Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

Sitting in judgement on oneself

It’s a mug’s game trying to propound general rules about literature. Or about any art form, I guess, but let’s stick to literature for now. As soon as you hit upon something that seems reasonable, up pop any number of exceptions. But, even accepting this, there does seem to me certain principles one may propound that are true in most cases – true in enough cases, at least, to deserve serious consideration. And one of these is that messages do not make for good literature.

I suppose at this stage I should define what I mean by “message” in this context. I don’t mean a particular perspective on life, or a specific way of seeing things: an individual viewpoint is something we expect from writers. What I mean by “message” is an explicitly or implicitly stated moral precept. And, unless we are talking about fables (in which moral complexities are deliberately simplified), such moral precepts do not, I think, make for good literature.

And the reason they don’t make for good literature, I think, is that literature, being the least abstract of all art forms, must engage in some way or other with life. This need not imply close imitative reproduction: one may, if one wishes, and if one has the genius to do so, engage with the realities of life by making one’s characters speak in intricate blank verse, and setting the action on some magical island. But at some level, in some form, the realities of life need to be grappled with. And, given the various uncertainties and ambivalences of our human lives, given all the complexities and intricacies of all this unintelligible world, moral precepts either crudely cut through it all and end up being partial (“capitalism is an evil and we need revolution now,” say); or they end up being merely banal (“we should all be kind to each other”). Leaving aside fables once again, where moral simplification is the very point, neither, I think, makes for satisfactory reading as literature.  

This is not to say that writers cannot project their own ideas; but when they do – when, at least, the best writers do – something strange happens: they present their ideas not so much to propagate them, but, rather, to challenge them. Sometimes, even, to subvert them. Tolstoy had famously intended to present Anna Karenina as a sinful woman who is punished for her transgression, but what emerges is entirely different. Dostoyevsky often put his own most deeply held convictions in the mouths of fools and scoundrels, and, despite himself being devoutly religious, presents through Ivan Karamazov the most powerful (and as yet unresolved) argument against religious belief.

Ibsen wrote once in a letter that to write is “to sit in judgement over oneself”. Even while insisting that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, he created unflinching truth-seekers who, merely by the fact of seeking truth so unflinchingly, are maniacs. In Rosmersholm, he wondered to what extent the truth can even be discerned, let alone told. None of this is to say that Ibsen abandoned the idea that truth is vitally important; rather, he was sitting in judgement on himself. As all great writers do. And the judgement is harsh.

Tolstoy too, I think. In The Kreutzer Sonata, he presents a narrative told by a deeply misogynist man, Pozdnyshev, who murders his wife; and, very disconcertingly, he gives this man a great many of his own views. Now, quite clearly, Tolstoy is not Pozdnyshev, if only for the simple reason that Tolstoy is not a murderer; so why does he give Pozdnyshev so many of his own characteristics, and his own opinions? It seems to me that here Tolstoy, as Ibsen and Dostoyevsky had done, is sitting in judgement upon himself, putting his own most deeply held convictions under the microscope, and, with a disarming honesty, finding them wanting. The world that he presents – that Ibsen presents, or Dostoyevsky presents – is too complex for any simple moral precept to hold. It wasn’t that Tolstoy was above being a moralist: he did, after all, write fables – the finest, probably, since Aesop’s (James Joyce once described these fables as “the greatest literature in the world”). But when not writing fables (which, by their nature, simplify the moral complexities of this world), he had to acknowledge a world filled with complexities and uncertainties, in which moral precepts, even those embodying his most deeply held convictions, were simply not adequate – where they were either partial, or banal, or both.

And so, it frankly worries me when so many literary essays and discussions I see online consider works of literature, often major works of literature, purely in terms of their “message” – often, in the process, dragging out, based on what is known about the author, a straightforward message from all the messy complexities of the work itself. Are we really, after all, to believe that Tolstoy condoned murder? That Ibsen, speaking as his alter ego Stockmann, is calling for entire peoples to be “eradicated”? Or can we see here the authors’ own shocked realisations of the shortcoming and inadequacies of their own convictions?

With writers of the quality of Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, or Tolstoy, we have to – we must – look beyond whatever it is we perceive to be the “message”. In lesser writers, however, the message is all there is. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a very important book because its message was so powerful, and, happily, so influential. However, I doubt any great claim can be made for its literary merit. There are many other writers too who are prized primarily, on even purely, because of the message their works project. Claims of literary merit are often made for these writers, but I remain dubious. Ayn Rand, say: she remains controversial because her message remains controversial. I personally think her message is nonsense, but that’s not the reason her novels are so bad: rather, the novels are bad because they send out a message at all. This is not what literature is about.

Recently, on Twitter, I saw a thread (which, out of politeness, I will not link to) written by an English teacher in which she (for the author of this thread was a “she”) discusses how she teaches a certain poem in class. The work in question, which was reproduced in full, is a poem only by virtue of the fact that the lines did not stretch all the way to the right-hand margin of the page: I could certainly discern none of the creative use of language that I expect from poetry; and, indeed, if we were to take out the line breaks, even the prose that would emerge would not be particularly distinctive. The interest of the poem (for such we have to call it) lies solely in the content, and sadly, even that wasn’t very interesting: the imagery was banal, and the message – which may be adequately summarised as “we kill those that we are afraid of” – seemed to me both simplistic, and not generally applicable: we are all, after all, afraid of a great many people, but most of us manage to get through our lives without killing anyone. But what interested me more than the poem itself – there is no shortage of bad poems, after all, that this one should be of particular interest – is the account of its teaching: it focused purely on the content, on its message. I guess it had to, as there is nothing else in the poem that is worthy of attention – but I couldn’t help wondering if there is any point in teaching poetry at all when what is taught isn’t really poetry, as such, but, rather, some banal and questionable “message” it projects. Is it really a creditable thing to do to tell students that what matters in literature is merely what the literature says? That the sole purpose of reading a novel, or a poem, or a play, is to extract from it some sort of message?

This focus on message worries me because it seems to me to deny the richness of literature. It is reductive. It reduces even the greatest of writers, the greatest of works, merely to what it says – or, if what it says is complex and ambivalent (as life itself is complex and ambivalent), to a simplified (and therefore misleading) view of what it says. Children would be better not taught poetry at all than taught in the manner I saw described in that Twitter thread.

But now that I have written all this, you are all going to regale me with various titles of books that are without doubt major literature, and which certainly contain a message, even of the kind I described at the start of this piece. Well, yes: making up these rules always is a mug’s game, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But this reductive focus on “message” does, I admit, continue to worry me.

Sense and Sensitivity

It’s always a good thing for those of us who take literature seriously to be sensitive to what they read. Quite often, matters of the most vital import are communicated with subtleties and nuances, and without sufficient sensitivity to these things, one may well miss the development of Emma Woodhouse’s perceptions, or of Lambert Strether’s. Which would be a shame, as these developments are at the very centre of these novels. So yes, let’s have more sensitive readers, by all means. That can only be good for the furtherance of literary values.

However, another expression, similar sounding but very different in meaning, has been making its way quite insistently into my consciousness of late, and this time, I’m not so sure it is very good for the furtherance of literary values. And that’s “sensitivity readers”. Being long of the opinion that any noun may be verbed, I have no objection with the noun “sensitivity” being, as here, adjectivised, but its import, in this instance, leaves me feeling somewhat uneasy. For it is the task of sensitivity readers is to read through texts before publication, and to remove, or at best to tone down, anything they feel might cause offence to the unsuspecting reader. In short, these people are censors, unelected and unaccountable, deciding on behalf of the reader what is offensive, and what isn’t; what we may read, and what we can’t. And the criterion determining this has nothing to do with correcting errors, polishing up the writing style, ensuring there is nothing libellous in the content, etc. – that is, the kind of thing we would expect editors to do: the criterion is to protect our sensitivities. On our behalf.

The political arguments against censorship need not be spelt out here, but the literary arguments perhaps should. For while literature does not need always to be offensive, there are times when it does. It would be tedious to list all those works now considered masterpieces but which have, in their time, been considered affronts to good taste and have fallen foul of censors – Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and so on. A general consensus had developed – or so I thought – that censorship is an enemy to literature. Of course, the relaxation of censorship inevitably means that a lot that is rubbish, or even morally repugnant, also sees light of day, but – and I’m sorry to be stating the obvious here – if people choose to read rubbish, even morally repugnant rubbish, then that is entirely their privilege, and no-one as the right to prevent them. This, as I understand it, is the classic liberal argument against censorship, and for freedom of speech.

So it did rather startle me to see an article in a mainstream liberal newspaper, written by someone who is herself an author (and hence, one may assume, someone who values literature), and who would also probably claim to be liberal, claiming that current level of censorship is actually a good thing, but not enough for the longer term:

Increasingly, publishers are using sensitivity readers, which is a good idea but a short-term fix.

In case it is felt I am quoting out of context, this is the article from which it is taken. It concerns the much publicised case of poet Kate Clanchy, whose book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me has recently come under fire for alleged racism. In this instance, the publishers Picador released a statement saying that they would, in this instance, do, as it were, a “sensitivity reading” in retrospect, and rewrite the offending passages. They will, in other words, now determine on our behalf how best to protect our sensitivities.

It may of course be argued – and many already have argued it – that they are removing passages that are racist and rude, and that there can be no objection to that. But firstly, are these passages racist and rude? I am at a disadvantage here as I haven’t read the book, but the examples given – in that article by Monisha Rajesh in the Guardian previously mentioned – leave me unconvinced. Let us go through a few of them one by one.

Someone is described as having a “chocolate skin”. I myself have a chocolate-coloured skin, and am quite happy with it. To see this term in itself as offensive is to see the possession of a “chocolate skin” as something bad, and that certainly would be racist. But if Ms Clanchy does see the possession of a “chocolate skin” as a Bad Thing, there is no indication of that in Monisha Rajesh’s article. Reference to a “chocolate skin” is, in itself, an objective description – “skin the colour of chocolate” – and whether one sees this as offensive or otherwise depends purely on what one thinks of chocolate skins. I, as I said, quite like mine. If describing someone as having “milky white skin” isn’t offensive, then I don’t see why “chocolate skin” should be either – unless one thinks “milky white” to be superior to “chocolate brown”.

Same, I imagine, with a “Jewish nose”. Of course, all Jews don’t have Jewish noses, but there is a recognisable shape of nose that is often found among Jewish people and is associated with them; and, as with a brown skin, as long as one does not ridicule it, or use it to attack or to abuse Jewish people, I can’t really see the problem if it is described in writing. I have myself admired and, indeed, envied many a Jewish nose in my time; and so, it seems, does Kate Clanchy, as, we are told later in this article, she refers to someone else’s “fine Ashkenazi nose”. The adjective “fine” seems to me to imply appreciation rather than otherwise.

And so on. When Monisha Rajesh says she “recoils” when a Somali boy is described as having a “narrow skull”, I assume it’s the description of the fact and not the fact itself that she is recoiling from, but if it’s a physically accurate description, I don’t, once again, see what the problem is, or why this should be termed “racist”. “Racism” – once again, as I understand it – is to hold prejudices about a person, or about a group of people, based upon their ethnicity, and I really can’t see any of that in what appears to be objective physical descriptions. I do hope we’re not at a stage where it is considered acceptable to physically describe white people (“milky white skin”, for instance) but not of non-white people: that would be racism.

Monisha Rajesh does not mention that another girl (from an ethnic minority) was described as having “almond shaped eyes” – presumably because after this expression was held up as an example of Kate Clanchy’s racism, the girl in question publicly identified herself, and said she wasn’t offended at all; that it was merely a case of other people being offended on her behalf. Well, of course she wasn’t offended! “Almond shaped eyes” sounds quite lovely, frankly.

Of course, there may be a problem with all this if the children could be identified from the descriptions, but once again, as I understand it, care has been taken not to reveal their identities. In any case, the charge against the book isn’t that the children are identifiable: the charge is explicitly that of racism. And, from the examples given, at least, I can’t see it. And this despite my being rather sensitive about racism (I am of Indian ethnicity and grew up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s – not an era associated with racial sensitivity: without, I hope, appearing self-pitying on the matter, I think I have experienced a fair amount of racist abuse in my life – enough, at least, to have a good understanding of what racism is).

However, clearly, in these instances, Monisha Rajesh sees racism where I do not; her sensitivities are clearly different from mine. And herein, I think, lies the problem: since different people can have different sensitivities, whose sensitivities should “sensitivity readers” represent? If their sensitivities are different from mine, why should their sensitivities be allowed to override mine? What right, in short, does anyone have to be offended on my behalf?

The obvious answer to all this is to let the readers decide for themselves whether they find something offensive or not. But of course, for the reader to do that, they must have access to the books in the first place – to the books unredacted by “sensitivity readers”. That, to me, is the liberal position, but the sight of people claiming to be liberal clamouring for more censorship, not less, makes me wonder whether I actually understand the term.

This liberal solution I outline – of publishing books without redacting to protect sensitivities – entails, inevitably, the publication of much that really is indisputably and offensively racist. But readers must be trusted to decide that for themselves. The alternative, it strikes me, is very illiberal indeed. And certainly not in any way conducive to furthering literary values. For those of us who care for such things, that is.

Trouble at the Proms

Before sitting down to write these posts, I generally mull over in my mind what I am planning to write, and try to formulate at least some of the key sentences. And in the course of doing so for this particular post, I found it very hard to dispense with the word “wankers”. It is not a word I like to use, especially on this blog, which I like to think of as an oasis of refinement and sophistication, but in this instance, it does appear to be, as the say, le mot juste. Let me explain.

The Proms, or, to give it its full title, the Promenade concerts, are a series of concerts of western classical music (with the occasional diversion) organised by the BBC, and held in the very impressive surroundings of the Royal Alert Hall in London. It last over a great many weeks over summer, and features not only the excellent BBC orchestras, but other orchestras and ensembles from around the country, and, indeed, from around the world. It features also conductors and soloists – singers, pianists, violinists, etc – of the highest calibre, again, from all around the world. When I go to these concerts nowadays, I generally fork out for seats, but in my younger days, when I was more suited to such things, I used to queue up for standing tickets in the Arena (that is, the large space immediately in front of the orchestra) which were, and still are, available at an extremely modest price.

It has been called, with reason, the greatest classical music festival in the world. I suppose it could be said that, away from the summer months, London itself presents a festival of classical music: no other city, I think, has so many orchestras and ensembles, or so many venues, such an embarrassment of riches of visiting artists. To state a personal preference, I actually prefer concerts in Barbican Hall, or the Royal Festival Hall, or the Wigmore Hall, or wherever, to Proms concerts. But there’s no denying that a fully packed Royal Albert Hall, or even a less than fully packed Royal Albert Hall, does provide a real sense of occasion. Some of the very best concerts I have attended have been at the Proms.

However, to most people, the Proms do not bring to mind images of orchestras playing Beethoven or Berlioz or Stravinsky: the public image of the Proms is that of the Last Night, where, traditionally, the second half of the concert (televised live by BBC) is a party. Patriotic songs – Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem – are sung (with the audience singing along), flags are waved, speeches are made, and a good time, it seems, is had by all. Except by those who see in all this a deplorable and cringeworthy display of jingoism. Is it really suitable, they ask rhetorically, to sing, in this day and age, lyrics such as this?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet

Or what about this, written at a time when Britain was itself heavily involved in the slave trade?

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves,
Britons never never never shall be slaves

Of course not. How could such lyrics fail to offend People of Colour? And if they aren’t offended – and it seems the vast majority of them can’t give a toss – then they jolly well should be! They can’t leave us to do all this outraging on their behalf by ourselves!

It is at this point I find myself reaching for the word “wankers”, although I am unsure whom to apply that epithet to – those bedecked in the Union Jack singing these rather silly and outdated lyrics, or those who get ever so offended on behalf of others. On balance, I think I side with the Promenaders on this one. Of course, if the Promenaders came out of the concert shouting racist slogans, or beating up foreign-looking people, that would be another matter; but since they don’t, since it all seems pretty good-humoured – and indeed, a great many of the Promenaders, hailing as they do from different parts of the world, happily wave their own national flags without incurring any disapprobation from others – I can’t in all honesty see a problem.

Personally, I must admit I find the ritualistic singing of these songs rather embarrassing and cringe-inducing, but I have devised an excellent solution to overcome this: I don’t go to these Last Night concerts. And neither do I watch them on television. It’s a cunning scheme, I know, but it works for me.

Traditionally, the penultimate night of the Proms used to be given over to a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and that is the night I always regarded as the real Last Night of the Proms; but sadly, that tradition has now fallen by the wayside. Beethoven’s 9th symphony is still performed, but is usually tucked away somewhere in the schedules away from the prominent slot it used to have.

However, I should perhaps think twice before labelling the concert-goers of the Last Night “wankers” en masse, merely for enjoying something I don’t. A friend of mine, who used regularly to attend the Last Night, tells me that neither he, nor anyone he knew, took the words of these songs at all seriously: it was all a bit of ironic, tongue-in-cheek fun, a knowing enjoyment of the naffness of it all. It’s all part of the fun of the party. I can believe that: this knowing, tongue-in-cheek enjoyment of naffness is something I can identify as very typically British. Problem remains, though, that I am not really a party person. For many, I am sure, there is nothing finer than bonding, even to jingoistic songs, with people who, till then, had been strangers; but while I am all for Alle Menschen becoming Brüder, I am sufficiently British to expect them to keep a decorous distance from me thereafter.

There are, however, other objections to the Last Night jamboree – aesthetic objections rather than moral ones: after months of concerts featuring some of the very finest music the western world has produced, is it really appropriate to showcase the whole thing with a medley of rather silly and trivial patriotic numbers? The idea, of course, is to lighten up at the end, have a party, but must “having a party” necessarily involve all this triviality – all this jingoistic vulgarity that’s so much at odds with what had come before? Of course, it’s easy, all too easy, to dismiss this kind of objection as mere puritanism: dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no cakes and ale? But I do, I admit, have more than a sneaking sympathy with this stance. Given its prominence, the Last Night does tend to colour public perceptions of the Proms as a whole, and of classical music in particular; and expecting it all to be a party (as some seem to do) does, perhaps, distract somewhat from the seriousness of serious music. Despite the temptation to airily proclaim that everything is a bit of a laugh really, and that nothing should be taken too seriously, we should perhaps concede that certain things are indeed serious, and that an element of gravity, of decorum, isn’t perhaps always out of place.  Life devoid of seriousness seems to me unlikely to be very fulfilling, or even, for that matter, very enjoyable.

But be that as it may, all these arguments about the Last Night, pro and contra, have rumbled on for years now. However, this year, as with everything else, it’s all out in the open: all hell has broken loose. Of course, with the coronavirus lockdown, the Proms have had to be cancelled this year: BBC Radio 3 has been filling its summer schedule broadcasting recordings of Proms concerts from the past. But they did decide to have a few live concerts, albeit without a live audience. And one of these live concerts will be the Last Night – complete with patriotic songs. Which means, yet again, a tedious rehash of all those arguments relating to them. And, on this occasion, the conductor herself, Dalia Stasevska, appears to have a few problems with these patriotic songs. So, naturally, the organisers of the Proms had to discuss the matter. But, in a mischievous article in the Sunday Times, we were told that the BBC is “agonising about ‘decolonising’ the Last Night’s traditional bill”; that they were considering dropping the songs “in the wake of the Black Lives Matter” movement; and that “organisers fear a backlash because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery”. Given that there had been no call from any of the protest groups associated with Black Lives Matter – no demand, not even so much as a request – the epithet “wankers” may not be entirely irrelevant here in reference to such reporting.

But of course, outrage sells: it boosts the ratings. We love being outraged. That angry splutter, that furious indignation, that heart-warming glow of moral certainty – what can there possibly be to match that? Nothing much to get outraged by? No matter – make one up! Soon, BBC News got in on the act as well, citing the Sunday Times piece, and explaining to us why People of Colour (that is, people like myself) may indeed find the lyrics of these songs “offensive”.

The Proms organisers reached their decision soon enough: the songs will be played, but, for this year only, in instrumental versions. Given that these songs are occasions for concert-goers to sing along to, and that there is no live audience this year, that seems to me a rather reasonable decision. But by now, the floodgates had been opened to wankers of various shades. The Arts Minister, Oliver Dowden, weighed in; so did our beloved Prime Minister, who knows a populist stance when he sees one. Suddenly, all sorts of people who had never shown the slightest interest in classical music, or in any form of culture really, are outraged – outraged, I tell you! – that these culturally vital songs have been dropped from this great showcase for classical music. Even if they’ve not been dropped.

And wankers from the other side weren’t reticent either. There has still – as far as I know – been no demand from any of the protest groups regarding these songs, but suddenly, calls from various individuals to drop them for being so racist and insensitive seem to have multiplied – again from many who had shown not the slightest interest in the culture of classical music before, and who, quite literally, can’t tell their Arne from their Elgar.

(I should point out at this stage that that this Arne-Elgar gag is not my own. But since there is no copyright on it, I am as entitled as anyone else to recycle it.)

But we are where we are. Far more people, it seems, care about being outraged over outrages done to culture than care about culture itself. ‘Twas ever thus, I guess. But that does leave me with a dilemma: with so many wankers around all over the place, which group of wankers should I laugh at?

Putting the plebs back in their place

Imagine that you have a profound artistic vision. And imagine also that you have the ability to communicate this vision. Imagine you have an extraordinary mastery of language, and that there is nothing – no nuance, no shade of thought or feeling – that you cannot communicate with words.

Now, if you are so gifted, what would you do with these gifts? What would you devote your life to? What would you work on assiduously through all hours of day and night?

Keeping the working classes at bay, obviously. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

I am afraid this is precisely the contention that is made by many. It’s not new, of course, but I had rather hoped that this kind of nonsense would have run its course by now. So it’s sad to see that it is still very much alive and kicking.

I am not sure when these ideas started, but I first heard them articulated by John Carey, no less. I must confess that I haven’t read the book he wrote on this matter – The Intellectuals and the Masses; but I did see a television documentary he fronted at around the time this book was published, in which he expressed his view that modernists had deliberately made their work difficult to keep the “masses” out. I must admit that what I heard on that programme did surprise me considerably. But I am reluctant to attack Carey, as he is someone whom I admire greatly: had it not been for his brilliant edition of Milton, with its superbly detailed and erudite notes and annotations, I am not sure I could have negotiated my way around these immensely difficult poems.

There are, sadly, a great many other very difficult works of literature that I haven’t, as yet, been able to get my head around – not even with all the critical commentaries available. Yes, I made a few inroads into Milton (thanks to John Carey and a number of other Milton scholars); but the works of Spenser, say, or of the much-loved Donne, refuse resolutely to penetrate through my thick skull. There are other difficult works where, I can see quite clearly for myself without having to be told, my understanding is at best partial: the late novels of Henry James, say (The Golden Bowl especially). Even my beloved Shakespeare loses me with The Phoenix and the Turtle. All these works, it may be noted, are pre-modernist. In short, difficulty is hardly a modernist invention. So it genuinely puzzles me to read something like this:

If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.

This is written by scholar Jonathan Rose, and is approvingly quoted by Matthew Wills in the article I linked to above.

The contention that certain writers, of a certain era, had deliberately introduced difficulty (a quality that, presumably, had not existed earlier) specifically in order to exclude the “working people” seems, in view of the extreme difficulty I encounter in so many pre-modernist works, frankly absurd. It gives me a mental picture of the likes of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, etc. all getting together & rubbing their hands with glee – “These plebs are getting a bit above themselves, aren’t they? Right, no more easy stuff like Spenser or Milton or Henry James from now on … we’ll soon put the bastards back in their place!”

And so they put all their time and effort putting us bastards back in our place. Because, obviously, it’s such a worthy cause for gifted people to dedicate their lives to.

In my experience, virtually every contention relating to cultural matters that claims to be egalitarian has at its root a barely disguised contempt for the very people it pretends to champion. Behind the contention that the difficulty of modernism is intended to ward off the “working people” is the insulting belief that the “working people”, the “masses”, are less capable than others of negotiating difficulty. The very title The Intellectuals and the Masses assumes that the two are distinct groups – that the “masses” are incapable of being intellectuals; or that, those who do become intellectuals are, by definition, no longer authentically one of the “masses”. In which case the distinction between the two seems to me to become rather inconsequential: what point would such a distinction serve?

Yet, it seems, this continues to do the rounds. The net result is further denigration and belittlement of anything that smacks of the intellectual. Which, I can’t help thinking, has been the aim all along. But since it is impertinent to speculate on what anyone’s unstated motives may be, let us not go there. Let me just restrict myself to saying that I, who am most definitely among the “masses” (since I am still waiting for my invitation to join this shady elite of intellectuals), continue to find the whole thing frankly bizarre.

A revised definition of “cultural appropriation”

Generally, as we approach Christmas, I try to keep off controversy. It is the season of goodwill, after all. But …

Yes, of course there is a “but”. I’ll try to keep this one short, though.

I have, on numerous occasions on this blog, been scathing about the concept of “cultural appropriation”, arguing that adopting elements of other cultures, far from being reprehensible, is desirable, as the alternative is to create cultural ghettoes. (I won’t link to the various posts in which I argue this case: a quick search reveals them quite easily.) But recently, I’ve been hearing that “cultural appropriation” is not at all about taking things from other cultures: it is about wilfully disrespecting elements of other cultures.

Now, this seems to me revisionism. If “cultural appropriation” is about disrespecting other cultures, then it would have been termed “cultural disrespect”, or something similar. “Appropriation” means taking something that does not belong to oneself, usually without permission from the owner. (I think any dictionary would confirm that.) So when anyone speaks of “cultural appropriation”, I naturally take it to mean appropriation in the context of culture: that does seem to me a reasonable interpretation. And, indeed, all the various manufactured controversies relating to “cultural appropriation” seem to assume this interpretation also: visitors to an art gallery invited to try on a kimono, pop stars wearing sari and bindi, etc. – none of them involving any disrespect at all, and yet all resulting in large numbers of people quite apoplectic with rage. All very comical, frankly, were its implications not so sinister.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, accept this revisionist definition: “cultural appropriation” is not really about appropriation of culture (that would be too simple, apparently), but about disrespect of culture. About disrespect of elements of a culture that have symbolic value for adherents of that culture.

Well, I slept on that for a bit, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The most obvious point is that not all elements of all cultures are worthy of respect. Many, clearly, aren’t. The culture I was born into, for instance, has many fine things in it, but it also has this thing called “caste system”, which is culturally very significant. And Brahmin men are supposed to wear around their necks a sacred thread, as a mark of their high caste: it is a significant cultural symbol. Some sixty or so years ago now, my father respected this significant cultural symbol by chucking away his own sacred thread. He did not deem it worthy of respect any more than I do. But that it is a cultural symbol of deep significance is beyond doubt, and the injunction that we must not disrespect it, especially if we weren’t born into the Hindu religion, seems to me arbitrary at best, and, at worst, completely bonkers.

No, I’ll revise that. At worst, sinister and dangerous. For how is much-needed reform to come if that which needs reform is mandated as worthy of respect? How, indeed, can we prevent that which should be reformed from becoming even further entrenched, if it is mandated to be exempt from criticism and disrespect?

And who does the mandating anyway? Who decides what is worthy of respect, and what isn’t? Who are the gatekeepers here, and on what authority?

So really, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone wants to disrespect any aspect of any culture, then that’s fine – disrespect away! Yes, in the course of all this, I am sure that certain things that I myself revere may also end up being disrespected. But don’t worry about that – I can take it! Honestly, I can! And if I can’t, that’s my problem, and not anyone else’s. All this talk about “respect” merely puts me in mind of The Godfather films, I’m afraid.

For consider the implications of even this revised definition of “cultural appropriation”: the worst elements of our cultures become entrenched, thus rendering reform even more difficult; rigid boundaries are set between cultures, with self-appointed gatekeepers; all humanity itself becomes fragmented beyond repair. This is what, it seems to me, many people really want. I, personally, don’t.

Now, I did say at the start of this piece that I will keep this rant short, and I hope I have kept my word. All my posts between now and the New Year will be full of brightness and joy and festive cheer – I promise!

Ghettoisation is liberation

War is peace

Freedom is slavery

Ignorance is strength

To which we should now add a fourth slogan:

Ghettoisation is liberation

Yes, I know I must appear to be no more than an ageing has-been, or, more accurately, an ageing never-has-been, raging furiously at the way the world is going. But I hope that’s not quite the whole story. I grew up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, and, despite everything that is still far from perfect, I do know, for instance, that there is far, far greater racial tolerance now (at least in Britain) than there had been some forty or fifty years ago. I also know that modern advances in medicine and medical technology have saved my life: the chances of surviving a triple heart bypass operation are now far greater than they were back in my day. So I would have to be wilfully blind, and unthinkingly ungrateful, to rage against the modern world merely for being modern.

However, certain aspects of the modern world are nonetheless worth raging against. Certain cultural aspects, which, after all, are the major focus of this blog. And amongst the most insidious of these is the increasingly widespread credo that one’s ethnicity, or one’s gender, or one’s sexuality, defines one’s cultural and moral values – defines, indeed, the very person one is.

Certain things enter one’s mind at so formative a stage in that mind’s development, and stay embedded within it so firmly, that it becomes very difficult attempting to look beyond them, or even trying to understand that there may be valid arguments against them. I appreciate that. And one of those things that had entered my mind at a very early stage was the conviction that one’s cultural values, or one’s ethical values, are not determined by race. Indeed, I have long thought deeply objectionable, and, yes, as racist, the idea that one’s race determines the kind of person one is. One’s person is not defined by one’s race: such a credo, determining human value in terms of race, has always seemed to me the very epitome of racism.

So, naturally, I find myself rather bemused, to say the least, when the very people who claim to be anti-racist nowadays proclaim this same racist credo. Suddenly, it seems, everything I have understood about racism seems to be turned on its head. The very definition of “racism” seems to be changed before my very eyes.

Other definitions seem also to be changing before my eyes. Of poetry, for instance. Obviously, defining poetry has never been an easy task: and, after having given the matter much consideration – or, at least, as much consideration as I am capable of – the best definition I could come up with is that if a piece of writing ain’t prose, then it’s poetry, and vice versa. And prose is written in units of sentences, and poetry in units of lines, which may cut across sentences. Or, to put it more crudely, prose goes all the way up to the right hand side of the page, and poetry doesn’t. But that’s pretty uninteresting, and unenlightening: the question is whether something is good poetry, and that, of course, is another matter. And here, we cannot go by definitions, as there are so many different ways that a poem can be good. But, without going into any detailed analysis, it can be maintained, I think, that just as painting involves the manipulation of colours, and music the manipulation of sound, so poetry involves the manipulation of language – of making words communicate more than merely their dictionary definitions. What “more” it can communicate depends upon the intentions and the skills of the poet: it may communicate multiple layers of meaning, or plumb depths of emotion, or evoke distant associations, or elusive states of mind, or capture the most intangible of human feeling and thought; but whatever the poem achieves, its basic tool is language. To analyse how a poem works – should one wish to do that – it is the language we must focus upon.

But this too seems to be changing. Consider this poem, which, I am reliably informed, is a set text for English literature GCSE this year. As far as I can see, with my old-fashioned and no doubt outdated ideas on poetry, this is poetry only because it ain’t prose: the  lines don’t go all the way across the page. It uses a Caribbean dialect, which is fine, but the dialect is used not to any particular expressive end, but merely to assert the poet’s racial identity. And I cannot help wondering what there can be here that merits teaching. The poem conveys nothing more than what may be communicated by a bald summary of its content: “They do not teach us anything that makes me feel comfortable about my racial identity.”

Of course, how history should be taught is a complex issue, and fully deserving of debate and discussion, but to object to the way it is currently taught merely because it does not make one feel comfortable about one’s racial identity does not seem to me a very enlightening contribution to the debate. And such a simplistic statement seems to me a poor theme for a poem. A good poem lays bare the complexity and the intricacy of our human state: a simplistic statement may make a good rallying cry, but its worth as poetry worthy of study remains to my mind dubious.

Well, let’s not labour the point: let’s just say that this is not my idea of what poetry should be – or, at least, what good poetry, poetry worth teaching, should be. But then again, I am shown rap lyrics which I am told is poetry of our times, and I can see no poetic merit there either, so I suppose all this is no more than an indication of how utterly outdated and obsolete my perspective is on such matters.

And my perspective on what constitutes racism is similarly obsolete, I guess. I have changed my mind on a great many things over the years but one point I have been constant on, ever since I have been old enough to think about such matters, is that I was not going to define myself in terms of my ethnicity, as my ethnicity says no more about what kind of person I am than does my shoe-size. Of course, some others may well see me in terms of my ethnicity, but they’d be wrong, and I am not going to confirm them in their wrongness by agreeing with them. And, since I didn’t see myself in terms of my ethnicity, I thought it only good manners not to see others in such terms either. So it’s quite a shock, as I find myself approaching my sixties, to realise that what I had thought was a liberal position to hold in such matters is now actually considered racist – that people are actually clamouring for their ethnicity to be recognised, and to recognise it in others; and that it is racist not to see people thus.

For nowadays, it is quite commonplace to see individual people in terms of their race. No-one bats an eyelid. Of course, I’d expect racists to place a great emphasis on race: that’s because, obviously, they’re racists. But this is now a mark of the anti-racist as well, and, dinosaur that I am, I really cannot reconcile myself to it. In The Guardian, an avowedly liberal paper, there recently appeared an article written by someone who would no doubt claim to be feminist and anti-racist, headlined “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. I appreciate that the author was not responsible for the headline, but on this occasion, it’s a fair summary of what the article says. Back in my own benighted times, an article so racist and so misogynistic as this would not have seen light of day.

For yes, it is racist – at least, given my no doubt obsolete understanding of the term. For how else can one describe making generalisations about an entire race? (And it is misogynist as well, for similar reasons.) I raised this point on Twitter, but I was confidently told that one cannot be racist to white people. I did not quite understand the reasons for this quite extraordinary statement , but it’s widely held, and is something, I gather, to do with the “power structures” of society. (It is astonishing how readily the general public laps up the various bits and pieces of bollocksology that emanate from the groves of academia.) And I was recommended to read a book called Why I Am No Longer Talking About Race to White People. I replied, as politely as I could, that I have too much to read as it is, and that I find the title, unless it is intended ironically, offensive. And then I retired from the fray. What else could I do? (The author of this book, incidentally, is so marginalised by the power structures of society that she recently gave a talk at the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and it was sold out.)

Lionel Shriver, who had, not too long ago, earned the disapprobation of right-thinking liberals for her onslaught on the concept of “cultural appropriation” (an idea so utterly daft that one shouldn’t, one would have thought, even need to argue against it), recently penned an article in The Spectator drawing attention to the statement  made by the UK branch of Penguin Random House to the effect that they are aiming for both their staff and their writers to reflect, by 2025, the distribution of ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and sexualities in wider society. To be fair, Penguin Random House do not mention quotas, but it is hard to see how else this seemingly laudable aim can be achieved without them. And if the questionnaire they sent out to their writers is as described by Lionel Shriver (and I have seen no-one disputing this), then it seems fairly likely that this is indeed the path Penguin Random House is going down. Now, the quota system is controversial, to say the least, and Lionel Shriver is entirely justified in penning a polemic against it – although her means of attack is, admittedly, somewhat ham-fisted, introducing as it does that rather tired and tiresome figure of “a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter”. But her point remains valid. If Criterion X is to be replaced by Criterion Y, then, given that X and Y are not correlated one way or the other, there are bound to be at least some that pass Criterion Y who would not have passed Criterion X. At the very least, there is room for debate. But debate didn’t prove possible: all hell broke loose, with Lionel Shriver accused of racism (when really all she was guilty of was ham-fisted satire); and of saying that “people of colour” (as I guess I have to describe myself these days) cannot write, even though, quite clearly, she says no such thing. She later penned a response, but no-one was really listening by then.

But her point remains, I think, a pertinent one. Looking back, I sat my Scottish O-Grade in English (the equivalent of GCSE) back in 1975, and I distinctly remember studying in class poems by Shelley, by Wilfred Owen, by Dylan Thomas. Even if one thinks more highly of “Checking Out Me History” than I do, it cannot be denied that what is now being taught in English classes nowadays as poetry is not of a standard comparable to what had been around some 40 or so years ago. What can be the reason for this?

The only possible answer I can think of is diversity. (That is, to be clear, diversity as a criterion replacing quality, rather than as an addition to it.) And, also, strangely enough, uniformity. For while we may insist on diversity of ethnicity (and all those other things), we must still insist upon uniformity of outlook. After all, there is no shortage of genuinely fine poets who are black, or South Asian, or East Asian, or whatever, writing poems that display richness of language, and depth of thought. But it’s far easier, and far more convenient, to teach a simple message such as “What is taught does not validate my racial identity, and it’s not fair!” All you do is repeat this simple message, ignore the irony that a poem communicating this very message is now a set text in schools, and, lo and behold, you don’t really need to teach about poetry at all! All that difficult stuff about the use of language, the subtleties of the rhythms, the sonorities, the imagery – the sort of stuff that I was introduced to in the works of Shelley, of Wilfred Owen, of Dylan Thomas, when I was fifteen – can now be safely ignored. And it’s all right, because we have diversity, and that, apparently, is an end in itself.

And meanwhile, it continues. Examples pile upon each other, and it becomes exhausting merely trying to keep up. We keep quoting to ourselves the inspirational line of the late Jo Cox, who was so tragically murdered last year by a far-right racist: “We have more in common than that which divides us.” But even as we repeat this to ourselves, in practice, it is all that divides us that we most insist upon. Human beings are barely regarded as individuals any more: they are white, or black, or brown, or whatever. At the drop of a hat, it’s the ethnicity or gender or sexuality that comes inevitably to the fore, before all else. A published poet feels affronted by an Uber driver saying that he would like to be published, and instantly, she publicly announces that “old white men are exhausting”. Instantly, this taxi driver, who was doing no more than making polite conversation, is not an individual, but someone to be characterised by race and gender (and age), and put down on that score. The tweet has since been removed after heavy criticism, but there has been no apology or retraction.

(I will not link to her poetry by the way, but some are available in Instagram, should anyone wish to see them. I have. As I say, I simply do not understand the criteria of poetic merit any more, so there’s little point my commenting.)

So here I am, wondering why I even bother writing this when there’s so much I clearly don’t understand. Nor, frankly, wish to understand. Foolishly, I really had believed, and believe still, that we have more in common than that which divides us, and still feel very strongly that we have a very long way to go towards racial equality, and, further, that such an end is worth fighting for. But I had imagined that the struggle against racism was to break through the differences, and find that common ground. But that’s all old hat now. The message from all sides seems to me clear: see everyone, including one’s own self, in terms of ethnicity; respect all that divides us; stay in your lane.

Well, I want out. Obsolete  I may be, but I want no part in any of this. Let others fart around trying to find validation in poetry for their racial identity, and judge literary works on such terms: I’ll sit in my ivory tower for as long as I can, and glory in the richness of language and the subtlety of imagery and the profundity of feeling that I found in the English class in the comprehensive school I attended. Especially when the October wind punishes my hair…

Yes, our English teacher taught us this poem by Dylan Thomas for our O-Grade examination. This, of course, was back when people actually believed that poetry, far from being something to validate one’s group identity, existed to enrich our lives.

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds

Isn’t that just gorgeous?

Like a movie in your mind

On the few occasions I have been on guided tours of Gothic cathedrals – I generally prefer wandering around these cathedrals on my own – I have been told that most people in medieval times were illiterate, and that, as a consequence, the stained glasses telling the Biblical stories were particularly important. Some guides have added that people from medieval days were “more visual” than we are now.

I don’t know how true this is, or even whether such a hypothesis may be ascertained. That most people then were illiterate I accept, although, as that quote spuriously attributed to Mark Twain reminds us, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t. But leaving that aside, is it really the case that mass illiteracy leads necessarily to a greater emphasis on the visual? Seems a bit of a non sequitur to me, frankly. Quite apart from anything else, this seems to ignore the importance of oral traditions: the spoken word can be at least as potent as the written word.

In short, the assertion that more widespread literacy has led to us responding less strongly to what we see seems to me highly spurious. But if – and, I emphasise, if – this is indeed the case, I can’t at times help feeling that we seem to be returning to the state where, once again, we are – as the tour guides would have it – “more visual”.

I cannot insist on this as my evidence is only anecdotal. But let us rehearse a few of these anecdotes anyway.

Take films, for instance. Speak to any graduate of film studies, or any cineaste, or even to any aspiring cineaste, and they will invariably tell you that cinema is, primarily, a “visual medium”. This is not an assertion based on any argument: it is axiomatic. When pressed, they will offer examples: look at 2001- A Space Odyssey, they’ll say; look at Tarkovsky’s Mirror, at Solaris, at the various films of Ingmar Bergman; and so on. In such acknowledged cinematic masterpieces, the dialogue is often sparse, and what little there is of it is of little importance: it is what we see that tells the story, and creates the drama, that communicates everything the film is about. I agree with this, but I offer some counter-examples as well: look at The Maltese Falcon, I say, look at The Apartment, at Twelve Angry Men – and various other films that are still highly regarded, in which it is the dialogue and how it is delivered that tell the story and drive the drama. I am not, I clarify at this point, arguing that cinema isn’t a visual medium: I am arguing against the contention that it is primarily a visual medium. Just as one can think of a great many films in which the visual aspect takes precedence over all others, one can equally point to many other films, as firmly established in the canon, in which it is the spoken word that is central, and where the visual elements act at best but to supplement the story the dialogue is telling us, and, maybe, to provide atmosphere.

I don’t think I have convinced anyone yet, but I argue my case anyway. An argument is always worth engaging in, I feel, even if you don’t convince anyone except yourself. (Or even, for that matter, if you don’t convince yourself either.)

Now let us consider books. My attention was drawn lately to a meme that Goodreads posted recently on social media. Since the meme is now in the public sphere – and has been reposted a great number of times – I think it is OK to reproduce it here:

goodreads

“Do you ever get so engulfed into a book it plays like a movie in your mind?”

This has received a large number of positive responses. The answer to the question posed is, almost invariably, “yes”: books can, indeed, be so very good, that they are just like movies.

Now, I am not such a pedant that I am bothered by grammatical incorrectness, but I do find myself, I admit, vexed by inelegance; and when that inelegance comes from an organisation that aims to encourage reading, and should therefore have, one might at least have hoped, some concern about how words are put together, I find myself quite considerably vexed. Such propensity for being vexed at trifles light as air is, I own, but an eccentricity on my part, but there it is. “Engulfed into a book” may be perfectly correct – I am no expert on grammatical matters – but “engulfed by a book” sounds far better to my ears.

And the latter part of that sentence – “…it plays like a movie in your mind”: once again, this may well be, for all I know or, frankly, care, perfectly correct grammatically, but it sounds to my ears clumsy and cumbersome. If you want to encourage reading, I feel, you should take some care over the words you use, and how you put them together: otherwise you’re missing the point.

But a little more thought into the matter perhaps indicates that it is I who have been missing the point. I had assumed above that those who aim to promote reading should have some concern about “how words are put together”. But let us consider what this meme is actually saying. It seems to me to be saying “Has your experience with a book been so good that you can visualise it as if it were a film?” That is the criterion of literary merit that is put forward – not whether the prose is elegant; not whether it is expressive, or whether it is capable of communicating thoughts that are subtle and profound, or feelings that are elusive and intangible; not whether the pacing and structure satisfy aesthetically; not whether diversity of content is accommodated within the unity of form … No, the criterion is “Could you visualise it, as if it were a film?” And when that is your criterion of literary excellence – “does it aspire towards the condition of a movie?” – who cares about how you put your words together?

I suppose I could bemoan this trend towards the visual, as I bemoan everything else. I suppose it could reasonably be argued that since my evidence is all entirely anecdotal, there is no reason to bemoan any trend at all, since there is no trend, except in my increasingly saturnine imagination. And if we are indeed moving towards becoming “more visual”, as the tour guides insist our medieval forebears had been, then building a few more magnificent Gothic cathedrals would be no bad thing, would it?

Books we don’t read

For a long, long time now, I have been banging on to anyone who will listen (not many, admittedly) about declining literary standards. And now, here’s further evidence.

Only 4 years ago, a list was compiled (don’t ask me how) of the books we tend most to lie about having read. Topping that list were Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings – all sturdy, time-honoured classics. A similar list recently published is made up of books that, whatever merits they may have, are nowhere near so highbrow – The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the like. Even The Da Vinci Code.

(The only title the two lists have in common is The Lord of the Rings, and there, I do actually sympathise with the lying: I’ve lied about this one myself, as I explain here.)

One lies about books primarily, I guess, in order to impress. If I were to lie about books I have read, I’d say I’ve read The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the like – books that will make me appear fiercely intellectual, or, at the very least, a bit less of a shithead. I don’t really see why I would want to lie about having read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t really see why anyone would.

And here, it seems to me, is irrefutable evidence of the decline in our literary standards: we’ve stopped not reading challenging books.

O tempora! O mores!

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

Jane Austen and pornography

Now that I have captured your attention with the title, let me get a few boring bits out of the way before getting on to the meatier part of the story. (Is “meatier” really the word I want to use here? Never mind – let it stay.)

I’m afraid that the Times is behind a paywall, so this link possibly won’t be of much use to most readers. But in case you are a subscriber of the Times, do please have a look at this. For the rest, I’ll summarise as best I can.

Jenni Murray, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme Woman’s Hour, and author of the recently published book A History of Britain in 21 Women, speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, has advocated teaching children about pornography. She notes, quite rightly, that pornography is now all-pervasive in our society, and that we cannot get rid of it. Under the circumstances, she argues, it is better that children were to be educated on the matter, “so that at least those girls know and all those boys know that not all women are shaved, that not all women make that bloody noise”, and so on. In other words, to teach the children that what they see in pornographic films is but a fantasy.

This seems well-intentioned enough. Except that I don’t know that I would fancy being the teacher in one of these “analysis” classes.

For one thing, it is difficult to know how one can “analyse” pornography without being morally judgemental. Kant, I gather, had told us that each human being is an end in herself, or himself. I am no philosopher, but this does seem to me a splendid base on which to build our morality. Put simply, human beings are subjects, not objects, and are hence entitled to respect. In pornography, however, each human being is an object, and nothing more. Thus pornography is built upon a base that is inherently demeaning, and is, by definition, immoral. I am not sure how much more there can be to “analyse”.

Of course, it could be that Jenni Murray was quoted out of context, so I do not want to say much more here on this particular matter. But I do want to comment on her reference to Jane Austen, as that brings us close, I think, to one of the recurrent themes of this blog. Ms Murray is quoted as saying:

We give our kids Jane Austen to read and we say “OK, let’s analyse it, what is it saying and what does it mean?”

Why not put boys and girls together in a class, you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read the other cultures that are around.

Quite apart from the desirability or the morality of showing pornography to children, what strikes me here is the absurd notion that literary culture (of which Jane Austen is treated as a representative) and pornographic culture are merely two of many “cultures that are around”, and that, by implication, both are equally worthy of being taught, and that both can be analysed “in exactly the same way”.

But the works of Jane Austen should be taught not because they are representative of one of the many “cultures that are around”: they should be taught because they are amongst the finest products of our civilisation. That’s it. No other reason. If we do not believe that certain works of literature have inherent value that elevates them above certain other works of literature; and that the finest examples of literary culture civilise us and humanise us in a way that, say, the culture of pornography cannot; then there’s no point studying literature at all. We might as well just “study” pornography. In “exactly the same way”.

I’m afraid this is the kind of insulting nonsense one gets to when one embraces cultural relativism. What a wonderful future we envisage for our children! We cannot even communicate to them the peaks of our human civilisations, because we have stopped believing in such things ourselves.