Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mark’s current-ish piece on Peace dovetails rather neatly with a few of the further points I wanted to make about fiction/the novel. By which I mean that typically he’s said much of what I intended to say for me. It’s not Peace per se that I’m interested in, in fact I’m not strongly drawn to his work (admittedly I’ve only read the first. I’m assured that I need to read GB84, etc) and I suspect that along with things like Joy Division and the works of Kubrick the most interesting thing finally about them for me will be the writing/reflections they’ve inspired K-Punk (among others) to produce.

Right. That’s probably enough blog-backslapping, on with the misery!

The horrible, insurmountable problem with writing anything it seems is the degree to which it stands in for other more substantial activities, by which I mean it’s general uselessness, the sense that it serves to displace into the safe, easily marshalled world of fiction all the vital energies and antagonisms that have been blocked in social life.

I have a nastily intransigent and commercially inconvenient belief that it is in fact a politics which one strives for, and that maturity is marked by agency, whereas the prevailing orthodoxies of the past twenty five years, ever more heightened under Blairism of course would have it that it’s precisely the abandonment of politics and the renunciation of any vestige of agency that signifies the shift to adulthood. Hence the passage to maturity as shamefaced acknowledgement of one’s own abysmal infantilism. “I’m also just a girl, looking at a boy and asking him to love her.” as Notting Hill’s Blairite wisdom insisted to us.

I’m tempted to consider most of the cultural product since The End of History as a traumatic response to the absence of any possibility of real political agency and a retreat into infantilism, but that’s a whole other set of posts.

So while I may earlier have criticised James Hawes or whoever, the nagging question of course is : isn’t all writing basically trivial in the face of the terrible state of the world? The answer as far as I can make out is: yes. This is a comfortless answer as it treats writing as effectively a symptom rather than a cure, and I think it’s fair that it should be viewed in this light. That producing culture, irrespective of how well that cultural product dovetails with one’s own set of concerns or arguments, is part of the problem and should be shaken off. Just because I myself do it doesn’t mean I have to defend it. There’s something wrong with me, I need to sort myself out.

At best I need to figure out what at this stage any kind of committed literature would be, though this would still be one step away still from the important act of full commitment. The problem of course is that at the moment there’s nothing clear to commit to. What form could a committed literature take at this stage? Actually I think I have a rough answer, see below.

James Woods took sundry types to task for writing “hysterical realism” post 9-11 (indulging in a bit of 9/11 hysteria himself, perhaps) suggesting that literature ought to be more engaged in some way, pleading I guess, for a kind of solid, middlebrow “ethical” literature in place of the surface flash and irony of Wallace-worshipping types like Zadie Smith. Rather than suggesting it may have been less than entirely ethical for Woods to use 9-11 as a way of pressing home his own literary agenda she responded by going into a tailspin over what her books should be about and seemed to conclude that the act of writing was itself an ethical act as its lofty aim was to enlarge our consciousness/sympathies. The degree to which a writer need be “engaged” was the degree to which she was terribly serious about her subject, even if the subject was just the ins-and-outs of family life. But then, what else is there?

All of this strikes me as deeply intellectually bogus. Literature as a correlate of consciousness-raising pseudo-politics. Sit around piously substituting any kind of direct political engagement, any real agency or praxis for a few bits of “wisdom”. Hari Kunzru’s pretty underwhelming My Revolutions seemed paradigmatic, playing the typical Late Capitalist card of deferring everything back to the family and the interpersonal. How can we go about telling the world what to do/ blowing shit up, when like we can’t even be honest with ourselves, let alone our wives and kids, slaves of illusion that we are? All express politics is undercut a priori by the impossibility of really “connecting” with anyone else on an emotional level: though what this might have to do with solidarity on the basis of manifest cases of economic injustice remained unexplored.

Obviously this “interpersonalization” of politics is more than an outgrowth of the absence of any broadly acceptable theoretical models, it’s blatantly ideological: the assumption that exactly what might allow you to connect with another person is political or class consciousness is ruled out tout court, everything is really about some free-floating undetermined, mystical domain of “feelings”: that’s where life really goes on. It stinks of cop-out and get–out. Writing is there to remind us that no-one finally is to blame and that we’re best off, indeed the only duty incumbent on us, is to recognize our own confusion and ask forgivness for ourselves from others as we forgive them in our turn. Again, interpersonally that’s fine (though not an axiom), what does it have to do with politics/the social, unless your basic goal is to shrug your shoulders and drift on nodding wisely and sadly at the inevitable compromise of it all while pocketing your royalties?

Your objection can be well, dear boy THAT is the novel, the exploration of motive in a domestic setting and such like. Ah, well. It’s not the novel I want to write, or read. Nor am I awfully keen on the air of Anglican sanctimony that hovers around plenty of “serious” writers. Having realised they’re no match for the theorists, they’ve decided that they are instead wise moral voices. The nadir is reached when of course they can’t cede intellectual prestige to the Academy and try to be both at once, both a Bellovian testimony to the detail and incidence of life-as-lived and felt AND great word-coining interpreters of history/the zeitgeist (see: Amis “Koba: the dread” “ The second plane.”)

I have a term that I’ve been bandying around, (in my own head, you understand) for a few years now, which is the literature of insufficiency. A literature which says that frankly none of this will do, that reality as it’s currently constituted is impoverished and that culture itself is part of that impoverishment, which is prepared not to bring us any comfort or release. Literature is bad news that stays bad news. You can object that no-one will read it, no-one will publish it. I agree, but what difference does that make to me? Literature should be in the hands of those who have no interest in becoming “writers.” It’s like the old arguments about increasing Nurse’s wages: if there’s a financial incentive it’ll attract the wrong kind of people.

Additionally, it should be angry, but it should express its anger with icy precision. The idea that anger is some kind of hallmark of immaturity or an atavistic emotion that belongs to the bad old days of History, a shameful, vestigial relic that decent, reconciled Post Historical people have long since shed, has to be fought against. The assumption that anger is always illegitimate, a character flaw of some kind, is Blairite Panglossian bilge, another attempt to repudiate legitimate class based claims and contentions. Nor are anger and love incompatible, nor is identifying one’s enemy and holding onto that enmity unethical or self-destructive, even if that enemy is yourself.

It would be best if the novel were put in the hands of those who are most ambivalent about literature, both as a form and a product. It’s this ambivalence that needs to be used to rend the novel asunder. It should be full of holes, non-correspondences, elisions and erasures, impossible conjunctions, it should also be open-ended, but not a liberal, glozing open-endedness, all opposing ideas held in counterpoint and counterbalance with the outer shell of the diegesis acting as a facsimile of liberal polity, it needs to be a polemic which can not resolve itself within the text, or that aims at a conclusion it can never reach, it needs, in other words, to set itself an impossible horizon and aim to surpass it. It will fail but its failure will be worth any other number of standard successes. Failure is always the aim, but the right kind of failure.* What must be avoided is melancholy. Especially the kind of diffuse melancholy that is now the defining affect of “intelligent” culture, that saturates “Indy” music, film-making and writing. Melancholy is the assumption that nothing makes any difference anyway, that failure is inevitable, that it’s all too big and complex, a soured sublimity. But failure’s not inevitable, it’s just highly likely and either way we must pursue the right kind of failure vigorously.

The distinction between static and kinetic art is one that was famously elaborated on by Anthony Burgess in his introduction to “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, arguing that the didactic was allayed to the pornographic, insuperably low-culture. In true art the tensions are dissipated back into the text, catharsis is achieved, Platonically purged we return to the world and participate in it again: this is the ostensible service the artists renders us and the status quo ( “Last Exit” is a bad book according to Burgess, but its publication, despite prosecution for obscenity, was necessary for reasons of free-speech etc). Lyotard had a rather different take, arguing the opposite effectively, that the value of a work of art was in the degree to which it caused action in the real world, how the work exists as part of a chain of effects and affects. I’m with Lyotard. Polemic is the highest form of art, it may end up being as much of a sop as any other work (preaching to the converted etc) but in its aspiration it’s only a polemical or didactic work that can finally escape the gravitational pull of the fiction’s hermetic world. A useful ugliness in the face of all this useless, trite beauty.

Where art is not supplementary to or supportive of any broader set of political concerns, when in fact it stands in for them and attempts to cover over their absence it becomes something that needs at least to be worked through: a skin that needs to be shed, better still torn away. The writer’s aspiration must be to recognize the debased and thoroughly compromised nature of his condition and work to supersede writing itself: their work should map the course of this overcoming.

So this, along with the three preceding posts is largely the thinking that goes into my writing. How well I have managed to achieve any of these aims or express any of these concerns is for others to decide, but I reconcile myself that though I’ve certainly failed, at least it is entirely my own failure, and no-one can take that away from me.

*I haven’t really expressed myself as clearly as I could have done in this post, and can feel the inevitable 732 objections to be addressed hovering around, but then again I also know that there is someone out there reading it who knows EXACTLY what I mean. If you can’t just assume you’ve found your audience and write in shorthand, what’s the point?


gabe said...

This is a correct analysis, but a (sub)culture where this is enacted would look very different from current literary culture. In particular, as readers, once we found the books that instil the right reaction and attitude, that push us back to the real world, we would need no other books. No more literary pages, reviews, conferences. These books would become more like devotional literature than the 'beauty contest/ horse race' attitude that even the most intellectual publications have. We would no longer quickly forget one book so we could stuff another into our brains, but perhaps read the same 12 books on a yearly cycle. It's kind of a daunting prospect for book addicts.

Martin said...

"a soured sublimity"

Just brilliant. Thanks mate.