I’m reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock for the first time – it’s actually the first time I’ve read any Greene, and I’m really loving it. Greene is a descendant of a tradition arguably invented by Charles Baudelaire, which I call the poetics of seediness. It’s an attempt to find a poetry in the seedy materialism of modern, urban mass society.
Baudelaire began the tradition with Les Fleurs Du Mal, which TS Eliot said made it possible to write a poetry of modern life. What Baudelaire did was to contrast the banal materialism of the modern city, with its gas lamps and gutters and shopping malls, with the heroic soul of the artist.
It is like a collision between the seediness and banality of the modern, with the ancient, haughty soul of the artist, which finds itself in exile in modern life. The artist, alone among the grubby contented masses, has a sense of heaven and hell, of the heights and depths which the soul is capable of, rather than the narrow tremulations of the modern soul, which only knows a simulacrum of passion when shedding tears watching Britain’s Got Talent.
The tone is one of aristocratic revulsion against mass society, the artist is a king in exile, a forgotten descendant of priests and shamans, who finds himself usurped by economists, advertisers and two-bit journalists. There is a sort of gnostic horror at the cheery materialism of modern life, at the sheer amount of junk created by it.
But at the same, there’s a fascination with modern life, with its sheer vulgarity, and its complete bathetic difference with everything the poet holds dear. And there’s a sort of wallowing in the vulgarity of modernity, and also an acute sense of the ridiculousness of the poet’s spiritual ambitions, set against the banality of modern life (this particularly in TS Eliot).
So Baudelaire invented it. Flaubert developed it, far more than Dickens. Flaubert has the necessary aristocratic revulsion from the coarse bourgeois sensibility of modern life – Madame Bovary expresses it well, particularly the scene where her Romantic interlude with her lover are set against the coarse backdrop of a municipal agricultural fair:
‘We, now, why did we meet? What turn of fate decreed it? Was it not that, like two rivers gradually converging across the intervening distance, our own natures propelled us towards one another?’
He took her hand, and she did not withdraw it.
‘General prize!’ said the Chairman.
‘Just now for instance, when I came to call on you…’
‘Monsieur Bizet of Quincampoix.’
‘…how could I know that I should escort you here?’
‘And I’ve stayed with you, because I couldn’t tear myself away from you, though I’ve tried a hundred times.’
After Flaubert, Conrad developed the poetics, particularly in The Secret Agent, which was so different from previous novels, so modern, precisely in its seediness: where previous heroes of novels had been dashing soldiers or heroic women, Conrad’s anti-hero was the proprietor of a porn book-shop.
TS Eliot, of course, is the real maestro of seediness. He picks up all the vulgarities of modern life with a ghoulish glee, and sets against it his own lonely, resentful shamanic soul:
And so we come to Brighton Rock, where the person who expresses this revulsion at the coarse materialism of modern life is, funnily enough, Pinkie, the murdering thug anti-hero. Greene, for reasons known only to him, chooses to give the vicious gangster a gnostic soul, that hates modern life for all its narrow junk:
‘We got some presents for you, Pinkie’, Cubitt said, ‘furniture for the home’, and indicated two little obscene objects beside the beer on the washstand – the Brighton stationers were full of them – a tiny doll’s commode in the shape of a radio set labelled ‘the smallest A.1 two-valve receiving set in the world’, and a mustard-pot shaped like a lavatory seat with the legend, ‘For me and my girl’. It was like a return of all the horror he had ever felt, the hideous loneliness of his innocence.’
So this is the world view of the poetics of seediness: Our souls are trapped beneath the junk of modern life. They are trapped into parroting the narrow emotions prescribed us by pop culture. They are trapped by the lowliness of the spiritual aspirations of our leaders, our artists, our selves. The common consolation is this: well, if there is no God, there is at least the FA Cup. If we are not angels, we are at least comfortable.
The poetics of seediness is the story of the artist’s soul struggling against this, and finding some sort of beauty in the struggle.
It is really a Modernist poetics, aristocratic, snobbish, in some ways hating mass culture. It didn’t really flourish after the Second World War, when literature took a more Joycean take, of embracing modernity in all its junk and demotic vitality.
But I still like it.