July 24th, 2009


The extraordinary case of the Capgras letters

Yesterday I received a curious email. "Dear Momus," it began, "as of today, I will no longer be updating Twit Opera. Please feel free to do whatever you want with the account [details supplied]. Delete it, leave it be, or become Twit Opera yourself. I also offer you an essay to post on Click Opera should you so wish." The mail was signed "Joseph Capgras".

When I googled the name, I discovered a Wikipedia article which began: "The Capgras delusion (or Capgras syndrome) is a disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that a friend, spouse or other close family member, has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor." In the knowledge that many will not believe the extraordinary tale that here unfolds -- for, like the boy who cried wolf, I have tried your credibility once too often -- I reproduce below the essay which accompanied the mail. I myself am satisfied that this is the truth, although the identity of the author of this document remains a mystery.

Momus & Me: Inside Twit Opera

Twit Opera is dead. Momus was slightly ahead of the curve in announcing his demise earlier this week, but fundamentally he was not wrong. And now that I’ve finally killed him off, liberating myself from the Oulipo-like constraints of the 140-character summary, I thought I’d write a little essay about Momus, me, and the Twit Opera “experiment”.

When did I first hear of Momus? Not in 1987, back when he was an ambitious wannabe and I was young music obsessive, reading The Face, living not far from Momus, even frequenting the same Chelsea haunts as him (The Dôme, Bar Escobar). At that time I was probably listening to rare groove or Eric B. & Rakim, and going out to “warehouse parties” (proto-raves). But Scottish balladeers weren’t on my radar. The hip London-centric world had by then moved on from the homegrown quirky chanteurs of the early eighties, towards a sort of Americana in both music and appearance, what with the slicked-back hair and bomber jackets the “trendies” (ancestors of today’s hipsters) were buying at King’s Road shops like Flip. In a sense, right from the start Momus wanted to be part of a club that wasn’t so interested in having him as a member.

The name must have popped up in the mid-nineties, when I was investigating who (apart from Scott Walker) had done Brel covers in English. But the first time Momus really appeared on my horizon would have been in 2003 or 2004, when I briefly lurked at the banally named I Love Music message board. Momus was there too, posting regularly, daily, hourly, in such voluminous quantities that made me wonder how it was he had nothing better to do with his time. ILM was a good enough resource for gossip about indie music, but its atmosphere of moronic locker-room banter never appealed to me. Momus made something of a splash there as House Provocateur, and copped phenomenal amounts of abuse – and yet there was his kittenish desire to be loved and accepted by these mostly boring people. Why? It was as if Momus was the school nerd trying desperately to be liked by the dumb jocks. In any case, it was yet another example of wanting to be a member of a club that was ambivalent and ultimately indifferent towards him. But how hard he tried!

Momus was almost the only interesting thing on ILM, so I stopped reading it after he jumped ship to populate his own little island on Livejournal. And there he has remained, churning out a relentless blizzard of critique, observation, social theory, own-trumpetry. More or less from the start I was reading Click Opera with a mix of fascination and irritation – a seductive combination. For all that I found Momus’s ideas interesting, I also found them incredibly self-serving. For all that I found similarities between the Momus persona and myself, I also found irreconcilable differences. Momus was “me” (an artist, an intellectual, endlessly curious about art and ideas, not very successful and yet successful enough); but he was also “not me” (an extrovert, a performer, a tell-all, a tireless self-promoter with a boundless fascination with himself and every last mention of himself, no matter how small.) Momus and I share a cultural background and way of thinking. We both grew up on Bowie and Kafka. But he’s a Classicist-Modernist; I’m a Romantic-Modernist. I’m sure Momus is a very warm and friendly person to meet, and yet I have a feeling that deep down there’s something quite disengaged within him – no doubt that “sliver of ice” that every artist needs. (And yes, I’m perfectly aware of my own petty self-aggrandisement in my characterisations of him and me.)

I had a Pessoa-ish idea for a blog. It would be by someone not unlike Momus’s Barry Greaves. Some Pooter-ish 40-year-old living in his parents’ attic, who is secretly writing Click Opera. He’s created the personae of Momus and Nick Currie, who live the glamorous life he has denied himself. His days pass photoshopping Berlin backgrounds to images of himself in his “Momus” get-up, dreaming up new ideas and “plots” for Click Opera. But increasingly, “Momus” is becoming a burden to him. When it all gets too much he sends “Momus” off on trips around the world, where he can plausibly post less often. He toys with getting rid of Momus, but doesn’t know how. He realises that giving Momus an eye infection and having him lose an eye – making him suffer – represents a desire to punish Momus, and therefore himself. In his darker moments, he wonders how he’ll eventually destroy Momus. Perhaps strangled by the elastic knicker-band he uses for his eyepatch, in some absurd Isadora Duncan-type accident. Or perhaps Japan will ungratefully rise up against him – he’ll die of a post-orgasmic heart attack, straddled over the body of a bukkake pornstar…

Of course, I was never going to author such a blog; it would have required far too much time and energy, and unlike Barry Greaves, I do actually have a life to be getting on with. But the idea sort of stayed with me, and when for a brief moment a fake Momus appeared on Twitter, I hit on the idea of a “twittered” Click Opera. It would take me no time, and what’s more it was “right” because it was “wrong” (to borrow a Momus aperçu): the genuine Momus is far too prolix to ever be able to sum himself up in 140 characters. So I thought I’d just start it, and see how long it took for Momus to notice it. I was in no hurry for him to do so, although I was surprised it took a whole two months. In the meantime my Twit Momus took shape, developed his own character. He was dumber and coarser than the real Momus, Caliban instead of Prospero. He was an atrophied monster, stripped of sophistication and sophistry until all that is left is self-aggrandisement, nippophiliac lust and tribal hipsterism.

Twit Opera’s decline started when Momus noticed it. And boy, did he notice it! Momus devoted an entire Click Opera post to his discovery of Twit Opera; mentioned it often in later posts; offered his own Twit Opera summaries on occasion; coyly hinted that he himself was the author (and perhaps he wished he were). Then, after spending a few days sans Internet in the country this week, I returned to both Click & Twit Operas to discover that Momus had devoted yet another entire post to Twit Opera, concocting an elaborate satire of the satire.

Right from the start I’d known how Momus would respond to Twit Opera. Many, if not most people would be pissed off or creeped out by the concept but I knew Momus would be pleased that someone thought he was worthy of satire. Ironically, that certainty had allowed me to do Twit Opera in the first place, since if I’d thought he’d be uncomfortable with it, I never would have done it. Of course, now we get into tangled territory. Am I satirising him not because I dislike him, but because I want him to like me? And was Momus’s Barry Greaves satire actually a bid for my sympathy? Were we both becoming too complicit in our respective satires for them to mean anything at all? And there was an added problem, one that Momus perceptively skewered in his Barry Greaves post. I’d only started Twit Opera because I thought a tweet a day would take up no time at all. But instead, like Barry Greaves, I found myself “reloading the Click Opera homepage over and over murmuring 'Come on, come on, post, you bastard!'” Twit Opera hadn’t taken over my life, but it was taking over a bit more of it than I’d bargained for.

I thought of various ways of disposing of Twit Opera. I thought of contacting one of Momus’s commenters and asking if he wanted to take over. I thought that Twit Opera might evolve into someone else. I thought of various “performance art” type ideas. But in the end I decided to get in touch with Momus himself, and ask him whether he’d give me a guest post on Click Opera. If you’re seeing this, then Momus has assented, as I know he will. It’s what Twit Opera always craved, of course.

Joseph Capgras (aka Twit Opera)

With Joseph's permission I reproduce our follow-up correspondence below the cut.

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