Sunday, February 20, 2005

The pulse of everyday life

My heart's really not in this. Yesterday I welcomed the calm relief of a weekend morning. Today was identical, only the silence had soaked in more deeply. I would like this to continue for a month, or a week. An entire day would be nice.

However, it was ruined after a few minutes by a casual glance at the Sunday online book pages. In particular, I was upset by Robert McCrum’s characteristically small-minded World of Books column in The Observer. And then there was Jane Stevenson’s prurient article on DH Lawrence. My focus was lost. Anger and bitterness took over. I was very conscious of what was happening. I asked: do I take care of these sorts of things, or do I ignore them?

I walked off the emotional energy. After a few miles, and in the centre of town, I passed a telephone box from which a regular thumping could be heard. Inside, a young, crusty underclass male could be seen beating the silver, multi-purpose console. A hundred yards on I could still hear the pulse of the thump. Hundreds of people were in close proximity to it – though not, it seems, one policeman. People looked. I looked. We carried on in typically British manner. The scum was after money, never mind stealing, never mind damaging others’ property and disabling the facility for others. This renewed my anger and bitterness at the selfishness and stunted intelligence of British culture. As I walked home, I realised it was more sadness and fear.

It would be easy to say that the sunlit peace of my weekend morning was a retreat from this culture. But why is it any less real than the violent scum in the phone box or, indeed, Robert McCrum's literary journalism? Wouldn’t foregrounding any one in particular be to distort modern life?

McCrum's article is a report and comment on the storm in a tea cup that is the critical reception of Stephen Greenblatt's popular biography of Shakespeare Will in the World. One of the most critical reviews is by Alastair Fowler. McCrum decides the criticism is not literary. 'To some experts, Will in the World is Hollywood, a shameful sell-out by a scholar of high reputation.' He doesn't name any experts who say this. It can't be Fowler as right at the beginning of his review he welcomes the book's readibility and refers to Claire Tomalin's hugely-popular biography of Samuel Pepys as a contribution to history no less . So I wonder who he means?

McCrum is very impressed with Greenblatt's sales figures. 'His portrait has struck a chord with readers' he says. This is a cliché; it doesn't really mean anything. It's well-known that Greenblatt signed a lucrative contract to write it and there has been an uncharacteristically high-profile marketing campaign. The publishers are aware that the market demands gossipy biographies. This is what usually strikes a chord with readers. It doesn't take a marketing genius to work out that if you mitigate wild speculation with the clout of a scholarly image (something that McCrum introduces right away), the book will sell more than others. People will buy it to indicate their sophistication without having to read anything too heavy. (One only has to read George Orwell's memories on working in a bookshop to know that this condition is nothing new. Link via wood s lot).

Note that Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory didn't sell so well. Perhaps McCrum can explain why. Presumably in this book Greenblatt also 'makes brilliant connections between life and literature in a way that scholars of [his] distinction are not supposed to do' (as McCrum says about the latest book). So why is its Amazon sales rank in six figures while Will in the World is in three?

Anyway, what does making 'connections between life and literature that scholars … are not supposed to do' mean exactly? Who has ever said such connections are not the stuff of literary biography? McCrum doesn't say. Again, it can't be Fowler as he refers to the 'vacuous textuality of deconstruction' and wishes 'real history' (whatever that is) was to the fore.

What Fowler does say however is that Greenblatt often conflates dramatist with character and doesn't substantiate claims. One can see why McCrum is so keen! Fowler says Greenblatt's speculations 'shows contempt for [the book's] readers'. This is not to say he objects to wild speculation because he compares the biography to Robert Nye's novel. Here the reader is aware that what they're reading is fiction.

Rather than deal with any specific criticism of Greenblatt's book, McCrum just sneers at the 'little world of Shakespeare studies' for not embracing what betrays its raison d’être. To which I ask: Little? It seems bloody huge to me. Is it any smaller than McCrum's literary landscape as portrayed in The Observer?

The answer doesn't matter. McCrum thinks that belittlement of its world is what hurts the Shakespearians. It leads to his most bizarre passage:

What's really offensive […] to Greenblatt's critics is the suggestion that literature for Shakespeare was no big deal. He wrote, observes Greenblatt, 'as if he thought that there were more interesting things in life to do than write plays'.

This is a fascinating observation. Until the self-conscious literary age in which we now live, books and writing were just a part of everyday life, something that occupied gentlemen - especially gentlemen - in their leisure hours. That's not to denigrate it, but to place it where it belongs, which is close to the pulse of everyday life, where words and feelings have special meaning

Again, one wonders who on earth he is referring to here. Are there large groups of people who think that writing plays is the most interesting thing in life? And how can one say Shakespeare thought literature was no big deal if, as McCrum also assures us, he had 'an obsession with words'? Was that obsession no big deal? And if it wasn't a big deal, how would it be an obsession?

Whatever Shakespeare felt, the plays are with us and they have exerted an extraordinary power. Harold Bloom reckons he 'invented the human as we know it' (that is Shakespeare, not Harold Bloom, although sometimes you wonder). To a certain degree, our everyday life is given meaning by Shakespeare. That degree is beyond our knowledge of course. Yet our 'self-conscious age' might well derive from awareness of some influence. The retreat as we perceive it might actually be where the blood from the pulse of everyday life leaches its complex nutrition.

Kafka suggests as much in an aphorism from February 1920:
The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.

This does not put literature where it belongs. It puts literature itself under question. It is a question that provokes anger and bitterness, sadness and fear precisely because it is more than close to everyday life.

If you're a literary editor of Britain's most sophisticated Sunday paper, everyday life seems to mean showing contempt for your readers.

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