An artist should avoid the big themes. They are too vast for him. We imagine Atlas holding the earth on his shoulders when some jester suggests adding the moon. A few gods get together and…heave ho! up it goes. Our poor hero. He sighs. He creaks. Wobbling he slips…and…they all laugh as the old Titan runs after his bouncing balls.
The artist, so much weaker than old Atlas, is squashed by the big themes. Indeed, there he is! transfixed by an enormous rock, which dominates his life; monopolises his view; takes all this thoughts away. Only the rock exists for him. Its weight; his own predicament; the possibilities of escape… This rock! Soon to become a home, a hermitage.
It is the problem of big ideas. When dominating our minds they seem to carry all the weight of the world’s wisdom. In reality they have very little substance. Atlas arrives like the dustman and throws the cardboard box into the bin
Big themes do not have the earthy, fleshy, animal-filled life from which an artist must propagate his own species of meanings. The artist. He must cultivate his own allotment; growing his own metaphors; nurturing his own symbols.1 Ideas, to be truly and individually alive, should be emblems embedded within the texture of a work; cabbages in a cabbage patch.
An artist should never just accept an idea. He should make a problem out of it.2 Only in this way will he understand its essence; for idea comprises change, mutation, flux, conflict;3 these qualities increasing and intensified when the idea confronts a reality that resists it. Reality. He knocks at the door and introduces himself - hallo, I’m Dillwyn, your new window cleaner. Do we say hello, get on with it? Or do we ask a few questions, invite him in for a cup of tea; find out that he was once a professor of sociology?4
If we never talked to Dillwyn…? We will have but a pre-conceived idea about him; one gleaned from the cheap movies of the 1970s, and a few sightings on the street. We’d never guess that such a man could be an academic, an aesthete…5
Dig below the surface - we have changed the metaphor: now we digging a seam deep inside the Sirhowy Valley - and the artist will find that general ideas are mixed with a plethora of impurities. The artist will be as interested in the latter as the former; slag as necessary as coal if we are to capture the spirit of a coal mine. But the artist can never leave it just there. It is not enough to dig out a coal seam: the coal has to be broken down, sorted and washed. To excavate an idea is to purify it; the process as important as the product. When the artist brings an idea to the surface he shapes it to fit the artwork. The coal, dug up and transported to the port and power stations, denotes the meaning of the coal mine; but it is the mine, more encompassing than this meaning, that has produced it. Elizabeth Vogler embodies a conception of the artist that Persona itself creates.
Artists are interested in more than coal. Bergman watches the miners digging it out. He wants to see them laughing and joking. He is in raptures when he hears Idwal compare cutting out a seam to editing a movie: “He’s one of the boys. He too chucks out the slag!” How he laughs and laughs and laughs. Bergman films them eating their sandwiches in the dark; follows them as they ride illegally on the coal trucks back to the shaft; he asks, “can I film in the shower room?” “Hey mate!” “No. No. I want to know if it is true about the eye-liner…”
The big themes. They are an open cast mine. Ripping up the landscape they leave it a desert of rock and dust…
…subsumed into an identification with universal pain…
Here for the first time one registers a Bergman film as the work of a man fully and sensitively (hence very painfully) alive to the pressures and tensions of the world we all have to live in, who has been able through his courage and intelligence to convert a private anguish into a universal witness, while remaining intensely human. He exposes himself fully to the despair and horror that man must confront if there is ever to be possibility of passing beyond. For all the anguish and the sense of deep hurt, there is a marvellously sensitive feeling, at once dynamic and compassionate, for human potentialities, for the development of consciousness.6
This is all very fine, but we know it pretty well by now, so it offers no imaginative release to most people. It is the orthodox interpretation of the Apocalypse, and probably it is the true superficial meaning or the final intentional meaning of the work. But what of it? It is a bore. Of all the stale buns, the New Jerusalem is one of the stalest. At the best, it was only invented for the Aunties of this world.7
The critic will tend to favour the big themes. They are the means by which he can cut out a few clear concepts from the dense growth of the work itself. The complicated is made simple. And we need this… The critic is an essential element in a literary culture; using the big themes like a machete he hacks out a clearing where we, the ordinary readership, can set up home. For though the educated public will respond to the emotions of a literary product - to a film or to a novel - we may lack the cultivated taste to grasp its inner meaning. We need a guide. But there is a danger in our need - the piranha in the lagoon - the critic’s sensibility is often closer to his public than to the artist. Too often he will be a typical bourgeois, sharing their belief in large abstractions - Democracy, Art, Freedom - which are at once easily understood and shallow. The danger is obvious: criticism may become vacuous; a mere imposition of big concepts onto work that should undermine them.8 The great critics are artists themselves; their criticism a new creation that also captures the peculiar essence of a subject; we think of Empson on Keats; Lawrence on Hardy; and V.S. Pritchett on just about everyone.9
[The artist] can no longer…shut his consciousness off from the fact of needless and appalling…suffering; nor can he keep at a manageable arm’s length the possibility that human existence has no significance….
[In] Persona… one can see the whole traditional concept of art - an ordering of experience towards a positive end, a wholeness of statement - cracking and crumbling even as, half-way through the film, the image cracks and crumbles. Breakdown, due to the sort of total exposure I have suggested, is both theme and form - that is to say, it is experienced both by the characters and by the artist, the ‘formal’ collapse acting as a means of communicating the sensation of breakdown directly to the spectator.
Robin Wood delivers an impressive sermon. And there is some evidence for his argument; although it does feel like an idea picked up from the newspapers. We stifle a yawn. It is too easy. This sermon, concerned about Humanity, has little reference to the six individuals freezing in this parish church… He wrongly assumes that when Elizabeth watches a Vietnamese monk burning on a television screen she is seeing it in the same way as himself. Breakdown. Cultural fragmentation. The infinitude of suffering. We fall asleep in the pew. Of course, since most of what we think is cliché there is no reason why this interpretation should be incorrect; many of this actress’ thoughts as banal as our own. But does Elizabeth really look at life in the same way as Mr Wood? We doubt it. Her ideas are almost certainly different. She has got quite specific concerns. Let’s think of one. She is a sensitive interpreter of the human experience who is retreating from the mass media; that great threat to art, with its the intrusive imagery; its crude and mundane concepts that seep into and flood the artist’s consciousness. Elizabeth suffers, not because she is looking at a dying man or seeing a Jew sent to Auschwitz, but because the tv set is switched on. It is not some universal theme of 20th century brutality which this film illustrates, but the psychology of a particular character who is too weak to protect herself against a medium that advertises the ugliness of the modern world.
Mr Wood concentrates on the suffering of Elizabeth. He therefore subtly changes the focus of the film, and so loses its central meaning - the cruelty of the artist. This critic is far too nice to Elizabeth Vogler! This leads to a strange inversion: Alma is turned into the movie’s central character; an inevitable mistake if the superficial aspects of the movie - Alma does all the talking - are linked to the big idea of cultural and aesthetic breakdown to explain Persona.
The moment when Alma, the nice, normal, altruistic young nurse, is forced to confront her own potential for cruelty in the incident with the broken glass completes the exposition of her discovery of reality (the reality of herself) through her experience of Elizabeth.
The assumption here is that inside all of us there is dark and unpleasant reality; whose horrors must be released, if we are to maintain our mental health. It is the fallacy of the zeitgeist.10 Evil thoughts and bad behaviour are not necessarily intrinsic to the human psyche; it is the situation that creates them; Alma’s relationship with Elizabeth turning her into a lunatic. Alma is a nice person. It is Elizabeth who makes her cruel. The genius of the artist becoming, when transferred to an ordinary person, madness.
Our ear to the floor - we are listening to our parents in the living room below - we hear curses, a beating, wild cries; moaning and shouting and moaning and…an ecstatic shout of triumph! Lurking beneath Mr Wood’s prose is, we surmise, a Freudian pike; that having gobbled up all the sexual minnows - sexual repression, perversion, and sexual insanity - is now swimming after bigger game: the commonplace inhibitions of the bourgeoisie. Yes. It is a sorry sight. The prejudice of the times: the middle class hatred of the middle classes.11
The critic sees the destruction, but he misses the creative aspects that come out of the ruins. Mr Wood doesn't understand Elizabeth Vogler. He hasn't grasped her power; her ability to create reality; her magic that makes other people believe in it. D.H. Lawrence, in contrast, is a close friend.
A tree falls with a crash. It grew without a sound.
The critic has accepted too uncritically the idea that the 20th century is a tale of unmitigated horribleness; artists powerless victims who cannot overcome its terrible reality. Like most ideas of this kind it contains too much Behaviourism. Mr Wood forgets that this century was one of the richest in artistic creation; and that the idea of fragmentation was created by the artists themselves; a very fruitful one, when seen in retrospect.
What does Breakdown mean for an artist? Hardly the mere ruins, the sad memories, the despair, of a war-broken civilisation. Mr Wood has forgotten…that amongst the rumble there is plenty of space to build afresh.12 And this is what matters - to the artist.13 We think of Clem in No Directions: during a night raid in the Blitz he sees a White Horse - that old apocalyptic symbol - which he catches and walks to safety. Out of the fire, the collapsing buildings, the violence and madness, trots a mystical vision, which the artist tames and domesticates. Breakdown. It is the beginning of new forms; of new ideas; of new art.
Fragmentation has a special meaning for an actress. For Elizabeth Vogler it means a split between her artistic self and her everyday behaviour; between her own persona and those who lack her self-consciousness - that is, most people. She lives in constant tension, which is a necessary stimulus to her art. Her (psychological) breakdown occurs when this divided self can no longer cope with these tensions; when the pressures of over-awareness, the conflict between fiction and fact, the paradoxical complexities that truth resides in the untruths of art can no longer be contained she collapses. To live inside a metaphysical reality is a highly charged and unstable act; the dangers increased when the artist is forced to live like everyone else; so absorbing the simple materialism of ordinary existence. The elastic expands… snaps.14
And art… The page. The canvas. The stage. These have ceased to be safe places. The aesthetic persona is constantly under threat from the populism of the 20th century; its technology, its scientists, its academics; its popular entertainers; all insist on imposing their own meanings onto the culture. There is nowhere for Elizabeth to hide. No longer can she live inside own specially crafted fantasies.
Elizabeth tries to find a hiding place in silence. Very quickly this space is invaded; first by the doctor, who explains her predicament away; then by the tv set, whose powerful images she cannot resist. She turns it off. But by now silence itself is seen as a problem. It is an illness that requires a cure. No one is allowed to escape the modern world. Alma will save her!
At that point Bergman chooses to disrupt the film. The opening shots, showing technical details of film projection, constitute some warning of what is going to be done to us, but they don’t really prepare us for the shock, engrossed as we are in the narrative. After the depiction of the projector-breakdown, the ‘naturalistic’ drama is resumed, but we can no longer feel in quite the same relation to it: our sense of security has been (like Alma’s) irreparably undermined, and from here on we have the constant feeling that anything may happen.
The critic is in his element, and looks in detail at this part of the film. But before we follow him let us ponder his remarks. What he is describing is actually a change in the relationship between Elizabeth and Alma; one in which the artist comes to the fore; destroying the cosy world that the latter had made for them both.15 In the second half of the film the artist is reborn, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the nurse - a member of the laity - and in doing so she gives those burning monks taking a new and quite unsettling meaning: horror is the opportunity for art, not its negation.
But critics, like scholars, are often banal: obese with descriptive writing they offer only the slimmest of analytical comment. It is why they need the one Big Idea; it is the magnet that attracts the iron-filings of fact.
The relationship between the photograph of a public outrage [the Warsaw Ghetto] and the psychic cruelty between the two women is very interesting: each has the effect, in a different way, of universalising the significance of the other. Cruelty, exploitation, the desire to establish and express patterns of power and subjugation, all play their roles in the ‘hallucinatory’ scenes that follow, on the level of psychic interaction: the roots of Nazism in the universal human psyche.
Nonsense, of course. The Nazis can only be understood historically; we have to know something about German history; the particular pathologies of the NSDAP, and the politics of the 1920s; while some history of pre-First World War Vienna would also come in handy.16 Grasp all this and integrate it into some explanation and… out pops an historical event; a particular conjuncture of circumstances producing the conditions that allowed a few psychopaths to commit mass murder.17 There was no “universal human psyche” in charge of Treblinka. We have to think in much more specific terms. It is relatively easy for a community to behave pathologically;18 it is rarer for individuals.19 Does Elizabeth bring out the Nazi inherent in Alma? No. Alma’s violence is part of her breakdown; which is caused by her involvement with Elizabeth; an artist who interacts with other people as if they were characters in a play. We can go further. Up to now Elizabeth has been an interpreter of other’s work. Is she tired of this? Does she want to create original material? For this is what happens in this summer chalet. It is an artistic experiment, where her manipulation of an innocent woman tempts her to test a situation to its limits; to think: how far can I go?20 So Elizabeth is the Nazi? It is possible, if we associate an indifference to human suffering to both the artist and Hitler’s civilised thugs. But this is to lose the subtleties inherent in aesthetic power, the nuances of creative action, and the constraints upon an artist’s willingness to experiment - Elizabeth Vogler recognises Alma as an aspect of herself. It is to note a few obvious similarities and ignore all the differences. Mr Wood is being rather crude.
Because the critic wants to extract a single meaning out of this film, which can then be applied to the “universal human psyche”, it is natural that he should concentrate on Alma.
Each of the episodes can be seen as an attempt by Alma to master the world of experience Elizabeth’s silence opens up to her, by dominating or possessing Elizabeth, each attempt culminating in a highly equivocal victory which is also a defeat… The episode of the twice-told story extends the idea of human incompatibility and separateness to motherhood. Alma tries to possess Elizabeth by entering her mind and memory, taking over her knowledge of her failure and cruelty as a mother, with which to denounce her. The first time the story is told we watch Elizabeth’s disturbed face registering recognition of horrible truths she has buried from herself; the second time, we watch Alma’s gradual realisation that in taking over Elizabeth’s mind she becomes Elizabeth, and thus is talking about herself - that the cruelty she is denouncing is something within her (the relevant reference back here is to her account of her abortion).
On the surface this might appear so. But when we look through the water… we see Mr Freud’s pike gobbling up its dinner.
Elizabeth’s silence dominates the first half of the movie. Elizabeth Vogler behaving like psychoanalyst, encourages Alma to talk, who innocent of the manipulations in such a process21 reveals her most shameful secrets. The revelations produce an emotional relationship, which makes Alma, who has become dependent upon her silent interlocutor, vulnerable.22 Elizabeth, in contrast, remains detached; she is an observer only. Elizabeth’s single intervention - the unsealed envelope that contains her “medical” diagnosis - destroys this relationship, inducing in Alma the trauma of a rejected lover.23 It is now that Alma loses her control, and then only for a few brief scenes - the boiling pan, the slapped face, the accusations of maternal indifference and cruelty. With this loss of control comes Alma’s dominance, but it doesn't last long. Elizabeth will always retain her authority.
Mr Wood believes words are more important than silence. The critic is talking over the artist.
A tree falls with a crash. It grew without a sound.
Losing herself in talk Alma’s persona becomes weak and insecure. The fragility increased she collapses into madness when Elizabeth rejects her; but by breaking down she acquires a deep insight into Elizabeth’s character, which she now sees with absolute clarity. Alma has become another person.24 She is now the actress that she now abhors. This metamorphosis, pace Mr Wood, is not even a partial victory. No. No. No. It is a humiliating defeat: for her previous behaviour has been given a tendentious interpretation; her abortion - a reasonable action given the circumstances - is wrongly equated with Elizabeth’s cruel indifference to her child; as if the acts, and, more importantly, the personalties that engendered them, are the same.25 They are not. This critic lacks subtlety. He also has a tendency to concentrate on the worse aspects of the bourgeoisie, which he then misinterprets and abuses. Mr Wood misses something so obvious that only a sophisticate could do so: these cruel meanings are created by Elizabeth in her role as a psychoanalyst.26
One day in the 1960s an academic caught a cold. Very quickly it spread across campus; the visiting professors taking it back to their own colleges and universities; to St Louis, to Texas, to Cambridge, Oxford, Heidelberg, the Sorbonne… Soon everyone was ill. This bug has a name: indeterminacy. After affecting the scholars it spread to inanimate matter; infecting numerous journals and heavy-weight academic books. Sentences began to cough and splutter; paragraphs soon exhaust a packet of handkerchiefs; while everywhere the chapters were filled with aches and pains and an insufferable groaning; about how art is open-ended; that there can be no closure; and only ambiguity is true to life. Reader beware! Arm yourself! when reading these texts. Carry plenty of tissues, a box of paracetamols and a bottle of water, fresh from the tap and cooled in the fridge, whenever you take out Jacques Derrida and Paul De Man.
The central idea was a simple but powerful one: the indeterminate work of art exposes the audience to the incompleteness of our experiences.27
The last third of Persona gives us a series of scenes of uncertain reality and uncertain chronology; all are closely related, thematically to the concerns established earlier in the film and all carry us deeper into the sensation of breakdown due to full exposure to the unresolvable or unendurable… Given the universal implications of the subject-matter, the fact that we can no longer think in simple terms about ‘Alma and Elizabeth’ (despite the fact that the characters keep their fictional identities to the end) compels us to feel what we are shown with unusual immediacy, as if naked experience were being communicated direct, instead of being clothed with the customary medium of characters-and-narrative…
…a complete openness: an openness expressed in the ambiguity of Alma’s face as, dressed in her nurse’s uniform again, she prepares to return to the world; the face of a woman irreparably broken or ready to begin?
Mr Wood is walking down Kings Road; he pops into a smart boutique, where he eats some liqueurs with the owner. Oh, is that an original Ossie Clark…? He feels both the material and the body underneath it. Later they go back to his flat. They drink a few bottles of wine and some cognac. Midway through a long snog he nestles his face into Karen’s neck, where he falls asleep. She moves, and he slides off the sofa. After watching him for a while she drags him up from the floor and pats him down amongst the cushions of a gorgeous settee; new from Frederick Raphael’s.
…a long sofa, upholstered in grey woollen material enriched with a purplish thread…
Before looking around the rest of his apartment Karen goes through Robin’s pockets. Taking all the items out she gives each the critical eye…
A breakdown has occurred not because a person has been exposed to the “unresolvable or unendurable” but because someone who likes to experiment on human beings has manufactured a crisis.
Karen picks up “universal implications of the subject-matter” and throws it in a white plastic bin - as if this relationship was anything but odd. As she looks at the vulva shaped opening, she tuts tuts over Robin’s failure to think about the artist as artist; their artistry and peculiar fate.28 Elizabeth Vogler cannot escape from her art. An actress on stage she is also an actress in the summer chalet; creating a Greek tragedy out of the life of an unsophisticated nurse.
[W]e can no longer think in simple terms about ‘Alma and Elizabeth’.
Karen stuffs these words quickly back into Robin’s pocket. Oh dear. Can’t he see that Elizabeth is reshaping Alma’s life; forcing her to reinterpret her past; making it dark, shading it with evil? Karen smiles at her lover’s naivety. Elizabeth is destroying Alma’s innocence, which is real and true; and replacing it with a malevolence that is artificial, is fake; though no less real for that.
The artist wants to be understood; she wants the other person to see, to hear, to understand, to feel, what is going on inside her; this understanding created through a work of art. In the summer chalet Alma becomes that artwork; she is a character in Elizabeth Vogler’s play. And as she performs her role - the role of the artist - Alma sees the world through Elizabeth’s eyes. It is a terrible vision. And not only for Alma. The artist’s power is turned back against the artist. The complex horrors of which Elizabeth is half-consciously aware are revealed in their total clarity to Alma; now given the gift of second sight. This is not what Elizabeth intended.
Reality and artifice. Truth and lies. Always there is a tension between them; the artist forever standing on the edge of a precipice; to which somehow they get acclimatised. But these experiences are new to Alma. Not used to such precarious heights she suffers vertigo; she falls…
[W]e can no longer think in simple terms about ‘Alma and Elizabeth’.
Poor Robin, Karen muses, you are just a critic. She kicks “as if naked experience were being communicated direct” across the carpet; where it hits the base of an angle-poise lamp. Alma is a tragic character in a play composed by Elizabeth Vogler; her breakdown not “naked experience” but a product of an exquisite artifice. Mad Alma is Elizabeth’s creation. Bored with Robin, whose sleeping figure is quietly snoring into a small purple cushion, Karen investigates the flat…
…parallel to it ran a low table on which were knobbly crystal ashtray and a heavy silver lighter. The fireplace had plaster moulding and there were photographs (Karen noticed of one Caroline Gourlay, the film star) and invitations on the marble mantel. The carpet was purple, deep and soft, creeping into every recess of the broad oblong room, flowing under the leather-topped desk that Karen remembered seeing featured in one of the Sunday papers, under the pedestal of the green vase in the corner, under the wing chairs on either side of the fireplace, under the angle-poise standard lamp which craned over the basket chair in the window.29
She sits in the basket chair and toys with “complete openness”. She smiles, nods her head, pulls up her dress and slips it into the top of her panties. Yes, Robin, you are right there; when the film ends we have no idea what will happen to Alma; we are like the audience that watches an actress exiting the stage - is she going to a party; to a lover; to a family; to a cup of tea…?
Karen gets up. She turns off the lights, and leaves.
Daily life is a fragmented mosaic of contingent activity, most of which is meaningless.30 There is some order - our habits, the domestic rituals, our nine-to-five jobs; all reduce and control much of this variety, and give it some purpose, albeit of a low-grade kind. Thus we can give at least some meaning to our existence; and this is enough for most of us. A minority wants a great deal more. Religion, ideology, art; only these can produce sufficient meaning to satisfy their need for a comprehensive, for a total, intellectual and spirit order. Such characters must have an overriding purpose: their lives must be part of an integrated whole.31
When a culture breaks down all these attempts to live an ordered existence become more difficult; for even the clichés - the most basic, the most habitual of our cognitive patterns - lose their meaning. Life suddenly seems more complex and puzzling; creating elation for some, despair for others; and for the majority…? At most, a mild discomfort.
Was the 1960s such a society? In some ways, yes, it was. The culture had a nervous breakdown; and society - or at least its intellectual components - went suddenly mad.32 University students thought their parents believed in fictions; while they believed they had at last found reality (one, as it turned out, created by two artists - Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, with Antonio Gramsci as his youthful apprentice). They were young. They were arrogant. They didn’t understand that cultures are grounded in myths; which are true for as long these cultures believe in them.33 Only when the society declines is its culture seriously doubted; the belief then fades and the myth loses first its power and later its validity.34 No longer thought to represent reality the myth is now recognised as a myth; little more than a story; a mistake; a stupid fantasy; a con job conceived by untrustworthy elite and their “cloud-compellers”.35
The 1960s; an interregnum between the social democracy of the 1950s and the neo-liberalism of today. It was a time when ideas, and particularly those dealing with metaphysics, played an increasingly important part in people’s lives: there was much talk of ideology, hegemony, the social construction of reality, amongst students, academics and the educated classes more generally.36 Something was breaking down.37 R.D. Laing began by talking about social fictions. By the late sixties he was claiming that it was the bourgeois who were mad;38 only those with no pattern at all - schizophrenics, for example - were really sane; and such pronouncements made him an intellectual super-star. Authenticity was a fashionable concept. So too alienation. The young adrift on the wreckage of a culture… Of course, it wasn’t that the individuals themselves were crazy - though some of their leaders might have been39 - but they no longer had a coherent and universally agreed narrative in which to believe. You had to make up your own ideas as you went along. Or, and this was far more common, you accepted the ideas of some cult figure - Che Guevara, Laing, Ginsberg, Deleuze, Murtlock… The times were awash with competing stories; each one desperate to become the new myth; the new reality. The one that few considered - or if they did think about it treated it with contempt - triumphed.40 So many stories! It was inevitable that the story about fragmentation should prove the most popular; for it seemed to explain - rather than just reflect - the reality of the period.41 Artifice was out. It was a kind of theft - it spirited away the pure vision of the uncorrupted mind and the free senses. We needed to get real; remove the junk that is culture,42 an obstacle to finding our true and uninhibited selves. This was the intellectual task: to uncover, like a popular detective, like Miss Marple, the crime hidden behind the civilised veneer of one’s home and village. Once expose the crime civility vanishes, and everyone will be free. And art… Art became just another fiction, which, because it was a fiction, had to go; the artists themselves getting rid of it.43 Intellectuals compared themselves to workers.44 The artists wanted to be ordinary people. Everyone was a victim.
In the William Klein episode of Far From Vietnam a man stands in a street howling a nonsense-chant on the word ‘Napalm’. It comes across as an expression of the rawest agony, as if the agony of the victims were finding expression through the chanter’s full exposure of himself to the fact of unredeemed and most extreme physical suffering. His condition has the helpless abandonment of insanity, and strikes one as perhaps the only valid response. It is not art, but there is a sense in which it goes beyond art - beyond experience that can be ordered and organised and placed in ‘meaningful’ perspective. The true artist, who feels himself committed to being, in some sense, the conscience (= consciousness) of the human race, feels himself increasingly driven in this way beyond what art as we have always understood it can readily assimilate (Eliot put it very succinctly a long time ago in ‘Prelude IV’). Total exposure to the meaninglessness and chaos the twentieth century has discovered (or thinks it has discovered - we mustn’t assume too readily that it is the last word) cannot but be detrimental to the artist, yet no one who is an artist can refuse it.
It is an antinomy: we can only be an artist by not being one. To understand this unique century we must give up, must sacrifice, the artistic persona.
For sure this is what Elizabeth thinks; at least initially. She is to discover that such a sacrifice is not possible: the artist cannot help but create a pattern out of existence. More disturbingly: this pattern - in representing the ideas of the time, ideas that she herself has believed in - will make destruction a new form of art; Elizabeth creating Alma by destroying her (by demolishing that original, innocent, and tightly ordered self). The artist gives “meaninglessness and chaos” a meaning; a cruel paradox.
Meaninglessness as a new kind of meaning arose when artists ran out of traditional aesthetic forms (as the late-Romantic composers ran out of chords, to quote a friend). And because art is so closely tied to morality it was inevitable that morality too should be viewed as an anarchic mess; thus the increasing centrality of outsiders and lunatics in the great art of the 20th century; a sign of society’s pathology.45 By the mid-1960s the wider culture had caught up with this artistic revolution; in so doing it changed the meaning - outsiderdom now became cliché; a new custom, a new aesthetic habit.46 By the mid-1970s a disquieting truth emerged: the radicals were conservatives;47 and it was the reactionaries who were the true revolutionaries.48
For an artist like Elizabeth Vogler to experience meaninglessness is to portray a meaning; a double-bind that she is forced to recognise, and eventually accept. This is her crisis. Never can she escape the self-consciousness of her profession. No paradise is to be found amongst the oblivion of chaos and incoherence.
Elizabeth breaks down Alma’s personality, and Alma is given extra-ordinary insights in the psychology of an artist; their fraught relationship with ordinary people. Curious things then begin to happen… Madness, we find, doesn't remove meaning, but increases it. A lunatic uncomfortably close to the sensibility of the actress; the artist.
Mr Wood is not interested in Elizabeth Vogler. He prefers to speak in Capital Letters: Art; Artists; Western Civilisation… There are dangers here. The personality of an actress of the first rank is conflated with others who are second or third rate; and who, because they lack her talent and strong aesthetic sense, cannot impose a strong pattern on the myriad details of a vast and confusing existence. These are the artists whose art is weak, their work defeated by the variety and the contingencies of daily living. In Mr Wood’s analysis the peculiarities of a first rate actress are lost to a general concept, which will tend to remove the differences; the odd and exceptional winnowed out by a generalisation that concentrates on the average; believed to be exemplary.49 Elizabeth begins with a fashionable idea; but…she makes something astonishing out of it. Out of a ordinary nurse, out of Alma, she creates a talented actress; she remakes herself.
Alma is unable to bear the pressure of this fictional existence, and collapses. She is too ordinary for such a role. She cannot cope with a world that has so much meaning. Habit, custom and instinct is what she needs.
Persona is a conflict between two ways of experiencing the world - the acute consciousness of the artist and the unreflective instincts of the ordinary woman. Elizabeth Vogler wants to escape from her personality; its endless self-creation, the limitless artificiality; a reality without foundation, where ambiguity rules; where meanings are true because they are fictional. Always she must negotiate the real from the unreal. And on and on it goes. At no time will this torment stop.
In the first half of the film Elizabeth tries to live entirely without art. She fails: it is just another performance. After this failure the artist reasserts itself. And how! Art will be no longer confined to the stage; it will make ordinary life - it will make Alma - into a work of artifice. This is her second solution. And for a moment - when the faces of Alma and Elizabeth fuse - she appears successful, as art and life do indeed merge together. It cannot last. Life will not long submit to art. Alma must go her own way; to leave Elizabeth, as before, to negotiate the tension between her artistic persona and her everyday self.
…to convert a private anguish into a universal witness…
So kind, Mr Wood. Too kind! This critic, like most nice people, is apt to be misled by appearances, which in his case is a tightly enclosed, self-reflexive world of fashionable concepts. Thus when he looks out of the window he sees what he has been conditioned to see: Pain; Suffering; Alienation and Despair. Elizabeth Vogler is not interested in these commonplaces. She is a great artist who deals in the little truths of life. It is the intensity of that interest, and her talent to draw general truths from it, that misleads Mr Wood into believing she is a “universal witness”. Elizabeth Vogler is only interested in herself. The critic mixing up the general with the particular, and mistaking an artifice for reality, has no conception of the strange nature of the artist’s inner reality; that odd and sometimes unpleasant mental universe.50 Such a lack of grasp is astonishing. For there are moments when Bergman couldn't be more explicit. This film designed to expose the secret - the images in the prologue and the later cinematic “breakdown” are obvious expository devices. Bergman wants us to look inside; to see the true nature of the artist; their weakness; their power; their genius; their malevolence; their inability to live with such contradictory tendencies; their wish to give up their talents, the impossibility of doing so.
To investigate such characters Bergman sets up an experiment: an innocent member of the public meets an artist. What will happen…? And…can the gap between these two women be closed? Yes, for a few minutes only. The artist is always alone; while the audience is part of a crowd. It is that alienation that affects Elizabeth the most…only to connect. She can do so only momentarily. After each performance the audience leaves and conversing amongst itself happily returns to its familial habitat. The play an entertainment; a distraction, whose meaning is like the exquisite dress, seen in the third row - a silk green shift, glittering with dust-like emeralds - that will be worn but thrice a year. Mr Wood, who shares a seat with us in the auditorium - and was lucky enough to sit behind this elegant brunette, whose eyes he insists matched her costume - has projected the ideas of the theatre-going public onto an actress whose mentality is beyond him.
His mistakes matter. For Mr Wood is himself a figure in the history of contemporary culture. He helped to propagate the myth of the impossibility of art; thus helping to create a zeitgeist where art ceases to belong to a separate realm - today anything can be be art; everyone an artist. The critic has won.51 We see him winning here, as he domesticates a wild and exotic personality. Poor Elizabeth Vogler. She is just a victim of the horrible bourgeoisie; itself now believed to be some incredible creature, a gothic beast; a nightmare by Fuseli.52
Come on. Let’s invite Elizabeth to dinner. She’ll make a wonderful guest; she’s just like us, only a little bit more intense, more creative. What fun! Come on. Come on! Give me her telephone number; her email address…
And Alma… Since art is just emotion set free - mere “naked experience” - then anyone can do it; even a nurse with little aesthetic sense.
And yet… Is this really what we see? Come on Mr Wood! Get that hearing aid in. Put the spectacles on. Look! Listen! Now really look and really listen… Can you see it? Can you hear it? Go on! Go on! Listen to that tree growing…
(Reflections on Robin Wood)
1. Never trust the artist when they talk about fashionable ideas. For an example of the disconnect between what artist says her work is about - the biggest of big themes - and the what it actually does - detail the most microscopic of nuances - see Edmund Wilson’s extraordinary review of Katherine Anne Porter, in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties. The review is extraordinary because Wilson admits this writer’s stories are too subtle to be analysed.
2. For an acute diagnosis of general ideas, with an emphasis on their contextual nature, see Quentin Skinner’s Vision of Politics; Volume 1: Regarding Method.
3. See my A Young Poet Takes His Exam.
4. The artist is now ready to work with the idea. He is Milan Kundera writing a novel called The Unbearable Lightness of Being about a surgeon called Tomas…
Interestingly, Kundera was criticised because his portrait wasn't an accurate representation of the Czech dissidents - it was too imaginative; it had too much art, his critics said. (see Janet Malcolm’s review in The Purloined Clinic; Selected Writings).
5. …we remember Rousseau shocking his aristocratic masters, when he surprises them with some etymology. Servants are not supposed to be so clever, so cultivated. (The Confessions).
6. Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman
7. D.H. Lawrence, Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse (in A Selection from Phoenix, edited by A.A.H. Inglis).
8. Examples are the older critics in Girl of the Zeitgeist, by Janet Malcolm (in Forty-One False Starts; Essays on Artists and Writers). By the 1960s the critics had amassed such enormous power that it was they and not the artists who set the intellectual framework for art.
9. Auden has some wonderful things to say about the critic (in The Dyer’s Hand & Other Essays). His distinction between criticism that consists in knowledge and one made up of insight is especially useful. It is the latter critics who are the artists. To put it another way…
In general, when reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations than from his comments…
A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them. Few readers, probably, find themselves able to accept Tolstoi’s conclusions in What Is Art?, but once one has read the book, one can never again ignore the questions Tolstoi raises. (Reading)
Since Auden wrote there has been a significant shift in academia; with increasing numbers of academics seeing themselves as artists not scholars; their purpose to create new meanings not to increase and tidy up the existing store of literary facts. Unfortunately, many of these would-be artists have no insight, with the result that their “creative” acts are repetitive and formulaic, dependent upon some pre-existing theory - Freud’s, Marx’s, Derrida’s - to inform their critical work.
10. See Jenni Diski’s pieces on Doris Lessing, and particularly Doris and Me. For the intellectuals of the 1960s reality was believed to exist below the conscious level, where it was malign and mad.
11. A curious and highly revealing example can be found in The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. By the late 1950s there were certain middle class individuals who had internalised the prevailing values to such an extreme extent that they hated themselves. Unable to deal with the strain they rebelled; but the rebellion wasn’t for liberty, it was a form of moral atonement.
12. Herzog reminds of how much fun and freedom there can be in a bombed out city (Werner Herzog - Filmemacher).
13. This is powerfully evoked in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. Henry Green’s Caught is an epiphanic celebration of a bombing raid. Here destruction really is art.
14. In The Silence this tension snaps in a different way… The idea saturated country that is the artist’s mind is suddenly invaded by the senses - Anna is unwell, she drinks, she masturbates, she has an incestuous desire for her sister. Unable to cope with this sensual invasion she breaks down and loses her power within the family; her ideas treated as fictions; her behaviour believed worse even than sordid sexual acts that Ester now performs - her shag in the church symbolising her desacralisation of Anna’s intellectual charisma.
15. In The Silence it is the other way around: it is the ordinary woman, it is Ester, who dominates and so destroys the artist.
16. Reading Hannah Arendt’s The Jewish Writings would also be useful.
17. For the necessity of looking at the historical detail in preference to general concepts if we wish to understand specific events we need to read J.C.D. Clark’s Our Shadowed Present. For the influence on Clark and the whole “Cambridge School” of history we should consult Herbert Butterfield’s classic The Whig Interpretation of History:
And the problem of abridgement is the problem of abridging a complexity. It is something more than a mechanical question of what to put in and what to leave out; it is also the organic question of how to reduce details without losing the purpose and tenor of the whole. All abridgement is a kind of impressionism - though the historian may be the last person to be conscious of it - and it implies the gift of seeing the significant detail and detecting the sympathies between events, the gift of apprehending the whole patten upon which the historical process is working. It is not the selection of facts in accordance with some abstract principle; for, if it were, the abstract principle would beg all questions and we should be in a position to impose any pattern we liked upon the story. It is the selection of fact for the purpose of maintaining the impression - maintaining, in spite of omissions, the inner relations of the whole. Great work has been done in this form of abridged history when the master of some historical period has condensed into a few pages his apprehensions of the workings of events, his exposition of their interplay; and has managed to communicate to the reader those weavings of the historical process which make the texture of the period. And by this we recognise the virtue of his history; that in his abridgement he has still maintained the texture.*
* A not particularly relevant footnote. In his Cosmopolitan Islanders; British Historians and the European Continent Richard J. Evans attacks this book as “muddled and confused”. He is getting his own back for Butterfield’s criticisms of of Lord Acton, to whom this own book is (elliptically) dedicated. Evans hasn't grasped that Butterfield’s famous critique isn’t really about the Whig interpretation of history (it is rather like Weber’s famous study of Capitalism, whose main concern is the relationship between Protestantism and a specific kind of rationality rather than the relations between Capitalism and religion) but an advocacy of the specialist against the generalist and amateur; although years later, in George III and the Historians, Butterfield seems to have reacted against the excesses of specialisation, as exemplified by Namier and his school.
18. Wonderfully caught in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.
19. Though Ballard may disagree. But then Ballard is more interested in the psychological theories that seek to explain human beings - his stories modern myths based on such theories - rather than on these beings themselves.
20. An extraordinary example of such behaviour can be found in Strindberg’s The Father.
21. Janet Malcolm describes just how knowing the clients are in Six Roses in Cirrhose and The Seven-Minute Hour (both in The Purloined Clinic). These review-essays, written in the 1980s when psychoanalysis was in decline, is a fascinating example of how a creed defends itself; thus for Malcolm the very fact that the psychoanalyst cannot establish the truth is an example of its success!
By the 1980s the doctrine had ceased to have any definite meaning. It is only the process - the analyst’s encounter with the patient - that now counts; this process open to numerous interpretations, which can float free of the patient, whose own free-associations are no longer believed to be umbilically linked to the unconscious - for by now the patients knowingly create them to please their analyst. Such deceptions seen as a sign of the unconscious’s irrefragable power to hide itself from external scrutiny. That the analyst can no longer understand another person is evidence that she understands him only too well….
22. For an analysis of the process see Ernest Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement; The Cunning of Unreason.
23. Typically Mr Wood soft-pedals this intervention.
The incident suggests the inevitability of pain in human intercourse. Consciously, Elizabeth is not guilty of deliberate cruelty. Unconsciously, however? She does, after all, leave the letter unsealed…
Although he qualifies this statement the intent is clear: Elizabeth Vogler doesn’t mean to hurt Alma; at most it is the fault of the Unconscious; now reified into a demon separate from the human psyche.
Mr Wood’s view of motivation is similarly soft-focused.
There is, for example, the letter she writes about Alma, which Alma reads and interprets as a sign of utter heartlessness, feeling that she has been exploited. One cannot quite see it like that. Elizabeth has shown Alma a sort of half-pitying affection, and has listened to her with a sympathetic attention not devoid of an assumption of superiority - Elizabeth, after all, knows more.
Imagine believing someone loves you, and then you discover they think of you as a patient only. It is the distance - that tone of objectivity - that will hurt most of all. This is wonderfully caught by Thackeray, in Vanity Fair; where it is Amelia’s indifference that devastates the kind and gentle Dobbin.
24. I’m not sure I’d go all the way with this analysis, nevertheless, it is suggestive.
…our later selves are properly to be seen as rather like other people. Parfit is trying to get us to see that in practical reasoning ‘when?’ is much same sort of question as ‘who?’ We should get rid of the picture that dominates us, or most of us, that there is some special identity that one has, some underlying item which is really me. (Bernard Williams summarising Derek Parfit’s idea on personal identity. Essays and Reviews 1959-2002.)
For Parfit fragmentation carries no moral or existential angst. It is the natural and existentially neutral essence of our being.
The existential crisis that Mr Wood describes almost certainly proves that Parfit’s conception is both temporally and culturally circumscribed - to the bureaucratic rationalism that before dominating our culture (since the 1960s) was restricted to a minority of intellectuals and officials.
It also suggests that Parfit has read Hume only partially. Hume too broke down the individual character into little atoms of activity; however, this atomisation of the human character is the product of a reasoning mind that is disconnected from our actual experiences (see my A Broken Fairy Tale and Professional Amateurs). Thus according to reason “who?” is more or less the same to “when?”; but this is not the case with how we feel about ourselves; no, not at all!
Roger Scruton has some interesting things to say about the self - it is a metaphysical entity that doesn't exist (Self Expression in the Age of Instantaneous Communication). So true. It is why reason, when dominated by a materialist philosophy, finds it so easy to get rid of the I.
25. One of the problems of “deep” theories like psychoanalysis and Marxism is that they tend to concentrate on the behaviour of a person, and so dismiss the individual’s own thoughts and feelings that contribute to their actions. The person’s sensibility, which gives meaning to an act, is thus ignored; so creating an overly simple and schematic idea of a person’s intentions.
For a sense of what this means historically compare George Rudé’s Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815 with D.M.G. Sutherland’s France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Once an individual’s thoughts are considered the texture of the event becomes richer and harder to grasp; Sutherland’s work capturing the variety of the responses - and therefore causes - to the collapse of the ancien régime.
26. For further analysis of this role see my The Silent Sacrifice.
27. Up to this time art was usually believed to complete experience; by adding form and meaning to create an integrated whole denied to everyday life. Like Mr Wood we can see this new idea of indeterminacy as a profound insight into 20th century realities. There is, however, a sadder view…
This idea represents the takeover of art by the art establishment. A myriad of academic critics - the majority without aesthetic judgement - have conflated art with the commonplace experiences of ordinary existence; with the result that a work of art is little more than a collection of everyday objects and everyday events. Think of a museum. Art no longer completes life, but is synonymous with it. The results are not necessarily happy ones: often there will be little aesthetic form; while meaning is banal and unilluminating, the work of Andy Warhol an exemplary example.*
* A recent exhibition at the Sainsbury Gallery demonstrated this argument to almost parodic absurdity - various collections of artists were exhibited as art works in their own right. In one case, Edmund de Waal, this was justified, as he arranged the collection to give it a form; in the others it looked more like a bric-a-brac shop in the old Camden Lock. There was even a photograph of Andy Warhol’s New York apartment - there was no order there are at all; it was, literally, a collection of junk.
28. The impulse of perversity in him was constantly working both ways: it impelled him not only to disconcert the expectations of the conventional world by shocking paradoxes and scandalous behaviour, it caused him also to betray his pagan creed by indulgence in Christian compunction. There are moments when we get the impression not merely that he apprehended catastrophe but that he even in some sense invited it; when we feel that, having flouted the respectable world by making an immense amount of money and a conspicuous social success through mockery of its codes and standards, he turned against his own arrogance and kicked wealth and success downstairs. (Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials)
Although Wilson is writing about Oscar Wilde he also captures something about the general waywardness of the artist - they want, ultimately, to be alone; their artistic soul desperate to retain its completeness and its purity. They also have a destructive element; a desire to expose the pretence; to destroy the illusion. No doubt this was one of the attractions of Psychoanalysis and Marxism for artists during the 20th century.
29. The Earlsdon Way.
30. And when it is written down, this is what we get…
What Tatyana had was evidently overflowing life, not literary ability. She was unable to dramatise herself and what she gives you is a long and slow record of sisters and brothers and parents, uncles and aunts and cousins, nurse and maids and coachmen, protracted visits to country houses and social calls in Moscow (where her father was Court Physician and the Behrses lived in a house at the Kremlin). All the incidents, the most serious and crucial, as well as the most trivial and frivolous, are noted down in the same casual proportions that they had for the young girl at the time. The marriage of a servant, the remodelling of a house, an accident on a dangerous road, a saddle that comes loose at a hunt, a cat that jumps out of the arms of one of the actors in amateur theatricals, are presented on about the same level as the volatile flirtations and engagements, the continual birth of children (in those days people had one a year), and the long illnesses and premature deaths that even the best city doctors could not seem to do much to prevent. (Edmund Wilson, The Original of Tolstoy’s Natasha, in Classics and Commercials.)
31. The New Left were very explicit about this; thus the importance of alienation for them. A good discussion is Gellner’s review of Charles Taylor’s Hegel, in Spectacles and Predicaments; Essays in Social Theory. See also my Critic as Clerk.
32. Wonderfully captured in Robert Irwin’s, Memoirs of a Dervish; Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties. See also Anthony Powell’s Hearing Secret Harmonies. Tony Judt, in The Memory Chalet, captures just how quickly things changed.
33. Today’s myth, which grew out of the 1960’s revolt, is summarised in J.C.D. Clark’s Our Shadowed Present. Once a myth is embedded in society the original ideas behind it begin to lose meaning.
An ideology becomes fully effective only when it is debased into the clichés of journalistic exchange, and just such a translation has occurred in Britain. Low-level rhetoric becomes a key to the assumptions people entertain about the past and their relation to it.
The original ideas have ceased have any real existence as ideas. They become things; they become facts; part of the natural landscape, like skyscrapers and automobiles.
34. It was a truism that a British MP represented the whole polity, not just his constituency; represented all the inhabitants, of both sexes, including minors; represented those electors who had voted against him or had abstained, as well as those who had given him their votes. This was, of course, a necessary fiction of government. But it bore more relation to the daily working of government than did the succeeding myth that a man could only be represented if he himself cast a vote, a theory which, in a system of universal suffrage, by definition subjected to a majoritarian tyranny all non-voters, all voters for defeated candidates, and all voters for MPs on the losing side in parliamentary divisions. In both cases, states were effectively run by small minorities; in the first case this reality was less disguised and more dignified. Except for the political elite, virtual and actual representation were equally formal concepts. (J.C.D Clark.)
To see how quickly this one myth - virtual representation - lost legitimacy and was replaced by another - actual representation - read Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic; 1776-1787, which documents the instability of this new concept… the federal state created to minimise what was perceived as its unwelcome and extreme effect - too much influence of local factions on the individual state legislatures (see my A Young Poet Takes His Exam for more comment).
While J.C.D. Clark’s analysis is excellent and acute, and accurately follows the shift from “truism” to “necessary fiction” to “myth”, one can’t but feel that his presentation is excessively ideological - read the passage too quickly and we might believe that virtual is less mythic than actual representation. But this is not so. Both are myths, even if the former does involve less camouflage. A myth - when believed by a commonality - is a fiction that because it is thought to be true is true, at the time of belief. To be clear: a myth, when it is imbued with captivating power, is synonymous with a truism.
35. The phrase is Thomas Carlyle’s, quoted by George Rudé, Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815. The French Revolution, about which Carlyle writes - he is describing Robespierre and his colleagues - is an extraordinary example of how quickly a myth - the myth of absolute monarchy - loses its power. It also shows how complex and ambiguous ideas - such as Rousseau’s - are turned into simple conceptions, around which a myth congeals; such as the concept of a united and universally active nation.
36. It is surely no coincidence that the word “intellectual” started to be accepted as a positive self-identification in Britain around this time (Stefan Collini, Absent Minds; Intellectuals in Britain). This acceptance is almost certainly associated with the rising fashion of the social sciences, whose impact J.C.D. Clark is obsessively keen to dismantle (in The Shadowed Present, and other work); although Clark elides the influence of particularly the New Left on his thinking - as Richard J. Evans notes, it was the New Left that first systematically identified the antiquated nature of British society; which up to then was believed to embody modernity (Cosmopolitan Islanders. See also David Marquand’s The Unprincipled Society; New Demands and Old Politics).
37. Another film that captures this atmosphere is Negatives, by Peter Medak.
38. Politics of Experience. Although, in actual fact, he was a late-comer - see J.A.C. Brown, quoted in my Critic as Clerk.
39. Powell is brilliant on this.
40. And the cult was… The New Right. For the character of its members take a peek inside Unthinking the Unthinkable; Think Tanks and the Thatcher Revolution, by Richard Cockett. See also Adam Curtis’ The Mayfair Set.
The New Right won the economic war. Socially and culturally the results have been far more complex. The liberals amongst the New Right were relaxed with the new morality, first popularised in the 1960s; not so the conservatives, who found, much to their displeasure, that they could not reverse the moral and cultural trend; which intensified during the 1980s, and spread to all classes.
Culturally the rebels of the 1960s won. In the media, in the art establishment, in the academy, the ideas of this decade, although they mutated and morphed into their seeming opposites (like Post-modernism), have dominated the last 40 years; so that even a High Tory like J.C.D. Clark is affected by “the linguistic turn” that made culture not economics the centre of intellectual interest. Indeed, Clark is a fascinating example of how ideas mutate - a left-wing ideological belief that the culture is a constructed fiction, based on economic exploitation, becomes a revisionist account that shows how these materialist ideas are theologically created; thus Clark’s analysis, to give just one example, of how Radicalism and Socialism emerged out of dissenting religious sects (in The Shadowed Present).
Compare this highly critical account of Post-modernism with the more sympathetic Quentin Skinner. Although politically far apart - Clark attacks the left bias of Post-modernism, which, he believes, creates a wrong vision of England’s past - they operate in the same intellectual territory. This similarity confirming Skinner's view of the hegemonic status of cultural critique.
41. But how much did the tv set have to do with this…its endless variety; its mixing of numerous layers of often incongruous experience; its in your face violence? Reality hadn’t suddenly exploded into fragments. No. Not all. It was only a representation by the popular culture, which was beginning to take over and dominate its high-brow sister.
For the slow decline of highbrowism in the general culture see Stefan Collini’s discussion of the BBC Third Programme (in Absent Minds). He is also shows how the popular media turned serious academics into clowns and performing seals.
First with radio, and then with television, it was popular media that increasingly determined the values of the culture, which then began to reflect the attitudes and opinions of its mass audience. Little wonder that the intellectuals should feel that the world was losing meaning. It wasn’t, of course; it was only that their influence within the general culture was declining. Today that influence is almost extinct.
Before the arrival of radio and tv high-brows could insulate themselves to a relatively easy degree from The Common Man; thus protecting their souls from the meaning-light mentality of Ordinary Folk. They could thus enjoy all the privileges of a Brahmin caste. Already by 1920s, however, this existence was under attack; thus Virginia Woolf’s pained reaction to the “broad-brow” satire of J.B. Priestly in the popular press (Stefan Collini; see also R.G. Collingwood’s attack on the newspapers in his Autobiography). Today, it is almost impossible for a cultivated person to resist the intrusion of a mass culture into their life and thoughts.
42. It is useful to remember that Pierre Boulez once wanted to get rid of opera houses. See also Andrew Hussey’s The Game of War; The Life and Death of Guy Debord, particularly its coverage of 1968.
43. This seems the meaning of Fluxus; an elite art group whose ideas where later taken up by middle class students in the 1960s. As Robert Irwin notes: nearly all the important ideas of the 1960s were secondhand; the originals belonging to the bohemian world of the 1950s, which itself was influenced by a different mental universe - of the collapse of Western civilisation during the 1930s and 40s. Confirmation of Irwin’s view can be found in Hussey’s biography of Guy Debord. For a shrewd comment on the temporal insularity of the idea of cultural fragmentation see Edmund Wilson’s A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka (in Classics and Commercials).
And here’s an interview with Sergey Kuryokhin during the disintegration of another society - Russia in the 1980s…
For me there is a definite contradiction between art and creative work. Creativity is a spirit, a liberation from the burden of matter, and when the spirit leaves, what is left is a dead work of art, a museum exhibit, and object of worship. That’s why I think that the real essence of art is to be found outside art, but is contained in the creative process.
44. Nicely caught in Radhika Desai’s Intellectuals and Socialism; “Social Democrats” and the Labour Party.
45. Of course even aesthetic history is not so simple and unidirectional. After both the First and Second World Wars there were highly conscious attempts to rescue something like a religious, totalising meaning; a good example is Eliot’s and Auden’s efforts to christianise Baudelaire (see Classics and Commercials; and also Absent Minds, which covers Eliot’s involvement with the Christian movement, particularly in the 1930s); an effort that appears to have influenced Enid Starkie’s classic biography of this poetic magus. The Christian influence in post-war literature is now forgotten, but is revealed very clearly in Empson’s polemics against it - see the articles in Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture.
A similar process occurred in academic literary criticism with the attempt to create a limited and morally charged canon of great works (Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture by Bernard Bergonzi; and Francis Mulhern’s The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’, which documents Leavis’ attempt to restore a single moral meaning to literature).
All these attempts ultimately failed. The variety, change and dynamism of modern capitalism was too strong; its impulse to instil its own meanings - of success, of use, of wealth - was too powerful to be resisted. Modernism, seen in retrospective, was an old-fashioned defence against the pull of the modern world’s*1 utilitarianism; a seemingly meaningless phenomenon. Art would gather up the fragments, as The Waste Land did, and reconstitute them into a hermetically sealed container - the poem, the painting, Pierrot lunaire - to which it would attach a mystical label; some secular variant of Christian spirituality, like Symbolism; by the far strongest influence on early 20th century artists. Modernism the last gasp of a pre-modern world.*2
The 1960s were the great revolt against Modernism. The increasing influence of this decade’s ideas has arisen because they reflect the contemporary situation; believed to be natural, that is physical and material. That these are ideas only, that even the material things they create have a conceptual source, is overlooked. Ideas are believed to be actual things; so that the finished product - a laptop - replaces the original conception, whose metaphysical origin is forgotten. Such ideas - massively influenced by the corporate sector with its egalitarian cultural bias - by changing the physical infra-structure has made it difficult to recover the old modernistic culture; thus art is now accepted as a mere aspect of life, rather than being separate from it. Institutions created to foster this belief become part of the landscape. To believe everyone is an artist is no longer an ideology, a provocative Situationist attack on the bourgeoisie, it is a verifiable fact; the galleries, journals and the art trusts confirming, by their actions which extend the meaning of art, that this is so. Everyone is potentially an artist. Everything an artist does is art. The problem, of course, is once we reach this point - when anything can be art - art itself becomes meaningless.*3
*1 See Bernard William’s useful reminder that we must separate these terms; modernism a distinct aesthetic movement within the wider social transformation that we call modernity (review of Kenneth J. Gergen in Essays and Reviews.).
*2 Wonderfully captured in Avril Pyman’s first volume of her biography of Alexander Blok: The Distant Thunder; 1880-1908.
*3 See Bernard William’s excellent, and extremely important, distinction between truth and meaninglessness. There are some arguments we can’t prove either way - like the existence of God. In such cases truth is irrelevant; the more decisive question is to ask does the statements about God have any meaning (Has ‘God’ a Meaning in Essays and Reviews). Thus in art, if everything is art nothing can be non-art. All is the same, and there is no way we can make a distinction between the turning on a hot-water tap and the painting of Mark Gertler’s The Red Shawl; meaning has been taken out of the art-world.
46. These habits were already well in place by the mid-1950s; thus the Colin Wilson phenomenon (dissected in Absent Minds).
47. Thus the treatment of Roger Scruton. A word on Scruton. There are times when he appears to argue that the current state of the art world - a world of fakes, poor art and non-art - is a conspiracy of bureaucrats. While not denying the influence of an aesthetically ignorant bureaucracy - Harold Rosenberg in Art on the Edge is excellent on this - one can’t help but notice that the anti-art revolution came from within art itself: it was the artists who created this new aesthetic; now a sad and rather tired vaudeville act; a formula open to just about anybody; and indeed Mr Anybody does use it. As I have noted before, Scruton lacks a sense of the change and development of ideas, which, for him, appear to hard and immobile things; something inorganic, like a rock, rather than something living, like bacteria. The contrast with Quentin Skinner (in A Vision of Politics, Volume 1) is stark.
Collini’s devastating treatment of Scruton - in Common Reading; Critics, Historians, Publics where he identifies this writer’s excessive fondness for 19th century aesthetic forms - also suggests the essentially conservative nature of Modernism, an art movement that grew out of late Romanticism, and which was suffused with the cultural elitism of the professional bourgeoisie; who rose to prominence during the 19th century. Scruton’s attacks on Modernism are really against its later excesses; when, after the Second World War, it began to mutate into something quite different, as the aesthetic and primitive elements started to draw apart, with the primitive element eventually triumphing; to leave the original high aestheticism as an historical relic. During this time there rose up an academic art establishment that over-rationalised this process, and the artworks it created. Indeed, for a period it was the academics who alone defined art. At some point during the 1970s there was a reaction, and primitivism was given a new more popular meaning; and this was the shift that led to Anything Goes! nicely captured in the radical renovation of Artforum, documented brilliantly by Janet Malcolm (in Girl of the Zeitgeist, in Forty-One False Starts).
48. A reactionary cannot make society return to its previous existence. In trying to do so he will radicalise it, by suffusing it with ideas, and so make it new. J.C.D. Clark is a classic example.
49. The reverse is also true - that by concentrating on the differences we miss the similarities; life reduced to a pointillistic portrait of individuals, states, religious movements… J.C.D. Clark recognises the danger, but there are times he fails to take his own advice, as in the The Uneasy Realignment with Europe (in Our Shadowed Present).
A general observation: when a new idea has a compelling power - think of the idea of class in the 19th century - intellectuals and academics will tend to concentrate on its synthetic powers, ignoring the large variety it doesn't cover, ignores or tries to erase. When the idea loses this power, these same characters - now from a later more sceptical generation - apply their analytic skills to highlight the differences; thus today it is widely accepted that class did not exist prior to its 19th century conception; and that this is conception is more a label than a real thing. The danger of such revisionism, and J.C.D. Clark is a good example,* is that this analysis is taken to an extreme and the idea is denied in toto.
*Given the popularity among the middling orders of the values and ideals of the old elite, it is by no means clear what ‘bourgeois’ values are supposed to have been: perhaps, after all, the ‘bourgeoisie’ was only an ideal type, nowhere in nature.
Carried away with his rhetoric Professor Clark forgets the true nature of knowledge - it is a mental construction that doesn’t so much reflect as create nature; the human and the natural. In his calmer moments, he recognises this; thus his arguments for ideology proceeding material changes in existence. And oh dear dear dear: Clark, so passionate in his pulpit, has not stopped to think what an ideal type means. Weber created this concept as a heuristic device to test reality…
…the main point which he uses it to make is simply that the concepts which the sociologist frames in order to give meaning and coherence to the otherwise chaotic flux of history are logical constructions - constructions, that is, of the sociologist’s own adoption or contrivance which furnish a standard in terms of which actual forms of social organisms can be classified and compared. (W.G. Runciman, introduction to Weber: Selections in translation).
Did bourgeois values exist…? We only have to read the short stories of Arnold Bennett to know that they did; although when we do read these stories we realise that bourgeois values are not synonymous with the bourgeoisie; their source and greatest influence amongst the northern and industrial middle classes.
50. For an extraordinary projection of that mental life onto actual, physical reality follow Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Enjoy the pleasures. Visit the ruins.
51. See my Critic as Clerk, which describes how the nature of the critic has changed.
52. By the 1960s Freud was being used to turn ordinary middle class life into a dream. Little wonder that there was a recrudesce of surrealism; which became not a symbolist exploration of the hidden depths of the mind but a new form of naturalism. J.G. Ballard is the master painter of this time.