Monday, March 31, 2008

Vonnegut's humanism

It's a shame that people don't read more Vonnegut. He's sadly out of fashion, which is what happens just after you die. People could learn from reading him; far far more than they can learn from sterile discussions such as racism in Heart of darkness, which is still topping my list of referral searches. So here's Vonnegut:

There is a time when humanity takes care of humanity. I would like to hear people call each other "citizen." I would like people to light candles and sit around a table in a special way. It would be a moving thing and make leaders and others wonder. It's easy for armed guards to break up a riot. And riots don't change minds. It just makes officials more determined.

I was reminded of this today when I read the sensible article by Geoffrey Dear on the government's 42 day detention proposals. In it, he states (quoting Marcuse):
the best course for a terrorist was to provoke a government to overreact to a threat by eroding civil liberties, increasing executive powers and diminishing due process by the denial of justice. That allows the terrorist to point to those actions and cite them as proof that the government is repressive.

Governments, you see, can always be relied on to do the wrong thing. And anti-humans can always be relied on to manipulate that state of affairs. Therefore, it's up to us humans to show some human intelligence.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Henderson on MacDiarmid

They had a tempestuous relationship, Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid, culminating, of course, in the famous flyting in the pages of The Scotsman. But there's no denying their mutual respect. This is Hamish on MacDiarmid:

[MacDiarmid's] view of people and human society arises so inevitably from his vision of nature, that had he never written a line of political verse his writing would still be an inspiration to those who believe in the infinite diversity, and the rightness of the diversity of man, and of man's relations to man. And this is something we must understand if we are ever to understand MacDiarmid, this delight in the diversity of nature, and the hatred of all forms of falsehood which try to impose order from above, and ignore or break down natural differences.

That seems a very Scottish perspective to me, a Scottish internationalist one. It's one of those curious paradoxes that Scots, such (at times overly) patriotic people, make such fine internationalists.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Studying Heart of darkness

A few weeks ago I posted some comments on Heart of Darkness, in response to Chinua Achebe's myopic nonsense on the subject. Looking at my list of referrers, it's become quite a popular route into this site. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the most popular search term bringing people here, but Heart of darkness is now coming up fast on the rails.

What disappoints me is that most of the searches are "heart of darkness" + racism or 'racism in heart of darkness' or some variant. Hardly anyone seems to be studying this book as a character study of the darkness of the human soul, which is what it is about. Everyone has been sidetracked onto this far less rewarding and less interesting question of racism. I think it is a great discredit to a fine piece of literature that it has now apparently been reduced to the status of cultural studies text on racism.

Is this how universities are teaching this text? As a grammar of racism? If so, I think that's pathetic. Racism is something well worth studying - the way to defeat anything is to understand it - but to reduce the complexities of this text (and, indeed, to ascribe to it twenty-first century sensibilities of which the author could not possibly have been cognisant)is puerile.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Quote from Philip Pullman in The Times yesterday:

Pullman is clear that fiction that's just a vehicle for carrying other meanings is not very good literature. His Dark Materials is first and foremost a rip-roaring yarn that has engrossed readers of all ages. All stories, he insists, do teach something or make some sort of statement, sometimes despite the writer's intentions. “Stories that don't think they're teaching anything are promoting conservatism because they're happy with the way things are,” he says.

Absolutely! A couple of nights ago I had the misfortune to see Show of Hands, a folk duo, at the Gosport Festival. Well, I say 'see', but I only managed two songs before I had to leave. Two more than I usually manage with them, though, it has to be said. What a pair of self-important, puffed-up blokes they are.

What gets me about them, and others like Coope, Boyes and Simpson, is the simplistic didacticism of their silly songs. The first one was about a Bristol Slaver ship, an absolutely classic target for these right-on, proper-thinking guys. Utter dross. Predictable, boring, patronising, trite. How can you make something so hideous into art so shallow?

Pullman has it spot on. Tell the story, leave the point to come out. These guys clearly decide 'I need to do a slavery song' and set out to write it. It doesn't work that way.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


An excellent review, as usual, by Adam Mars-Jones in today's Observer, of Amy Hempel's The Dog of the marriage. Mars-Jones is one of the best reviewers around, and his reviews are often masterclasses for wannabe writers, talking far more sense than most creative writing tutors (see post a few down from here on Rachel Simon.)

Mars-Jones identifies the influences of Raymond Carver and Grace Paley in Hempel's new collection of short stories. This gives him the opportunity to make a few telling remarks on the Carverisation of language in short stories. However good Carver was, he became a bad influence, "his tone of stoic bleakness spreading like a strangling weed across the dappled lawns of American short fiction." You see it still, all the time, writers writing this hideous, pared down style which manages to lose all emotional intensity in the process and read like Janet and John. We don't want lush, but Lish isn't the answer either (surely I'm not the first to come up with that pun?)

Mars-Jones notes that this pared down style is one which "sometimes requires a disproportionate effort from the reader." Donald Barthelme (no Carverian, of course) once remarked that he expected his readers to work hard. Fair enough, but don't be surprised if they fuck off and do something more immediately rewarding. The trouble, for me, arises when the stories start to reek of artifice. Mars-Jones identifies, in both Carver and Hempel, instances where the reality of a situation is artificially withheld. At its best (and Mars-Jones rightly cites Hemingway's Hills like white elephants as a classic example) it can work, but if it sounds, as it so often does, like an exercise in authorial control, then it fails because it pulls the reader out of the fictive dream. There is a barrier between writer and reader, one deliberately created by the writer to see how clever the reader is, and the reader, not unnaturally, becomes resentful.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Common traps for writers"

As a displacement activity to avoid actually doing any writing, I've been reading other people trying to tell me how to write. I came across this article, by Rachel Simon, who is the "Author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and the forthcoming memoir tentatively titled Building a Home With My Husband." That 'tentatively says something, doesn't it...

Anyway, the advice. Mostly good sound stuff, if a little predictable (but then, writing isn't that difficult, is it, when you boil it down to its basics; it's its very simplicity that makes it so damned difficult.) But this bit, on show and tell, struck me:
The apprentice writer tells us a character is nervous by saying, "He was nervous." The advanced writer shows it. Example: "As he raised the fork to his lips, his hands trembled, a rattling beat that matched his careening pulse. Without a word he set the fork down and dropped his fingers to his lap, praying that he had managed to keep his mother-in-law from seeing."

Create a picture in the reader's mind by showing instead of telling. Another example: "Andrea was alone in the waiting room." Dullsville. Try: "In the waiting room, Andrea checked her makeup in her lipstick mirror, reached beneath her dress to straighten her slip, and, with a quick glance to affirm that the secretary had not returned, tugged up her sagging pantyhose."

Absolute horseshit. There's more crap written about show and tell than any other part of the writing process, and more beginner writers have been given crap advice than have ever got into print. There's nothing wrong with saying "He was nervous." He was. Three little words explained it. The reader now knows this. Instead, Rachel Simon gives us a hysterically padded piece of nonsense, dragging out a completely trivial scene - who cares about him trying to eat, is it a story about eating? - with overblown and overwritten detail - a 'careening pulse'? - just so she can avoid saying "he was nervous."

And then the second example. "Andrea was alone in the waiting room." Perfectly decent sentence. Sets the scene admirably. What do we get instead? Some drivel about makeup and dress, culminating in a ludicrous mention of pantyhose which immediately drags the scene into farce. Pantyhose is a comedy word; it is low register, it can't be taken seriously. So, unless the writer wants the reader to think this is going to be a silly digression, then this example completely fails to convey anything meaningful.

It's an absolute obsession with people who think they know something about writing, this nonsense about show not tell. You see it all the time in stories, the elaborate lengths writers will go to in order to "suggest" to the reader some emotion or other. Just say it and move on with the story.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Wheatfield with crows, obscured by a pillar

I was in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the other week and, of course, looked forward to viewing my favourite Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows. Normally, it is upstairs on the right, in a fine, bright spot, uncluttered, with good, clear views.

However, they've moved it. And what an absolute boorach they've made of it. They couldn't have hung it in a worse place if they'd tried, short of a leaky wall in the boiler room, maybe. What on earth were they thinking about?

It's behind a bloody pillar, for one thing. No views of it from a distance, so you can get the idea that it's significant and come upon it steadily, with rising expectation (think The Night Watch in the next door Rjiksmuseum, for example). No logical flow of paintings, leading the observer to this cataclysmic moment in Van Gogh's life. No logic, no sense, no beauty. It's a disgrace.

This painting is not, as is often suggested, his last. But it is clearly one of the last and, with its low, black crows, is as mournfully and frighteningly portentous as anything I've ever seen. This, you understand immediately, is a climax. But in the Van Gogh museum it is now in the middle of a random selection of paintings. A couple down is another wheatfield painting, but this one light and open and happy - clearly, self-evidently a view and an emotion BEFORE the Wheatfield with crows. Had it been placed in its proper context, before Wheatfield, it would have added so much extra power and resonance. Here, it diminishes it.

I find it extraordinary that a gallery which is devoted to Van Gogh should make such a shambles of showing one of his most significant paintings.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Writerly use of language

Below, I've quoted Don DeLillo with some good, naturalistic language from Falling Man. It's an odd novel. Parts of it are very telling, parts so-so and parts are pretty awful. In particular, the description of Mohammed Atta, one of the terrorists, is unconvincing. It feels very measured, controlled. It feels like someone writing about detachment, rather than genuine detachment. For example:

The weight loss had come in Afghanistan, in a training camp, where Hammad had begun to understand that death is stronger than life. This is where the landscape consumed him, watefalls frozen in space, a sky that never ended. It was all Islam, the rivers and streams. Pick up a stone and hold it in your fist, this is Islam. God’s name on every tongue throughout the countryside. There was no feeling like this ever in his life. He wore a bomb vest and knew he was a man now, finally, ready to close the distance to God.

Don DeLillo. Falling man. p. 172

It doesn’t come close to striking the right tenor. It doesn’t feel remotely like the mind of a fanatical religious fundamentalist. Parts of it feel as though they have been taken from Islamist texts, and could therefore feel realistic, but they are followed by writerly, impressionistic ideas quite at odds with the stark-eyed certainty of those sections. For example, the notion that he might come to understand that ‘death is stronger than life,’ is good, feels realistic. But it is immediately followed by an image of ‘waterfalls frozen in space, a sky that never ended,’ which is the voice of a writer. Even the final notion, that he ‘was ready to close the distance to God,’ does not feel genuine: it feels like a writer pretending. You can see the joins.

Naturalistic use of language

Over in Boot Camp, where I learn my writing craft, we're having a discussion just now about writing styles. I quoted this, from Don DeLillo's Falling Man, describing the moments after the first plane had crashed into the Twin Towers:
He began to lift, his face warm with the blood on Rumsey's shirt, blood and dust. The man jumped in his grip. There was a noise in his throat, abrupt, a half second, half gasp, and then blood from somewhere, floating, and Keith turned away, hand still clutching the man's belt. He waited, trying to breathe. He looked at Rumsey, who'd fallen away from him, upper body lax, face barely belonging. The whole business of being Rumsey was in shambles now. Keith held tight to the belt buckle. he stood and looked at him and the man opened his eyes and died.

This is when he wondered what was happening here.

This, I thought (and think) is a good example of sparse writing. We have a bit of a tendency within Boot Camp to try to write like this - aftercarveritis, it might be called, but we often get it badly wrong and it comes out like Janet and John writing - "I did this. I did that. She did that. I didn't like that." And so on...

We agreed that this is a decent example of decent writing, although Alex suggested ways it could be improved. Nancy provided another quote - from Philip Roth's Everyman:
He was in the hospital for thirty days. The nurses were mostly agreeable, conscientious young women with Irish accents who seemed always to have time to chat a little when they looked in on him. Phoebe came directly from work to have dinner in his room every night; he couldn't imagine what being needy and infirm like this and facing the uncanny nature of illness would have been like without her. His brother needn't have warned him not to let her go; he was never more determined to keep anyone. Beyond his window he could see the leaves of the trees turning as the October weeks went by, and when the surgeon came around he said to him, 'When am I going to get out of here? I'm missing the fall of 1967.' The surgeon listened soberly, and then, with a smile, he said, 'Don't you get it yet? You almost missed everything.'

Wow! Isn't that even better than the DeLillo? The way it flows. The naturalness of it, the way everything has a point. Take the turning leaves, for example. How often do you read completely pointless descriptions of weather or seasons? Here it provides a bit of colour, a bit of freshness to the language, but it also means something. It tells us something important.

And, as Alex noted, look at the pacing of this extract, how it is a crescendo rising to that ending. As Alex says, "the best writing is brilliantly invisible." What better description could there be of that Roth passage?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Racism in Heart of darkness

Is Heart of darkness an irredemably racist novella? And, if so, does that mean it cannot be considered a work of art? Chinua Achebe believes so. I believe Chinua Achebe to be wrong. Heart of darkness is a masterpiece which is as profound as anything you are likely to read because it never settles, never leaves the reader with easy solutions. It confronts. Certainly, it gives us a view of the heart of darkness, but this is not the genius of the story. Its genius resides in its approaches towards that heart of darkness, because, like life, these approaches are everywhere obscured by ambivalence. It is this ambivalence which is, to me, the true horror: realisation, after all, is always worse than actualisation: it is the knowledge that wounds first and worst; the knife merely confirms it in steel and blood. We are all capable of darkness, Conrad is telling us. We are all capable of wielding the steel.

Achebe quotes Conrad's use of words such as 'inscrutable,' 'incomprehensible' and 'unspeakable' and refers to F.R. Leavis's consideration of Conrad's 'adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.' This, Achebe suggests, is part of a 'bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery.' This, I would argue, is almost sophistry, implying a layer of emotion which simply isn't there. Moreover, he then goes on to say that Conrad does this because it guarantees 'not to put him in conflict with the pyschological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance.' This is unacceptably mischievous: Achebe has no right to ascribe such judgements to the hundreds of thousands of readers of this novel over the five or six generations since its publication. Racism resides in lazy judgements.

While accepting that Conrad has a stylistic tic which leads to the overuse of words like 'inscrutable' and 'unspeakable,', I do not accept that this suggests an inherent racism. These words are not meant pejoratively: rather, they echo, again, the ambivalence which is at the core of this work. Conrad is not a lazy author and does not reward lazy readers: there are no easy answers in the understanding of civilization and barbarism. It is not black and white, either literally or metaphorically. Good and bad do not reside on opposite poles. That is the point of this novella.

Achebe quotes at length the following passage:

And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam gauge and the water gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity – and he had filed his teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.

Oddly, however, having quoted at such length, Achebe barely discusses any meaning from this passage: it is clearly self-evident in his eyes - racist to the core. Not so. Yes, indeed, the comparison with a 'dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat' is unpleasant, but is that passage, in its entirety (and, since Achebe quotes it in its entirety, let's discuss it thus) entirely negative about the fireman? No, it is not. He was 'an improved specimen.' On a scale of negativity, that might be described as merely patronising. He is a 'really fine chap.' That must be construed as being on the positive scale. There follow some descriptive passages and we are informed that he is 'hard at work' and 'full of improving knowledge.'

It is these latter descriptions which interest me. In Victorian through to Edwardian times, civilisation was measured by education and learning. Indeed, it may even be traced back to Rousseau, albeit in a qualified way in his case: 'education is wasted on the educated,' seems to be Rousseau's thinking at times. But nonetheless it is this element of progress, of change, of making a difference that is important. Achebe may argue that this, too, is patronising and racist: the 'white man' teaching the 'savage,' but, if you are arguing from the point of view of the text and not preconception, then this is not valid. Consider the white characters in this story: consider how much they learn, or how much Conrad suggests they are progressing or changing or acting in some way to improve their lives? Kurtz, dying an ignominious death? The fools shooting at shadows in the jungle? The harlequin with his completely useless, but copiously annotated manual of seafaring? Kurtz's grieving belle back in England, fooling herself about her lover and his intentions? Which character is specifically described as 'learning'? The fireman.

Achebe then goes on to describe in disparaging detail Conrad's depiction of Kurtz's Amazonian lover. She is, according to Achebe, 'in her place,' and she is a 'savage counterpart to the refined, European woman with whom the story will end.' Achebe suggests that Conrad bestows 'human expression' on the white woman and not on the black. This is wilful misreading of the text. Consider this description of the Amazon:
She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

Does that not conjure a magnificent depiction of a proud, deeply impressive woman? Compare it to the pathetic self-deception with which the white woman receives Marlow's lie about her name being his last word:
"I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it -- I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head.
Which woman is described more nobly, the black or the white? There is no contest.

This description of Kurtz's white lover is the moment of utter genius in Heart of Darkness. We know, of course, Kurtz's last words: 'The horror, the horror.' But Marlow chooses to lie to the grieving woman because to do otherwise: 'would have been too dark... To dark altogether.'

Achebe, in his determination to pull at Conrad's racist shirt-tails, becomes oblivious to the majestic way that Conrad toys with his theme, the way he refuses to allow anything simple or trite to interfere. Achebe reads the descriptions of the two women in quite the wrong way; but, much worse than that, he completely misses the underlying message that Conrad is conveying. Ambivalent to the end, Conrad allows us no easy conclusion. Marlow lies, leaves the grieving woman to her self-deception. In so doing, what is Marlow's point, and what is the result? Does this provide him with some form of redemption, or does it lower him – again – to the level of duplicity of that dark, dark soul, Kurtz?

These are the questions we should be debating with this novel.