Sunday, 15 August 2010

Like Road Signs to Oxford...

Assia is described thus:

..the current Susan Sontag figure in the UK literary scene – without the skunk hair; she was blonde – pulchritude and profundity.

And a daughter speaks …

‘George Steiner is George Steiner-lite, Dad’ Steph observed dispassionately.

The reviewer catalogues the undigested reading (‘Raine proves incapable of suppressing his erudition’); and makes the telling point about the narrowest of the novel’s milieu, Oxbridge academia and its literary offspring, and its aspiration to make universal statements, which turn out to be both banal and pretentious:

Crying has its own rhetoric. We need a poetics of crying. When we cry, we assume spontaneity, sincerity, because it’s a process we cannot control… (quoted from Craig Raine’s Heartbreak in Leo Robson’s review TLS 09/07/2010)

Is this the worst novel in the world?

There are worse. However, it may serve as a warning to academics: keep away from the creative arts!

The review reminded me of Raine’s criticism, which I read a few years back: literature turned into a game. Thus Kipling’s If is praised because of its technique – one long sentence that enacts the moral stance it describes. Although an earlier review had decried, rightly in my view, technical proficiency alone – was this a don’s nod to the prevailing popular mood? While in another essay he discovers a vagina in Far From the Madding Crowd – a dip in the Downs, ferns growing around its rim, and moss growing down the side and at its base (though since the dip is saucer shaped, this is quite an eccentric clinical case… ). All very clever, although sometimes he can be right, and illuminating; though often it’s all beside the point, with literature turned into a crossword puzzle. That is, the emotional response of art turned into an intellectual exercise; a real danger when literature and art became university subjects.

It is right both Raine and the reviewer mention George Steiner – both are guilty of crowding out sense with intellectual celebrity. In their sentences unassimilated names and references often stand out like rocks in the river.

We all need influences, but its what we do with them that’s important; of how we transform them to create something new. An extraordinary example is Noam Chomsky, who has refashioned so many thinkers – from Descartes in his linguistics to Walter Lippman in his political writings. And he has done it so successfully that in the latter case the phrase manufacturing consent is now his, not the original author’s. Here is Avril Pyman on Aleksandr Blok, and what happens when someone’s influences are properly digested:

There are echoes from other poets, but they are the echoes of voices heard and assimilated in some early dream: a cadence from a lullaby, a war song or folksong borne faintly on the breeze past the ears of a small boy absorbed in his own affairs – long since forgotten, never analysed but ever present in a lyrical subconscious haze on which the poet is here drawing for the first time. (my emphasis)

A lesson to us all, Mr Raine.

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