Monday, November 16, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE ART NOT THE ARTIST
I have just been considering A. Alvarez’s The Savage God – A Study of Suicide, and I have taken issue with some aspects of it.
It would be very ungrateful of me, however, not to note that Alvarez sometimes says accurate and useful things, and I can’t refrain from quoting one of them.
Speaking of the Romantic era, and its prettified cult of suicide, Alvarez remarks accurately:
“It follows that real geniuses, who produced as well as posed, had to live at a certain dramatic pitch – at least in the imagination of their adoring public. At the height of the Romantic fever this personal intensity became almost more important than the work itself. Certainly the life and work began to seem inseparable. However strenuously the poets insisted on the impersonality of art, the audience was reluctant to read them in any way except that by which Keats’s tuberculosis, Coleridge’s opium and Byron’s incest became an intrinsic part of their work – almost an art in themselves, equal and not at all separate.” [The Savage God, Part 4, Chapter 4, p.229, Penguin edition]
What Alvarez puts his finger on here is something that plagues our literary and artistic culture even more than it did in the age of the Romantics. Call it the literary and artistic cult of personality. The life, foibles, peculiarities, glamorous “sins”, marriages, affairs, breakdowns and social engagements of writers take over the public’s view of writers, while the writing itself becomes a slightly annoying adjunct.
I overstate my case a little, of course, but think how many people there are who know that Coleridge took opium but can recall little more of his work than Kubla Khan. Or know about Byron and his sister Augusta but haven’t read a damn thing by Byron. Or have this image of Rimbaud as the anti-establishment teenage genius, but couldn’t quote a line of his work (in English or French) if it killed them. The writer becomes a cultural myth, an icon.
My boring theme song, played enough before on this blog, is that writers are interesting – or at least more interesting than their fellow, non-writing human beings – only because of what they wrote. There is no other reason for remembering them. If something in their life illuminates their writing in a meaningful way, well and good. But if it doesn’t, it is mere gossip.
Of course I am hugely hypocritical in saying this, because I am a sucker for a good literary autobiography and happily drink in the sordid details of Ernest Dowson’s life in Jad Adams’ Madder Music, StrongerWine; or the details of Rimbaud’s post-poetic life in Charles Nicholls’ Somebody Else; or for that matter the details of Oscar Wilde’s reading habits in Thomas Wright’s Oscar’s Books. But though these (and many other) books about literary figures all give me many interesting pieces of biographical gossip, I can plead that they do also tell me much about the genesis of the given literary figure’s works.
I do wonder, however, how many modern Readers’ and Writers’ Festivals really function as a substitute for reading. Go to the festival. Hear the author expound his / her views in a panel discussion, question-and-answer session or some such, and you don’t have to read what they have written, do you? I mean, you’ve seen the author in action, haven’t you, and heard his / her opinions out of his / her own mouth, so why bother reading the books? The cult of personality – or cult of celebrity – triumphs.
The model for this is showbiz – the chat show where the film star talks about his / her life and attitude towards his / her latest “project” (i.e. movie).
The literary cult of personality makes authors showbiz.