Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Knowing of Jane Austen

"She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not - like a sound agnostic," G. K. Chesterton wrote of Jane Austen, in his The Victorian Age in Literature. A tiny, but pretty clear, portrait of unreasonableness: Austen, sufficiently provincial to believe that the confines of her time and place are all in all: knowing what lies within them with unquestioning certainty; utterly ignorant of what might lie outside them, ignorant even that there is an outside them.

But, I wonder whether this really describes the limits of Austen. Perhaps she did know what she knew, but she also, sometimes, did not know what she knew, being prone to lapses into that kind of knowing for which the things we humans know are to be held in some contempt and at a remove. At the close of Mansfield Park, Austen writes thus of the final union between the protagonist, Fanny Price, and her long time love, Edmund Bertram:
I purposefully abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. - I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.
No dogmatism here, Mr. Chesterton: only the most open and inclusive of knowing, only a knowing so aware of its not knowing that it will presume to sketch but the mere outline of a plot, leaving the reader, with all of her knowledge, to fill in the rest. No agnosticism, either: but the explicit statement that she knew what she did not know, humbly handing over to every reader the determination of appropriateness in the timing of true love, aware that her sense of timing would have its limitations and not ring true for all.

A great show of reasonableness, then, to counter Chesterton's portrait. But what kind of reasonableness is this, that is so knowing as to back away from its task, so knowing as to relinquish its duties? It is the reasonableness of knowing you don't know, the reasonableness so knowing of the partiality of human ways and means that it holds them at an arm's length, in some disdain.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that Austen has been more or less plucked out of that tradition of women novelists clustered around the end of the eighteenth century (they have not been taken very seriously on account of the limited nature of their work) and transplanted into the Victorian Age, as befitting a writer of our time, a writer who too showed contempt for her trade all the better to raise herself above it.

We might turn here, at last, to Aristotle, in whose Poetics it is written that the superior forms of poetry give precedence to that which is universal in their story, turning only then to the particular episodes that go to elaborate it. That which is universal, Aristotle explains, is that which is integral to the story, in the case of Mansfield Park, the simple event that the heroine wins the hero of her desires, unalloyed with the mere elaboration of that event in terms of when and how it took place. It is for this reason, for Aristotle, that "poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history": for poetry makes salient the universal features of what happens or might happen, whereas history is bound to the detail, arbitrarily (Aristotle's judgment) unfolding, without necessity, sometimes even without probability, merely of what actually takes place.

Aristotle explains this point by analogy with painting, observing that there is little pleasure to be had from the painter who applies (even exquisitely beautiful) colours at random, when compared with the effect produced by the outline of an image in black and white.

In 1816, Austen famously wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen, of "that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour": a comfortingly artisan image of the writer at work, painstakingly constructing a likeness in tiny scale and with fine materials; but Austen's contempt for this process, the contempt that changes her image of the artisan into that of the artist, is expressed, not just with the tone of irony with which Austen so frequently positions herself above the arbitrary vicissitudes of the events and the characters that elaborate her plots, but also with the account she gives of her nephew's writing style, with which the description of her own style is intended to contrast: "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." With which style of writing would Aristotle have approved? Certainly not, the one characterized by variety and glow; much more likely, the one undertaken with a fine brush (to keep the lines sharp) on pale background and with a view (this was why "miniatures" of their daughters were often commissioned by noblemen, to encourage the ardour of potential suitors) to achieving, not a mere likeness of the subject (the stuff of "history"), but the essence of their personality as well (the stuff of "poetry").

There is a kind of knowing that is mostly attributed to young women, who are perceived not only to employ their feminine wiles but to do so in a manner so conscious of their attractions that the effect is unpleasant, as if the young woman in question were setting herself above the round of human relations even as she also engages in it. It may be this kind of knowing that separated Austen from her contemporaries, and made her much more a writer of our time than she was a woman of her own.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Literature's Humble Uniform

We might take the problem of contemporary literary fiction back just one step further, to Plato's teacher, Socrates, and his famous statement of the merits of knowing you don't know. Socrates seems, by this, to name a kind of humility as essential to human knowledge, presumably because mere humans, by contrast with their gods, are never capable of more than partial insight; to give proper expression to this limitation, it is necessary, so Socrates teaches, to build into any and all of our pursuits the acknowledgement that they are undertaken in merely human style.

But there is no longer any humility about this Socratic move - perhaps there never was. Why not, is a matter of logic: if not knowing is an essential aspect of all human knowing, then not knowing is also an essential aspect of knowing you don't know; it is not a case, then, of knowing you don't know but also of not knowing you don't know. This kind of logic is rather dreary, of course, seeming bent on being so clever as to efface the spirit of Socrates' claim. But it is precisely the spirit of Socrates' claim that is at issue. For the truth is, that knowing you don't know can only be the superior mode of knowing that Socrates claims it to be, if it is characterized by an inhuman certainty, which, for Socrates, comes from the juxtaposition of human knowing with godly knowing. In other words, as a perpetually present "humility," knowing you don't know is really a piece of hubris, always relativizing of human achievement as a means of rising to a godly one.

The fact is that we do know. Not in a godly way (what might that be?) but in a human way. The idea that this, the fact that we humans know in a human way, ought to be perpetually made present in our knowing implies that there could be another way. If we relinquish that final piece of hankering after divine truth, then we can launch ourselves into our human ways, without having to show contempt for them, or remove from them, unless, that is, they come into conflict with other human ways that we might value more.

Shuffle off this mortal humility, then, and our writers might be free again, to launch themselves into their projects without having to posture at a contempt for them even as they pursue them, without having to sacrifice their human talents to appease the gods they no longer believe in.

But why now, for Socrates' saying to have become the style? Why now, for the so-called "humility" of not knowing to be in vogue? Because we live in a condition that is premised upon the quiet suppression of any kind of launching in, any kind of knowing that might be considered to merit being acted upon; and it is a condition for which the "not-knowing" intellectual classes, too knowing to feel that anything is really justified, are the perfect embedded army.

Contemporary literary fiction is one division of this troupe: a very loyal one, whose "new clothes" are the uniform of the obedience it fosters in the "hearts and minds" of its target population.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Baby-Led Oppression

An important element in current doctrine on child-rearing is what is called "baby-led weaning," whereby, as the name suggests, a baby is encouraged to determine what, when and how she will make the transition from a milk to a solid-food diet. This means that at "mealtimes" - and it is important now to distance ourselves from that term, for such times are not baby led - the only person in the room yet to have reached the age of reason is the one who determines the amount and kind of calories to be consumed and, in the process, distributes those calories in a manner that constitutes them as things to play with as well as to eat, things to ingest in jest.

The most recent large-scale survey on the topic in the UK revealed that one quarter of all boys, and one third of all girls, between the ages of 2 and 19, are overweight or obese, and the problem, we are told, is getting worse, another recent survey predicting that the numbers are set to rise to 63% of all children in the not too distant future.

How, we might ask ourselves, when we are making such strides in knowledge of how best to initiate our babies into the world of eating and drinking, are those babies getting fatter and fatter as they grow up?

But this is the wrong question. We should rather ask: why do we continue to give up responsibility for the rational determination of our children's relationship to food when we can, at the very least, observe that the baby-led approach does not improve that relationship?

If we ask the question in this way, then an answer does quickly present itself. And it is: the commitment to baby-led weaning continues, not in spite of the fact that it hands over the determination of meal-times to someone whose IQ, we are told, is less than 20, not in spite of the fact that it results in food wastage and mess, not in spite of the fact that it makes it almost impossible to monitor the amount of food one's baby consumes in any day and therefore more concerned about her nutrition, not in spite of the fact that it is time-consuming and frustrating, not in spite of the fact that meal-time loses its defining characteristics and flows out into the whole of the waking day, and not in spite of the fact that it is at least not reductive of the kind of problematic behaviour around food that leads to overweight and obese children, but actually because of these effects. Baby-led weaning, like many of the practices recommended to child-rearers these days, is a very good way of keeping people occupied by minutiae, generally anxious, guilty, and, yes, too overweight to fight what seems like a naturally-given apathy. Not much will change, politically, socially, culturally, economically, when those already grown are preoccupied with the anxious relinquishment of their responsibilities, and growing generations are too sluggish to do anything much at all.

Baby-led weaning: it's surely too innocuous an ideal to produce such sinister effects, one might object. But, it is precisely by these apparently innocuous commitments that a liberal democratic population, with its antennae raised for large-scale and explicit restrictions on its freedom, must be kept down. Indeed, the extent to which baby-led weaning is actually liberating - of children, from culturally determined restrictions on eating and drinking; and of parents, from the requirement that they assume authority - makes it that kind of control that is the most effective of all: by removing the boundaries around that time of day when food is prepared and consumed, and around the various stages of maturity (which are put into a melting pot out of which babies emerge as leaders and parents as helpless), it constitutes a grazing populace unused to the deferral of gratification that is part of what separates us from the animal and that allows time and space for the pursuit of those higher pleasures that make us more than mere cows out to pasture. Add to this effect, the immeasurable increase in anxious guilt that is generated by the proliferation of norms - how many calories your baby ought to consume, what range of food and textures your baby ought to encounter, how lumpy your baby's dinner ought to be, when your baby ought to hold her bottle, when she ought to hold her spoon, when she ought to hold her cup, and so on and so on - norms, whose increase is not objected to as the unacceptable restriction on your baby's particular make up and circumstances that a regimen of mealtimes and menus is regarded as: and you have the parallel loosening of traditional structures and undermining of reason and experience that is the perfect recipe for a population of under-confident and acquiescent child-rearers, and confused and resistant children.

Did Elizabeth David wean herself? Did Delia? Did Jamie? Did Hugh? I think not. What nonsense, then, to admit for a moment that the rage for "baby-led weaning" is anything other than that combination of freedom-where-there-should-be-constraint and normalization-where-there-should-be-responsible-judgment, that are the ties that bind us in our liberty.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Literature's New Clothes

Contemporary literary fiction is a case of the Emperor's new clothes. It is time somebody shouted out from the crowd: "But they aren't writing anything at all!"

Plato distinguished the products of what we now call "art" as those whose appearance alone is of interest. These days, we may quickly move to dismiss this definition, given the iconic status attributed to several twentieth-century artworks that seem to undermine it, not least those indiscernibles whose appearance cannot be definitive, or those conceptual pieces which do not appear at all. But even these artworks have entered the fray broadly as examples of visual art. And, for visual art, the challenging of Plato's claim, that art is appearance alone, has about it just that kind of apparent impossibility that suits so well the spirit of the avant-garde.

But what of literature? Not so easy for literature to position itself in respect of Plato's claim - and it was a claim originally intended to be true of poetry more than of any other art form - given that appearance would seem almost the preserve of the visual. We might say, then, that, as the visual arts pursued an almost impossible antipathy towards appearance, the literary arts pursued an almost impossible affinity with appearance, through that aspect of appearance that was, happily, both the perfect mode of appearance for literature and the favoured mode of appearance for Plato: form.

But has not literary form had its day? Have the formalists, and the structuralists, and the post-formalists and the post-structuralists, not been and gone? True, but something still remains of form: not any literary form, but the form of literature itself. Contemporary literary fiction continues the attempt to live up to Plato's definition of art - which, for Plato, made art true - by writing in a manner to give the appearance alone of literature. The effect is a genre in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant. And this effect is produced, not simply by the abandonment of most of the elements of character and plot, not simply even by an avoidance of high-literary language and style, but by a self-conscious juxtaposition of the signs of excruciating effort - short, elliptical sentences; absence of fulsome description; muted tone of painful sublimation - with the signs of iconoclastic casualness - colloquialisms; lack of trajectory; air of the incidental. This is how the appearance alone of literature is pursued: by the combination of painful retention, of a Literature that will never appear, and easy production, of a Literature that need only appear.

The Emperor ordered his new suit of clothes to appear invisible only to those stupid and incompetent subjects not fit to remain at their posts. And there does seem that kind of intellectual stake in contemporary literary fiction, that those who cannot appreciate it are those too stupid to do so. But stupid people too can read and write. It is just that, for now, they must do so without giving the appearance of doing so. They must wear clothes that people can see, which leaves them far more exposed than they would be if they wore clothes that only appeared.