Tuesday, October 20, 2009

`Diversion Comes in Many Forms'

Nige delivered an invigorating start to the work week with a post devoted to his reading of The Man Who Loved Children. If a literary despot came to power and ordered citizens to read but a single piece of fiction for life, I would likely choose Christina Stead’s novel from 1940. Its only rival in my case would be Proust’s better-known (though no better-read) masterwork, and only for its sheer bulk, six or seven times the length of Stead’s ample text. Each novel is a world, and only a world will suffice for a lifetime. One of Nige’s readers, Gaw, writes reasonably:

“But what I struggle to understand is why one would want go through an experience that is `emotionally lacerating, at times very nearly unbearable.’ Hasn't life got enough potential for this sort of thing without going out of your way to find it? Personally, I think fiction should provide diversion, consolation or education. But not laceration.”

Ah, there goes Sophocles, Shakespeare and Beckett. My suspicion is that our species thrives on stories -- happy, lacerating or otherwise. They compel our interest and sustain us. We possess the capacity to “identify” with characters utterly unlike ourselves – thus giving the lie to so much “identity” writing. We’re forever telling ourselves stories to make sense of things and keep our momentum rolling. A story, even the bleakest (The Unnamable?) implies a future (“…I’ll go on.”). Life is a story we tell ourselves, often with the aid of interpolated narrators. Consciousness may, in fact, be a sort of story-generating engine. Nige’s response to Gaw’s objection is superbly precise:

“…diversion comes in many forms - as do consolation and education. I think you're confusing subject matter - in this case it is indeed that of a misery memoir - and the art made from it, which transforms that material into something else altogether. Reading this book was diverting - not in the sense of amusing, though there certainly is a kind of black comedy in it (I may have underplayed that) - but in terms of diverting me from my normal life into another world…It was educational about the human soul, and indeed about how not to bring up children, or conduct a marriage. And it was consoling in the way that all real art ultimately is - and all bad or phony art absolutely isn't. There - it passes your test - read it!”

The title character, Sam Pollitt, is no demonized other. All of us know Sams, and may well be Sams, at least on occasion. Sams are big smiling monsters who judge themselves by their intensions and the rest of us by our actions. Like all utopians, they are absolute dictators. Their self-knowledge is nil, their belief in their own righteousness unquestioning. They are solipsists – a species I came to recognize, in part, thanks to reading Stead’s novel for the first time more than 30 years ago.

Like Nige, I have no objection to pure literary diversion. Who would wish to foreswear P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler? By the way, I find Nige’s likening of Stead’s novel to those of Ivy Compton Burnett utterly intriguing, one that has never occurred to me. As to Gaw’s objection to that which “lacerates,” please consider Yeats’ translation from the Latin of Swift’s self-composed epitaph:

“Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveler; he
Served human liberty.”

Many thanks, Nige, yet again.


An Anxious Anglican said...

I am still recovering from reading Stoner (on your recommendation, I recall), so I might have to wait a while before I dive into this "diversion." :-)

Nige said...

Many thanks to you, Patrick, as ever. A magnificent defence. On reflection I think my original post did overplay the lacerating side of it - which is certainly not the whole of an immensely rich and abundant work. I was still at the reeling stage...

Gaw said...

Perhaps I'm a bit sensitive at the moment. The idea of a torn, ragged wound makes my eyes water.

On reflection, I think what I'd argue is that a work in which laceration overwhelms is not one I'd want to read. Laceration in an admixture containing consolation, etc. would be tolerable.

Titus Andronicus is a no, King Lear is a yes. The impression I received is that the novel would have as much emotional laceration as the former has actual.