Refined Out of Existence

Has ‘woke’ finally caught up with Brown Sugar?

‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave’ by William Blake, 1796
‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave’ by William Blake, 1796

Refined Out of Existence

It is well known that in antique times the institution of slavery was pervasive. The ancient Athenians may have invented democracy, but the voters still depended on slaves to serve the wine at the symposium. As for the Romans, they may have been marvellous engineers, but it was their slaves who ran the plumbing. 

What isn’t so generally known is that some of the most influential philosophies of the classical age derived from slavery: the cynics and the stoics both drew their inspiration from it. Epictetus, one of the foremost stoic theorists, was actually an ex-slave, one of the few philosophers with first-hand experience of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Another was Diogenes the Cynic. That old dog (cynic comes from κυνικός, meaning doglike) had a constant fixation with slavery and may well have died in bondage, albeit bondage of a very paradoxical kind. 

From early on in Diogenes’ story there is a slave involved. Forced to leave his native Sinope under a cloud – he was accused of having debased the currency – Diogenes headed for Athens and promptly lost his companion, a slave by the name of Manes. Apparently, Manes felt that hanging around his master was incurring too much reputational damage. His ex-master’s reaction to this misfortune was typically unruffled: “If Manes can live without Diogenes, why not Diogenes without Manes?”

There are aspects of the old dog’s character that suggest he went on to imitate Manes, or at least the likely career path of his escaped bondsman. The philosopher is famous for having lived in a barrel, though more properly we should picture it as a large ceramic pot, or pithos. He considered Antisthenes the true disciple of Socrates and disdained Plato. The feeling was mutual, with Plato calling his rival ‘Socrates gone mad.’ It turned out that when Diogenes followed Antisthenes, his puppylike devotion was unwelcome and the older man attempted to beat him off with a stick. Diogenes merely invited his blows, declaring “you will find no wood hard enough to deter me, so long as I think you have something to say.” Eventually, with some reluctance, Antisthenes accepted him as his pupil. Indeed, according to Epictetus, “Diogenes was set free by Antisthenes, and said that from that point forward he could never be enslaved by anyone again” (Discourses, 4.1). 

Now Epictetus was well aware of Diogenes’ biography. What he meant was that Diogenes was set free mentally by the philosophical teachings of Antisthenes. Thus, the theme of enslavement appears again. Intellectual bondage is worse than any other; for a cynic or stoic, freedom from it is also the antidote to literal bondage.     

None of Diogenes’ writings have survived, which is a great loss to us all. As a result, we only really have the anecdotes (which may well be apocryphal) and the sayings (which may have been misattributed). It’s a semi-mythical personality that comes down to us, which is possibly appropriate to a man who saw himself as following Hercules as a man of action, though while the big man was famous for his labours, Diogenes is best known for his dirty protests against the conventions of Athenian society and for not doing what that society expected of him. Hence, he famously undertook the herculean task of carrying a lamp around in broad daylight in search of an honest man. 

Diogenes was, in plain truth, the anti-Hercules, anti-action hero. His posture of choice was undoubtedly supine. Even in the context of Raphael’s School of Athens, he sprawls in the attitude of a renaissance beatnik, primed to trip Aristotle over as he attempts to descend the stairs. He’s an accident waiting to happen. I suppose we have to be grateful that on this occasion he only has a sheet of parchment in his hand:

A cynical posture. Diogenes, School of Athens

Perhaps because his extensive works are all lost, it’s hard to imagine him doing much for most of the time, and the most well-known story about him, concerning his encounter with Alexander the Great in Corinth, underlines this. Alexander was, of course, the ultimate man of action. Learning that Diogenes was in town, and that the philosopher could not be arsed to come and meet the great prince, Alexander decided to go and see him. According to one story, he found Diogenes on the ground, sifting through a pile of human bones. When asked why, Diogenes somewhat churlishly replied that he was “searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave.” It’s that slavery motif again. 

Another fragment of the conversation has the young monarch declaring that, if he were not Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes, to which the old dog replies that if he were not Diogenes, he would still wish to be Diogenes. 

At this point, no doubt, some edgy member of the royal entourage was itching to unsheathe their sword and plunge it between the old boy’s shoulder blades. Alexander, however, is unfazed, and the most famous part of the exchange is yet to come. He offers to do the philosopher whatever favour he desires, and Diogenes, presumably still from the recumbent position, asks him to stop blocking the light. The wording is usually given as “Stand out of the sunlight!” As you’d expect, the armed entourage instantly descend on him, raining down blows.

Actually, this is not the case. In fact, Alexander takes the philosopher’s insolence on the chin, recognising that he has met his match and that Diogenes is incapable of flattery. The master-slave dichotomy has been unmasked as a worthless fiction. One wonders why, after learning a lesson quite so persuasive as this one, Alexander bothered to pursue his conquests at all, when he could simply have taken out a mortgage on a nice little two-up-two-down pithos of his own.

The story could easily have ended there for Diogenes. Aging gracefully in his barrel, he could easily have dined out for the rest of his days on the Alexander story. However, one afternoon, while on his way to Aegina, he is captured by pirates. This is where the slavery motif returns with a vengeance. In the clutches of Skirpalos and his crew, Diogenes and his fellow captives experience great brutality. They are given barely enough food to survive. Unintimidated as always, Diogenes rebukes his captors, saying that if one has pigs or sheep to sell, one fattens them up and keeps them healthy, yet they keep the finest of animals, human beings, on sparse food, until they are reduced to skeletons and quite worthless. Listening to reason, the pirates begin to feed all their prisoners better.

Then the captives, by now distinctly plump, are taken to Crete to be put up for auction as slaves. Diogenes is asked where he is from, to which he gives his standard reply, that he is from “everywhere”, being a citizen of the world. Diogenes is credited with coining (as only he knew how) the word ‘cosmopolitan’. He then lectures the slaveowners on how to go about buying men. He says that if they are buying a pot or a plate, they first make certain it is of good quality, but when buying men, they merely look them over; they make no effort to test their character. Persuaded by this reasoning, the auctioneer asks him what he is skilled at, and Diogenes replies “Governing men.” He then points at a wealthy Corinthian in the audience, called Xeniades, who is dressed in rich garb, and says “Sell me to that man, as he looks like he could do with a master!” 

You have to hand it to Diogenes, he’s no respecter of persons. There he is, brought to a pretty pass as the overweight captive of a scoundrel called Skirpalos, paraded before a bunch of ruffians with the power of life or death over him, who could have him flogged for winking in a way they didn’t like, and he has the nerve to pick one of them out in the crowd and say “I’ll take him!” 

Perhaps surprisingly, Xeniades purchases Diogenes and takes him back to Corinth. He puts the cynic in charge of his children and indeed his whole household. Diogenes immediately sets about telling them how to run their lives, what clothes not to wear, which social conventions to despise most, etc. Unsurprisingly, the children warm to their instructor. But he also oversees their athletic training, and he teaches them to live simply and to endure hardship. Apparently, the boys love him for this too. Diogenes has such a good time teaching them everything he knows that he turns down an offer from his friends to pay a ransom for his liberty. Xeniades sometimes complains that it doesn’t seem right being bossed around by one’s own slave, but Diogenes placates him with the philosophical reply that his master should obey his instructions, based on his expertise in the art of living. After all, even if a doctor or a navigator were a slave, their advice would still be worth following. In short, he ‘cynically’ subverts the entire institution of slavery. Is it the man who walks the dog, or the dog that walks the man? It boils down to a question of perspective.

Diogenes’ wisdom and virtue make him a true master. The moral is that when someone has expertise we should listen to them, regardless of their status or somewhat repellent personal habits. Michael Gove would disagree of course, allergic as he is to expertise of any kind. As for the prime minister, his critics might say that, for all his classical education, he shows little sign of emulating the old Greek philosophers. One only has to look at the rampant materialism. Difficult to imagine Diogenes having his abode decorated by Lulu Lytle or planning to spend £150,000 on a treehouse at Chequers. But is this entirely fair? Boris Johnson has referred to himself as Big Dog, after all, and he is unimpeachably cynical. Sometimes it’s as if one of the ancient sages is living among us.

Speaking of which, my mind naturally turns to the Sixties and the ancients that survive from that golden age. As I write, a sex scandal is paralysing the Tory government worthy of the ‘permissive age’ and the ‘Glimmer Twins’ (as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are sometimes known) are playing in Hyde Park. It feels just like that hallowed decade when London was swinging, apparently. Mick is almost certainly strutting his septuagenarian stuff, ‘Keef’ is more than likely sporting his bandana, and there’s every chance a host of butterflies could be released at any minute. But one thing is absolute proof, beyond all these things, that we are not in a Sixties time warp. Unlike back then, the crowd will not be treated to one of the Rolling Stones’ most famous riffs. For over a year now, Brown Sugar has been absent from their repertoire. Such is the age we are living through. Just as slavery troubled the minds of the ancient philosophers, so its legacy troubles the conscience of Western societies, and a perfect illustration of that troubled conscience is the fate of one of the most iconic tracks from the back catalogue of one of the world’s most iconic rock bands.  

The Rolling Stones

It's as well to digress for a moment here on the subject of the Glimmer Twins’ creative process. One of the characteristics of a typical Stones lyric is the tendency to court scandal and one of the forms this takes is hyperbole. There is usually a certain archness to the hyperbole, too. You only have to consider the lyrics to Sympathy for the Devil and the catalogue of atrocities Jagger describes, as if they were (given that he is impersonating Satan) of his own devising. Yet, despite his lurid accounts of destruction and suffering, this is a fallen angel who insists on certain verbal refinements, of the kind satirised by David Low in this famous cartoon from the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact:

Impeccable manners

It isn’t really sympathy Jagger’s Devil demands, so much as respect: 

So if you meet me, have some courtesy,

Have some sympathy, and some taste,

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I’ll lay your soul to waste.

That word ‘politesse’ jars in just the right way, coming as it does from a pitiless destroyer of civilisation. It’s the very tone adopted by Putin’s diplomats, for instance, when they object to an undiplomatic formulation by their president’s critics. When Joe Biden, for example, referred to Putin as a ‘war criminal’, the Russian foreign ministry complained that the remark was ‘unworthy of a state figure of such a high rank’ (Guardian, 21 March 2022), as if bombing defenceless civilians in Mariupol was perfectly worthy of a high-ranking individual. Since then, the G7 leaders have mocked the Russian president’s habit of baring his torso, whether on horseback or while wrestling Siberian tigers. A more secure individual might have shrugged the comments off, but Putin is as thin-skinned as the Devil himself – he could not resist commenting that these same leaders would be a ‘disgusting sight’ if they disrobed, owing to their lack of exercise and abuse of alcohol. 

But I digress. The same songwriters who had revelled in impersonating the voice of The Fiend, had adopted the attitude of a serial killer in Midnight Rambler and a palace revolutionary in Street Fighting Man. This tendency to project themselves into the minds and attitudes of violent men accounts for the controversial first verse of Brown Sugar, where the singer describes the whipping of women with unsavoury enthusiasm. After all, the Stones present us with the unsavoury as a matter of routine. And they usually sing about lust. In Bitch, jagger salivates like a Pavlovian dog if a woman calls his name. It’s never really love with the Stones; that was strictly Beatles territory. In the few instances where they attempt something more tender, it comes across as syrupy. The credentials of rock depend on its Satanic heritage. Robert Johnson, arguably the greatest master of the blues, famously met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul for the sake of his music.

Robert Johnson, devilishly good

Brown Sugar, then, is not just quintessential Stones; in its wickedness, it draws on a tradition in black music, itself a by-product of slavery. It is doubly ironic, therefore, that the one example of their creative output that was not permitted to survive in the repertoire, is the one with a passing reference to that peculiar institution. Ironic, also, as they have always been explicit in their reverential attitude to black music. Keith Richards has been known to claim he is black, despite the obvious visual evidence to the contrary. The blues were written right through the heart of early British rock and roll. Chuck Berry was a demigod who Keith Richards would eventually work with, though Chuck was harder work than he’d anticipated. Surely, no one could accuse of racism the founders of that derivative British sound they sent back to America with such explicit gratitude – cultural appropriation perhaps, but racism?  

And yet, despite their form when it came to provocative lyrics, Brown Sugar was always on a different level of controversy. Its subjects included interracial sex, cunnilingus and drug use, but it was the graphic content of the first verse that stuck in the craw, so much so that this most pungent verse had already undergone small alterations over the years, dropping any reference to whipping. Jagger himself seemed slightly embarrassed by the song. After noting that the lyrics could mean so many lewd subjects, he suggested that the combination of these subjects, the lyrical ambiguity, was partially why the song was considered successful. “That makes it... the whole mess thrown in. God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go... I never would write that song now.” When interviewer Jann Wenner asked him why, Jagger replied, “I would probably censor myself. I'd think, ‘Oh God, I can't. I've got to stop. I can't just write raw like that.’” It sounds exactly as if the lyrics came straight out of his unconscious, uncensored, or else from another source altogether, way beyond Jagger himself. As another music critic puts it, 

‘After a peerless guitar intro, Jagger strikes up thus: “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Skydog slaver know he’s doin’ all right / Hear him whip the women, just around midnight.” It’s as if the song were by not Jagger and Richards, but the song writing duo Edward Colston and Harvey Weinstein.’

I have some minor issues here. Firstly, apt as the Colston and Weinstein quip undoubtedly is, the evidence suggests that Jagger wrote this one himself. There are also clear indications that he was dating a black woman at the time, if not more than one, hence the inspiration for what is a remarkably sexualised lyric even by his libidinous standards. 

The other issue I have is with ‘Skydog slaver.’ I have always heard ‘Scarred old slaver’ myself, and the decrepitude of the slaver contributed something to the perversity of the image. Jagger had pulled off the same grotesque combination in Jumpin’ Jack Flash when he wrote of being ‘raised by a toothless bearded hag. / I was schooled with a strap right across my back.’ It’s a juxtaposition only, but is it too far-fetched to presume that the toothless hag was doing the strapping here? Age play, in short.  

What was required with Brown Sugar was a kind of doublethink inherent to the Stones and to Jagger’s persona in particular – that we are listening to a fictional character’s innermost thoughts, the internal workings of a demonic mind, and that Jagger is that demon. He isn’t though, is he? He’s a relatively well-spoken, rather intellectual sounding Englishman who has a penchant for cricket. Yes, but he’s also the man who wrote Brown Sugar when he was sleeping with black women and acting like a proper rake and a hellraiser. This one musical effusion brings to an almost obscene aporia the dispute between art as a projection of the imagination – the reason why Midnight Rambler did not require its writer to be an actual serial killer – and art as the unimpeded communication of the artist’s soul. Could this be because the relationship of master to slave in the Cynic’s improbable story is the same as the artist’s relationship to his own art work? That is to say, it’s unclear who is at what end of the leash. Brown Sugar is a victim of this paradox.    

If the warning signs had always been there, outright cancellation from the Stones’ set would take decades. Now, finally, it's a goner. What was rightly described by its creator as a ‘good grove’ is no more. What Robert Christgau once characterised as “a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis” has finally received its exegetical reckoning. Fifty years down the line, the surrounding culture has finally abandoned the effort involved in the Stones’ dangerous doublethink and come down on the side of the angels. The lyric is complicit with slavery, ergo Mick Jagger and his hot ‘English blood’ are the agents of oppression. As if it was as archaic in its worldview as The Sun Has Got His Hat On, Tom Taylor has recently concluded that Brown Sugar “does not offer one considered thought to the subject matter that it sings of” and that “the atrocity of the slave trade, rape and the unimaginable suffering therein should not be adorned with gyrating, glib lyrics, guitar solos and no redeeming features in the way of discerned appraisal.” 

Gyrating is good. Reminds me of Charlie Watts complaining about how he’d spent four decades watching “Mick’s bum running around in front of me.” 

There you have it, the true verdict of posterity.

Charlie Watts. Incredibly dapper

Everyone should have their own Stones anecdote. The closest I got to an actual band member was during a year I spent living in a shoe box on the King’s Road, and it was a glimpse of Charlie Watts stepping out of a chauffeur-driven car with his granddaughter and visiting a toy shop. He looked incredibly dapper in a brown suit, but who would have expected anything less of him.

Actually, greedy as I am for Stones anecdotes, I have an even better one, though it doesn’t involve quite such a literal brush with fame as the Kings Road anecdote. It is, however, very pertinent to the Brown Sugar theme. 

Back towards the close of the last century, and at a time when it was far safer to do so, I went on a three-month truck ride to West Africa. On the trip with me were about forty English people, one of whom was a young black woman – her mother was black, that is, while her father was white. As a consequence of this mixed heritage, the local people had a habit of referring to her as ‘white’, which was something she had never encountered before. 

The relationships I formed over the course of three months, crossing from Senegal to Ghana in a truck, covered the full spectrum. In the case of this young woman, the relationship was cordial, and I went to visit her somewhere in London after the trip. She still lived with her mother and the kitchen was the focus of the house. We sat there with her mum, exchanging memories of the trip, and then I noticed the black and white pictures on the kitchen wall. They were of her mum’s youth, and one showed her beaming alongside the Stones. Two of them had an arm round her shoulder. “Oh my God,” I said. “You knew the Stones!” “Yes, a long time ago,” she said, “before they were really famous. Mick was my boyfriend, but I wasn’t prepared to go to bed with him unless he married me…” Then the bombshell: “And that’s why he wrote Satisfaction.” 

This was a photograph taken on the brink of superstardom, as well as the image of a snag in Jagger’s career as a womaniser. Satisfaction is generally recognised as the beginning of the Stones, the song that marked them out as a unique phenomenon. It was the moment the Glimmer Twins arrived. It is one of the most universally recognised songs in rock history, but I’d never heard before that a young black woman had inspired it, and here I was, sitting in her kitchen three decades later – the woman who had loved Jagger so much she turned him down.

I don’t think the later, more notorious song is deserving of oblivion, any more than I think the attitude of the Stones to race is, in the post-classical sense, cynical. But the problem with Brown Sugar is there in the Satisfaction story too: its inextricable connection to biographical fact. Two black women are speculatively associated with the song. One was an Ikette by the name of Claudia Lennear. The other, Marsha Hunt, was the mother of Jagger’s first child:

Young Marsha Hunt 

If either of these women were the inspiration for the erotic enthusiasm of Brown Sugar, then Jagger’s use of the word ‘raw’ to describe the lyric would look similar to ‘unrefined’ in the literary sense. James Joyce spoke about this quality, paradoxically enough, in the ‘portrait’ of an artist based explicitly on his own biographical reality: “The mystery of aesthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the god of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” 

It’s as if Jagger regrets the artistic carelessness of his younger self, even though this would have led to self-censorship and threatened to unravel the song, probably at the expense of its power. In the pact at the crossroads, the artist offers up his or her identity to the Devil. Robert Johnson becomes the subject of his own songs, his pain or pleasure is inseparable from them, as in the oddly titled Kind Hearted Woman: 

Ain’t but the one thing makes Mr Johnson drink

I’s worried about how you treat me, baby, I begin to think

“Oh babe, my life don’t feel the same.

You break my heart when you call Mr So-and-so’s name.

Try listening to this extraordinary passage. The reference to himself in third person is a warning. Then on “Oh babe” something uncanny happens. There is no possibility from that moment, which is essentially the blues moment, of privacy such as Joyce describes, the kind that allows the artist to pare their nails, indifferently. The blur between creator and creation, like some pantheistic paradox, can never be clarified. 

And so, the girl who tastes so good in Brown Sugar is, and isn’t, a real black woman who Jagger once knew. Like Jagger himself, she has been swept up in the artifice of a song that gives and takes away her identity in equal measure. Just as the case of Diogenes shows us, there is a paradoxical aspect to the whole relationship, an element of mastery that belongs to the enslaved and of slavishness that belongs to the master. That was surely the moral basis of Cynicism, the intellectual ancestor of Stoicism. It is also a paradox in art that no censorship can resolve. It’s the nature of art to go there. The Devil has the best tunes, after all. 

This scandalous secret was already familiar to William Blake, long before the blues were born, which brings me to the picture at the top of this essay, the one showing the ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave’. We can readily believe that, despite his outdated use of the pejorative word ‘Samboe’, Blake sympathised with the fate of this woman, and not merely because of his habitual opposition to manacles, both literal and mind-forged. His sympathy is confirmed by the fact that the slave etchings were based on sketches by John Gabriel Stedman, a prominent writer on slavery who may, nonetheless, have been given too much benefit of the doubt by the abolitionists. 

Nothing is ever quite straight forward with Blake. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the famously observed that ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ A bit late now for the eternal bad boys of rock to feign the same ignorance.

Edwin Landseer, the man responsible for the lions in Trafalgar Square, gifts to posterity his canine version of the encounter between Alexander the Great and Diogenes.


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