For Art’s Sake?

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I’ve been neglecting this blog recently: too busy keeping up with too much reading for the Campbell Award. It’s frustrating, I’ve got a couple of biggish things in my mind to write here, and by the time the decks are clear enough to do so I’m sure the inspiration will have faded, or I’ll have forgotten why on earth I wanted to write about that.

But here’s a brief thought, as a place holder if nothing more.

The first episode of Civilizations has Simon Schama talking about the origins of human art, and eventually he comes down to something like: “This is art because it is beautiful!” It’s the sort of floundering generalization we all make at some time or other: art equals beauty, art is the creation of beauty, if it’s beautiful it must be art. And yes, some art, quite a lot of visual art, is beautiful. But not all. Some art is ugly, deliberately so; some art is making a point or telling a story, and whether or not it is beautiful is irrelevant to whether it is art; and our ideas about what constitutes beauty change in ways that our ideas of what constitutes art do not change.

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has an interesting article by John Banville about Oscar Wilde. Inevitably it raises the idea that first came to prominence among the exquisites, the belle lettrists, the romantics of the late-Victorian age: Art for Art’s sake. It is a resonant phrase that was still current in my youth, and for all I know is still current in some artistic quarters today. It is, of course, an abdication; it is Walter Pater and the aesthetics, and their peers and descendants throwing up their arms in defeat and crying: we don’t know what art is and we don’t know what it’s for, but we know it should be for something. (Following Carlyle, the Victorians were great believers that everything should be for some social or moral good, a viewpoint we’ve still not shaken off.) So, art is its own purpose.

But that is surely missing the point. Art is many things. It is the glorious and tiny carved female head that Schama was looking at when he declared: this is beautiful and therefore this is art. It is the song I haltingly pick out on my guitar. It is the seering dystopian novel I am currently reading. It is the broad comedy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is painting and scrimshaw and poetry and dance and film and theatre and prose and …

And just as there is nothing that binds these various forms into a whole (they are certainly not all beautiful), so there is no one reason why we engage in creating or consuming these various arts. Yes, we might want to create beauty, or it is to exercise a skill, or to make a political point, or to express a spiritual belief, or to make money, or all of these or none of them.

I said, long ago, that science fiction is indefinable because it is not one thing, though the various strands that make up science fiction are loosely linked by family resemblances. That is an idea I stole from Ludwig Wittgenstein who argued, in Philosophical Investigations, that sport is indefinable because it is not one thing, but various sports are loosely linked by family resemblances. And the same, surely, is true of art. We shouldn’t try and define art because it is indefinable, it is not one thing. A painting, such as Philip Evergood’s “Dance Marathon” from 1934, may have family resemblances to a film, such as Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? from 1969; but there are other things (not least the medium) that divide them.

And this is a good thing. All these things, art and sport and science fiction, are the more interesting precisely because they are so malleable, so imprecise, so various. There are as many science fictions as there are readers and practitioners of the form; there are as many sports as there are sports people and spectators; there are as many arts as there are artists and writers and film makers and photographers and people who enjoy and appreciate and benefit from these paintings and stories and movies and pictures. That is why art is so important to us; because in all its multifarious forms it is never speaking to the many but to the one, to me. And it speaks in many languages. You and I may experience the same piece of art, and what it says to you cannot be precisely what it says to me.

That is why it is art. That is what art is for: not for its own sake, not for any quantifiable social benefit, not for any religious or political purpose, but because in art something expressed to the many speaks uniquely to me.

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Iain Banks Chronologies

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I’ve just now needed to look back at something I wrote in Iain M. Banks, and I was reminded again how complex the chronology of his work is. The order in which his books were published is not the same as the order in which they were composed, and both differ again from the internal chronology of the Culture sequence.

So here, just for the record, and just to keep things clear in my own mind, are the three chronologies (for extra clarity, I’ve highlighted the Culture novels):

Order of composition

The Top of Poseidon (unpublished)
The Hungarian Lift-Jet (unpublished)
The Tashkent Rambler (unpublished)
Use of Weapons
Against a Dark Background
The State of the Art
The Player of Games
The Wasp Factory
Consider Phlebas
Walking on Glass

O (unpublished)
The Bridge
Espedair Street
Canal Dreams
The Crow Road
Complicity
Feersum Endjinn
Whit
Excession
A Song of Stone
Inversions
The Business
Look to Windward
Dead Air
Raw Spirit
The Algebraist
The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Matter
Transition
Surface Detail
Stonemouth
The Hydrogen Sonata
The Quarry

Note the long gap, more than a decade, between writing Consider Phlebas and the next Culture novel, Excession. The gap doesn’t look so huge when you consider the next chronology:

Order of Publication

The Wasp Factory (1984)
Walking on Glass (1985)
The Bridge (1986)
Consider Phlebas (1987)
Espedair Street (1987)
The Player of Games (1988)
Canal Dreams (1989)
The State of the Art (novella, 1989)
Use of Weapons (1990)
The Crow Road (1991)
The State of the Art (collection, 1991)
Against a Dark Background (1993)
Complicity (1993)
Feersum Endjinn (1994)
Wilt (1995)
Excession (1996)
A Song of Stone (1997)
Inversions (1998)
The Business (1999)
Look to Windward (2000)
Dead Air (2002)
Raw Spirit (2003)
The Algebraist (2004)
The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)
Matter (2008)
Transition (2009)
Surface Detail (2010)
Stonemouth (2012)
The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)
The Quarry (2013)

Here, the long gap in the composition of Culture novels is less apparent, but what does become noticeable is the stutter in the first decade of this century, when various personal issues broke up the smooth sequence of a book a year.

But the order in which the various Culture novels should be read is different again:

Internal chronology of the Culture novels

Consider Phlebas
Excession (500 years later)
The State of the Art (100 years later)
Matter (60 years later)
The Player of Games and Use of Weapons (both around 55 years later)
Look to Windward (75 years later)
The Hydrogen Sonata (200 years later)
Surface Detail (500 years later)

The whole sequence, therefore, covers some 1,500 years. These time periods can be calculated from internal evidence, usually references to the war in Consider Phlebas, (for instance, Look to Windward is built around the 800th anniversary of the war) though there are direct connections between The State of the Art and Use of WeaponsInversions is the one Culture novel that does not have any obvious dating information.

 

Saussure, Shklovsky and Me

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Way back in the dim and distant days of Livejournal (okay, 2009), I decided I needed to read up a little more on literary theory. I had read a bit, but in a disorganized, unstructured way. I have never actually studied Theory.

So, one day when I was suffering a particularly enervating head cold (I’m not sure if that is pertinent or not), I decided I would read through David Lodge’s anthology, Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. And to maintain my interest, I thought I would blog about each piece as I read it.

The experiment didn’t last long. I read and wrote about the extracts from Ferdinand de Saussure and Victor Shklovsky, but I got bogged down in the two extracts from Roman Jakobson, and besides at that time I had other things on my mind. So I put Lodge’s anthology to one side, always meaning to pick it up again when time allowed.

Then, once I copied the two posts over to this blog when it was new in 2011, I started noticing an odd thing. Those two posts were consistently popular. In fact the post on Saussure is the third most visited post on this blog, Shklovsky is not far behind as the fifth most visited post. And it is not just that a lot of people have read them, it is that the visits are consistent, a regular trickle of visitors throughout the year, but with a noticeable increase in interest during the autumn and again early in the New Year. If you look at the search terms that bring people to this blog by far the most popular terms (that is, some variant on these terms will show up at least once a week and a certain times of the year once a day) are “theory and saussure” and “theory and shklovsky”.

In other words, every term poor benighted students are being introduced to literary theory and are frantically googling for any help they can get in mastering these rather offputting ideas. And they end up with me! Good heavens, I can see myself being cited in undergraduate essays around the globe, to the evident mystification of the tutors.

My immediate reaction to this is: for goodness sake, NO! I know nothing about these people. I have read nothing beyond the brief extracts in Lodge’s book. At best, what I have written is a lightning-flash glimpse of some tiny fraction of their work, not a considered or informed response to their ideas in total. I am an amateur; this is an immediate response to a first encounter.

Yet still they come. I am in the middle of one of the periodic explosions of interest in Saussure. Shklovsky will doubtless follow in the next week or so.

Which is why I now feel I can never go back to Lodge’s anthology.

 

Oblong

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the dreams of bethany mellmothWilliam Boyd, of course, would never think of giving one of his books such a dull title. Would he? But several times during the course of his new collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, one or other of his characters will have written a novel, or a film script, or some such endeavour, called Oblong. It is clearly a joke, but not a very funny one.

The real joke is that Oblong would probably have been an appropriate title for the collection. It would, at least, suggest something of the continuity between the stories that he seems to be striving towards but signally fails to achieve.

These are, after all, virtually without exception, stories about novelists, film makers, art dealers, or would be members of such professions. Boyd has, himself, of course, experience in all three areas, so there is an insider feel to much of what we get here. But insider feel alone is not enough.

I hold Boyd in high esteem, he has remained one of the most consistent and reliable of the novelists of that generation. While some of his contemporaries, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, have become dull or irrelevant or self-satisfied, his work has tended to remain fresh, engaging, and well worth reading. Some of his novels (I would pick The New Confessions, The Blue Afternoon, Any Human Heart, and Sweet Caress) are, I think, particularly good. What makes them good is that Boyd is interested in story; there is always a strong plot thread running through his work which keeps us interested in the drama of what we are being told. Which may be why he is also so effective as a screenwriter and even as a director. The cross-over effect is obvious in his fiction not in the usual way, the jump cuts and dialogue that can make so many recent novels read more like film scripts, but in the way he focuses, the way small things acquire significance.

Unfortunately, he has never carried those talents into his short fiction (there is one exception in this collection, but it is an odd exception and I will come to that later). This is the third or fourth of his five short story collections that I have read (if I read On the Yankee Station it was so long ago that I have forgotten all details, hence the hesitation; the collection, The Dream Lover, I know about only because it is listed with his other works in this volume, I don’t recall ever even seeing a copy). And I think the fact that I persist is a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience: I always expect better of Boyd, I am always disappointed.

Boyd simply seems to have forgotten the importance of story in stories. Instead he indulges in some overly familiar formal literary experimentation. One story of a relationship is told backwards from break-up to first meeting, adding nothing to the countless times we have seen exactly the same thing before. There’s a story told in diary entries, in which each of the diarists witness the same event, interpret it differently, and never fully understand what actually happened. Another story is told entirely through unsent letters. Actually this one is curious, an opportunity missed. Epistolary fiction is, of course, just about as old as English Literature, so the fact that the letters are unsent seems like a novelty, giving vent to rage and frustration. However, so much of the short fiction here is built around that good old typically English emotional experience, embarrassment; so if the letters had been sent the story could have acquired another emotional level as the author then rowed frantically back on his accusations and self-justifications. Maybe not; my thoughts turned this way only because I found the unsent letters themselves so unsatisfactory as a story.

When he is not playing with form, Boyd’s stories tend to be concatenations of vignettes that are vaguely linked without ever really seeming to form a whole. The prime example here is the longest piece in the book, the novella, “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth”, which describes a series of brief encounters over two years in the life of a young woman. Bethany drifts from boyfriend to boyfriend, doomed to be disappointed by each one in turn and head back home to mother. She drifts from dead-end job to dead-end job, usually acquired through her mother who seems to be extraordinarily rich and well connected (this is not unusual, most of the stories are about rich and well-connected people, or people who move freely in such circles; it is an achingly middle class book). She drifts from artistic aspiration to artistic aspiration: at various times she is going to be an author, an actress, a photographer, a singer, without ever making much effort to pursue these aspirations. And at the end she drifts away from the story, and we re left to wonder what that was all about.

Occasionally, Boyd seems to respond to some atavistic memory that there is supposed to be story in here somewhere. Thus in “Humiliation” a novelist gets revenge on the critic who savaged his latest book by feeding the critic a tainted oyster, which somehow feels more petty than dramatic.

In all of this, Boyd remains a fine writer. On a sentence-by-sentence level the work is engaging; the problem is that the sentences don’t seem to add up to anything. But there is, as I said, an exception: the very last piece in the book, a novelette called “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure …”, which, after what had gone before, I fell upon with cries of joy (so one does vaguely wonder whether the contrast makes it seem more, but I dismiss such thoughts as irrelevant). The story begins, oddly enough, with a quotation from Isaac Asimov; I wouldn’t have Boyd pegged as an Asimov fan, and there is certainly nothing science fictional in this or anything else he has written.

This is, in all honesty, a piece of nonsense that never quite makes sense, but it is also a story of constant action and intrigue somewhat in the manner of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The narrator is a second rate actor who makes a living appearing in cheap action films where he is usually the one who gets bumped off. He has been burgled, his car has been damaged, and his latest audition has turned into a fiasco. Then he is offered £1,000 in cash to drive a car up to a remote village in Scotland. He is happy to accept the offer, but ten suspicious things start to happen. He spots the same hitchhiker at different points along the journey; he realizes he is being followed by a mysterious black car; and so on. Then, when he gets to the place where he is supposed to make his delivery, he finds the woman who hired him apparently dead, though her body has disappeared by the time he gets the police to the spot. What follows is a fast-paced adventure set in a bleak Scottish moor. What makes the story is that the way he responds to each new threat, and the complicated plans he puts into effect to solve the puzzle are all derived from the cheap thrillers he has appeared in. The effect is both ludicrous and gripping, in fact the whole thing would make a good comedy drama for TV; indeed, I wonder if it wasn’t originally pitched as such. It is not as subtly done as the spy novels he has written, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, and the resolution doesn’t quite work, yet the story stands head and shoulders above everything else in this collection precisely because it is a story.

A Priest Chronology, updated

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Back at the tail-end of last year I posted an incomplete bibliography of Christopher Priest. Thanks to the comments I received, I was able to fill in a number of gaps. To acknowledge the debt, and show the result of it all, I thought I would post as complete a bibliography as I could (there are some pseudonymous works not included here). Everything – novels, short stories, non-fiction, edited anthologies, novelizations, and two books on which he acted as ghost writer – is arranged in chronological order. Dates in [square brackets] are dates of composition of stories that received their first publication only in Ersatz Wines. As ever, any additions, corrections, or comments would be gratefully received. Continue reading

Churchill!

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The queue for the afternoon showing of Darkest Hour was made up of people who weren’t quite old enough to remember the events of the film. But I think they wanted to believe they were. Half a dozen places ahead of me, one woman clearly had no idea of the title of the film she was here to see and so stood dithering for some time trying to think which screen to choose. At last inspiration struck: “Churchill!” she declared in a glass-shattering yelp that must have been heard in France.

That’s what this is about: just old reliable Winston, the man half the population of Folkestone believes should still be leading the country. Darkest Hour is an entertaining enough film redeemed by a mesmerising performance from Gary Oldman under an ocean of prosthetic makeup. But that is precisely what bothers me about it.

darkest hour

This is the second film about Churchill I’ve seen in the last few months, after Brian Cox’s performance in Churchill.

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that climaxes with the “fight them on the beaches” speech, after Dunkirk.

This is the third film I’ve seen in less than a year that turns upon that invidious British myth of Dunkirk, after Dunkirk and Their Finest.

This is the fourth film I’ve seen in less than a year about plucky British wartime spirit, after Churchill and Dunkirk and Their Finest.

And I am getting very concerned about the mythmaking. I assume that the realities of film making mean that all of these films were at least conceived before the Brexit vote. But they are all Brexit films.

These are films about Britain standing alone, and of course being victorious in its isolation. This is Britain being better than, and better apart from, the rest of Europe. These are films about heroism being endemic in the character of ordinary Brits (the word “plucky” is inescapable here, even though in reality it hasn’t been used for decades). And here anyone who talks of negotiation, of talking to the rest of Europe (rather than the commands Churchill gives to his French counterpart) is a weaselly figure who’s the next best thing to a traitor (ie, Halifax in Darkest Hour – I have no particular brief for Halifax, but her is here made into a too-convenient antagonist).

Darkest Hour is full of cringingly bad moments, such as the penchant for beginning or ending key scenes by looking directly down from high overhead, or the idea that even after he was deposed Chamberlain held such power over the entire Parliamentary Conservative Party that he could dictate whether they cheer or remain silent. But the scene that almost had me laughing out loud was when Churchill took the tube. As the girl who showed him how to read the map told us, he was going only one stop. The scene that followed on the tube train was long enough to have travelled all the way around the Circle Line. He found himself in a carriage that was full of the sort of cheerful Cockney cliches that we all remember from far too many British films of the 40s and 50s. They were all polite and smiling and unfailingly bellicose, and the black man even completed Winston’s quotation from “Horatius at the Bridge”, because in 1940 every working class Londoner knew the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay by heart.

Both Darkest Hour and Churchill show Winston boldly taking difficult decisions that will cost lives. There’s a suggestion, pretty explicit in Darkest Hour, that this somehow redeems the tragedy of Gallipoli, because Winston was of course right all along. And such sacrifice is necessary and ultimately good for us. Wipe out the garrison at Calais in what is a pretty futile gesture, and we’re all better for it. And it’s right, of course, because doesn’t Dunkirk show us that even the most ordinary British Tommy will become Herculean for surviving that miserable experience. And doesn’t Their Finest show us that we crave the myth of Dunkirk, not any truth, because the myth makes us all happy and brave.

And don’t all of these films collectively show us that we are better off on our own, unattached to the rest of Europe. And though there may be hard times, the very fact that we’re British means we have grit and pluck and will come through stronger than ever. And anyway, eventually our good friends the Americans will turn up eventually and make it all right again. Yeah, sure!

None of these films is exactly great. Both Cox and Oldman put in remarkable performances as Churchill, Dunkirk has some pretty spectacular film making, and overall Their Finest  has an unassuming levity that makes it easily my favourite of these films. But great, no, the message gets in the way of that.

Reprint: Political Future Fiction

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This was a review essay I wrote for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol 26, issue 1, 2015, of the three-volume Political Future Fiction: Speculative and Counter-Factual Politics in Edwardian Fiction under the general editorship of  Kate Macdonald: Continue reading