Passion, Patience, Perseverance: A Conservation With Michel Qissi

We are extremely pleased to bring this interview with film star, Michel Qissi, a Belgian-Moroccan actor, director, screenwriter, stuntman, and martial choreographer. He is notably known for having played alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Lionheart; and he choreographed the fights in Kickboxer, in which he played the cult villain, Tong Po. Mr. Qissi is in conversation with Grégoire Canlorbe, the French philosopher.


Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Your first name, Mohamed, was changed into Michel, then back to Mohamed again. What is the story behind this?

Michel Qissi (MQ): When I was little, I helped Jean-Claude in his mother’s flower shop in Brussels, on Avenue Buyl. His mother, whom I called, “Grandma,” and his father, whom I called “Grandpa,” both called me Michel. Then, Jean-Claude, whom I got to know when we were young, also called me by that name. And when we both went to America in 1982, he continued to call me Michel. Today, it’s been twenty years that I have returned to Morocco and taken again the first name of my origins, the one my parents gave me and by which everyone here continues to call me.

Mohamed Qissi.

GC: You were a choreographer on Kickboxer. Please tell us about that experience. What distinguishes dance choreography from fight choreography?

MQ: I indeed took care of the choreography and of the casting of the fighters in Kickboxer, which was an extraordinary experience. The fact that Jean-Claude and I had both trained for years and years, since we were little, was a huge help to us in our fight scene at the end of the film. There is dance in this fight, a visual beauty of the moves, which is why it looks so good on screen.

Dance and fight choreographies are nonetheless completely different things. I wouldn’t be able to choreograph a dance scene; but a fight choreography where the movements are of impeccable fluidity and elegance, where a kind of dance is played, a warrior-style dance, is something that is possible for me.

The risk of injury is much greater in combat choreography than it is in dance choreography. The actors recruited for fight scenes don’t just have to know how to act; they have to know how to fight, which is not something you learn in six months. They must be experienced fighters, who know how to control themselves, control their strength, and resist fatigue.

GC: Is Tong Po an entirely bad character? Or does he keep a part of the light inside himself, like Darth Vader?

MQ: The utter nastiness of Tong Po is plainly evident in the film. It impressed the spectators. As for Tong Po’s past and why he has become such an evil being, devoid of any light, the film remains a mystery. While it is true that some are born with a mental disorder, we are never born wicked. We are all angels when we come into the world. An unhappy childhood, marked by mistreatment and sexual abuse, is one of the things that can explain why some take a fatal path while growing up. At the moment, I am being offered the launching of an opus that would explore Tong Po’s youth, the education he received, the life’s challenges that he encountered and which rendered him the brutal and cruel being that the Sloan brothers have to face in Kickboxer.

GC: What do you think of Dave Bautista as Tong Po in Kickboxer: Vengeance, which is the remake of the original Kickboxer movie?

MQ: It is an honor for me that Dave Bautista, someone who enormously matters in the cinema world, whom we have seen playing in important films, like Blade Runner 2049, that he took over the character of Tong Po whom I was the first to bring to life. An honor and a pleasure.

GC: Would you say that the “American dream” that you lived is still possible for a young person in Morocco today?

MQ: Everything is possible in life, whether you are a Moroccan, or someone from another country. Everything is possible, provided that you are passionate, patient, and persevering; and that you work hard, get up early every morning, and enter those places where your passion brings you. If you are passionate about cinema, go where the cinema is. Whatever is the environment in which your passion finds itself, you will meet good and bad people there. Go to the right people; those who will help you. With advances in communication, contacting the right person is easier today than it was in the 1980s.

GC: Thank you for your time. In the end, what message do you want to convey?

MQ: My message to everyone, especially young people, is the following. On the one hand, respect your body, stay away from all bad drugs. The good drug is sport; the bad one is stuff like cigarettes, alcohol, or cocaine. On the other hand, respect your parents, whoever they are; listen to and respect their advice—especially when it comes from wise people.


The Importance Of Being Poirot

This month, through the very kind courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, it is a sheer thrill to present this excerpt from Jeremy Black’s latest book, The Importance of Being Poirot. Make sure to pick up a copy of this fascinating journey through England during the two world wars, and all by way of Monsieur Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s masterful creation.

Black proves himself to be a worthy history-teller because he can aptly “detect” the meaning of stories that seeks to answer the past and guide the present. His erudition runs much deeper than his ability to navigate the stores of resources available on the subject, and the reader gets a glimpse of this early on when in the introduction he proffers his own defense for writing about the importance of a Hercule Poirot.

It all makes for truly fascinating and absorbing reading. Pick up your copy right away! You will not be disappointed.

Here’s a foretaste of what lies in store…


{…} The detective novel, as classically conceived, dates from the nineteenth century, but novels in which detection plays a role have a longer genesis, as even more do stories about crime and detection. Indeed, Simon Brett’s humorous spoof ‘The Literary Antecedents of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’ begins with the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf (S. Brett, Crime Writers and Other ). This was set in the sixth century, although dates from between then and the tenth.

Moreover, the notion of crime had a moral component from the outset, and notably so in terms of the struggle between Good and Evil, and in the detection of the latter. Indeed, it is this detection that is the basis of the most powerful strand of detection story, because Evil disguises its purposes. It has to do so in a world and humanity made fundamentally benign and moral by God. Thus, as with the Serpent in Eden, a classic instance of malign disguise, Evil seeks to exploit weakness and, to do so, has to lie, or to challenge Good by violence.

These sinister purposes and malign acts are disclosed, at the time or subsequently, and, accordingly, in all religions and religious cultures, tales developed, as did the conventions that affected their contents, framing, and reception. So also did processes to find the truth, some, such as physical trials, extraordinarily rigorous, others, such as the understanding of oracular testament, a challenge of frequently obscure clues that offers much for those interested in Golden Age detective novels in particular. Priesthoods had special functions in discerning, confronting and overcoming Evil, and guidance accordingly, as in confessional handbooks. Campaigns against the menace and deceit of witchcraft saw such anxieties rise to murderous peaks, as in seventeenth-century Europe. This echo of the priesthood as the detector of Evil was seen in G.K. Chesterton’s homely, but clearly moral, clerical detective, Father Brown, who first appeared in print in 1910.

Drawing on the same mental world, a different form of story of detection related to the journey to Salvation, as in John Bunyan’s epic The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), as individuals had to detect snares en route. In part as a result, there was a clear overlap between writing about this world and the next, the struggle with Evil being foremost. John Buchan used the Bunyan epic in his Mr Standfast (1919), a World War I story in which a German agent in Britain is a major threat and needs uncovering and vanquishing.

The development of the novel in England in the eighteenth century saw the notion of secrecy pushed to the fore, with an opening up of such secrets being a key theme in the plot of many novels, secrets related to behaviour, as in the exposure of hypocrisy, or to origins. This could be in a comic context and to comic effect, as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), with the unveiling of his parentage; but there were also novels that were darker and more troubling. This style came to the fore with the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, notably those by (Mrs) Ann Radcliffe, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), and also Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). These novels had elements of both the thriller and the detective novel. The fears to which they could give rise could be a source of fun, as was clearly with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), but the popularity of Gothic fiction is instructive.

{…}

The moral framework of any society is one we need to consider when assessing literature as a whole, and fiction in particular, because in fiction it is possible to alter the story to drive home a moral lesson, a method that is not so simple when dealing with fact. Thus, we need to consider the changes in religious belief and sensibility in this period. Despite Murder in the Vicarage (1930), At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), and several other appearances, clerics do not play a major role in Christie’s novels.
Nevertheless, in Three Act Tragedy (1934), there is a positive account of Christianity from the dynamic young Egg Lytton Gore referring to a recently dead clergyman.

‘…He prepared me for confirmation and all that, and though of course a lot of that business is all bunkum, he really was rather sweet about it…. I really believe in Christianity – not like Mother does, with little books and early service, and things – but intelligently and as a matter of history. The Church is all clotted up with the Pauline tradition – in fact the Church is a mess – but Christianity itself is all right … the Babbingtons really were Christians; they didn’t poke and pry and condemn, and they were never unkind about people or things’.

Canon Prescott, in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), is positive. In a gentler age, it was possible to say that Prescott is extremely fond of children, especially small girls, without that being seen as sinister.

Moreover, even though clerics are not thick on the ground, that does not mean that religion is absent, either in terms of the lay religiosity of the characters or with reference to the role of the author. Far from it. A similar discrimination to that of Egg Lytton Gore, in favour of a true Christianity as the basis for judgment, is offered in Christie’s Appointment With Death (1938), when Sarah King observes in the symbolic setting of Jerusalem:

‘I feel that if I could sweep all this away – all the buildings and the sects and the fierce squabbling churches – that I might see Christ’s quiet figure riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – and believe in him’.

This leads Dr Gerard to reply gravely: ‘“I believe at least in one of the chief tenets of the Christian faith – commitment with a lowly place”’. He goes on to claim that ambition is responsible for most ills of the human soul, whether realised or not. Asylums are filled, he argues, with those who cannot cope with their insignificance.

In a way, Christie presents murder in the same way, and the implication throughout is that it defies the true message of Christianity, not least the acceptance of suffering and the significance of the soul. Some ghost stories, for example those of M.R. [Montague Rhodes] James (1862–1936), explored similar themes. At the close of In Search of England (1927), H.V. Morton meets a vicar who tells him:

‘We are, in this little hamlet, untouched by ideas, in spite of the wireless and the charabanc. We use words long since abandoned. My parishioners believe firmly in a physical resurrection. … We are far from the pain of cities, the complexities … We are rooted in something firmer than fashion’.

In Three Act Tragedy (1934), the disabled Mrs Milray refers to ‘“The Lord’s will”’. At the denouement, there is also a social dimension, one that Christie brings up when Sir Charles Cartwright responds to Poirot: ‘He radiated nobility and disgust. He was the aristocrat looking down at the ignoble canaille.… Hercule Poirot, the little bourgeois, looked up at the aristocrat. He spoke quietly but firmly’. Speaking truth to power, or rather to social eminence and fame, Poirot is observed as taking a moral line, both in stopping murder and also in thwarting a would-be bigamist. The dubious morals of much of the ‘smart set’ have recently been highlighted in the 2021 first volume of a projected complete edition of the diaries of ‘Chips’ Channon. Poirot is more generally against crime, in The ABC Murders comparing murder to gambling. In ‘The Chocolate Box’ (1924), Poirot’s sole professional failure, he refers to himself as being ‘“bon catholique”’.

Religion is present again in Triangle at Rhodes (1937). Poirot goes to the Mount of the Prophet where he meditates on God permitting ‘himself to fashion certain human beings’ and advises Marjorie Gold to ‘leave the island before it is too late’, a moment recalled in the closing lines when he refers to being ‘on the Mount of the Prophet. It was the only chance of averting the crime… she chose – to remain…’ Thus, Poirot as prophet, and Gold as the sinner with free-will, who has rejected, through pride, the possibility of safety, are clearly revealed, with the message underlined in case the reader has missed it. Furthermore, as another aspect of morality, Poirot is convinced that, if the wicked escape, as in the case of ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ (1923), it is at a price. In that story, and the capitalisation is in the original, the murderers gain the huge fortune of the victim, Harrington Pace, but Nemesis overtakes them. They crash in an aircraft and Justice is satisfied. In the penultimate scene in Death on the Nile (1937), Mrs Allerton and Poirot join in thanking God that there is happiness in the world. Earlier in that novel, Poirot has referred to a parable in the Bible when chiding Linnet Ridgeway.

Reference to God is part of everyday conversation; as in Murder Is Easy (1939) when Mrs Pierce reflects on the death of her young Emma Jane: ‘“a sweet little mite she was. ‘You’ll never rear her’. That’s what they said. ‘She’s too good to live’. And it was true, sir. The Lord knows His Own”’. However, in the same novel there is bitter criticism of the pompous press magnate, Lord Whitfield, who has a great faith and trust in Providence, with enemies of the righteous (the latter a group with whom he identifies) struck down by swift divine wrath. Luke Fitzwilliam finds excessive Whitfield’s retribution on the drunken chauffeur, and Whitfield’s comparison of himself with the Prophet Elisha is obviously inappropriate. Christie is clearly with Fitzwilliam, although, in a typical case of misdirection, the proud and pompous Whitfield is not in fact the villain.

The references to religion continue. N or M? (1941) takes its title from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, while in Evil Under the Sun (1941), Stephen Lane, a cleric, complains that ‘“no one believes in evil”’, whereas he firmly sees it as a powerful reality that ‘“walks the earth”’. Poirot agrees with this longstanding view. In Destination Unknown (1954), the villainous impresario of evil evades justice on earth, but Jessop comments ‘“I should say he’ll be coming up before the Supreme Justice before very long”’. The link between crime and evil is thus reiterated. Very differently, the continuity of ordinary Christian society is presented as significant in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), in which Inspector Weston of the St Honoré CID notes that there are few marriages on the island, but that the children are christened.

A practising Anglican, Christie was far from alone as a detective novelist with a strong religious sensibility. Others of this type included Freeman Wills Croft, as in Antidote to Venom (1938). The detective fiction of the period presupposed a providentially governed universe that could provide meaning. This was a key aspect of the religious necessities of such fiction and of the contemporary reporting on crime. At the same time, standards were more general. Thus, the world of Sherlock Holmes required a very striking stability so that clothes, routines, and other factors had a fixed and knowable meaning. These ideas of order, epitomised in character and behaviour, were an aspect not only of particular detective novelists, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, but also of the genre as a whole and, indeed, of social norms and practices.

Christie did not restrict her morality to crime. ‘Magnolia Blossom’, a magazine story of 1925, was not a crime piece but a three-way drama of a marriage under strain and of how people react. The role of the author in terms of judgment is not of course synonymous with the life of the author. It is well-established that some of the great detective writers had somewhat rackety personal lives (Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder). Yet, that rarely stops moral grandstanding or indeed simple conformity. And so with detective fiction, much of which relates to morality, directly or by reflection, and with both the author and the reader offering moral frameworks. Indeed, in one respect, fiction is an attempt to offer guidance in a post-Providential world. In an urgently-religious age, Providence brings an instant fate to the wicked, but, by the 1920s, the religious environment was somewhat different. Judgment in life came to be seen more as a matter of human agency and agencies, and the detective was to the fore. Yet, there could be a religious aspect to the moral dimension, a perspective vividly demonstrated in J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls (1945), a haunting drama of discovery.

Christian morality is applied by Christie in part in terms of the newlyfashionable psychological insights and in terms of the belief in heredity Poirot mentions in ‘The King of Clubs’ (1923), and in which he follows other detectives including Holmes. These insights provide both a subject for discussion and explanation and a particular modus operandi for Christie and her detectives. This is true not only of the ‘foreign’ Poirot, but also, albeit using a different language, the very English Jane Marple, who is first introduced in ‘The Tuesday Night Club’, a thoughtful short story of December 1927. In The ABC Murders, Poirot insists that it is crucial to treat the murderer as ‘“a psychological study”’ and ‘“to get to know the murderer”’. Subsequently he adds, ‘“A madman is as logical and reasoned in his actions as a sane man – given his peculiar biased point of view”’. Cards on the Table (1936) also sees an emphasis on the psychology of the suspects, which is a theme underlined in Christie’s Foreword. A total misunderstanding, one that is all-too-typical of responses by critics, was offered by Camilla Long in a television review in the Sunday Times on 16 February 2020 in which she claimed: ‘Christie didn’t do personalities; she felt any hint of psychology could distract from the plot lines’.

So also for others. In Three Act Tragedy, Lady Mary Gore, who, in a Christie-like autobiographical touch, had fallen for ‘a certain type of man’, foolishly thinking ‘new love will reform him’, explains to Satterthwaite that:

‘Some books that I’ve read these last few years have brought a lot of comfort to me. Books on psychology. It seems to show that in many ways people can’t help themselves. A kind of kink…. It wasn’t what I was brought up to believe. I was taught that everyone knew the difference between right and wrong. But somehow – I don’t always think that is so’.

Satterthwaite adds that: ‘“Without acute mania it may nevertheless occur that certain natures lack what I should describe as braking power… in some people the idea, or obsession, holds”’. In ‘The Red Signal’ (1933), Sir Alington West, ‘the supreme authority on mental disease’, explains: ‘“suppression of one’s particular delusion has a disastrous effect very often. All suppressions are dangerous, as psychoanalysis has taught us”’.

The methodical and intelligent Superintendent Battle, who first appeared in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), acknowledges a debt to Poirot’s psychological methods in Towards Zero (1944). The language varies, but the theme is constant. In Death in the Clouds (1937), the young Jane Grey challenges the ‘“very old-fashioned idea of detectives”’ as involving disguise (as Holmes had done), as nowadays they simply think out a case psychologically.

Christie was far from alone in her interest in psychology. Thus, in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929), Gladys Mitchell, who was up on Freud, introduced as her detective Mrs Beatrice Bradley, the author of A Small Handbook of Psycho-Analysis. Yet, Christie had a much more Christian feel for psychology. At the brilliant end of Crooked House (1949), where there is one of the more outstanding reveals, there is a psychoanalytic explanation in terms of ‘retarded moral sense’ and heredity, including of ‘ruthless egoism’. More bluntly, this becomes “There is often one of the litter who is ‘not quite right”’, and Christian judgment and justification are offered: ‘“I do not want the child to suffer as I believe she would suffer if called to earthly account for what she has done…. If I am wrong, God forgive me… God bless you both”’. In Hallowe’en Party (1969), Mrs Goodbody, the very pleasant local witch, or, at least, fortune-teller, is clear on the real presence of evil:

‘wherever you go, the devil’s always got some of his own. Born and bred to it … those that the devil has touched with his hand.
They’re born that way. The sons of Lucifer. They’re born so that killing don’t mean nothing to them … When they want a thing, they want it… Beautiful as angels, they can look like’.

Mrs Goodbody contrasts this with black magic: ‘“That’s nonsense, that is. That’s for people who like to dress up and do a lot of tomfoolery. Sex and all that”’. At the same time, Honoria Waynflete, in Murder is Easy, is compared to a goat which is presented as an apt symbol of evil, as also in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham (1931). In Honoria’s case, her behaviour is discussed as an instance of the touch of insanity allegedly present in old families, and she is definitely seen as unhinged. Being a ‘“wrong ’un”’ is the problem for Roger Bassington-Ffrench in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934).

Although there was no equivalent to Doyle’s strong interest in Spiritualism, the occult plays a role with Christie, one that is understated in television treatments. ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ (1971) very much offers the idea of the mixing of this world with a spirit world, as the dead Lily joins Harley Quin from the other world to help Mr Satterthwaite protect the living in a combination that Christie described in her autobiography as her favourite characters. So also with the protection of many ghost stories both of this period and of earlier ones, such as those of Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–73). An altogether more menacing moral framework is on offer in Christie’s The Hound of Death (1933). The occult is to the fore in this mysterious and disturbing tale of an alternative ‘Brotherhood’, but a moral retribution is delivered on the vulpine Dr Rose. The hound is very different from that of the Holmes story about the Baskervilles, while in the title-story of the collection there is a religious dimension not present in the latter.

Not black magic, but a good equivalent, can be deployed, as with the kindly nurse in Towards Zero (1940) who comes from the West Coast of Scotland where some of her family had ‘the sight’ or ‘Second Sight’. Possibly because the nurse, like Christie, can see what will occur in the novel, she tells the suicidal Angus MacWhirter that God may need him, and is proven correct.

In many respects, Christie adapts psychological views to match Christian morality. That itself may appear to be one answer, but it is not so, for on matters such as free will Christianity offers a range of explanations. As a consequence, Christie’s work can in part be seen as an aspect of debate within inter-war Christianity, including English Christianity. In A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), the Calvinistic, very elderly Miss Ramsbottom, who is committed to missionary work as the ‘“Christian spirit”’, refers to Marple as ‘“frivolous, like all Church of England people”’. Christie was Church of England. Alongside Poirot’s concern for psychoanalysis, there is Marple’s blunter focus on, and denunciation of, wickedness, one that is more to the fore than with most of the clerical detective novelists of the period such as Ronald Knox and Victor Whitechurch: they generally left their cassocks at home. In A Pocket Full of Rye, Marple remarks ‘“This is a wicked murderer, Inspector Neele, and the wicked should not go unpunished”’, and Neele replies ‘“That is an unfashionable belief nowadays. Not that I don’t agree with you”’. Christie is speaking through both of them.

Aside from wickedness, the frequency with which murderers are castigated for ‘conceit and self-confidence’, as in The ABC Murders, is instructive. In that novel, Poirot seeks to psychoanalyse and profile the murderer after his first murder:

‘In one sense we know nothing about him – in another sense we know already a good deal…. A great need to express his personality. I see him as a child possibly ignored and passed over – I see him growing up with an inward sense of inferiority – warring with a sense of injustice – I see that inner urge – to assert himself
– to focus attention on himself ever becoming stronger …’

This approach is very deliberately contrasted with what is presented as a Holmesian one; although Sherlock also relied heavily on pre-Freudian psychology. This is to a degree that not all television and film versions of Poirot stories have fully represented. The point is very much driven home in ‘The Plymouth Express’ (1923), with the emphasis for Poirot on psychology, and not ‘scene of the crime’ footmarks and cigarette-ash. Inspector Japp, in contrast, focuses in this story on finding clues along the route. Based on Lestrade, Japp was introduced in the Mysterious Affair at Styles and appeared in seven Christie novels, always alongside Poirot, finally appearing in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940); although being mentioned thereafter. In The ABC Murders, Poirot jests with Hastings:

‘The crime was committed by a man of medium height with red hair and a cast in the left eye. He limps slightly on the right foot and has a mole just below the shoulder-blade’.
… ‘For the moment I was completely taken in’.

‘You fix upon me a look of dog-like devotion and demand of me a pronouncement à la Sherlock Holmes … it is always the clue that attracts you. Alas that he did not smoke the cigarette and leave the ash, and then step in it with a shoe that has nails of a curious pattern’.

In ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Poirot, to the anger of all, refuses to leave Boulogne to search for clues to the kidnapping such as tyre marks, cigarette-ends, and fallen matches because he must focus on a logical solution, which he does successfully. Similarly, in Death on the Nile, the murderer, as Poirot notes, is not so obliging as to drop a cuff link, a cigarette end, cigar ash, a handkerchief, lipstick, or a hair slide. Instead, in a comparison that would have come naturally to Christie, Poirot compares himself to an archaeologist clearing away the extraneous matter. This involves, as he notes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), using a hunting image, starting, as it were, several birds in a covert, as if seeking to create a form of creative disruption that will lead to the revelation of the truth. The misdirections provided through, and by, possible culprits are a form of this creative disruption as well as a response to it.

In practice, Christie offers a degree of caricature, as the Holmes stories include psychological insights, but she is correct to draw attention to a contrast. And not always simply with the detective. In ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (1923), Dr Giles tells Japp that he cannot give the time of death to an hour as ‘“those wonderful doctors in detective stories do”’.

And so also with other novelists. In J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Seven Dead (1939), Inspector Kendall, a figure of brusque intelligence and determined drive, remarks, ‘“When you don’t play the violin, or haven’t got a wooden leg, smartness is all you’ve got to fall back on”’, and says of Inspector Black: ‘“a good man. He doesn’t play the violin, either, or quote Shakespeare”’.

In a conversation in The Clocks (1963), not one of Christie’s better novels, Poirot gives Colin Lamb a long account of what he likes in ‘“criminal fiction”’. Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878) is praised for ‘“period atmosphere … studied and deliberate melodrama”’ and ‘“an excellent psychological study”’ of the murderer. Poirot then moves on to Maurice Leblanc’s The Adventures of Arsene Lupin (1905–7), which he finds preposterous and unreal, but also as having vigour and humour, which is indeed the case. Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907–8) is approved of from start to finish, not least for its logical approach. Charges that the novel is unfair are dismissed as there is truth concealed by a cunning use of words, which is very much Christie’s technique. Poirot notes that that masterpiece is now almost forgotten. The selection Christie offers in the account is scarcely insular, nor the approach xenophobic.

{…}
International malice and domestic conspiracy is an important context for some of Christie’s early work, and to this we will turn shortly. There is no but here, for categories overlapped, strands interacted, and there was no tightly defined set of parameters. Yet it is also important to see Christie in terms of the strength of a middle-brow reading public who wanted good stories and found detective fiction an established means to that end. This public was the key to the genre. At the same time, what this interest would mean in the post-war world was unclear, and authors developed their characters, plots, and styles, in the context of probing a readership that was resetting after that cataclysmic conflict.

And that probing was necessary in order to earn money, as Christie recorded making only an advance of £25 from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and that from a half share of the series rights which were sold to The Weekly Times. Her novel, however, had introduced two stars, herself and Hercule.


The featured image shows, “Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti,” by Tamara de Lempicka; painted in 1925.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Our Life In Pop Culture

A simple song, but it contains a good thought…
(Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady, Part IV)

I should warn my readers at the outset that the topic of this piece is not my area of expertise. I am not an avid fan of Queen, and my knowledge of rock and roll is no different from others of my generation and those who spent their youth enjoying this type of music. I also haven’t seen Brian Singer’s 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, and I am unlikely to have time to see it anytime soon.

Although it was never more than just fun for me, two friends whom I played football with after school in the 1970s later became well-known music journalists in Poland. My friends would meet in the evening at one of the student clubs in Krakow, and listen to records together. One of the two, who later became a music specialist, received these records from an uncle in London – they would come in packages that contained clothes for the family and other items that were hard to get in a socialist country. Sending such packages was also typical of post-war immigrants.

It so happens that I also had an uncle who helped us, and who invited me to Hanover in 1979. At that first trip out from behind the Iron Curtain, I brought back three CDs that were not available in our country. One of them was Queen’s double album, Queen Live Killers, with many hits that were hugely popular at the time. Over subsequent years, Polish Radio began to broadcast this type of music in programs for young listeners. These programs were highly popular. And, I can still remember the first appearance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Polish Radio and even the comment of the journalist who hosted the program, who said that the “new, little known” band Queen is “very skilled vocally.”

This truth was confirmed in the following years, when Freddie Mercury and his bandmates celebrated their greatest triumphs, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” won numerous accolades from listeners around the globe. This song, known to everyone, recently came back into my head again by accident. I was preparing a lecture on romantic ballads for my students at the Jagiellonian University, and it occurred to me that the words of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” especially the opening part of the song, correspond exactly to one of the most popular traditional folk ballad patterns. The hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury) complains to his mother that he has shot someone, so if he’s “not home tomorrow,” she should “carry on.” His life “had just begun,” and now he’s gone and thrown it all away.” He then speaks of “shivers down my spine” and his “body aching all the time.” He says goodbye to his friends because he has to “face the truth,” alone. And although he “doesn’t want to die,” he sometimes wishes he’d “never been born at all.”

Even for the listener who knows that the subject of crime and punishment constantly appears in ballads of all eras and in all countries (from the Polish Romantic poems of Adam Mickiewicz to the songs of the American Johnny Cash), Freddie Mercury’s lamentation sticks in our heads, hitting us hard; the piano keyboard sounds surprisingly serious.

Even stranger thoughts come to mind, if you listen to the lyrics of the middle section of the song, a quartet sung by all the band members. This quartet breaks the continuity of the ballad story with a monumental scene of judgment over the hero’s soul in the afterlife. The operatic associations suggested appear not only in the musical layer, but also in the text, in which individual Italian words stand out (“Figaro,” “magnifico,” and others). But this is not just a reference to Italian as the language of opera. It is also a trace of Catholic religiosity. The “Galileo” that Freddie asks to “let him go” is not Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) the famous physicist persecuted by the Church and the hero of the progressive education we received in the 1970s. He is the “Galilean” – Jesus Christ, whom the hero asks for freedom from this monstrosity, accompanied by a choir asking angels for his release (“Let him go, let him go, let him go…”).

Similarly, the “mama” Freddie invokes when he cries out “Mama mia” – after the chorus of Hell spirits declare, “We will not let you go” — is also not the mother of the protagonist from the first part of the song, but the Mother of God, whom Freddie calls in his hour of death, as does every Catholic. Of course, with these terms (“Galileo,” “mama mia”), the entire religious morality play is camouflaged and parodied here. Freddie plays to his judges for pity, complaining that he is only a “poor boy” and the backing choir adds that he is “a poor boy from a poor family” – as if hoping that “Galileo” will give him credibility points for his humble origin. However, mixing seriousness with irony in this part does not change the essence of the outcome: the punishment of the hero is condemnation – “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me ….”

And at this point, in the transition to the third and final part, the ballad convention is finally broken. In ballads, crime is always accompanied by punishment. This “law” is accepted by everyone, including the punished hero, because these are the moral foundations of traditional society and ancient popular culture. Meanwhile, in its dynamic ending, “Bohemian Rhapsody” expresses a vehement rejection of this judgment. The soloist breaks the bonds that had bound him thus far (during the performance of the song, Freddie Mercury emphasized this with appropriate behavior on stage) and throws out – against God – rebellious, well-known Promethean accusations:

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye,
So you think you can love me and leave me to die.
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby…

Addressing God as “baby” is a special idea. I don’t know (although perhaps it should be checked) if Shelley and Byron came up with something similar. So now by freeing himself from his guilt, from reproach, from the Last Judgment and by throwing his accusations back on his Judge, the hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” becomes both the modern Prometheus and Don Juan. Since judgment no longer has any authority for him, the difference between good and evil ceases to matter. The phrase “nothing really matters” changes its traditional meaning, as expressed in the first part of the song. Now it means the state of ataraxia promoted by libertine philosophers: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters… to me.”

A strange song. Sweet and bitter; simple but full of hidden allusions, mixing buffoonery with seriousness, and seriousness with irony and mockery. Cheap? Pretentious? And is this important, since the song has conquered the world? The story told in “Bohemian Rhapsody” corresponds to that of Don Juan from Mozart’s opera. Only that Molière and Mozart showed in their works the horror of sin and the justice of the punishment that befell Don Juan. But the sinner condemned in our song, the self-pitying “poor boy” in the end becomes a rebel against harsh moral law. He declaims a manifesto of self-liberation from the shackles of religious morality and gives others a model to follow.

We couldn’t understand all of this as teenagers. We swayed to the beat of the song, glad that the words were sonorous and matched the music. Music that released our youthful emotions and provided a sweet purification from the fear of life awaiting us. Now that we have more experience, in the seemingly nonsensical flow of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we find something from our later experiences and thoughts. Something that was already in the song from the beginning and which is probably not at odds with maturity. Undoubtedly, 40 years ago Freddie Mercury knew much more about serious matters than we could have imagined then as teenagers.

Today we are no longer “poor boys from poor families,” as we used to be. We may not be completely innocent either; but that doesn’t bother us too much, since we have rejected the religious superstition that Galileo will judge us someday for all that we have done. Anyway, even if he could judge us, he would have to show us that he has the right to do so. Isn’t that the moral history of the entire modern West, especially the West in the age of pop culture? It may not be that “nothing really matters” to us – but certainly nothing matters to us the way it used to. Unfortunately.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Dan Sproul, 2019.

A Conversation With Howard Bloom

This month, the Postil is pleased and greatly honored to publish an interview with Howard Bloom, who started in theoretical physics and microbiology at the age of ten and spent his early years in science. Then, driven by the desire to study mass human emotion through the lens of science, he went into a field he knew nothing about, popular culture. He founded the biggest PR firm in the music industry and worked with superstars like Prince, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Billy Joel, Queen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Styx, Hall and Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, Run DMC, and Chaka Khan. Bloom went back to formal science in 1988 and, since then, has published seven books on human and cosmic evolution, including The God Problem, Global Brain, and The Lucifer Principle. Called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel 4 TV, and “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear magazine, he is the subject of BRIC TV’s documentary, The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom.

Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): As an entrepreneur in the public relations industry, you were particularly active under the Reagan era. How do you explain that the eighties saw both a return to some conservative values and an explosion of creativity and coolness in music and movies?

Howard Bloom (HB): That’s a very good question. I’ve never thought of that connection before. My wife had been a socialist when I met her in the 1960s. And then in the 1970s she became a conservative. So she was siphoning money out of our bank account and giving it to Ronald Reagan’s political campaigns—without telling me. She knew I hated Reagan. But I never connected Ronald Reagan with what was going on in popular music at that point. In the 1960s popular music was the music of rebellion. Rock music was about raising your fist and saying to adults: “I have a right to be an individual. I have a right to exist.” Rock was in tune with the hippie philosophy: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” And, “We’re here to overturn the establishment.” In other words, rock and roll was part of a rebellion whose political activists were working to toss people our parent’s age out of power. That was the 1960s. But there was no overt philosophy—there was no ideology—of rebellion in the 1970s and the 1980s. However if you look at the attitude of the artists who emerged, it was sheer rebellion.

Joan Jett got onstage and raised her fist. And the way she raised her fist was the strongest part of her message. She was a woman. And as a woman, you were expected to be like Grace Slick or Janis Joplin: the guys had the guitars, the power instruments, and you did not. You simply crooned into the microphone. But Joan was saying: “I’m going to take over the fucking guitar, myself. I have the power. I own the power on stage. And I am going to rebel as a self-contained entity not needing the “weapons” of “males with guitars.” My band? Hey, that’s just an extension of me.” Joan’s was the rebellion of girls who had been raised with working mothers. And for a middle class girl to be raised by a working mother was something brand new. It was a result of the invention of indoor plumbing, the washing machine, the drier, and the dishwasher. Women were no longer the slaves of water-hauling and clothes washing. And the women’s liberation movement had given them the freedom to compete with men in the workplace. Now the daughters of these liberated women had a very new experience of what it meant to be female. And that sense came to a head in Joan Jett. Or it came to a fist. But as for men, I mean, look at several of my other clients. Billy Idol also raised his fist in a gesture of rebellion. Did the anger of these fists have anything to do with the Reagan era? It’s hard to tell.

John Mellencamp also came to the lip of the stage with his fist raised. If you were here, I could show you the difference between the raised fist of each of those three artists. Each made a slightly different muscular statement—a statement made with muscles. And then, there were bands that were already slipping into acceptance of a parent’s generation, and acceptance of an older generation. Not rebellion, but acceptance. And those were bands like Spandau Ballet, Berlin, which were both my bands, and a bunch of others. Later, the whole attitude of rebellion would disappear from popular music. At least, it would be minimized significantly. In fact, Michael Jackson would live with his mother, his father, and his brothers—an unthinkable act among the rock rebels. And that business of raising your fist on stage would no longer be part of the package, if you were a rock ‘n’ roller. In Michael Jackson it would be replaced by fierce pointing.

The Reagan era was relatively prosperous, which was good. And it’s only when you have a prosperous age that kids can afford to be thoroughly rebellious, because when you have an age like the 2000s and the 2010s, when adult kids are still living in their parents’ houses, kids can’t afford to rebel. They need the comfort, the shelter, of their parents to move forward. So, that helps explain why the attitude of rebellion disappeared. And I don’t see rebellion in the music, today. Admittedly, listening to music has totally changed. Working with music has totally changed. I listen to Pandora. I don’t know the era of the bands that Pandora is playing to me, but to me, that attitude of rebellion has gone—maybe I just don’t understand these bands well enough. I don’t know the physical stance, the muscular message, of bands like The Eagles of Death Metal and the Queens of the Stone Age or of stars like Joe Bonamassa and Jack White—not to mention trans-racial artists like Keb Mo.

GC: Your babies, Prince and Michael Jackson, both died in the past ten years. How did you react to learning of their disappearance? As a critic of hard ecologism (or eco-nihilism), how do you assess the lyrics of Jackson’s pieces such as “The Earth Song” or “Heal the World”?

HB: Michael Jackson died on my birthday, June 25th, 2009, and I always felt I had conversations that I needed to complete with Michael. It took me years to realize why. My initial response when I started getting calls from the manager of Michael’s brothers in roughly 1982 was, “No, I don’t want to work with the Jacksons.” The Jacksons were easy. If you have a talking dog, the dog can get on the phone and say “Michael Jackson,” and any editor in the country will drop everything and offer the dog a cover story in exchange for an interview. And I don’t do easy things, so I was not interested. I do hard things—I do crusades. And then, I got a call from the Jacksons’ manager, the same guy I’d been saying no to for four months, saying, “The Jacksons are gonna be in town this weekend, and they’d like to meet with you.” And, Grégoire, you know my background. I did not grow up with other kids. I did not grow up with adults. I grew up with guinea pigs and lab rats and an aquarium full of guppies. So I didn’t know about normal human rituals, but I had heard this phrase that if you want to say no to somebody, if you’re going to be a mensch, if you’re going to be a real man, you have to say no to their face.

So I agreed to a meeting with the Jacksons and I took the elevator up to the 54th story of the Helmsley Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue at 50th Street in Manhattan. And I walked down the corridor and I knocked on the door, and the door opened four inches. And the minute the door opened, I knew I was going to have to work with the Jacksons because you could see these four guys plastered up against the wall as if something really dark and ominous was in the room, and nobody could tell what it was. And it took me about 10 or 15 years to figure out what I felt the Jacksons had hired me for. Once I finally figured it out, I realized they had hired me to save their brother’s soul. Because there was trouble—there was big trouble. So, when Michael died, I felt that my job was not finished. I had not succeeded in my task. The whole story of tracking down the villain who did Michael Jackson is in my new book Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: a Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock & Roll.

Michael spent 50 years on this planet, and for 25 years, he was rising towards superstardom. The biggest superstardom anyone had ever seen. Then for 25 years, for half of his life, he was dangling on the cross. He was crucified by the press, of all things. And I felt that the job of saving his soul was unfinished. And I felt the conversations that we were missing, that we had never had, that we should have had. But I always thought there was plenty of time, and then, all of a sudden, the night of my birthday, as a present, I got the news that Michael Jackson had died. I was devastated—I was floored. The story of the night I was told Michael Jackson had died is in the opening chapter of Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me. When they closed the coffee shop where I was working in those days for the night, I went up to the park for my walk through the meadow, looking up at the stars. And then, I was walking back from the park down the street. And normally, the streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at that hour—it was about 12:30 at night—are abandoned. They’re deserted in my neighborhood. But that night, there were two kids, about 19 years old, sitting on a stoop. And as I walked past them, I heard a voice.

I had my headphones on, so I didn’t know what the voice had said. I was listening to a book. And then, I realized when I got another hundred feet down the street that it had said, “Michael Jackson is dead.” And I wondered, “Are they saying that to me because they know that I’ve worked with Michael Jackson? Or, are they just saying that to anybody who passes by?” So I turned around and walked back up the street and took my headphones off and said, “What did you say?” And they repeated, “Michael Jackson is dead.” And I said, “Why did you say that?” expecting that they would say they knew me from the Tea Lounge, the cafe where I worked. And they just said, “We’re trying to tell everybody.”

So it became obvious that they were saying it to me because I was a generation or two older than they were, and they wanted nobody over the age of 30 to get away without realizing that a greatness had passed, that somebody of tremendous importance had just died. And I don’t remember whether I told them that I worked with Michael or not, but knowing me, I probably did tell them. Michael’s death was shocking. As I said, I still have conversations I need to finish with Michael. And one of the most disturbing things about death is its finality. You can no longer talk to those people who are gone—not at all. There is no longer any chance whatsoever of having a conversation.

Prince is a whole different matter. I felt more in response to Michael. Look, when I was 10 years old in Buffalo, New York, no other kids wanted me. My parents didn’t have time for me. So I had been alone since I was an infant. One afternoon I was in my living room and there was a book open in my lap. And the book said the first two rules of science are these: “The truth at any price, including the price of your life.” And it told the story of Galileo and they got it all wrong. As if he’d been willing to go to the stake to defend his truth. That was false. Galileo swore that everything he’d written was false in exchange for house arrest. But I needed the heroic version of the story. The book said that the second rule of science is, “Look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before, and then, proceed from there.” And it told the story of Anton van Leeuwenhoek—it got a bit of that wrong, too. He was one of the two men who invented the microscope. But those two rules became my religion. And Michael Jackson was the living incarnation of those two rules; he was those two basic rules come to life. The first rule: “The truth at any price, including the price of your life” is the law of courage. Michael had courage. He would not let anybody fuck with his kids. And the second law: “Look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before” is the law of curiosity, awe and wonder. And Michael had awe, wonder and surprise in a degree that I had never expected to see from any quarter.

Prince and I had something in common in that we had both built our own mini-societies. I helped put together, by accident, the hippie movement. Since other people’s cliques wouldn’t have me, the only cliques in which I could live were cliques that I fashioned myself, and Prince had that quality too. You know, when he was a teenager in Andre Cymone’s basement, he put together a culture—a mini-culture—his own mini-culture based on the idea that sex will liberate you, sex will set you free, and that sex will make violence unnecessary. That was actually an idea he got from the culture that I had helped start, the hippy culture. Remember, our motto in the hippy movement was “make sex, not war.” We created a sexual revolution. Though we didn’t actually start the ideas of that revolution—that idea of free love got started around 1800, 160 years earlier. But I did not have as many unfinished conversations with Prince. He was so vigorous in the whole time that I knew him. He was so well built despite the fact that he was only five foot two, or something like that. It was impossible to imagine him being gone.

And so, there wasn’t as urgent a need to finish a conversation with him, though I did feel I had unfinished conversations with him. After all, we’d risen together. I’d helped take him from an unknown 19 year-old—that’s what he said he was at the time, he may have been 22—to superstardom, and I had used everything that I had ever learned in years of studying star-making in order to get him there. And we did have things to say to each other. But it wasn’t the same thing. Michael was to me twice as important as anybody I had ever met in my life—at least twice as important as anybody that I had ever met in my life.

Prince, for all of his remarkable workaholism and all of his tremendous productivity and all of his astonishing ability to command an audience on stage, was a normal mortal. Michael was not like a mortal at all. Michael was like an angel or a saint. In other words, he was the living incarnation of some sort of divinity—specifically, the divinity that comes from his astonishing degree of awe and wonder. “Earth Song” is probably my favorite piece of Michael Jackson’s music. It’s just gorgeous, musically. The lyrics aren’t anything special, because they’re about standard ecological clichés. But remember, Michael was not just a lyricist; he was a musician. He spoke through his music. He spoke through his dancing. And what a powerful song that “Earth Song” was!

So, Michael was showing you his soul through his songs, through co-writing things like “We Are the World,” “Earth Song,” and “Man in the Mirror,” which basically says, “If you’ve got something important to do, start it now”—the same message as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a T.S. Eliot poem I grew up on. Michael showed you where his values were with those songs—although, not completely. If I hadn’t spent the night that I described in the book, sitting in a trailer outside of a huge studio complex, listening to his explanation about why he was canceling his tour, and then, trying to give him an explanation of why cancelling his tour would do damage to the kids that he took so seriously—the tens of thousands of kids he carried around in his heart—I would never have understood Michael’s intense commitment to his audience, to his kids. Again, that’s a story in Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: a Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock & Roll. And it’s an amazing story.

But Mother Nature loves those of her kids who, like Michael Jackson, oppose her most. Nature proceeds by breaking her own rules. And we are the next generation of nature’s lawbreakers. We carry nature into her future by inventing new things. For 13.7 billion years, nature has been going from nothing but a big bang of space, time and speed to an increasingly complex universe, from elementary particles to atoms, from atoms to giant sweepings of atoms called galaxies, from galaxies to the stars and planets, and then, to big molecules and life. In other words, nature has never stopped creating in the entire 13.7 billion years of this universe’s existence. And we are just her next tools for creation. So, we have an obligation to create. We have an obligation to innovate. We have an obligation to break nature’s laws—on behalf of nature and her restless creativity.

Now, this isn’t to say that we have an obligation to destroy the ability of this planet to sustain life, far from it. But it’s we humans—specifically us Western civilization humans—who invented the idea of ecology and invented the idea that we should “heal the world” instead of destroying the ecological systems on the face of the planet. And this is the very first time in human history that we’ve had massive protest movements that have been given institutional sanction, that have been made a part of the system. And it’s the first time in human history, in the course of the last 150 or 200 years, that we have had peace movements, that we have had anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism movements—and then, ecological movements. We have had Greta Thunberg shouting “How dare you?” just like Michael Jackson was singing “All I wanna say is that they don’t care about us.”

But even that is unnatural, to have protest movements. And it’s through those protest movements that we have self-correction mechanisms. The job of humans is to do things as unnatural as plants taking to land, as trees taking to the sky, and as the invention of photosynthesis. Because that is the way the universe proceeds. She breaks her own laws. She busts through her previous limitations. Nature rebels against the shackles of her nature. She constantly springs what my books call shape shock and supersized surprises. And nature, or the universe, never goes backwards. When she seems to go backwards, as when she exploded her first stars, a million years into those stars’ existence, she uses that catastrophe to create whole new realities. Long before those star deaths, when the first generation of stars was born, there were only three different kinds of atoms: hydrogen, helium and lithium. And in the collapse of dying stars, nature created eighty-nine new kinds of atoms. That’s what nature does with the process of destruction: she creates.

GC: You are regularly travelling into Asia for professional reasons. How do you account for the fascination that Asia and especially Thailand turned out to exert on the eighties’ action movie—with John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) seeking refuge in Thailand… or Jean-Claude Van Damme defeating a Thai champion to the acclamation of a crowd that calls him “the white warrior”?

HB: I’ve been in Seoul, Korea, twice. One of those visits was to keynote a United Nations conference on governance. I’ve been to Chengdu, China, once. I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, twice. First, to put together a two-day intensive training program for CEOs and general managers called “Re-perceiving leadership,” and the second time, because I co-founded and co-chaired the Asian Space Technology Summit. So, that’s my Asian experience. Oh, yes, I went to Kobe, Japan, to lecture on harvesting solar power in space and transmitting it to Earth.

We – the West – started dealing with Asia two thousand years ago when the Silk Road was opened and China started exporting silk to Rome. The wives of Roman senators – the wealthiest women in Rome – tried to one up each other by wearing the ultimate status symbol, robes made of Chinese silk. And then, we fell out of contact with Asia again when we, the West, lapsed into our dark ages, and contact began again with Marco Polo about 1250 A.D. China has been a land of riches and it’s been a land of wonders for those two thousand years. China, through almost all of those two thousand years, has been the greatest exporting nation on earth—and the most innovative. Plus, we’re so fascinated with societies that are radically different from ours that we developed exploration and anthropology. China has almost always been ahead of us. Except in curiosity about other societies—to China, societies outside the boundaries of the Chinese empire were too barbaric to merit attention.

In the West, the idea of anything strange and exotic attracts us. At least, it attracts us when we’re not in dark ages. When we are in dark ages, we pull a blanket over our heads and hide—we don’t want to know about things that are alien. But we are so fascinated by alien cultures that we dream up alien extraterrestrials, people from other galaxies. And many of us are certain that these aliens exist and that they’ve been making contact with Earth for a long time. The difference and the strangeness are exhilarating – especially the strangeness of a culture that’s almost as old as ours, being only about two thousand years younger, and which has produced astonishments, marvels! I mean, the Japanese and the Chinese invented the use of tea as a beverage. They invented the teacup, the saucer, and the fine porcelain these things are made of. They invented the teapot and the tea ceremony. They invented all of these things that to people like Voltaire were mesmerizing.

Voltaire lived in a time that was fascinated by Asia, fascinated by India, fascinated mostly by China, and also fascinated by Japan. And we’ve been attracted to Asian culture ever since because of the East’s radical difference and the light that difference has shed on our own culture. Thailand, specifically, I can’t answer that question, except Thailand was Ceylon, and Ceylon seems to have played a big role in the Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in the story of Sinbad the Sailor. And until the last 100 years, Ceylon was a magical place, a place where strange and magical things happened.

GC: Clint Eastwood, who spoke favorably of Trump in 2016, instead announced his support for Michael Bloomberg in the coming 2020 presidential election. To what extent do you recognize yourself in such an endorsement?

HB: I was hoping that Bloomberg would become the Democratic nominee for President. Bernie Sanders is a brilliant man, and one of his brilliances is his ability to boil an entire platform down to five sentences, something that Hillary Clinton definitely was not able to do. And another of Bernie’s brilliances is to be honest if he’s asked a question, like four days ago: “How do you feel about the Russians, about the idea that the Russians are supporting your election?” he was asked by a reporter. He came to the camera and said immediately, “The Russians had better get out of our elections!” I wish Donald Trump would say that. But for all of his brilliance, Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand the capitalist system.

The Western system, the system I outlined in The Genius of the Beast: a Radical Revision of Capitalism, has brought material miracle after material miracle to the face of this Earth. And the Western system is based on a balancing act between private industry, government and the protest industry. Or, to put it differently, the genius of the Western system is based on a balance between socialism and capitalism. Government provides things like roads and the Internet, which government invented. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) invented the Internet. You could call that socialism if you wanted to. Then there’s the protest industry, which we talked about a minute ago: the peace movement that received the tool of civil disobedience in 1848 from Henry David Thoreau; the anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism movement that had its first global conventions in 1899, and the environmentalist movement. And when you keep those three elements in balance—private industry, government, and the protest industry—you have a brilliant system that produces astonishing results. But Bernie doesn’t understand the private enterprise part of the system. He doesn’t understand billionaires. He thinks there should be no billionaires whatsoever.

Right now the American government space program at NASA is dead—it’s absolutely down. It’s spending huge amounts of money, but it’s not accomplishing anything, at least when it comes to humans in space. It’s accomplishing wonderful things when it comes to doing science in space, science done with automated equipment like our wildly successful Mars Rovers. But the only thing that’s keeping manned space alive and showing us hope for the future—for getting beyond this planet, for putting towns on the moon and putting cities on Mars—is Elon Musk, a billionaire, Jeff Bezos, another billionaire, and, possibly, Richard Branson, another billionaire. But that initiative is not coming out of governments at all. If we didn’t have billionaires, we wouldn’t stand a chance of gardening the solar system and greening the galaxy. We wouldn’t stand a chance of bringing space to life by bringing life to space.

First billionaires buy things that only they can afford. Then 20 years later, we can all afford them. But it takes the billionaires cutting through the interference. It takes billionaires carving out the next step, or at least, being there to pay for the next step. Michael Milken, the guy who invented junk bonds, has founded a cancer research institute that’s doing some very important work. Bill Gates is funding very important stuff all over the planet. We need billionaires. Frankly, we don’t need billionaires who are billionaires because their fathers made the money, or their mothers made the money. We need billionaires who are capable of making the money themselves because in order to make those billions, they have to make a major contribution to society. Bernie doesn’t understand that.

Bloomberg does understand that. He started as just a normal middle-class kid and he built an empire that’s worth 59 billion dollars. He built it by offering new services and improvements on old services. He has managed and organized people by the thousands. Donald Trump never managed much more than about four employees, or maybe 10 at most. Donald Trump was running a very small business based, to a large extent, on lying and cheating. But Michael Bloomberg has done it the honest way. Michael Bloomberg is a failure in debates. But he has demonstrated his platform through something more important than words on a debate stage. He has demonstrated it through actions. Look at the charities that he has been supporting very generously over the course of the last 20 years: leading the anti-gun movement and underwriting education for inner city black kids who do poorly in the public education system.

My cousin Deborah Kenny founded something called the Harlem Village Academies that take kids at random off the streets of Harlem and put them through an education that helps them get into college. Then her kids stay in college – they graduate. It’s remarkable. And Bloomberg has funded these educational programs. He has funded an entire anti-gun organization. My nephew has been one of his community organizers for those anti-gun groups. Bloomberg has funded environmentalist organizations. He doesn’t need to win in a debate. He wins through the actions that he takes.

GC: President Trump is occasionally said to have introduced a “punk” spirit in politics. Yet Donald Trump has established himself as a womanizer; as a President he is now establishing himself as a man of peace, breaking with the interventionist neoconservative doctrine, as well as endeavoring to set up peace in the Middle East between Sunni nations and Israel—and to trigger the fall of the Mullahs in Iran. From this angle, is he not rather in line with the hippie motto “Make love, not war”?

HB: That’s a very interesting way of looking at things. We’ll eventually see the impact of what Trump is doing. You know, the economy did very well under Barack Obama for the last six years of Barack Obama’s term. It did very well under the first three years of Donald Trump. In fact, it set new records during those three years. Then came the Covid-19 virus and ended the longest period of economic growth in American history. However, the Obama administration created more jobs in its last three years than the Trump administration created in its first three years. Remember the first rule of science, the one that I latched onto at the age of ten, the rule that Michael Jackson embodied: “The truth at any price, including the price of your life.” One of the things that bothers me about Donald Trump is that Trump tells 12 lies a day, and he just makes it up as he goes along. He has no allegiance to the truth. And his truth changes every day—he contradicts himself. And I can’t stand that—I just cannot stand that destruction of truth. To me, a democracy depends on truth. So does the successful conquest of Covid-19.

I didn’t read Trump’s peace plan when it came out. I was probably busy appearing on the radio or something and researching another topic. But before the peace plan was announced, Trump’s plan was to get the Saudis and the other Sunni nations together and get them to make peace with Israel so that the Sunni nations could take advantage of Israel as an ally; and so together they could face off against Iran. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia wants to do. It wants to lead an alliance against Iran. The Saudis are scared to death of Iran. I, as a Zionist, very much welcome peace with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, and all of the middle-eastern Sunni countries. And I am horrified that the world lets Iran get away with having its people chant in the streets, “Death to America, death to Israel,” because the Iranians really do mean death.

They can’t rain death down upon the United States with their missiles—at least not yet—but they can do it with Israel very easily. And I am appalled that the world tolerates it when Iran puts: “Destroy the Zionist entity” as a slogan on the sides of its missiles as it test-launches them. I’m appalled that the world would allow an entire nation to get away with an overt genocidal policy. So, what Trump is doing in the Middle East looks good to me. The difficulty is when Trump is gone. Of course, Trump has no intention of ever going, and Trump wants to be replaced by his son Donald, and then by his daughter Ivanka. But if Trump is ever gone, there is such revulsion against Donald Trump in the United States that that revulsion will also be used against Israel because Trump is just poison in the minds of American Democrats. And I’m a Democrat and a liberal. So it’s tricky for me to acknowledge that Trump has done some things that I approve of.

GC: In his autobiography Billy Idol recalls his collaboration with you on the occasion of a hectic episode of his career. “In late February 1987, I found myself on another coke-smoking binge, walking into a police anti-crack sting in Washington Square with another lady friend, Grace Hattersley. Everyone else in Manhattan had read in the newspaper that day that there would be a police operation in the park that night. The police only insisted on arresting one of us, and Grace kindly decided to take the fall for me. A true gift, since I could’ve been deported had it been me who was arrested. Nonetheless, it ended up on the front pages of all the New York papers. “Just prior to this incident, I had taken a meeting with my press agent, Howard Bloom, who was telling me we needed a major press event to help announce the tour, so when I saw him the day after the front-page exposure, I said to him, “Well, how’s that for press coverage?” and he responded in an exasperated tone, “I didn’t mean that kind of press.” The story didn’t end there. Grace gave a press conference, mentioning that she was my girlfriend, which enraged Perri, who decided to call her own press conference to announce that she was my real girlfriend. The day after Grace’s media chat, Perri appeared at hers, opening up her shirt to display a leopard-print bra to the photographers as she exclaimed to the assembled press: “I’m Billy Idol’s girlfriend. I know something like this may split up some people, but we’ve been through a lot.” That settled it. When I headlined Madison Square Garden later that year, I opened the show with an insider’s remark, “From Washington Square to Madison Square,” and the audience roared with laughter.” How do you remember this tragicomic incident for your part? How do you assess the present situation of Billy Idol’s career with respect to that of Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop?

HB: I think Billy’s book is brilliant – and it’s brilliant for what it reveals. What disturbed me about Billy was his use of drugs. And I thought he was only on cocaine. But it turns out, when you read his book, that he was not only on cocaine; he was on heroin and he was on alcohol. Then, it also turns out that he was freebasing cocaine. Well, I actually knew about his free-basing. But to discover in his book just how hideously he was into drugs was horrifying for me. And, through his book, to see that he’s gotten off of those drugs and can write about it is, to me, admirable. God knows what my response was. I vaguely remember that incident in the park that Billy is talking about, but the most important thing that I remember was trying to save Billy’s life, and trying to save him from drugs. And, hopefully, we accomplished that because he was on his way to death. And that would have been terrible because he’s actually a brilliant man. And he certainly lives out his personality in a very big way.

So, I’m glad we managed to stop him. I mean, basically, what happened was this. His parents came into town, and I was very upset about what was happening to Billy with drugs. And his parents met with everybody on his team. And all the people on his team said, “Oh, Billy’s doing wonderfully. He’s doing just fine!” because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. Being associated with Billy Idol meant money, and it meant power to them, although it hadn’t when I first started with Billy. His career was about to die when I started with him. I came up with a strategy that basically brought him back to life and made him a source of money and power. But his parents were getting false reports about Billy. They had us come into the room one by one. So, finally, they had me come into the room where they were sitting, and I said, “Your son is killing himself, and we have to stop him.”

I explained the drug problem to his parents, and his parents took him away from his manager Bill Aucoin. Bill Aucoin was also freebasing and would destroy his own career with freebasing. Unfortunately, because I loved working with Bill Aucoin, Billy’s manager—I loved the man. But it’s that crusade to get Billy off of drugs that I remember the most about working with Billy. I last saw him about seven years ago on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, a TV New Year’s eve celebration, which is a big deal in the United States. I was astonished. He looked in the same physical shape that he had when he worked with me. He was ripped. It was hard to believe. I mean, you look at Christina Aguilera back from her heyday and how she looks today; and back then, she had this gorgeous figure, and now, she’s a little plump, round thing. And Billy has not succumbed to age at all.

I haven’t heard what he’s doing musically today. My Pandora station never plays me Billy Idol. So, I don’t know what his music is like these days. It’s my impression that he is still an icon, that he is still some sort of a musical force and some sort of a personality. But I can’t be sure because, you know, media is fragmented these days, and I don’t follow music journalism at all. I’m too busy doing politics and science. I’ve tried to reach out to Billy a couple of times, but I haven’t gotten any answers back. However I did get a series of emails and calls from his manager recently asking me to be in an upcoming documentary on Billy. And when I went into Manhattan to do the interview, the documentary’s director promised he would let Billy know how deeply I still feel about him. We’ll see if that message gets through.

GC: In your book The Genius of the Beast, dedicated to cracking the mysteries of Western creativity, you introduced the notion of an immaterial form of capital—one made from our Promethean dreams. You called it the “infrastructure of fantasy.” Did the way you came up with that idea have something to do with Billy Idol’s song “Flesh for Fantasy”?

HB: That’s a good question. I don’t remember the lyrics to that song. But my concept is to take things from the realm of fantasy into the realm of flesh, and turn them into realities, which is something we humans do better than any other creatures on the face of the Earth. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, we’re the only ones who have fantasies. Much as we spend time studying animal behavior, we haven’t seen fantasies in animals. So, to the extent that Billy’s song is about moving things from a rebel fantasy to the realm of reality, I’m all for it. We are nature. And all of the things that we admire and think are natural are as unnatural as could possibly be.

Take a tree, for instance. About roughly 400 to 600 million years ago, just after the Cambrian explosion, plants took to land, despite the fact that this was quite a fanciful proposition. I mean, plants needed water to survive. It was water in which life pulled itself together. The idea that you could take plants to land, a place with very little water, was completely unnatural. Land in those days was all virgin rock, and rock was hostile to life. Stone didn’t contain the water that life needed to keep its cells alive. After all, most of a cell is water. And where were you going to get the water to sustain a cell if you left the ocean behind and you went to the surface of this very hard, impenetrable rock? In addition, there were ultraviolet rays, the radical climate change of summer, fall, winter and spring, and a multitude of other threats on that hostile, barren surface. For the first plants to get to land was an impossible proposition—and totally and completely unnatural. And yet plants did it. And the first plants that evolved on the land were capable of getting about three inches high.

That’s almost eight centimeters. But going “Fuck you!” to nature’s most basic law, the law of gravity, and lifting themselves three inches high was violently and radically unnatural. And then came trees, and trees were even more of a “Fuck you!” to nature. They were even more unnatural. They lofted themselves thirty to sometimes one hundred and fifty feet high. Which means they had to lift 100 gallons of water a day from the earth to the sky just to survive. That’s totally going against the law of gravity. And remember, gravity is one of nature’s most basic laws. So if you and I had been sitting around a coffee table at the beginning of the universe, back in those days, I could have proven to you that trees could not possibly exist. But the fact is that nature advances through the efforts of her unnatural children—through having children who will be unnatural and defy her. And everything futuristic that happens with this universe—everything that defines the future of the universe—takes place through those rebels who are unnatural, who are as unnatural as Joan Jett, John Mellencamp, and Billy Idol raising their fists.

Even when we start inventing technologies, we’re no different than trees. I mean, plants have invented photosynthesis. That’s radically unnatural. It means taking things that don’t exist—waves, pulses of electromagnetism called light. Those pulses are not even stuff; they’re not material at all. And the first photosynthesizers captured those photons of light and turned them into power sources for the process of life. That is a technology, and it’s a radically unnatural technology to take something that isn’t material and turn it into energy, a technology that harvests an immaterial thing for a material purpose. So the inventions that we’ve made are very much like photosynthesis. They are radically unnatural, but only to the extent that a tree is radically unnatural or that photosynthesis is radically unnatural.

GC: In Global Brain you evoked at length the immemorial fight between the increasingly interconnected human species and the worldwide intelligence of bacteria, viruses, and microbes, especially zeroing in on the confrontation between the globally proliferating HIV and the planetary brain of scientists in the last decades of the 20th century. Do you see history repeating itself with the current epidemic of Covid-19?

HB: Absolutely. Viruses and bacteria, the world of microbes, have incredible creative powers and incredibly adaptive abilities and are constantly doing research and development. And the task of humanity has been to outpace the world of microbes in doing R&D. Just a few years ago, it took two months to sequence a virus. And with the novel coronavirus—the virus that causes Covid-19—sequencing only took days. Less than two weeks—but that’s not enough. We don’t have a vaccine to fight Covid-19. We don’t have a drug to treat those for whom a vaccine is too late. Though we are testing nine existing drugs in double-blind studies. But we need to get our research and development stuff in order so that we can really do a crash program to come up with a vaccine against this virus. Right now [May 2020] the Covid-19 is beating us. It’s outpacing us—it’s winning the race.

GC: In devising a new version of a godless metaphysics, one highlighting communication and creative self-organization “from quarks to humans,” you modeled the cosmos as a big bagel. Could you tell us more about it?

HB: I came up with the Big Bagel Theory in 1959 when I was working at the world’s largest cancer research laboratory, The Roswell Park Memorial Institute in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I was trying to solve the CPT problem in theoretical physics. The CPT problem—the charge, parity, and time problem—is this: if matter and antimatter are created at the same time in equal amounts, where is all the anti-matter? So, imagine a bagel with an almost non-existent hole, and at the instant of the beginning of the universe, the matter universe comes out of that tiny hole and rushes up the top of the bagel and the antimatter universe comes out of the hole on the bottom of the bagel and rushes down the bagel’s underside. The steepness of the slope coming out of the hole means that the matter universe and the antimatter universe are moving away from each other very fast. And then, you get to the hump of the bagel. And the fact that there’s a hump means that the matter universe and the antimatter universe have slowed down. They’ve run out of the energy that it takes to push them apart. But the matter and anti-matter universe speak a common language: gravity.

So, they start whispering to each other with their gravity. And their gravity starts pulling them at an ever-accelerating speed down the outside of the bagel toward each other until the matter universe and the antimatter universe meet on the very outer edge of the bagel, annihilate each other, and become the next hole at the center of the bagel. So, in essence, the universe is this big recurring thing like a photon, which comes down to absolutely nothing, then rises to the height of its amplitude and then, comes down to nothing again, and then rises again. Our universe is doing that. It’s first going up to the limits of its amplitude, which is at the very bulge of the bagel. And then, coming back down to nothing and then, rising to the height of its amplitude again. Or so Big Bagel Theory says.

GC: Thank you for your time.

HB: Thank you for all these years of friendship, Grégoire. That has meant a great deal to me.

In the lineage of How I Accidentally Started the Sixties, Bloom has an autobiographical book, Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll to be released in April 2020. Bloom also co-worked with Canlorbe on a (currently finalized) conversation book synthesizing the Bloomian journey into the universal patterns shaping cosmic and human history.

The image shows, “Impressions in a Dance Hall,” by Jules Schmalzigaug, painted in 1914.