Saturday, October 23, 2004

Literary immunity: on pretentiousness

Fifteen years ago, John Bayley opened his short essay marking Seamus Heaney's 50th birthday (1) like this:

Maurice Blanchot, the most pretentious if also at time the most suggestive of poet-type critics, has observed that la negation est liée au langage. A word is the memorial to what it signifies. Death is implicit in the distinction between sign and self. Clever, eh? Well, striking at least.
It is out-of-keeping with the rest of the essay which is a perceptive overview of Heaney's achievement, which is, according to Bayley, that Heaney's poetry in itself is able to "take cognizance"” of the distinction "between Romanticism – the spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings – and the much wider, more perennial notion of poetry as the Sprachgefühl of civilisation, the repository of intelligence, perception, personality, in its highest linguistic form."

Pretentious, lui?

Whatever, I tend to agree with the assessment. Bayley talks about Heaney’s strength in dealing with issues even after Blanchot’s "observation" has been accepted. So I wonder why Bayley distances himself from Blanchot with such haste? I know Anglo-American critics have always been afraid of appearing pretentious, even if they make use of the ideas of those who are not so afraid. Yet what is pretentious in Blanchot that is not in Bayley's impression that "[Heaney’s] poetry is continually aware that it does not live in its own area of discourse, but only visits it. His poetry is a pilgrimage to its own subject."?

Bayley contrasts Heaney’s "sophisticated, referential, and highly group-conscious verse" with poets who did not embrace the pretentions of Modernism, such as Philip Larkin, who, Bayley says, lived inside poetry "with the confidence born of total solitariness". This distinction seems to come from Bayley's assumption that Modernism's first lesson is "think before you write; study before you do so". It suggests that Larkin's poetry is more Romantic; more spontaneous than the more illustrious Irishman. Whereas for Heaney, death’s presence in language is a subject for "historic reverie in verse", for Larkin "death was a holy terror"” and affected the very possibility of writing poetry at all. This would mean that spontaneity would be the first freedom denied, which perhaps explains why Larkin published very little toward the end; there was no expression in poetry that had not also negotiated its way past the violence of language.

So while it is surely correct to say, as Bayley does, that Heaney lacks a "central emotional obsession that wells up in the verse of a Larkin", it would also be true to say that this welling up actually reaches its peak when Larkin faces language:
but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element
That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity
Love Again ends with subtle disgust with poetry's implication in the suffering it had expressed in the first part of the poem. The welling up here is detachment internalised to the degree that it becomes part of the "central emotional obsession"; the poet's inability to live fully is because he has lived only in literary negation; the violence done by words to life. In this way, Larkin wrote poems true to his experience, which is, I would say, the first lesson of Modernism: write true to your experience. Yet by 'experience' I mean the confrontation with that which takes you beyond your nature. Writing would then become a genuine challenge.

For a critic like Bayley, the implications of Larkin's poem and Blanchot's criticism, remains a tool of commentary, and thereby also a tool of marginalisation. But criticism should not be immune to what it discovers, just as Larkin's poem isn't (which is perhaps why he never published Love Again). Pretentious or not, Blanchot's criticism is not immune; this is why he is "a poet-critic type".

1: In Agenda magazine Spring 1989

Monday, October 18, 2004

Pornography: on insensitivity toward Derrida

First of all, I am not familiar with the work of Jacques Derrida. Whenever I have tried to read him, when I wanted to read him - for instance the essays on Blanchot in The Law of Genre, on Kafka in Before the Law or on Celan in Shibboleth (all collected in Acts of Literature), I soon became lost and demoralised. But the response in English-speaking nations to his death has roused me to defend him from the reserves of what I think I have understood.

However, I understand where the critics are coming from. Leonard Bast’s recollection of Derrida's influence on his time as a student reminds me of sitting in a common room in my first year at university listening to fellow students announce that their next set text was "Duh-reeder". Who's that? I asked. But I knew of Derrida. If this was their tutor's pronounciation, one could only imagine the nature of their reading.

Bast demonstrates how Deconstruction became a mechanical device for reading texts, particularly among those with a political agenda and/or a need to formalise the study of literature. It explains why English departments have become staffed by people who seem to have no affinity for literature. I suppose studying the "merely literary" cannot really justify a career.

I had a taste of it attending a course in preparation for university. The English teacher got everyone to buy one book, and one book only: something called Issues. It was a book of sociology. This was meant to help us to read the set texts. One of these was Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole, a novel that, we were told, "gives an insight to Working Class life in the 1930s". That it was sentimental tripe was irrelevant; apparently literary discernment stopped one discovering the noble suffering of ordinary people (i.e. those who didn't appear in novels).

This is why I chose to study philosophy at university.

My only encounter with Derrida in those three years was a reading of the essay Signature Event Context (SEC). It was given by a philosopher familiar with Derrida's background in phemenonology. He explained this essay was slightly out of character with Derrida's usual work; it was perhaps more programmatic than others. In very crude summary from dim memory (I'm not going to re-read it!), SEC argues that as language depends on repetition of the same words through almost infinite and infinitely varying contexts, then absence of writer and context is also necessary. Our presence in writing is erased by writing. It is, I suppose, another expression of The Death of the Author, this time adding The Death of Context. It is a simple idea to grasp. Perhaps too simple. In the Guardian's revealing survey of the extent of British philistinism, the British philospher Roger Scruton says that "For Derrida, there is no such thing as meaning - it always eludes us and therefore anything goes."

Anything goes. That awful catchphrase of a caricatured postmodernism! One can certainly construe from my summary of SEC – as well as from the literary criticism of those who influenced Derrida (such as Maurice Blanchot's essay The Essential Solitude) – that if language works this way then there is no definitive meaning and we might as well give up. But this would do a violence to what should be the patient response of our helplessness.

I would like to compare the implications of Derrida's literary philosophy with Scruton's own arguments in regard of something apparently very different: pornography. He made these in a TV programme a couple of years ago. From what I can recall, Scruton said that porn could be damaging to the individual. It distances the self from the consequences of human interaction; it offers a form of solipsism in place of real life. (All banally true, but in the context of the programme, it was a sudden outbreak of sensitivity). As a Right-wing libertarian, Scruton might well have said: anything goes. But in this case, his arguments were sane and thought-provoking. I don't believe he was condemning porn but saying only that there are dangers. One could only concur that one has to keep in mind the importance in human relations of community and reciprocity - not isolation and selfishness, if not also self-abuse.

If we apply Scruton's concerns to writing, then we would have to regard a piece of writing as a person - an individual that you meet face-to-face – rather than communicating a concrete truth at our disposal. In this way, meaning becomes less stable, although it is not destroyed. Indeed, this is part and parcel of what we call literature. Take James Wood in a recent review: he says Muriel Spark's most famous fictional creation remains so because the novel "so beautifully creates a vital and intriguing character - Jean Brodie - while simultaneously asking us to reflect on how well we can ever know people at all, whether real or invented by novelists."

Would Scruton condemn Muriel Spark for writing nonsense because we do not fully know Miss Brodie? Of course not. If literature can make us feel this movement between closeness and distance, between clarity and obscurity, and between certainty and unknowing, then it does not require a huge leap to recognise that language also partakes of these oscillations. Our task, from what I understand from Derrida, is to remain sensitive to these movements.

Scruton's anger and disdain for Derrida is perhaps significant as it indicates a fear that certainty is most threatened where it is most deeply promised. He is like the masturbator confronted with a real woman who resists his desires.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Struck by death: on The Birth of Art

"Art is primarily the consciousness of grief, not its consolation."

What does Blanchot mean by this? We all know that art consoles us. It is why we return to it, flee to it; this awesome space in which we make our own intimate refuge. Blanchot seems only to be colonising the universe of art to express the post-trauma of post-war Europe. What about the art throughout human history, from prehistoric cave paintings to the plays of Shakespeare, to the rich novels of our time, how can all this be the consciousness of grief?

The same question arises when scientists, or in this case evolutionary psychologists, claim all art stems from mate choice in pre-historic culture. They say art is a happy by-product of sexual display, much like a peacock's tail. The animal demonstrates how healthy and powerful he is by using a surplus of energy to create the enormous folly of its tail. The peahen chooses to mate with the male that will most likely produce strong, healthy offspring. The more extravagant the tail, the stronger and healthier the male.

We ask: is this, then, the ultimate meaning of art? When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, was he keeping an eye out from on high for some skirt down below? Well, it's not as simple as that of course, as the example indicates. As I wrote below, a theory of art such as this might be persuasive about unconscious motivations for the production of art, but it doesn't tell us much about the art itself, or indeed our experience of art.

This is not a modern experience. We can go back right to the beginning to examine it. In a review (1) of George Bataille's book on the extraordinary cave paintings discovered by chance in Lascaux in 1940, Maurice Blanchot says that despite the understanding that the paintings come from a world of "obscure savagery, of mysterious rites and inaccessible customs", the paintings themselves are "strikingly beautiful" and "prodigiously clear". He says that the paintings evoke a "free spontaneity ... that is carefree and without ulterior motive, almost without pretext and joyfully open to itself" (that is, with no trace of grief). Could it be that we are witnessing, as Bataille claims, the birth of art?

Blanchot doesn't doubt there are hundreds of years of paintings behind the current paintings on the walls, but what we see is always the beginning of art just as each work of art is the beginning too; a perpetual birth. We become aware of something that wasn't there before. While Blanchot admits that this thought is an illusion, he also says it is true: "It reveals to us in a perceptible manner the extraordinary intrigue that art pursues with us and with time."

What is this extraordinary intrigue? Whatever the answer, it is elided by science. If we compare Blanchot's expressive response with a random search of online writings on Lascaux, discussion of the paintings is almost entirely archeological analysis: for example, do they reveal that Homo Erectus was "already setting traps, digging pits to capture elephants and rhinoceros?" The search for knowledge, for control, always overruns and obscures wonder before these works. The paintings become tools for explanatory use, much like the flint stones scattered on the floor used to slice animal flesh.

Yet, Blanchot says, it is precisely the realisation of knowledge and control that was brought about by the paintings. By interrupting everyday effort and work to create images and to celebrate the timeless time of being unconsciously part of the natural world - the creators began to separate themselves from other living species. Art became power and weakness: power over nature but also realisation of the inability to return to that pre-human state. The worker broke away from utility and became an artist. Appropriately, Blanchot speaks of the singular individual:

This void separating him from the natural community is, it seems, what revealed death and destruction to him, but he also learned, not without pain or misgiving, to use this void: to make use of and deepen his weakness in order to become stronger.
We can see this in all art, in all the arts: the use of weakness to become stronger; to become completely other than nature by virtue of the inability to become one with nature. It is a transgression against the natural order that is, Blanchot says, at the heart of becoming human.

While sexual selection might well have contributed to the technical facility and impulse to adorn the cave walls, what the adornment reveals is something else: a mutation beyond the graphs of evolution. It is not measurable; the time of the void's appearance will always be obscured because the time's absence is the void itself. The cave paintings celebrate the power of this transgression but also retain a memory of the distress and horror of what it means: "the disconcerting thought that man does not become a man through all that is human in him".

Blanchot ends his essay by drawing our attention to the human figure in the Shaft of the Dead Man, the only such representation in the cave - feebly drawn and unadorned by colour:
The meaning of this obscure drawing is ... clear: it is the first signature of the first painting, the mark left modestly in a corner, the furtive, fearful, indelible trace of man who is for the first time born of his work, but who also feels seriously threatened by this work and perhaps already struck by death.
So when Blanchot says that "art is primarily the consciousness of grief", he is referring to this feeble yet indelible trace. It is present for us now. It is the strange feeling of presence we sense before art, an illusion that is also true. We find the art in art not in technical aptitude, not in political or social or psychological content; not in the tour de force of a personality or techniques of self-effacement - all perhaps consoling in themselves - but in the experience of art brought utmost to the fore.

1: See The Birth of Art, the first essay in the collection Friendship (Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg). Bataille's book Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art is long out-of-print, but I have since written about a copy I managed to find.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Overheard: on a late night conversation

People talking loudly in a gallery is annoying. It goes whenever it is said. Either it's pretentious knowingness about some painter or indignant incomprehension. But at least one can walk away. Last night, trying to sleep, I could hear two people – a man and a woman – outside the shop next door that has "traditional" paintings on display (it likes to promote that word: traditional). That is, 19th century figurative kitsch evoking childhood innocence or colonial scenes with happy kaffirs dancing after a day down the diamond mine. Occasionally a print from the 20th century appears, usually art nouveau or "humourous" portraits in the style of Beryl Cook. The woman’s voice, almost tremulous as it struggled to find words, dominated:

They've forgotten the art in art, she said. I don't know who she meant. Take that that picture there, she went on. There's something about it. I don't know.

A car drove by drowning her words in engine noise, then quickly faded.

The hand looks like a sausage. I don't know. It looks like a sausage.

That is all I heard. This time passersby - chavs leaving the pub bawling loving obscenities at each other - made the conversation unintelligible.

I strained to hear more but I also wished they'd walk away so I could lose consciousness. There is always discomfort in discussions about art. This one kept me awake.

Recent posts here were meant to be about trying to approach the real experience of art; to isolate it and – finally – to annul the patronage of philistine misrepresentation and the pleasant distraction of chatter. So, where is the art in art?

That comes next. I hope.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Afterlife: on the uselessness of art

In my last post, I made the self-defeating admission that I accept that art is a by-product of sexual display. In doing this, I seem to be aligning myself with the trend toward scientific explanations for the otherwise inexplicable experience of art. This admission would in turn confirm that my own fascination with this experience is merely a distraction from more important activities, such as dealing with the realities of life. The analytical disciplines tell us that, yes, art can help us understand the world, and perhaps solve certain issues, but only indirectly. It has no value in itself. Daily, this fact confronts me. Yet I persist.

I am reminded of a scene in Saul Bellow's 1970 novel Mr Sammler’s Planet in which the elderly Artur Sammler speaks to a group of students. As he discourses about his friend George Orwell, Sammler is interrupted by one of the young men in the audience:
"Old Man! Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit." Turning to the audience, extending violet arms and raising his palms like a Greek dancer, he said, "Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come." (page 36)
So Sammler, so all those exiled in the indigent province of art. The situation is also expressed in Bill Callahan's desperately slow and tender song To be of use to which I've been drawn to lately. It begins:
Most of my fantasies are of / Making someone else come
Most of my fantasies are of / To be of use
To be of some hard / Simple / Undeniable use
It takes 110 seconds to sing this much. A straightforward interpretation of this song would say it expresses the writer's wishes for his life outside art. Ironically, by coming into existence in this way, the song provides anyone in need of an outlet to express the same to make use of it (if not also come). This is a performative contradiction. The fantasy of usefulness in its utmost expression becomes reality. Yet matters are confused because such use remains dependent upon the performance. It cannot be used anywhere or anyhow else. In effect, there is no use. The song has to be heard again and again.

This would mean that our fascination with a song, or with a particular image, or with a poem or with a story, is a fascination with making use of its uselessness. Why else do we try to mitigate this fascination with the utility of expression, with entertainment, with escapism, with socio-political relevance, with analysing its place in the tradition of art? All are relevant, interesting and significant, but science is not doing anything very much different. Not one of these forms of mitigation tells me what I want to know about art. While science convinces me that art emerged from the evolution of the human brain, and as such can inform me about the persistance of sexual display in all human activity, it doesn't tell me anything about art in itself. It cannot. There is an acultural aspect to art that science - for all its studied impersonality (perhaps because of it) - is oblivious.

Hence Denis Dutton's otherwise commonsense observation that works of art "are manifestations of both individual and collective values" and provides an "intelligible history of the expression of values, beliefs, and ideas". Dan Green rejects the happy philistinism from which this stems yet, while rightly defending the autonomy of art, offers only silence as an alternative (due, no doubt, to constraints of time and space). Perhaps silence is all one can offer as an alternative. Instead we must turn to what is intelligible: the values, beliefs and ideas revealed by art. Indeed, what else is there but ghosts?

Friday, October 01, 2004

The death of art: on corporatism and science

I attended a meeting at work. A management consultant was explaining a management tool. I needed to listen. Instead, I found myself thinking of a biographical snippet about Heidegger. Apparenly, the great philosopher felt sick whenever he entered a city. The artificiality of it – its inauthenticity, I presume – made him ill. (Does anyone know the source or truth of this anecdote?). Although I didn't feel sick listening to the euphemistic procedures of corporate management, I did feel that suffocation was imminent. The jargon was like a thick paste in my mouth, the atmosphere generated was dense and airless; a place where nothing lives. This was to be rolled out across the nation. A grim prospect for those of us with unavowable hopes for an alternative. Only by thinking of Heidegger and the meaning of his experience did my breathing return to normal, but by then my ability to do the job was threatened. It took an effort of will to concentrate.

But the will was weak and I continued to daydream about writing my own words. However, as I tend to include the present moment in all my deliberations, I daydreamed by asking myself about this daydreaming. What does it mean to pursue the direction away from commerce, making-a-living and everything significant toward the economic sterility of discursive writing? Is it a means of protection from reality, or a necessary defence against corporate lifelessness? As ideas competed, I wanted to return home to write this and to explore the question. (And I must find time to read Timothy Clark’s valuable book on Heidegger again.) After all, one can’t pursue such questions elsewhere. But ‘here’ is not really separate. No doubt has appropriate management guidelines in place in order to make its service so damn good. In making use of it, any sense of resistance to corporatism is also delusion. In fact, I can imagine displaying passion at work if I could make a living out of this kind of writing. I could then understand my colleagues who are prepared to sacrifice their free time to work a bit more rolling out the corporate message.

Daniel Green of The Reading Experience has recently addressed the condition we find ourselves in. By 'we' I mean all those of us who see the arts as more significant than common opinion allows. He discusses the end of Denis Dutton's article about art forgery and comments that his view is typical of modern science: that art is (as Dan paraphrases it) "mostly the product of biological impulses hard-wired into the brain, impulses that prompt us to create … for primarily ritualistic and 'collective' reasons". Dan thinks that such views are not only reductionist but also ignorant of what western artists "have actually done". Certainly, reductionist and ignorant are descriptions appropriate of Dutton, editor of Arts & Letters Daily, the ur-blog that favours links to bigoted and philisitine articles. And they are appropriate terms to describe the vast majority of scientific literature, no matter how elegant, cosmopolitan and apparently open-minded it is.

But I have to admit that I accept the evolutionary reduction.

Dutton once reviewed the big book The Mating Mind by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. Despite the language of scientific procedure – one might say science is the corporatisation of ideas - this book contains a big idea that made a big impression on me. It was that the brain developed to its current size as a result of sexual selection and, specifically, that telling stories was central to this evolution (indeed, the book had the working title of The Scheheradze Syndrome).

In short, the human brain is like a peacock’s tail, only our form of sexual display is through intelligence. But not necessarily can-do intelligence. Miller takes us back to the smokey pre-historic cave and imagines a group of human cave inhabitors entertaining each other with increasingly sophisticated techniques. Mate choice was, he contends, hugely influenced by the quality of entertainment: young Miss Caveman being the first groupie, perhaps. It follows that, as the human brain hasn't altered since pre-historic times and that the vast majority of art is produced by testosterone-embattled males, art is still just a means of getting the girl. Is it any coincidence that Paul McCartney stopped writing great songs when he did? And that elderly pop stars are so embarrassingly anachronistic? I find it almost impossible to deny the idea. The more I look at young artists, the more blatantly obvious Miller's theory seems. And the more I look at female artists, the more I ... but that's another story.

This is not to say that our greatest artists and thinkers produced works with the conscious intention of attracting sexual partners to produce a new generation. Kant did not seek out a harem. Beckett left no offspring. But, according to Miller’s theory, the caveman's antics led all the way to Kant's mind and its capacity to recognise that it is an active originator of experience, and for Beckett to realise it really isn't worth passing on.

So where does this leave Dan Green's defence of artisitic autonomy and the merely literary? I shall answer this question over the next few entries.


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