Cultural Cohesion, p.2Clive James
Ideally, it should be an inclusive style, but there is room for the cranky, the narrow, the wilfully provocative. Room for manoeuvre was a big help when it came to establishing the tradition of providing a supplement and a corrective to the academic study of literature. This tradition is still known under the bewildering title of Grub Street, as if it were a place: but really it is a spirit, and one that has flourished since the time of Johnson and Pope, who were never afraid to chide the scholars. At the beginning of my career in Grub Street I praised Edmund Wilson as the arch example of the Metropolitan Critic, the critic who operates in the vital space between the hack reviewers of the periodicals and the dust contractors of the universities. Looking back on it, I can see now that I was seeking an American endorsement for something that Britain had always had. Nowadays it has more of it than ever, and largely because no American endorsement is needed, even if it might be wanted. The London literary journalists might dream of an American stipend, but they are lucky not to have it, because the price is high. The price of achieving prominence as a literary journalist in America is to play an enforced role as an arbiter of success, and the price of not achieving it is to be marginalized. In America, the excellent literary essays of Howard Nemerov are collected in a book published by the University of Missouri Press, a solitary copy of which I lately happened on in a Bloomsbury remainder shop. Some of the essays appeared in the Sewanee Review. In Britain, all of them would have appeared in periodicals available to the general reader; I would have seen them years ago, and perhaps drawn upon their opinions to modify mine. The Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis would have had a different audience, and I would have been glad to be part of it.
To write in London is a better way to be marginalized. One might not be a Distinguished Professor, but one occupies a more advantageous margin. Placed at the perimeter, one can see in, and can comment more surely on what comes out, and on how far it comes: the field of attraction. As of this writing, there is concern in London about the proposal to accept American sponsorship of the Booker Prize, with the likely corollary of opening the competition to American novels. The question is thought to turn on whether or not this prospective Americanization will leave the way open for non-American novelists in English to be blown off the court as if by a Dream Team of American basketballers: seven-foot-tall All-Stars wearing Air Jordans. Roth! Bellow! Donna Tartt! Forget about it! But London, and not New York, is the best place in which to realize that the Booker Prize was Americanized from the jump. The Booker Prize is a marketing tool. And the market is part of the magnet.
Some subjects have no market value. They only have value. Literary journalism is one of them. The demand for it will never increase. Nobody who practises it will get rich. When Hollywood makes the movie about Edmund Wilson’s passion for Edna St. Vincent Millay, it could well mean Oscars for Ben Affleck and Kirsten Dunst, but the box office returns will come too late to help Wilson with his tax problem. Literary journalism is a branch of humanism, and humanism is not utilitarian: it must be pursued for its own sake. In America this is a hard principle to stick to, but there are many Americans who are glad to be reminded it exists, because they know that America is not the whole world, and would be impoverished if it were. By that reckoning, the best way to serve America is to stay out if it, and send in messages along the lines of magnetic force. They can be messages of admonition, or messages of appreciation, or both. But unless some of us stay away from the magnet, the messages cannot be sent.
INTRODUCTION TO THE
Under the title As of This Writing, this anthology of my work as an essayist was first published in 2003 and attracted a certain amount of attention from the American critics. Four years later another book, Cultural Amnesia, attracted much more attention from those same critics and also won a following among the public. Eventually it went to a paperback edition, which continues to do gratifyingly well: enough for my publishers to make it clear that if I wanted to write a sequel they might put it into print. I thought of calling the sequel Cultural Amnesia II: The Quest Goes On, so as to give the flavour of a movie franchise. The cover could feature artwork of myself in a Harrison Ford pose, with a ray-gun, and perhaps an intergalactic female aristocrat clinging to my waist. But over the past two and a half years my health has been too fragile to permit my making a start on it.
Frustrated in my intentions to write a sequel, I was a good while thinking of an alternative means of procedure, namely a prequel. In all but name, As of This Writing had been the predecessor to Cultural Amnesia. With a new title, its continuity with that later book might be made explicit. Over the long period in which I wrote the pieces in this volume, I was working towards, but had not yet reached, the conclusion that Cultural Amnesia would depend on: the conclusion, that is, that a culture is not a coherent whole, but a multiform and expanding mass of creative activities held together by lines of connection that can be described only on the understanding that the description must be incomplete.
Earlier on, between the years 1968 and 2002—the working years covered by this volume—I had proceeded on the assumption that the culture I had been born into, and which I had set out to operate within as a cultural critic, was all of a piece. There was poetry and there was prose, and there were high and low versions of each. Things like painting and music came at various levels of intensity: levels which could safely be identified as either worthy or trivial. As the reader will soon see, I had doubts myself about the self-containment of these categories. To take an extreme example, I was already wondering whether the creations of Judith Krantz might not be more alive than half of the putatively serious novels I was reading. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, she was a big name among popular novelists: her books sold in millions. With Princess Daisy she hadn’t written Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but she had raised the question of whether dullness should be put up with. My essay about her, which the reader will find here under the title of “A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses,” made it all the way to the Oxford Book of Essays. I found it hard to convince myself that I could have got there without her.
To put it briefly, I already knew that things were more complicated than I had thought. But for a long while they were complicated enough. There was so much first-rate stuff to be praised. In poetry, Philip Larkin published important new poems during my time as a critic. (I actually reviewed his collection High Windows when it came out.) In prose, the whole of George Orwell was reissued in one go. Critics could occupy their time impeccably by dealing with nothing except books written in English. But finally I noticed, from my own behaviour, that paying attention to Solzhenitsyn and to Primo Levi meant that there was a larger and less harmonious cultural world. The forces of disintegration that those two great writers had helped to define were part of our culture too, or at any rate their consequences were. Cultural stability was an illusion. It was coming apart all the time. It was like the universe: its edges all fled away from you no matter where you stood.
But this chilling realization was for a later volume. In the volume before you now, confidence reigns. The critic thinks that he knows exactly what he is doing, and has a wonderful time doing it. As I read the text again, I find that I inadvertently wrote a happy book. Even when I tell John le Carré to stop being so pompous, I sound just as intent on having fun as on correcting his taste. (He thought I was conducting a vendetta, but that reaction was an example, I thought, of the very pomposity I was talking about.) I don’t say that the book comes from a more innocent era. But it does come from a more innocent writer. Once, I thought that a culture could stave off the world’s evil. Now I think that a culture must take continual account of the irrationality that would like to destroy it. I hope my later view is the more mature, but perhaps I have just grown old.
ON AUDEN’S DEATH
For a long time before his death, the fact that a homosexual was the greatest living English poet had the status of an open secret: anybody with better than a passing knowledge of W. H. Auden’s writing must have been in on it, and in his later essays (one thinks particularly of the essays on Housman and Ackerley) he was teetering on the verge of declaring himself outright. During E. M. Forster’s last decades the intelligentsia was similarly privy to covert information. At Forster’s death, however, the obituaries—many of them written by old acquaintances—didn’t hesitate to let the cat spring from the bag and dash about among a wider public. It isn’t recorded that anybody died of shock at this revelation. One would have thought that a precedent for plain dealing had at long last been set. With Auden’s demise, though, there has been a retreat into coy mummery—perhaps to protect his dedicatees still living, but more probably because no respectable literatus wants the responsibility of firing the gun that will set the young scholars off on their plodding race to re-explicate what any sensitive reader has long since seen to be one of the more substantial poetic achievements of the modern age. Poor scorned clericals, they will find that their new key turns with bewitching ease, but that it might as well be turning in a lake as in a lock. Auden is a long way beyond being a crackable case.
Nevertheless, the truth helps. It was an often-stated belief in Auden’s later essays that knowledge of an artist’s personal life was of small relevance in understanding his work. Insatiably and illuminatingly inquisitive, Auden transgressed his own rule on every possible occasion. The principle was the right one, but had been incorrectly stated. He was saying that to know the truth will still leave you facing a mystery. What he should have said was that to know the truth will leave you with a better chance of facing the right mystery. And it quickly becomes evident, I think, that to accept the truth about Auden’s sexual nature does nothing to diminish his poetry—quite the opposite. Acceptance leads in the very short run to the realization that the apparent abstractness of Auden’s expressed sensuality is really a lyricism of unique resonance, and in the long run to the conviction that Auden’s artistic career, taken as a whole, is a triumph of the moral self living out its ideal progress as a work of art.
. . .
Auden’s first poems instantly revealed an unrivalled gift for luminous statement. Simply by naming names he could bring anything to life:
Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood
An industry already comatose. . . .
After the withering of 1930s illusions it became fashionable to laugh at “Pylon” poetry, but even though intentions do not make deeds there was always something honourable in the intention of domesticating a technological imagery, and anyway Auden himself had only to intend and the deed was done. So formidable a capacity to elevate facts from the prosaic to the poetic had been seen rarely in centuries, and such fluent gestures in doing it had almost never been seen. Auden’s poetry possessed the quality which Pasternak so admired in Pushkin—it was full of things. And yet in an epoch when homosexuality was still a crime, this talent was the very one which could not be used unguarded to speak of love.
For that, he was forced from the concrete to the abstract, and so moved from the easy (for him) to the difficult. As Gianfranco Contini definitively said when talking of Dante’s dedication to the rhyme, the departure point for inspiration is the obstacle. The need to find an acceptable expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facility. A born master of directness was obliged to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life—a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist.
Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.
Upon what man it fall
In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing,
Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face,
That he should leave his house,
No cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint by women;
But ever that man goes
Through place-keepers, through forest trees,
A stranger to strangers over undried sea,
Houses for fishes, suffocating water,
Or lonely on fell as chat,
By pot-holed becks
A bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird.
In this first stanza of Poem II in Poems (it was entitled “The Wanderer” only later, in Collected Shorter Poems 1930–1944), the idea of the homosexual’s enforced exile is strongly present, although never explicit: the theme lies hidden and the imagery is explicit instead, thereby reversing the priorities of the traditional lyric, and bodying forth an elliptical suggestiveness which rapidly established itself as the new lyricism of an era. But already we are given a foretaste of the voyage that came to an end in Oxford forty years later—a wanderer’s return to the Oxford of Another Time, the centre of anger which is the only place that is out of danger. Auden never looked for cloistered safety until very late on the last day. The danger and fatigue of his journey were too much of an inspiration.
There head falls forward, fatigued at evening
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Birds-flocks nameless to him, through doorway voices
Of new men making another love.
Only tiredness could make the doomed traveller dream the banalities of hearth and wife: awake, he is once again involved with real love. And real love is a new love, with all political overtones fully intended. Auden’s radicalism, such as it was, was at one with his sexuality, with the piquant result that he spent the 1930s experiencing communism as sensual and sex as political.
. . .
As Brecht found his politicized lyricism in sophistication (In der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim), Auden found his in innocence: masturbation in the dormitory, languishing looks between prefects and blond new boys, intimate teas and impassioned lollings on grassy hillsides. The armies and the political parties of the 1930s were the thrillingly robust continuation of school rugger and cricket teams, being likewise composed of stubborn athletes and prize competitors. Bands apart, they were all-male and Hellenic—and the neo-Hellenism of the 1930s was all Teutonic. Auden’s political and intellectual spectrum in the 1930s is mainly German, and it’s harder than the gullible might think to pick his emotional allegiance between the two sets of muscle-packed shorts, Communist or Nazi. Intellectually, of course, he didn’t fool with Fascism for a moment; but to his sexual proclivities the blond Northern hero made an appeal which only a poetic embodiment could resolve—it took pearl to silence the irritation set up by those vicious specks of grit.
Save him from hostile capture
From sudden tiger’s leap at corner;
Protect his house,
His anxious house where days are counted
From thunderbolt protect,
From gradual ruin spreading like a stain;
Converting number from vague to certain,
Bring joy, bring day of his returning.
Lucky with day approaching, with leaning dawn.
Towards the glamour of the opposing teams—the chaps—Auden’s feelings were ambiguous. So were his feelings towards his own homosexuality. Like many homosexuals he seems to have experienced homosexual congress as the only clean kind, and thus had no reason to hesitate in identifying homosexuality with a new political order. Nevertheless guilt remained. In the 1930s it was a cultural residue (later on, when Auden returned to Christianity, it became a religious precept), but was no less powerful for that. Just as, in another poem, the “ruined boys” have been damaged by something more physical than th
It will be useful, when the time comes, to hear a homosexual critic’s conjectures about the precise nature of Auden’s sexual tastes. It seems to me, who am no expert, that Auden’s analysis of Housman’s guilt feelings (he said Housman was so convinced a Hellenist that he felt ashamed of being passive rather than active) was an indirect admission that Auden was passive himself. Even in the earliest poems he seems not to be taking the lead. All too often he is the forsaken one, the one who loves too much and is always asking his beloved to share an impossibly elevated conception of their union.
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