How is it that we can witness some three hours of so of the utmost human misery that is King Lear, and still come out of the experience feeling exhilarated? Perhaps Orwell was right: in tragedy, we see human beings destroyed, but nonetheless feel that humanity is nobler than the forces that have defeated it. But, in the works especially of the last couple of hundred years or so, even the consolation of our essential nobility has been stripped away. Flaubert, in his works, presented an utter nothingess at the heart of our very existence, and refused to offer consolation: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as stupid and as pointless as that she rebels against; Frédéric Moreau remains as irredeemably mediocre and as unremarkable as ever; and even Félicité’s spiritual ecstasy is focussed upon nothing more exalted than a stuffed parrot that is already falling apart at the seams. Conrad merely saw darkness at the heart of everything; Kafka’s protagonist, when he finally has the knife twisted into his heart, hears before he dies the words “Like a dog”: our shame must outlive us; indeed, pace Larkin (who was actually quite an optimist in this respect), it is the only part of us that does outlive us.
Not very cheery, this modern literature lark, is it? Tragedians of the past told us that we were essentially noble: even if we have our eyes gouged out and even if we run stark staring mad on the blasted heath – as you do – we are still essentially noble, nobler than the forces that destroy us. But the moderns won’t grant us even that. Between being born on the edge of the grave and falling in, Beckett tells us, there is nothing in that brief interim to make it worthwhile.
So, the obvious thing to do is to turn away from all this. All these Flauberts and Conrads and Kafkas and Becketts – who needs ‘em? Why not, instead, feel good with some feelgood pieces of fluff? A West End musical? A Hollywood romcom?
I generally have nothing against feelgood pieces of fluff, but ultimately, they don’t really satisfy. Not me, at any rate. Sooner or later, I know I’ll have to turn back to these Flauberts and Becketts for some sort of deeper satisfaction. But I’m damned if I can even begin to understand what sort of deeper satisfaction it is that I get from these works – works that tell us how utterly stupid, trivial and insignificant we are in every way.
But there must for all that, be something there that satisfies. How else can I explain my actually reading and re-reading the likes of Flaubert and Conrad of my own free will? How can I account for these works satisfying me more deeply and more completely than even the goodest-feeling of feelgoods? I don’t know that I have an answer to this, but perhaps there is a clue in these lines I came across recently:
When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit.
– Seamus Heaney
That boy Seamus does have a way with words, doesn’t he?
I’m not sure where Seamus Heaney said that: I found it quoted in Colm Toibin’s review in The Guardian of Heaney’s new collection Human Chain. But it struck a chord. When a form generates itself, Heaney says, it is already on the side of life. Even when the artist imparts a vision of life that is irredeemably bleak, the work is, nonetheless, on the side of life. Any art that is worth the candle is on the side of life, whether it likes it or not.
That does not provide a consolation: a depiction of futility can be no consolation for futility. But it satisfies. And it satisfies precisely because it “does more than enough”; and, in doing more than enough, it protests against necessity, it rebels at limits. It says “bollocks” to the universe, that huge chunk of ironmongery against which we are all, apparently, insignificant. So, even when Flaubert tells us of the insignificance of Emma Bovary, even when Kafka tells us of the death “like a dog” of Josef K, they are contradicting what they are saying by the way they are saying it: they are protesting against the necessity, they are rebelling against the limits, even while depicting these same necessities and limits. And this protest, this rebellion, satisfies.
I am reminded of some lines by another rather good Irish poet:
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
Somehow, I don’t think Yeats had “feelgood” in mind when talking about “gaiety”.