Me n my blog
While I was on my recent travels, one of the cloudy ideas that kept coming back to me was that I would try to put in order some of the ideas that lie behind the rather large body of posts (some 700) that I've amassed over the last eleven years.
It was my intention, early on, that the blog would have no unifying topic. But in effect it does keep being, with only minor exceptions, about the same topics. Reductively speaking, it's a flowers and poetry blog. And the point is --- what?
We can begin, tediously enough, with relativism. From my distant academic grounding in literature (especially medieval literature), I wanted to stretch myself to look at all sorts of literature, from all ages and places. I wanted to look outside the canon as well as within it. My old-fashioned question was, is it meaningful to designate some writing as good and some as bad? I thought not. I thought everything deserved attention. I considered it as a reverence that we ought, ideally, to feel and express for all human artefacts.
I've made my peace with the canon now, to a large degree. I see that selection is an inevitable social process. We need to be able to converse about the same things, or our conversations will be very limited indeed. Yet it's salutary to see that greatness has its arbitrary side. I often think of Malvolio: "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them". The great authors that I love to write about have become great, not only because of the personal genius that I try to reverence, but also by being read and written about. Greatness, that is to say, is a social construction.
The connection with flowers is, I suppose, obvious. We don't call one plant good and another bad, in themselves. If you are like me, you love all plants. It's only when we have a particular end in view that one plant becomes better than another: better, that is, for our purpose.
But let's come back to artefacts, which in this blog tends to mean literary artefacts. Another of my very few ideas is about a comparatively definite distinction between the outer view and the inner view. The outer view is the one we take of artefacts in which we have no engagement; and the inner view is the opposite. Traditionally, outer views are dismissed. For example, we don't take much interest in someone's opinion about Tristan und Isolde if they don't care for opera. But none of us is inward all the time. And a dialogue that takes place entirely within a circle of fans soon becomes unhealthily isolated from the largeness of the world. So I believe that a dialectic between inner and outer is a necessary aim for a critic. Not just for a critic. It's also how we should negotiate life.
Life... I believe we are products of our environment and never fully know ourselves. I believe we inherit, from our past and from the tribe and from our environment, very large parts of our thinking, and it's a difficult but vital practice to try and look at these thoughts from a different perspective than when we are helplessly thinking them.
Consequently, I think that I believe much the same as what many other people believe. And the comments stream beneath Guardian articles tends to confirm that. I should like to be more radical and original than I am, but actually nearly everything I think is being thought by lots of other people at the same time. And yet, what we think isn't true, or is only a very partial truth at any rate.
Of course I believe that biography is shaping, so my own life story is relevant. One side of my family is English, the other Swedish. My upbringing is middle-class, but only the English side of my family were middle-class. My friends are mainly working-class. I live on a council estate. My job is a bit in-between. Naturally enough I'm fascinated by the different cultures and behaviours that surround me. Naturally enough they question my own assumptions sharply.
As I grow older (I'm 58) I become more aware of the limitations, helplessly imbibed, of my generation. For example, I believe that everyone of my age, certainly every white male, is to some degree racist and sexist. We have to strive against these attitudes, but it requires a certain self-honesty, not easily achieved, to recognize how deeply they're ingrained.
My interest in plants and nature provokes another line of questioning about this human life. Dante speaks of man's triple soul: vegetable, animal and rational. I decline to order these in ascending value. Much of how we live can be seen as exemplifying the vegetable soul working itself out; and much more the animal soul. The fundamental differences between how plants live and how animals live is, of course, a perennial meditation of mine. (And of course I believe in plant intelligence.) How we humans live is partly an elaboration of these elements within ourselves, partly too (as Dante rather neglected) a necessary accommodation with the ways of plants and animals in our environment. Of course I lament the lack of interest in or contact with nature in our urban lives. But at the same time I read these urban lives as in themselves profoundly natural (that is, part of nature), and as continuing to express the needs of the vegetable and animal elements within us.
The vegetable element of fixedness, solidity, home, a base, roots; and the animal restlessness of emotions, movement, energy, violence and petrol. (It's perhaps the rational soul that I feel is the least well-founded part of Dante's conception.)
And so, finally as far as this hasty post is concerned, to nations and languages. Among the kind of people that I exemplify, the nation-state has long been the subject of severe critique. We try to look at things more globally. My own smatterings of half a dozen languages (regrettably, all European) reflect a moderately sustained effort to see things from outside the English-speaking world and its literatures, at any rate. And of course I've especially used the feelings I have about Sweden, a permanent frozen need to inhabit the Nordic world where I've never lived and whose languages I'm far from fluent in, in order to investigate what is meant by love for own nation or nations, an emotion I feel in a very strong degree. How does this work with the global outlook that we seek, however feebly, to cultivate?
I am not an academic, and I have to make the best of that. I've written about many things, but there's no subject, no field, not even one area of a field, that I really know a lot about. Those inadequate smatterings of languages are typical of my knowledge generally. I'm not a botanist and I haven't read most of the modern poetry that a scholar of modern poetry would consider as a necessary basis. I'm theoretically uninformed, and am often worrying over questions about which a large body of debate, almost unknown to me, has certainly accrued already. Often the best thing I could say, the thing I ought to say, is: go and read about it elsewhere. But of course I have to hope that there's a place for my kind of ignorance too. It appears to me that most of our fine ideas are ultimately grounded in trying to valorize our own life-choices, and my own ideas are certainly no exception to the rule.
If I could have continued with this beyond my bed-time, I'd have liked to get on to other preoccupations: birth and growth, the seasonal cycles, waste and death and decay and the washing clean of water and ice. And love: our need to give it and to receive it; the reason, so often confused, for almost everything we do. Self-love and self-centredness, too. Change, and extinction. Climate change and greed and our other violences and cruelties. Duty. Drugs. Being here. Health.
This is becoming vague and poetical. I think it'll be back to specifics for the next 700 posts.