Monday, 10 November 2014

Singapore Day Two: Sunday with Lopez, non-Theroux, Dyer and a closing party

Barry Logan and theme

All my firm obligations having been fulfilled on Saturday we thought to attend as much of the major things as possible, at least from 11:30 onwards. First on was Barry Lopez's lecture, Nature and Human Nature, packed out at the National Museum Gallery. Lopez is the highly acclaimed author of Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men and many other books including works of fiction. Our eyes had briefly met in the hotel lobby the first evening but I didn't know who he was then just a gentle looking man with a grey beard and an amiable expression. On Saturday we were at the same lunch-time table but didn't have  a chance to talk.

The lecture began with the coming ecological disasters that he described as a tsunami. He gave us facts about sea pollution and temperature rise. What should we do then, what now, we, the human race? He did not suggest we burn our cars or turn our lights off but rather that we should pay attention to stories. What kind of stories then we should expect a writer to write?

It was not necessary, he argued, for a writer to be an activist or propagandist, not to be a Cassandra as such, but - and this was the key point - the stories should help.  He did not fully specifiy in what way the writer should help, who he should help or what nature of help might be offered, but he did go on to offer some distinctions.

First, the writer should respect the reader chiefly by not speaking only to himself (I know I could say 'herself' and he was careful to vary the genders throughout, but since he was a man I'll go with him for now). Writing that was about us was real writing; writing just about the writer was not. Some writing was authentic, some inauthentic. Some writing was commercial and shallow, some was visionary and deep. Some helped, some didn't.

One way writing might help, he elucidated, was by connecting us to memory by way of metaphor and pattern. Another was by reuniting the disparate realms of science (modern, materialistic Western) and art (ancient, spiritual, possibly Eastern. One should write about science with integrity and through the imagination.

Artists are not a sideshow. Art is rooted in shamanism, he concluded. What can we, the audience, the general mass of humankind do? We should 'take care of each other. and make sure that 'none of us is missing'.

There was little to disagree with in any of this though I was not so sure of those firm distinctions. It is sceince that gives us the worrying figures. The scientist working in the scientific realm is not obliged to be a story teller or a shaman. On the other hand the writer setting out 'to help' should be reasonably clear about what he help, if any, he is passing on. A writer talking about or rather through some pretty personal experience of himself or herself communicates with us because we identify with the persona or voice he or she offers. That writer is never alone in the world. The pattern Lopez was talking about is partly a product of mind working on language (and this point did come out later in his lecture), but memory is far from a simple tribal thing, if we can talk of such a thing as a clear isolatable memory at all .

So I am earnestly listening and making notes and, finally, asking the question about what kind of help a writer might be expected to give, but there was no simple answer to that, if answer at all. The fact is - or so I think - is that almost anything that sounds like an answer is probably not one.


Paul Theroux was so packed out we were turned away at the door along with a good many other people.


Geoff Dyer always delights me. What does that mean? I certainly find him funny but it is more than that. The sense of slowly mounting, exasperated, impotent fury raises his best set-pieces to the level of apparently self-defeating catharsis. The world is mad but overwhelmingly powerful. It should have order, ideally an order of grace, but such an order (like the orderly queue in Death in Varanasi) is not only impossible, its lack is the very condition of life.

I know that Dyer has learned deep lessons from Thomas Bernhard but those rhythms and cadences are his own and so beautifully crafted that they are like poetry in construction. They are not the equivalent of John Cleese beating his car with a fallen bough, but of an artist - a dancer say - moving against the odds like Chaplin in Modern Times. The reason he delights - the reason that he is essentially uplifting - is the same in all art. It is not the catharsis but the grace. The grace of the writing is the triumph of the imagination and, in Lopez's terms, the triumph of the spirit.

Dyer is far more than a humorist of course. He is, at core, a negotiator with ideas and paradoxes. It is the paradoxes that begat the humour. But the humour is engaged with the extensive material of life-as-you-find it. A last questioner asked him whether he had dropped the engagement with Berger and Adorno. He hadn't, Dyer replied, and he was in fact working on Adorno in a current book.

And there's the political / philosophical / social interest,  the extra ingredient that makes the whole. I am still not quite sure how it works within the oeuvre but I can see it makes sense being there and think that if I put my ear very close to it I could hear it humming in the background.


Then the party, most of it in the big tent, some of it in the green room at the back of it. Food, drinks, wine and a rather beautiful whisky whose name I now forget. I talk to a Indran, a Chennai poet, to Geoff, to Alvin, to Krip Yuson of the Philippines, to a good number of younger Singapore poets.  One talks, one carries on talking and, not too dramatically, drinking. Alvin drops us back at the hotel. I am writing this from the hotel at Nanyang Technological University were we are for the next three weeks. More on that in due course.

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