Saturday, 28 July 2012

The ultimate empty signifier

Not a time for soundbites, I know, but I’ve been touched by the hand of history this week. The Olympic torch came through Surbiton and I went out specially (apart from having to go to Waitrose) to stand by the road with the crowd and watch. So I can tell my grandchildren I was there and gentlemen of England who couldn’t be arsed to get up would have nothing to tell theirs.

I hated it. For half an hour before the torch’s arrival (from Tolworth, history-touched too) we had to watch a succession of heavily padded police on motorbikes ineffectually waving us back on the pavement, cars carrying important people (evidently--consultants, no doubt), bikes ridden by, I suppose, athletes, judging by their gear, a Coca Cola bus, a Samsung bus, a RBS bus and more buses of other ‘sponsors’, each emitting loud music and conveying compulsory jollity via grimacing ‘athletes’ inside and pom-pom and tutu girls on the roof. In short, tacky.

Then the torch and torch-bearer appeared. Such was the crowd that they were very near before I saw them, and then my first glimpse of the torch did nothing to alleviate my disillusionment. It looked as if it had been knocked up for a kid’s party by some desperate mum from a bit of gold paper and sellotape.

Finally I was able to see the torch bearer and at this point I stopped hating it and took back all my whinges. Unlike the actual or would be ‘personalities’, fellow-travellers and Coke groupies, carrying the torch was a manifestly ordinary teenage kid, a lad who didn’t have a personality’s looks but seemed disarmingly awkward and embarrassed. I thought, if all this is really all about acknowledging the likes of him, then I'm with it.

On its journey through Britain (8,000 miles, I keep hearing) the torch (or torches -- they’re apparently disposable, unlike the flame) has attracted large and enthusiastic crowds in an outpouring that seems genuine (though do you remember Princess Di?). And I wonder, what’s the enthusiastic outpouring for? and I'm driven to conclude it’s for -- enthusiastic outpouring. Certainly, many of the bearers are said to be admirable, but I wonder how many are known to more than a few of the watchers. I doubt if the motivation to turn out and pour out is mainly a desire to respect a respected or loved local.

It’s a celebration -- of a celebration. There’s nothing behind it, nothing it’s a celebration of; it stands for nothing, not, anyway, in the minds of the thousands who have turned out as opposed to the official blurb. When a flame was carried from a shrine in ancient Greece, it commanded respect or awe because it was sacred -- this was the nearest we’d get to the gods. But this torch isn’t anything sacred and isn’t even the symbol of anything, anything at all, let alone anything sacred.

Torch and flame are the ultimate empty signifiers, there simply to signify, intransitive, or to signify, transitive, supply your own object. The latter is just what I imagine people have done.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Unsatisfying literature

A long intermission, that was: high pressure period for inspecting and writing up data (book on the research -- Walworth and two other schools -- due November) so I haven’t felt like extra writing on top. The pressure has eased for the time being so no reason not to resume -- I.e to use this forum to do my musing -- with Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is a historical novel by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell and his relations with, at the political level, his two employers, Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. My previous reading had been Canada by Richard Ford. After finishing Wolf Hall I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read two terrific novels in a row: I was absorbed in both and admired them immensely, and still do in retrospect.

I resolved after Canada that I’d read it again, as I increasingly do with novels. (I haven’t done it yet because I lent it to someone who I haven’t seen to get it back from, but I certainly will.) While reading Wolf Hall I was certain I’d reread that too -- but in the following days and weeks I haven’t felt so sure and haven’t felt the urge to start. There’s something importantly different about the two books, it seems, and getting at it seems of interest as a way of understanding something significant about English.

I've always felt inadequate -- under-educated -- in dealing with literature. I didn’t do A level English and when I switched to English at Oxford the ‘course’ was something of a joke: we read the books, wrote essays, and that was about it apart from the odd seminar with good young lecturers like John Carey. I did no thinking about what literature was, what poetry was etc., and I never had any help with reading ‘difficult’ 20th century poetry beyond The Waste Land; no one showed us and I'm still floundering with much modern poetry, though I like reading it. I feel there must be a key, an essential way of approaching it that, once you’ve got it, will banish many obscurities and show the motivation behind elements for the inclusion of which I can see no logic. And now I'm floundering thinking about those two novels.

Both are beautifully written, in different ways. With Mantel I wasn’t expecting much from the writing (I've never read anything else by her): this was a ‘historical novel’ and it would all be in the story and the characters. The description, scene-setting etc would be adequate -- functional -- but the prose would be flat. It wasn’t: the sentences were lovely, the texture was such savouring it was a large part of the pleasure. This was quality writing, I realised, as well as being a great story, the people in it fascinating and often sympathetic, the dialogue sharp and witty. (What’s more, the research behind the book had clearly been thorough; I felt confident that if you wanted to know about Tudor England, this would be a trustworthy place to start. Needless to say, I don’t really know that.)

But now, looking back, I'm not sure what it all amounted to. Was my reading essentially just a series of richly enjoyable and stimulating imaginative experiences, appreciations of beautiful texture -- and if so, what’s wrong with that and what else would it be if it wasn’t that? (The terrible judgment, ‘entertainment’, springs to mind.)

There are other good books, also well-written, that I ended up feeling the same way about. They all fall into the category of ‘genre fiction’. There are detective novels (Chandler, Parker etc), books like Robert Harris’s Fatherland, stories set in World War II and Cold War novels; Le Carré, of course, but I'm thinking particularly of an author I read more recently: military, espionage, USSR, Fall of France--Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer and Night Soldiers -- both well written and not just functional but, like all the others, I enjoyed them immensely but they left little behind except some scenes and situations that are still powerfully present to me. Wolf Hall seems, after this short time gap, to fall into that category; Canada doesn’t, though that, too, has left vivid impressions of the city of Great Falls, the boy’s world, the misery of the unbroken miles of Saskatchewan wheat fields.

Canada is more austere. The voice of the narrator (middle-aged man recalling his adolescence though one feels his voice hasn’t changed much in those years) is speechlike -- but not slangy -- and eschews literary types of expression while still doing all the descriptive work that was needed. Perhaps the quality the book has could better be described as formality, despite the relative informality of a style that owes much to speech. The language is of course written language in that it continues for the length of a book and is organised in paragraphs and chapters, and no doubt in features of syntax which I’d need the book back to demonstrate. Whatever its characteristics, it is above all consistent: the book establishes a decorum in its diction (see Donald Davie, Purity and Diction in English Verse) and sticks to it, with an effect overall that’s poetic. In Wolf Hall (and Furst) there is a pervasive poeticness -- exhilaratingly figurative and evocative -- but that’s a very different matter and doesn’t leave the lasting deposit in the mind that Canada does.

It’s something like -- this is the idea I'm playing with: the difference between a book that’s poetic and a book that’s, in effect, a poem, poetry.

Did some such distinction -- poetic, non-poetic -- lie behind Leavis’s distinction between the ‘Great Tradition’ of English fiction and less worthy writers like Trollope and Wells?

However, my judgment of books on one reading are unreliable. All this will have to be revised, no doubt, when I get round to re-reading, though whether I'll do that with Wolf Hall -- at least soon (I can’t see myself holding off reading the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies) -- I can’t say.

I wonder whether it’s its poetic character that makes for my willing re-reading of Kipling’s rather unregarded Kim over most Trollope, say, though I generally enjoy Trollope (the good bits, anyway), and for my satisfying rereading of Carlyle’s French Revolution (see marginal links). Will reflect.