"Distraction is death": A phone call with BETTER THAN FOOD BOOK REVIEWS
A phone call with Cliff Sargent of Better Than Food Book Reviews where we chatted about Story of the Eye, filmmaking, music and criticism.
Clifford Sargent reviews books on YouTube. Unlike others of the same occupation, he avoids trends and talks about literature with difficult themes, challenging prose and existential musings. His videos can often feel like musings themselves, and he will talk less about what he enjoyed about the book and instead will interrogate the text, drawing meaning from it, applying it to the world around him.
His favourite book is Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye: a hallucinogenic, erotic novel from the 1920s that explores the closeness of sex and death and one that he describes here as "teenage love, set on fire but pushed way, way beyond any reasonable, rational state." It's clear that it is more than a favourite book to him; it is a hobby or an obsession. And he often speaks about literature like someone who has been seized by that endless curiosity for art. As a result, his videos come across far less like reviews and far more like someone excitedly asking: "are you seeing what I'm seeing?"
We sat down with Mr. Sargent for what was supposed to be a short chat but the conversation flowed for longer than anticipated. An uncut version can be seen above, but here is a reduced version with a handy colour key for you to jump to what you're most curious about. Or you can check out more of BETTER THAN FOOD BOOK REVIEWS on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/user/booksbetterthanfood
on FILMS and FILMMAKING
on STORY OF THE EYE
The Big Ship: You talk about literature on the internet: often hard literature. Is that how you'd describe what you do?
Better Than Food: I think I would describe it as just talking about books that I loved. And that can range from books that are fairly easy to read but difficult conceptually to both difficult conceptually and difficult to read: theres a wide range. My only criteria is that they are books that have had a tremendous impact on me, that I think are better than food.
TBS: When I first found your channel, I thought maybe 'Better Than Food' referred to a sort of rating system, but I realised when watching that all the books you review are better than food. Why do you only talk about books that impact you in that way?
BTF: There's a really pragmatic part of that which is just that, y’know, you don’t have much time: you as a viewer, your time is limited and you have all these different things going on in your life and I’m no different. We all have a certain allotted time for reading and books take a long time to read. So, it didn’t seem that it'd help to criticise authors or books that I didn’t enjoy and it didn’t seem like I had any authority to do that - or it doesn’t seem like I have any authority to do that.
But also dwelling on my negative reaction to something seemed like a waste of time. It's something I didn’t want to feed because you read certain books at different times in your life and they can affect you very differently, y’know? You can love one or despise it or be totally embarrassed by your reaction to it when you’re in your later 20s or 30s or whatever. Or the opposite: hate a book when you’re younger and then you turn 45 and think “What the hell was the the matter with me? This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read!” So, I just didn’t want to waste anybody’s time and I felt I don’t really have the authority to criticise – and who am I? To say that a book is bad, when people really love it? <Laughing> Occasionally, I talk shit on David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest only because of the length and footnotes but the reality is that he is an amazing author and far, far, far smarter than I and has accomplished far more than I ever will I’m sure.
As of now I cant offer anything valuable in that capacity [of criticism] because I'm still learning, I'm still finding what resonates with me deeply. I'm sort of scratching my own itch with this and talking about these books allows me to understand them better, so it’s a win win for me. Certain people haven’t heard of these books, I get to discuss them and then I get to learn more from them in the process.
TBS: Despite reviewing books, you have a background in film? Is that right?
BTF: Yeah I went to school for film and I just became jaded with it, because, y’know... I was super idealistic when I was in my early, early 20's and kind of as the big democratisation of everything started happening and YouTube started taking off and everyone was able to start making short films and music videos and it was just this onslaught, this avalanche of content started coming out; [it] was radically inspiring but also like “woah", you kind of got swallowed up in the middle of this whole thing.
Also, the films I wanted to make were probably not going to find the budget that I wanted in order to make them… case in point, the adaptation of Story of the Eye. So I was really, really naïve and kind of semi-aware of it but I really wanted to try. But in the end I gave up... for the time being. You never really give up on those dreams but they sort of have to change and accommodate with practical day-to-day of life. So right now, yeah, less focused on film, more focused on books.
It seems like everything's moving so fast these days, its like the slow nature of film-making… But also, the way we consume everything. It's like, who has the time to watch films? I hate saying that. I feel like my former self who was watching Bergman and Fellini would wanna choke me right now but it's like, really, life seems to have become so busy that who has the time to watch these beautiful, slow meditations on life and death? I mean, this is coming from someone who reads novels but – I don’t know. I’m clearly conflicted on it and I’m still working through a lot of stuff.
TBS: You mention Jim Jarmusch quite a lot, I was wondering what your attraction to him was?
BTF: I loved the blend of humour and darkness. But unfortunately, in his later work it seems to be just his particular blend of humour which is not nearly as effective for me as his earlier stuff when he really had this - I don’t know what you wanna call it - this edge or this grit or this real attitude. That kind of blend of attitude and humour: Down by Law, I thought that was a terrific film that really summed it up for me. But Dead Man was like the culmination of everything that I ever wanted to see from a film because it was an extremely dark film - I mean, it's really just a characters journey towards death - and yet he was able to display the humorous nature of just day-to-day living somewhere in there which I thought was perfect. I thought it was really a film that felt more real than real life, for me. Partially, I think, it took place in the Pacific North West which is where I was growing up and where I saw it; I was young I was maybe 11 or 12 and I had just never seen a film with that depth before. And the soundtrack by Neil Young was really haunting, and it all worked: the atmosphere of it. Again, the simplicity of the humour too with Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton...
And how it didn’t make any sense to me at the age I was. He was bringing poetry into it in the beginning with Crispin Glover with the soot or whatever all over his face. And there was all these mysterious elements that I just wasn’t aware of yet. So it was a real opening for me. Jarmusch was a real gateway drug for me, and Dead Man maintained its impact until the last time I saw it – which was about a year ago or so. I just think its magnificent.
TBS: I found The Story of the Eye through your channel which is, err, a hell of a book, to put it lightly.
BTF: Yeah! What was your first impression?
TBS: I actually have the same question for you, because I tried to write something for the site about it and it's almost impossible to put into words. But it disturbed me to say the least.
BTF: Yeah. Yeah. I think you had a question about my first reaction to it?
I can actually remember it. My first reaction was sitting in a Powell's Books and – I laughed. I think I laughed out loud or something <Laughing> just the total absurdity of it! I was just so… It was almost goofy: it was almost silly how outrageous all the actions were. Then I finished it on the way to Tokyo, I think. Or, in Japan a little outside of Tokyo where I was visiting my mom: she was working on this naval base in Japan and I was visiting her and seeing Japan for the first time. And because of that I had a lot of time to spend on my own and kind of isolated because I didn’t speak the language. And I was just exploring and looking at this different culture and looking at Tokyo and just sort of, in awe at all of this and thinking and reading quite a bit. And this one really stuck with me. And even though it was a simple story I think I read it again once or twice and then it really started to get in there. And all of a sudden I wasn’t laughing anymore. Because it was like: this is kind of silly and outrageous and absurd but then he would have these passages, discussing the night sky and all of these lines... He would come in with these deeply philosophical lines, it seemed. And I was like “Okay, there's something beneath this” so then I started to excavate, and then I started to read into him and then I started to read more of his books and theory and that just opened this chasm and there is so, so much in there.
And this led to other authors – kind of, I think, indirectly. Specifically coming from Story of the Eye, after that what I was reading was more of [Bataille]. So I was reading Eroticism and his works: Guilty and then Inner Experience and Visions of Excess. And there was one particularly amazing book – at least I thought when I read it – called Bataille’s Peak by a guy named Allan Stoekl, which was all about Bataille’s theory of energy.
But then indirectly this led to stuff like Octave Mierbeau so the Torture Garden and then Huysmans and Against Nature which is... both of those books are tremendous. And then kind of loosely affiliated, maybe talking to some of the same themes, maybe you would put in Mishima: Mishima had actually read Bataille which is interesting. Or Lautréamont and Rimbaud, I think Bataille referenced them. That's the fun thing about authors and filmmakers and artists you get to read their references and that just leads to all these different directions if you follow them.
TBS: It's like a rabbit hole. As you were saying with your first reaction, you laughed at Story of the Eye. Almost everyone I've given it to, they read the first page and it's like "You weren't kidding" - it's like the second sentence or something, you know that first explicit language? It's right off the bat.
BTF: And it's 1928! It's 1928, it's insane! You know, he was a librarian and he wrote that under a pseudonym and it seems like that was a very wise move and if I remember correctly I think even his “enemies” knew that he had written the book but nobody outed him, nobody revealed he was the author. I think maybe it was known but it was sort of hush hush. And I don’t think that it was revealed that he was the author either until – you might have to look this up, because I could be wrong - but I'm pretty sure til after he passed away, then they printed his name.
There's a mythology to that guy too. We could talk about The Secret Society of Acephale and all of that around WWII. I'm reading a book called The Sacred Conspiracy right now, I mean it goes... there's a lot of material there if anybody's interested and its dark and its powerful and its interesting.
TBS: Even in your review of [Story of the Eye] you call it a "map". What would you say would be the best next step on the map? Obviously I don't want you to spoil the whole journey...
BTF: I don’t know if you could. I mean, it can lead you in so many directions but I would say, if you’re interested and you really enjoyed the book, read his biography by Michel Surya which is tremendous. An amazing biography, I think the best I've read. And I guess I haven’t read that many biographies but that was a fucking amazing book. And a great portrait of a character, a complex character. And then I think Eroticism if you’re interested in Bataille's philosophy.
And then I think you asked a question about Bjork? Like whether I found the book liberating?
TBS: Yeah. When I read the book I thought it was a sort of cautionary tale almost about how the mind affects your reality, in a way? But then I read what Bjork said about it and it was the complete opposite! She was saying that you don't need to find logic within your needs and all of that. I was wondering if you stood on any side of the fence?
BTF: Both. Absolutely, yeah. And I think it depends on how old you are and where you are in your life when you read it, undoubtedly. I think it can feel more liberating or more cautionary depending on where you are and your context – I mean it can change hourly, like day-to-day because it's kind of a contradiction right? We want to live life to the fullest but we also want to not die and not get hurt.
It's sort of like the ultimate tale of outrageous teenage love and expression. It's kind of strange to call it a love story – it sort of is – but it's about two characters who essentially are just uninhibited to the point of self-destruction and the destruction of everybody around them. It's like teenage love set on fire or something but pushed way, way, way beyond any rational, reasonable state. And it's like, if that switch that people have that gets flipped whenever their darkest desires come up was just set to 'off' and everything just went as far as it possibly could and there was just no self-preservation, no compassion, no logic anymore: this is where it goes.
And I think that's where [Bataille] was trying to go with it. But it's also so hard to give any reasonable, rational answer to why somebody would write that book. And I think he just started writing it with no goal in mind, it was just stream of consciousness. Which, if that is actually true and I'm remembering correctly, I think that’s just… I think that’s terrific. Hes not trying to teach anybody anything I don’t think but it's what it reveals about humans which is so compelling.
That’s the thing about Bataille, there was some great quote that’s like: “I have seen only one face of truth, and its that of a violent contradiction”. And I found that fascinating.
TBS: It really is. My mum always used to say that when she was pregnant, all of a sudden she started seeing pregnant women everywhere and it's almost like when you've read Story of the Eye you've suddenly been let in on this, almost cult. At the start of Gaspar Noe's Climax there's a bookcase around a television and on the bookcase is Story of the Eye and it's like all of a sudden you start seeing all these people that have also [read it].
BTF: I - er – I busted into the office of “Wild Bunch” when I was at Cannes Film Festival and I was tracking down Gaspar Noe’s producer.
It was almost cinematic! I talked my way into there somehow. I don’t know how. I don’t even know what I said but they let me past the door into this office and there he is: this guy, who I'd been researching. And I go straight up to him, and I have the book - the French version - in my hand. I’m like “Hi, I'm the guy who's been bugging you and I'm trying to make this.” And he's like “Ahhhhh, I like that one!”
I tried to follow up on that but, of course, me, I'm this American kid who is just trying to do this shit and it all fell through but that was a funny moment. I wonder about that, I wonder how that made it in. That’s funny.
TBS: So, down this rabbit hole would you say that the biography is your favourite destination that Story of the Eye has led you or are there others that have had a similar sort of impact?
BTF: Hm… yeah the biography is the best. But you can branch out from there and you can go to [Bataille's] influences which was Sade and Nietzsche and then you can branch off from there. I mean, there's all kinds. But the biography and his philosophical theories were the most interesting to me because they're just... I don’t even know how to describe them. I would go check them out for yourself.
TBS: That sounds enticing! Okay, well I think that's pretty much all I wanted to ask you but I had some quick-fire questions actually...
BTF: Yeah hit me! Absolutely.
TBS: I was wondering what album or artist you've been listening to a lot recently? I know you're a big music fan.
BTF: Oh! Huge music fan! God, I could list a shit ton of stuff. Umm, just about anything on Sacred Bones for one. A lot lately. 13th Floor Elevators and Rocky Erickson, I recently got into that. But really I’ve just been listening to the one song over and over again: which is You’re Gonna Miss Me, which is a terrific song. 'Cause I’m moving to Austin Texas so I have this psychedelic garage rock thing, like Black Angels, big fan of them... Townes Van Zandt, I'm a big fan of him.
The last show I saw when I went down to Austin Texas to go check it out was Boris and this band called Uniform, listen to this band called Uniform and there's this track called Perfect World by this band. Those guys are harsh dude, that is some really heavy shit. That’s about the most vicious stuff I’ve heard recently where I was like “oh man that sounds good”. They’re on Sacred Bones. And then there's one band who I just wanna mention, who I’ve been listening to for a while, its sort of shoe-gazey, noisy, rock. Very, very strange. I think they were fairly short lived. But it’s a band called Skywave and there's a song called All I Had which you can find on Spotify or YouTube which is a really, really, beautiful rock song that’s just drenched in this reverb-y, cacophonous noise and I’d never really heard anything like that. So, yeah, I thought that was tremendous.
TBS: If you could recommend a book to help somebody fall in love with reading again, what would it be?
BTF: I fell in love with reading novels again because of Roberto Bolaño when I was about 19 or 20: 2666 that was the one where I was just like “Ugh, wow”. And I think I read an interview with him and he was talking about Borges and how he loves Borges and then I read the collective fiction of Borges in Japan as well and I read those and it's just astounding. So if you would like to get back into reading, that’s kind of an un-intimidating way to do it. Well, maybe it's intimidating I'm not sure, but it's not a giant commitment because these are short stories that he wrote. And if you read Collected Fictions of Jorges Luis borges, you're transported to so many interesting worlds. And you get so much for so few pages, they're so economical and the’re just beautiful, just astounding. I would say start with that. Everybody's different they all have their own tastes and preferences, I definitely couldn’t say Story of the Eye because that’s not a book for everyone. But Borges maybe is the one that I would recommend to everyone.
But, that discipline. Exercising that discipline when you’re reading is so crucial. Distraction is death. I was having a conversation with my wife and I came up with that line: that came out of my mouth and that’s what I wanna get across to people. Distraction is death! Your phone is fucking death! Get that shit out of the room if you can when you're reading because if it's there, goddammit you're gonna pick it up and you're gonna check your email or Instagram or whatever. Nothing wrong with that, but distraction is death.
Reading demands focus. Its not just passive, you cant multitask: you are reading. You are reading, you are interpreting the shit on the page and you gotta give it that time and space. Its almost like meditation or something. I don’t know, what do you think?
TBS: Yeah, I completely agree. I remember I watched a YouTube video by Max Joseph and it's about finding reading again. He visits all these bookstores across the world and he speaks to this professor of literature and she calls reading "forced meditation".
BTF: Oh brilliant! Yeah, that’s great! That’s wonderful, thanks for that.
TBS: I think "distraction is death" is a pretty great way to end the interview, so thank you very much for taking the time out to do this.
BTF: Well, I'm very flattered that you got in touch and that you're interested. And thank you very much for watching the show, seriously I mean I sincerely appreciate it. Thank you.