Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Modernism, authenticity and English

Do modernist literary thinking and practice undermine the notion of authenticity in writing?

I ask because of the relevance to English teaching, which, at least in the mainstream comprehensive school version I started out in, never seems to have had much time for modernist literature and did value authenticity in students' writing. Is there a real conflict there?

The modernist idea was, I think, that there was no such thing as expression. Whatever happens in the heart or out there in the world has no direct line into language: in one place (heart, world) there’s one thing going on, in speech and writing there’s something quite different, an assembling of signs each of which is intrinsically meaningless.

I've just been watching a Prom of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The commentators had seen the conductor, Sir Colin Davies, in rehearsal telling the youth orchestra that for the second movement they should look into their souls and find some reserve of passion and tenderness. The commentators disagreed with this approach: you don’t have to imagine yourself back into the equivalent of the state of Beethoven’s soul; it’s all in the notes. On the other hand, they went on to say, all the love that Beethoven was never able to give wife and family and lover, whom he never had or kept, got poured into his second movements, which were in effect hymns of love for humanity. How can you put love of humanity into an arrangement of sounds mechanically produced by bowing and scraping?

There has to be something in the idea that love etc get into music and are conveyed by it to account for the fact that our experience of music is that it expresses something. Music may be just notes, but their effect can be to unlock or activate feeling. Clearly the modernists were right that there’s no such thing as direct expression -- or at least that only a small part of music involves that, as when the body’s expression of emotion, in a sigh or a quickening of breath, is further extended into the singing voice or the breath blowing an instrument or the arm moving a bow. Beyond that limited part, we can perhaps only say that there must be, between the structures and relations in the sound and those in the psyche, some sort of homology. One can’t ‘express’ what’s in the soul -- one can’t be authentic in that simplistic sense -- but one can construct a semiotic artefact that stands in a recognisable relationship to it.

Of course, one might argue that the facial and bodily expression of emotion isn’t actually expression either: the red face that we take to be a sign of anger is just that, a sign, just as is a word is a sign, albeit the facial expression may have been established not by convention but by biology; it’s different in kind from anger itself. To which the response of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is that the red face is anger, not something that lies behind an expression of anger; emotion is something that happens in the body.

One can understand the modernist concern. In so much of the ‘sincere’ writing of the previous epoch it was possible to detect not the honest soul baring itself but the language speaking, its genres and habitual ways, its tones of voice, stances and admissible themes; if there was sincerity, it was in the intention and the reader might read that intention into the message, but it wasn’t in the message, any more than deep sympathy is in the Hallmark condolence card. There’s no simple ‘telling it how it is’ route to truth but only the exploration and shaping of the sign system, the verbal assemblage, until it says something you can sign up to and endorse: ‘what that text has turned out to say is something that I don’t mind meaning -- I'll buy into it.’ Or one can not buy into it but simply present the new thing as something that could be meant, to be entertained or not as one wishes; meanwhile it has illocutionary but not perlocutionary force, to use speech act theory jargon -- a statement that nobody’s stating. In any case, once the thing is out there, whether the author finds it ‘expresses’ his or her intention or fails to is neither here not there; whether someone’s saying it becomes irrelevant because it is doing the saying.

So what about English and authenticity? I was searching for a quote that Harold Rosen (see entries on him in the ‘labels’) had used somewhere when I came across his observation that English teachers’ practice, innovatory in the 1950s and 60s, of making the students' everyday experience the starting point for activities in English had led to ‘a huge demonstration of the ability of children and young people to speak with authenticity.’* (‘Speak’, of course, includes writing.)

There was once, at the time Rosen was referring to, a widely shared conviction that school students should be encouraged to say and write what they really thought and felt. Can it be that the implication of modernist literature is that this belief was mistaken? Surely the teachers’ instinct was right? True, there later developed the sense that some of these pieces of ‘powerful expression’ were in fact instances of sophisticated rhetoric from students who had picked up how to do the ‘sincere and expressive’ genre that so pleased their teachers -- while students without that rhetorical virtuosity felt uncomfortable and dried up. Douglas Barnes expresses these doubts eloquently somewhere.

But the sort of English practice that called intrusively for displays of unguarded response and feeling we can agree to have been misguided. It wasn’t that approach that Harold had in mind when he referred to the ‘authenticity’ of students' productions, but any work that contrasted with those ‘bogus, half-strangled essays and perfunctory compositions which have filled mountains of grimy exercise books’. It’s clear that for Rosen ‘authentic’ means not that hand-on-heart confessional sincerity ( ‘A time I really let someone down’) that became the stereotype of some '60s and '70s English teaching, but speech and writing motivated by a real impulse to write, whether confessionally, playfully, ingeniously or hilariously. What he was opposing was the stuff produced in weary compliance with school demands, writing that no child or adolescent would ever choose to produce, usually some hypocritical display of conventional sentiment.

Rosen’s contrast between the false or phoney and the genuine represents not a delusion but a real distinction. One does not want students to be insincere or hypocritical. Authenticity in Rosen’s sense, though, does encompass conscious role playing and the playful or experimental or exploratory adoption of other personas. It isn’t 'inauthentic' to be an actor or to juggle with words. In fact it may be an essential part of a writer’s development: Larkin became Larkin by first being Hardy.

What the modernists would want one to recognise is that when one is sincerely trying to be sincere in language, the operation is intrinsically just as artificial as deliberate verbal experiment; the ‘authentic’ just as much as the wordplay is playing (as in playing an instrument) with a conventional code of signs.

Might it be part of the development of students as writers, once they are fluent and practised and well-read -- i.e. in later adolescence -- to arrive at that modernist recognition about the nature of their activity? Perhaps that’s what it means to start writing texts that have the sort of ‘impersonality’ Eliot speaks of, that stand on their own as a building does or a piece of music and don’t depend for their effectiveness on being attributed to some author’s intention.

*Rosen, H. (1981). Neither Bleak House nor Liberty Hall: English in the curriculum. An Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of London Institute of Education on Wednesday, 4 March 1981. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

No comments: