Archive for November, 2010


November 17, 2010

Barrier – photograph by Liz Mathews

Why all this criticism of other people?  Why not some system that includes the good?  What a discovery that would be – a system that did not shut out.

Virginia Woolf, Diary Oct 2nd 1932

Written nearly eighty years ago, in the autumn of 1932, this question of Virginia Woolf’s is still only too valid.  She used the word ‘criticism’ not in the (good) sense of analysis or constructive debate, but of an attack intended to relegate the work under discussion to an inferior position within – or perhaps even outside – a hierarchical structure.  Such criticism is, as she shrewdly remarked, ‘so barren, so easy’.

(When I read this, I was reminded of hearing an American poet in a radio talk, vehemently insisting that ‘95% of poetry isn’t worth reading’ – as though, if true, that would make his own work somehow better – and of Adrienne Rich, including only unknown poets in an anthology she edited, to present the work of writers who’d been left outside.)

Systems grade, measure, reduce to conformity, remove the need for independent thought.  They are anti-enthusiasm, but risk-free.  As such, their existence is perhaps inevitable, but there are degrees of use or misuse of these established judgements and hierarchies.  Later in the same passage Woolf deprecates attempts to fit writers into pre-existing systems, which she describes as ‘blasphemy’, when they should be reverenced for their very qualities of differentness.

This dislike of categorising writers, fitting them in or shutting them out, doesn’t imply an uncritical acceptance of every kind or quality of writing.  Woolf makes strong demands of art; ‘I want to be made free of another world. This Proust does.’  She dislikes the didactic strain, the attempt to impose a philosophy and insist on proving it.  ‘Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas: daffodils that come before the swallow dares…’

It’s still, in the contemporary world, difficult to imagine ‘a system that includes the good’, but maybe it has become more possible for us to read without the automatic measure-and-grade response, and to avoid cramming recalcitrant books into pre-existing hierarchical systems.  But what the intervening time has also shown, is that it’s less problematic to circumvent conventional literary ‘systems’ altogether, than to invent new ones which are not equally excluding.

Perhaps the best way forward in this quixotic endeavour is – like visualising world peace – to imagine a system that includes the good, and until then at least try not to ‘shut out.’

Freedom to sing

November 12, 2010

Autumn light – photograph by Liz Mathews

From Radio 3’s bold attempt to promote ‘free thinking’ in its eponymous festival, I heard Fiona Shaw’s talk on Nightwaves (by chance, as it followed on from a concert), and I’m glad that I did.    The theme of the discussions this year has been ‘happiness’, but this programme was called ‘What acting can teach you about life’. Perhaps inevitably, Shaw concentrated more on what the great plays themselves – literature rather than acting – had taught her about life, and how life had illuminated her work. Despite the not very encouraging title, I’d recommend it as well worth listening to again.

Much of this talk was about the way in which words act on the imagination, and the art of the actor in communicating that inner vision. Shaw’s demonstrations of the way different meanings can be drawn out of words, depending on how they are spoken, were funny but also revealing.  Her story of the great RSC voice coach Cicely Berry telling her to ‘walk on the commas’ when speaking Shakespeare’s verse was demonstrated brilliantly.

(Although she’s not an actor I’ve seen often onstage, I did see her brain scan in the Identity exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, with the fascinating display of the areas of the brain which light up when she’s reading poetry – the arms that move in the imagination also seem to the brain to be moving, even when they are physically still…)

Also refreshing was Shaw’s vehement denunciation of the lies of politicians, and their devaluing of our language by misuse and disrespect.    (The audience’s reaction made clear how unusual such plain-speaking seemed to them in such a context.)  This contrasted strongly with the actor’s description of the Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare particularly, as writers who were trying to speak the truth.

Best of all was her concluding affirmation of the importance of ‘the nightingale of art’ and the hope that it will go on singing.