Somebody (Please) Say Something

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I wrote a blog in July 2014 suggesting that despite the plethora of news and print everywhere, nobody was really saying anything, at least nothing of interest, importance or even relating much to the truth. It was called Somebody Say Something, the title of an article written by John Lanchester ten years ago. He was pleading then for someone to say something (of some relevance). I recently listened to a recording of interviews with American Writers, a CD I’ve listened to perhaps fifty times. I never tire of it or anything to do with writers. They seem to me to be people who think about the world and have interesting things to say, not all of them of course, but any vaguely serious writers. Listening to American Writers I was struck by how relevant their opinions were and are. The CD reminded me of Lanchester’s article – if people weren’t saying much in 2004, they are saying much less now. There is plenty being said of course, but how much really addresses matters of substance?

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These interviews are from the 60, 70s and 80s and most of the writers are now dead. It doesn’t matter. Their words are as important today as they were then. Is anybody today saying anything of significance? Here is

 

William Burroughs in 1964:

Love plays little part in my mythology. I feel that what we call love is largely a fraud, a mixture of sentimentality and sex which has been systematically degraded and vulgarised by the virus power. The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in the creation of political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in western society. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity that we see on every street.

Toni Morrison in 1982

That business about lazy. People doing four jobs are supposedly lazy. I remember working in houses for white people. It’s very difficult if you move in somebody’s dirt not to recognise that they are both lazy and dirty. I am the one who is assumed to be both those things. If a proper economic study is done of this country, it must include the fact that they had 200 years of free labour, which made them a successful country in one eighth of the time they would normally have to spend.

Henry Miller in 1979

Sex has no pull anymore. Everybody is immersed in it like a hot bath. Therefore there is no ecstasy, no surprise, no enjoyment. It’s as if they were doing exercises.

Saul Bellow in 1977

They are intellectual professionals in the study of literature. Their purpose is to convert novels, poems, plays into subject matter. This is where the damage comes; they make discourse of it. It wasn’t originally there to make discourse of. Modern novels weren’t taught in the universities of the 19th century. Anyone who has received a decent education should be able to pick up a novel by themselves and read it.

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Mary McCarthy in 1960

I think the world is pretty terrible and somebody has to speak up. I think there is a general conspiracy of silence about what goes on. All the stuff that’s piped in, including probably this programme with me on it, that daily cant that pours from the radio, the newspapers, advertising, education and everybody simply endures it. Somebody should get up and just shut it off.

Eudora Welty in 1985

Something has been troubling me a lot when I go round and talk to students. It is that very intelligent people don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction and they don’t assume there is any.

Arthur Miller in 1968

The reality was depression. The reality was the whole thing coming down in a heap of wood and cinders. What happens when everybody has a refrigerator? What happens when everybody has a car? It’s got to end.

Gore Vidal in 1978

With politics and religion, one is the mirror of the other and there is no answer in either case.


Except for Toni Morrison, these writers are now dead. None would be pleased with the way society has gone. If Mary McCarthy thought there was too much daily cant then, her head would explode now. Why must we be taught literature? We can teach ourselves and enjoy it ourselves. The virus power attempts more and more to curtail inner freedoms. To Eudora Welty I would point out that those students were certainly NOT ‘very intelligent people’. She was being far too polite. Arthur Miller knew in 1949 that it all has to end – we’re much closer now. Sex is merely an advertising scam.

This is just a small sample of what the writers had to say about their world. I can thoroughly recommend the CD to anyone interested (British Library: The Spoken Word archive). They also recorded a British Writers CD which is almost as good, including JB Priestly, William Golding and many others.

I shall continue to read biographies and listen to recordings of writers. They seem to me to be the only people recognising what is actually happening. Some care, some don’t. Some would like to change the world, others think it unchangeable or they would change a small part of it, usually their own tiny part of it. No matter, through the ages, from Homer to Dickens and beyond, they all have something to say. They lead interesting lives and find different ways of communicating their ideas, as did Hunter S Thompson in The Rum Diary: escaping from the Luce empire with its ‘slick drivers and jingo parrots’ spreading  ‘like a piss puddle’ to Puerto Rico where a tourist ship arrives ‘from somewhere in the middle of America, some flat little town’ with another ‘fearsomely alike’ group, consisting of ‘shapeless women in wool bathing suits and dull-eyed men with hairless legs who should never have been allowed to leave their local Elks Club.’

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Who says stuff like that anymore?

 

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Somebody Say Something

Graham Greene wrote that:

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The writer’s duty is to make trouble for any dominant power, forcing complacent authorities and submissive followers to confront difficult questions.’ They should be ‘grit in the state machinery.’ He says that disloyalty is essential against anything that is ‘part of the establishment – churches, universities, businesses, social and cultural groups, even great literary figures such as Shakespeare. If any of these institutions or people are deserving, they can survive the criticism directed at them. Otherwise, no one will suffer unduly except the pretentious, the humourless, the dogmatic, the corrupt.’

There is nothing contentious in this statement, it is just common sense. Any power should be able to tolerate and absorb criticism. Criticism is necessary for democracy, or at least a healthy society, to thrive. Yet I see very little criticism of authority today. Of course it is there, perhaps more than ever, but it is mostly hidden, confined to the Internet or minority, specialist outlets. In the mainstream there is little of any relevance.

V.S. Pritchett described Greene as ‘genially subversive’ and suggested an appropriate maxim for him and those like him:

The world is too complacent. Let us catch it out.’

Greene was a very good writer and an extraordinarily interesting man. There were many like him: George Orwell, John Steinbeck and, later, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens that he was:

Generously angry…a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

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Orwell wrote that in 1939 about a man who wrote in the previous century. What would he think of the standard of writing today? Who confronts our ‘smelly little orthodoxies?

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Orwell also wrote about ‘the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.’  That describes almost everyone in authority in the Western world today, particularly where I live in England – public schoolboys and girls are everywhere, completely out-of-touch with reality, living in a strange cocooned world of privilege, but nevertheless possessed of a disturbing certainty that what they are doing is right, that there is no other way. It is much the same with TV, journalism, in fact the media as a whole.

Far too many people are only interested in trivia. Twitter, Facebook, computer games and porn are all escapes from reality, time spent on them provides an excuse not to think. Authority conspires in this, often unthinkingly, until we are all engulfed in nonsense. Meanwhile a significant minority goes on its merry way, leading the world to disaster. Here is not the place to discuss what that disaster or disasters may be, I am merely addressing the reporting of it, the writing about it, particularly in books, newspapers and magazines. Many people believe that print is a thing of the past. I don’t agree. Generally, most people do not absorb or remember what they see on their screens; they don’t really learn anything – it is just an escape from thinking.

So, who in print is addressing real problems? Where are the influential writers of today? Who is publishing them? Where can I buy their books or read their articles? I hope I’m wrong, but I know of very few, especially novelists. Is there anybody out there who isn’t just playing the game, just lining their own nest?

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Norman Mailer wrote of the American WASP that:

They were not here on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love very much, they were here to serve, and serve they did in public functions and public charities (while recipients of their charity might vomit in rage and laugh in scorn).’

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Mailer wrote that in the sixties; he was still genially subversive in 2006, not long before his death at 85:

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‘Global capitalism does not speak of a free market but of a controlled globe. It is alien to the creative possibilities that have not yet been tapped in legions of people who’ve never had a chance to be creative, who work and die without creative moments in their lives. Their hopes have been buried. When talented people emerge from no apparent cultural background, I see them as the product of ten generations of frustrated people who wanted more than their lives gave them.’

Some fine writers have died recently, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens among them. Far from perfect human beings, but thinkers, writers, troublemakers – they always had interesting things to say. I find it hard to think of anybody now who is challenging today’s awful orthodoxies. Is there anyone?

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio: so much that the production of opinion seems to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most enjoy doing. Most of it isn’t bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn’t speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely tuned in to hear people not making any sense, it would be much easier to dismiss. That though is not the problem with what passes for discussion in Britain. The problem isn’t that it’s low-grade: It is mostly fluent, clear, coherent and often vividly expressed. The problem is that it is almost entirely free of fresh ideas.

You can go whole weeks without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of media debate and encounter nothing new. The void is at its worst when there is a conspicuous attempt to fill it: the frowning politician pretending to think, as he mimes sincerity; the pouting celebrities spouting forth on the issues of the day, when their only motive is to draw attention to themselves. You witness these performances (and that is what they are – acting) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling I get about British life, a bizarre feeling given how much talk there is, but one which goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the newspaper, and wait for somebody to say something…and wait…and wait…and wait…

John Lanchester wrote the above in the London Review of Books. He wrote it TEN years ago. We are so, so much worse off now.

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