Friday, August 25, 2006

What Good Are The Arts? by John Carey, reviewed by Bob Mann

In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey offered a much-needed critique of the tendency among nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and writers to dehumanise their fellow-beings while constantly asserting their own superiority.

In his new book he goes a lot further. Looking at the history of aesthetic theory and the pronouncements of philosophers and scientists on the nature of art, he concludes that it is all so contradictory and solipsistic as to be meaningless. In the end, everything is personal preference. If I think something is a work of art, it's a work of art for me. If you don't, it isn't for you. Nothing more can ever be said. As soon as I start claiming that the artworks I like are better, more profound or more universal than the artworks you like, because I am more sensitive, perceptive and intelligent than you are, we are on the slippery slope that leads to the death camps.

Carey's respect for so-called 'ordinary' people, and his scorn for the precious and pretentious, is admirable, like his fury at the guy from Covent Garden who claims that 'opera is difficult'. What is hard, he raves, about sitting in plush seats for three hours and listening to singing? Although I love opera, I agree: in most people's experience of life, it is well down on the list of 'difficult' things: however convoluted the plot, there's a synopsis in the programme; the language may be foreign, but as you can't make out the words anyway, it hardly matters; the emotions are so simple and blatant -- love, hate, anger, grief, joy -- that a seven-year-old can follow them.

And yet...much as I admire this book, I have problems. Carey quotes the appalling Bill Buford to suggest that there is no difference between the rapture experienced by Manchester United hooligans rampaging and pillaging in Europe, and the joy I experience from Beethoven's Ninth. I have to believe that there is a difference, and that my experience is ultimately better and more valuable.

Carey does admit that studying literature can be beneficial, and any parent may agree that if bored sixteen-year-olds were to sit down and read a book occasionally, they wouldn't need to drink themselves stupid with vodka every night (but not being a parent I won't go there). A stimulating and humane book, anyway.

What Good Are The Arts is published by Faber. This review first published in the November 2005 issue of The Finger.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Well Loved Stranger, presentation by Valerie Grove, reviewed by Jack Degree

When, recently, I attended a presentation by Valerie Grove, who was going to talk about her new biography of Laurie Lee, I overheard two other writers in conversation during the preceding hush. The first said that she had reinvigorated her career as an editor. The other, a poet, smiled remotely and wasn't at all surprised. 'In a sense,' he said, 'the act of writing is already an act of editing' - meaning that, before the world has a chance to besmear their texts, all writers' texts come as it were pre-sanified. Since then I have learnt that distant smile myself, and think I might even apply it in what I have to say about Grove and her Lee biography - for that in itself was a huge editorial task. The talk took place at the annual congress of the West Country Writers' Association, in Torquay.

Her whole undertaking was done in triplicate. First (or last) was the hour or so that Valerie Grove, who also writes for the Sunday Times, had been allotted to tell us about Laurie Lee. Of course, she had gone this way before (the second or middle edit), with her book The Well Loved Stranger. It's a tome that touches the scales at well over 500pp, so to what extent did she massage her voluminous material into a brief, one-hour talk?

With apparent ease, is the answer, conveying in one truncated noon the direction, character and ethos of her book, tracing the charmed life of the charming Laurie Lee, from the panache and magnetism of his youth, to the irascibility and slightly jaded view of human affairs in his middle and later years.

Cider with Rosie apart, the essence of his life and career - as a kind of indivisible whole - were the women or Muses in his life, his early rejection of civic norms (he was a troubadour, seven or eight hundred years after that heyday), and the sheer good fortune in the social connections he made (he a humble rural lad). He loved intensely. He crossed the Pyrenees and slept beneath the stars. He sang - or rather caressed his violin - for his supper. He saw Spain in the 1930s, and like so many disinterested Englishmen aligned himself to the Republican cause. Also he wrote poetry - and books, and plays, and turned out hackwork - his emphasis a crafted lyricism in an era of otherwise modish verism. Also he suffered from epilepsy, a physiological syntax he never quite edited out, though he did take steps to conceal it from those he most cared about. All this has been honestly rendered.

Yet there is, isn't there, something unearthly, something supernatural about the whole business of biography, a life like an established work of art as finished, objectified, sooner or later summarised. Anthony Burgess, somewhere at the outset of his own memoirs (vol. 1, Little Wilson and Big God), mused aloud that he had better write the account himself before somebody else did, so subjecting his life to his own choice of filters and interdict - all, as that poet from my opening paragraph might say, a question of editing himself. It raises the question, how does a biographer distil from that unstable and multifarious text - a person's life - the novel-size edition? In Valerie Grove's case, in dealing with the well loved Lee, there was a heap of correspondence, and the views of people who knew him, importantly an autobiographical oeuvre, and, more decisive perhaps than these (those filters and interdicts) the diaries of Lee himself - he the prime editor. Spawned, incidentally, is another set of choices, made by me in writing this, and the way I have sharpened my nib - the pressures and external weights scribing it to one final thought on this whole tricky area of authorial immortality: Is it not all just a fiction

Valerie Grove's Laurie Lee, the Well Loved Stranger was published by Viking in 1999.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology by George P. Landow, reviewed by CP James

Convergent Technology

Or perhaps more apt to the working world of litbiz is what we might call convergent ideology. Grist to that remorseless mill is an expanding universe called hypertext, bringing at last laboratory justification of Roland Barthes ('author is dead'), and that endless teleology in the train of Derrida's deferrals.

George P. Landow, in his study on this subject, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), quotes Derrida thus, asking

'…that we…abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.'
Hypertext, p2

That may be the case (and at certain less privileged strata of society, outside and below the solid walls of academe, that may always have been an aim). Somewhat glibly, Landow goes on to say of hypertext that it 'marks a revolution in human thought', while all along he must know that human thought is synaptic.

Landow likes also to cite Foucault, who

'conceives of text in terms of networks and links. [Foucault] points out that the "frontiers of a book are never clear-cut," because "it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network…"'
Hypertext, pp3-4

and in so doing contradicts in his own and his borrowed words, and not mine, the notion of hypertext as a revolution in human thought. In fact this rather demonstrates hypertext as a reflection of human thought.

Landow goes on to show in what narrow sense he models the omni-vectoredness of hypertext, in saying that

'…in reading an article on, say, James Joyce's Ulysses, one reads through what is conventionally known as the main text, encounters a number or symbol that indicates the presence of a foot- or endnote, and leaves the main text to read that note, which can contain a citation of passages in Ulysses that supposedly support the argument in question or information about the scholarly author's indebtedness to other authors, disagreement with them, and so on. The note can also summon up information about sources, influences, and parallels in other literary texts. In each case, the reader can follow the link to another text indicated by the note and thus move entirely outside the scholarly article itself. Having completed reading the note or having decided that it does not warrant a careful reading at the moment, one returns to the main text and continues reading until one encounters another note, at which point one again leaves the main text.'
Hypertext, pp4-5

He apologises for this later, adding:

'…any work of literature – which for the sake of argument and economy I shall here confine in a most arbitrary way to mean "high" literature of the sort we teach in universities – offers an instance of implicit hypertext in nonelectronic form. Again, take Joyce's Ulysses as an example. If one looks, say at the Nausicaa section…' etc.
Hypertext, p10

Firstly there is nothing 'arbitrary' about the references Landow positions himself at the centre of (Barthes, Derrida, Joyce, later Homer's Odyssey, and Bakhtin, and Keats, and Tennyson, et al. Also I think it presumptuous to suppose that universities 'teach' 'high' literature – persons such as Barthes and Derrida and Landow merely refer to it, in pursuit of the big idea. Most alarmingly (for my money anyway, which in an impoverished authorial state is a dull copper colour), what Landow really means by this is to operate against the very virtues he is claiming to promulgate, i.e., he proposes an academic hierarchy, whose carefully chosen reference points restate the importance of his pet authors and theorists, and by implication marginalise all those he has chosen to ignore. One might quip that his own constellation is a LAN (a local area network) as opposed to that over which the worldwide web is spread.

Occasionally, Landow strays perilously close to the bits and bytes (to the nuts and bolts) of electronic text:

'Electronic technology removes or abstracts the writer and reader from the text. If you hold a magnetic or optical disk up to the light, you will not see text at all… In the electronic medium several layers of sophisticated technology must intervene between the writer or reader and the coded text. There are so many levels of deferral that the reader or writer is hard put to identify the text at all: is it on the screen, in the transistor memory, or on the disk?'
Hypertext, p20

Just so with those medieval scribes, one imagines: 'Tell me, St Jerome – this Vulgate. Is it in the ink pot, on the nib, or does it really exist on that parchment?'

Landow draws historical parallels himself:

'According to Kernan, not until about 1700 did print technology "transform the more advanced countries of Europe from oral into print societies, reordering the entire social world, and restructuring rather than merely modifying letters." How long, then, will it take computing, specifically, computer hypertext, to effect similar changes?'
Hypertext, p31

In my own view, hypertext has great potential to confirm what linear text already tells us, in the shape of all that airport, detective, romance and 'human interest' type fiction, under which any odd enclave of slightly more sentient reading is currently oppressed, and any discussion of which is conspicuously absent from Landow's analysis. Could it not be through hypertext that the purveyors of all this ubiquitous trash will see yet more scope for proliferation? If so, this is perhaps what is really meant by Landow's later assertion that

'almost all authors on hypertext who touch upon the political implications of hypertext assume that the technology is essentially democratizing and that it therefore supports some sort of decentralized, liberated existence.'
Hypertext, p33

Which brings me to my final point. That the world is not a network constructed round the camp-fire philosophising of academics sporting the latest line in bibliography. It is one that is driven ruthlessly by commerce, and it is the needs and opportunism of commerce that will determine the various uses to which technological innovation will be put. I think that the whole issue of hypertext is not so much one of irradiation (where I happen to be happens also to be the hub of the universe, and the nodal links are my access to any point in it) – it is one of translation and multi-media.

To take a last look at Ulysses (as a kind of referential deference to the scholarly Landow): that last soliloquy of Molly Bloom, so shocking to its first receiving circles, shall appeal to the masses nevertheless. Yet this can be only when the good Irishman's words for Molly Bloom, seated on some high-tech storage device as bits into bit patterns, are there to be downloaded, into any receiving DTE, through whose miracle of microchips those innocent pulses find themselves transposed into a picture, into sounds. There we shall see her, in the prurient corners of prurient homesteads, a millennial Molly Bloom, invested with cinematic life, having taken Leopold's throbbing phallus conjugally into her hand, her mouth open, a dull twinkle of inevitability the marital light in her eye… Click, and she's blonde; again, a brunette; once more for that bored clerk in Enfield, a raven and Spanish beauty…

This is not to say that publishers do not see communications technology as an important commercial development. On the contrary. Publishers currently operating through the web see it as a high-tech adjunct to the traditional means of marketing their goods. The corollary of this is ordering-stroke-sales, and the corollary of that is revenue collection. But, the positioning of an author will continue to operate largely through the powerful media of press and television, which can only mean a long and flourishing continuation of those many constructed entities regularly bowling up to collect their Whitbread or Booker prize.

Long may we enjoy freedom of artistic expression! Long reign that wise elder, a free press!