Battle of the Amazons by Peter Paul Rubens, 1600
We have just had the Oscars – an event I avoid, because of its tedious and hypocritical virtue-signalling and moralising. (Not to mention the clips from all-too-predictable, formulaic films.) This has me wondering whether literary fiction will also become irrelevant too. In a sense it already has. Few men read ‘serious’ fiction any more, although when I was young, half the readers were men. And I suspect that most of the women still reading the latest works of staggering genius do so only so as not to be left out at dinner parties. I know women who have admitted to me that that is why they read. So what’s the problem?
As I have said ad nauseam (forgive me, patient reader!) the problem is that publishers and authors are treating people as if they were halfwits who are incapable of thinking for themselves, or of having any kind of morality. Intellectual life has been reduced to a kind of gigantic kindergarten, where the teachers’ job is to instruct the silly children, (especially those naughty, beastly little boys!) with plenty of finger-wagging, and rewards for favourites who are submissive and never question authority. No wonder the public is sick of it.
Some of the remedies are obvious, and I won’t repeat them. But I’ve been thinking about Nietzsche and his aesthetics, and although I don’t agree with him wholeheartedly, he was on to something when he decried Romanticism in his later works (The Gay Science, or The Joyful Science in the recent Penguin edition) as proceeding not from an abundance of life, but from exhaustion and fear of life – from the conviction that life is some sort of mistake. He gives Schopenhauer as an example of this in philosophy, probably correctly, and Wagner as an example in music, less obviously, in my opinion. The artists he holds up as exemplars of true creation, those inspired by an overflowing abundance, a joy in life – including a willingness to accept suffering as part of it – are Homer, Hafiz, Rubens and Goethe. I have no quarrel with any of those but feel he ought to have included Chaucer and Shakespeare too, and what about Bach and Handel and Mozart? Vivaldi? And in art, how about adding the Breughels, and almost all Renaissasnce painters? But is there a lesson for us here?
I think there is. Although Sheffield University recently declared that Chaucer and Shakespeare are only taught because they were white men, anyone with two brain cells can see for themselves that that’s nonsense. These were writers who observed life, the whole of life, in all its beauty and magnificence, all its vulgarity and stupidity, all its humour and tenderness, its kindness and cruelty, its joy and its suffering. They didn’t tell us what to think or feel or believe. In their works there are men and women who do bad things, certainly, although even they are never wholly evil, in contrast to the homilies of Hollywood and increasingly of so-called literary fiction, in which we can usually identify an evil person at once now by his sex and skin colour and sexuality. (He will usually be male, and he will usually be irredeemably evil.) I don’t want to be comforted by art, or made to feel morally superior to anyone. I don’t want to be flattered, or cajoled, or emotionally manipulated in any way (which is what most current officially sanctioned art is doing.) I want Life itself – the whole panoply of it, the Homeric epic. There’s no moral in Homer. He simply shows us who we are, and who the gods that we have created are. He broadens our experience of life.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, quite a lot of literary artists (and others, like Stravinsky, Van Gogh and Gauguin) were quite consciously attempting to do this. Gabriele d’Annunzio tried to embody the Nietzschean ideal in his novels, plays, and poetry, with intermittent success. Hermann Hesse made the same attempt, although as he got older he tried to marry the Apollonian with the Dionysian, and got closest to it in his masterpiece, Narziss and Goldmund. Thomas Mann takes on the same themes in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. Robert Musil and Herman Broch also wrote novels of which Nietzsche might have approved. As did Dostoyevsky, of course.
But who is even daring to be so ambitious nowadays? For that matter, which of our current ‘great novelists’ has read Spinoza and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – which of them has ever thought deeply about what art is for? So many of them seem to think it’s for self-expression! As if art were no more than therapy! Not long ago, we had Bellow and Roth, Rushdie and Amis (indeed the latter two are still with us, though largely ignored now.) Who do we have now? You know their names. I won’t stoop to putting them down in public. But you know who the prize-winners are. Intellectual pigmies. Mediocrities whose gifts have been inflated by the adulation of virtue-signalling journalists. Nonentities, most of them.
There is a way back to true art, but it involves courage. The artist must be prepared to forgo praise, recognition, even acceptance. Forget the hive-minds and the tribes. Why on earth would a writer want to belong to a tribe anyway? And yet they do. You constantly hear people at conferences and on creative writing courses gabbing about how they have at last found their tribe. And that means that their creativity is finished – all we can expect from them is ritual and repetition. The true artist is going to live on a mountain like Zarathustra. He's going to descend from time to time to harangue the frightened people in the market-place. They will call him names, or worse. He won’t care. He will be a super-man (or super-woman) like Homer or Goethe or Shakespeare. He will tell us the truth, even if it hurts. And it will hurt. That’s what art is. You know you’re in its presence when it wakes you up, makes you feel more alive, whether it’s visual art, or music, or literature. It doesn’t make you feel good or virtuous. It elevates you, helps you become a hero who’s capable of fighting demons.
Either we nourish that kind of literature, or it will all die, as it is sick and moribund already. We can either be whining victims forever, or supermen and superwomen. The choice is ours.