Imagination in Action (full transcript)
This is the full transcript of Marina Warner’s Literature Matters: Imagination in action lecture, given at the British Library, 26 September 2017.
(This version as delivered on the night, not fully referenced; please quote only with permission – contact [email protected])
A different version appeared in the London Review of Books on November 16 2017.
Introduction: The Dream of St Augustine
I am proud and happy to be asked to give this lecture for the RSL, but doing literature is a happier state than trying to analyze what it is, or how and why it matters, when you, a gathering of writers and readers in every genre and of every disposition, all have independent ideas of your own. Because one thing that literature certainly is is many voices, many ideas, many languages – literarily and figuratively.
Literature matters even more when things fall apart: motives for writing in the first place grow sharply. Frustrations need a find a shape; hopes long to be given stuff to think with. Rebecca Solnit – a writer of many facets and much insight – has written that ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.’
But first, a story:
Last December, I went to Russia for the first time, and in the Hermitage, there’s a small panel painting showing a vision of St Augustine: the saint, in full episcopal fig, is sitting on the beach near a child who is scooping up water from the sea with a scallop shell and pouring it into a hole in the sand. According to this story, the saint is asking the little boy what he think he’s up to – to which the child replies that he’s trying to empty the sea into the hole. When the saint points out this can’t be done, the child – who reveals himself to be Jesus – ribs him, saying that he, Augustine, is trying something equally intractable and absurd when he tries to comprehend, with his little brain, the mystery of the Trinity.
The nuns at my school liked telling these kinds of stories, and they shaped by own love of legends and fairy stories and myths. They passed this one on because it conveys the utter surrender that faith demands. It’s a legend… an exemplum… a parable…an anecdote … a bit of hagiography – it manifests many varieties of story. Indeed, it’s a likely story, too, if you stop to think about it, but it serves to say tonight that embarking on talking about imagination in action in relation to literature strikes me as a similar folly.
This small painting also inspired some thoughts about our theme tonight: the artist is Filippo Lippi, and I first came across him in a rather steamy poem by Robert Browning, if I remember right, which I read at the same time as the thrillingly vivid, wicked tale in My Last Duchess. The Italy of painting and poetry was Italy for me, although my mother was Italian, and we went to her home town, Bari, for the odd summer now and then. But even after I came to know the country I saw it through my Kulturbrille, the lenses reading had provided me. Literature acts as a map, which connects us ethereally and virtually, provides compass points, across national boundaries and often leaping over ethnic and cultural labels. Augustine himself was a Roman citizen of North Africa, a fellow Maghrebin as Jacques Derrida would remind his readers, who born in the Sahara in an oasis town, before he moved to the coast and then crossed the Mediterranean, a less patrolled thoroughfare then than today’s bitter cemetery.as Jacques Derrida would remind his readers, who born in the Sahara in an oasis town, before he moved to the coast and then crossed the Mediterranean, a less patrolled thoroughfare then than today’s bitter cemetery. It is assumed the Bishop of Hippo was white, but it seems a bit unlikely, given his birthplace. The Christ child whom he saw laboring to drain the sea appeared to him on the beach at Civitavecchia near Rome, the port where Stendhal two millennia later lived as the French consul and where the story still lives on in the town’s memory and is marked, if memory serves, by a monument on the beach by an ugly, modern church where the Madonna wept tears of blood for the world in the l990s.
The writer, A L Kennedy, in a passionate, grieving lecture which she gave for the RSL on European Literature Night last May, before the misconceived referendum, proudly declared that if Theresa May thinks that “To be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of Nowhere’, then Nowhere was the country, the world to which she, AL Kennedy, was proud to belong. The place of literature, and of elective affinities, is a country of the mind— ‘a country of words’, to use the phrase of the poet Mahmoud Darwish. I follow them both into this nowhere place with my whole heart. Navigating Nowhere needs the starships that words can build in works of literature.
Let’s pause for a moment, for stories such as the legend about Augustine are only the stuff, the clay of the future work of literature. Tabloids are full of stories, but…
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said in his Paris Review interview, that his wife, coming back home from the hairdressers’ at lunchtime, would pass on something she had heard in town– and he, who had been cudgeling his brains all morning for inspiration, would find that she had casually given him what he needed. But it takes the imagination and the skill of a Marquez to turn this raw stuff into a work of literature. Being literate is one thing. Writing, patterning and communicating in a voice created inside the artifact –poem, novel or essay – quite another.
Saint Augustine himself, for all the dark and dismal reverberations of his moral theology, can’t be exiled from the territory of literature: whatever you think of him, his Confessions inaugurate auto-fiction in Europe. Ecstatic, anguished visions mark his life, his ferocious changes of mind, his opinions and his conversion, above all. But this particular vision is not in the Confessions, it turns out. So, it also reveals something about the autonomy of stories as artifacts: I couldn’t find a source for the story. Several citations on the web give The Golden Legend, that 13th century anthology of feast days behind so many Renaissance paintings, but it is not to be found there. An alternative authority suggests St Cyril of Alexandria, in an apocryphal Letter… I was embarked on a paper chase in a strong breeze and so far, the trail has scattered. Cyril btw is the notorious fanatic who so roused the mob against Hypatia the philosopher that she was lynched.
Like Hamlet, and the Creature and his creator Frankenstein, and Jane Eyre, the persona of Augustine has a life of his own: these are figments that become autonomous beings, acting in further conversations between acts of literature and imagination. Nathan Neller warns in a recent issue of the New Yorker: ‘The tendency to weave stories where evidence is missing is the human brain’s sustaining feature, precipitating heroic action, senseless love, and mindless hate.’
We are inheritors of worlds acts of literary imagination have made –often without realizing it.
Besides the criss-crossings of geography, languages, visions, anecdote, memoir and sheer fantasy in the story the Lippo Lippi painting tells, my seeing it in the Hermitage raises a few more thoughts about imagination in action. The story was remembered and believed and travelled – it transmigrated- not only with pictures as its vehicle – and you don’t need to have read it to experience it 600 years after it was painted and 2000 years after it supposedly happened to Augustine. Nor do you need any longer to be in St Petersburg to see it.
You can google it now on your phones, if you like.
There is one last thread I want to unspool from my brief encounter with an old fable about the limits of knowledge. This is more sobering, for it captures part of the difficulties trammeling the life of literature here, now.
I was in Russia for the Moscow Book Fair, a trip the British Council organized with thoughtful generosity for a large and varied number of writers. It became clear that this expensive trip was happening because books, not being subject to sanctions, are one of the few products which can still be traded in Russia.
I believe strongly in the Council’s international work. But what is called ‘soft power’ excites equivocal feelings in me – as it does, perhaps, in you. However, it provides us lovers of literature with a powerful weapon to use to get support from governments that are suspicious of directly supporting libraries, of teaching foreign languages, generally belittle the subjects in general, and even hobble the brilliant tradition of public broadcasting. It is very good news that Nicholas Serota has moved to the Arts Council where public funding of Literature – and all its myriad expressions – needs a formidable and advocate.
In this talk, the first in the RSL programme of Literature Matters, I am going to look at imagination in action in literature from four angles:
1 As If or, Stories as thought experiments.
2 The country of words – or, the common wealth of literature
3 Making Memories, and epistemic vigilance)
5 Beyond the book… digital visual, acoustic and performance
Now to my four facets:
1 As If: Stories as thought experiments
The vigorous field of cognitive studies has made some suggestive findings about reading and consciousness, and the material qualities of projection. It is not just saints and visionaries who have dreams and relate them as if they were real events – in a literary sense, as well as a psychological sense, they are real events. Such discoveries emphasize the interwovenness of thought with reality, in the workings of the creative mind. For one thing, memoria and fantasia, used to be considered distinct faculties and were assigned to separate chambers of the mind, whereas it seems the same synapses fire whether you are remembering something that happened to you, recalling something you saw on the 10 o’clock news, or inventing it from scratch. The speculative mind generates experience – imagined experience. ‘As If’ is wishful and, sometimes, wistful, but it is a hope.
Terence Cave’s recent book Thinking with Literature lays out a powerful argument for literature and storytelling as capacities of intellect and memory. He writes, ‘Human cognition is alert, attentive, responsive. Above all, it is imaginative: it can think beyond the constraints of immediate experience, do strange things with words, conjure up futures and histories of all kinds, bring to life people who never existed and invent for them plausible stories and environments. Despite the tangible evidence that this is so, the word ‘cognition’ has traditionally been used to refer to the rational knowledge-seeking processes of the mind as opposed to other modes of engagement with the world.’ The capacity to make things up is a way of thinking; imagination in action, with language as its tool and writer is the conductor or user.
Ethical speculative fiction mostly falls under the label of fantasy, and has crossed over and now appeals to readers regardless of age, and drawn closer to science fiction as written by the great Ursula Le Guin, who has imagined alternative worlds with awe inspiring ingenuity and a strongly ironic judiciousness, too –in The Dispossessed and the Left Hand of Darkness, for example. She is far-sighted, and though she has millions of readers, her clarity and her warnings have only perhaps lessened some hideous recent developments – Trump stumbling along rather than triumphantly advancing – not helped avoid them altogether.]
In a famous passage in Invisible Cities Italo Calvino explains that he scrutinizes the darkness so he can pick out the tiny pinpricks of light. Echoing this, Mahmoud Darwish once said, ‘a poem is a throw of dice in a patch of darkness.’ Rebecca Elson, an astronomer who was also a poet, who died young, offers this beautiful, precise variation on the theme in a notebook draft called ‘Explaining Dark Matter’:
‘As if, from fireflies one could infer the field’’ (Rebecca Elson, A Responsibility in Awe
(Carcanet, p 71).
You could not put it better: every story, danced by words in a work of literature, pricks out in brief points of light a field of inquiry.
The word ‘inquiry’ shares a root with the word for story in Greek, a connection which strikes me as truthful: literature, in its manifold genres, is a mode of curiosity. Geoffrey Dyer once commented that when he wants to find out about something or someone, he starts writing a book: it is interesting that several forms, of what used to be called belles lettres, beautiful letters, are rising strongly on a tide of readers’ appetite for inquiry: the Essay, with intriguing flotsam on its currents, including ciné-essays, and poem essays, such as Andrea Brady’s Wildfire, and her meditation on her infant daughter, called Mutability: Scripts for Infancy. The revitalized essay has kith and kin in the directions auto-fiction is taking, and in the writing of place, and an even more appetite for inquiry into natural phenomena, as if we were looping back into the new science when the properties of things, wonders and curiosities were the objects of delighted investigation by Thomas Browne and John Aubrey. Octopus, ice, jellyfish, coral, rainbows, whales, ants, meteors, crows, birdsong are only some of many many subjects writers have taken up more recently.
The active imagination in literature looks forward as much as it looks backwards, often in a manoeuvre to forestall the worst. Writers keep asking, what might happen? It I think the opening of Beckett’s Malone Dies expresses this stratagem most perfectly, being both dark and funny, bleak and comical at the same time:
I shall soon be quite dead at last despite all.
Je serai quand meme bientot tout à fait mort enfin.
It’s striking, as always in the case of this writer, how the verbal architecture is so exact, adverbs and conjunctions driven in like pilings keeping a building in place, around the simple universal truth – our shared sentence: ‘I shall be dead.’
The poet A[lice]. E. Stallings echoes this motive, facing up to the unknown in a more tender voice as she remembers a private scene and then broadens her musings into a general thought about literature: in ‘Another Bedtime Story’,
The tales that start with once and end with ever after,
All, all of the stories are about going to bed,
About coming to terms with the night, alleviating the dread
Of laying the body down, of lying under a cover.
Coming to terms with the night, she writes, alleviating the dread, are what the makers of stories are trying to do.
It’s easy to think that retrospection dominates literature, but the future tense and the prospect of what lies ahead, is preoccupying many writers today, and this mode of dread and clairvoyance – technically prolepsis – increasingly puzzles over ethical questions. I sense that in these times of increasing turmoil, unpredictability, displacements and precarity, more writers, together with directors of drama, and visual artists, are increasingly grappling with the difficult issues.
Imagination in action is proleptic… it can have foreknowledge, unbeknownst to itself, sometimes, as Kafka’s extraordinary fables or J G Ballard’s off-balance fictions show. The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted now for television, decades after its first publication, with searing effect, because Atwood had sensed the wind. As long ago as 1998, Christine Brooke-Rose wrote a visionary, angry novel called Next. In Next, the set of vagrants, tramps, homeless people whose voices interlace the work, coming and going as in Woolf’s The Waves, have stopped speaking in the first person, and are no capable to using the verb to have, because they own nothing, have no home, belong nowhere. You must have all these coordinates to be a person who can use the words I have.
Brooke-Rose died in 2012; she lived most of her life in France where she taught at the University of Paris, Vincennes, and was neglected in this country. She could also be a very scathing, funny writer too; like Gertrude Stein, she was a far more light-footed experimentalist than she was given credit for. She sorted out her targets and she enlarges our horizons.
In his novel Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro created a tender brave love story written with his customary reticent poignancy even as he turned a steady gaze on the traffic in human organs now and the threatened expanding world marker, organized by legal scientific institutions that threatens in the future. How the novel has impinged on the world of medical experiment and profit-making is not demonstrable. But I know that the converse – fiction cheering on designer babies for the organ trade – would have given a tremendous moral boost to unscrupulous doctors. Ishiguro thinks with his imagination about people and our ways of being. His fiction experiments with possibilities – it is a form of philosophy He may not be setting out to act upon the shaping of ethics – but his work reverberates there nonetheless.
Identification and rejection – are aroused within a spectrum of values that are shared: and literature matters, again, because sympathy, laughter and tears spring from ideas held in common. Books shape those ideas in the first place and then reinforce them… or undermine them for a group. Think of how the literary form of the memoir was deployed in Abolition campaigns: how powerfully men and women told their stories to change opinion and rouse the public to reject this major source of economic profit. True, the planters and slave owners in the British sphere were paid off, and handsomely, but that compensation scheme could not have been undertaken with parliamentary support if the stories had not succeeded in informing people and making a certain previously unheeded system unacceptable. And, since then, remember, Steve McQueen has made one such ferocious autobiographical narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, into a global, Hollywood success.
Think, too, what has happened since Proust wrote the amazing erotic scene between Jupien and the Baron de Charlus…how Proust’s metaphors of the bumble bee and the orchid, following on from an allusion to birds fluffing up their feathers, shift through phases of feelings, as the narrator observes and tracks his own responses in relation to the spontaneous attraction and the consequent behavior he sees. These subtle passages register voyeuristic astonishment- fascination, repulsion – to a searching and committed inquiry into the reality of the encounter, and its meaning for the two men he is spying on. The scene takes us into Proust’s understanding and, from the point of view of a later reader, like myself, opens my eyes to what can go on between two men of different ages and class and character:
At that self-same instant that M. de Charlus passed through the gateway whistling like a fat bumble bee, another one, a real one this time, entered the courtyard. Who knows whether it was not the one so long awaited by the orchid, that had come to bring her the rare pollen without which she would remain a virgin? But I was distracted from following the insect’s frolics, for, a minute or two later, Jupien … returned, followed by the Baron. The latter, resolved to precipitate matters, asked the waistcoat-maker for a light, but immediately remarked: ‘I’m asking you for a light, but I see I’ve forgotten my cigars.’ The laws of hospitality prevailed over the laws of flirtation. ‘Come inside, you’ll be given everything you want,’ said the waistcoat-maker, on whose face disdain gave way to joy.’[i]
The translation here is by John Sturrock, who sadly died on Aug 14 this year; he was an acute and genial man of letters, and his version here superbly catches the shrewd comedy of the seduction.
For me the scene is deeply intertwined with the ending of persecution for homosexual acts. That may seem a leap, and it is not a point about empathy, or not only. Proust was extremely aware of the boldness of his material, and of the danger he was running regarding the obscenity laws and obloquy in his own social circles. Sturrock points out in his introduction how the first world war had helped lighten persecution, and in turn, gave breathing space to Proust’s quest, not for lost time, but for revealing human complexity. Proust had very mixed up feelings about his own homosexuality, but it is the mixed-up-ness that stimulates the reader’s active imagination, that takes me beyond my personal experience, as the novel Proust is writing stages this scene of peeping and observations and sets multiple, emotional reverberations running. The Narrator comments, ‘Vice (I put it thus for the sake of linguistic convenience), each person’s vice accompanies him in the same fashion as the genie who was invisible to men for as long as they were unaware of his presence. Kindness, double-dealing, reputation, our social relations do not let themselves be discovered, we carry them concealed.’ (my emphasis) Recognition – that some people feel these feelings and do this or that – helps opens the mind, and overcome prejudice, exclusion, and punishment. To adapt Hannah Arendt’s view that ‘Stories are a form of action, the way we become historical…’, I would say stories are a way of becoming social, of becoming visible to one another. All literature matters because it is crucial to this process. But it can’t be embarked upon on purpose: Proust wasn’t imagining the scene because he wanted to change opinion or because he foresaw the new laws that would be made all over the world in the early twenty-first century. But because, as the Narrator says, ‘an error dispelled lends us extra sense.’
We think with literature, but also literature – thought about in this way – is thinking with us, for us, and moulding our thinking in process.
Let’s ask for a poem for today or a brief story – a flash fiction – a Kafka fable – a brief essay for today every day – to keep planting the common wealth of literature.
2 The Country of Words: or a Common Wealth of Literature
I recently discovered that in Arabic, the root of the verb for watering – raawa – is the same as for story telling – a story teller is a raawi. Narration is irrigation, irrigation is narration! Narratives refresh and foster growth, replenish and quench thirst, and they make their way like flowing water, unstoppably. I like this deep insight of Arabic, as it looks on literature as a watershed, a delta, carrying its figments on its many currents, into its many aquifers and wells, because the humanities have been coming under attack, that they’re not useful, that literary studies and practice are idle and luxurious irrelevances in a modern society driving towards economic growth, simply the hobby of an elite with no importance for the just managing ordinary member of the public. I am putting our attackers’ views in extreme terms, but not unfairly. However, the riposte to this is: individual acts of literary imagination belong to readers and listeners; the author doesn’t control the work’s reception or its future meanings.. Together, unpredictably and unconsciously, the fission forms our common wealth, what Hannah Arendt calls the polis, a place of belonging in process, of exchange and debate about, for example as in Ishiguro novel, the ethics of medical advances, or about the jokes that are funny and those that are not, or about the hidden violence of the state. In this way, they play a part in defining the atmosphere of the public sphere, and the shared values of a group. This is not to forget that challenging received ideas will have consequences. The reception of a work of literature, a poem, play, novel, biography, essay, or any other form of literature, is can be dangerous and horrible for the author, in the many countries where the state keeps a close watch. But it also happens here, as we know.
If books and their many kin – on stage and on airwaves – if are to come alive as places of exchange, where thoughts and ideas and feelings build a common ground, they need to make geographical and linguistic journeys, migrate and cross-pollinate. The country of words is a storehouse of old stories – Babylonian, Indian, Greek, Arabic, Latin. The strokes of historical fortune have landed us, here in this country, in an inestimable position, with an international language. And, as Chaucer wrote long ago: ‘Go, little book … for there is so great diversity/ In English and in writing of our tongue…’
While English is a global language for business, aviation, digital technologies, this country, with the historic complacency of having the leading world language for a mother tongue, still lags behind many other countries in translating works. However, numbers are not the only indicator. The ways English expression is changing reflects the flourishing throng of writers using it who are in one way or another not from England. Of course, this is not the start of something, but a development: a marvelous chorale of voices has been strongly from the five continents for decades. In the recent past, all writing in their own English, there were Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Isak Dinesen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, R.K Narayan, Anita Desai, Derek Walcott. From those living now, I couldn’t even start. And before them, Milton pressed his clay into the mould of Latin… etc. etc., but now, something subtler and more revealing is happening. Listen to a sentence of Coetzee from The Schooldays of Jesus. He is talking through Simón, who is a migrant in a nowhere landscape: ‘Monday arrives, and it falls to him to convey the boy to his new school. They get there well before eight o’clock. The studio doors are open but the studio itself is empty. He sits down at the piano stool. Together they wait.’ P 53 (chapter 6 opening) Coetzee is writing in English as if for a primer in ESL classes. Or, as if he were translating it from … Afrikaans? No, he’s not working from a text which was written in another language, but crafting a new sounding vehicle, which gives me and you, as we read, an impression of effort: that stilted syntax, simple two/four rhythm, the inexpressive neutrality of the style. The affected simplicity heightens the drama that is being wrung from the wasteland where Simón finds himself. It exacerbates the numbness, and its sadness.
New Englishes are instruments to make a new music. Coetzee is not the only one developing such a dialect. It’s a no man’s land of English, without echoes of the King James or connections to imperial dreams. It’s the imaginative transformation of the liquid capital of English as a world language in an epoch of dislocation. The novel ends with Simón, the third person narrative voice, becoming acquainted with transcendence – through music and dance, forms beyond words, and referents beyond signification. This is an ironic conclusion with its forlorn glimmer of hope, but also meaningful against the meaningless horizon of the world in his bleak, sardonic book.
Another development has been widespread hope for a common wealth of letters that would transcend national boundaries: cosmopolitanism has returned as a form of resistance to the dangers of populist nationalism, and it brings interest in other literatures, and perforce in translation. The trend is giving rise to other coinages derived from the prefix trans: transnationality… translocality… and transhumance, as in the title of memoir by the translator Mireille Gansel, Translation as Transhumance, the word has been inspired by the annual migration of nomadic people, when they take their flocks in the summer to new pastures after wintering in the shelter of the valleys. The prefix trans- capture the millennial and post millennials’ experience of indeterminacy, their rejection of fixity and concerns with fluidity; generic boundary crossing is also registering in literary works of several contemporaries, including Coetzee.
The writer and translator Tim Parks recently published an extended essay on The Novel in the fine OUP series called Literary Agenda, and has given it the subtitle A Survival Skill. He lays out his case in strong terms: ‘We involve ourselves in ongoing relationships with writers and position ourselves in relation to them and the kind of stories they tell, much as we position ourselves in relation to the people we meet and know. Writing and reading are part of the immensely complex business of being ourselves.’ He draws on the practice of an Italian psychotherapist, Valeria Ugazio, whose work focusses on interactions and interdependency between her patients in the light of ‘permitted and forbidden stories’; while Freud turned to myth and to peculiar uncanny tales, she finds the modern novel illuminating, quoting from D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Ford Madox Ford.
Parks’ picture of two-way exchanges between real life and fiction, also defines why literature matters. Its meaning for each of us are knotted into the meanings that others find in this novel or that play – a common wealth of thought regardless of linguistic borders. Shared stories – from the tragedies of ancient Greece to nursery standards like Bluebeard – are building blocks of this polis: in her intricate and playful novel Mr Fox, Helen Oyeyemi takes an English variant of the Bluebeard fairytale to examine sexual conflict. In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie searches the state of the world now through Antigone, in a tightly coiled dramatic fiction about a young British recruit to Daesh in Syria – and his sister.
I was trying to think whether I had ever read a work that I never spoken of to anyone: a work that had not become for me a matter for communication – whether to enthuse about it or express disgust, to write about it or give it to a friend to read too so we can talk about it later.
Apart from exchanges between ourselves and books, there’s a rise in literary assemblies of one kind or another – like this one, where the conversation goes on among strangers as well as friends. Some literary forms need solitude: when making them or reading them. But drama, radio scripts, and now, increasingly, writing for digital platforms – are ways of being social, and oral modes of conveying literature are growing more and more popular: talking books, spoken word events and forms, writers simply appearing to talk and read (I’ll come back to this at the end.) Literature isn’t only for the literary-minded or an educated elite – perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t even always need to be read by individuals to be active and influential: because it travels in objects – and in proliferating media, where the original work will be present, like gravity in air… imponderable but actively there. A director will bring her imagination, formed by her own reading, to the production of a play, which has been created by a playwright after he has also read…a novel… a history… a psychoanalytic case study, newspaper snippet, a court record, a debt collector’s account book. Literature is a spreading ecosystem, many tributaries and streams flowing in and then dividing and wandering elsewhere.
‘The desire for justice is also normal within a global tradition of storytelling that’s much larger than realism,’ Bruce Robbins argues in an essay about contemporary cosmopolitanism. He continues, ‘narrative as such poses the broader question of what circle of readers can recognize themselves at any given moment as a political collectivity or community of fate, whether in any given narrative enough guests have been invited.’ [ii] The concept of ‘communities of fate’ defines a possibility of imaginative co-existence, a way of dwelling in fractured space and interrupted time. Robbins continues, ‘But I would also like to think that there exists a narrative, or a possibility of narrative, within “world literature,” a narrative in which the emergence of the category of “world literature” would constitute a significant event. Contemplating a seemingly endless series of atrocities receding into the depths of time, atrocities that no longer seem easily divided between modern and ancient, it may seem that meaningful history has become impossible and that literature itself, taken as existing outside of time, is the best refuge from the centuries and centuries and centuries of meaninglessness.’[iii]
IN California, there is a longstanding, highly active group of artists and thinkers, called The Metabolic Studio. Their axiom is:
ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY” I think we writers can adopt this as our slogan too.
3 Memory Banks
Thomas Carlyle maintained, ‘“In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time: the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.” And it is the case that literature carries the only memories of the past that can be intelligible narratives: archaeology, art, coins and legal documents and individual live witnesses offer rich evidence, but the record contained by literary works are unsurpassable: revenants speaking directly to us. Literature matters above all because it plays such a huge role in reconstructing the past.
A few years ago, Margaret Atwood gave a remarkable series of lectures and she made a startling claim that much of the business of writing engages writers in negotiating with the dead – whether in a novel like her own memorable Alias Grace, or in Michele Roberts’s recent The Walworth Beauty, which draws a haunted map of South London to revisit prostitution in the Victorian past. The young writer Kei Miller in The Last Warner Woman, likewise resuscitates an erased figure- imagining a lost mother consigned to a mental hospital, and reviving the sound of her Trinidadian lilt from the English on the page.
Literary works have a way of imprinting more vividly that historical works, and the historians whose records of the past we remember and can relive in memory are usually storytellers above all: starting with Herodotus. For many of us, Hilary Mantel’s Tudors are the Tudors we know now.
Imaginative forms of the past become moulds that in turn press out the shape of things to come. Nicole Krauss, in her compelling recent novel Forest Dark, twists and turns under the demands of this responsibility in relation to the Jewish history of which she is, willy nilly, a part. Her protagonist, also called Nicole, is in Tel Aviv, where she has met an old Israeli, a mysterious, disheveled sage: ‘We were speaking about writing,’ Friedman said… ‘Some of us here never forgot its value. That the reason we continue to live on this contested scrap of land today is because of the story we began to write about ourselves in this place nearly three millennia ago. … We like to think of ourselves as the inventors of monotheism, which spread like wildfire and influenced thousands of years of history. But we didn’t invent the idea of a single God; we only wrote a story of our struggle to remain true to Him and in doing so we invented ourselves. We gave ourselves a past and inscribed ourselves into the future’. (Location 1269).
It is easier to point out the damage that literature has done – from the story of Genesis onwards, but misogyny, violence and fanaticism are not intrinsic effects of literary depictions of them, any more than a description of a deadly toadstool can poison you. On the contrary it can inform and warn.
Building the country of words involves competing stories and memories – we are going through very fierce contests now, as can be seen in the current struggle over statues and legacies. The maps of cities carry, almost unconsciously, an account of the past, as Walter Benjamin considered very thoughtfully; and he has numerous progeny now in his quest for unearthing the layers of meaning in the streets: Rebecca Solnit is a supreme chronicler of walking and writing, and has compiled atlases that are albums cum maps of personal experiences in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. Literary imagination here reconfigures the territories by reviving memories of this site or that. [iv]
Robert MacFarlane has pointed out that our verb to write ‘refers, via the old English Writan, to a kind of incisive track-making. Thus, one would originally ‘write’ by drawing a point across a surface of wood, stone or earth: by furrowing a track. In these ways, walkers can be thought of as writers, laying a marked trail on the ground in the form of paths, just as writers can be thought of as walkers, laying a marked trail on the page in the form of print.’[v] One trail may overlay another; or it might revive another that has been lost – a kind of secret garden. Literature’s memory work entails choices of figure and ground: what emerges, what recedes. Forgetting is also important; invention, too.
Meanwhile, the accusation of fake news has begun to be flung about. The phrase has become the most repeated insult, quick and lethal, only a finger tap away, and it damages trust in the work of the imagination. Like attacks on the arts as luxuries, it can make us defensive – as tale spinners, memory-makers, auto fiction writers.
Yes, this is very complex territory, but one where literature matters very much, because literature happens in the debatable land of imagined and invented events. However, what can be said is that misinformation distorts and misleads on purpose, whereas stories set out to illuminate, and that it is the intention of lies and frauds to hide the truth while fiction and other forms probe it. The contest for history involves imaginative acts and this tendency towards overlapping states of fact and fiction is growing, among some of the most enthusiastically read writers today. This has happened partly because of the changing understanding I mentioned regarding memory and consciousness and their reliability.
But such acts of imagination also sharpen antennae to truth-telling. The thinking imagination, developed by literature, stimulates a stance of alertness and questioning: what Cave calls ‘epistemic vigilance’.
Many writers, including myself, now teach creative writing, to make money to make time to write things we hope and want to write – this is not always a successful manoeuvre. However, I have found that teaching creative writing is a way of passing on ways of reading. Especially ways of listening for irony: irony as a way of expression communicates thought; and it offers a precise tuning fork for listening out for the designs a story has on you.
When it comes to education in life and bullshit detection, reading is the best school. Remember Proust: ‘an error dispelled lends us extra sense.’
4 Beyond the book… digital visual, acoustic and performance
The internet has changed the world of literature as much as it has changed everything, but the internet is a vehicle – a mass medium, and the metaphors of the net and the web are in themselves misleading, because the digital communications system is more precisely a loom. A tool whose processes produce myriad forms, and weave varieties of fabric – and fabrication. To mistake its current nasty and dangerous products – cyberbullying and Trump’s tweets – for ineluctable consequences of the technology is to mistake the artifact for the machinery, the irrigation system for the water that it filters and channels, or for the loaf of bread grown from the field of corn it irrigated. ‘The medium is the message’ expresses an ideological parti pris, and accepting it now, in changed circumstances of communications, offers a counsel of despair. As Nathan Heller, points out at the end of a strong recent piece in the New Yorker: ‘The urgent project at the moment isn’t adding more information to the cultural file. It is understanding how meaning is produced, how stories wrought from narrow data samples seed and grow in the public imagination.’ (‘Mark as Read’ P 31 July 242017) Literature’s business is producing meaning from the most unpromising stuff – as well as from the great themes of love and death.
The new technology of the web – like the invention of the codex and the typewriter – has given us some valuable, imaginative and truly vigorous publishing platforms – which can weave writing with sound and images too – from all over the world indeed, from that Nowhere that is the country of words –, with a terrific focus on translated works. The possibility of hearing literature – has spurred a resurgence of orality: under the title ‘spoken word’ performers are fashioning a literature that is sounded… writers are moving into the roles of skalds or bards rather than lone geniuses writing for lone readers reading privily. Like Demodocus performed in the court of and Odysseus, hearing his recitation about the fall of troy and his own misadventures, began to cry… or like Aeneas, telling his own story to Dido, who so inflamed her with pity and empathy that she fell passionately in love. These scenes of sharing stories are reprised by the media now… with the crucial consequence that assemblies form around them: some of these assemblies we know are dangerous and horrible: but literature can flow and does flow through those channels too and the citizens of Nowhere are forming into communities, founded in imaginative enjoyment. Among on line magazines I would mention UbuWeb, Asymptote, Bidoun, The White Review – which has a sumptuous print version too – The Public Domain, Babel – I could go on. Newsletters on line spur on interest and help small presses gain our attention: Bloodaxe, Carcanet Press, Archipelago, Ugly Duckling Presse, Fitzcarraldo, and & Other stories. The vitality they transmit is tonic. Their sense of mutuality and spirit of resistance are highly charged, they give off heat and light.
Literature is flourishing – more books are being published, and small presses with distinctive personalities and daring choices continue to be bold and more bold, in spite of cuts to funding and the decline in independent bookshops – more and more people want to take courses in writing– fiction in combination with other forms of expression. The changing pattern of jobs is making the arts more and more necessary, even though as a profession art does not withstand the blight of precariousness. The level of engagement with making literature reveals how much it matters to so many.
Writing as a way of engaging with life appeals at a deep level to the person doing it and to readers who want to discover how others feel and think in order to come to their own relationships and values.
This doesn’t mean that the directions they provide or take are consistently good, intrinsically ethical just because it’s literature. Not at all. Some books are trouble, by design; sometimes, trouble follows, by happenstance, often because the writers are brave and outspoken. That is another reason why literature matters, because it plays a part in the world, it can transform, it can redress, and, it can make things happen (despite Auden).
Books give us our bearings.
The poet John Ashbery died earlier this month (Sept 3), and in a tribute to him, his publisher here, Michael Schmidt, wrote: ‘Now that the life is done the work will go on shaping and reshaping language and the ways it makes various worlds real.’ Ashbery’s poetry tracks experiences– the more inconsequential the better – and in the wry sequences of half-seen, half heard sensory perceptions, he transfigures the banal:
Somebody sends you a bill.
At first you want to laugh. Who said
that everything was going to be a thrill?
Just leave it. The little puffin on the green-
house steps turned around,
annoyed with everything.
OK, let’s cope.
Making various worlds real – through the flashes of the unexpected piercing the dullness – – that is what literature can do. Humour, even nonsense, are bubbling away in Ashbery’s soup. It’s bracing. He has always refused to allow day to day boredom stay that way. He draws on the dynamics of the demotic and plays the properties of language that make it an active agent a phosphorus, a catalyst – beautiful flare, a firefly of light – explosive, unpredictable. As if, from fireflies, you could infer the field.’
We go to poetry to be forwarded in ourselves, Heaney writes in The Redress of Poetry. We can extend the thought to literature as a whole. We discover love and what forms it takes in literature; writers woo us to love what they love … Hobbits, Ophelia, , my uncle Toby, Antigone… and to hate what they hate and to understand in between states – they communicate enhanced and intensified experiences. I’ll blessings ask of you, says Lear to Cordelia at the end. That’s how I feel after someone has come alive to me from a book – blessings – and sometimes, I have learned who to curse, too.
‘OK Let’s cope’ – the voice is wry, deliberately casual, it’s covering over struggles but we sense them, between the lines. That ‘us’ is inviting, reciprocal. I would say this is fair speech, by contrast with foul, it shows us imagination in action.
[i] …le baron, ayant soudain largement ouvert ses yeux mi-clos, regardait avec une attention extraordinaire l’ancien giletier sur le seuil de sa boutique, cependant que celui-ci, cloué subitement sur place devant M. de Charlus, enraciné comme une plante, contemplait d’un air émerveillé l’embonpoint du baron vieillissant. Mais, chose plus étonnante encore, l’attitude de M. de Charlus ayant changé, celle de Jupien se mit aussitôt, comme selon les lois d’un art secret, en harmonie avec elle. Le baron, qui cherchait maintenant à dissimuler l’impression qu’il avait ressentie, mais qui, malgré son indifférence affectée, semblait ne s’éloigner qu’à regret, allait, venait, regardait dans le vague de la façon qu’il pensait mettre le plus en valeur la beauté de ses prunelles, prenait un air fat, négligent, ridicule. Or Jupien, perdant aussitôt l’air humble et bon que je lui avais toujours connu, avait—en symétrie parfaite avec le baron—redressé la tête, donnait à sa taille un port avantageux, posait avec une impertinence grotesque son poing sur la hanche, faisait saillir son derrière, prenait des poses avec la coquetterie qu’aurait pu avoir l’orchidée pour le bourdon providentiellement survenu. (SG 604/6).
Au meme instant où M. de Charlus avait passé la porte en sifflant comme un gros bourdon, un autre, un vrai celui-là, entrait dans la cour. Qui sait si ce n’était pas celui attendu depuis si longtemps par l’orchidée, et qui venait lui apporter le pollen si rare sans lequel elle resterait vierge ? Mais je fus distrait de suivre les ébats de l’insecte, car au bout de quelques minutes, sollicitant d’avantage mon attention, Jupien (peut-être afin de prendre un paquet qu’il emporta plus tard et que dans l’émotion que lui avait causée l’apparition de M. de Charlus, il avait oublié, peut-être tout simplement pour une raison plus naturelle), Jupien revint, suivi par le baron.
[ii] Bruce Robbins, ‘Prolepsis and catastrophe’, in XXXWorld Literature, ed. Paulo Horta,NYU Press, forthcoming.
[iv] Benjamin himself quoted the reflections of J-B Pujoulx, published in year 9 (1801) of the French revolution, who had suggested that new arrivals in the capital might feel more confortable if they found quartiers laid out as their home towns and villages had been: a kind of theme park notion. Or little Serbia and Little Koreatown, as happens in The US.
As Tim Parks writes, in his book called The Novel: A Survival Skill: ‘An enigmatic episode can be a moment of growth, a moment that allows us to become aware of the boundaries and possibly limits of our own emotional world.’ P 29.
[v] from Moment, artist’s book by Alastair Noble, NYC 2013014.