Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why art?

The question is strange - this has been something instinctive. As much as I have interest in philosophy, politics, religion, it has been art that has always been most meaningful. It is what connects life with thought, what infuses our experience with meaning and form, what provides us with the longest views. This is truly much claimed, maybe only through an individual quirk. But I don't believe so: we have not begun to understand our experience, and there is nothing that has penetrated as deep to human possibilities - philosophy is too constrained by formal logic, religion is largely meaningless, natural science does not even attempt such things. History is central, naturally, but it is more the place we are situated in, the scene of action, and its study is closely related to art in any case. There is not really anything to compare. 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paradise postponed

I did not expect much, but there was a little bit of audacity of hoping: circumstances make a president, and the circumstances for Obama have not been much different than what FDR faced, having quite cautiously campaigned for balanced budgets and relatively orthodox economic policies. It is pretty meaningless to second guess from such a laughably distant vantage point - and perhaps the correct reading of the balance of power is that no meaningful reform can even be attempted and all that is possible to have is an avoidance of outright idiocy and outright sabotage of the few central social liberal structures (both became very familiar during Obamas predecessor's awful reign). But still, it is very hard to avoid the thought that maybe there were the makings of a transformation of the political landscape in the scary collapse of trust in the financial markets. I guess we'll never know now.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Three (Burkean) cheers for Social Democracy

It occurs to me that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, no need to endlessly ponder about alternatives, sensible middle ways to replace unjust, irrational free market plutocracy or bloody, irrational state socialism. We already have the sensible middle way: the Nordic social democratic state that combines healthy, dynamic economy with strong safety nets, significant income redistribution and in addition has open and liberal political structures. The Nordic social democratic society is based on a web of many powerful influences: the market, the unions, the civil society, the government. You still can get rich, create fortunes and jobs, but if you are poor your children still will go to the same high quality schools like everyone else and they can easily afford university education: they can compete fairly with more fortunate age mates. No wonder social mobility is much higher in the Nordic countries than in the USA or the UK.

Well, I suppose I can still, just barely, speak in the present tense. This reasonable, compromise based society of many interests and influences was created by a unique historical and cultural constellation. It is not fundamentally based on reason but chance and circumstances. And circumstances are changing: our irrationality and greed are breaking through and much control is already given up to market forces - and they surely will end up destroying the structures that keep social competition both strong and fair. But at least we have a model that has functioned in real life, that is reproducable. Unlike, one might add, any "pure", Randian free market fantasies.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Societies of friends in England and New England

There can't be many as uplifting and as hopeful stories in our dark human history than the turn of a large part of the Anglo-Saxon dissenters towards liberalism and progress. I was long amused by Tory cynicism, their wallowing in the gutter that is human nature, but I have grown less and less amused as I have grown. Of course these earliest of reformers were absurdly, unreally highminded, rigid, only too often lifeless. But the ills they fought against (being most often the first to fight, the first to organize) were of such awful nature - slavery, aggression, cruelty, unequality - that surely we can excuse these flaws?

All those various denominations: Quakers and Unitarians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Methodists, forming in later generations such an aristocracy of intelligence and culture, opposed fanatically by their unchanged once brethren, the absolute worst of fundamentalism (as witnessed today in the USA). It makes one wonder about Calvinism, what was there, in that grim credo, to ignite such a flowering of human progress? Coming from a Lutheran background, more staid, but in some ways more comprehensive (thinking of our Nordic societies with all our enlightened structures and impulses) this moral fervour and burst of energy seems very remarkable. I suppose it is the Protestant in me that makes one think that absolutely none of this could have been left for Rome...

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Conspiritis

It is hard not to see the present mania for the most bizarre and impossible conspiracies (Obama drinking baby blood in an orgy in a Californian mansion or whatever à la Alex Jones etc. etc.) as related to a general cynicism and lack of faith towards liberal democratic structures and belief in reason and progress. Perhaps we are losing our nerve. And so need comfort: it surely is a comforting thought to think that history is controllable even if only by the CIA or the NSA or the Elders of the Nation of Zion or whatever you currently have. But it is not, no-one controls this bloody, chaotic mess. Our tragedy is in that you don't need to hide the worst things - the worst things are in plain view, and you still can't change them. To a large degree they are the result of our human nature - we don't need an ancient world wide conspiracy to keep us from achieving a just, rational and safe society, we do it ourselves. One sign of this is this present angry credulity cynically used to promote reactionary ideas and to counter all attempts towards progress and understanding.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thoughts on cost-effectiveness

To witness history even in this so very modest scale is to see lives casually thrown away. One can of course trace the causes, the pathways of power, blind and random, but that does not amount to very much - at most a sillily righteous relief of having avoided the fate of the less fortunate. There surely will never be a safe place for us, a home, here, and what we have, what we experience, is all there is: lives casually thrown away. We have to deaden ourselves to survive in the world. There is a certain bleakness, a certain terror even, in our experience, but that is not all there is: there are countering factors, love, art, the long views. A beautiful landscape certainly - but ice cold.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh, what a literary century

Paul Fussell's well known observations on the importance of literature to the First World War experience of British soldiers (not only officers), got me thinking in somewhat elegiaic fashion. I suppose it really is true that the high point of the literary culture was the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century - then quite widespread literacy and even education (and self-education) was combined with the absence of electronic media. Now we have even more widespread literacy and education (and self-education) but books are getting increasingly peripheral to this, to our civilization. Information and education are more and more in the electronic form. Well, o tempora o mores, it's quite always been like this: tools change, our human inclinations and reflexes, not so hugely. So, caution surely is needed when contemplating this particular change. But still, I have to say, being so immersed in literature, being so shaped by it, that I do find this change alarming. I don't really think that there is anything to compare with a book when it comes to deep human understanding, the essential questions, whether philosophical, ethical, personal, being addressed. So, one wonders now, in AD 2009 that what will the new culture be like - how will literature, the literary tradition be replaced? Apart from lots of reality-tv. One does wonder.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dawkins sucks

I guess he doesn't really - I noticed from The God Delusion that I place myself exactly into the same category as he does as regards the existence of God, i.e. that it is something exceedingly unlikely and that one should live one's life as if she/he/it didn't exist. That is with the knowledge that gentleness and love will not necessarily be rewarded and that cruelty and aggression will not often be punished, that there are no happy endings, only endings. Strange, perhaps, but I think that this attitude to life is more virtuous and more serious than basing one's ethics on rewards and punishments. This said, Dawkins does seem awfully brittle, light - there is no sense of tragedy there, no sense of sorrow. Also no understanding of religion in its essence as being serious speech about our human condition (the religious themselves are not of help here).  Well, perhaps I'm led astray by subjective sentiment, but I'm not convinced - at heart I suppose this is an argument about the nature of reason. Though as usual I seem to lack both the time and the capability to formulate the argument more precisely. Oh well.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Failed nations all around

Scott Peterson's excellent Me Against My Brother is one the very few first hand accounts that I have come across of the bloody and tragic events in Somalia in the early 1990's - a place and time that have for a long time interested me. Not a very comfortable view of humanity emerges: when order collapses we seem to turn invariably into beasts, and prey. And certainly not a very comfortable view of the developed countries - as much as the responsibility (as far as there is such a thing) lies in deep seated local cultural conflicts: a nomad society encountering modernity, and modern weaponry. But if there is one thing certain, it is that we are no innocent bystanders in this tragedy. There is no question that the Western audiences are frivolous and decadent, and kept frivolous and decadent by solely profit seeking, ad and subscription centred corporate media.

Peterson's style of journalism is probably a dying art, and even if not, very few will care. There is a Burkean defence for this state of affairs: we don't have the capability to do the right thing, a mere attempt would end in tragedy and blood path. But that defence is wearing rather thin. We can't do what we should do - but we can be more intelligent, more responsible, more aware. That is not too much to ask. Should the civilization progress (at the moment a somewhat daring proposition) the posterity will surely only see failed nations in this era of opulence, starvation and blood.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Turing and humanity

Oddly I chose for morning work trip reading Andrew Hodges’ description of the chemical castration of Alan Turing. Once the bile had receded I was once again struck how beautiful and how serious Hodges’ writing is. It is not as odd a pair as one might think: so often, it seems to me, ethics and esthetics do cohere. In good writing it is most obvious. And the text, the seriousness of it, did get me thinking about the sordid, the brutal affair (or perhaps actually my private reaction to it),  in a larger context. I suppose we should always also beware these so selfevident dualities: the cruelty and the innocence, the aggression and the openness. We none of us are completely innocent, and our monstrous society only reflects (and encourages in turn) the monsters inside us all. This is obvious, of course: there is a danger in righteous rage, of whitewashing and denial. But to accept totally is surely the greater crime than to rage partially hypocritically. The society is the arena where we can most easily progress and through that progress start an inner healing process. That can be the only realistic way forward for us.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Liberalism and Nietzsche

I’m sure this only makes sense to my own idiosyncratic sense of liberalism but essentially I have come to place it as the boundary that permanently separates Nietzsche from acceptablity. To phrase it overly glibly... For me the essence of liberalism lies in its permanent uncertainty as to what degree do meanings rise out of the objective, commonly observable state of affairs and what  and how large then is the role of individual experience and will in shaping and creating these meanings. The foundation is the trust in and the certainty of doubt – that there is no human way in these circumstances to achieve a meaningful basis for any kind of certainty on this fundamental dilemma. This quite naturally leads to ad hoc, pragmatic and provisional, moderate settlements – to a permanent acceptance of pluralism in human affairs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The audacity of good writing

I have been fascinated and much impressed by Obama’s Dreams from My Father – I roughly knew about his eccentric background and expected an interesting and much better than average aspiring politician’s memoir. But I certainly didn’t expect this: genuinely good writing – which in this form requires high, disinterested intelligence, honesty and a robust, unsentimental moral vision of life. All factors surely more or less grave hindrances in an aspiring politician. This is not to say that the text wouldn’t hide things and wouldn’t paper over some serious counter-points. But the reader has the feeling of engaging in a serious and open intellectual argument. With a mainstream politician, of all people, quite a surreal experience I have to say. What on earth is this man doing presiding over a corrupt and decadent, decaying political system? The beginning has certainly not been very good – surely an FDR would have radically seized these opportunities? Instead we have had overly cautious, overly modest half-hearted approaches. And FDR was a deceitful, devious, egocentred person, not interested in abstract thought or robust moral views of life. An intelligent and honest person might not be the best choice for that position. Well, with these poisonous and hateful forces rampant in the USA, it might not be the era for an FDR at all, probably a Father Coughlin would have rather better chances. Perhaps overly dramatic, but I could not avoid some dark forebodings reading this excellent, perceptive book - he is made for a perfect hate figure for these atavistic, hysterical reactionary forces.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Richer dust

There can be such a thing as too much information: I am reading an excellent modern biography of Rupert Brooke and warts do predominate. A fascinating character though - I have been vaguely aware that his life was much more interesting than both the legend or the poetry (though the latter has flashes of excellence and in some photos he truly does look angelic, no wonder the contemporaries lost their barings as regards him, and no great wonder that he himself did). Such a range though: in his correspondence and verse he makes absolutely unsentimental, sharp and fresh observations only to sunk into self-centred, self-regarding hysteria, primitive misogeny and anti-semitism. At times a profound writer, at times a spoiled immature adolescent. So far then from Sorley whose famous assessment of Brooke's war sonnets is devastatingly accurate. There might have been something there had he survived - but probably anything after would have been a long, sad anticlimax. Again so different from Sorley who surely was a bitter loss to literature, and to his age.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Subarctic summer thoughts

I spent much of the night reading (Andrew Birkin's remarkable, eerie J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys) and was suddenly struck by the thought of how lovely the Finnish climate really is. Now this is an attitude not to be expected - I would recommend trying the pitch dark, wet and cold November with the silent, grim, huddled people to anyone lightly exclaiming the very same sentiment. Or the biting December winds bringing sleet from the Baltic with the day lasting all of five hours in the south and none in Lapland. But now the day lasts almost 20 hours (and 24 in the north) and the air is warm and sweet and the nature suddenly burst to life (to be extinguished again in a matter of mere months). It is this violent contrast that makes the experience so strong and memorable. Further towards the tundra and the summer will be too faint to register and the winter too dominating and to the south the light and dark will be more mixed, less violently opposed, and the summer warmth longer and more reliable (last summer we had almost no hot days at all). This is an exhausting mixture (for these few mad, energy bursting weeks we have in exchange long dark months of fall and winter), but exhilarating also: a crazy, manic-depressive year, violently alternating between extremes of light and dark, of cold and warmth...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

No harsh patronage

Last week the new member of the family finally arrived - it had been a long and at times a very difficult wait. It is a curious activity, caring for the young, no more worthwhile thing easily found in this world. Not very Nietzschean I guess to be in service, and that's what it is, serving; and what is truly harsh is the way we measure that service: there is no way of perfection, and partially the unconditional trust is always failed. But this is how we are weighed, in deeds, not thoughts, in love, not intellect - and even if there is no perfection, there is protection and warmth, or the awful, unforgivable lack of them. So, in that sense there is no harsh patronage, even if there is such a hostage to fortune as to lack words to describe, in this unpredictable, uncaring world. With love comes dread, but without love there is nothing here. That is the way of our human world.

We were seventy-six for seven

I suppose my two most eccentric poetic predilections are vastly preferring the early Wallace Stevens to the later production and, even more bizarrely, seeing early Betjeman as a giant of poetry of his era. Later the sentimentality and a certain clumsiness of metre creep through, but the early poems are angelic. This, though naturally on hugely more humble scale, is a kind of equivalent of Eliot's famous confession of being a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics. It belongs to the classical tradition, surely, to appreciate Betjeman's glittering surfaces and rhythmical skill. It has seemed to countless critics (these days I guess no-one is any longer much interested) that this is all there is: a silly pose and a very oldfashioned, passé view of the form and function of poetry. I don't know - it seems such a selfevidently facile view of both young Betjeman and art. He does point to deeper things, indirectly, through the skill, through the offbeat, offcentre handling of the subject matter. You don't have to spell out things, you don't have to shout from the rooftops that this is great, weighty and serious poetry - neither do you have to be deliberately obscure and leave an enticing trail of riddles for dusty academics to uncover (and here we come to early Wallace Stevens as well).

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mõtlen et homme ongi see päev

It is probably far too rarely that I ever pause and reflect on how amazingly successful I have been on the terms that I once so uncompromizingly put to myself. Now to have such hostages to fortune, to have such a unified voice, such a coherent way of being in the world was once beyond my wildest dreams. This is of course a very exalted way of putting it - in more mundane words I have simply placed myself open to the random ice cold ways of this uncaring world, as I think we are all obligated to do. And even though for some people this surely would be pitifully little, something always taken for granted, it is not so for me - and that is the only meaningful measure we can have here.

So, after all these qualifications, this late arrival represents a true measure of success. I should never forget this - that I did after all manage to fashion a self capable of love, of being loved, that this did happen to me no matter how impossible it once seemed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dover Beach

We have pitifully little time to achieve full moral maturity here. I wonder if anyone ever has, Shakespeare, maybe? In any case I would think that any such maturity would involve a full realization of our permanent disjointedness. A clever, grasping, amoral animal will forever remain a central part of us ( I can easily recognize that in my own being, the deep, dark impulse). While another part is attempting a strange pilgrimage towards a better home – and sometimes the landscape, the experience feels exhilarating, the cold and the beauty taking the breath away. But mostly not, mostly we muddle, don’t connect, don’t cohere - there will be no escape from that. This we must accept and go on living with the awareness that we would not choose to live so, given liberty to make the choice. Only in this world there won’t ever be such liberty.

Sometimes when I watch our carefree little boy I’m filled with huge dread: he could so easily be taken away from us – it’s a cruel, random world. The Christians believe that the universe is not so. There will never be no knowing, but all reason tells us otherwise. I wonder if anyone will ever truly be content with that understanding, with no self-deception or wishful thinking involved.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Oh Ontario, oh Jennifer Jason Leigh

For me music almost never compares with literature. But when it does, it does it with force - at its best it really can compete with poetry. Which is much said from me. So, I do have a small selection of musical favourites, basically centering on pop (classical music, dance and heavy rock among others suffer from the non-centrality of words in them), just certain individual songs, not whole ouvres. And very few contemporary bands, and only one whose lyrics I really respect as pure poetry: The Weakerthans' lyrics have an amazing reach and depth, amazing quirky freshness. And not just as part of the totality of a song and performance, but they also work as they are, as just language. This almost never happens. Well, perhaps there is a certain connection anyway between gloomy Winnipeg and gloomy South of Finland, a certain sympathy but in any case John K Samson is one of the few contemporary poets whose work I follow.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Stars in their pockets like grains of sand

There is a great concept in the Finnish language: "yleissivistys". It approximately means the standard of knowledge and understanding that a well educated, well rounded person should have. History, geography, foreign languages, high art and culture etc. etc. are thought to naturally belong to this category, but it is strange how little natural sciences and mathematics figure in it. This is surely quite a universal state of affairs anywhere in the industrial world - you can be thought as a knowledgeable and highly educated person without having the faintest idea of the structure and nature of our physical universe. (That can, btw, only be described as strange beyond anyone's imagination - or I suppose it could be said that our Newtonian common sense experience is the strangely behaving anomaly here.)

Modern physics especially has me standing in pure awe (though I rarely admit to it). One could think that much of this wild and highly abstract theorizing is meaningless unless it were for the fact that time and time again theories have been proven correct after a practical, empiricial experiment has - often long after - become possible. I do claim primacy for our human sciences, but they too operate in the physical world: we should understand the sheer magical strangeness of it. (I would even argue that the humanities would be best positioned to give depth and meaning to these amazing findings, but they seem to lack both interest and capability of even beginning to explore these treasures.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not guilty

To continue the theme from the previous post. I think that what most clearly characterizes, defines my brand of robust and self-confident liberalism from its bland and diluted official version (that basically everyone, kind of, supports in one way or the other) is that it is completely unapologetic. I’m quite aware of the awful crimes committed in the name of the liberal civilization (and some of them even genuinely so). Well, our human history is in any case based on awful crimes. If any random tyranny manages to establish a certain stability for a couple of generations, that stability will be based on crime and aggression, it will be maintained by crime and aggression and it will be destroyed by them. That is what history is, what it (most likely) will be and what it has been. The only feeble exception is this unique effort for rational self-control. It is of course gigantic hubris to think that it will amount to anything: in fact it is almost certainly bound to fail. But in that failure it would not be remarkable: without reason and self-control all our efforts will fail. It is the attempt that is unique – the first conscious effort ever to end the slow holocaust of history.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The centre that couldn't hold

The early 20th century was such brutal time to liberal self-belief in the West: the twin nightmares of the world wars, the collapse of the international system, the world depression followed by sustained, credible and vital totalitarian challenges. And after all that, amidst all the ruins of the mid-century stood - yes, Western liberalism. A curious end to all those horrendous blows. But they did have an effect: postwar liberalism has been a hollow materialist affair, there is no vigour, no self-assuredness left, only a method of increasing production. The masses are apathetic, tired by work, consuming mindless entertainment. The elites are intellectually timid and morally puny, concentrating on their technocratic efficiency. This apologetic affair is an alien liberalism for me - the tradition is not, should not be defined by doubt and uncertainty but by a fierce assertion of doubt and uncertainty combined with a firm, self-confident rejection of all those pathetic (and morally and intellectually disastrous) projects to force a pretended certainty on our human experience (I suppose currently the strongest version is the primitive fundamentalist religion). But that sort of confidence and affirmation is not what we have, and as there sooner or later will become an existential crisis in one form or another, I don't believe that these undefended positions will be held, however correct and proper response they are to our experience of being in the world. This simply won't do, not indefinitely.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"One of Freedom's wars"

After finishing Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy it is not possible not to feel that something absolutely profound has been said about the First World War. Not everything there is to say of course, that would be an impossibility, and one can legitimately see flaws and inaccuracies in the text but one cannot avoid a recognition that something deeply meaningful has been posited, a meaningful dialogue opened. That is what fiction is able to do: to bridge two experiences. One would think that the study of history as an academic discipline would aim for the same result only using different methods and being bound by stricter and narrower rules. It doesn't though. Good, profound historical research is exceedingly rare. The discipline is defined in practice in a way to preclude any attempt to profundity, any centering of human experience, the wildness of our human experience.

The study of history is largely an elaborate kabuki play whose relation to actual human experience is tortuous and distant. This comes from aiming to "scientific" respectability. It is an old axiom that history as a discipline is the closest to literature. Well, most historians are deeply ashamed of this claim instead of seeing it as an accolade that it is (and those that are enthusiastic about it are that for all the wrong reasons). There is a difference to human sciences - and this statement comes from someone who largely does accept that history only happens in the physical and material world and that historians should aim for explaining causation. Still there is a difference that comes from our own nature of being aware creators of meanings. Not only do we need to map out the material boundaries but also their meaning to our passionate lives. So, this is where academic history fails: we no doubt have a long queue of angry historians defending the generals against Barker's powerful indictment, defending power and its distortions - or being entangled in the absurd complexities of the radical theory, not seeing the deepness of the tragedy, leaving all profundity to fiction. A strange spectacle.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hier stehe ich

The famous stand by Luther at Worms epitomizes to many modern politically correct academics the vast sins of the era of the reformation: the monstrous Western ego, the manic strive for domination, the single track railroads to Auschwitz and what you have. Of course Protestantism is seen these days more as a concequence than cause of modernity (when it is thought about analytically at all), but nevertheless it is very popular to see the emergence of the post-medieval Europe as a costly moral failure. I don't share that perspective: in my eyes Protestantism very obviously opened the gates for enlightenment and emancipation. (This is not to deny the existence of the monstrous ego and the bloody strive for domination - but that is only one aspect of a complex whole.) The American Puritans started by hunting witches - mere two centuries later they were freeing slaves, fighting for gender equality, combatting imperialism and aggression, renouncing primitive theologies. Or the best of them were: there is a deep duality to the experience, a highminded, progressive and enlightened impulse resisted by know-nothing, panicky fundamentalism. And as much as I admire the majestic liberal turn of the Anglo-American non-conformism, there is a certain note of abstraction and distance in this admiration - which probably comes from my Lutheran Finnish pietist background - compared with icy Calvin, Luther certainly was a wretched sinner, a monstrous man, who somehow still managed to form in parts a universally meaningful message on human experience, the kind of height that Calvin never achieved: simul peccator et iustus. Which is the most anyone can really be in this imperfect, cruel human world. But that note of mysticism perhaps makes one less inclined to activism and concrete deeds...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The way of the world

I have repeatedly argued on these pages that we are fundamentally imprisoned by history and unable to liberate ourselves as a collective from our shortsighted, grasping human nature. What this means on the high political level is that reasonable, intelligent people hardly ever get to the real power and if they by some miracle do, they are utterly unable to rule with intelligence and reason. All political cultures, all political processes are fundamentally irrational. Even our liberal democratic solution that at least tries to approximate as reasonable course as possible. So, today we seem to have a person exceptionally intelligent, perhaps exceptionally reasonable being harshly bounded by one of the most dysfunctional Western political systems. What he, his administration can achieve remains to be seen - but in any case it will be radically less than what he is expected to accomplish.

The system would need a more fundamental New Deal than what FDR accomplished but maybe at least some key reforms can be implemented and the present disastrous slide into moral decadence at least halted. Perhaps even this is to hope too much: so far Obama seems overly cautious, overly bound to the established, and corrupt, and irrational, folkways of the imperial Washington. Much, too much, is depending on a single person, however intelligent, however well-meaning. Interesting times, these.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Keats reconsidered

I suppose the Romantics are the least congenial group of writers for me when it comes to English literature. O, that artificial diction and saccharine sentiment... Etc. Those exclamations, loose, undisciplined language. But now at least with Keats (and why not then with others) it seems that my very early judgment was wrong again. I think it was based on Endymion and Hyperion where he certainly is not my cup of syrup. Should have gone for the better stuff, I guess. His letters certainly give a marvellous image of a frighteningly perceptive and still amazingly humane and likeable great artist (seems to be a very rare combination). In fact the tone reminds me of Charles Sorley and does then give an idea of his potential; even more cruelly early end for his career - Keats at least had time to show his mature scope. It seems that the Romantics were exceptionally uneven in their output - they seem to have been really good when they were good, but much of the time they didn't perform near their peak, and when they were bad... On the whole, there is in me a certain preference for more classical, more controlled and distanced emotional approach in art. I tend to distrust overt artistic emotion especially when it seems to control the form and twist it unshapely, unpolished.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sense and unsentimentality

I have lately been delighting in the New Pelican Guide to English Literature on my work trips. The series originates from the 1950's, my revised edition being from 1982. This probably explains why the marvelously quirky and individual writers treat literature if it were a universally important and serious moral concern. Postmodernity has certainly gotten rid of that attitude and the literature departments around the world are for the most part happily free of anything universally important and serious. Or of any love of literature. Anyway, I'm now in the middle of part 5, From Blake to Byron and two exceptionally challenging and perceptive essays, one by Lionel Trilling on Mansfield Park and the other by Malcolm Bradbury on Emma, made me think again my lukewarm attitude to Jane Austen.

I have never been too fond of that steely tory glitter behind the graceful prose. But it might be that the provinciality is on my side mostly after all: there perhaps is certain universality that can be glimpsed through that absolute integrity and serious moral concern however constricted they appear to an unsympathetic and hasty reader. I recently happened to reread Pride and Prejudice (I suppose after 25 years) and the experience was admittedly very remarkable: the text was so deceptively effortless and elegant that one might really mistake the story itself to be the fundamental concern, actually pretty much as modern Hollywood seems to "read" Austen. But afterwards, what was left was a feeling of something having been very severely and unsentimentally weighed. That serious severe weighing is the essence of Austen - and it should be our own attitude in this decadent and emotionally overindulgent era. Not to mention intellectually confused.