I don’t really know what to do.
There are great books out in sociology and politics. Les Back and Shamsher Sinha’s book on migrant Britain, Vic Seidler’s book on Brexit. Imogen Tyler. Will Davies’ work. Emma Jackson’s. But if I look away from that and towards the vaguely nominated ‘literatures’ that are Manchester Review of Books’ remit, I feel enervated.
I wonder if Neil Campbell’s Zero Hours (Salt) will change that opinion, but I’ve neither got nor read it yet.
Good things are happening, it’s true. I’m involved, at the fringes, which is probably the best place to be if you want a life too, in some exciting things. But coming to the end of 2018 I feel adrift. I’m all old on the new. I’m popupped out.
I’m still enervated by theory. I think literary theory is up for grabs if someone could be bothered. Metamodernism? The new depthiness? It’s a joke, surely? And that seems to be one of the more concerted efforts.
I watched that film on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn the other night on Mubi. Grant somebody. All those super-posh artist people talking all that. I felt disgusted. It just goes on and on, doesn’t it?
Sebald’s work is great. But these tinny satellites. It’s all just so very just-so. I had a go at psychogeography here and you know, Iain Sinclair’s work is still astonishing. But like the moment Hendrix arrives, you just get bad Hendrix copyists forever. Now not only psychogeography but radical literature is flattened into a round of party games people join for cultural capital, to ‘build a profile’, within academia and out.
Someone said to me about that Sebald film – one of those throwaway two word comments that can destroy a whole epoch – ‘psychogeography’, ‘so you mean that it’s ponderous and fragmented?’ It was one of those comments that stays in your brain like some insect and does things you didn’t necessarily want it to.
Criticism and commentary. I think we’re living in a time in which ponderous and fragmented is all that’s needed to gain applause. There’s a particular sort of politely ponderous and fragmented – hooked to certain aesthetics that in turn hook into the ego to please it – and this became the default replacement for anything like a set of meaningful genres in supposedly serious writing.
It’s become a script like the uncanny and sublime have become a script in undergraduate art school teaching: When was the last time you had an experience you could really call uncanny or sublime, in the full sense? For me, a long time ago. When was the last time you experienced some writing or art that connected you to an experience you could call uncanny or sublime in the full sense? For me, never.
When was the last time the politely ponderous and fragmented shifted you anywhere?
So I was thinking about how to react to my enervation. I was thinking of revisiting some old sites for a re-study. Back to ethnographic work. But then as soon as I considered that I had a primal urge to curate an online log of hours of writing that nobody ever sees the results of. And of burying the things I’ve done that I think are alright in some sort of sealed box ten feet underground and then forgetting all about all of the universes of writing and art that currently exist.
Maybe I’m just very depressed and don’t know it. But I know that the feeling is solidly connected to the Thatcherite production model of what passes for ‘radical’ culture. The crowded field of people all holding aloft their tiny variation on whatever theme is current in their clique – in order to try to get noticed – is also part of it.
I’m not depressed, I’m far too sane for my own good.
Real work can only get done away from this scrum. The production of real and new work will not just happen to avoid this ‘way’, it will be borne of that total avoidance.
I also keep experiencing a potent aversion to the supposed obviousness of many of the reactions to the new times. All of the sure and strong voices sound like the opposite to me, because they’re sure and strong. I have an overwhelming feeling, right or wrong, that what’s happening now and into the future will render most things but a few – and none of us know what they are yet – irrelevant. I still don’t really know what to do.
The same thing applies to theoretical positions, when I encounter someone taking one. On the left there is some sort of postpunk-modernist-communist compact that has ditched postmodernism and poststructuralism as though it was an erroneous blip – rather than the slight cultural swell it was – swollen by increased access to credit before the crash of 2008. The rejection seems to tally with the rightwing anti-PC commonsense aggressives far too closely. It wears a bobhat.
I want the left in power in Britain. But the core of my aversion is this: I think much pomo culture was garbage and I want it gone and I claw for something that at least even feels real – like many other people do – but you can’t just get that by loudly denouncing what went on a few years ago, and then running right back to modernity as though it had nothing to do with the most horrific human epoch so far. The search for a more vital real is tangled up with the search for authenticity and the search for authenticity is also badly tangled up with the most horrific human epoch so far, the twentieth century. Now I really don’t know what to do.
Some people say they know what to do but I don’t trust them precisely because they say it. Their saying they know what to do means they don’t.
It is most telling is that people will now shout you down simply for expressing uncertainty. Everything is switched on to defensive mode and the mode has stuck.
But it’s worth saying – because people get confused or only read bits of things then react immediately – that the real enemies are the Tories, the fascists, racists, misogynists, climate crisis deniers and capitalists. The Russian state and the Saudi despots and fucking Erdogan et al et al. The rise of the far right is real and a real danger, no matter how small the Tommy Robinson marches have been.
But what I have been doing is writing things that look like poetry and reading a lot of poetry. I’ve written it since the 1990s. But I did so privately as the last thing I wanted to do was call myself a poet. I still don’t and won’t.
What I’m doing is trying to work some things out and this involves experimenting with language. I’ve also been talking to Richard Barrett a lot who I think is brilliant and that dialogue gives me hope.
I don’t assume writing poetry or experimenting with language will change anything and I also hugely distrust people who think their creative activities change things.
I’ve only just fully realised that I switched modes into poetry because of the enervation I describe. I suppose I should just be writing about what I’ve read this year: Just give us the listicle, you miserable sod.
There are great publishers. There’s Boiler House Press and Dostoyevsky Wannabe and manifestos and Fitzcarraldo… I still think Brian Dillon’s Essayism is the most useful book I’ve reviewed here. It’s kind of wonky, but it’s honest in a way that many writers I encounter don’t seem to be. But that came out in 2017. OK, here are some books:
I read Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale and Honorary Consul for the first time this year and dipped into the Complete Short Stories quite a bit. Greene’s characters are often flat, but they are about people pinned in history and how. That short story about those kids destroying that guy’s house that survived the blitz: Greene is now, right now. I also read Robert Hewison’s Under Siege and Tom Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz.
I re-read Sebald’s Emigrants and enjoyed it. Who cares?!
A friend of mine reads a Dickens each year and I took his challenge on – how else to get through them before death – and I stupidly raised him a Shakespeare. So I read Hard Times and King John by Shakespeare. King John is the most Brexity of Shakespeare’s plays, try it. I was tipped off about this by reviewing John Sutherland’s Brexiteer’s Guide to Eng. Lit here (Reaktion).
I’ve made a piece of writing out of King John which came out in a very obscure place. It is derided as one of the poorest of the plays, King John is, but actually I got to like it.
I’ve been reading the journals of the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White to fall asleep. MIT publish it – for students of the natural sciences I guess – but it’s beautiful poetry to me. These odd things I find in rubbish dumps always end up being central somehow.
Much of the poetry-poetry I’ve been through I have reviewed here and lots of it published by Carcanet. I have a Michael Hamburger reader they put out that I need to review here. I also read Hamburger’s Truth of Poetry this year.
I’ve discovered the New York Review of Books, which is infinitely more brilliant than the LRB. There was a letter in LRB some time ago from Alan Bennett, and you know, love him, but he was wiffling on about chairs in the National Portrait Gallery. Is that all these people have to do? And then LRB publishes it? New York Review just seems on the ball by comparison.
I’ve dipped, I’ve done a lot of dipping. I end up with a pile of books folded into each other and some writing. Then I get to the end of a thread and pack the books away and the writing ends up in a folder then, on a hard drive. This dipping and writing is just scholarly activity though, it might go somewhere or not.
I’ve been waiting for some things to come out that have been hanging around for a long time, to draw a line under them and free me up. Let me be and get on. The enervation is partly to do with being tied to this. I’m trying to work out what to do about it in future. In other times I would be charging onwards, whether or not the last thing was out yet, but I think… now’s not the time…
More sustained dipping and folding back: I’ve been exploring some literature on utopia I have. This includes a really strange book by Frank and Fritzie Manuel published by Blackwell in 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World it’s called.
I mean, here’s the flipside to that terrible film on Sebald, and my gobby prejudiced comments on it. These two use the fruitiest language, but they know exactly what they’re talking about. ‘Exordia’ and ‘a prophetic peroration’.
It’s like reading Hegel, if he was still hanging about in the late 1970s. I’m still finishing Andrew Shanks’ book on theodicy too. Same goes. Highly intelligent, scholarly excellence, but with a scalpel-like sense of criticism. I’ve been meaning to review it here, but it keeps leading me into other things.
The ‘other things’ include Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel. Now that’s good. Picked it up this year, so it counts. It’s in the same series as Shlomo Avineri’s book on Hegel and The Modern State that I read a few years ago. There’s work to be done here fusing these two books with Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution. I haven’t started this in a sustained or systematic way, but I think there’s a way back into existentialism through these texts.
I’m really wary of sounding like a cliche of someone approaching fifty who has retreated into classical music and ‘the classics’ and probably, you know, chess, except I haven’t even a basic idea of how to play chess. And I always have a copy of Viz hanging about and some Steve Bell If… anthologies. I have read lots of newspapers particularly the Financial Times. I need to wean myself off the FT obsession a bit in 2019.
I read Burgess’s End of the World News for the first time. It reads like reportage now! Just swap Lynx for the combined threats of nuclear war and climate disaster and there you go. I read his anthology of shorts, The Devil’s Mode, too, which is very enjoyable.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I do all the bad things everyone else does but only some admit to. You know, I will read half a Brian Aldiss and never finish it then feel like I committed a mildly serious crime in a previous life when I see it again.
But it’s happening: I’m getting old; although I suspect it’s nothing more than a slightly pretentious version of watching old sci-fi films to escape from the all too close present. I do that too.
What I’m trying to escape from even more is a creeping sense that the future might look like Graham Greene, Hewison’s Under Siege and Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz with Massive Bells On.
I think the main way I can respond to my enervation is to try to shut my gob for an extended period of time. But I’m not sure I can manage it.
I really don’t know what to do. Nor do you, if you’re really honest with yersen.
And that lot o’er there, they certainly don’ know what they’re doin’.
And that bunch in old photographs, from the Edwardian era.
One dressed up like Britannia, the others in togas, they don’ know what they’re in.
You think you do?
– Steve Hanson