Saturday, July 26, 2008

The leaden-eyed

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay committed suicide in 1931

Friday, July 25, 2008

In the mood for writing?

I've had a truly shit week at work, one of the worst I can ever remember, one of those 'time to take stock and think about options' sort of weeks. Ghastly.

And yet. In terms of writing I've been very productive. I've knocked out a 12,000 word story in the past four days. Not only that, it's the big story for my project, the one I've been putting off and putting off since January 2007 and have built a bit of a phobia about. And it works. Not perfect, but it's good, certainly good enough for a first draft.

It's odd. If you were to ask me if I could write in those sorts of circumstances I'd have said no. I don't go a bundle on confrontation, try to avoid it, and yet this week I've had it in spades, and yet I've been more creative than I would have thought possible. There was violence in the story, and I suppose I was channeling my anger into that. It gave me an outlet.

Interesting how circumstances and moods can affect writing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Today is the Mercury Awards shortlist, that excuse for overexcitable journalists and bloggers to start throwing superlatives around to describe perfectly nondescript music. There's something about the music business which seems to attract such description-inflation. I'm toying with the idea of setting up a blog to collect the crazier ones.

It puts me in mind of that lovely Lichtenberg aphorism:

Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede; not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people cannot count above fourteen.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The importance (and threat) of culture

I've talked a few times recently about how important culture and the arts are to society, as both a passive reflection of that society and a means of developing and changing it. This is something Nietzsche understood. 'The goal of culture,' he said 'is to promote the production of true human beings.'

And Aldous Huxley recognised its dangers. A couple of quotes from Brave New World demonstate this. The first shows that he knew what the arts were capable of, for which reason totalitarian states would repress them. Remember, this was written in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power:

‘Then came the famous British Museum Massacre. Two thousand culture fans gassed with dicholorethyl sulphide.’ p. 43

And, again, he indicates the hateful path trodden by so many regimes, from Hitler to the Taleban:

‘Accompanied by a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (luckily most of them had already been destroyed during the Nine Years’ War; by the suppression of all books published efore A.F. 150.’ p. 43-44

Saturday, July 19, 2008

More coastal erosion

I wouldn't sleep too soundly in these caravans...

Friday, July 18, 2008


There is nothing, no reality, but sensation. Ideas are sensations,but of things not placed in space and sometimes not even in time.

Logic, the place of ideas, is another kind of space.

Dreams are sensations with only two dimensions. Ideas are sensations with only one dimension. A line is an idea...

The end of art is simply to increase human self-consciousness. Its criterion is general (or semigeneral) acceptance, sooner or later, for that is the proof that it does tend to increase self-consciousness in men.
Fernando Pessoa

He then goes on to make some interesting coments about the need to create one-dimensional art, but it is the idea of the end, or purpose, of art that interests me. It is to 'increase human self-consciousness', he says. I don't agree. That is a means, not an end. Increase human self-consciousness for what purpose?

To understand the inter-relationship of the individual and the community, and the community and the society, and the society and the neighbouring society; and within, around, above and below all of that to understand the culture that envelops you as individuals, communities, societies, and to understand the cultures of your neighbouring - friend or foe - societies. That is the end of art. It rehearses in mimetic form the reality which binds us. It offers the opportunity of understanding the double-bind that constricts us. It offers a way out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

William Gibson, Pattern recognition

This is another book which uses 9/11 as a backdrop, in this instance in a mostly gratuitous way. It is meant to symbolise, I understand, the 'twenty-first century' and a violent split from our history. Oh yes?

I could accept that if it were intrinsic to the plot, but it feels to me completely unnecessary, as though the book had been written before 9/11 and those elements dropped in for some extra pathos. The book goes through the gamut of 9/11 cliches:

Counterpointing the global with the personal
[As the first plane was crashing] She had watched a single petal fall, from a dead rose, in the tiny display window of an eccentric Spring Street dealer in antiques. p. 135

Comparison with the movies (thank you Mr Zizek...)
...She had just heard a plane, incredibly loud and, she’d assumed, low. She thought she’d glimpsed something, over West Broadway, but then it had gone. They must be making a film. p. 135

Watching it on CNN
The television is on, CNN, volume up, and as she steps past him, uninivited but feeling the need to do something, she sees, on the screen beneath the unused leatherette ice bucket, the impact of the second plane. p. 137

And watching it from the windows (here, as often, at the same time as on TV)
And looks up, to the window that frames the towers. And what she will retain is that the exploding fuel burns with a tinge of green that she will never hear or see described.
Cayce and the German designer will watch the towers burn, and eventually fall, and though she will know she must have seen people jumping, falling, there will be no memory of it. p. 137

Like a dream
It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. p. 137

The noble sadness of the posters of the missing
She had, while producing her own posters [of her missing father], watched the faces of other people’s dead, emerging from adjacent copiers at Kinko’s, to be mounted in the yearbok of the city’s loss. She had never, while putting hers up, seen one face pasted over another, and that fact, finally, had allowed her to cry, hunched on a bench in Union Square, candles burning at the base of a stature of George Washington. p. 186

Ground Zero
Instead she remembers her first view of Ground Zero, in late February: The viewing platforms. The unnaturalness of so much sunlight, in that place. They had been pulling out a PATH train, buried there.
She closed her eyes. p. 232

There is simply nothing fresh here, no insight, no particular emotion, to be honest. All of the above could more or less be culled from a Sunday supplement, chronicling some real-life experiences. It has that feeling about it of cut'n'paste, as though Gibson feels he ought to make these points. But they say nothing. They don't begin to get at the ache of 9/11, because they just don't sound genuine. The feeling of the 9/11 interludes is one of triteness.

When, once, he does try to give it some context beyond the personal tragedy, it falls flat. He says:
Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority.
An experience outside of culture. p. 137

Well, no, it wasn't an experience outside of culture. Terrorism isn't new, even if it was new to the American homeland. Attacks on the WTC weren't even new. If Gibson had attempted to take that somewhere it would have been okay, but the cod-philosophy is left to lie.

Infuriatingly, at one point he does latch on to something potentially interesting, with the following exchange:
“...I’ve got something else, too.”
“What’s that?”
“Oil.” [end p. 280]
“I’m not sure. But I ran this guy past my friend from Harvard, State Department. he says the outfit our boy is with has links to some of the players who’re looking central to Russian oil.”
“Russian oil?”
“Saudi oil has not been looking so good to the really big guys, globally, since nine-eleven. They’re tired of worrying about the region. They want a stable source. The Russian Federation’s got it. Means huge changes in the flow of global capital. Means we’re going to be running on Russian oil.” pp. 280-281

That actually could have been an interesting tack to take, and I expect we shall see quite a few novels exploring this sort of territory in the coming years, but having come up with this idea, it disappears, and we end up with a ludicrous denouement which involves the Russian Mafia, but not oil. As Chekhov says, if you introduce a pistol in Act 1, in Act 2 it has to be fired.

My comments have focused on the 9/11 element of the novel, but overall, I have to say it is pretty lame. The plot is dull and preposterous and the ending completely uneventful. As a thriller it fails to thrill. And take this dialogue:
“...Hobbs is his mother’s maiden name. Hobbs-Baranov, hyphenated at birth. His father, a Soviet diplomat, defected in the fifties to America, marrying an Englishwoman of considerable wealth. Hobbs managed to lose the hyphen, but when drunk he still rails against it. He once told me that he’d lived his whole life within that hyphen, in spite of having buried it.”
“He worked for American intelligence, as a mathematician?”
“Recruited from Harvard, I believe…” p. 242

Honestly, does that not make you cringe with embarrassment for the poor beginner who has produced such drivel? But this is William Gibson, author of Neuromancer... Extraordinary. This is supposed to be the cutting of technology in 21st century America. If Widmerpool had wandered in from stage left I wouldn't have been surprised.

A deeply disappointing book. One to avoid.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Donald Barthelme's The Indian Uprising

The Indian Uprising is probably the key Barthelme work, and can illuminate his style and use of narrative structure to best effect. It appears, on first reading, almost meaningless. There are dizzying shifts in subject matter, sometimes within a single sentence. It begins: ‘We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds,’ and yet it is apparent that this is a modern-day city. The opening paragraph concludes with a question to a character called Sylvia: ‘Do you think this is a good life?’ to which she replies: ‘no.’ [1]

A Comanche Indian is being tortured but the narrator ‘sits there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love,’ and asks Sylvia: ‘Do you know Fauré’s Dolly?’ So it continues. The story of the uprising is interplayed with the personal life of the narrator. It is impossible to get any grip on the narrative. Time frames are meaningless. Characters glide in and out of the story with no apparent context. Because he ‘knows nothing’ the narrator is put in touch with Miss R, [2] a teacher who juxtaposes insults and tenderness, seems to give him sage advice, seems to be on his side but in the end betrays him and is seen to be one of the Comanches. We discover that ‘Jane’ who we do not know but assume to be a former lover, has been beaten up by a dwarf. The story continues to shift between the Comanches and the narrator, and at one point adopts the second person: ‘But it is you I want now,’ [3] drawing the readers into a story which so far has resolutely excluded them. If anything, the story gets stranger:

‘What is the situation?’ I asked.
‘The situation is liquid,’ he said. ‘We hold the south quarter and they hold the north quarter. The rest is silence.’
‘And Kenneth?’
‘That girl is not in love with Kenneth,’ Block said frankly. ‘She is in love with his coat.’

… Once I caught Kenneth’s coat going down the stairs by itself but the coat was a trap and inside a Comanche who made a thrust with his short, ugly knife at my leg which buckled and tossed me over the balustrade through a window and into another situation. [4]

At this stage, neither Kenneth nor Block have been introduced and we don’t know who ‘that girl’ is. It is my opinion (but only that, there is no definitive answer) that both Kenneth and Block are alter egos of the narrator, and that the girl is Sylvia. He is telling himself that Sylvia doesn’t love him, but is simply using him (his wealth, presumably, in the guise of the coat.)

But this is all conjecture. Does the story actually mean anything or is it a ‘dull and intellectually disingenuous tale,’ [5] as Schneider says in his vitriolic review? He complains that Barthelme’s apologists are ‘repeatedly stressing it must be understood within contexts that have nothing to do with the work itself.’ This is a narrow argument, one which would deny, for example, the power of 1984 or Gulliver’s Travels or even the parodies of Henry Fielding. The Indian Uprising is classic Barthelme, a collage of moments and episodes cascading on top of one another in a seemingly random fashion. Karl likens its quick cuts to a Godard film, [6] a description with which Barthelme himself concurred, with the additional complication of ‘the introduction of wildly dissimilar material, like commercials.’ [7]

However, the story can be deciphered. It’s important to remember when it was written – 1968, the middle of the Vietnam War, with America split and with increasingly vocal anti-war factions asserting themselves. Therefore, it can perhaps be seen as an ironic comment on the way the war, and war in general, was portrayed in the media. Barthelme says: ‘It was in part, obviously, a response to the Vietnam War.’ But he continues: ‘It was in response to certain things that were going on in my personal life at the time, and a whole lot of other things came together in that story.’ [8]

In other words – and this is the story’s strength as well as its weakness – it is operating at a global/political level and also at a highly personal one. He is using the same metaphor of the uprising to vent his feelings on Vietnam and to chart the break-up of an affair. In the story, the narrator is an older man having an affair with a young, free spirit, Sylvia. Therefore, Barthelme is conflating love and war.

It goes further than that. Barthelme is also using the Comanche raid as a way of examining the ways in which the left were latching onto ‘primitive’ styles (think of ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda, although she wasn’t called that until 1972.) The ghetto is ‘on heroin’ but the authorities ignore it, even complicitly assist them. Why? Because the ghetto is where the revolution starts, always, and if they can keep them quiet – through drugs – the status quo can be maintained. Barthelme says of this section:

the heroin is... a political comment on the fact that we allow the heroin traffic in our country to exist… In a way, the heroin traffic is paralleled by the Vietnamese war, so it’s a kind of political comment in the story. [9]

Meanwhile, in the personal strand of the story, the narrator and the much younger Sylvia are having an affair. Right at the start he asks her if she’s enjoying it and she says ‘no.’ Later – it may be the same day, or after a reconciliation – he says: ‘we have many years left to live.’ Her reply, cruel and cutting, is: ‘with luck you may survive until matins.’ [10] Despite this, he still craves her.

He asks Miss R for assistance. She is a schoolmarmish character, alternately abusing him and whispering tender entreaties. She is a complex character, suggesting the agony of uncertainty in the narrator’s mind. Therefore, she may not be real, or Reality, but simply his perception of reality, a shifting, uncertain thing. Miss R likes litany, lists, certainty, the ‘hard, brown, nutlike word.’ [11] The narrator, on the other hand, talks of ‘strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.’ [12] They are yin and yang.

The story accelerates to its climax. The Indians overrun the city. They ‘tread into the mouth of the mayor.’ In the same paragraph, the narrator and Sylvia are lying in bed but ‘the sickness of the quarrel lies thick.’ [13] He knows it is over between them. The war has seen terrible things, children have been casualties, mistakes have been made. Miss R orders the narrator to remove his belt and shoelaces. What happens next isn’t clear. Tanner talks of defeat spreading through the city, ‘the enemy is real… threat and coercion come in many forms, from many quarters.’ [14] Most reviewers suggest the narrator is about to be tortured. Perhaps he is, or perhaps, because he is going before the ‘Clemency Committee,’ they are saving him from himself. It is for the reader to decide. Whichever, the narrator looks into their ‘savage black eyes, paint, feathers, beads,’ [15] and the story ends.

In this story we see the principal facets of Barthelme’s writing: firstly, the choppy collage effect, a literary equivalent of a Picasso cubist painting, allowing the viewer to see the reality of the portrait from every angle simultaneously. It is what Karl described as:

that ordered and coherent expression of anarchic materials which, when verbalized, will express a visual, aural, imaged reality. That melange of materials reordered for synesthesiac (sic) purposes is Barthelme’s way of presenting America: a design of our life, in arrangements that recall layouts. [16]

Secondly, the fractured, fragmented nature of the text and, in consequence, the human relationships and the world he conjures. We saw that Tanner likened his work to pop art, but that is too shallow a comparison. ‘Can the life of the time be caught in an advertisment?’ [17] Barthelme wrote. Where Warhol put soup cans into art galleries, Barthelme went further and put the detritus of a society into the barricades at the very edge of civilisation. The question – one that Warhol could never imagine asking – is which side of the barricade should he (and we) be on?

Thirdly, and this is greatly overlooked in most analyses of Barthelme, is that, through the undoubted melancholy there is humanist hope in his words. Pynchon suggests:

Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night. [18]

This was not meant unkindly, (indeed in the same article Pynchon describes Barthelme as having a ‘hopeful and unbitter heart’) but the impression persists that Barthelme’s writing is cold and emotionless. Of course, Barthelme himself often referred to this, for example in an interview with O’Hara when, having been asked what his greatest writing weakness is, he replies: ‘I don’t offer enough emotion.’ [19] That may be the case: certainly, because of mostly non-existent characterisation, it is difficult to get to know or feel involved with many of his creations. And yet, rising above that, there is often a feeling of ambivalent hope in his works. The ending of The Indian Uprising certainly suggests it. So, too, does the resonant ending of Rebecca: ‘One should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm, tympanic page.’ [20]

That is classic Barthelme. It feels like a truism, but at the last moment he manages to subvert it into something more strange and more lovely. There is an aura of hopeful melancholy about the best of his writing which, even when he is at his opaque best (or worst) is beautifully human.

Ultimately, however, The Indian Uprising must be considered a flawed work. The conflation of contrasting ideas – a typically Barthelmian trait, as we shall explore – is interesting. Love and war being described through the same central metaphor, for example, is fascinating, and yet it means that the story becomes cluttered. It has no single, central theme. It is trying to say too much. This is where his structural anarchy fails him: points can be made, but not with a force which resonates. The work remains memorable for some magnificent lines, for its inspired invention, and one can perhaps forgive the ‘disconcerting slippage of sense,’ [21] but, as Gass points out Barthelme’s ‘blessed method is everything.’ [22] Gass meant this in praise, but it can only truly be a weakness if it means the story fails to convey its point to the maximum.

[I have removed the references to deter plagiarists. If you want a specific reference, let me know.]

Vonnegut's canary

I've quoted this before, probably, but I want to do so again by way of preface to the next post:

I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down in to the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists – all artists – should be treasured as an alarm system.

I'm coming to one of favourite themes again: where are the canaries today? There are some, to be sure, but where is the breadth and invention and anti-establishment anger that we saw, for example in the sixties. It's important not to generalise, but there was more poltiical writing in the sixties, and it took different forms.

What we get now tends to be lumbering, didactic, lumpen, worthy material. It says something important but, boy, doesn't it know it. It preaches to the converted. It doesn't make the reader ask questions.

In the next post I'm going to discuss Donald Barthelme's The Indian Uprising. This is an interesting piece, I think, because it is clearly political, but it wears its politics - not exactly lightly, but certainly eccentrically. I have argued about this story with someone who knows more about short stories than I will ever know, but he had a blinkered view of this story: he couldn't see how subversive it was, he couldn't see how it was capturing a mood, asking questions, making a stance. I believe it is a remarkable piece - as flawed as it is successful, but at least it's brave. I don't see similar bravery in today's writing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Arte povera, Hornsea beach, 11th July 2008

A most unusual and artistic walk along the beach yesterday...

You can see some more of the pictures here.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tomorrow belongs to who?

I re-watched two of my favourite films on consecutive nights this week, while I was away on my writing break, and they presented an interesting juxtaposition. Firstly, there was The Tin Drum, Volker Schlondorff's faithful adaptation of (the first part) of Gunther Grass's masterpiece. Little Oskar, as I've said before on here, is as close as I have to a hero. He is even tattooed on my arm. The scene where he disrupts the Nazi rally by sitting beneath the bandstand and beating out a waltz rhythm on his little tin drum, so that gradually the Hitler Youth band do likewise and one by one (or two by two, I suppose) the audience start to dance, is simply wonderful, a funny, anarchic, individualistic way of confronting that most humourless and repressive of regimes. It made me howl with laughter when I first read it in the book over 25 years ago, and it still makes me laugh whenever I re-read it or watch it on film. The hope it engenders. It shows us what humanity can do, if we work together and, simply, permit pleasure.

And then. The next night the BBC had Cabaret on. I haven't watched it in a long, long time, so I gave it another viewing. It's always the same bit that gets me - and, I suspect, many people: when the angelic boy starts singing a beautiful, slow air and, just as he starts to sing "Tomorrow belongs to me" the camera pans down his body to reveal his swastika armband. By the end, it has becoming a rousing anthem for intolerance, with the entire audience of ordinary German citizens on their feet, bellowing out those bellicose words. It is a terrifying moment. It encapsulates what can happen to a society that loses touch with its humanity. There is only one person who is ill-at-ease, an old man in a black cap who shakes his head and clearly glimpses the terrible truth of their hideous future. But he is impotent.

That man was Oskar, shorn of hope and wonder. These two brilliant films, The Tin Drum and Cabaret, show what happens when we lose our sense of hope and wonder.

Erik Satie, another man of individualistic brilliance, wrote: 'wonder about yourself'. That is so important. Totalitarianism operates by reducing humanity to a mass, with no scope for individuality. It is non-conformists, like little Oskar or Erik Satie, who can ensure these grey men with ugly souls cannot again rise to prominence. We could all do with wondering about ourselves a bit more.

The Tin Drum rally scene can be seen on YouTube here (about two minutes in)
Tomorrow belongs to me can be seen on YouTube here.

The problem of history

I've commented before on how Nietzsche's intellectualisation of ideas such as redemption have had a tendency to dehumanise his thinking. He becomes too abstract. He removes himself too far to the sidelines from which to view humanity and, in the process, seems to lose sight of them.

As a result of this, his thinking started to drift into morally difficult areas. This is not to say that he himself believed in totalitarian solutions, such as those espoused by Hitler (and, indeed, which the Nazis proclaimed to have come from Nietzsche's writing). Nietzsche would have been horrified by Nazism. But it is the logical consequence of his thought. Ansell-Pearson writes:

Nietzsche’s attempt to solve the problem of history leads him to embrace a Machiavellian-inspired immoral politics, which recognizes no limits, and which believes it is able to justify its own despotism through the cultivation of a higher and nobler humanity which, in the creative hammer it will bring to bear on mankind, will redeem the whole past of humanity.

Nietzsche sees his hammer as being the way to drive man over the bridge, to become the Overman. Be hard, he says. It is a noble and worthy cause: Nietzsche wants us to redeem ourselves by overcoming resentment, by seeking an accommodation with the past - good and bad - and in this way reach towards a better future. That is right. it is humane, deeply humane. But in striving for such humaneness, he adopts an approach of such hardness that humanity wilts beneath it.

It's the age old question: does the end justify the means? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. With Nietzsche, the answer is sliding towards no.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Coastal erosion

Coastal erosion is a big issue where I live. But it's nothing new. This is in Withernsea.

Jack Radio

This has been my home for the last four days. And very nice it was too.

Okay, to recap. I have this project floating around in my brain (now officially titled Jack Radio)[edit: that's the project, not my brain, that's titled Jack Radio...] and I've been struggling to get it started so I decamped to a caravan on the Yorkshire coast for four days to write, write, write. That was the theory. So did it work?

First night wasn't so good. The intention was to do a Children in Need night type of thing, where I use a set of prompts every hour and in that hour write a story based on the prompts. I intended doing up to 10 of these. Result: one. Hmmm.

But after that dodgy start it got much better. The final tally was 30,400 words, some of them quite good, even though I say so myself. There are two main stories, one about 9k and the other 8k. These are long by my standards: I seldom go above 3k. They didn't quite go the way I expected, which is perfect. As I've said before, one of my concerns has been that this project is fairly well plotted by my standards (I'm not a plotter, I just sit down and write and see what comes out.) So I'm happy that these stories went off on their own tangent, because I feel it has brought some of the spontaneity I was looking forward.

So that's the good news. A definite success. Trouble is, I reckon I still have another 70k words to go. This is going to be longer than I realised. But never mind, Jack Radio is now in progress...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nietzsche's morality

From Twilight of the idols:

My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself. This demand follows from an insight which I was the first to formulate: that there are altogether no moral facts. Moral judgments agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are no realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena - more precisely, a misinterpretation. Moral judgments, like religious ones, belong to a stage of ignorance at which the very concept of the real and the distinction between what is real and imaginary, are still lacking; thus "truth," at this stage, designates all sorts of things which we today call "imaginings." Moral judgments are therefore never to be taken literally so understood, they always contain mere absurdity. Semiotically, however, they remain invaluable: they reveal, at least for those who know, the most valuable realities of cultures and inwardnesses which did not know enough to "understand" themselves. Morality is mere sign language, mere symptomatology: one must know what it is all about to be able to profit from it.

The difficulty I have with Nietzsche is that, in his intellectual musings, he leaves humanity behind. Morality cannot be reduced to mere sign language, a tool to use in order to build the bridge to the overman. He becomes so obsessed with his overman, and he dismisses the everyman so completely, that he beomes completely shallow. He loses touch with reality. I know he would say compassion is a wasted emotion, but there must be some space for empathy.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Storm Jameson

These quotes are from the beginning and end of a fascinating article by Storm Jameson, written in 1915, ie in the early days of World War One.

The dramatists are dead: the poets have gone to the funeral; as for the novelists, it is probable that they are down the area again. Bah! they were a sickly tribe.
We have been too careful of life - rather, of mere human lives. We have hedged it round with Poor Laws, with Care Committees, and Commissions on Infant Mortality, and the arts have perished in the atmosphere of fussy benevolence.

It's fascinating that, at a time when the world was launching itself on its first industrial scale slaughter, she was able to identify the prettification of ordinary life. This is not to say that she was dismissive of what was happening in France. The article concludes:

Reasons are the mere chaff of an argument. At the end it seems that there is neither poetry nor drama, because there are neither poets nor dramatists, but only jobbing versemakers and playwrights. A little while ago, and they might have pleaded the degradation of life for their own degradation. But life has gone to laugh at death on the flaming peaks and the arts may even slink down the valleys, tongues wagging and tails between legs.

Wow, that's good. If I'm reading that right, it says perfectly what I have been arguing about, with myself and on this blog, for some time: that we have lost proportion, that writers are mired in the trivia of the everyday and are making their work bloodless and soulless. We are losing sight of the monstrous in our midst. We are not asking the questions. We are not in touch with the flaming death that surrounds us. We mither on blithely about nothing and everything, knowing all the time that we are having no effect. Our writers are either ignorant of what is happening around us, or are wilfully ignoring it.