent media storm. Liberal humanism was a “clearly imperialist” project, voting Conservative was a sign of moral destitution, treating schizophrenia and autism as purely biologically determined conditions was idiotic, “indicative of the contemporary brutalisation of thought”, science was “ponderously hubristic”and lacked social imagination, contemporary “attempts at” literature and philosophy were “crippled, if I can use that word”, by a timid obedience to conventional prejudices. There were other injudicious comments. Derision migrated to the tabloid newspapers with the Sun carrying a spread over two inside pages headed “Loony Left Prof Says Tory voters are Immoral”, the article beneath containing details of Botting’s somewhat unconventional history of relationships and reproduction .
Most of the stories surrounding Botting were apocryphal. For example, his alleged fisticuffs with a Pulitzer Prize winner behind a beer tent at the Hay festival was a piece of pure invention, a fabrication which particularly annoyed him, on the grounds that, as he put it, “I wouldn’t be seen dead at the Hay thing”. He did, however, have an encounter in a London pub with the same individual who accused him of “shitting on literature” and briefly threatened violence until, as Botting put it, “I persuaded him that that would, on more than one level, be an unwise course of action on his part”.
My forthcoming (unauthorised) biography of Eric Botting will, I believe, offer the detail and context so lacking in much of the lurid reporting and imbecilic and often spiteful commentary that followed him throughout his career. It will not, I must add, be a hagiography – my friend had his flaws and I will touch upon such matters as his tendency to inflate or, indeed, invent details of his life, a certain vanity about his personal appearance and his odd (I would say, amusing) prejudices concerning such matters as short socks, moustaches and transhumanism. I will also deal with the much misreported details of his extraordinary death. I conclude this necessarily inadequate account of my friend’s life in literature and scholarship on a personal note by reaffirming that Eric Lyle Botting was, to his friends, to his students and to the more honest of his colleagues, an amiable, kind and thoughtful individual whose awkwardness – personal and professional – was the sign of an admirable inability or refusal to adjust to the suffocating doxa of the age.
Roy Goddard was born and brought up in London and now lives in South Yorkshire.