The State of the Art, part 2

by | Nov 22, 2006 | Literature

Related Categories: Literature
Posts by: Brian

Had a pleasant chat with my printer today.  Fortunately, the books are done!  Unfortunately, they won’t ship till Monday.  It’s sort of like red wine; they’ve got to breathe before they read properly.  Five days parked on the loading dock ought to be just about right.  After hearing of this latest delay I went for my hike, and I was struck by no thoughts of essential changes to the novel.  What I thought about mostly was what a good thing it is that my printer is not within strangling distance.

I’m still working my way through Orwell’s essays, which I have not read for probably twenty years, and I’m still thinking about the piece ‘Inside the Whale.’  One thing that jumped out at me was that, speaking of the writers of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, it occurs to Orwell to mention that suddenly there is a great deal of emphasis on technique.

He also mentions, elsewhere, that if he had not lived in a time of political upheaval and Fascism, he would have written ordinary novels with lots of purple prose, but that instead he became a democratic socialist.  Hence his notion that all literature is propaganda.  He reads largely to see what the writer has to say about society, so when, after Freud’s theories of the subconscious had become all the rage, and writers were experimenting with how to sink their teeth into this juicy new subject-matter, he notices that society is no longer the focus.  People are.

The ostensible subject of ‘Inside the Whale’ is Henry Miller’s infamous novel Tropic of Cancer, which Orwell regards as some very fine writing although, as he mentions, he is unable to quote from it as so much of it is unprintable.  I am currently seventy pages into it myself, and so far am unable to share Orwell’s enthusiasm.

He met Miller in Paris, while on his way to do his part in the Spanish Civil War.  Miller told him he was a fool to go, and Orwell, oddly enough, was impressed to meet someone who, while agreeing that the rise of Fascism was a bad thing, disagreed that anything should be done about it.  As Orwell apparently sees it, Miller has performed the act that many Germans, during the Hitler regime, called ‘inner emigration.’  As far as I can see so far, Miller is simply radically self-absorbed.  There is some interesting use of language, but mostly, Tropic of Cancer is sort of like having a peephole in somebody’s bathroom wall.

I hope this does not mark me as being hopelessly bourgeois.  I’m not disgusted, but simply less than impressed.  Miller’s writing does not have the shock-value that it would have had when it was written, and so many writers since his time have written about the same things but with more art.

I’m all about art, or, in Orwellian terms, technique.  It seems to me that fiction has only one topic, whether that fiction is a picaresque novel or a dystopia or a murder mystery, and that topic is human beings.  Whether you’re writing about one human being or many, the most important thing is to write well.  Since there is only really one topic, it doesn’t matter what you write about, but only how.  ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ and all that.  You can analyze a portrait by Rembrandt as a social document if you like, but you can’t get away from the fact that if Rembrandt’s technique were not so fine, you would not bother analyzing it at all.  Salvador Dali paints the same sort of thing that Henry Miller writes about, but if he were not technically brilliant he would be considered a minor painter interesting only for his choice of subject-matter.