Archive for May, 2005

Fractured Realism

Friday, May 27th, 2005

A somewhat mediocre article from the Los Angeles Times (one of my favourite publications, if it goes without saying) manages to accidentally stumble across an interesting point:

“My students and colleagues have returned in recent years to long-neglected writers in the American realist tradition, including William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather….

Like Henry James before them, they saw themselves less as lonely romantic outposts of individual sensibility than as keen observers of society. They described the rough transition from the small town to the city, from rural life to industrial society, from a more homogeneous but racially divided population to a nation of immigrants. They recorded dramatic alterations in religious beliefs, moral values, social and sexual mores and class patterns. Novels like Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” and Wharton’s “House of Mirth” showed how fiction paradoxically could serve fact and provide a more concrete sense of the real world than any other form of writing… This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of the world around them and the world inside them. “

To some extent, I tend to think that the present age does bear greater comparison with much of the Victorian period than with the first half of the twentieth century. In both cases, rapid technological change has helped to drive forward economic and social change. In both cases, the impact of economic growth was greater social inequality the two nations are increasingly divergent once more. Instead of the cataclysmic disruptions that dominated the first half of the twentieth century, social forces are at play that could theoretically be documented by modern writers in the same way that they were documented by Dickens and Eliot.

However, it nonetheless remains the case that any return to realist fiction seems unlikely at best; if there is a dominand force in modern literature it is probably magical realism. The realist novel rested on a numner of shared assumptions relating to social homogeneity rather than post-traditional individualism, and relating to notions of progress through commerce and science rather than scepticism with which both of those continue to be viewed. If I were to speculate as to the greatest modern writer, I would put the name of JG Ballard forward. His fractured, episodic narratives represent in many respects a return to the type of narrative that existed before nineteenth century realist fiction and suggests a route beyond it.

Post-Art

Saturday, May 21st, 2005

The Modern Word has an interesting interview with Donald Cuspitt, on the subject of Post-Art:

“The concept of “postart” was developed by the happening artist Allan Kaprow. Simply put, it involves the “blurring of the boundary between art and life,” to use the title of his collection of essays. I would add, based on his idea that life is much more interesting than art, at the expense of art…

But a larger issue informs the development of anti-aesthetic postart, namely, what T. S. Eliot called the “dissociation of sensibility,” that is, the separation of thinking and feeling (ratiocination and sentiment were his terms), which he thought (correctly) was a pervasive issue in modernity. Duchamp’s preference for what he called “intellectual expression” (”art in the service of the mind”) over “animal expression” suggests that his anti-art is an example of such dissociation. The integration of thinking and feeling remains a general issue of selfhood, all the more so in modernity, when the split is celebrated and thinking elevated over feeling. This occurs in art with the split between minimal-conceptual art and expressionism, with the former regarded as inherently superior to the latter, at least in some quarters.”

I recall that JG Ballard once noted that our environment is essentially saturated with what he called aestheticising elements that lack psychological depth, leading him to defend modern art as an attempt to return us to the most basic and elemental components of reality. Nonetheless, I find myself quite sympathetic to Cuspitt’s viewpoint. Generally speaking, the preference for the conceptual in modern art tends to elide the difficulty that visual media are rather poor at communicating concepts. On the whole, I tend to suspect that modern art remains as uncomfortable with the representational as cubism and surrealism were, which seems to me to leave it poorly placed to return us to any notion of the real (it might succeed in challenging such concepts, but that returns us to the question of how well suited it is for such tasks).

By contrast, Ballard felt that the novel had proved resistant to such new concepts in comparison to the visual arts, but it seems to me that the modern novel, and particularly writers like Eco or Pamuk, tends to integrate thinking and feeling rather well. Given the increasingly prominent role of images against words in our time I have to say it seems rather odd that it should be this way round.

General Dejection

Saturday, May 7th, 2005

When I described the last set of local elections I noted that the presence of a number of marginal groups like the British National Party had made voting a somewhat depressing affair. Mercifully, the ballot paper was rather more restricted this time, with only the UK Independence Party representing the more questionable side of the political spectrum. As has always been the case, my vote went to the Liberal Democrats and for the first time it proved to have an effect; it helped to reduce the Labour majority sufficiently to allow a Conservative MP in.

At one point, this might have been a consideration that would have weighed more heavily on my mind while voting. Today, the choice between the Scylla and Charybdis of two parties that are equally unworthy of government has relieved me of the need to do anything other than vote as I see fit. To a large extent, this seems representative of the electorate as a whole; with little to choose between the two main parties, voting patterns have been extremely unpredictable with no national patterns. The Labour party have been returned as a minority government that commands an alarmingly low share of the vote, while the Conservatives have failed to increase their share of the vote substantially. Instead, independent candidates have flourished, with the disturbing rise of more extreme parties (UKIP and the BNP at one end of the political spectrum, Respect at the other) seen in past elections also continuing. Of couse, I’m glad to see an increased number of Liberal Democrat seats, but it does concern that me that a party that has never quite managed to fuse liberalism and social democracy into a coherent philosophy seems to see that confusion reflected in the wildly disparate character of the seats they have won (Cambridge and Solihull).

Perhaps my gloominess over elections simply amounts to the fact that I cannot say with any honesty that I particularly share the aspirations of the majority of the population. I vote for the Liberal Democrats on issues like civil liberties and constitutional reform essentially on the basis that they are policies that would change grey and unlovely Britain rather than simply administer it in a different fashion. I found myself strongly agreeing with this comment from Momus:

“I’m afraid I now feel that when I visit Britain. Whether rich or poor, successful or failing, Britain seems just wrong to me. It espouses values I don’t espouse. Whatever history it might celebrate is wrong: I can never forgive it for failing to have an eighteenth century bourgeois revolution like the French one, or for failing to have a constitution, or failing to become a republic. Britain is just horribly wrong in so many ways that choosing a red, yellow or blue way of being wrong is pointless. Britain, as far as I’m concerned, is wrong in its attitude to the intellect, to sex, to art, to class, to the body, to the relationship between money and quality of life, to the relationship between work and play, to the relationship between itself and the US, or the relationship between peace and war, or between British people and foreigners, or between sunny days and cloudy days, or… well, I could go on and on, or alternatively I could just go, which is what I ended up doing.

Are any of the major political parties looking at Britain’s essential wrongheadedness? What are they proposing to do about it? The answer is that if you really believed Britain was essentially wrong in its way of being, you wouldn’t go into politics. You’d go into France, or Germany, or Japan, or India, or Tibet, or somewhere you felt things were less wrong… And why take the perspective that it’s politicians who define a place, when it’s so clearly ordinary people and their ways of being?”