Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Angry (but creative) old men

Realising I hadn't visited it for some time, due to travel and needing to get some other work done, I took a look at Ballardian yesterday and discovered that there are a lot of new and interesting things up over there.

The most recent is Mike Holliday's 'Angry Old Men', an interview with author Michael Moorcock mainly about his work and that of his friend J.G. Ballard. I don't know most of his writing, but I have very much enjoyed his Elric series since I discovered it at about age 15.

After reading the interview, though, I'm hoping to read more.

There are few points at which the interview meanders rather further into the minutiae of science fiction publishing in the 1960s than your average reader would maybe prefer (though this is great for those who love that stuff), but if you persevere there is not only a cool photo of Moorcock on stage with the Blue Öyster Cult (?!) but also some interesting discussion:
Jimmy had been through that Japanese prison camp. I had been through the Blitz. These were, if you like, extreme experiences, yet seemed to us to have a lot to do with how it was in the world we lived in. Neither of us were bothered by the H-Bomb, for instance, as such. Jimmy felt it had saved his life, probably. I saw it as keeping the peace; Brian Aldiss, too, saw the Bomb as having saved him being involved in the invasion of Japan. We were both impatient with the themes of the chattering classes of our day.
An impatience, I think that any sane person (in any day) should share.

Thanks to Mike Holliday, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at the recent Ballard conference in Norwich. He's not only a great guy, he runs his own J. G. Ballard site, available here.

Speaking of impatience with the 'themes of the chattering classes', I was led via the comments at the end of Mike's interview to a posting by Alex at The Yorkshire Ranter justifiably taking Terry Eagleton to task for chattering the following:

'For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.'

Now, I think Eagleton, when he's good (or perhaps, when he was good...I begin to fear that that time may be passing), is very good. His eviscerations, for example, of the wackier excesses of literary theory (most anything with a 'post-' attached to its name) make for inspiring reading.

But when he's bad, he can be...quite dreadful indeed, and there are signs that something has gone rather badly off the rails in Eagleton country.

There was, for instance, that astonishingly bizarre review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. (Something to which, in these pages, The Wife responded.) And now, his curious despair that all has gone quiet on the questioning the 'western way of life' front.

I'm not even sure what to make of that.

As Alex suggests, it may be that Eagleton is simply overlooking a lot of literature that in fact does what he's suggesting it doesn't.

On the other hand...even if he were more awake to forms of literature which don't generally reach the rarefied air of Serious Literature, I'm not really sure to be honest what Eagleton means by 'questioning the western way of life' (or at least being 'prepared to' do that).

And even if I did know that, I'm also not sure that I'd be all that enthusiastic about seeing it. In some ways it seems that for Eagleton 'questioning the western way of life' merely means sharing his political views, and I'm not all that certain that what the world needs now is more explicitly 'engaged' political literature. I mean, any literature that is too clearly driven by ideology ends up being pretty dreadful tripe.

Isn't the point of literature to question more thoroughly the enduring complexities of 'life' and not simply obsess about its more curious (and perhaps more transient) 'western' way of living it?

I, for one, find that the more interesting books do just that...

(Moreover, since some of the ideological foundations in parts of the West have become rather too infected by cultural relativism, a blinkered version of multiculturalism and just a bit too much fucking 'tolerance' for nonsensical ideas, I humbly offer that some of the authors he so scornfully mentions are doing just the sort of questioning he suggests is necessary.)

Finally, I'm not at all opposed to the idea that life in the west is up for some questioning (pretty much like life everywhere else). I'm just a bit sceptical about the notion that, assuming some Politically Right-On Important Fiction gets written, some new novels are going to have much affect on said way of life.

Literature is interesting and important. But--outside of a few exceptions (none of which occur to me right now, but I'm just covering myself here by raising the possibility they might)--its political effects always seem to have been pretty negligible.

To borrow and bend one of his own lines: Serious literature, Terry, never stormed the Winter Palace.

I know, the dream of utopian transcendence dies hard.

But, like us all, it dies nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

Hi John - quite by chance I happen to have about two feet of Moorcock paperbacks at home. I'll bring in a selection to the office for you to borrow.

Chris W

J. Carter Wood said...

Two feet of literature...that's quite a lot. I may never get any work done again....

Say...that's a great idea!

Look forward to it. Thanks!