Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, December 10, 2004

On the feast of Shakespeare

A lot of fuss attends the shortlist for the Richard & Judy Best Read award. Little of it is to do with the books themselves. The choice is invariably governed by fashion, PR budgets or the immediacy of political relevance.

In my contempt, I am demonstrating what is referred to as "book snobbery". This is what I assume, at least. For whenever this couple's promotion of reading is mentioned, the wrath of "book snobs" is almost invariably invoked. Yet not once has a book snob been identified by picture, name or quotation. Perhaps they have appeared on R&J's daytime show and, being too much of a snob to watch daytime TV, I have missed it. (Actually, I'm at work at the time). Perhaps this mythical creature is out there for real, somewhere. Perhaps it is me.

But no. I tend to suspect that the real book snobs are those so terrified of books and the silence they command, that they give awards instead. Or set up movements.

Take those busy radicals at the Underground Literary Alliance. Its spokesman was kind enough to send me - unbidden - its near reading of Shakespeare. King Wenclas claims that "Today [Titus Andronicus] would be considered the lowest of low pointless semi-literate unredeemable hack underground trash theater." This might be true - though I haven't seen this play, or any trash theatre, to be able to judge - but it does make me wonder why dozens of other such 'hacks' haven't survived from Shakespeare's time nor had such a major influence on our language and culture. Perhaps Richard & Judy discuss them. I wouldn't know.

King Wenclas expresses the common opinion that were Shakespeare alive today he would be vigorously populist. This is barely opinion at all. People say these things all the time, thoughtlessly; in order to stop thinking. King Wenclas links a chain of clichés and seems barely to exist himself. Actually, this is very much like Shakespeare himself, except for the clichés.

However, Mr Wenclas does make some significant observations:

"We see Elizabethan England through an unrealistic glaze. In comparison to us, here in this advanced society near the beginning of 2005, England was a primitive, backward country."

But the observation only overlooks its significance. Shakespeare wrote at a time between these times; on the rickety bridge between times: between the trust of the medieval world and the rational suspicion of the modern. He brought the inevitable tension to life in drama and poetry. This is particularly clear in Richard II and Othello.

"By contrast we live in a robotic, antiseptic, technocratic time; suburbanized; homogenized. [...] To get the feel and atmosphere of the Elizabethans you'd better go deep into rougher neighborhoods, punk theater maybe in a setting of scrap yards and industry, in nondescript buildings surrounded by packs of roving wild dogs."

Again, this is true only insofar as the reverse is also true. It reveals the ULA’s essential Romantic sentimentality. It is no more real in rougher areas, just as Irvine Welsh is no more real than Wallace Stevens. But at least the latter makes us aware of the distance between language and world.

It is odd that the very first line of this blog about Shakespeare is: "We're creatures of language." It is clearly not the case. If it was, then it wouldn’t need to be written. The word 'creature' in this sentence evokes the knot fastening the self to a dying animal. It also evokes the imposing longevity of language. One wonders why this needs to be pointed out to those who are quite clearly uncomfortable with the latter.

King Wenclas announces, as if he knew it were true, that Shakespeare "wrote not for scholars or posterity" and that "His sole goal was to entertain." Which only begs the question: what is entertainment? Clearly, it is not what the ULA want it to be (trash theatre), otherwise we’d be overwhelmed by works like King Lear from every mediocrity with two thumbs and a keyboard.

To say again: Shakespeare's genius (which was his craft) was to make a spectacle of the breakdown of religious tradition and the rise of rational authority. His most famous plays animate the ordeal. It goes on today. This is why they resonate. This is why they entertain. To make entertaining art out of such comedy and such distress demands more than noise and hack work.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Kitsch and silence: on photographs

The Guardian proudly presents Sebastião Salgado's photographs of mountain gorillas and volcanoes.

Usually, photographs (and paintings) develop an incandescence when viewed online. Salgado's, however, seem flat, laboured and dull. Perhaps the use of black & white introduces a leaching sentimentality to what should be awesome. And one wonders why the paper felt it necessary to add a commentary. The decision says: A picture speaks a thousand words, but here are some more just in case.

Alternatively, browse the found photos at Found Photos (even if they've spoilt the effect that its original design had, which allowed one to scroll fullsize images). And look at Fallujah in Pictures. It does not matter that photography is not an art form. On each site, a terrible, exhilerating silence persists.

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