Monday, September 30, 2013

The subversiveness of libraries

From Madame Bovary. Leon has departed and Emma is behaving peculiarly. Charles asks his mother's advice on what to do. She needs hard work, his mother suggests. But she's always busy doing things, Charles replies:
"Doing something! Yes, reading novels - wicked books - works against religion, that ridicule the priests with quotations out of Voltaire! It's playing with fire, that is, my boy! Anyone without religion will always go wrong in the end!" So they decided to prevent Emma reading novels. It seemed no light undertaking. The good lady said she would do it, by stopping at the lending-library on her way through Rouen and telling them that Emma was giving up her subscription.
The subversive power of the written word. And the subversive power of those purveyors of the written word, the public library. We're in the death throes of the public library movement in the UK at the moment. Within a few years it won't exist in its current form. What will we do then? Where will we turn for the subversive word, for Voltaire, for Twain, for those who dare to question the authorities?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Barthelme and Not-knowing

Donald Barthelme:
Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how.... The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.... The not-knowing is not simple, because it's hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives.
I like this. It links to some of the debate I've been having with Jim about the role of myth, and its part in explicating the inexplicable - those unfathomable mysteries of before and beyond and so on. But it's also very much about the nature of art. I guess art and myth are more closely bound than we realise - think of the Chauvet paintings, for example, which probably had a dual role in the minds of the people who created them. And this quote explains the power of art/myth in helping us understand the world around us. It's the roads that "may not be taken" that interest me, particularly those that "may not" because our instincts or our repressed feelings or our mores are impelling us not to. As writers, artists, those are the roads we should be endeavouring to walk down.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Barthelme and Pynchon

Winfried Fluck, comparing Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme:
The case is different [from Pynchon] in the work of Barthelme which is, in certain ways, the more experimental of the two but also the less rewarding in terms of aesthetic experience. Barthelme's work is more radical because it acknowledges the linguistic arbitrariness of world-making even more strongly than Pynchon and thereby takes away the last suggestions of meaningfulness and depth on which Pynchon's texts still thrive. Barthelme's art is one strictly of the linguistic surface; consequently, a story such as "The Glass Mountain," a parody of the search for the holy grail, consists of a collage of 100 divergent, arbitrarily connected paragraphs, in which the sacred and the profane, the medieval world of quests and the vulgar life and lingo of contemporary New York are intertwined in order to foreground the linguistic logic of textual world-making.
Hmmm. I suspect I may be in a minority here, in preferring Barthelme to Pynchon, who I've always rather struggled with. I like Barthelme. I remember having an up-and-downer of an argument with my old writing tutor, Alex Keegan, about "An Indian Uprising." Of course, Alex is always right, and I accept that, but he wasn't on this occasion. And I don't agree with Fluck when she says Barthelme's writing "takes away the last suggestions of meaningfulness and depth". Certainly, his work demonstrates "the linguistic arbitrariness of world-making" but it doesn't follow that the result is a loss of meaning and depth. "An Indian Uprising" still resonates with me long after supposedly better stories have faded. I find it an extraordinary story, and the arbitrary world it evokes seems to be absolutely full of meaning and depth. I re-read it every few months and luxuriate in its strangeness and abstraction. Accusing Barthelme's writing of showing only "linguistic surface" seems to me to do it a disservice.

Pynchon, on the other hand, always feels like hard work to me. Perhaps I should try him again. The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps, since its short...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Myth become fact

CS Lewis observed that the myths of all primitive religions are expressions of an innate desire for the transcendent God to make contact with mankind in order to assauge our sins and guilts. From this position, it is easy to view Christianity as just another religion, and its central tenets, such as the Virgin birth, the resurrection and Jesus’s divinity, as further examples of myth. In particular, they could be seen as emblematic of myth surrounding the dying god, which appears in a great number of ancient mythologies. The Virgin birth and the resurrection could thus be understood as symbols of the peristaltic flow of life, birth and rebirth, regeneration, renewal across generations. This view came to prominence, of course, with J.G. Frazer’s anthropological research at the turn of the nineteenth century, and has been developed further in more recent times by Joseph Campbell et al.

Lewis, however, argues that, “as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact”. Thus, the old myth of the dying god is given historical provenance when we move from “Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where” to the historically verifiable crucifixion of Christ. He goes on: “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle”. It is “the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact”. Thus, for Lewis, Christianity appears to be the “true” religion, standing at the pinnacle of human development. This was a view that Eric Voegelin understandably grew uncomfortable with in his later career, causing a profound change in his thinking in Volume 5 of his magnum opus, Order and History. For Cormac McCarthy, too, there appears to be a consistent wrestling with myth and the notion of “myth become fact”.

In McCarthy, we certainly see a reflection of the straining for contact with the transcendent God. The litany of characters who debate God’s existence in McCarthy’s oeuvre clearly reveals this, as do the heretic in The Crossing and the range of eschatologically-minded prophets who people McCarthy’s universe. God, of course, never appears, and this creates the tension which drives McCarthy’s fiction. Far from accepting Lewis’s conception of “myth become fact”, McCarthy continues to wrestle with the notion that there is no Christian certainty and the notion of contact with the transcendent God is no more than a chimera. The catharsis that comes with acceptance of the myth and surrender to the fact becomes impossible; the resulting existential tension is all the greater because of the sense of despair, or disappointment, or failure that ensues.

Thus, McCarthy appears to be caught between regarding with awe the mystery of religion and remaining sceptical about the very possibility of that mystery. He wants to believe the myth that Lewis believes. He is on record as saying so: Garry Wallace paraphrases him thus: “He went on to say that he thinks the mystical experience is a direct apprehension of reality, unmediated by symbol, and he ended with the thought that our inability to see spiritual truth is the greater mystery.” But his fiction consistently shows that he comes across a barrier which appears insurmountable. Thus, he appears to be trying to write his own myth, in order to make it work.

To be honest, the idea that God deliberately used existing primitive myths to seed the minds of humanity in order to make them accept the “truth” of the incarnation is wholly unconvincing. Jesus may genuinely have existed – the evidence is persuasive – but to assume that the myths surrounding him must also therefore be true is a logical non-seqiteur. To look at the myths as articulated by, say, Joseph Campbell, creation myths and stories of sin and redemption and so on, and to acknowledge the mythical nature of these stories, and then to look at precisely the same myths in a Christian context and claim that these myths must be “true” because Jesus was real seems na├»ve. It is almost impossible, now, to separate myth from reality in the American West of the 1850s, only 170 years ago, far less what occurred two millennia distant. The texts consistently tell us the stories are “true”, but one must not forget the role of propaganda in propagating myths.

The Thirty-nine books

Now that my studies are concluding, I had to go to the university library today to return my books - all 39 of them. Some of them I've had for over four years. It's going to feel strange, not being a student any more. I've been studying part-time for the past seven years.

What bothers me most, though, is losing my Athens login. All those documents, and I won't be able to access them. It's too terrible to contemplate...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Glasgow School of Art

When I was Glasgow last week I took advantage to have a tour round the Glasgow School of Art, and in particular the library. The building was designed by Charles Rennies Mackintosh and is a wonder.

Many years ago, back when I was a librarian, I actually worked there. I was only a kid, nineteen or twenty, and I had no idea how important the place was, or how lucky I was to be able to work there. The Library service had hundreds of slides of Mackintosh pieces and places which had no details on them, and my job was to try to identify them, using Bilcliffe's book on Mackintosh. It was a great job. I used to sit at the big desk you can see in the picture, with the Bilcliffe book propped up, going through the slides and trying to figure out what they were. Seeing at again last week brought back a lot of memories.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gass on knowledge

I don’t distrust the artist as artist at all. I distrust people, including artists, who make pretentious claims for literature as a source of knowledge. This was the half of Plato’s complaint against the poets which I accept. I see no reason to regard literature as a superior source of truth, or even as a reliable source of truth at all. Going to it is dangerous because it provides a sense of verification (a feeling) without the fact of verification ( the validating process). Plato was simply too exclusive about his values. He took knowledge to be the supreme good. Consequently he had to banish the poets (for the most part). The appeal to literature as a source of truth is pernicious. Truth suffers, but more than that, literature suffers. It is taken to be an undisciplined and sophistic sociology, psychology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., etc.
William H. Gass Well, that might be true if you accept, firstly, that knowledge and truth are synonymous terms; and secoondly that they are absolutes, capable of representing a single, all-encompassing iteration of actuality. But they aren't, and they aren't.

Of course literature can be a source of knowledge. It may even be a source of truth, although that may be more problematic. But knowledge? Of course. Moby-Dick teaches us of vanity. Bartleby the Scrivener of conformity. Crime and Punishment of guilt. Candide of gullibility. Blood Meridian of evil. What are those lessons, if not the imparting of knowledge?

Gass then presents a baffling leap of logic to assert that looking for truth in literature is pernicious and that, as a result, literature somehow suffers. That simply does not bear scrutiny. It's meaningless. But it allows him to present, as a fait accompli, the notion that reading literature for understanding of the human condition is akin to sophistry and pseudo-science. So, let's return to Captain Ahab, or his close companion Kurtz. What textbook could illustrate the dangers of vanity more profoundly than Moby-Dick or Heart of Darkness? What textbook could explain the essence as well as the actuality in the way those novels do? It's impossible to conceive.

Bellamy on Robbe-Grillet on Barthes on Flaubert

One of Robbe-Grillet’s points, which I believe he borrows from Roland Barthes, is that the novel of character, such as Madame Bovary, for example, or Tolstoy’s work, belongs to the age of character, to the age of the individual. And in mass society, for example, when individualism as a philosophy is historically discredited, the novel of character is a kind of anachronism.
Joe David Bellamy

I'm reading Madame Bovary at the moment, my first novel this year outside the confines of my thesis studies. It's certainly a novel of character, and its style is indeed anachronistic. It is suffused with what we would call "telling" these days: we are suddenly presented, in depth, with the thoughts of the characters that, to our modern tastes, feels distinctly odd.

But is the novel of character itself anachronistic? I'm not at all sure about that one. I've read Suttree four times this year alone - I've no idea how many times in total - and it's certainly a novel of character. Of course, McCarthy being McCarthy, you have to watch out for inversions of meaning - because he writes a novel of character doesn't mean he's promoting the idea of a novel of character, just as Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy, westerns all, are intentionally debunking the myths of the west. But it is certainly a novel about a character, Buddy Suttree.

The problem I have with this proposition is the lazy thesis on which it rests, that in mass society individualism is discredited. That kind of soundbite philosophy just doesn't bear scrutiny. Indeed, one might argue that our current society is more individualistic than any in history. That may or may not be a good thing - that's a different argument - but the fact remains industrialisation has not, yet, reduced us all to the automata that conservative naysayers have been prophesying for a hundred plus years. I've spent the past year arguing against such reductive views of modernity.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Booker Prize

There's a bit of a fuss brewing about the opening up of the Booker Prize to American novelists. Previously, it has been open to works written in English from the UK, the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe. Hmmm. That's not a particularly easy grouping to remember is it? Basically, it's the old empire. Well, in that case, why not include the US, which was also, once, part of the British Empire?

There seems to be something peculiarly insular about the naysaying that's going on, and also somewhat defeatist. The general thrust of the debate seems to be "well, the Americans will win every time, now". Maybe that's true. If it is, maybe it won't be a bad thing for UK and Commonwealth and Irish and Zimbabwean writing to face some stiffer opposition. But is it true? Certainly, we probably won't see slight works like Julian Barnes' A Sense of an Ending or Anne Enright's The Gathering winning, but that would be a very good thing. We would still, though, see major authors like William Golding, Peter Carey, JM Coetzee et al winning. And winning against the best of the US.

All in all, it seems pretty exciting to me.

The Glasgow Boys

I went to the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow the other day to look at their collection of paintings by the Glasgow Boys, a loose conglomeration of artists from or based in Glasgow in the back end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It’s an interesting collection, for sure, well worth a look.

They reacted against the stilted Victorian iconography of the time, the couthy kailyard images and sentimentalised, over-emotional depictions of “everyday” life that were nothing of the sort. And, for sure, that is something well worth reacting against. One only has to look at a painting like James Hamilton’s hideously stylised and romanticised Massacre of Glencoe (right), in an upstairs gallery at the Kelvingrove, to see the excesses of Victorian art which needed to be swept away.

To do this, the Glasgow Boys harnessed impressionist and post-impressionist approaches to create more naturalistic images and presentations and move away from the more stultifying imagery and approaches of the time in the same way that the French Impressionists had done in Paris a decade or more before. Where Monet and co rebelled against the Salon, the Glasgow Boys rebelled against the prevailing Edinburgh style. The Royal Academy, which presented an exhibition of the Glasgow Boys in 2010-11, suggests: “These artists sought to liberate their art from the staid, dark toned narrative paintings being produced in Glasgow and Edinburgh in order to explore the effects of realist subject matter and the particular effects of light captured through working out of doors, directly in front of the motif.” It goes on to say: “The resultant works were, from c. 1880 to 1900, among the most experimental and ambitious to be produced in the UK.” Well, yes and no.

Their favoured approach was to paint in a natural, impressionistic style, using broad brush strokes and observing real life, showing people in ordinary situations going about their ordinary lives. They worked in the open air. They painted what they saw, not some pastoral idyll. In this, they openly expressed their indebtedness to Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French realist painter whose techniques and subject matter the work of the Glasgow Boys undoubtedly closely mirrors. And here we begin to see the first of the difficulties I have with them.

Their work may have been experimental: certainly they worked en plein air, which few had done at this stage, and certainly not in Scotland, with all its attendant difficulties – if the rain doesn’t get you the midges will. But experimenting doesn’t necessarily mean innovation, and I’m not sure how innovative you could say the Glasgow Boys were. Rather, they seemed to pick up techniques and ideas and approaches from the new art that was developing throughout Europe. In the works of the Glasgow Boys we can see everything from the Pre-Raphaelites – such as David Gauld’s Saint Agnes - Lepage, the impressionists and so on. Every contemporary art movement can be seen here. We see the influence of Whistler, of Corot. William Kennedy’s Stirling Station (right) is heavily reminiscent of the work of William Powell Frith. Edward Atkinson Hornel’s Dance of Spring is Brueghel by way of Stanley Spencer. There is also, unsurprisingly for the back end of the 19th century, a strong interest in Japonisme: some of these are fascinating, and the brushwork and, in particular colouring, suggest not only Impressionism, but Vincent van Gogh’s experiments with Japanese style. All of this, then, suggests not so much a forward-looking movement but a group absorbing and responding to the changing tastes of the times. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it limits the influence the group must have on art history.

My second difficulty with them is that they don’t quite cohere as a group. To be fair to them, they would probably agree: they eschewed more formal labels such as the “Glasgow School” and preferred the less academic “Boys”, suggesting they had no particular manifesto in mind other than that of painting in a naturalistic way. But they don’t cohere. Because they are picking up influences from all over this is reflected in the extraordinarily wide variety of styles and approaches. While they did suggest that they wanted to paint, in the fashion of Lepage, using broad brush strokes and glorying in the patterns of the paint rather than trying to conceal all of the painter’s brushwork, and while they professed to eschew the more twee imagery of Victorian art, many of their paintings are produced in remarkably fine brush strokes and many adopt imagery which would have been readily understandable by Victorian society. The works exhibited here are just as likely to contradict their professed style as to display it.

In particular, early works by the group were heavily symbolist in nature. I’ve already mentioned Gauld’s Saint Agnes. One of the most famous painting of the “Boys” is Henry and Hornel’s The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (right). It’s a wonderful painting, visually striking, intellectually stimulating. But realist it is not. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with artists stretching themselves and trying new things, but it is difficult at times to get any sense of artistic coherence in the wide variety of styles we see exhibited here.

I’m perhaps too harsh, though. There are wonderful paintings here. George Henry’s A Galloway Landscape (left), for example, is a remarkable piece. It’s use of perspective is fascinating. It completely flattens the landscape in a very stylised way. Partly, thislooks back to the Japonisme that was so popular in the 1870s (and Henry and Hornel actually visited Japan in 1873) but, more interestingly, in its determination to explore perspective it seems to look forward to surrealism. The difficulty with perspective is that it dictates conformity: every viewer sees every image from the same vantage point, while real life is not like that. The surrealists overcame this limitation with their ability to show multiple perspectives of the same image – think of Picasso’s heads – so that the viewer can see the image from every vantage point all at once. It becomes a highly personalised way of projecting art. This work by Henry, with it’s flattened perspective, offers an early glimpse of that approach.

This is something that fascinates me. Cormac McCarthy explores the same technique of playing with perspective through his use of tense and person. Out of nowhere, his texts will shift from third person into first, and from past tense into present. This offers, in literary form, the same multiple, highly personalised approach to perspective we see in surrealism. Take this scene from Suttree which I’ve quoted on this blog before. In it, Suttree is in the cemetery where he has just seen his son buried:

They went on among the tilted stones and rough grass, the wind coming from the woods cold in the sunlight. A stone angel in her weathered marble robes, the downcast eyes. The old people’s voices drift across the lonely space, murmurous above these places of the dead. The lichens on the crumbling stones like a strange green light. The voices fade. Beyond the gentle clash of weeds. He sees them stoop to read some quaint inscription and he pauses by an old vault that a tree has half dismantled with its growing. Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.
This is brilliant writing. It moves from the personal, in the past tense, through to the universal, in the present tense, accompanied by a narratorial shift so that the identity of the maker of the last point is ambiguous. This happens throughout the novel, with frequent shifts into the first person so that Suttree becomes the narrator and the narrator becomes Suttree. Perspectives are shifting constantly. There is a beautiful and seamless melding of stories at work.

One further painting in the collection is a revelation. It is James Guthrie’s Funeral in the Highlands, a stark and austere work depicting a funeral ceremony for a dead child. The mourners are presented in striking clarity. Most of them are painted with natural colouring, so realistic it could be a photograph. One man, however, is slightly different. He is to the right of the group, wringing his hat in his hands, staring at the ground. This man is painted slightly differently, in less natural colouring, almost a chiarascuro effect. But, remarkably, rather than make him seem less real than the other, more naturalistically painted mourners, he becomes more real. To an almost painful degree, in fact. His internalisation causes the grief to explode from him. You know this is a man who will never talk about this day again, but who will never overcome it. There is a cliche among writers about a painting or a character in a painting which is so real it feels like it is about to come to life and this is the person or scene you should write about. Well, cliche or not, here we have a striking example of the phenomenon. I had the uncanny sense, standing before this painting, that the man was going to raise his head and look at me. It's an astonishing piece of art.

There is one final painting I want to mention, nothing at all to do with the Glasgow Boys but one which features upstairs in one of the other galleries. This is Matisse’s Woman With Oriental Dress.

It’s a beautiful painting, quite breathtaking. There is something about her which is captivating, something radiant, effervescent. You sometimes know, even after seeing someone only once, that they have a beautiful soul. This woman has a beautiful soul.