“Sonny Boy, such a Sonny Boy, there’s a song in the air,
Curare! Curare! Curare!
But the fair senorita don’t seem to care,
Curare! Curare! Curare!”
Approaching the end, we begin again, this time attempting to depart from references to ‘driving forces’ and images crystallised into ‘cribs’. For it is acknowledged, however obliquely, that this trail is nothing other than the constant renewal of a questioning spirit, set as and against persistence, a sustained return to a field of enquiry… all the while being led around the arena by a Mascot Müle. Yet what is ‘persistence’ here, other than a form of suspension? Absentmindedly re-pressing the bruise, we consider that, at heart, all our evoked scenarios are placed artificially on their viewing platforms, as if set upon revolving tables that allow them to turn and be seen from all sides. The approach indeed makes its contribution to a broader project of affirmative immanence – “Look no further…” – but does so by continuing to return to details, to re-state blandishments of surface pattern, goading them to be reassessed once more, once more. To this end, perhaps, we find ourselves hatching a brood of obsessives, these Müleskinders, charging them to stare at blank walls, waiting for them to speak; to persevere with what appears to offer nothing but resistance, in case the conditions arise that provoke the faculties to turn themselves inside out.
Our concern for details resurfaces in light of noted discrepancies of intensity between reading and listening. Differing speeds of resistance. We think of surveying processes always on the look out for flaws, perforations, orienting pieces. But before anything else, we jest, it is necessary to illustrate (there is no other word for it…) a tiny increment from a film. The sequence is artificially isolated, two stills placed next to one another. The subtitles stitch themselves through our occupations, it seems, as a character’s solitary remark to himself – about thinking about speaking about listening as thinking about (…), or some other regress into which it is possible to spiral – accompanies a flip from third-person to first-person viewpoints.
Nothing else will be mentioned about this pair of images, their seared lines of text, let alone the film they come from. But the threat of infinite regress does seem worthy of mention – it feels as an important emphasis to make, the implication being that it is what should be guarded against at all costs. Our so-called viewing platforms should always keep rotating. Remaining in flux is what is necessary to this marshalling of thought – irrespective of which precise pacing keeps things afloat at any given moment (reading-rates, listening-rates…), we should always keep moving. It is at this point that the song enters and interrupts, its organ blast tied into some unknown spinning mechanism:
The song details a pair of washed up crooners, Jolson and Jones, in a fetid, hellish Spring locale; two outcasts artificially held in suspension, perhaps through a paralytic toxin. First up then, we take Allan Jones, a classically trained singer who played the lead tenor in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, who could never shake the burden of his one big hit: a ‘Serenade’. The song documents the obsessive persistence of a figure in love with a mule, hearing only the sweetest sounds through the braying. Long after the hit has faded, Jones continues to make cameo appearances, dragging the song up again and again.
He is spotted in a theatre audience and, when his back is turned, word is given to the orchestra: “Go into the Serenade!”, pulling him centre stage. We gleefully watch his teeth and hands as he pouts out the words: “So I’ll sing to the mule, if you’re sure she won’t think that I am but a fool serenading a mule.” This is a mad lover’s persistence, waiting for the mule to break from its limits, as his conviction soon starts to persuade those around him to join in with the pretence and sign up to madness: “She’d love to sing it too, if only she knew the way, but try as she may, in her voice there’s a flaw and all that the lady can say is hee-hawwwwwwwwww!”
Jolson too, it turns out, appeared with the Marx Brothers during a radio broadcast on 11th June 1937, but by the late thirties he was a washed up has-been in the American theatre. But what of his own serenade to persistence, should we care to artificially isolate it? Following on from the success of The Jazz Singer, Jolson appeared in The Singing Fool (1928), in which he played an ambitious entertainer who continued to perform even as his young son lay dying. The film’s signature tune, ‘Sonny Boy’, became a hit for Jolson: “And the angels grew lonely, took you because they were lonely, I’m lonely too, Sonny Boy.”
But what do they do, these two spectres, listening to the hawkers announcing the availability of paralysing toxin on the streets? The cry is “Curare!”, the common name for various arrow poisons originating in South America, the most potent being Macushi wourali. In the early nineteenth century, Sir Benjamin Brodie showed that curare did not kill but holds its victims in a form of suspended animation. Recovery is usually complete if the subject’s respiration is maintained artificially. In 1813, Charles Waterton, often credited with bringing curare back to Europe following expeditions to British Guiana [Guyana], conducted a series of experiments on large mammals at the Royal Veterinary College, where he worked with Brodie, Sir Joesph Banks and Professor William Sewell. Accordingly, three mules were procured for experiments into artificial respiration as a treatment or defence against the effects of poisons, with possible applications in the management of other convulsive disorders. As part of the experiment, one mule was inoculated in the shoulder and died within twelve minutes. A tourniquet was applied to the upper foreleg of the second mule and inoculated against wourali below it. The animal walked about as usual, ate its food, until, after an hour or so, the tourniquet was released. The mule died within ten minutes, showing that the poison needed to gain access to the general circulation to be effective. Waterton’s own account of the fate of the third mule is as follows:
“(The animal) received the wourali poison in the shoulder and died apparently in ten minutes. An incision was made in its windpipe, and through it the lungs were regularly inflated for two hours with a pair of bellows. Suspended animation returned. The mule held up its head and looked around; but the inflating being discontinued, it sank once more in apparent death. The artificial breathing was immediately recommenced and continued without intermission for two hours more. This saved the mule from final dissolution; it rose up, and walked about; it seemed neither in agitation nor in pain. The wound, through which the poison entered, was healed without difficulty. Its constitution, however, was so severely affected, that it was long a doubt if ever it would be well again. It looked lean and sickly for above a year, but began to mend the spring after, and by Midsummer became fat and frisky … the kind hearted reader will rejoice on learning that Earl Percy, pitying the mule’s misfortunes, sent it down from London to Walton Hall, near Wakefield. There it goes by the name of Wouralia. Wouralia shall be sheltered from the wintry storm; and when the summer comes it shall feed in the finest pasture. No burden shall be placed on it and it shall end its days in peace.”*
[*Wouralia lived another 25 years, dying on 15th February 1839]
What are we to make of this? The interrupting song, Scott Walker’s Jolson and Jones, is seared with mule braying. The persistence it indicates is manifold. It is purgatorial suspension. It is the inevitability of death shovelled in with career decline; the isolation of madness in songs you are condemned to repeat. It is a hybrid lyric too, composed from fragments sent spinning from these old time hits – paeans to waiting, to all that is impending, whether it be the death of a child or the singing of a mule. Breathing must be maintained and movement must be upheld. In order to persist we must ask again.
“Sonny Boy, such a Sonny Boy, in her voice there’s a flaw,
Curare! Curare! Curare!
Sonny Boy, Bye Bye Sonny Boy,
E-e-aw and e-e-aw!”