It’s a pile of pretentious old wank

 949 words on

 Nothing very much

 by Patrick J. Webster

First of all I would like to apologize for not writing a top ten for last month’s Freewheelin'. If I were to be honest I would state my lack of sufficient enthusiasm for the whole idea, but then I must say I enjoyed everyone else’s list.

In fact, I am at something of a loss to know what to write this month, having just finished a long series of pieces on ‘Isis,’ I am a little like our esteemed collator JRS and his work on ‘Visions of Johanna.’ (Although I must stress in a much lesser way - I wouldn’t compare my work to his series on ‘Visions of Johanna’ which to my knowledge must stand as the most detailed examination of any Dylan song yet published, anywhere at anytime by anyone -I stand in awe at the expanse and detail of the work accomplished.)

In any case, I was much entertained by last month’s Freewheelin’, especially by Mark’s typically side-splittingly funny contribution. What struck me most, and would simply not go out of my head, was this line, a remarkably pithy response to Christopher Ricks’ Visions of Sin:

It's a pile of pretentious old wank.

What appealed to me, apart from the breadth of its incisive critical acumen, was the detail in the line. Thus, if I may be so bold, I would like to deal in detail with this memorable line of prose.

Now, without falling into the trap supplied by the line, I’d like to start by taking Freud’s (and to some extent Roland Barthes’) idea that any author is never fully aware of the full and total meaning of their words when they set down to write. That is, unconscious elements can always be seen to be resonating within the cluster of conflicting signifiers the writer creates.

We begin with the word:


Nothing wrong here, not too sure about the apostrophied contraction, it might have had more authority had we had: ' It is ...’ but a good opening, nonetheless.

The second word:


The indefinite article - not much more to say about this.

The next word:


Now this is more interesting. Why a pile? And is it potentially viable - can you have a pile of wank, whether it be pretentious, and not to say old? Could we envisage a betrayal of some sense of scatological anxiety here in this word pile? Possibly, but let us go on.

The next word


This need not detain us long, a nice compact preposition. Now the following word:


In some respects I think this verges just a little towards the unfair, insomuch as Ricks - back in the early 1980s - was one of the key figures in UK academic life to oppose the onset of postmodern and poststructuralist theory within humanities. Now postmodern theory is pretentious, as I will attempt to demonstrate next month, when I compare Dylan’s Slow Train Coming to Jean Francois Lyotard’s musings on the loss of the grand narratives within a postmodern environment. If you want to see real pretension just peruse any work of literary theory published in the last twenty years.

The next word, the sixth, really starts to get interesting:


Now we have no way of estimating just how old the old wank is - but to me it could be very old. In fact I could see it as dating from as long ago as 1973. This was the year when I first remember hearing Ricks offer a talk on Dylan, on Radio 3, I still have it on an old reel-reel tape and I think it still stands up. (Still stands up - now there's a giveaway phrase.) Anyway, this sets up the surreal image of the good Professor, a younger Christopher, masturbating into - well who knows, maybe a plastic cup - and retaining this seminal fluid - this pretentious old wank - throughout all these years - in order to produce it - in all its longevity - for our critical perusal in the present day.

The final word:


I have to admit is one I have never liked and rarely used. The OED claims it is of relatively recent linguistic lineage, 1940s ‘of unknown origin.’ It means, of course, to masturbate as a verb, and the product of that masturbation as a noun. To describe a book like Ricks’ in this way perhaps isn’t so pejorative because it is literally seminal - none of us would have been here without the content of the aforementioned fluid. Also, masturbation is probably the most common sexual act, ‘don't knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love,’ as Woody Alien once said. Why it has thus become a term of ultimate abuse is of interest - but that is another story for another time and place.

To be serious, just for a moment, I have to say that I would want to take just the slightest of opposing stances to Mark’s memorable and pithy critique of Ricks’ book. I just feel the need to aver ever so slightly. For example, if one were to read the section wherein Ricks compares ‘Not Dark Yet’ to Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (pp. 359-374) I just have the slightest suspicion that this might offer us just a little more than the aforementioned pile of pretentious old wank. If I was to be wholly honest then I would go a little further and suggest this was not the most incisive criticism of Ricks’ book - but perhaps it would be better if I don’t: - so I won't.

Keep up the good work everyone, I thought last month’s issue was one of the best in a while.