Friday, October 10, 2008

The poet and the plump

George Szirtes has posted thoughtfully in response to a comment of mine on his blog. The exchange was prompted by George posting some extracts from a novella by Márai that he is translating and this is a long overdue reply. The extracts are gorgeous, written in ravishing prose, and they are also engaging and interesting observations on the human condition. I would recommend reading the posts in question to make sense of this debate, but, briefly, the theme we were discussing was whether a small 'c' conservatism could be radical, as in one George describes Márai as a conservative writer. I had quoted from a book that still interests, though it is long out of print, Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook's, The Revolt Against Change.

George commented,
I think Blackwell and Seabrook's point is well made. People who have been bullied all their lives (come here - go there - get on your bike) will feel a certain resistance to still more change, especially when imposed - even by the cleverest, most sympathetic people - from the outside. That resistance can be radical.

On one side of this radicalism we find the far outreaches of nationalism, xenophobia, and stupid, instinctive, short-term, vindictive, lumpen bigotry.

There is another side to the question of resistance, of course. Miners led very hard lives but, in some respects, they did not want those lives changed. It was the circumstances and rewards they wanted improved, not the sense of community and pride in the face of hardship. The hardship was a cohesive force.
George is very acute in seeing that resistance to change can lead to racism and bigotry. It is also one of the forces behind a nostalgia that can feed backward looking utopias, seeking to impose an imagined past, at times with an illiberal brutality and, at others, through a Fox News banality. This is wholly malign, as is the conservative sophistry that seeks to preserve privilege at the expense of others. Yet there is a radical sense and it is something more than the preservation of community, identity and a way of life. Miners certainly wanted improved circumstances and rewards, they also celebrated hardship and cohesion, but they wanted better for their children. It was only bitter times that led them to fight for the right to preserve that hardship as the source of their families' financial security.

There is an old cliché that is trotted out whenever someone in authority is doing something nasty to you and you are moved to protest - "people just don't like change". Absolute nonsense. People don't like change that is not in their interest, they don't like it when it hurts their friends and their families, they don't like it when it threatens their livelihoods. Suspicion of change is widespread mainly because of experience. It is so often the harbinger of hardship. Miners embraced the dream of change for future generations, though they dared not hope for it for themselves. However, George is right, they did not want it at the expense of their communities, but as a way of enhancing them.

Blackwell and Seabrook were writing about a resistance to the brutal, exploitative and transformative power of capitalism, against the forces that tore people apart, and about the softer sorrows of the way in which the social mobility of sons and daughters moved them somewhere distant and remote, pride in their achievement only partially compensating for the pain of absence.

Thus, a radical project is not to simply resist change, it is to be able to judge it, to have the power to choose the change that benefits and enlightens, and to preserve that which nurtures and delights. It is about ordinary people being the agents of change rather than the objects of it. At times, it may signify the ability to make a complete breach with the past. Though mostly it is about adapting and developing the present to make a better future, which is simply the past transformed.

There is more though. George is a poet. He brings the debate back to language. "Writers rely on the precarious stability of language". As with life, with language we are always on the edge of change.
So there is a heroic enterprise after all, and it is not without its radical edge, if only in recognising that the edge is where we live. Language shifts as we shift. It is always shifting. Language is the ghosts down the mines. Writing is a way of seeking the proper way to address them. That is a radical programme.
Indeed it is. Language without change is dead, ponderous, pastiche, kitsch. Yet what sort of change? Is it the modernism that seeks to liberate language from the chains of structure, form and conventional meaning? Is its sole purpose novelty? Or does it take from the past that haunts us, use the forms that we recognise, wrap us snugly in the security of meaning, entrance us with its beauty, before taking our hand to gently lead us into something new, a future, a vision, something better, something modern? That is radical, that is progressive. Above all, it is human.

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

What springs to mind here is the behavious of peoples rather than people per se. Peoples who have been pushed around (get on yer bike, tote that barge, follow that camel) will eventually stand up for themselves. There's only so much being pushed around that peoples are prepared to take. Iran is a good example. Ever since the USA imposed the Shah on them the peoples of Iran have had their backs up. And we all know where it led, or is, even as we speak, leading to.
It seems to me that you may continue to push a people around if you keep them in a state of alarm and terror or starve them half to death.
I've linked to you. Hope you get a Brownie point on your Wiko thingie.
Best bardic wishes,