13 September 2010

In the End was the Idea


There just aren't enough good writers these days. There just aren't enough writers who make you stand up, take notice of, respect not just what they say, but the words they use to say it. Almost as if the words themselves mattered. Writers who know that even the "cruelest," harshest message may sometimes find its way deep into the stubbornest heart, provided it can find words kind and pleasant enough to ease the entry.  

By "good" writers, then, I mean those few who care about the receptiveness of their readers, and not just the penetrativeness of their message. But much more than this, I mean writers whose words grow on you, almost like a living thing you've grown reluctantly fond of - grow in interest, liveliness, multiplicity of color and shade and hue - the more you read them, and the more closely you inspect them. The sort of writers whose practised verbal ear - whose patience, heedfulness, humility in the presence of even the humblest words - I find in shorter supply than ever during this cold-as-death post-Cold War "peace" we've been enduring.  

Though I suspect the technical reason behind the shortage is a rather basic one, and mostly unintended. In any age the best writers, the ones most worth reading, are also the most heartfelt. After all, if you don't really "care all that much" about what you have to say, why should I? But the most passionate of today's writers, even when they ambush and assault you (as is their usual custom) with their best points and themes, tend to come running out in full strength too quickly, so that soon there's nothing left of them to discover and explore. And unlike a conventional military assault, the whole purpose of a literary attack is that you the writer should be invaded and explored, and in being occupied, eventually occupy your reader.  

But worst of all is today's writers tend to pull the meanings out of their words and throw them at you, like hand-grenades, as if all the impact were in the so-called meaning or idea, and the "mere" word, together with all that words enclose - sound and lilt, voice and music - were simply a detonating-pin to be kept back from the reader, and then thrown away as quickly as possible.  

Whereas good writers, I find, have a way of creeping up on you unawares just when you think you've got them surrounded. They are no less brilliant - or explosive - for being quiet and unassuming in their choice of subject matter, or uncontentious in their mode of delivery. Above all, they do their best to ensure that even their simplest words - words like dove, ripe, soft, wound, lamb, dust, wheat - are full of hidden surprises, if not of a seemingly inexhaustible depth and resonance of association. Even more strangely, this very richness of association can seem, at times, as much imbedded in the "pure" sound of the word as in what we call its meaning. Indeed, I have no doubt there are some outwardly unassuming writers whose secret power is such that, could we but read even their simplest words as closely, and as freshly, as they meant themselves to be read, we should be quite taken aback at what we'd find. Or rather, at what has found us. And sometimes even Who.


Take the example of a personal favorite of mine, Walter de la Mare - a writer whom not a few today might consider an essentially lightweight children's author and weaver of fanciful tales and verse. In any close reading of his critical prose, I wonder how many of us would be shocked to find that, for him, the relation between words and things need not be the usual modern one of arbitrary violence, in which our words are forever trying to impose themselves on things, and our things perpetually trying to wriggle out from underneath. To the contrary, in many places he gives the distinct impression that certain words, when used in their best settings - their native habitats, so to speak - are on such natural terms of ease and intimacy with the things they describe, you'd almost swear they'd been admitted into the very homes of those things, and allowed to explore every room, and forgotten shelf, and secret staircase, as opposed to being left standing (like most of our less violent words today) awkwardly in the doorway. And given the very run of the place, not just for a day or two, but for weeks and even months on end. Again and again I find this casual, easeful intimacy between word and thing cropping up almost everywhere I look. And even where the author hasn't found it you can nearly always tell he's been looking. Virtually everywhere in his critical prose, de la Mare suggests our very best words are those which, far from offering themselves as either harsh overlords or bloodless substitutes for the things they describe, actually give an enhanced - because more intent and appreciative - sense of the things themselves. And that regardless of whether the thing-in-question be a caterpillar or a cocoon, or a country; a poplar-tree or a politician. Or an economist. Almost as if the "mere" word itself were a kind of affectionately-remembered name - "decoy" I believe is de la Mare's own favorite term - to which the thing-in-itself was not only capable of responding, but actually happy to respond.  

Alright, so de la Mare was clearly no Kantian. But that's not half the strangest part of it. Most outrageous of all, he seems to believe that there are many such words; that we could find them growing in abundance if only we took the time to watch and wait, and listen; and that, once gathered, many if not most could be fitted, rather like gloves, to all sorts of topics covering nearly every human situation. That such words, indeed, could be used to enrich and illuminate not just his own familiar worlds of childhood, or imaginative literature, or that strange world - and word - we call Nature, but just about every human field of endeavor and aspiration. Perhaps even (one occasionally gets the hint here and there) human politics, and economics.    

I can't be sure of this latter point, because these are topics on which he touches very seldom, and then only indirectly and suggestively. But if I'm right, then it's small wonder to me, given the ponderous ways in which we tend nowadays to write on these sacred subjects, that we take such slight academic interest in de la Mare; small wonder that, although his popular readership may be wide as ever, he has attracted so little serious critical attention since his death in 1956 - and much of that half-hearted and perfunctory. It's not as though we haven't allowed time for the dust to settle. 2012 will mark the centenary of the book that put him on the literary map of his day: The Listeners and Other Poems. But then a good deal else besides dust-settling can happen in a hundred years. And to the best of my reckoning, we of the latter half of that century have largely gone our own way, both in our tastes in poetry and fiction, and in our estimation of the strengths and uses of words. Right off the bat I'd have said ours was a far more modest estimation than that of, say, early 20th-century Britain. But then I remembered our own current, strangely passionate faith in the political - to say nothing of economic - manipulability of words. Or "spin," as I believe it's become known in recent decades.  

In brief, these days we pretty much like our words to stop complaining, sit down, shut up and do as they're told. "And no funny stuff!" Which is to say, we don't take any too kindly to quaint old reminders of how independently powerful and evocative, and echoing, mere words can be. And least of all the many basic, often one-syllable words that have come down to us, largely unchanged in sound and use, since Shakespeare's time, if not Chaucer's. Words that, across many centuries, and through untold numbers of stories, have somehow managed to lose neither their soothing loveliness nor their power to pierce and unsettle. Anyhow, here is de la Mare himself, in a quiet tribute to both  the Bible and its King James Version (in which, last time I looked, there was no shortage of monosyllabic words, and remarkably few "pure" abstractions):

All that man is or feels or (in what concerns him closely) thinks; all that he loves or fears or delights in, grieves for, desires or aspires to is to be found in it, either expressed or implied. As for beauty, though this was not its aim, and the word is not often used in it - it is "excellent in beauty"; and poetry dwells in it as light dwells upon a mountain and on the moss in the crevice of its rocks. In what other book - by mere mention of them - are even natural objects made in the imagination so whole and fair; its stars, its well-springs, its war-horse, its almond-tree?   

And here, introducing a professor of literature's 1943 lecture on "Shakespeare and the Dictators":  

The aim of this essay is to deduce from Shakespeare's treatment of his tyrannical characters his own personal convictions; to show also that the Plays are not only "experiments in human nature," but that they are illuminated also by "flashes of prophetic poetry" - which may be compared with those that may light up for their instant the region of waking dream, of the under-mind, of the mystical, and with other inspirations of genius. To imagine, however feebly, our latter-day tyrants as characters in a play of Shakespeare's is surely to be in no doubt as to their status as specimens of humanity, or of their fate. He [emphasis mine] would pierce to their essence . . .   

And again here, in exploring (what else?) our common human experience and recollections of childhood:

For most of us, strange veils almost completely hide away those "early days," though, now and again, some small experience may vividly evoke them: a glimpse, for example, of a horse, with its long tail, grazing in a field of buttercups, or a glance up at the towering boughs of an oak or an elm tree, or that first morning look through a window at at wintry morning in the hush of daybreak and deep in snow.

What I find astounding here is not just the vividness contained in so few words of such apparent simplicity, but the sheer presence, the composure, the peace. Doubly amazing to me is that this last passage was written in a world of quite unabatedly brewing and surging unrest (c. 1930). In other words, right square in the the middle of a "lull" between two world wars.  

Not, of course, that this gets de la Mare in any way lightly off the great political hook of his day. Indeed one may argue that, for all the genuine giftedness of his generation - whether in the writing, the refining or the appreciating of children's literature - they were all dismal failures in one key endeavor: namely, the securing of that notoriously insecure peace of 1919. But before you get too high-mindedly denunciatory, I invite you to look a bit further down the road, to the achievements of some others at most half-a-generation behind: To the peacemakers of 1945 - Churchill and Roosevelt, Truman and de Gaulle. Whatever of good literature these later statesmen may or may not have enjoyed, I would submit that, in their essential views on life and politics, and on the political implications of human decency, they had far more in common with the generation of Kipling, de la Mare, Chesterton, Buchan, etc, than with those shining democratic humanitarians of our Modern Literature, Yeats and Pound, Lawrence and Eliot. And as for the political legacy of Churchill & Co - if I'm not mistaken - even we of the post-Cold War era are still drawing on some portion of that peace dividend.  

Meanwhile, do we global post-moderns think to consolidate their work? Do we presume to maintain and extend peace in the world, what with all our magickal G-2s and WTOs and b-i-NGOs? Why, we don't even know how to write it - no, not even to children.  

Though even if we could, we'd be hard-put to find a more arresting writer than de la Mare - and especially on his choice themes, like human innocence and weakness and wickedness, or the unimpeachable dignity of the humblest living things, or the strange, untraceable thread that binds imagination and compassion. And even more hard-put, I should think, to find a writer more kindly and unassuming in his manner of arrest. Which in turn makes me wonder if, when all is said and done, we global post-moderns don't take any too kindly to kindness or modesty either.  

There's no need to jump to conclusions, of course. But, again, suppose for the sake of argument that I am right about what I perceive to be our post-Cold War fashion of "cruelty to kindness." In that case, I think it goes a long way towards explaining much of the uniquely strenuous, angry and callous nature of our post-Cold War life, both public and private. And of course we may go on indefinitely in this merry way, seeing less and less practical point to what the Book of Proverbs might have called pleasant words that are pure, or soft words that break a bone - or cut to the heart. In which case we'll continue to bludgeon each other verbally, and wonder why all our vigorous scorn and venom and caustic invective keep failing to "get through " - keep having, in short, so little practical effect. For my part, I find it hard to resist the conclusion that nowadays either we're ashamed of the power of kindness to change hearts, and win souls - and yes, even profits - or we've grown stubbornly (i.e., stupidly) ignorant of it. And that more than explains to me the repeated failures of even our grandest, most comprehensive mere ideas - monetarism, New Economy, neoliberalism, the Chinese model, etc - to achieve anything like the economic paradise, much less the political peace, so triumphantly forecast at the end of the Twentieth Century.

08 September 2010

The Coming America

I don't hate America. But I do wish our officially-sponsored American culture would stop behaving in the misleading and confusing ways that it does. I wish, in other words, that our culture would stop behaving as if, however ardently it may love, and admire, and gush over the glorious things human beings do, it rather hates - or regards as wholly expendable - those humbler creatures who do them. In particular I hope, one day, our American leaders and opinion-molders will discover that the best way of making our glorious achievements more humanly digestible is to do a better job of loving - rather than spitting out - the achievers. To say nothing of those lesser beings - workers, parents, teachers, pastors, etc - who help to make their achievements possible. You will not long derive any real benefit from things that are done if you go on treating the doers as so much cannon-fodder.

Speaking of soldiers (of one business or other) I'm reminded here of a story of how, on the eve of World War I, much of the press of Western nations was in an uproar concerning the destructive power of the new German zeppelins. The French and British press were especially worried over the danger the new weapons might pose to the civilian populations of Paris and London. Much of the American press was equally anxious over the possible threat zeppelins posed to the new Panama Canal. Talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of property. And since much of our current and previous US leadership appears to be in a similar - though not nearly so unabashed - frame of mind, I'm naturally hoping they'll grow out of it sometime fairly soon.

And (odd as it may sound coming from me) I believe they will. Someday I believe it will be evident to us - for I really do think we Americans will be the first to see it - that America is neither the hope of the world nor its despair, neither the deliverance of the world nor its prison: we are just over-rated. Indeed, I wonder if we won't prove to be about the most over-rated culture, or country, or civilization, or whatever it is we are, that has ever ruled the world since Rome. And by no means primarily by ourselves either. I find progressive-minded Europeans in particular to be second to none in their practical admiration of American culture. In fact one may argue, so abysmally ashamed are many Europeans of their own failures (you know, racism, colonialism, aggressive war, and all those other human blights of which our US history is so blessedly free), and so grudgingly - and hence honestly - worshipful are they of our success (and how American is that?), that they seem to be quite literally un-reproducing themselves out of existence.

Of course others will argue that the reverse of over-rating is at least as much true in our case. And yes, I was about to say that in some quarters the US is also the most over-demonized nation. But no, on second thought, in that category we only come a close third, with Russia slightly in the lead. And, of course, every generation gets exactly the kind of demoniac Russia it expects, and fears, and deserves. Yet I notice even the Russians, reliable as they've been in their Most Hated Nation spot for well over two centuries, are in recent years holding only a distant second to that sprightliest of newcomers, Israel.

But there is one chief reason why I say America is over-rated rather than over-hated. It is that for any national culture to be accurately rated, and revered, and imitated as we have been for the past two decades, it would have to be a kind of collective messiah. And if America is to be the earth's Collective Messiah, then frankly I dread with all my heart to see the earth's Collectivist Heaven.* There is just only so much even America can save and redeem; only so much that brashness, and eagerness, and uncritical love of novelty and ingenuity can purify and perfect; only so much that a shameless, remorseless contempt for history and memory, and for the whole reflective and contemplative life of Man can do for the good of mankind, before it starts seriously undoing much of the good that has already been done. Or, worse, before the unintended bad we do eventually outweighs or overtakes the intended good.

* And yes, I do believe there's such a thing as an American collectivism. Show me another modern society in which propietary domain is more eminent, or in which private organizational power is more deferred to, esteemed and respected as the indispensable engine of progress (not by Hollywood, of course; but then, much as we all sometimes enjoy their products - Avatar, etc - who among us really cares what they think?). From what I can tell, our US collectivist tendency is rooted in a certain time-honored mental habit we have, to which we're mostly oblivious. This habit, at which I hinted in the first paragraph, consists of:

(1) The high value we place on the dignity of individual human effort, initiative, ingenuity, enterprise, etc, things which are of their nature repeatable and replaceable; and
(2) the relatively low emphasis we place on the dignity of individual human beings, who are by nature wholly unrepeatable and irreplaceable, and so of a value incommensurate with whatever things they do.

One Day, however, I believe we shall have the means of forming a more just and less hysterical estimate of who we are, and of what we have been. And by "we" I mean both America and the whole world, including - one can only hope - the hysterical Europeans. And then, at last, America shall begin to realize the remaining three-quarters - or more likely, nine-tenths - of that truly glorious potential we've been sitting on and suppressing for the better part of at least two centuries.

(What? You're saying I've got my valuations completely backwards? That in reality, human efforts and achievements are the things of incommensurate value, and that human beings are utterly replaceable and interchangeable? In that case, why, I think you've proved my point.)
My guess is we've been in the grip of a major collectivist phase for at least 15 years now. In other words, I believe it will become clear - with sufficient hindsight - that when we soundly thrashed the Totalitarian Beast in the '80s and early '90s, we did not so much liquidate the Beast's assets as turn them over to new (i.e., more intelligent and efficient) ownership and management.