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Message 241: Cnut

The cover for Thom Yorke’s solo album is a print entitled “Cnut” by Stanley Donwood (available for sale online here) from his “London Views” series of linoleum cuts.

Heading along the Wikipedia route, we find that “Cnut,” while it looks like an unintentional/intentional misspelling of “cunt,” is also a variant spelling of “Canute.” An excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Canute deserves quoting as it’s immediately relevant to Donwood’s piece:

According to the legend, [Canute] grew tired of flattery from his courtiers. When one such flatterer gushed that the king could even command the obedience of the sea, Canute proved him wrong by practical demonstration at Bosham, his point being that even a king’s powers have limits. Unfortunately, this legend is usually misunderstood to mean that he believed himself so powerful that the natural elements would obey him, and that his failure to command the tides only made him look foolish. It is quite possible that the legend is simply pro-Canute propaganda.

Canute, then, or Cnut, becomes a double-edged symbol, and it is unclear how Downwood and/or Yorke intend us to read Cnut’s legend into the artwork. Does “Cnut” depict a mysterious (long-black coat, face hidden by hat) and Kafkaesque bureaucrat who can truly wield elemental power and initiate change? The waters seem to be held back by the figure. Or is the figure arrogant to think he can put the weather to rights? Or will the figure try and fail, thereby proving his arrogance or proving his flatterers wrong?

More reading on the Canute legend is needed, but whatever the case, Thom Yorke, in classic Radiohead style, has given us something to think about. Along these lines, this instance recalls Lionel Trlling’s description of George Orwell, as not a genius, but a figure. Whereas, Trilling writes, Yeats, Shaw, Eliot, and Forster can be considered geniuses, Orwell stands apart:

Orwell takes his place among these men as a figure. In one degree or another they are geniuses, and he is not; if we ask what it is he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is this: the virtue of not being a genius, of confronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for powers one does have and the work one undertakes to do. … He is not a genius—what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do. (263-264)

To be sure, I could never make the haunting music Yorke and all of Radiohead together and separately compose, or the powerful artwork Donwood creates, but they all possess a genuine humbleness and a sincere work ethic which anyone could imitate to good result. The highest praise, I think, derives from Trilling’s assessment of Orwell: Radiohead are not aloof geniuses or stadium-touring giants (poor Damon Albarn, where’s the humanity in being a cartoon cariacature?), but people of undeceived intelligence, producing intelligent music and art. Art very like that lineoleum cut, “Cnut,” produced by Donwood.

When one really thinks hard about the title, how could Donwood—as we know him—not imply “cunt”? “Cnut” can be used as short for “conservative nut,” but it’s also internet slang: an intentional misspelling to dodge chat filters, for instance, like pr0n. The picture takes on weight when you consider its title, but the picture, if weighed upon too heavily with stilted analyses will start to creak and fade. Donwood, if pressed over any of this—is Cnut really Canute or is Cnut really Cunt?, would answer with a chuckle. His answer would dodge, his answer would deceive, ultimately. In refusing to answer, we are forced to maintain a questioning stance, the stance best suited to forming an undeceived intelligence.

For the Trilling quote, see Lionel Trilling, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).

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