Monday, 14 November 2011

Our Lovely Vulgar And Most Human Art

In 1967, Gore Vidal wrote:

The portentous theorizings of the New Novelists are of no more use to us than the self-conscious avant-gardism of those who are trying to figure out what the next ‘really serious’ thing will be when it is plain that there is not going to be a next serious thing in the novel. Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.

Our lovely vulgar and most human art? Vidal's tone reminds one of Aristophanes' Socrates, swinging aloft in his basket in the sky and addressing poor Strepsiades down below, exclaiming "short-lived one, creature of a day! Why do you call me?" Short-lived literary form, mere human mode of reflection, how do you continue? Vidal's reply: only as a habit not broken; only as a form of words emptied of all they might ever have meant.

This is the oldest sleight of hand in all the world. The novel, like all of human endeavour, did not begin as a hymn to the gods. Dr. Johnson, who was there at its inception, called the form (and he did not mean to compliment it) "familiar history." Its practitioners were not priests, merely women, writing what was effectively an entertaining version of the conduct book for girls. But that art went the way that all arts go in the end, in a confidence trick that is as ancient as our civilization.

When Socrates came on the scene in Athens, some thinking fellows were spending their life by giving answers to the big questions of life and other teaching fellows were earning their living by showing people the skills for the business of living. And then Socrates, in one clever move, cleared a space for a way of doing things that has dogged our steps ever since. By admiring but placing himself below the thinkers, and denigrating and placing himself above the teachers, he constituted a way of life that neither claims to have answers to the big questions (on the grounds that only the gods can have those) nor devotes itself to the practical skills of living (on the grounds that we ought not to be merely human just because we are human). This way of life is called philosophy, and it purchases its alleged remove from the business of living, not by attaching itself to pieces of wisdom it will defend but by claiming to love a wisdom it will not (because it says it cannot) name. It is a way of life that is led between the claims that godly things are too good for us and human things not good enough.

And so the women who dominated the novel form for the first twenty-five years of its existence went the way of Socrates' teachers, condemned for claiming to disseminate (and for money too!) skills with which to negotiate this life. And the men who dominated the novel for the following hundred years or so went the way of the thinkers, admired in their way but judged to be naive in their belief that answers to the big questions of life can be represented by mere humans. Surviving them both were the philosopher-novelists, too in love with the godly to submit to the market, to entertainment, to instruction, to the mere business of living and writing, but too self-consciously humble to lay claim to any world view, defend any vision, or pin their colours to any mast.

Of course, since these philosopher-novelists are only a confidence trick (albeit the very oldest one in the book) they have almost nothing to give content to their writing other than a chastened admiration of the thinkers and a patronizing contempt for the teachers. And so they run out of steam, of course. But not quite as Vidal describes it. The parishioners, as Vidal has them, have all abandoned ship quite some time ago. They, after all, go in for being instructed and inspired; the one is not below them nor the other mystified so that it lies above them. They have moved on elsewhere. For them, if an art is dead and gone, then there is a reason not to want to practice it and to read it. But they have not moved in search of other gods, as Vidal would have us believe. Because only the priests believe in gods. And only they will eventually go to another place in search of them. There, they will, once again, call the place a church and those gathered there "parishioners," whose words they will call prayers, in worship of gods whose absence will empty those words of all meaning. The parishioners will not stay for the end game. The philosophers will. Until they too up and move elsewhere, to empty out another form of words of all its meaning and another building of all those gathered inside.

It is a rather easy thing, this swinging around between heaven and earth, calling down in pity at those who would learn the business of living well and looking up in knowing nostalgia at those who would answer the big questions of life. An easy thing, but not a serious one.