Kanye he?

In another blog I mistakenly compared Kanye West to Lord Byron. I regret this grave error. The reason was good enough at the time as it placed Lord Byron as a personality, never short of confidence, and Mr. West as somehow kindred, which seemed right. Well, that was profoundly wrong; bad enough to redo altogether.

The reason for the revision is that disturbing vision emerged of Kanye West reciting some lyric; not just some piss a bed type Keats drivel, as Byron would call it, no, this was far worse. Before raking over the lyric, like a cat in its tray, West made some bold assertions about ‘going after’ Shakespeare and Disney and some other people who have instant name check credence to a festival crowd. They might never have actually read or seen the work but its known anyway. Putting words together like Shakespeare and Disney is surprising and creates frisson. He seemed to imply that he was on their heels in terms of the greatness and everlasting fame deal which is why the names make an odd choice.

I bought a CD by Van Morrison once because he sang a song with the ending that went, “Just like Samuel Beckett, baby.” Those words and that author especially, are not normally strung in the same sentence.

While Beckett knew music very well, it’s not certain that he was keen on R&B or any of the sounds from Nashville, or Muscle Shoals; nor does his own work reek with the smell of fried chicken, corn pones, collard greens and rye. Morrison also sang, “Just like James Joyce, baby” – the song was about the Irish diaspora – but ‘Joyce’ and ‘baby’ would have made the great man envious; it is something that might belong in Finnegan’s Wake, in a way that Beckett and baby could never be a part of any work by Beckett.

As far as Disney and Shakespeare conjoined make a semblance of sense it’s best to avoid. It was right after their names were slammed together like a couple of cabs at an intersection that was really troubling. “Whether you believe it or not; you can only achieve as high as you believe.” The second half is repeated three times presumably because it makes it not only more attractive to the ear, it also becomes more convincing. The logic of the line is contradicted by the tautology in the opening clause. The second part which is used for repetition, “You can only achieve as high as you believe” is not a lyric, but the motto of an elementary public school, or a third rate brand advertiser.

If Byron had heard this he’d say to Keats,” Johnny, I am truly sorry; you are not a pissant oik and your poetry is really quite good.”

We are left with the question as to whether Kanye West can really go after Shakespeare and Disney. No, he Kanye’nt.

Guy Cranswick
22nd June 2014

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A glass of Château de Chasselas

One of the first things any reader judges in a book or a movie, is whether the characters are believable. This can be highly subjective; or it may mean applying an implicit criteria to how a character behaves. Generally it means the characters act in a way that is commensurate with the reader’s experience. If they do, those qualities can help understanding and establish empathy, which is a curious emotion to stimulate in connection with fictional beings.

In certain genres characters act in different ways, which, if they were to jump genre would be funny or just silly, like crossing musical genres with odd results. In science fiction characters are highly intelligent as they have several hard drives of data and background information to relate; their objective is to master a situation, sometimes a crisis. In detective fiction, especially the hard-boiled type of the Depression and post-World War 2 era, the characters are flinty, cynical and take all their daily calories as hard liquor. In the English detective fiction between the wars, the type that Chandler disabused, the characters comprise ordinary people without marked tics of behavior, the detective is not troubled by existential doubts but he rights the wrongs “when some pretty rum sort of things have occurred, don’t you know.”

I still haven’t convinced anyone that a sci-fi epic made in the style of an English soap opera would work. Just when the intergalactic ship is overwhelmed with superior destructive forces the spaceship’s captain and his wife sit down to a nice cup of tea and have a chat.

This train of thought started with Dickens. In a Dickens’s novel there are the wildly mad characters, they are greedy, mean, glutinous, cruel, reclusive; they have disgusting habits and look weird. They call cats, ‘brimstone beasts’; they recite their achievements as catechism at any moment, like Josiah Bounderby, who might have been one of the Four Yorkshiremen. That character’s awful bombast is quite amusing, in a certain way. It wasn’t intended to be funny and no doubt no reader at the time laughed at his absurd pronouncements.

The curiosity about Dickens’s work is that the characters are lively but exaggerated. Almost caricatures. How did readers in the mid-nineteenth century see them; were they considered real?

We read those books now and tell ourselves that the characters are overdone for various reasons and accept it, we know it’s a limitation of otherwise very powerful writing. It’s hard to see this logic at the time with readers using such a caveat. The popularity of the books, the serials, as they were being produced depends on acceptance, grudgingly given believability is never enough to win over readers. “Well that Martin Chuzzlewit is fine enough, but he’s very mean and cruel to his grandson. I don’t like him at all.” Now an unsympathetic lead character might finish a book. This fictional same reader might recognize the authenticity of the character as being similar to a real person.

Martin Chuzzlewit and Mrs. Clenman might be quite real to a reader in 1850, but to a reader in 2014 they would appear deranged, mentally unstable and even dangerous. If that is so it says that people are always changing and that writers may reflect the shifts in social and personal transformation.

And even if that is not quite true, Dickens’s characters could be amusing in a bizarre sense. It’s a style of characterization that is more common in comedy and so it’s quite feasible that Dickens was the 7th Python.

Guy Cranswick
12th June 2014

The veil of ignorance

Books rarely ignite widespread passionate debate. Occasionally some books are disputed between authors and readers, critics and publishers but rarely do books that perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have read, provoke discussion on the merits of one versus another.

Those books under review are – were – on a syllabus. The move to replace some American novels and replace them with English books sparked a debate on the wisdom and rationale for such a change. After a time everything needs to be moved about, and in the case of these particular books it may be long overdue. As it is they are still are on some list of ‘best ever’, for all that means, because they have, rather like MS Windows, been the default experience for a major share of total reading time.

The facile way to look at this is declare that it’s a subjective matter. Not so easy, there. There’s a method of argument called the veil of ignorance which can be used here. It’s often applied to determine the morality of a subject. The purpose is to limit self-interest, prejudice and any other hindrance in understanding the question. Therefore the principles alone can be examined and all other personal motivations are obsolete once the veil is raised.

Such a method could be applied to the teaching of books to children. It’s curious that only in literature taught at school can a student be given, what transpires later were completely erroneous lessons. If the same thing happened in chemistry, salt would not have the same properties cooks know; and physicists, would have grave difficulties finding the galaxy, not this one, any galaxy.

In school, literature is whittled, compressed, scheduled, and reduced into themes. Writing is presented as ‘exploring’ the theme of (insert abstract noun here); as though sitting down to write and deciding to conduct some anthropological ethical analysis equipped only with metaphor and synecdoche, simile and metonymy the fearless individual wrestles the subject into submission.

The central irony is that language, either as poetics or as de Saussure defined it, is largely irrelevant as the pedagogy depends on biography, history and geography: ‘At this time Walker went to the panhandle of Texas and encountering oil workers, and boatmen he set to work on his great book, “The Dredgermen”, of which the title plays on the word ‘dread’. Write an essay on the lives of oil workers and migrant labor in 1920s Texas. Easy.

By that long route we come back to the replacement of American books for English ones. Applying the veil of ignorance in this instance it’s very difficult to see any good reason for the replacement of the books (aside from a refresh) as the quality is not divergent. The issue of nationality is a non sequitur; at the level and skill in which literature is taught it makes no difference as language is not central but rather skills of analysis and interpretation are what is being exercised, and therefore a translated work would serve as well as any native English prose and verse.

The reasons for the swap are simple enough: atavism and that potent notion in the minds of some; that inculcating specific lessons early will lead to specific outcomes, and outcomes are what it’s about. Naturally those outcomes should be consonant with the country, the history and the doctrines of the government that made the rules.

Whatever the final choices will be from the canon of approved English writers, it won’t be on the excellence of the writing, but whether they fit a theme. This is similar to having the math curriculum organized by arts journalists. Pity any child that is forced to read books by the suburban solicitor Jane Austen. Should that be the outcome it will be as fixed as any production statistics from a totalitarian state. “Tractor output is up 600% and Northanger Abbey is being read by 100% of 15 year olds.”

Guy Cranswick
1st June 2014