Archive for March, 2010

Breaking Bread with the Dead

March 31, 2010


Blossom and light – Photo by Liz Mathews

‘Art is the way we break bread with the dead’: W.H.Auden’s line perfectly expresses the close contact the reader or audience can experience with an artist who’s no longer living, but whose creative mind is still vital in their work.

It also, I think, gives an insight into the possible function of literary or artistic biography. Writers of this sort of book become used to remarks about the pointlessness of such life-writing, which are rarely based on the defensible critical position of considering that the work should stand absolutely alone, but generally express a more nebulous disapproval (and perhaps even some intellectual snobbery). These negative comments are countered by the assurances from some readers that discussion of the work in the context of the life has made it accessible/ comprehensible/ sympathetic for the first time.

As a writer who must plead guilty to having written about about a poet’s life as well as her work, I can understand both attitudes. Sometimes, after encountering over-simplified life-to-work readings, or particularly gossipy prurience, I’ve felt a strong revulsion against the whole idea. But on the occasions when I’ve seen somebody’s appreciation of a poem transformed – even to the extent where their attitude to poetry itself is radically altered – then the whole process seems more than justified.

Of course, it can illuminate a poem to know where, when, under what circumstances it was written. It can even sometimes transform what was obscure into a work that reveals. But – even if it does refer to autobiographical events – a poem is a separate entity with its own existence, which would continue even if virtually all knowledge of its author or context were lost, like a papyrus fragment bearing a line of Sappho.

Problems only begin to arise with the over-literal matching up of events in a life with its works of art, rather as though the artist is a sausage-machine; pour experiences in, and artworks pop out. This kind of interpretation is a complete denial of the creative process. The transformative alchemy, the fire of creation, radically alters the raw material into a different element, whether that initial material has been found in the maker’s actual experience or some remote landscape of the mind.

At its worst, the life and work study devalues the idea of art itself by ransacking works of creation merely for their clues to life-drama. This superficial approach leaves the more subtle interrelations between experience and creation unexplored, which, as a reader, I do find pointless. It’s much better to rely on one’s own perception than have the poems (or whatever) reduced to news-cuttings in this way. But, at its best, an artist’s biography may enable that breaking of bread through art; make it more possible by a work of interpretation which brings us close enough to contemplate the poetic ideal of feasting together. (What it can’t ever do, clearly, is replace that primary experience.)

Whether any such a book fits either of these descriptions depends partly on the way it is read; the interests of the reader as well as the intentions of the author. The reader who skims through for scandal can defeat the best intentions of the interpretative writer, while those who (while the life story may of course amuse or amaze) discover some common ground, are closer to the feast.

Comrade Artist

March 23, 2010


Walking on the edge – photograph by Liz Mathews

Rather strangely, both my most recent publication, and my partner’s most recent exhibition, carried the Arts Council logo. Although we are personally remote from such kinds of funding, both Carcanet Press and the Southbank Centre receive grants which must be acknowledged as they trickle down to the actual artists. In the past, some individual artists were eligible to apply for various funds, but apparently this has now been entirely abolished. Arts money is only available to arts organisations.

The title of a recent show at the (funded) Whitechapel Gallery, I shake your hand, Comrade Bacon, is apparently taken from a visitors book entry saluting Francis Bacon at a British Council exhibition in Moscow during the days of the USSR. There were certainly many problems for the artist who was a direct servant of that state, if not always the agonies suffered by Shostakovich working for Stalin (though these wouldn’t be so frequently expounded on Radio 3 if he hadn’t managed to outwit his terrifying patrons and make his own music). But even so, there is a joyful idealism in the vision of the comrade artist whose work is recognised as an intrinsic part of the collective effort – and how daft it seems in a British cultural context!

During the Spanish Civil War, the writers who were British delegates to an anti-fascist cultural conference were amazed when field-workers greeted them with cries of ‘Viva los Intellectuales!’ (‘A strange sentiment to English ears’, as Sylvia Townsend Warner tartly remarked.) The delegates’ experience of the cultural deprivation of the workers in their own country had left them completely unprepared for this comradely salute. The expected reply was probably something like ‘Viva los Labradores!’, which, with its implication of class, they’d perhaps have been embarrassed to make. But they did recognise that in this new social order, everyone worked according to their capacity, one task was not glorified over another, and every contribution was recognised. Artists had a job too; those who said (like Virginia Woolf) ‘Thinking is my fighting’ had better think well, then.

Idealism is easy to mock, deflate, prove unworkable. But the establishment of the Arts Council after the war was an idealistic act of almost early Soviet proportion. As Maynard Keynes observed in a 1945 radio talk ‘A very important thing has happened; state patronage of the arts has crept in… at last, at last, they have recognised the support of the civilising arts of life as part of their duty…’ He traces the acceptance, during the war, of the need for ‘all sources of comfort and support to our spirits’, and the power of art to ‘stimulate, comfort and support’. Then, he adumbrates the then-extraordinary idea that there is a large, eager audience for the arts; people have been educated by listening to classical music on the BBC, and will now go to concerts, if such things are available. There’s even a suggestion, almost hidden by his patrician tones and mild language, that artforms which were once the preserve of the few will become available to the many. And the artists themselves will benefit too; ‘new work will spring up more abundantly in unforeseen quarters and unforeseen shapes, when there is universal opportunity’.

Universal opportunity isn’t exactly how most of us think of the Arts Council these days. Keynes’ claim that it would be free of red tape produces a hollow laugh. Yet we two artists – most definitely ‘outsider’, not promisingly ‘emerging’ nor reassuringly ‘well-established’ but slogging along ‘mid-career’ – both had recent opportunities from Arts Council funded bodies to do our actual work (however poorly paid). This will be increasingly unlikely. The funding cuts which have already taken place seriously reduce its capacity to support even the major arts bodies, and must inevitably make funding decisions tend towards the safe bet. After the recent attack on the Universities, the financial future of any cultural organisation must seem unsure.

As far as individual artists are concerned, of course we’ll carry on doing it anyway, even if opportunities in the public sphere dwindle, even if it becomes too easy for potential commissioners to use the excuse of the ‘current financial climate’. We can comfort ourselves with the oft-repeated reassurance that art always flourishes in adversity, that much great work has been produced in circumstances of constraint – sometimes far beyond the merely financial – and so on. But this is a very different future from the one Keynes imagined. Like the embattled NHS, the Arts Council is a last vestige of socialist idealism still hanging on while some residual sense of civilised obligations yet remains.

Our bright natures

March 13, 2010

Rebecca West’s best-loved book is probably The Fountain Overflows, with its extraordinarily vivid authorial voice and remarkable characterisations, quite unlike anything else. Yet West’s supreme achievement is usually designated as Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1942), the Yugoslav travelogue/ artist’s statement/ philosophy doorstop, invariably hailed as a masterpiece. This is a long (1,150 pp) book, discursive and complex, so highly-wrought that its correspondences take several readings to appreciate fully. It’s superbly written, with West’s muscular and versatile prose soaring over every curtain-wall she sets herself on triumphant if idiosyncratic wings. Most of all, it is a work of consolation. In a time of war and horror, it was a heroic celebration of the possibility of hope.

The central paradox is that the book is full of darkness; West records that the bloody history she had to write sometimes seemed so ‘unendurably horrible’ that she could hardly go on. Yet she did, in order to condemn wherever she found it cruelty, inhumanity and the death-wish, while celebrating the ‘poetical achievement of the soul’. In the course of her digressive journey through Yugoslavia (both the literal landscape and the country of the mind), she finds this poetry in surprising places.

The work resembles the writer; many interests run concurrently, inform one another, unite surprisingly, reach unexpected conclusions, set off again. Deep convictions develop gradually, preconceptions are re-examined and perhaps modified or jettisoned, suddenly-reached opinions are confirmed by experience, but become more complex. There are certain problems for the contemporary reader. I find her personally-affronted attitude towards homosexual men distasteful; some people think her dislike of a pro-Nazi German woman too merciless. (These are small toe-stubs in a cataract of pleasures.) West’s political statements are sweeping, opinionated, and no doubt inexpert, in that they treat the political world as one in which the values of other human activities are still relevant, so that her leaders should be ‘of that company loving honour, freedom and harmony…’

The immensity of the book, its vast scope in terms of themes, defies any over-view. It would be worth considering just her treatment of the ‘female tragedy’ – the strength men derive from the subjugation of women – or her extraordinary meditations on this culture’s urge towards self-destruction and death, which she calls the myth of the rock:

‘Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness…’

The solution West offers, which makes her book so important to me, is her belief in the role of art. While she holds that profound works of literature such as King Lear express the central paradoxes of existence, beyond that she believes that art has a supreme function ‘for of course art gives us hope’. Typically, this hope isn’t a vague though encouraging emotional prop; it is quite practical. West perceives that art has a use. When she meets an old woman who has endured terrible sufferings and demands ‘Let me know what my life means’, this is presented as ‘making the true demand of art’. West derives this from the cave-dwellers’ urge to draw the aurochs they hunted in order ‘to better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting’, as ‘the ancestor of all artists’. (She adds, characteristically, that art is complex enough to ‘regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind’, that eventually ‘we shall read the riddle of our universe’.) Her conclusion about art is that ‘it is a force which could destroy the myth of the rock itself, and will, no doubt, a thousand years hence’.

This is some credo, embedded with great subtlety in a huge volume; art has the power to conquer war, evil, guilt, hatred, self-destruction – darkness itself. There are, she admits, many problems. Art is an ‘uncertain instrument’, which ‘cannot talk plain sense, it must sometimes talk what sounds like nonsense, but is actually supersense’. The nonsense must be discerned, as must ‘counterfeit’ artistic activity, then West implacably reminds her reader of the renegade saints;‘the few guides’ sent to help us out of the darkness have come ‘surrounded by traitors, dressed in their guise, indistinguishable’. Yet, despite all this, within the text there is a concrete example of the ultimate usefulness of art.

On p.509, West hears the music of a Mozart concerto by chance on a café radio; she is enormously comforted, but then considers – since the music needs a certain education and cultural background to be understood, since it requires so much of the listener – that ‘art covers not even a corner of life’. (In the context, this conclusion seems not only depressing, but a denial of her own perceptions which the reader wants to refute.) But by p.1127, West has returned to Mozart as one of the ultimate expressions of what is ‘correct, important, permanent’. As she listens to The Marriage of Figaro during an air raid on London, the music seems more real to her than the danger of death; it transforms everything.

It takes enormous courage to write like this, from the heart, with passionate sincerity and an utter conviction that the reader will understand. The absolute commitment it demonstrates is exhausting to contemplate, as is the writer’s emotional energy and engagement. But the reader who can respond with the necessary perseverance and enthusiasm will find that this rough journey undertaken in Rebecca West’s company leads to a vision of harsh salvation, ultimately consoling.

In the presence of reality

March 5, 2010

Recently, I was accused of being ‘out of touch with reality’ because I don’t have a television. The person who said this certainly hadn’t thought about it at all, but perhaps felt that I was being pretentious. (She also seemed to believe that it was hypocritical to enjoy films on DVD, unless also watching telly.) What perturbed me, in retrospect, was the assumption, vehemently held, that things on TV were somehow more real than actual experiences. Thus the celebrities chatting she’d watched that afternoon were more true, more like ‘real life’, than the people walking under the beech trees I’d simultaneously seen on Hampstead Heath.

This might not have depressed me so much, except that I’d just had a long cross-purposes conversation with an older person, which exposed a similar confusion. We were talking about beautiful natural sights we remembered – a goose-skein flying along the horizon, a flock of redwings landing in a snowy rowan-tree – and she said that the most extraordinary of such moments, in her experience, had been thousands of flamingoes rising up from their great lake. It transpired that the lake had been in Africa, the marvellous experience on her television. (Of course, the nature programmes are marvellous etc etc, but not – surely – quite the same as a personal encounter?)

But then, think of the eclipse. The total eclipse of the sun, a few years ago now, was broadcast live, so people could see this remarkable natural phenomenon relayed onto their TV screen inside, while it was actually taking place outside. (Is this ‘in touch with reality’?) The reason was supposedly because of the risk of eye-damage – as though the very newspapers hadn’t been giving away free specs to watch it through a glass darkly for weeks beforehand. No, it was because it would seem more impressive, worthy of notice, like a ‘real’ happening, if it could be watched on telly.

Virginia Woolf, again, had strong views on the writer’s relationship to reality, which she was so often accused of knowing nothing about, often by critics who confused it with realism, or a realistic style of writing. In A Room of One’s Own she wrote:

‘What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun… It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly… But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance more than other people to live in the presence of that reality.’

There! It’s only the chance, it isn’t automatic, but it is a possibility. As ever, such opportunities bring certain obligations for, as Woolf continues, it is the writer’s ‘business to find it [reality] and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading Lear or Emma or La Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ For, she finds, having read such books ‘one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life. Those are the enviable people who live at enmity with unreality…’

This book – so well-known, so much-quoted – is hardly obscure, certainly neither is Woolf’s clarion-call to the women writers of the future; ‘I am asking you to live in the presence of reality’. But its familiarity doesn’t make it less relevant or, to me, encouraging. There are now more forms of the unreal, in more devious versions, than perhaps ever before. There are also therefore more opportunities for confusion over which is which, particularly when the flamingoes flying up in one’s own sitting-room are so striking, so beautifully filmed. Every strong assurance of the difference, every piece of elucidation, is essential reading and re-reading, especially for the writer who attempts to ‘live at enmity with unreality… to collect reality and communicate it’.