Friday, February 24, 2012

The executive sublime

Francis Spufford, in I may be some time: Ice and the English imagination (best title + subtitle ever), quotes Burke on sublimity (I have never read Burke and absolutely must):
Chuse a day on which to represent the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have; appoint the most favourite actors; spare no cost upon the scenes and decorations; unite the greatest efforts of poetry, painting and music; and when you have collected your audience, just at the moment when their minds are erect with expectation, let it be reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed in the adjoining square; in a moment the emptiness of the theatre would demonstrate the comparative weakness of the imitative arts, and proclaim the triumph of the real sympathy.
He goes on to quote Richard Payne Knight on Burke's views of sublimity (which seem, at least in broad outline, to be conventional enough nowadays that the point of the joke is self-evident):
If . . . [Burke] had walked up St. James’s street without his breeches, it would have occasioned great and universal astonishment; and if he had, at the same time, carried a loaded blunderbuss in his hands, the astonishment would have been mixed with no small portion of terror: but I do not believe that the united effects of these two powerful passions would have produced any sentiment or sensation approaching the sublime, even in the breasts of those who had the strongest sense of self-preservation, and the quickest sensibility of danger.
I found this quote in an essay by Eve Tushnet, who goes on to ask, "From the Burkean point of view, of course the gun-toting underpants man couldn’t be sublime. But what if the author of this scene weren’t Edmund Burke, but Flannery O’Connor? What if the unclad man was not a deranged Burke wielding a blunderbuss, but an ecstatic Francis enraptured by Christ?" (Here again -- and reading Spufford one is consistently struck by this -- we are in Auden country; see esp. chapter(s) on Don Quixote in the Dyer's Hand.) See also: the case of the six-year-old girl with the character of Churchill.

Tushnet has an interesting blog; see, in particular, the Dostoevsky drinking game.

Finally, I enjoyed Theo Tait's review of the new Lanchester novel. In particular, his praise of Mr Phillips -- "an inspired daydream about sex, statistics and the strangeness of ordinary London life" -- is spot-on; Mr. P was the novel that got me interested in Lanchester in the first place; if the chapter that made it to the New Yorker is representative, the new book is almost certainly as drab as he says it is. Tait's comments on the Large Contemporary Novel are sensible:
There is a constant clamour for novelists to "take on big contemporary questions", as a recent Guardian opinion piece put it – to leave the Hampstead dinner parties and the safe historical settings behind, and write the Novel For Our Times. Actually, these books get written all the time, from Margaret Drabble's schematic portraits of the 1970s to Jonathan Coe's of the 1980s and Blake Morrison or Richard T Kelly's uneven sagas of the New Labour years, right up to the recent flood of credit crunch literature. The problem is that they're not usually very good, for quite straightforward reasons: creating and managing a large, varied and realistic cast of characters is very hard for an individual novelist to do, particularly now that society is so diverse. When working outside their own experience, novelists tend to fall back on recycled journalism, contrivance and cartoon.
I agree with these assessments, but the general question is more puzzling than Tait makes it out to be. My sense has always been that the people who try to write Large Contemporary Novels are bad at characterization anyway; it would fit most of the data to say these novels are bad because the wrong people are writing them. The question is not why novels like Middlemarch are so rare nowadays, but why novels like Pickwick are: characters needn't be lifelike to be alive, or rounded to be memorable. Where are the Micawbers and Miss Havishams of the 21st century?

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