Archive for August, 2010

Flaubert: a miserable old git

Gustave Flaubert is known, with reason, as a misanthropic old cynic. And yet, he could be oddly moving. Just consider this beautiful line from L’Education Sentimentale:

Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous.

In the translation by Robert Baldick & Geoffrey Wall, this becomes:

In every parting there comes a moment when the beloved is already no longer with us.

I think one ideally needs to read lines such as this in the original French, even if, like myself, one has to dredge one’s memory to recall the French lessons at school, and supplement those vague recollections with a French-English dictionary: it’s worth it, though, just to get a sense of the sounds and the rhythms of Flaubert’s prose.

Since we are on the subject of L’Education Sentimentale, I can’t resist quoting that famous passage at the start of Part 3, Chapter 6:

Il voyagea.

Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots, les froids réveils sous la tente, l’étourdissement des paysages et des ruines, l’amertume des sympathies interrompues.

Il revint.

Il fréquenta le monde, et il eut d’autres amours, encore. Mais le souvenir continuel du premier les lui rendait insipides ; et puis la véhémence du désir, la fleur même de la sensation était perdue. Ses ambitions d’esprit avaient également diminué. Des années passèrent ; et il supportait le désoeuvrement de son intelligence et l’inertie de son coeur.

Or, in the Baldick-Wall translation:

He travelled the world.

He tasted the melancholy of packet ships, the chill of waking under canvas, the boredom of landscapes and monuments, the bitterness of broken friendship.

He returned home.

He went into society, and he had affairs with other women. They were insipid beside the endless memory of his first love. And then the vehemence of desire, the keen edge of sensation itself, had left him. His intellectual ambitions were fading too. The years went by; and he resigned himself to the stagnation of his mind and the apathy that lived in his heart.

The translation seems to me a good one, but it can’t capture the extraordinary beauty of Flaubert’s French. No translation could.

I can’t help thinking of Flaubert as a disappointed Romantic. He was, I think, being quite sincere when he famously remarked “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. Flaubert, like his creation Emma Bovary, hated the mundane and spirit-sapping trivia that fill our everyday lives, and longed for something … well, something more beautiful, something more splendid, more noble. But unlike Emma, he knew there was nothing else. In recoiling from the dull realities of her life, Emma but embraces what is  just as stultifying, just as stupid; and while Flaubert may sympathise with her frustration with the everyday, he was too clear-sighted to see any possibility of escape in Romantic ideals.

So what does that leave us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Flaubert’s writings present us with a depiction of the utter nothingness at the heart of it all. There is, after all, no-one quite so cynical as a disappointed Romantic: even such inveterate pessimists as Conrad or Beckett were but novices in comparison to Flaubert.

And yet, against all that, there is that extraordinary beauty of his writing. Flaubert’s pessimism isn’t accompanied with an indifferent shrug of the shoulder, but with a profound sadness that things should be so.

At the end of L’Education Sentimentale, two old friends reminisce about their adolescence. They had decided to test their courage and their manhood by visiting the local brothel, but at the threshold, had lost their nerve, and had made a run for it. Remembering that occasion, they agree that that was their happiest time. This ending is often felt to be too cynical, but there seems to me to be a profound melancholy to it: our happiest time is when we are still on the threshold of experience, when we are still capable of believing in the possibility of happiness. And is there really anything sadder than that?

The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to Flaubert. Unlike the Great Russians, he is not a writer one is drawn to in one’s teenage years: it is only after years of living that he begins to seep into one’s literary consciousness, and, before long, one finds him a permanent fixture there. And then one finds that there is no escape from Gourstave Flaubear’s bear-like hug.

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…but is it art?

What distinguishes art from entertainment?

 That question is loaded with a great many pre-suppositions. The most obvious of these is that there exist two categories – or, at the very least, two extremes of a spectrum – that may be labelled as one or the other. And this in turn supposes that art cannot entertain; or, if we look at the two categories as ends of a spectrum rather than as a distinct dichotomy, that the further we go towards art, the less it is capable of entertaining.

The question supposes also that entertainment cannot be art; or that, once again, the further we travel from art, the closer we come to pure entertainment.

All of which is nonsense, of course. And for these and for various other reasons (amongst which the most prominent, perhaps, is the lack of precise definitions), we try to avoid acknowledging as best we can this distinction between art and entertainment. But it keeps rearing its ugly head all the same. For, no matter how frequently we deny that this distinction exists, we all know that we would approach The Brothers Karamazov in a somewhat different frame of mind and with somewhat different expectations than we would Murder on the Orient Express.

The distinction is, however, denied or derided by a variety of people, and often for very different reasons. It comes under attack from those whom I may call the “Resenters” – those many who resent certain works being elevated above certain others by that mysterious label “art”. They demand that those of us who speak of “art” define the term precisely, confident that that which cannot be precisely defined cannot possibly exist. They insist that anything that is not of utilitarian vale is entertainment, and can never be anything other than that; and to speak of a distinction that confers a special status to certain works is merely precious. Indeed, the Resenters claim, it is worse than precious: revelling in the happy chance of the word “art” rhyming with “fart”, they claim that postulating a hierarchy of merit based upon the inadequately defined term “art” is but a form of self-aggrandisement, and a most reprehensible and snobbish affectation.  

Opposed to the Resenters is another group whom we may loosely term the “Reithians”. The Reithian position is not merely that the Best and the Most Elevated should be freely available to everyone, but that everyone should be educated and encouraged to gain an understanding of these things, and to appreciate them. And while Reithians obviously value art, many of them often feel that insisting on distinctions is to create barriers where they need not exist. Of course, they will privately admit, barriers do exist: one can hardly speak of the Best and the Most Elevated without implicitly distinguishing them from that which is not the Best or not the Most Elevated; but nonetheless, many feel, such distinctions need not be mentioned in polite society.

The Reithian position has taken quite a battering in recent decades. That great product of Reithian principles, the BBC, has all but abandoned Reithianism, and public libraries throughout the land have sold off large numbers of the Best and the Most Elevated to fill the shelves instead with Tesco-lite ephemera. But a great deal of the bashing has come not, as may have been expected, from the Resenters, but from the very groves of academia, which have produced much opaquely worded theory to the effect that all writings, whether on the packet of a breakfast cereal or dignified by the livery of a Penguin Classic, are essentially texts to be interpreted; and that no text can be privileged above any other on the basis of intrinsic merit, as there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. (Although why one should not think to make it so, I have never quite figured out.) The Resenters have seized upon what they understand of all this to restate their views with an even greater force, and with language somewhat less opaque than that employed by the theoreticians. And while many have felt that the Resenters are but reacting to a misunderstanding of a difficult and easily misunderstood theory, the theoreticians themselves appear to have taken no steps to distance themselves from this alleged misunderstanding. And, as they say in common parlance, it makes you wonder.

Let us not doubt the existence of Resenters. Some years ago, the BBC held a poll they called the “Big Readers”, in which we, Joe Public, were invited to nominate our favourite novel. The poll, I remember, was launched with an article in the Radio Times telling us that it was intended to be an indication of what books we really like, rather than those critics thought we should. Who are these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains, the critics, I wonder? I had at the time a terrible feeling – and I have it still – that the author was referring to people like myself who are foolish enough to hold literary quality in high regard. How disappointed this author must have been that the final poll results featured in very prominent positions such classics of literature as Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment and War and Peace. Even Joyce’s Ulysses, that by-word for unreadability, made the Top 100.

But of course, no-one actually enjoys reading Ulysses. They only claim to do so in order to impress. Those who claim to enjoy Ulysses are really a bunch of self-regarding, pretentious wankers who, if they were honest with themselves, would much rather be reading a Dan Brown.

Such views are not isolated views by any means: I find them quite commonly expressed, usually by those who would take great personal offence were I to make even the most reasoned critical comment about the books they happen to enjoy.

Some time ago, the website of the Guardian – that bastion of high culture – gave space to a columnist who praised the skills of Dan Brown, and lambasted as snobs those who criticise Brown’s writing. This same columnist, in an earlier article on the same Guardian website, had informed us that Shakespeare was “overrated”, his evidence being that, despite his having postgraduate qualifications in English literature, he personally did not “get” Shakespeare, and hence, Shakespeare could not be very good. Somehow, I find, such an argument – if “argument” is indeed the word I am grasping for here – pre-empts the possibility of rational discourse.

No – Resenters most certainly do exist, and they exist not in single spies but in battalions. And they aren’t by any means a harmless lot: there is evidence enough of the effect of Resenters in the current state of our public libraries, of television broadcasting, and of school syllabuses; and in the state of our brave new world in which the pursuit of culture is becoming increasingly relegated to the sidelines as something that is bad form even to talk about openly – as something one does only within one’s private sphere, as if it were a shameful secret.

But despite the apparent insistence of both Reithians and of some Resenters that there is no real distinction between “art” and “entertainment”, the arguments of both groups, paradoxically, indicate otherwise: for, as Reithians know full well, how can one guide people to the Best and the Most Elevated if nothing is better or more elevated than anything else? And the very fact that Resenters approve of Dan Brown and disapprove of William Shakespeare implies that even they recognise some sort of distinction between Messrs. Brown and Shakespeare.

But all this leaves open the question of what it is that distinguishes art from entertainment. There is no straight-forward answer to this for the simple reason that no two major works of art are alike: each has its own particular qualities, and therefore, defies definitions that, by their very nature, generalise. However, every major work of art, I think, possesses a quality that is often referred to as “depth”. The word “depth” is obviously used in this context as a metaphor: it indicates that much of the substance of the work – possibly the greater part of it – lies under the surface, beyond what may be seen at first glance. I cannot think of a single major work of art for which this is not true. This means, of course, that a work of art that possesses depth can reveal new riches with each new re-acquaintance; but the corollary of this is that one cannot hope to have an adequate understanding of such a work merely at first glance.

Crude as it is, this may, I think, serve as a working definition of “art”: a work of art is that which does not reveal all its riches at first glance. The nature of the riches that it reveals only after repeated viewings and only after concentrated thought varies from work to work, and cannot be measured in objective terms; and it is at this point that an element of subjectivity inevitably enters into the proceedings. But to seize on this element of subjectivity and claim that it is all “just a matter of opinion” is merely lazy thinking. It is not just a matter of opinion: it is, on the contrary, a matter of judgement, and that’s a different matter entirely. And like our bodily muscles, the more frequently and the more rigorously we exercise our judgement, the better its condition.

None of this is to denigrate the importance of entertainment. I find myself wincing when the adjective “just” is applied to entertainment, as if the production of that which entertains is a trivial matter to which standards of excellence need not apply. On the contrary, entertainment requires the highest standards of craftsmanship. We may forgive less than perfect craftsmanship in a great work of art such as, say, Moby-Dick, because Moby-Dick communicates a depth of vision that renders nugatory any shortcoming of craftsmanship; but such shortcomings would sink a straightforward adventure story that lacks compensatory depth. The best works of entertainment are works of consummate craftsmanship.

Neither is it true that only works with depth are capable of affecting us deeply. Often, for reasons that I find entirely inscrutable, works that we know contain little or no depth have the most powerful effect upon us. Everyone has their own examples of this sort of thing: for me, it’s overwhelmingly the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have no doubt whatever that Mansfield Park, say, has far greater depth than the Sherlock Holmes stories, and yet it’s these Sherlock Holmes stories that, for reasons I am at a loss to explain, mean more to me than all the undoubted depth of Jane Austen.

Indeed, at this point my crude definition of what may be considered art tends to break down badly, for there most certainly exist works that do not possess depth, but which, for all that, make so powerful an impression upon the imagination, and in which the level of craftsmanship is so accomplished, that the whole question of whether or not it is art becomes silly and pointless. The distinction between “art” and “entertainment” may well exist, but it is by no means clear-cut.

It may also be claimed, I think, that all art is a form of entertainment. After all, anything we do that is not of utilitarian value we do because we enjoy doing it. If I did not enjoy reading Tolstoy, I wouldn’t read Tolstoy: I certainly don’t read Tolstoy to give myself a bad time. (And, contrary to what Resenters may imagine, neither do I read Tolstoy in order to impress: in a society that does not much value erudition, making the immense effort required to take in a difficult book merely in order to impress does strike me as a lot of pain for very little gain.) So if I enjoy reading Tolstoy, then it is because, at some level at least, it entertains me. Ergo, it is entertainment. I don’t know that I want to take issue with this logic, but I do feel it worth emphasising that there are different types of entertainment. Anna Karenina and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are both dear to me, and, in their very different ways, they both entertain: but one cannot approach them with similar expectations; and neither can they be judged by similar criteria. Some distinction must be made.

This is where both the Resenters and the Reithians go very badly wrong – the former by claiming that there is no real difference, and the latter (at least, some of the latter) by pretending there isn’t. There is a distinction, I feel, and it must be made: we cannot apply those critical standards used to judge works lacking depth to a work in which the vast proportion of its substance lies below the surface: the standards by which we judge Murder on the Orient Express cannot be used to judge The Brothers Karamazov (or, indeed vice versa). To judge a work of depth merely by glancing at the surface is bound to lead to criticisms that are glib and superficial. One needn’t look very far around the internet to find examples of that.

In the meantime, we have the depressing situation of a library with two wings containing rather different kinds of books. Very few venture into that library at all, but of those who do, the vast majority tend to stay in the wing that contains – to use the terminology of that Radio Times columnist – books that we really like, while rarely if ever venturing into that wing containing books that those villainous critics insist we should. Reithians desperately try to get more people into the other wing, sometimes promising them that the books there are not so dissimilar to what they are already used to: some do come, but judge what they find there by the standards of what they are used to, and often find themselves unimpressed. The Resenters, meanwhile, want that other wing demolished.

I might as well admit it: I grew up in an era when the BBC still followed broadly Reithian values, when the Best and the Most Elevated were still part of the mainstream, and a developing mind could absorb at least some of it by osmosis. But holding on to Reithian values these days is a bit like being a Scotland supporter in football (which I also am): you know that you’re inevitably going to be on the losing side, but you are too emotionally attached to switch your allegiance. But all the same, you wonder what you can possibly do to encourage a wider love of those very great works of literature that you know have so enriched your own life.

Comedy is no laughing matter

Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.

But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.

So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.

I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.

Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?

The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.

For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.

But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.

“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.