Monday, July 29, 2013

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 much-anthologised poem by Roy Fuller sometimes published as “War Poet” in which he lists the personal shortcomings and neuroses of a string of canonical poets, and then remarks on their “fertile lack of balance”.

I like that phrase and have often resorted to it when discussing literature, because it seems to me to sum up something essential about what literature is and what literature is not. I recall it to mind especially this week because I have just been discussing a misogynistic, misanthropic, perverse writer, Henry de Montherlant, who certainly lacked balance and yet who was undoubtedly a great writer.

Perhaps what I mean is this – there is something obsessional about the greatest literature. It may come from the very way works are written. Writers have to believe in their inspiration and their own viewpoint and stick with them and press on writing. Literature is not a matter of rationally weighing up sane options in human potentiality and thought, as good philosophers and sociologists should do. Literature is not balanced. It does not say, “well on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. It has to stick with its vision.

Sometimes this lack of balance can be quite pronounced and border on mental illness or even mania (Blake, Dostoievsky, Dickinson, Lawrence, Celine, de Montherlant – not to mention a string of illustrious madhouse poets). Sometimes it is much more subtle. And I am not for one moment saying that all obsessional writers who are unbalanced are good or great writers; any more than I am saying that there have been no sane and balanced great writers. I am saying that the act of great literature itself is not balanced. Yes, George Eliot was sane and balanced; but no, Middlemarch is not sane and balanced. It required a totally unbalanced leap of imagination.

            Following on from this, I assert that great imaginative literature is not the place to go to if you want to find a solution to life’s great problems, answer a moral dilemma, heal some social ill or find a rational way to organise society. Go to the best philosophers, theologians, sociologists and occupational specialists if you are looking for such things. If you seek in literature a right-thinking programme for the world, then you are really in quest of propaganda, not literature.

            So what is literature for?

Is it simply for the admiration of style?

If I believed that, I would cease commenting on issues and moral problems that are raised by the works of fiction I review and that, I believe, have to be discussed in any valid literary criticism. Not that I am underrating style, mind – it is the core of real literature.

            I assert (for the second time in this rave) that literature is essentially about giving a perspective or conveying experience forcefully, skilfully and with appropriate language.

To recur to de Montherlant. His views on the relations between the sexes are nuts and are not to be espoused by any right-thinking person. But the way he dramatizes these views is forceful and convinces us of the reality of his characters’ experience. And they remind males that there is a corner of their brains that would like to dominate and then spurn women, immoral and not to be countenanced as such impulses are.

In saying this, I reject the “mimetic” view of literature, which says that it models behaviour for us. This theory might be all very well when “improving” books are taught to schoolchildren, whom we wish to shape into good citizens. But I note that Othello’s jealous frenzy is not something I wish to imitate, authentic though his experience clearly is.

I also note that my view on literature, expressed here, allows me to recognize the greatness of works by authors with whose views and opinions I strongly disagree.

Okay, okay. I’ve begged a lot of questions and, lawks missus, I have gone on a bit.

I must be unbalanced. 

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