Archive for August, 2010

Truth & Beauty

August 27, 2010

Setts and willow leaves – photograph by Liz Mathews

To tell the truth, or create beauty…’  This is, according to Virginia Woolf’s seminal discussion of language, the business of words.  She imagines a world in which words could be used in such a way that every book or newspaper she picked up would tell the truth or create beauty.

These truths are not only the literal truths of plain fact, but also the more obscure truths – subtle, fictional, nuanced truths which are truer than anything else, indeed nothing less than Rebecca West’s ‘subtler news [that] has to be whispered… the knowledge of reality’.  Picasso’s dictum that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’ is another attempt to express this mystery.

I think it’s interesting that Virginia Woolf specifically mentions newspapers as possible conduits of the use of words in this unusual way; presumably a mildly satirical comment on the lack of truth and beauty in the contemporary papers. But it’s also a good point as far as factual writing in good faith goes; for the urge to tell the truth, in terms of witnessing how things are and speaking of them, needn’t be in opposition to the creation of beauty – within the writing, at least.

As for creating beauty – so much more difficult than making hideousness – it must follow the telling of truth, it must be an act of creation.  Beyond that, there is no guidance except that beauty is not absolute but diverse; as multi-faceted and wild as the words themselves. 

It’s both challenge and encouragement to present-day writers that, in this little old-fashioned-sounding talk from so long ago, there was the stimulating suggestion that words might one day be put together in this modern way.

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Our dear mother English

August 17, 2010

LESS NOISE PLEASE – photograph by Liz Mathews

Certain words – solace, grace, benediction – recur when people describe why certain works of art are precious to them.  Poetry is often invoked as a specific against the sorrows of life, and a part of its beauty; an expression of the otherwise unsayable and a way of approaching some sort of understanding of these things.  It is a better way of communicating certain thoughts than any other, even when we acknowledge the common fact that words carry a freight of association and variant meaning which weighs differently for each individual.  Obviously, our diversity of experience, not to mention the flexibility of meaning, makes even accepted language an approximate conveyer of ideas, at best.

Literature has always exploited this private language within everyone, both to portray misunderstanding or failure of communication, and also to say more, many things at once, or even opposing things simultaneously.  The exposure of the writer’s own associations of words, the translation out of the inner language, has created some of the most powerful writing ever.  The individual freight words carry, their differentness for each reader, is one of the writer’s greatest opportunities.

When I was working in a gallery, I had a difficult encounter with a Christian who would not accept that the words ‘heaven’, ‘blessing’ or ‘holy’ should be used in any other artistic context than a strictly Christian one (even though the artwork in question quoted a direct translation from classical Greek…).  Eventually we got to the stage where he said that it wasn’t appropriate for non-Christians to listen to a Mozart mass, apparently under the impression that the whole of Western art was his private patrimony, closed to all but a minority of the world.

To suggest that words are not the property of any sect, or forbidden to any other community, is hardly a radical statement.  But it’s complicated, in practice, by the holiness – if I may use the word – of certain words to certain people, in their own particular sense.  In this place where such rich possibilities of poetry lie, even as I insist on the validity of my own reading, I must acknowledge the possibility of other, different ones.

This causes problems for the writer not so much in these attempts to own words (a completely futile effort), but the kidnap of words for sullying uses.  There are a proliferation of dead contemporary jargons which diminish the richness of words, strip them of their associations, leave them without a homeland or a history.  (We all use these non-words in the sterile language of computers, for example, which once offered a truly Elizabethan opportunity to coin new words, but instead took a sinister delight in misusing old ones.) This is the opposite of the genuine secret tongues of trades and places, esoteric words or dialects whose words gradually enrich the common language.

Foreign imports, such as the borrowings the French try to exclude from their official speech, are also a vibrant sign of life that might as well be welcomed, since to police the immigration boundaries here is a doomed enterprise, a struggle against history.  Real slang, which is also part of the development of a language, can be incredibly useful to a writer – like the other specialist languages, especially when it tells its own story of place or background.  The disadvantage is that it freeze-frames at a certain period; in a skilled writer the catchphrases of their own era are marked, so that the later reader can understand their significance and laugh or wince as appropriate.  But if it isn’t a Jane Austen or George Eliot, it can be hard work to disentangle.

But it’s the blatant kidnap that makes real difficulties for a contemporary writer.  How can we use words purely, honestly, with faith in their power, (even in the knowledge of their diverse meanings), when they are taken in vain with such routine extremism?  Margarine called ‘pure’, drinks called ‘innocent’, tampons called ‘liberty’, shoes called ‘freedom’, all attempt to subvert the poetic use of language to commercial ends.  Unfortunately, everyone now understands that ‘home’ is a place on the computer, ‘family’ means a larger size, and ‘urban’ is a black version of something that is ‘beach’ when it’s flowery.  Imagine trying to write a poem, then deciding to avoid the word ‘word’ because a computer programme is called that.

But, in wanting to defend the joint stock of our common language against such corruptions, am I too making an attempt to own the words myself?  The only way forward, for a writer, is to make a resolution to speak one’s own language with all its personal associations, private messages, local words, idiosyncracies, embedded quotations, dialect usages, and all, while remaining open to other voices, whose words may differently weighted.  And then, to resist the rest.

A kind of translation

August 10, 2010

Shadowselves – photograph by Liz Mathews

I’ve been reading a lot of books in translation recently, in one of those enjoyable chains of association that’s set off by chance, one thing leading to another, with new discoveries as well as re-discoveries of new contexts for things read separately before.  The problems (and odd advantages) of translation are perennial provokers of thought and discussion, but there’s no arguing about the different light that another literature can cast even on familiar ideas.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, for example, in a lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is referenced by that other much-translated Portuguese writer José Saramago, in his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I haven’t yet read; I’m still on The Elephant’s Journey.  (After Saramago’s recent death, I was moved to read an account of his funeral in Lisbon, attended by  tens of thousands of people, many of them carrying his books.  There was a photo of a book held in the air like a flag, then the inevitable editorial comment that it was hard to imagine a similar outpouring of grief for a British writer – or any other kind of artist, you might add.)

Reis was one of Pessoa’s personae; in the Book of Disquiet he writes as Bernardo Soares.  The introduction explains that he had over 72 distinct ‘heteronyms’ which he used when writing the works which were largely unpublished in his lifetime.  Externally, Soares appears much the same as the writer, but Pessoa found the character different enough to merit its own name; ‘It’s me minus reason and affectivity’.  (Completely other, then…)  These complexities and levels of irony will be discussed and unravelled by scholars, perhaps in perpetuity, but at a simpler level the proliferation of authorial personae perhaps gives a clue to the crucial difference between the writer and their work, which seems almost imperceptible to many otherwise sophisticated readers.

Before going any further, I must confess here that I have read a review of a book by someone I know and immediately remarked that it sounded very autobiographical, before I’d even read it.  (But at least I can differentiate enough to understand that because murder is committed in the book, it doesn’t mean the writer is a killer.)  Any writer must be aware that their audience – if they are lucky enough to have one – contains a proportion of people who would simply lump all of Pessoa’s 72 heteronyms into one authorial autobiography, unmitigated by art.  I first encountered this long ago, at a literary festival, where I read a short story of a very lyrical and fantastic kind, then had an impertinent audience question about the ‘revealing’ nature of the piece.  It really hadn’t occurred to me that the poetic tale of archetypes (mermaids, gypsies at al) could be taken as any kind of personal confession.

This incident has recurred in various manifestations; one which I found disturbing was when a reader questioned me about the dedication in my long poem MOTHERTONGUE – apparently my relationship to the dedicatee (and who they were) made a difference to whether the work would ‘emotionally ring true’.  The implication of this is that a writer’s literal circumstances are what make the work ‘ring true’ or not, rather than some element within the writing and – indeed –  that they can only write about their actual life experience with any emotional conviction.  So, no writing divorces for the happily united, or vice versa; no observation, imagination, empathy, or even research? 

Then, imaginative works are open to the blunt interpretations of cod-pyschology, as though the artist is innocent of all such readings and might ‘accidentally’ reveal their secrets. Recently, in a very obvious train of thought onwards from news about my forthcoming novel, a relation remarked that – in a book he’d actually read – the hero was obviously the author’s fantasy-self, since a succession of beautiful women ‘couldn’t wait to get into bed with him’.  (I could only assure him that my novel is just like that.)  I comfort myself with the fact that The Principle of Camouflage has three very strange narrators, who couldn’t  – surely – be interpreted as anybody’s fantasy selves; not nearly as close as Bernardo Soares to Fernando Pessoa. The lowering part of this is the knowledge that some readers – perhaps the most avid – skim through books for scandal, intimate details, possible revelations, ignoring the dull truth that it’s a little more subtle than that. 

The moment comes when every artist has to accept this as a hazard of the work, and just get on with it.  I was half appalled, half encouraged when I read Maureen Duffy’s introduction to her first novel That’s How It Was – even this brilliant book has suffered from its own absolute success.  Since the author described it as directly autobiographical, it seems that some readers failed to perceive its superb technical command, and read it as an artless outpouring of youthful emotion.  She writes of these undervaluing admirers who have ‘failed to grasp its purpose and structure…[who] believe too that its vividness and intensity were a welling up from memory rather than the deliberate exercise of style’.

If it’s a kind of translation, from lived experience to art, maybe an awareness of the translating process is crucial to the appreciation of the work. And perhaps, for those who risk exposing their imaginations in print, the idea of the 72 alternative authors interposing themselves between the life and the work, will prove to be a virtual guard of honour.
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