"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

The Imaginary Elephant: Literature and Life

I have noticed some discussion recently in the literary blogs about that old chestnut: literature (or 'writing' as it is now more fashionable to call it) and Life (which always seems to deserve a special initial capital all of its own). The sentimentalists say that literature must be subordinate to Life (aka 'the real world') and the flinty highbrows say that Literature (with an initial capital to retaliate) is sufficient unto itself. It doesn't have to justify itself by being seen to be 'realistic'. It doesn't have to be 'about' anything except itself and its own processes.

I am saying nothing, but here are three quotations:-

1. James Joyce, Stephen Hero: "But that is wrong: that is the mistake everyone makes. Art is not an escape from life."

2. Same guy, same place: "For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature: the artistic process was a natural process."

3. Virginia Woolf, Essays: "Why should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?"


Andrew Kenneally said...

And presumably one is alive while reading writing, or- as I sometimes like to call it- literature, & the author also probably was alive while writing writing.
On a possibly relevant note, I was recently reading Orhan Pamuk's Black Book, & while imagining I would be delving into much of his stuff while enjoying it initially, I ended giving up on it about half-way through, finding the elegance of style & intelligence not enough in the way of debit to compensate for what felt ever more decreasing circles of self-absorbed tedium. Perhaps what I'm trying to get at(more in my head than on the screen admittedly) is that the early pleasure in the very self-absorption of this work, its especial sufficient unto itself literariness, was what in time came to irk so much. For me, being still alove while reading it, it ever more faild to resonate inany vital way, & I found very little reason to care about the supposedly fascinating mysteries about the supposedly fascinating characters at the core of the work.

Nicholas Murray said...

That's very interesting. I suppose one wouldn't want to push this too far down the road of art for art's sake which Mallarme (how does one do accents in these posts?) famously derided: "La puerile utopie de l'ecole de l'art pour l'art, en excluant la morale, et souvent meme la passion etait necessairement sterile." The greatest art isn't simply self-delighting and self-referential, it is touched by the human. Or so I think. Yet I also like Elliott Carter's remark about music being an "expressive" art "and not a representative, let alone a descriptive,one". Form and content are indivisible but they need to be in harmony. Too much aestheticism is as unsettling to that balance as too much realism.

Andrew Kenneally said...

I'd agree fully with what seem to be your feelings on the matter. Tired after a long day's work so not sure how much justice to the matter I can give but there are many interesting directions one oculd go with this subject. One thought that comes to mind was recently reading a review of a book on attempting to understand the inner processes that made music pleasurable, with the usual desire to believe one has succeeded in conquering Nature-man's inner nature. What almost immediately signified the dearth of the author's understanding was revealed almost immediately when-I think in interivew- he described musical pieces as illusions, which I think it's fair to say means these appear to be real but are not. I fail to see how an experience in consciousness, undoubtedly not an hallucinatory one, can be described as illusory. I wouldn't call the noise of trees in the wind illusory so why would I wish to segment being & perception into expunging music from the real. The answer being, presumably, that one has a solid/dull/false vision of reality to uphold, & mercurial phenomena like music being ascribed a real place within reality don't fit in with this dullard vision of being which so many take to be real.
Back a little on track & I suppose art is a kind of telepathy permitting a passagway from the artist's consciousness to whoever opens himself up to receiving this, & the reason someone like Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the very greatest artists of the last century is that he through his technical mastery he could convey a very profound & even holy sense of life. Didn't DH Lawrence say something like "One has to be dreadfully holy to be an artist." I saw a recent piece on VS Naipaul by Bryan Appleyard which was full of praise for this writer who I admit to not having read. However the piece contained a couple of things which ensure he'll probably remain unread: that Naipaul views life as a black comedy & that humanity is irredeemably flawed but worthy of observation. What an arid, shallow vision- reminds me of the great episode in Dostoevsky's Demons where Shatov's wife returns & gives birth, & Shatov is exclaiming it is a miracle while the new ideas infected midwife laughingly retorts that it is just the propagation of the species.
Anyway that all went on quite a bit longer than expected.

Nicholas Murray said...

Aldous Huxley once observed drily "it has always seemed to me that poets should have something to say" (from his "Jesting Pilate"). That isn't a demand for social realism, however. Art speaks in its own language but when it has the weight behind it of lived experience I find it more satisfying. Too much in that direction and it becomes documentary reportage. Too much in the other direction and it becomes arid. But the debate is probably about what it means for an art work to "say" something and that is why the Elliott Carter quotation was interesting.