Last night I attended a lecture by Professor Sarah Churchwell to celebrate the launch of a new BA Liberal Arts degree at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, on the importance of the Humanities. It seems a necessary statement to make. The university where I teach is opening a Humanities degree at a time when departments in that field are closing around the country (History in Sunderland; English at Portsmouth), and there have been concerns over the future of the sector as a whole. People who work in it are feeling defensive, with the sense the Government is only interested in STEM subjects, or in subjects that can be taught in a narrowly vocational way, leading to defined, definite, concrete jobs.
Churchwell spoke about the value and the necessity of the study of the Humanities, drawing links between American Blues (we had just heard a version of Catfish Blues played by a fusion group mixing Blues with classical Indian instrumentation), slavery, film archiving, the Holocaust, and fascism and the ideology behind America First – the subject of her last book.
She spoke, too, about current global issues like the Coronavirus epidemic, saying that medical knowledge here is not enough, as you can’t learn from a medical emergency in real time: “You won’t stop an epidemic if you don’t understand politics, human behaviour, history.” And the same goes for the migration and refugee crisis: “Everything happens in a political, social, historical, medical context, and the Humanities’ business is the understanding of context.”
She spoke, too, about the advances of technology, and how it’s not enough to have the technical skills to invent new machines and mechanisms; you’ve got to understand the social and ethical effects they bring into play. Her example here was Facebook. By not understanding – and not caring to understand – the implications of uncontrolled and unregulated political advertising on his platform, he allowed the undermining of democracy in the 2016 American election.
Her lecture made me think of Lorrie Moore’s brilliant short story ‘Dance in America’ (you can hear Louise Erdrich read it on the New Yorker podcast here). The story is about a probably 30-something dance teacher visiting an old college friend during a work trip teaching ‘Dance in the Schools’ in rural Pennsylvania. The friend – Cal – lives in a big old unrenovated former frat house with his wife, Simone, and their son Eugene, who is seven years old, and has cystic fibrosis – which is likely to kill him before he even reaches adulthood.
The story is partly about the narrator’s self-image as a former performer (artist) gone to seed and second-rate work, and it’s partly about how how we conceptualise and respond to our impotence in the face of illness and mortality. (It’s about other things too: it’s one of Moore’s best stories.) The relation between these two things is laid out clearly quite early on the story, when Cal says to Moore’s dancer (we haven’t met Eugene yet, only been told about him):
“It’s not that I’m not for the arts,” says Cal. “You’re here; money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really–I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”
What is wonderful about the story is that it does not contradict that sentiment, but it shows how we as people are bigger than it. Cal and Simone, he a college teacher, she a painter, don’t treat Eugene as a problem to be solved or saved by science, but as a person. And so does the Moore’s dancer. That’s what the Humanities do; they do put our problems in context, and – Churchwell was very clear on this point – they critique that context.
Studying the Humanities (or the Arts) don’t make you a better person, Churchwell said, and Moore’s protagonist is a great example of that. She is a disappointed, self-deprecating – and self-deprecated – person, as much ruined by chronic irony as buoyed up and saved by it. A classic Lorrie Moore character, in other words. She spouts opaque homilies about the value of art that she doesn’t even pretend to believe in herself (“My head fills with my own yack”), and relies on knee-jerk superiority towards the people who are unimpressed by her exertions (“They ask why everything I make seems so ‘feministic’. ‘I think the word is feministical,’ I say.”)
But what she can do, faced the terrible exuberance, wit and lust-for-life embodied in the questioning, curious, imperious person of Eugene, is dance. When it is bedtime, she leads the family in their nightly routine of dancing – to Kenny Loggins – and “march, strut, slide to the music. We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again.” When Eugene is too tired to continue, she stands with him, and moves more slowly, responding to his needs, to his context.
She does all this almost without thinking, almost intuitively. But that’s the difference between the Arts and the Humanities. The Arts can be instinctive, and intuitive. It’s the Humanities’ job to do that thinking, that analysis, that contextualising for them. Moore doesn’t labour the point – she doesn’t return to the question of how and whether the Arts (and the Humanities) can or should measure up to Science, but she shows that what they do is different, and compatible, and both equally necessary.
Certainly, I think Churchwell would be more concrete in her pushback against Cal’s “give every last fucking dime to science”. What? You think simply chucking money at the problem would make it go away? ‘Science’ is not an all-knowing, all-seeing, altruistic entity that cures diseases with a wave of a magic wand. It is embedded and embodied in human structures, and it is those structures – not the petri dishes in the lab – that the Humanities want to, and need to, muscle in on and critique. Science doesn’t just march, strut and slide forwards. It crouches, moves backward, then bursts forwards.
Say Science comes up with a cure for Eugene’s Cystic Fibrosis, but then wants to sell it to him for $272,000 per year? What does that do to Cal and Simone? Does their health insurance cover it? I doubt it, seeing as their dining room has saucepans in it to catch rainwater. ($272,000 is the current cost in the US of the drug Orkambi, the best current fit for extending lives of sufferers. It has been estimated that the cost of generic version of the drug is $5,000 per year.)
Art can’t do what Science can do. It can’t cure disease. It can console us and distract us and energise us, and help us understand why we’re bothering to try. The Humanities are a necessary corollary to the whole process. They provide the context – the continually evolving, continually self-critiquing context – in which both Science and Art can try to improve the quality of our lives. As Moore has it:
I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
The Humanities help us ask that question.
(What a pleasingly alliterative set of author names)
There’s an epigraph that I often remember, from Dave Eggers’ debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000 – and boy I wonder if anyone’s read or reread that book recently. It would be an interesting experience.) In fact the book has two memorable epigraphs: firstly, ‘THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.’; and, secondly:
First of all:
I am tired.
I am true of heart.
You are tired.
You are true of heart.
Both of them sum up the radical sincerity and potential mawkishness at the heart of his writing. Both, because of this, are memorable. They stay with me, because as statements they are so widely applicable – they are applicable now – as well as being pertinent to the book for which they act as curtain raisers, or perhaps, rather, mottos painted on the safety curtain of the book’s theatre.
I am tired. Teaching starts next week. Summer’s over. I am sure that you are tired. I make no claims for the trueness of either of our hearts, but let’s accentuate the positive.
I am tired. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
And but so:
Books are wonderful relaxation. They are also wonderful energising. There’s nothing I love more than grabbing my phone to tweet a response to something I’m reading, whether it’s Don DeLillo describing a woman putting a condom on a man’s penis as “dainty-fingered and determined to be an expert, like a solemn child dressing a doll”,
No big deal, just a DeLillo sentence describing someone putting a condom on a penis. Fuck sake, Don. pic.twitter.com/i5oBTEN1ly
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) August 31, 2019
or Lorrie Moore pole-axing the reader with the devastating end to the first page of her story ‘Terrific Mother’.
Here is the first page of ‘Terrific Mother’. Who else would *dare* to open a story like that? pic.twitter.com/vr4qFHJFXR
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) August 22, 2019
I’ve been trying to read Proust with my phone to hand, too, as an enhanced form of annotation, and that, too, has been fun and exciting.
Fun and excitement: wow. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
But, sometimes, writing about books can be a chore. It’s a terrible thing that a book, once read, even a good book, can be put on one side and forgotten. What’s the point of all of this, you think, if a book that engages your brain and emotions over a number of hours over a number of days just gets put back on the shelf and, to all intents and purposes, forgotten? Because sometimes they are picked up again. Sometimes they are passed on. My August reading contained left-turns and blind alleys, slogs up stony hills and brief gleefully shrieking slides down sandy dunes. There was reading for work, reading for the soul, reading by accident and reading by design.
The Don DeLillos are there for an academic chapter I’m writing, and I found myself zooming through them. Mao II, a re-read, is far from my favourite of his novels: too slick and portentous, too glib in the way it throws around its themes.
In one aspect at least it’s a victim of its success. The famous riff about terrorists having replaced the novelists at the heart of the inner life of the culture is blandly prophetic, but it’s too on the nose. The other ‘prophetic’ moments or images in his novels – such as the most photographed barn in America, or the playing dead response to the Airborne Toxic Event, are more oblique, more generally symbolic. The writing is spiffing. It’s spiky poetry has just become too easy to read.
Running Dog, by contrast, I enjoyed. I don’t think I’d read it before. It’s more corny in its plotting – closer to a spy thriller or a contemporary hardboiled thriller – and that allows the author to have more fun, and for the punchier writing to stand out from the more familiar skeleton. Another extract I tweeted managed to pick out something that occurred to me elsewhere about the male (I think) approach to language. Here it is: Continue reading
August, August, August… disappearing into the rear-view mirror of the year, always the saddest sensation. Gone the sun, gone the skip and bounce in the day, gone the time for reading.
I am now firmly stuck in the middle part of life where August means school holidays, which means a couple of weeks away somewhere hot, which means camping and a pool or beach and the opportunity to read unencumbered by home life and academic/journalistic imperatives, while the kids divebomb around me. But I can read what I want.
What I took away with me this year was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (sadly leaving behind Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers because of space considerations), and three paperbacks from my Myopic/Misogynist reading list of women writers: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
The Luminaries, in a way, is the perfect intelligent person’s holiday read. It is a mystery story (keeps you reading), and a meticulously built historical fiction (allows you to drift away into a fully-imagined, fully-upholstered reverie), but it is also presented via a structure as intricate and labyrinthine as a spider’s web (you need to have the time to concentrate). Like the other ‘big book’ on the Man Booker longlist, Richard House’s The Kills, it wouldn’t necessarily be something you’d want to read in snippets, tired, at bedtime. Both are fractured narratives, with various versions of events orbiting a ‘truth’ that the reader is tasked with putting together themselves.
Of course, the risk with this – with all mystery stories, i.e. with all stories that include the past as a dimension to be explored – is that the myriad possible ‘truths’ thrown up in the earlier sections of the book may well be tastier meat than the ‘true’ truth exposed at the end. Continue reading
Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.
In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.
That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.
The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.
Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.
The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.
But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers. Continue reading
This month I finished reading two books that had been lying open – by my bedside, on my desk – for months and months: WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (a re-read) and TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death. Obviously, this makes them the opposite of page-turners – page-turn-backers, perhaps, as, with the Sebald especially, I found myself going back and starting chapters over, settling myself back in to whichever slippery, slow-moving digression he was taking me on. With the Clark the stop-start process was not a problem. I knew what I was reading it for: I was reading it for insight, for ideas about how we look at paintings, and what it means to come back and look at paintings over and over again, day after day, rather than assume that we can take them in at one glance.
It’s a marvellous book about art, that exhibits its authority not in the range of its reference (though that’s there), but in the focus of its attention. In it Clark spends a six-month sabbatical sitting in a gallery looking at two paintings by Poussin, giving his thoughts not in a clever post-hoc essay, but in diary form, as they come. It makes me want to read Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf, his book about sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud, which presumably has as much to say about the day-to-day process of art on the other side of the aesthetic divide.
Clark’s book might have something to say about why I’ve chosen, or ended up, reading the Sebald in slow, overlapping, self-replicating waves, rather than a simple linear progression. He is particularly good on the importance of the viewing position in front of the painting, something that is impossible to recreate with any kind of reproduction – and boy the reproductions in The Sight of Death are good, dozens and dozens of details on high-gloss paper, magnified crops to illustrate whatever point Clark is making. I went to see one of ‘his’ Poussins in the National Gallery last week, and it was – in its current condition, or lighting, or situation – a sad and muddy mess: impossible to make out even half of what the book shows us, but then Clark is all about the contingencies of the moment: the hanging, the room in the gallery, whether the lights are on or off, the weather outside. He says:
So pictures create viewing positions – don’t we know that already? Yes, roughly we do; but we have only crude and schematic accounts of how they create them, and even cruder discussions of their effects – that is, of how the positions and distances are or are not modes of seeing, modes of understanding, intertwined with the events and objects they apply to.
Every time he goes back to look at the painting he must reorient himself in front of it, let himself work his way back in. Does something similar happen with books? Perhaps. The key problem with Sebald, for me, is how you should negotiate the information he gives you. Continue reading