Thursday, 25 September 2008
One of the differences between novelists and poets is that novelists make people up and make them do things. This assumes - or so I, as a poet, assume - that others can be knowable, or, rather, that they can be presented in a way that makes them seem knowable. So you get the phenomenon that novelists talk about, when a character: 'just develops and takes over the book'. As I remember, Barthes was very sceptical of character and preferred to concentrate on action, which just shows he was a poet at heart. Doesn't he say somewhere that a lyric poem is a single complex indivisible signifier? I can't be bothered to get the book out now but I remember thinking at the time: yes, that's my kind of theorist.
Because, I suspect, language behaves more like a lyric poem than a chain of clear signifiers arranged according to syntax. That idea is, for now, just between ourselves, but one day I'll get out there and prove it. Politicians and advertisers already know it, as do lovers and the knitters and spinners in the sun. You will say that that is not how we produce a balance sheet or an economy and I'll admit you're right, but I'll point to the current financial crisis and insist it proves my point.
But back to character. People are clearly characters. Today for instance a relative from Australia came and he is clearly one of those (a character, I mean). Characters in books talk and act and move through life on the basis of the consequences of how they talk and act. Novelists will tell us what they think as well but that only matters in so far as they act. See Barthes on actions. So relative has lunch. He talks and acts, and I can see the life he is referring to is a complex thing, troubled, fancy, paradoxical, sad and different, and that there is most clearly a ghost in the machine (I always assume there are ghosts in machines, it's much the safest). But what could I possibly say about the ghost, his ghost - his character - that I could actually persuade myself to believe?
And it's the same with others. I am not totally autistic so I do admit there are others in the world. I am aware of their ghosts flitting about here and there, and am certainly aware of the machine of their actions. But as an honest poet I will admit that their sheer existence is such an extraordinary object, their actions so much like tiny versions of Olympic opening ceremonies, that I am fascinated by the firework display of their being and can't even pretend to see who exactly is applying a match to the blue touch paper of their presence.
You may think that is a serious personality defect on my part. A monstrous self-centredness. But I don't regard myself as any more privileged, any more knowable, any less strange and firework like, even to myself. And, as I have said before, I sometimes look at animals, our domestic cats being the closest to hand, and consider their own strange ghosts and tempers and machines. Just as strange, just as apparitional, just as autonomous. There is a certain egalitarian principle there, I hope you agree.
If I have socialist, materialist instincts at all, they follow from this level playing field of strangeness. In the end you trust others precisely because of their weirdness, density, impenetrability: their discreteness (not discretion, never discretion). It is a peculiar instinctive morality that goes to make poets. It is a peculiar lack of imagination, not a surfeit, as is often believed.
We spend so much time imagining the real we never really get on to imagining character and character development. The best of us know it exists and that development is the heart of being human. It's just that its workings have a sacred opacity. It's just that we feel that the unknowability is an essential part of the same thing. The worst of us feel the same but the worst don't know anything else. They are plain bastards.
Beware of so-called poet-princes, monsters who call themselves poets and write reams of what they call poetry but which is in fact a kind of self-hypnotic voodoo. Listen very hard. Listen sceptically. Because all poets worth their salt are sceptics. And though they can talk they are primarily listeners. Even their doziness, otherworldiness, daze, or what Graves referred to as the poetic trance, is a product of sceptical listening, not to notions of character but to phenomena, to all that may be listened to.
And as for politicians and princes, don't waste time imagining characters. Watch what they do. What they do is their character.
These are notes to myself, reader. When I say 'you' I mean 'I'. Please remember that. Thank you.