Monday, May 21, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


There’s a famous 18th century painting that often comes into my head when I think of the literature of squalor.

It’s the last painting in William Hogarth’s series The Rake’s Progress, sometimes known as The Bedlam Scene as it’s set in the famous madhouse.

The rake, having led a dissolute and disorderly life, is reduced to the final degradation of madness. He lies half-naked and raving on the filthy madhouse floor, tended by the last of his hangers-on. Around him the insane shriek and gibber in various postures – the mad tailor pulling at a tape measure, the mad astronomer looking through a rolled-up piece of paper, a loony who thinks he’s pope, another who thinks he’s a king and so on. All quite sad and disconcerting.

But, to our eyes, most disconcerting of all are two figures in the background. They are two fashionably-dressed ladies, one calmly fanning herself (presumably because of the stink) as they pass through the chamber. They are, indeed, wealthy and fashionable people who have come to look at the insane as a form of entertainment.

It is well attested from many sources that looking at the mentally-afflicted was once regarded as a harmless amusement. Keepers of asylums were perfectly happy to take money from curious idlers who wanted to have a look. From the painting itself (which dates from the 1730s), there is no way of telling what Hogarth’s attitude was towards this custom. Indeed, he may have considered it part of the just punishment meted out to the rake for his sins. But to us it can’t help seeming barbarous and inhumane, quite apart from other things we know about the way the insane were once routinely treated.

And yet, I ask, haven’t we found our own ways of enjoying the plight of the degraded, the poor, the afflicted and the mentally-unbalanced?

It’s called popular fiction.

Or at least a good part of it.

I won’t follow false trails here. Reason tells me that it is perfectly right for some authors to write about the wretched of the Earth. Quite properly, all classes of society can and should be addressed and considered by literature. So there will be some books about the degraded, poor and mentally-unbalanced, ranging for earnest exposes aimed at our enlightenment and future social reform; to novels that realistically assess how people live in deprived conditions; to autobiographies and memoirs of poverty and hard times.

I do not quarrel with these, though sometimes my patience is tested even by highly esteemed works of squalor that are considered part of the canon. (Doesn’t Zola often seem to be looking down from a great height and with a certain degree of contempt upon his assorted drunkards and whores and psychotic train-drivers in his great series Les Rougon-Macquart? Isn’t Celine really getting his kicks by telling us how horrible the poor are in Journey to the End of Night?)

What I’m really thinking of are films and novels that present degradation as sensational entertainment, especially in the guise of thrillers. Here are the druggies and  pimps and here are their whores and here are the thugs roughing one another up in the most squalid sections of London, Paris or New York and here is the psycho who likes to slice people’s heads off. And here are we safe at home reading about them in this Trainspotting novel or safely sitting in a picture-theatre lapping up that Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels movie as we crunch our popcorn – because we know we are not the ones who live such awful lives.

Tales of squalor are out catharsis, our way of feeling better about ourselves as we sniff, fan ourselves and pass through Bedlam. Nostalgie de la boue is one thing, but this process is called slumming.

Sometimes the high-brow literary establishment can submit to the slumming impulse. Well do I remember how James Kelman’s tedious novel How Late It Was How Late won the 1994 Booker Prize – a pointless tale of a drunk Glasgwegian blinded by violence and staggering through a series of punch-ups with plainclothes cops, a series of booze binges and some meaningless sexual encounters, going absolutely nowhere. Plotless, vacant, without redemption or form, it was scorned by more than one critic and (to her great credit) one of the Booker judges stormed off the jury, correctly pronouncing the book “crap”. So why did it win the esteemed gong? Maybe because the literati felt they had to acknowledge the book’s Glasgwegian dialect. And maybe because, being well-bred people, they enjoyed passing through Bedlam.

May I add a paradoxical footnote? When given the chance, the wretched of the earth hardly ever opt for  squalor lit, but go for escapism and something cheerful. Rubbing your nose in literary ordure is a habit of the better-off.

But that’s the subject for another day.

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