The Meaning of Recognition, p.1Clive James
To Ian McEwan
No fixed idea except to avoid fixed ideas.
The Meaning of Recognition
Polanski and the Pianist
Fantasy in the West Wing
Pushkin’s Deadly Gift
Great Sopranos of Our Time
A Memory Called Malouf
The Hidden Art of Bing Crosby
Larkin Treads the Boards
The Iron Capital of Bruno Schulz
Criticism à la Kermode
Rough Guides to Shakespeare
General Election Sequence
Primo Levi and the Painted Veil
A Big Boutique of Australian Essays
Slouching towards Yeats
Cyrano on the Scaffold
A Nightclub in Bali
Our First Book
In Memoriam Sarah Raphael
Aldous Huxley Then and Now
A Man Called Peter Porter
Weeping for London
Attack of the Killer Critics
Philip Roth’s Alternative America
The Miraculous Vineyard of Australian Poetry
The University of the Holocaust
No Way, Madame Bovary
The Battle for Isaiah Berlin
Save Us from Celebrity
Since retiring from mainstream television at the turn of the millennium – always pick the busiest moment to do a fade – I have been able to devote more time to essays and poetry. Each of the two forms, I like to think, holds territory in the other, if only through the requirement that it should be written with a care for the connection between theme and craft. Any poem which is all writing and no ideas is a pain in the neck, no matter how adroitly done; and any essay which is all ideas and no writing is dead before it hits the page. It should go without saying that a poem takes more effort to put together than the reader can guess. It is hardly ever said that an essay needs a similarly disproportionate expenditure of energy. The expenditure takes time. The essayist must be free to pause, finish reading Joseph and His Brothers, sleep in the afternoon, spend a whole hour on a single paragraph, watch CSI: Miami in the evening, and then work far into the night, until finally he produces a piece of writing that shows no more signs of strain than the easy outpouring of some dolt who bungs down the first thing that comes into his head. The essayist’s fluency, however, is only apparent, like his simplicity, which is, or ought to be, a work of synthesis, and not of subtraction. To the extent that it can make a clear argument while remaining faithful to nuance, his readability, if he can manage it, is his tribute to the complexity of experience: a legitimately lyrical response to the tragic. I hope the pieces in this book, when they look simple, do so without seeming light-minded, because most of them were written with a heavy heart. After the Berlin Wall came down, many of us who were already growing old had hopes that the young would grow up in a saner world. One of the signs of a saner world would be that there would be less call to consider contemporary politics when talking about the arts. It hasn’t turned out that way.
The first and last pieces in this book are concerned with the difference between celebrity and recognition. I tried to keep politics out of both of them, but it shouldered its way in, because celebrity is a frivolity, and the frivolities of Western civilization are at the centre of the question of how freedom can be defended with a whole heart when you find yourself sickened by the vices that arise from it. The answer to the question, I believe, is that those who attack liberal democracy, whether from without or within, loathe its virtues even more than its vices, and should therefore not be conceded the moral advantage even when they are granted their suicidal determination. But I don’t think it’s an answer that should be reached too easily, and many of the pieces assembled between the two bookends are concerned directly with just how reprehensible, even in its culture, Western civilization has been before, and still is now. There are one or two pieces that could be said to have no political dimension, unless you think that an article about Formula One motor racing might itself be a comment on the unforeseeable aftermath of World War II, evoking as it does the paradox of watching, on a Japanese television set, a German driver dominating the world at the wheel of an Italian car. Nor was Bing Crosby a notably political figure, except if you believe, as I do, that the influence of its popular culture was the one aspect of American imperialism that was neither planned in the first place nor possible to resist. But in most of these writings, politics invades every sphere, even the world of poetry. Not that poetry was ever a separate world – such a notion would have seemed very strange to Dante – but there was a time when it suited the cultivated to think it might be. Now nobody thinks that about poetry, or even about being cultivated. Politics gets into everything. It reaches even those people who have nothing to do with their lives except hope that the next distribution of food will not turn into a massacre. Especially it reaches them, leaving their bodies lying in the dust for the vultures and the television cameras. One day those birds will have electronic eyes, and the insatiable viewer of reality TV will be able to see from the inside what civilization looks like when it ends – the bloodbath before it started. Which raises the question, since the subject is so desperately serious, of whether somebody without the proper qualifications should talk about politics at all.
The answer to that question is that he must, and that the value of what he says will depend entirely on his tone of voice. Whatever the subject, whether apparently piffling or unarguably grave, his way of speaking will either be true to life or it will be a tissue of lies. There are essayists who can be faithful to the world’s multiplicity even when they are writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are other essayists who can’t report a war-crimes trial without writing flummery. In its printed form, a tone of voice is a style, and a style is a spine and a brain, not just a skin. If this book keeps coming back to poetry, it’s because it starts there: because a poem without style is inconceivable, and only style can register the flow of history. Much of history’s flow, alas, is the flow of innocent blood. For a while we might have tried to think otherwise, but it was wishful thinking – and wishful thinking was the fatal human characteristic with which the critical essay, a far more analytical instrument than the poem, was first designed to deal. Immured in his beloved library, Montaigne might have preferred to read instead of write. The turbulent world wouldn’t let him. A gifted diplomat much sought after by his government, he tried to shut himself off from politics, but it got in through the walls. And so he invented the form we practise now, always asking ourselves what we really know, and answering with what we have learned. One thing we are bound to learn, unfortunately, is that no amount of age will bring sufficient wisdom to cover the unpredictable. There we were, fearing that our prosperous children might lose sight of the value of liberty because they would never see it threatened. Nice thought, bad guess, wrong fear.
THE MEANING OF RECOGNITION
If the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal is the biggest single honour with which an Australian writer can be graced, it is because of the stature of Philip Hodgins himself. Born in 1959 and dead in 1995, he had a cruelly short lifespan in which to accomplish so much. An acceptance speech for the medal should be mainly about him and what he did. In the following speech I tried to make it so, but I thought to make a start by establishing a general context of argument. For that context, I had to draw upon my own experience more than upon his, because I didn’t really know much about what it was like to be a young poet burdened with the knowledge that he was condemned to an
There is a difference between celebrity and recognition. Celebrities are recognized in the street, but usually because of who they are, or who they are supposed to be. To achieve recognition, however, is to be recognized in a different way. It is to be known for what you have done, and quite often the person who knows what you have done has no idea of what you look like. When I say that I’ve had enough of celebrity status, I don’t mean that I am sick of the very idea. As it happens, I think that the mass-psychotic passion for celebrity – this enormous talking point for those who do not really talk – is one of the luxurious diseases that Western liberal democracy will have to find a cure for in the long run, but the cure will have to be self-willed. I don’t think that it can be imposed, and certainly not from the outside. I didn’t much like Madonna’s last television appearance in Britain. Billed as the acme of sophisticated sexiness, it featured Madonna wearing high heels, a trench coat and a beret. She crouched like a pygmy prizefighter while snarling into the microphone as if anyone listening might be insufficiently intelligent to understand her message – a hard audience to find, in my view.
I thought of this performance as an attempt to prove that a knowing sneer can be made audible while discrediting the French Resistance. But Madonna’s slow paroxysm of self-regard, a flagrant example of Western decadence though it undoubtedly was, did not inspire me to fly a hijacked airliner into her house. Here indeed was a celebrity gone mad, if not celebrity itself gone mad. But she will have to realize that herself, through her sense of the ridiculous, if she still has one. A violent attack would produce nothing but more Madonnas: spiteful spores in berets. An awareness even more sophisticated than the aberration is its only cure, for her and for the phenomenon of celebrity as a whole. Until the moment when mocking laughter does its work, we will be stuck with celebrity being called a phenomenon, or, as even the journalists are now quite likely to call it, a phenomena. Really it would be just a bore if it were not so toxic. But to know that, you have to be genuinely interested in the sort of achievement whose practitioners you feel compelled to recognize in a more substantial way. The cure lies in that direction if it lies anywhere.
While we are waiting for the cure, I am quite content to go on having my life distorted by my own small measure of celebrity, which has mainly come about because my face was once on television. Your face doesn’t have to be on television for long, and in any capacity, before you become recognizable not just to normally equipped people but to people who are otherwise scarcely capable of recognizing anything. You will find out why posters of the ten most wanted criminals can be so effective. How is it that the lurking presence of a fugitive master of disguise is so often detected by the village idiot? The answer has to do with a primeval characteristic of our sensory apparatus. If the human brain has the outline of another human face sufficiently implanted, that other human face can be picked out of a crowd decades in the future, whatever has happened to it. Once you have appeared on that scale, nothing is harder than to disappear. On the day you realize that you can vanish only through never emerging from your motel room, and that even then the pizza delivery man has recognized you through your floor-length facial hair, you will realize that celebrity really amounts to a kind of universal mugshot. While it resolutely misses the point of what you would like to think you have done, it is an indelible picture of who you are.
But when I say that I have had enough of it, I only mean that I have had my share, and can’t complain. Some of the distortions were always welcome. That was one of the things that made them distortions. They were too welcome. You can very rapidly get used to the idea that the swish restaurant will always find a table for you. You can get so used to it that you think the restaurant needs a new manager on the night when the table strangely can’t be found. What’s needed, of course, is not a new manager for the restaurant but a new injection of fame for yourself. Now there’s a distortion. That way madness lies, and madness would probably have arrived for me if I had ever been a famous young rock star: go to hell, go directly to hell, do not even pass through rehab. As it happened, I was never a famous young rock star. Instead I was a reasonably well-known middle-aged media man, and never became addicted to anything more destructive than Café Crème mild miniature cigars, smoked at the rate of one tin of ten a day, escalating to two tins a day the day after I passed the insurance medical. When Elvis Presley hit bottom, he exploded in the bathroom. His bottom hit the ceiling. My own nadir was less spectacular, and the world did not take note, because the world did not care.
I was in one of the smoking rooms at Bangkok Airport, on the way to Australia. I would say you should see a smoking room at Bangkok Airport, but in fact you can’t see it, or anyway you can’t see into it. It is not very big, and though made of glass it is opaque when viewed from the outside: opaque because of what is happening inside. The smokers are in there, jammed together like the damned on some broken-down, fog-bound trolley car designed by Dante. When a smoker, reaching for the smokes in his pocket, opens the door to enter, he realizes that he can leave the smokes where they are. All he has to do is breathe in. It was my last experience of this that made me realize that I should leave the smokes where they were permanently. Eventually, only a few months later, I did so. If what was left of my life brought stress, then I would live with it without an analgesic. I wanted to live. I was reasonably sure, of course, that I still had the choice. Others, I had finally noticed, are not so lucky. After a lifetime of self-indulgence, I was at last beginning to be impressed by the possibility that abusing your own health might be an insult to those whose health has already been abused by the Man Upstairs, who really knows how to dish the abuse out the way it should impress you most – i.e. at random. Our defence mechanisms against the anguish brought on by recognizing the arbitrariness of the Almighty are closely akin, I suspect, to the defence mechanisms of the liberal intelligentsia in declining to recognize that evil might operate without a rational motive. As a member of the liberal intelligentsia myself (how could I not be? I went to Sydney University) I try to be alert to its weak points, and that’s one of them: we tend to believe that there is some natural state of justice to which political life would revert if only the conflicts between interest groups could be resolved. But whatever justice we enjoy arose from the conflicts between interest groups, and no such natural state of justice has ever existed. The only natural state is unjust: so unjust, and so savage, that we would rather not imagine it, even when, especially when, we are young and strong. Hence the defence mechanisms. Restricting perception so as to free us for action, they liberate us, but they are limiting, and sooner or later we have to examine the limitations, or the liberation will defeat itself. Facing reality ought to be an aim in life. It hardly ever is, and the pursuit of happiness can practically be defined as the avoidance of any such thing. But an aim in life it certainly ought to be. Just as long as somebody else does it.
Which brings us to the main subject, because Philip Hodgins faced life. He would have been the first to say that he faced it only because he was forced to, but he did it. He faced life when he faced death. For him, death lit life up. In his final time on earth he would sometimes deny this, but only in poems that lit life up like nobody else’s. Lavishly talented, he would have been a major poet whatever the circumstances. If he had lived as long as his admired Goethe, he would probably have been Goethe. Hodgins might never have written Faust, but he almost certainly would have produced a vast body of work in which art and science interpenetrated each other as i
Looking at it from the other direction, his circumstances would have made him emblematic whatever his talent. Put the two things together, however – the talent and the tragedy – and you’ve got something with a force of gravity strong enough to feel on your face. It’s important to go on saying that, because his books look so slight. But they only look it. They weigh as if the language in them had been refined from pitchblende. Barely there between the finger and the thumb, when opened they put you into the world of physics whose heavy metals produced the rays that bombarded him in his illness. In his last book, sardonically called Things Happen, one of his last poems quotes Goethe in its title. The dying Goethe is said to have called for ‘Mehr Licht, Mehr Licht.’ Hodgins’ title is a translation: ‘More Light, More Light’. Let me quote the first stanza. Usually when a lecturer says ‘let me’ he means he’s going to do it anyway, but for some of what Hodgins wrote as he grappled, whether early or late, with the looming fact of his awful finale, I do feel I need your permission. I’m going to assume it, and use it as a blank cheque. When this is over, you can decide whether I’ve abused your trust. But enough of the pleasantries. There’s no avoiding that first stanza any further. Here it comes.
Sickly sunlight through the closed curtains
that are white but much thicker than a sheet.
Sunlight with all the life taken out of it,
diminished but still there, an afterglow,
like the presence of a friend who has died.
You’re lying still and yet you’re moving fast.
Notice that by using the impersonal ‘you’ he shuts out the ‘you’ that you would use for yourself. You yourself are just reading, not even visiting. You are well. You might have seen a friend die, but you have a life you’ll be going back to. Back out there in your life, the sunlight won’t have all the life taken out of it. It will be ordinary, everyday sunlight. You’ll be in it again. You won’t be in here. But then, with the opening of the second stanza, it turns out that you might be staying. By now he has made that standard device, the impersonal ‘you’ that should mean only him, into a personal identification that includes the person he addresses. You are not excused after all.
The Meaning of Recognition by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes