Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Introduction |
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The Meaning of Recognition : Introduction

Since retiring from mainstream television at the turn of the millennium — always pick the busiest moment to do a fade — I have been able to devote more time to essays and poetry. Each of the two forms, I like to think, holds territory in the other, if only through the requirement that it should be written with a care for the connection between theme and craft. Any poem which is all writing and no ideas is a pain in the neck, no matter how adroitly done; and any essay which is all ideas and no writing is dead before it hits the page. It should go without saying that a poem takes more effort to put together than the reader can guess. It is hardly ever said that an essay needs a similarly disproportionate expenditure of energy. The expenditure takes time. The essayist must be free to pause, finish reading Joseph and His Brothers, sleep in the afternoon, spend a whole hour on a single paragraph, watch CSI: Miami in the evening, and then work far into the night, until finally he produces a piece of writing that shows no more signs of strain than the easy outpouring of some dolt who bungs down the first thing that comes into his head. The essayist’s fluency, however, is only apparent, like his simplicity, which is, or ought to be, a work of synthesis, and not of subtraction. To the extent that it can make a clear argument while remaining faithful to nuance, his readability, if he can manage it, is his tribute to the complexity of experience: a legitimately lyrical response to the tragic. I hope the pieces in this book, when they look simple, do so without seeming light-minded, because most of them were written with a heavy heart. After the Berlin Wall came down, many of us who were already growing old had hopes that the young would grow up in a saner world. One of the signs of a saner world would be that there would be less call to consider contemporary politics when talking about the arts. It hasn’t turned out that way.

The first and last pieces in this book are concerned with the difference between celebrity and recognition. I tried to keep politics out of both of them, but it shouldered its way in, because celebrity is a frivolity, and the frivolities of Western civilization are at the centre of the question of how freedom can be defended with a whole heart when you find yourself sickened by the vices that arise from it. The answer to the question, I believe, is that those who attack liberal democracy, whether from without or within, loathe its virtues even more than its vices, and should therefore not be conceded the moral advantage even when they are granted their suicidal determination. But I don’t think it’s an answer that should be reached too easily, and many of the pieces assembled between the two bookends are concerned directly with just how reprehensible, even in its culture, Western civilization has been before, and still is now. There are one or two pieces that could be said to have no political dimension, unless you think that an article about Formula One motor racing might itself be a comment on the unforeseeable aftermath of World War II, evoking as it does the paradox of watching, on a Japanese television set, a German driver dominating the world at the wheel of an Italian car. Nor was Bing Crosby a notably political figure, except if you believe, as I do, that the influence of its popular culture was the one aspect of American imperialism that was neither planned in the first place nor possible to resist. But in most of these writings, politics invades every sphere, even the world of poetry. Not that poetry was ever a separate world — such a notion would have seemed very strange to Dante — but there was a time when it suited the cultivated to think it might be. Now nobody thinks that about poetry, or even about being cultivated. Politics gets into everything. It reaches even those people who have nothing to do with their lives except hope that the next distribution of food will not turn into a massacre. Especially it reaches them, leaving their bodies lying in the dust for the vultures and the television cameras. One day those birds will have electronic eyes, and the insatiable viewer of reality TV will be able to see from the inside what civilization looks like when it ends — the bloodbath before it started. Which raises the question, since the subject is so desperately serious, of whether somebody without the proper qualifications should talk about politics at all.

The answer to that question is that he must, and that the value of what he says will depend entirely on his tone of voice. Whatever the subject, whether apparently piffling or unarguably grave, his way of speaking will either be true to life or it will be a tissue of lies. There are essayists who can be faithful to the world’s multiplicity even when they are writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are other essayists who can’t report a war-crimes trial without writing flummery. In its printed form, a tone of voice is a style, and a style is a spine and a brain, not just a skin. If this book keeps coming back to poetry, it’s because it starts there: because a poem without style is inconceivable, and only style can register the flow of history. Much of history’s flow, alas, is the flow of innocent blood. For a while we might have tried to think otherwise, but it was wishful thinking — and wishful thinking was the fatal human characteristic with which the critical essay, a far more analytical instrument than the poem, was first designed to deal. Immured in his beloved library, Montaigne might have preferred to read instead of write. The turbulent world wouldn’t let him. A gifted diplomat much sought after by his government, he tried to shut himself off from politics, but it got in through the walls. And so he invented the form we practise now, always asking ourselves what we really know, and answering with what we have learned. One thing we are bound to learn, unfortunately, is that no amount of age will bring sufficient wisdom to cover the unpredictable. There we were, fearing that our prosperous children might lose sight of the value of liberty because they would never see it threatened. Nice thought, bad guess, wrong fear.

London, 2005