Wednesday, November 15, 1995


IT OUGHT to be no surprise that as a term concerned with various types of overabundance and extravagance, there are a healthy number of possible derivations and definitions for the word "camp". Some authorities believe the word is related to the French secamper, with its association with the large, billowy tents in which Louis XIV's army travelled.

Other feasible sounding options include KAMP, an American police acronym standing for "known as male prostitute", se campeggiare, the Italian for "to stand out", and "camping" a term referring to the Elizabethan theatrical habit of casting boys in women's roles. No reliable source has yet been able to establish any role for the Kerry town of Camp in the evolution of the term.

If the origins of "camp" remain uncertain, there is also substantial debate as to what the term describes. When presented with the superfluity of possible definitions, one lexicographer decided to pursue an unorthodox though nevertheless highly logical approach. On the set of the 1968 classic Carry On Camping, he approached Kenneth Williams and asked the master of double entendre to give him one.

The suggestion Williams offered, that the word meant that which is fundamentally frivolous" seemed to ignore Susan Sontag's fascinating if dated 1963 Partisan Review essay, Notes on Camp, in which the term is seen as representing a work of art, or performance, which is ambitious and unsuccessful with almost the same degree of innocence in both cases.

The title of Philip Core's encyclopaedia of camp, Camp, The Lie That Tells The Truth, takes its title from an aphorism of Jean Cocteau's published in Vanity Fair in 1922. This seems to give the lie to the common suggestion that the word appeared in its current use after the second World War, while at the same time hinting that a French origin for "the word is likely.

Core's use of the word is significant in that he suggests that "camp" can be offered as a moral value as much as an aesthetic one (albeit only through offering a suspicious set of opposites). He says that: "Throughout history there has always been a significant minority whose unacceptable characteristics - talent, poverty, physical unconventionality, sexual anomaly - render them vulnerable to the world's brutal laughter. Hiding their mortification behind behaviour which is often as deviant as that which is concealed is the mainspring of camp."

This definition allows his dictionary to carry entries on many surprising figures, not least of whom is Cardinal Newman. The prelate is dubbed camp for hiding his true nature, as an aesthete, beneath his incense and cassocks. But while the cardinal may have made an interesting stab at being camp, he can hardly have laid claim to doing so in any contemporary sense.

For although camp may have begun as something of an esoteric pursuit, it has now become the dominant style of mass communication. As commercial concerns have tended to homogenise all mass art - Hollyoaks Home and Away, EastEnders, Brookside, you make your own list - camp is now put to service to cloak not strangeness, but familiarity. Camp must conceal that there is, sadly, nothing to hide.

LOAD-DATE: November 15, 1995


luke clancy said...

great piece on Kennth William's Diaries here:

4:24 AM  

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