Saturday, 27 September 2008

Down the mine

I want to pick up from The Plump's comment on the last Márai post below, because it opens a compelling door.

I think Blackwell and Seabrook's point is well made. People who have been bullied all their lives (come here - go there - get on your bike) will feel a certain resistance to still more change, especially when imposed - even by the cleverest, most sympathetic people - from the outside. That resistance can be radical.

On one side of this radicalism we find the far outreaches of nationalism, xenophobia, and stupid, instinctive, short-term, vindictive, lumpen bigotry.

There is another side to the question of resistance, of course. Miners led very hard lives but, in some respects, they did not want those lives changed. It was the circumstances and rewards they wanted improved, not the sense of community and pride in the face of hardship. The hardship was a cohesive force.

There is a solid human aspect to resistance. Revolutionary change is usually theoretical. It is the big things rather than the details that are imagined changing. Revolutions, in practice, are always something else, something other than imagined, destabilising even to those who support them. They eat their own children for a start. Eating people is wrong. It is difficult to live without some stability.


Writers rely on the precarious stability of language. It's like an artist not trusting fugitive colours. I think of Blake on Reynolds:

When Sir Joshua Reynolds died
All Nature was degraded;
The King dropp'd a tear into the Queen's ear,
And all his pictures faded.

Reynolds experimented with Lake colours that decayed far too quickly - in his own lifetime.

Writers depend on stable reference. Signifier should bear some reasonably constant relationship to signified. It has often been said that part of a poet's function is celebration: the preservation of fleeting phenomena in a medium that is, ideally, less fleeting. That is why all kinds of people write verses on weddings, birthdays, funerals. They are attempts to carve something into the language. You can't carve into that which is fugitive. Even the writing down of events in diaries in the plainest of prose is an attempt at carving.

There is an implication here that, by extension, the referents themselves should remain stable. This would include social circumstances, cultural practices, ideas, values, desires and even dreams: it seems to demand an ossified world of stable meanings. Márai's novelist tells us that his values, his compass, his entire craft depends on a vanishing social framework. He is working down a mine where the coal is all but exhausted. The colours are fading even as he writes.

We could regard him as a hidebound reactionary and indeed, in some ways he is. But that is not all he is. His whole aesthetic is based on the knowledge that the seam has been almost, if not quite, worked out, that the colours are fading. This, he tells us, is the nature of things. He is an elegist by nature, meaning that he gazes upon things dying and is not wholly consoled by a glance at things new born.

Lázár, the fictional novelist, is unlikely to have been a great writer, except by a kind of pathos. We sense the tremendous intelligence in him, or as much intelligence as his deeply intelligent creator Sándor Márai, allows us to sense. We can sense his coldness, his cruelty, his jealous passion, his fortress-like vulnerability. We don't have to like him. We don't have to accept his prescriptions (the narrator of the novella does not accept them.) We don't have to listen to his elegy.

But we are, I suggest, richer for understanding it and understanding the part of ourselves that recognizes things. Anything: words, places, people, sensations. Recognition means literally re-knowing. There is no recognition without stability, nor knowledge either. And we, as creatures, are deeply aware of our instability and our lack of knowledge.

So there is a heroic enterprise after all, and it is not without its radical edge, if only in recognising that the edge is where we live. Language shifts as we shift. It is always shifting. Language is the ghosts down the mines. Writing is a way of seeking the proper way to address them. That is a radical programme.


The Plump said...

Now the door is open, I want to reflect on your comments, but it will be through a longer post at my place and it will have to wait awhile. Right now I have another compelling door to enter - the one that leads into the Queens Arms in Eccles and the embrace of Boddington's bitter and a ridiculous card school.

Gwil W said...

Suitable grainy photo. Brings to mind the great stuff written about coal miners - How Green Was My Valley, The Road To Wigan Pier, Germinal and of course poems - Phil Larkin's delicate poem The Explosion. OK there's something romantic about those early coal miners - the ingrained coal dust, the tin bath, the snap (sandwich), the whippets, the allotments, the warm beer, the spitoon etc. And I think I must again praise Orwell here. He went down the pits, a bent-backed tall man, walked miles underground, slept in miners' lodgings, ate the same maggoty food, experienced the existence for himself; and likewise Zola. I can't see Nabokov, my lounge lizard paedophile, getting his precious fingernails dirty...or perhaps I can.