Pisses all over the culture, and then complains of the stench.
Nicked from Impossible Songs.
Pisses all over the culture, and then complains of the stench.
Nicked from Impossible Songs.
"It is a frequent vice of radical polemic to assert, and even to believe, that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one."
Christopher Hitchens from his essay Edmund Burke: Reactionary Prophet
Some of what was said about the author of that aphorism after his death backs up that statement.
Alex Massie is usually a genial chap, but he got his razor out today:-
An exclusive look at a strategy memo prepared for Rebekah Brooks this afternoon:
You were only doing your job and your job was giving the punters what they wanted. (Yeah, we're going to have to drop the it's "inconceivable" that you knew stuff; everyone can conceive that you did. Tough break but there you have it.)
No, if you sinned it was because you loved the readers - the Great sodding British public - not wisely but too well. They're a prurient, censorious, malignant bunch of bastards and we gave 'em a paper to match. If they've got a problem with that they should look to their own consciences first. Never mind the motes, look at the beams matey.
I was sorry to hear of the death of John Gross. His Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters is one of my favourite books.
I’m re-posting a piece that I wrote about this book a few years ago.
I was a teenager and we were living in humid Hamilton, New Zealand, a city that was growing fast with wide sticky roads and sprawling ranch style houses. My father was an estate agent at the time and rented out flats, and in one of these he had found a box of books which he gave to me. Among them was a fat hardback - expensive in New Zealand at the time - called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters by John Gross.
The Rise and Fall etc is a history of British intellectual life since 1800, with potted biographies of literary journalists and neat, throwaway remarks about the periodicals they wrote for and the movements they were involved in. It is very readable, with an open, tolerant humorous tone. I did not know the voice of the English liberal, but I found it congenial.
"The chief practical purpose of literary histories is to teach us something about books that we have never read and probably never will."
Indeed. I know that one day I shall get round to reading J S Mill*. In the meantime I make do with Gross's synopsis. I trust him since when he writes about authors that I have read - George Eliot, George Orwell - he gives what I think is a fair assessment.
He writes about Carlyle:-
". . . he was very much a portent. He points forward, not indeed to fascism itself, since after all he never crossed over into the realm of active politics, but to the trahison des clercs, the long procession of artists and intellectuals whose hatred of the modern world has led them to flirt with brutally authoritarian regimes or to clutch at obscurantist dogma. And, as with so many of his successors, the infected areas of his work cannot simply be cordoned off from the healthy. Both are the product of the same fundamentally imperious approach to social complexities, of an imagination naturally drawn to clear-cut diagnoses and drastic solutions, impatient of hedging and compromise. It is so the credit of such a man that he should nevertheless have been willing to prescribe unromantic short-term palliatives (organized emigration, elementary schools, etc.) but this was hardly his first claim on the consideration of his contemporaries, any more than it is on ours. His most enduring distinction as a social critic is to have brought into dramatic focus the ruthlessly disruptive effects of unrestrained laissez-faire industrialism. Trying to describe the larger forces at work in his society, he fell back on metaphors of homesickness, uprooting, disharmony. As metaphors, they are brilliantly suggestive; but as the point of departure for any kind of comprehensive political programme, they need to be handled with care. Like many other romantics, Carlyle ultimately seems to be judging society as though it were an unsuccessful work of art. The analogy is dangerous, since social cohesion can never be as absolute as artistic unity; it will always be easy for those who dream of restoring an organic society to despair, and tempting for them to assume that a deliberately imposed uniformity will come to much the same thing in the end. A romantic is properly concerned with integrity - the integrity of a personality, the integrity of a poem. But politics is the art of rough, very rough approximations; and ever since Plato, the desire and pursuit of the whole has usually turned out, taken far enough and translated into political terms, to be a first-class recipe for totalitarianism."
Well, that was me unconsciously armoured against the ideological interpretations of literature which I later came across when I went to university. And immunised against the revolutionary bugs that floated about in the seventies.
I have just bought the second edition of Man of Letters (reissued in 1991) where in an Afterword John Gross laments the successful colonisation of English departments by the theorists:-
". . . there is a hostility not merely towards the freelance, but towards the free response. For in spite of its apparent variety, a great deal of critical theory is coercive, designed to enforce approved social and political attitudes (roughly speaking, any attitude that rejects 'traditional hierarchies'). The belittling of the belle lettrist, the person who writes as he pleases, is a bottom a demand for ideological conformity.
The body of theory that has accumulated over the past few years, taken as a whole, seems to me a monstrous excrescence, a vast distraction, a paltry substitute for the experience of literature itself. I believe that in time it will fade, but I am filled with a cold horror at the thought of how much further it could spread before it does."
I'm glad John Gross has read the theorists for me. I'll take his word for it. When I come across theorists or sons of theorists I find this:-
I am sceptical of this orientation toward the self from the antierioty of the monument. As Donohoe has it, the complex appearing of the monument is only such that it forms a correspondence with the self, with Da-sein. In turn, the objectification of death becomes subjected to an ontic appeal. Not only that, but the temporality of the monument, as stretching beyond time, places the self in a privileged location, insofar as temporality becomes re-presented in and through the self.. .
I don’t need to go on.
*I have now.
He [Eagelton] sets off on one of those complexifying journeys, like the route of a pinball bouncing backwards and forwards among a thicket of pingers, from William Golding to St Augustine, Macbeth to Pseudo-Dionysus, original sin to the Holocaust, Shakespeare to Freud, Satan to Thomas Mann, Arendt to Aristotle, and so copiously on – a verbal pinball ride among the entries in the telephone book of Western culture, to tell us what evil is. But do not expect, by the end, a conclusion, still less a definition, nor even a summary. Eagleton has been too long among the theorists to risk a straightforward statement. You have to grasp at fragments as you bounce among the pingers, not always quite sure whether he is agreeing or disagreeing with this or that author, even whether he is still paraphrasing an author or speaking with his own voice. That’s a technique, of course.
As we are dealing with Eagleton here, note that this is of course not a mish-mash of inconsistencies, as it appears to be; this is subtlety and nuance. It is, you might say, nuance-sense.
The notion that evil is non-rational is a more significant claim for Eagleton than at first appears, because he is (in this book as in others of his recent "late period" prolific burst) anxious to rewrite theology: God (whom he elsewhere tells us is nonexistent, but this is no barrier to his being lots of other things for Eagleton too, among them Important) is not to be regarded as rational: with reference to the Book of Job Eagleton says, "To ask after God’s reasons for allowing evil, so [some theologians] claim, is to imagine him as some kind of rational or moral being, which is the last thing he is." This is priceless: with one bound God is free of responsibility for "natural evil" – childhood cancers, tsunamis that kill tens of thousands – and for moral evil also even though "he" is CEO of the company that purposely manufactured its perpetrators; and "he" is incidentally exculpated from blame for the hideous treatment meted out to Job.
You can see where this leads: with other ways of defining deity conveniently beyond any possible meaning that can be attached to the notion, the religionists and their fellow-travellers are forever protected from challenge to and criticism and refutation of religious ideas and beliefs.
When Shakespeare was writing about witches he was living at a time when people believed they did have actual powers that could hurt and harm. Eagleton’s statements on God are an incantation that summon what he no doubt thinks is a Cloud of Unknowing but are in fact a medium’s vapour of ectoplasm, a magician‘s puff of smoke.
I was very taken with this installation:-
The artist, Ai Weiwei, sounds like a hero as well. He uses his position as a famous artist to speak against the Chinese authorities’ abuse of human rights:-
Ai helped to design the "Bird's Nest" national stadium for the 2008 Olympics – then blasted the country's "disgusting" political conditions and the use of the games as propaganda. Since then he has championed a number of sensitive causes, notably internet freedom and justice for children who died when shoddy schools collapsed in the devastating Sichuan earthquake. Others have fallen foul of the government for far less, and supporters fear Ai's position and his father's reputation will only shield him for so long. Certainly, the authorities seem to regard him, increasingly, as a problem. His China-based blog has been closed down, his email account hacked into, and security officials have made inquiries at his bank. In Chengdu last year, police detained him and fellow activists to prevent them attending the trial of a campaigner investigating schoolchildren's deaths. In the furore, a policeman punched him in the head, leaving him with painful headaches; weeks later, while working in Germany, he underwent surgery after doctors spotted internal bleeding.
The internet has made a huge difference to those who once would have had their message slowly trickle out through samizdat publications.. Ai Weiwei can pour out what he has to say through a thousand conduits:-
Around 26,000 people follow his volley of outrage and satire, facts and aphorisms, on Twitter: "No outdoor sports can be more elegant than throwing stones at autocracy; no melees can be more exciting than those in cyber space," read one recent missive.
“People often say I started to become too outspoken after a certain period. It's all because of the internet – if we didn't have this technology I would be same as everybody else; I couldn't really amplify my voice," he says.
Weren’t there some Russian poets who learned forbidden poets’ work off by heart so they wouldn’t be lost when the authors were suppressed? Now they would post them on friendly blogs hosted in foreign countries.
There was more about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award on this morning’s Today programme at 8:55am. The two novelists interviewed, Howard Jacobson and Lionel Shriver, agreed that if you want to write sex scenes, you don’t write them graphically.
Howard Jacobson:- I do desire, I don’t do the what goes where kind of sex. [You can’t put it more succinctly than that.]
Lionel Shriver:- I think they make the mistake of being geographical about it. After all, if you were going to describe what’s going on between two people when they had dinner you wouldn’t want to write “he picked up his fork, he had a piece of salmon, he dabbed his mouth with a piece of napkin.”
Geographical is spot on (so to speak – when writing on this subject everything turns into a double entendre). Lionel Shriver then went on to say:-
“I’ve had readers indicate that they thought a given book of mine was full of sex. Actually there is no literal sex acted out in the book but it is sexy. The intercourse happens in the reader’s mind.”
I’ve only read Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, an intelligent page-turner of a novel, and she did convey the kind of sexual relationship the parents of the murderous Kevin enjoy. In fact, a theme of the novel is to show, to the most extreme degree, how having kids screws up your sex life. Satisfied lovers turn into frazzled parents of difficult, demanding creatures who have invaded your love nest.
Howard Jacobson thought the mistake that the writers on the Bad Sex short list made was “not of being gross, not of being ribald or coarse but actually trying to write too beautifully about it. The person who is going to win Monday night because he’s been too literary, too elegant and too well mannered about it.”
Howard Jacobson writes beautifully himself but doesn’t do graphic passages of sex between characters you are supposed to take seriously and sympathise with. His sex passages in Kalooki Nights, are oblique and perverse (the scenes are in Buchenwald, between Ilse Koch and her Jewish victim and I found them disturbing to the point of not wanting to read them at all). In Act of Love he described an orgy that was so miserable you wondered why anyone had shown up for it.
So writers can do successful comic sex, e.g Kingsley Amis in One Fat Englishman .
At the end of Chapter 10 the anti-hero, Roger, has got his love object to dispose of her child for an hour or two.
“Conticuere omnes,” Roger was saying urgently to himself half an hour later, “intentique ora tonebant. Inde toro pater Aeneas sic fatus ab alto: “Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem; sed. . .” No, it’s. . .Hell: colle sub aprico celeberrimus illic lucus. . . Trouble with the damned stuff it’s all chopped up into lengths so you have to know the beginning of each line and never get a clue out of what’s gone before. Oh God – hic haec hoc hic-haec-hoc yes yes yes now hunc hanc hoc three huises hoc hac hoc right his hae ha…. Ha? Ha ha ha horum his his? That can’t be right, can it? No, of course, it’s huic, you idiot. Get on with it - hi hae haec then straight on to the Greek irregulars esthio and good old blosk-moloumai yes now back to hic hoc haec hos has hos three horums. . .’
What Roger was saying to himself might have struck a casual observer, if one could have been contrived, as greatly at variance with what he was doing. In fact, however, the two were intimately linked. If he wanted to go on doing what he was doing for more than another ten seconds at the outside it was essential that he should go on saying things to himself - any old things as long as the supply of them could be kept up.
There’s good comic sex and plenty of bawdy in English writing, where it’s plain exactly what’s happening. There’s also eroticism eg the King James translation of the Song of Songs and John Donne's poetry. That again deals with desire rather than the what goes where, and that's what seems to work when writing of sex between lovers who the reader is supposed to respect.
“Where is wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
T S Eliot
Where is information we have lost in blogging?
Susan Sontag: Where the Stress Falls
From Answers to a Questionnaire (May 1997)
(The questionnaire was on intellectuals and their role. I’ll get round to transcribing the whole of this short piece one day. Each pronouncement tells).
The number of people who have given intellectuals a good name, as trouble makers, voices of conscience, has always been small. Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in (as opposed to signing petitions) are a good deal less common that intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Andre Gide or George Orwell or Norberto Bobbio or Andrei Sakharov or Adam Michnik, ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Baudrillard or Peter Handke, et cetera, et certera.
[Add your own names here. Harold Pinter? Terry Eagleton? Martin Amis? ]
A good rule before one goes marching or signing anything. Whatever your tug of sympathy, you have no right to a public opinion unless you’ve been there, experienced firsthand and on the ground and for some considerable time the country, war, injustice, whatever, you are talking about.
In the absence of such firsthand knowledge and experience: silence.
[Now, that would shut up 95.3% of the opinionated. Comment is Free would become Comment is Empty. The blog lights would go out, one after another.]
On the subject of the presumption – it is worse than naivete – of so many intellectuals who take public positions and endorse collective actions that concern countries they know virtually nothing about, nobody said it better than one of the most compromised intellectuals of the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht (who surely knew whereof he spoke):
When it comes to marching many do not know
That their enemy is marching at their head.
The voice which gives them their orders
Is the enemy’s voice and
The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.
[Set to a tune and sing, Islamist loving left.]
Some song writing, some verse writing and too much blogging about culture, politics, cycling and gardening.