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Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Poetics of Seediness

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?’
‘Seventy francs!’
‘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:

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be alright, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

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.

Childish things

I’m in Faro tonight, on the south coast of Portugal, staying the night in a hotel on the harbour, after a great wedding of my friend Mike and his bride Anna. It was in a town called Serpa, about two hours north from the coast, where Anna grew up.

It’s a fairly small town, only 10,000 people, with sun-bleached squares and sleepy stray dogs sniffing at doors. At the dinner, I was sitting next to a young guy who’s in charge of the Serpa theatre. I have to say I envied his existence, in a small community where his life and work really matter. He said he liked the idea of London life – ‘being connected to the big world’.

Yes, well, I don’t feel that connected, though I did get a comment from the famous Guido Fawkes yesterday, on a blog post I wrote about ‘smeargate’. That’s about as connected to the big world as I get.

Guido’s the blogger who exposed that whole sorry scandal, which sadly involves Derek Draper, the former spin-doctor who left government in disgrace a few years back over a lobbying scandal, and re-invented himself as a psychotherapist. He invented the phrase ‘politics of well-being‘, by the way.

I met Draper at Demos two years ago, when I was talking to them about setting up a programme on the politics of well-being. He seemed friendly enough. A pity he got dragged back into the dirty games of power, like a moth to the flame…

His name is mud now, with his beloved Labour party completely disowning him. But let’s not forget he helped to bring in the Improved Access for Therapies policy, which will hugely increase the number of therapists working for the NHS. That’s a genuine achievement.

Anyway, back to Serpa. Anna’s father is a short, stocky man who used to be a bullfighter. In Portuguese bull-fighting, they don’t kill the bull – instead, at the end of the fight, one plucky fellow walks slowly towards the bull, then when the bull charges, he jumps on the bulls horns, and the rest of his crew pile up behind him until they stop the bull in its tracks. Anna’s dad was that plucky fellow. Mike, meanwhile, is a very keen ultimate frisbee player. Wonder what the dad makes of that.

The service was, thankfully, Anglican – I was grimly prepared for a four hour Latin epic. One of the readings was St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.

I thought of my friends who have got married over the last two or three years, and indeed, they do seem to have grown up, to have changed, become more serious. I, meanwhile, have yet to put away childish things.

It’s strange going to weddings in your early thirties. I went to a wedding two weeks ago, and I was one of about four single people there. It was slightly better yesterday, but only just. I spent about an hour trying to chat up one of the few unmarried women there, only to be told by Mike she was a lesbian.

The guests included a lot of people I was at school and university with, including some I haven’t seen for a decade or so. I found myself humming Mad World: ‘All around I see familiar faces / Worn out faces’, but in fact, people seem to have aged well, and I found them all as charming and fun as ever. My school produced some likeable people.

Most of them are married. I got mixed reports about its blessings. One newly-wed seems to be quite startled by it – he says his wife is far more neurotic now than she ever was in the five years they were dating before they got hitched. On the other hand, I got a lift with another couple, from Faro to Serpa, and the wife called back to London to check on their five-month-old baby (it was the first time they’d left him for the night), then after the call, her hand quietly went over to her husband’s hand, and held it. It was very beautiful, and I felt a lonely old bachelor in the back.

Another couple showed me photos of their four-year-old girl, who looked charming. I think it will get harder and harder, not having a family, when my friends’ children are all around that age – at the moment, most of them are a year old or so, and there’s not much to envy in having a kid at that age, frankly. They just cry, eat and shit. When they’re three or four, however, they’re little personalities, saying funny things and being amusing. You get to see their personalities develop. I’m sure I’ll be very jealous.

It’s funny though – I’m sure half the pleasure of having children is that, actually, you get to be a child again, to enjoy the pleasure of childhood play. So in fact, when you’re married, you actually dust off your ‘childish things’ and use them again. What did St Paul know, anyway.

I was struck, this evening, by the words ‘bride’ and ‘groom’. It’s never hit me before, but where do those words come from? Is it implying that the lady is a horse, who when she gets married takes the bridle, to be led around by the groom? So marriage is, what, the equivalent of breaking in a filly?

It sadly rained yesterday during the wedding, but it was a beautiful, hot day today, and I enjoyed the long (long) bus drive from Serpa to Faro. It took an hour and a half in the car on the way up, but a mere four and a half hours on the way back down, on the ‘Express bus’.

Still, it was a lovely drive, winding around the green fields, past the horses grazing and nuzzling each other, past a falcon soaring over a field, past a stork in its metre-wide nest, past the swifts breaking over the long grass, the clouds watching over us, the sun bleeding out into the great wide sky. How wonderful it is to be alive.

I felt particularly good to be alive because I thought I had cancer last week. I’m a complete hypochondriac – this is the second time I’ve thought I had cancer this year. My GP, Doctor Malik, is beginning to smirk when I walk through the door. Anyway, once again my fears were proved wrong. Hooray, I’m healthy! That’s the good thing about being a hypochondriac – the constant fears of your imminent demise mean you gain a constantly-renewed appreciation for existence.

On the bus drive down, I listened to Calvin Harris’ new song, which is great (video below), and to the latest edition of In Our Time, about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which features my old tutor from Worcester College, Oxford – David Bradshaw. Good to hear his voice again, I have completely lost touch with him.

The discussion reminded me what a fine book it is. David pointed out that, in many ways, it is more utopian then dystopian: Huxley was genuinely worried about the collapse of European civilisation, and thought society needed to become much more controlled, including controlling population through eugenics.

I wonder if climate change will force us to live in more controlled societies. If the population of the UK rises to 100mn, as we take in climate refugees, and we are all crammed into mega-cities, and forced to control our eating, reproduction, travel and energy consumption, how would we cope with that level of social complexity, without serious outbreaks of crime and violence? Perhaps state-sponsored soma is the answer. We can all sit back, shoot up, and think of England.

Well, enough ponderings, here’s Calvin Harris: