Sunday, August 22, 2010

Eliot and his God

The Waste Land (1922) may be a landmark modernist text but Eliot came later in life to, if not recant, then certainly to recast the views he expressed in it. Without religion, he warned, society would be condemned to ‘centuries of barbarism.’ And in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934), he amplifies this notion:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

In Four Quartets (1944) he gives a wry nod to the solemnity of his early modernist vision. The river, which in The Waste Land is described variously as the ‘waters of Leman’ – suggesting, from Psalm 137, the spiritual wasteland that subsisted after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon – and as a Stygian water-course flowing throught the Unreal City, becomes symbolic in The Dry Salvages of a ‘strong brown god’ who becomes ‘almost forgotten/ By the dwellers in cities’, a god whose

...rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Thus, for Eliot, God, an increasingly ill-acknowledged presence in modern life, nonetheless remains at its core, and the ageing Eliot is therefore forced to reinterpret the values by which one upholds society:

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence –
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

The difficulty I have with much of this secularisation debate is that it rests on the assumption that everything must be debated from a theological perspective. The secular world is at fault because it has replaced spirituality with "superficial notions of evolution" behind which it hides from the progress of history. But if rational debate is conducted without the strictures of faith, why should it then be critised from the perspective of faith? Evolution isn't a matter of faith, it's a matter of science.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Watersons

Last weekend I went to a tremendous concert at Hull Truck Theatre, featuring the Watersons. The Waterson family come from Hull, so this was a home gig, as it were, and the audience clearly contained many family and old friends, so it was a poignant event. For those not familiar with English traditional music, the Waterson family are probably (along with the Coppers) the pre-eminent family within the tradition. Mike, Norma and Lal began singing in the 60s and Norma married Martin Carthy, one of the giants of the folk scene (to whom Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, among others, owe, though don't necessarily acknowledge, a huge debt). Norma and Martin have been performing with their daughter Eliza as Waterson:Carthy for a number of years now, but Sunday's performance contained the wider Waterson family - Mike and his wife and children and Lal's children. They make spine-tingling music.

This is "Bunch of Thyme" sung by Norma, with accompaniment from Martin and Chris Parkinson. This isn't as good as the version that the Watersons sang to finish Sunday's concert, but it gives a fine taste of Norma's remarkable voice. I thought this song had been irrevocably ruined by Foster and Allen's saccharine version, but Norma brings it back to life. It's a beautiful song, and with it's heart-rending but curiously uplifting final line, "Time brings all things to an end", it brings a lump to the throat. I'm only glad I heard them sing it before the two deaths I've written about in the posts below, otherwise I would have been a blubbering wreck.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Makar

Edwin Morgan, oor Makar, has died, aged 90. He had been ill for quite some time.

He was a true humanist, a fine and honest and decent man. From The Second Life:

Is it true that we come alive
not once, but many times?
We are drawn back to the image
of the seed in darkness, or the greying skin
of the snake that hides a shining one -
it will push that used-up matter off
and even the film of the eye is sloughed -
That the world may be the same, and we are not
and so the world is not the same,
the second eye is making again
this place, these waters and these towers,
they are rising again
as the eye stands up to the sun,
as the eye salutes the sun.

Many things are unspoken
in the life of a man, and with a place
there is an unspoken love also
in undercurrents, drifting, waiting its time.
A great place and its people are not renewed lightly.
The caked layers of grime
grow warm, like homely coats.
But yet the will be dislodged
and men will still be warm.
The old coats are discarded.
The old ice is loosed.
The old seeds are awake.

Slip out of darkness, it is time.

I have a feeling this poem is deeply autobiographical, and speaks of the undercurrents in Morgan's life.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bob McKee

I am utterly shocked and greatly saddened to hear of the death of Bob McKee, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Bob was attending the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) Conference in Gothenburg when he died over the weekend.

I haven’t seen Bob for a number of years, since a change of profession took me outside library circles, but I got to know him reasonably well over the years. One of the last times I met him, ironically enough, was at a previous IFLA Conference in Glasgow. I heard him speak on many occasions, indeed invited him on a few occasions to address conferences I was organising. He was a witty, warm, enthusiastic and engaging advocate for library services. His passion for libraries was self-evident. His interest in librarians was inspiring. He approached the various challenges in the library world with vigour and hope. It was impossible to come away from one of his addresses without feeling uplifted - and back in the days of the cultural desert of Thatcherism that was a vital skill.

Bob was due to retire in only a few weeks time, having promised himself he would take early retirement at 60 to do more things with his life. It is desperately cruel that this good, honest, decent man has been denied that pleasure. I don’t normally struggle for words, but tonight I’m lost.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Accountable for Leibowitz

Just noticed a referral to this blog from Google, searching for "accountable for Leibowitz." I suspect the item the person was searching for is probably "A Canticle for Leibowitz." Although it's something of an apt mistake, because accountability was something of a problem in the book, as I recall.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Howard Jacobson on Philip Roth

From yesterday's Guardian:

"I'm disappointed [Philip Roth] thinks it's all too grim now to be comic. I've always thought that it's now that we need it. We didn't need it when it was just about wanking when you were a boy. That was terrific, it was wonderfully done, but that was the easy stuff. Do it now, now that your body's decaying all round you and you hate your life."

Jacobson's premise is that comic writing is an important - maybe essential - element of good writing about tragic matters. I agree with the generality of his point - humour out of the decay of your life is powerful indeed. But in the specific case of Roth I'm not sure I agree. I think the writing he has produced in the past few years is stunning. Humourless maybe, but now that his focus is on mortality and meaning I think his work has become extremely powerful. I'd much rather re-read Everyman than Portnoy's Complaint.

DeLillo on writing

An interesting feature on Don DeLillo in today's Observer. DeLillo's approach to plotting is not to, not in any organised way, but rather to let the story tell itself. Speaking of Point Omega, he says: "I had no idea what would happen and absolutely no idea what would happen later on in the novel." This is the only way I can write. If I sit down and try to establish a plot I get completely stuck.

The writer of the piece, Robert McCrum, makes this observation:

After Underworld, an 800-page tour de force, DeLillo's career turned towards the miniature: The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), The Falling Man (2007) are much slighter books, a rallentando that suggests a writer moving inexorably into the minor key of old age. Not that you'd find this in the demeanour of DeLillo.

I think the conclusion that small equates to minor key and a gradual slowing down is an odd one. I haven't read Point Omega yet, but I've read the three McCrum mentions here, and I don't accept that they are the work of a man easing into comfortable old age. They are challenging - intellectually and in essence. Like Saul Bellow, whose short fiction I mentioned recently, small can be profoundly complex.