Friday, 11 May 2012

Cupcake or Cure

What we call "literature" no longer yields the grand vistas of its ancestry. The panoramas of Tolstoy, Dickens' huge casts of characters, Eliot's synopses of a whole society, the detailed landscapes of Hardy: these are no more. Indeed, these can be no more: the nature of modern Western living militates against the cohesiveness they presuppose. What cast of characters now could share something of substance? What panoramic view now could reveal something true? What society now could be taken in the round? The trend that David Harvey calls "the neoliberalization of culture" extends to literature too. And neoliberalization fragments - people, places, things... - so as to dissolve the wholes that had come to define literature by the time it reached the height of its popularity and prestige.

Since falling from that height of popularity and prestige, and following a brief period of experimentation with the feeling of falling from that height, literature has obediently embraced one or other of those two modes of creative expression that are perfectly compatible with the neoliberal world: cupcake, or cure.

We are all of us now ill, in some way. Many of us are explicitly so, suffering from a range of medical conditions that admit of pharmaceutical intervention. But all of us are implicitly so, because the Freudian model of the self, as constituted by inevitably insufficient efforts to manage a set of asocial drives, has defined normalcy to such a degree that we no are no longer capable of experience outside of its reference. We exist now within the Freudian frame, and, within the Freudian frame, human existence is illness. Our normal experience now is of "dealing with" aspects of ourselves that, because they are unfit for life, fall within our definition of illness. Our "dealing with" is, inevitably, inadequate, and so also manifests the illness for which it is a cure.

What we now understand as "creative" expression is a mode of "dealing with" that does not have an "in order to," an effort for which becoming fit for this world is an end in itself. We should ask the question: why is it that so many continue to write literature? Very few read it, and most of those who do are involved in writing it themselves. It sells almost nothing; even those who are "well-known" earn very little from their efforts. So it does not furnish the means to live. And it does not have a platform for political effect. What is literature, then? It is a cure. A writing cure. We write to cure ourselves of our condition. And the few for whom we write are also writing, and for the same reason. Writing literature is like going to an AA meeting. The fact that you're there is what counts. The fact that you're putting pen to paper is what matters. My name is X and I am an author...My name is X and I am human...

Literature that is not a cure is a cupcake, laid out on the table for something sweet at the end of the meeting. It may raise a smile in those who've attended. They may take it up to have with their cup of tea. It is a pretty border to the main event, a scented candle in the corner of the room.