The Solitary Lamppost
Interlitq: How would you assess your career as an academic?
Z. G: I was a professor from 1969 to 2007 at the University of Texas at Austin, years that saw radical changes in programmes associated with the Liberal Arts. The subject of the first undergraduate course I taught in the fall 1969 semester was modern English and American poetry; some 60 students took it, and from the class discussions and the papers that they wrote it was evident that they read the assignments—which ranged from a selection of Pound’s Cantos to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems—with intellectual curiosity and genuine pleasure. In another course in those early years, we read a range of contemporary fiction that included works by Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and it was exciting to observe that the students seemed exhilarated by the non-traditional forms that gave them a whole new experience of fiction. That enthusiasm for literature was grounded in an appreciation of language which addressed experience, essentially the same old emotions that torment humans from one generation to the next, in a new formal arrangement that gave the experience a contemporary poignancy.
Some years later, however, towards the end of the 1970s, the number of students wanting to take those courses had begun to decline and by the middle of the following decade a professor teaching them would be lucky if the courses made it at all. Of course, one does not expect the same enthusiasm to go on forever, but the collapse of interest in the study of literature for its own sake or because it was enjoyable and liberated the mind from a narrow perception of reality was unprecedented.
Before 1970, creative writing had been a fringe subject taught by two of my older colleagues who used textbooks that prescribed exercises on such topics as character, dialogue and plot—a common form of teaching creative writing by professors who do no writing themselves or do so as amateurs pursuing a hobby—as if the students were being taught a craft that trained them to become hack-writers; but by the late 70s creative writing began to be in increasing demand, possibly because students found it more interesting to be writing about themselves than having to cope with Derrida and other trendy theorists then oppressing the discourse in the regular English courses that gave graduate students entering a classroom the look of monks ordered to perform self-flagellation. Professors of English always seem desperate to find ways in which the teaching of literature is made to look “difficult”: students struggling to understand the convoluted language of theorists who sometimes disguise simplistic, self-evident ideas to resemble an obscure formula that might be the solution to a complex mathematical problem are seen to be engaged in serious work whereas students who are reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover are not working but having fun and an easy time. By the end of the 70s, the shift to creative writing made it one of the most popular fields in the Liberal Arts, with novelists and poets being hired to cope with the demand in the English department, making them a distinctive sub-group within the English faculty, of which I now became one, teaching only creative writing, though for me it was not so much a matter of teaching how to write a poem or a story, which I don’t believe anyone can do, but reading a variety of the best literature wherever it came from and then experimenting with language oneself to see whether one’s ideas could not be given a new form, an experience that stimulated some students to produce brilliant work.
The mid-twentieth century saw important, revolutionary changes in society—movements associated with Civil Rights and Feminism shifted the interest in literature to focus the reader’s attention on the social subject-matter, and there was an expectation that the artist had a didactic obligation to society to produce work that would advance the latest important social cause. This led to a major shift in the teaching of literature, with courses in such “new” fields as Black Studies and Post-Colonial Studies (and others that accommodated the feminists, the gays, etc.), all of which used as texts books that were chosen for their content regardless of their quality, so that after the 80s a generation of professors and students grew up for whom the question of quality was irrelevant as long as the writer addressed the political question to their satisfaction, giving them the thrill of an affirmation of their belief in a popular cause.
At the same time, popular culture had been taken up by academia as a subject for study as if talking about the Rolling Stones in a jargon borrowed from Walter Benjamin led to some important understanding and the best way to show it was to spend a part of the class time playing the music.
Now, I’m well aware that it is in the nature of human beings as they approach old age to berate the changes that occur and to complain ad nauseam about how the world is falling apart, and whenever I find myself criticising my younger contemporaries I remind myself that mine is probably merely the expression of envy of their success or, worse, nothing but the words of a grumpy old man.
There is also the question of the technological revolution of our time. I forget the actual date, but it must have been in the late 70s or the early 80s when we professors received a message that there was to be a demonstration of the new Apple personal computer in the faculty lounge. Entering the lounge like awestruck schoolchildren softly walking into a science museum, we looked at the little white box with wonder and saw with amazement how the cute little mouse was manipulated to delete, copy and paste any part of the text on the screen. This was the launching of the computer, digital revolution which has proved to be one of the most life-changing in human history, and everything in our daily existence whether we’re sitting at home or in our office or our car or a jetliner is now ruled by it, even our reading of literature, for instead of going to a library or a bookshop to find a copy, say, of the Arabian Nights, we can access it in a few seconds on our iPad. Living in this momentous era of unprecedented radical change in the communication of ideas, this is not, therefore, a time for critical judgment of how or which literature is to be studied, but rather a time for total openness and freedom that says, Let everything happen and let the future decide what it will want to keep from our time.
And yet. And yet I must add that though the medium of communication changes from one era to the next, and while there will always be a Zuckerberg to succeed a Gutenberg, since the essential human experience will never vary from birth, copulation and death, human beings will continue to be driven to create a language that seeks a revelatory knowledge of one’s self.
Interlitq: You talk approvingly of non-traditional forms in literature, but what about the writer’s social responsibility to communicate important ideas without some clever new form preventing the reader from understanding?
Z. G: “Some clever new form” is a derisive way of referring to what was created by some of the greatest writers without whose work there would be no world literature to speak of, and, please, let’s not equate “the reader” with some perpetual innocent whose democratic right to remain an imbecile must never be challenged.
As for the writer’s social responsibility, let me remind you of what Wallace Stevens wrote in The Necessary Angel: “I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say sociological or political, obligation of the poet. He has none.”
And if flowers could talk, you might ask Van Gogh’s sunflowers what they’ve done recently about being socially responsible. If we think of the great painters—Bosch or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Turner, Cezanne or Rothko, and many more—our admiration of their work and expressions of our amazement at their genius are entirely due to the forms they created and the unique style in which each presented those forms, social responsibility had nothing to do with it. The same applies to the other arts. With music, it is self-evident that a Bach or a Debussy is expressing no obligation to society. Only as writers, because our medium is language through which both mundane commonplace ideas as well as the working out of complex intellectual puzzles are communicated, we get a didactic burden imposed upon us. I’ve often quoted Chekhov’s remark when, addressing the question of didacticism, he referred to Tolstoy’s great novel and stated that “not a single problem is solved by Anna Karenina”. And yet, again and again there are people, among them professors of literature, who take up the old discredited cry about commitment and demand that literature address social problems. No, literature is not going to save the world or whatever social responsibility will supposedly achieve. It's always political action, not writing, that brings about social change.
As I write this, in March 2016, there are tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere trying to enter Europe while the rest of the world watches their tragic condition on the cable news channels as they struggle through mud and snow; not the greatest art—let’s say a play specially written by Shakespeare with music by Bach and set designs by Picasso—will help their condition as much as a cup of hot soup and a warm blanket, and, most importantly, a welcoming country.
A writer's only responsibility is to write as best as one can; perhaps some reader somewhere will be enchanted or moved by it, or, on the contrary, repelled by it, but that’s an incidental consequence and not a determining factor inspiring the composition.
Interlitq: South-Asian writing in English has become prominent in recent years, and, as one born in Pakistan, what do you think of the writers from that region?
Z. G: When I was born there, what is now Pakistan was British India, which was the country in which George Orwell was born some years before me, though for some reason that doesn’t make him a South-Asian writer while it does me. I don’t believe in categories, be they regional or national or parochial. It has been said before—by Henry James and Chekhov, among others—that there are only two kinds of literature: that which has life and that which does not, that which you like and that which you don’t, and it makes no difference from which part of the world the work originates. Of course, the superficial details—silver birches and poodles in an English novel, mango trees and tigers in an Indian novel—are going to vary from country to country and there will be a variety of information about the social manners of a particular time and place, but what gives value to any work is the individual writer’s controlling vision, and that, influenced partly by the metaphysical anxiety which makes the human soul insist there must be meaning to existence, has nothing to do with an individual’s country. I can’t go on, I will go on, is not a torment experienced solely by the Irish.
A Rabelais or a Cervantes, a Pushkin or a Machado de Assis delights us not because of his national background but because his unique imagination advances an original perception of reality that shows us an illuminating new metaphysical dimension. When we applaud a Dante or a Shakespeare, we honour the individual and not the nation he was born in.
It is understandable, of course, that Pakistanis want to read books set in Pakistan and the English books set in England, and so with other societies. But this is a rather elementary level of reading; worse still, such a lowly approach pays no attention to quality, for it is easily impressed by the nationalist association. It is as if an Englishman would have liked Hamlet better if it had been set in Buckingham Palace.
As for South Asian writers, there are several that I admire, but not because they are South Asian but because they are good writers. Categories are devised by professors of literature who mark out exclusive territories, each with a particular smell, as their own, but who have little appreciation of a genuine fragrance, and since most of them don’t get my scent, I’m quite happy to be the one lamppost not marked out by their attention.
Interlitq: What is your view of writers who are going unread because their work is considered to have no commercial value?
Z. G: Of my former creative writing students, a few who wrote good novels without deviating from traditional forms were published but the ones who succeeded commercially, receiving high advances and multi-book contracts, were among the worst of my students for whom language was little more than assembling clichés and style a matter of journalistic reporting. And some of my very best students who produced stunning original work went entirely neglected. Again, nothing new about this except that in the past some publishers did take the trouble to make room for writers presumed to be risky because of their refusal to compromise their aesthetic ideas, but by the 80s the process that came to be known as “dumbing down” had become firmly established and anything that didn’t have a mass appeal was thrown into the bin marked “Untouchable”. Also, of course, there’s nothing new about the gifted being neglected or even suppressed by conniving and politically deft mediocrities. You might recall Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, talk of “the spurns / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes”. Not an uncommon experience that. In my own experience, some of the worst reviews I received were from the generation of writers who came after me and for whom to attack anyone of the previous generation who appeared to be successful was a way of clearing the field to place them at its centre where the light of success fell only on them—light? I seem to be haunted by that wretched lamppost!
Hamlet was no writer, but here is a writer who says that “we have sold our souls for profit at any price, slaves that we all are to our greed”, who wonders if “there is left a single free and unbribed judge of the things that are great”: this writer sounds like a twenty-first century novelist who can’t find a publisher; in fact he is the unidentified Greek writer known as Longinus who wrote On the Sublime some two thousand years ago. It’s an old and a universal lament, that things are bad, that real talent is being stifled; and it always feels worse to each succeeding generation. What is true today is that the numbers are immense. There are thousands of so-called creative writing workshops in the United States alone; add the rest of the English-speaking world, and you have tens of thousands of new writers each year. Inevitably, the majority of them are going to disappear without a trace, and inevitably too, there will be some among them who will have produced something memorable that no one wanted because it was judged to have no commercial potential. The sheer numbers are overwhelming. But there is one new thing in our time. The Internet, the www dot com, where everyone can publish. There will be no readers, of course, but then there are very few readers for good literature anyway. How many people do you know have read Machado de Assis, one of the supreme writers of the world? Or, in spite of all the talk about the Latin American boom, how many have even heard of three of the finest from any region—Felisberto Hernandez, Maria Luísa Bombal, and Álvaro Mutis?
Interlitq: Is there any other question regarding literature that you would like to address?
Z. G: Well, yes, if I may re-state what I’ve said about language, for I’m often told by writers what one said to me on reading one of my books of criticism, In the Ring of Pure Light, that in it I “repeatedly make the point about the importance of language over ideas: that ideas flow from language. Many writers would contest this, contending that language is a vehicle for ideas or problems of the time”. Allow me to take this opportunity to put into print a thought that’s central to my thinking by repeating, with some qualifications added, the answer I emailed to this writer.
Of course, language conveys ideas; otherwise, there’d be no such thing as rational discourse. But there are a thousand qualifications to be made and, especially after Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosophical doubts to express. An idea does not exist until it has been expressed in a language, which is to say, until a sentence has, or a group of sentences have, formulated that expression; consider next what makes a sentence: it’s words; and words are made up of letters, of which there are 26 in the English alphabet, and that fixed number limits the combination with which any sentence can be constructed.
Now, refer to my comments on Georges Perec’s novel, La Disparition, in the title essay of my book, In the Ring of Pure Light: Perec wrote that novel without once using the letter e, thus challenging our conception of language itself and convincingly implying that human ideas are confined within, and limited by, the structure of the language in which they are expressed. Such was Perec’s genius, he was able to write a novel of nearly 300 pages without once using the letter e and yet being able to engage the reader so deeply with the sentences he thus created that the reader scarcely notices the constraint Perec has imposed upon himself. Imagine, however, if instead of forbidding himself the use of a letter, a writer were to invent a new letter to add to the alphabet and thus give himself the opportunity of creating sentences that otherwise are impossible even to imagine, would there not then be ideas that had never been thought of before? Therefore, the statement that “language is a vehicle for ideas or problems of the time” is a questionable proposition, and philosophically untenable.
This is a vast subject that has deeply interested some of the major writers of our time—see, for example, Paul Valéry’s essay, “Poetry and Abstract Thought” in which he talks of poetry having a language within a language.
Language is an illusory transmission of belief, sometimes creating a conviction of certainty that the words we are hearing constitute a truth and sometimes leaving us in doubt, but always expecting us to maintain a tacit agreement that the language is communicating ideas and that whether the ideas are true or false we do understand the information the language is transmitting.
Now there, in that last sentence, you have a generalization that may or may not be true, one which will be read by some as a piece of wisdom, by some as a piece of nonsense, by some as evidence of intellectual depth, by some as evidence of imbecility, and so on.
My first book on Shakespeare—Hamlet, Prufrock and Language—is largely about this. To be very brief: there is the language of ordinary discourse in which we carry on our everyday life and communicate socio-political ideas, and when we use this language we go by the assumption that our interlocutor is speaking the truth (with which we may or may not agree). But it is only an assumption, though a necessary one, that obliges us to trust that the language of our socio-political discourse is communicating truth, and it is this usage that sustains the common belief that there is an unshakeable relationship between language and ideas. Fine. However, there is another language, that which does not merely convey ideas but generates the abstract thing called thought, and that is the language which concerns the writer. As you well know, the best poetry cannot be translated. One can show what the poem contains by substituting the words of one language with those of another, and thereby a reference is made to the idea on which the poem is built, but the real experience that gives the poem its poetry is an abstract one. If it were only the idea, then a sonnet by Shakespeare that we experience as a work of beauty in the original English would convey the same experience of beauty when translated into another language, which, however, is never the case: because it is never the literal meaning of the words themselves (with their equivalents in other languages) but in the original form that the writer creates in which those words are assembled together with the multiple layers of meanings and associations unique to that language that have accreted themselves to those words over centuries of usage that the poetry resides, and that poetry cannot be translated: what enchants us when we read poetry is the sudden, intuitive recognition of the inexpressible that breaks upon us with an unexpected force.
If there were a strict correlation between an idea and the language in which that idea was expressed, then there would be a fixed formula of words for each idea. But you know from your own experience that were you to sit down today (let us say, Monday morning at 10.43) to continue the poem you had begun last night, but were too tired to continue after writing, say, the ninth line, you will come up with a tenth line which would be different from the one you would have written had you continued writing last night; and that were you to be too busy at 10.43 on Monday morning and instead sat down at 3.27 on that afternoon, the tenth line that would be written at that time would very probably be quite different from the one you might have written in the morning; also, any number of other factors—like writing the poem sitting at the kitchen table while the kettle is boiling for the pot of tea you are about to make, or suddenly having a phrase for the poem pop up in your brain while you’re on the plane to Lahore to attend a wedding—go into the series of a spontaneous creation of phrases, lines, images, stanzas, some or all of which would be different had they been written sitting in the garden or a bus instead of the kitchen or the plane, and in none of which you are thinking of ideas but are only engaged in testing out a series of combinations of words to see if they don’t come together to make the poem which began as an intimation of an idea but which idea you will never really know until you’ve tested out the variety of combinations of words—deleting, substituting, revising, etc.—and are at last satisfied with one final set or just give up trying any more. A poem is the sum of many capricious moments in which your sensibility is reacting to the provocations of your imagination. You’re not writing ideas but doodling with words, and what finally gets produced, because it is then and only then that the language of the poem is fixed, that you have stated your idea.
Let me express one final statement, which could be written or spoken by any human being to any other on the planet earth, on the subject of language and ideas: I don’t think I have said what I wanted to say, and had I by some happy chance succeeded in saying what I wanted to say, you would not have understood what it was I had said though you would have assumed that you had.
by Lara Alcantara-Lansberg
The Groves of Academe