July 31, 2007

'If the proletarian should speak, we should not understand him...' (aka grunts, snarls... and curses)


This just in from Dominic (via email):

    HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!

    CLOV: (violently). That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.

    (from Endgame)

    Something that crops up in E.M. Forster (Howards End) and also Virginia Woolf (although I can't place a reference) is the notion that if ordinary clerks like Leonard Bast (one of the most condescended-to figures in literature) should attempt to improve themselves by exposing themselves to "high" culture, they would eventually make the horrifying discovery that beneath all of the elevated sentiment there is an esoteric message of profound spiritual desolation, which if
    haplessly uncovered will terribly maim them. The proper owners of high culture are shielded from this radioactive kernel of anomie by their ownership of nice country homes, etc, but if they ever let on that life is essentially meaningless and tragic, morality is a lie, not to be born is the best for man and so on, then dire social consequences will surely ensue. (Burroughs: bring it on). The exoteric meaning of high culture is that it is improving, ennobling, a worthy object of aspiration, but the esoteric content is the total destitution of all of these values (and the privilege of being the insider who *knows* they are destitute, and laughs at the pretences of those who still aspire to realize them: thus the ruling class disdain towards any sort of passionate cultural commitment - to them, culture's a bunch of old stuff they keep in their attics, like the picture of Dorian Grey...).

    Racist ethnologist of the "underclass" Theodore Dalrymple amusingly blames the Bloomsbury intellectuals for infecting the masses with their bohemian fecklessness - again, it's a matter of divulging the nuclear secrets of high culture and thereby corrupting the commonsense morality of ordinary folk.

    Wittgenstein's version of Caliban - "if the lion could speak, we should not understand him": a form of words is bound to a form of life, outside of which it is unintelligible except perhaps as grunts, snarls...and curses.


Reader Scott Duguid responds:

    Perhaps [Dominic was] thinking of Charles Tansley from Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Tansley is the novel's whipping boy - Woolf says as much through Lily Briscoe. Below is the relevant passage (and, in terms of pov, a somewhat complex one it is too). While this affirms the pattern noted in your post ("all she felt was how could he love his kind who did not know one picture from another" - is it the arriviste Tansley, or "his kind" whose aesthetic discriminations is being impugned here?), this view of an upsetting, upstart class-consciousness is also mediated by Woolf's feminism. Tansley is not simply a class whipping boy but also provides the alibi for Lily's class as regards the role of women. Woolf's lower-middle class upstart is conveniently the prime example of the male as intellectual bully of women.

    This is, of course, one of the hidden tricks of a strain of contemporary anti-class discourse too...

    And yet, there is the education of the sister (which resonates with the foregoing "brotherly love"). In my reading of To the Lighthouse (which is not recent), I seem to recall this passage as being one of the few where any reflective critical light is thrown on the novel's wider class assumptions.

    If I get round to reading the piece in last weeks guardian about Woolf's treatment of her maid, perhaps I'd have more to say...

    'Her going was a reproach to them, gave a different twist to the world, so that they were led to protest, seeing their own prepossessions disappear, and clutch at them vanishing. Charles Tansley did that too: it was part of the reason why one disliked him. He upset the proportions of one’s world. And what had happened to him, she wondered, idly stirring the platains with her brush. He had got his fellowship. He had married; he lived at Golder’s Green.

    She had gone one day into a Hall and heard him speaking during the war.

    He was denouncing something: he was condemning somebody. He was preaching brotherly love. And all she felt was how could he love his kind who did not know one picture from another, who had stood behind her smoking shag (”fivepence an ounce, Miss Briscoe”) and making it his business to tell her women can’t write, women can’t paint, not so much that he believed it, as that for some odd reason he wished it? There he was lean and red and raucous, preaching love from a platform (there were ants crawling about among the plantains which she disturbed with her brush—red, energetic, shiny ants, rather like Charles Tansley). She had looked at him ironically from her seat in the half-empty hall, pumping love into that chilly space, and suddenly, there was the old cask or whatever it was bobbing up and down among the waves and Mrs Ramsay looking for her spectacle case among the pebbles. “Oh, dear! What a nuisance! Lost again. Don’t bother, Mr Tansley. I lose thousands every summer,” at which he pressed his chin back against his collar, as if afraid to sanction such exaggeration, but could stand it in her whom he liked, and smiled very charmingly. He must have confided in her on one of those long expeditions when people got separated and walked back alone. He was educating his little sister, Mrs Ramsay had told her. It was immensely to his credit. Her own idea of him was grotesque, Lily knew well, stirring the plantains with her brush. Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own. He did for her instead of a whipping-boy. She found herself flagellating his lean flanks when she was out of temper. If she wanted to be serious about him she had to help herself to Mrs Ramsay’s sayings, to look at him through her eyes.'


From reader Wedge:

    Jeeezus - I remember using that exact 'Endgame' quote in university (comparing it with '1984' as a domestic - as opposed to geopolitical - dystopia). Spooky.

    Also weird is that Beckett is a prime example of 'high culture' finding it's way to 'the masses'. The BBC had a long season in 1988 in tribute to Sam Beckett. It was one of those things I didn't exactly 'love', but it held enough fascination (and mystery!) for me to feel like I could access a diffrent cultural world. It put my brain in certain directions.

    Ironically, I had lecturers who regarded this Reithian purpose with disdain (smug 60s kids the lot of 'em). Well, I suppose there's no way you'd get an extended season devoted to Beckett on terrestrial TV anymore (or even Welles, Chaplin or Lang as you once did). Or a month of programmes devoted to May 1968 as C4 did in the late 80s.

    The dumb-down of TV and pop discourse has been a huge blow to popular culture in general. Pretension can be a good thing, if it involves its audience 'thinking' above its 'station'. Watching Potter, or even reading 'NME' or '2000ad' could once make a 13-year old feel he was on an intellectual adventure of sorts, a junction that could lead to something 'higher'. Not something you could say for the hollow ghosts those publications now exist as.

    But then, I'm still bitter that our patronising 'yoof' culture BBC means that Om Puri wasn't cast (or wouldn't even be considered) as Dr. Who...

Posted by mark at July 31, 2007 10:53 AM | TrackBack