Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Making sense of the world: stories vs. TS Eliot

To generalise hugely, with no small sense of irony, it seems that people are far too keen on oversimplifications. Whether it be on a specific issue, like seeking a comprehensible trigger for a school shooting, or on a more general topic like dismissing those on benefits as skivers (or, in the interests of impartiality, dismissing the wealthiest in society as "the 1%"), we like to make sense of the world with explanations and categorisations that cannot do justice to reality.

Of course, it makes sense for us to do this. I don't know if I'm alone in being willing to confess that I rarely understand even my own motivations, but it's clear enough that across the world we often struggle to understand our closest friends and relations, never mind the vast majority of the other seven billion people in the world, or the still more complicated array of natural processes. In such a confusing and tumultuous world, any progress or decision depends on us finding shortcuts towards understanding.

It's clear, from the very very beginning, that literature and language have helped in this process. Foundational myths helped make sense of the most challenging natural phenomena, giving our ancestors a framework to understand what they were, where they came from and why they were here. Indeed even before that point the development of language marks the first step in our ordering of the universe - words work by designating multiple objects as being essentially the same - once you have a word for 'apple' you no longer have the daily challenge of understanding the round red thing in your hand which is slightly different to what you ate yesterday. 

This same process underpins storytelling to this day. As we learn in primary school, stories are satisfactory because they go in a relatively straight line from beginning to middle to end, with obvious patterns whereby actions have consequences, and justice is done. George Eliot frequently uses the metaphor of a 'web' in Middlemarch to describe her fictional community - if you touch the web in once place, the interconnecting threads mean the ripples will be felt elsewhere.

This idea of logical chains of consequences arranged as stories is, not unsurprisingly, very close to how most of us see our own lives. Just as any good story has heroes and villains, we tend to see ourselves as the protagonists of our lives, and find it easy to dismiss others as peripheral characters, whether friend or foe. We find it comforting that our actions have consequences, that (hopefully) goodness will have it's reward, and that our lives are progressing somewhere.

Yet, on the other hand (as, ironically, George Eliot herself says in Adam Bede) "An ingenious web of probabilities is the surest screen a wise man can place between himself and the truth". Neither the dismissive generalisations nor the optimistic sense of purpose we see in our own lives necessarily corresponds to the chaotic nature of reality.

In fact, particularly when they are credible and sympathetic, these modern myths can prevent us from engaging with the real world, and with real problematic people. It is much easier to believe that our problems can be placed on the shoulders of uncaring politicians (or the feckless poor, or the feckless rich, or even the Illuminati), than to face up to the reality of no single cause, and no single solution. Similarly it is much simpler, if we are upset, to blame it on a particular ex-partner or parent or school bully or ridiculously-stubborn-friend-who-didn't-pick-up-the-car-when-he-said-he-would, rather than to face the unfathomable horrors of our own psyches. (Happy Christmas!)

There is no simple "solution" to this, and indeed I would probably err on the side of disagreeing it is necessarily even a "problem" - as mentioned above these processes are vital to the functioning of individuals and societies. But it is important that we keep in mind the artificiality of the way we view the world, and that we make sure to question our own assumptions, especially when we are tempted to simply dismiss someone as being 'obviously' wrong on any particular issue.

With this in mind, value emerges for a neglected and unloved corner of the fictional world - the fragmented and inpenetrable fragmented works of James Joyce or TS Eliot, and those who followed on from them. These writers are (very fairly) criticised for their pretentious refusal to make sense, but in this context I want to quickly sketch out a way of (re-)reading them.

A poem such as 'The Waste Land' (to take the most famous example of the genre I am at once creating and describing, in bold defiance of my criticism of generalisations) does not make sense as a coherent narrative. The situation jumps around from Germany to an English pub to (probably?) a desert, and we don't really know who is speaking. The hardest, and most disingenuous, question you can ask someone is "what is The Waste Land about?".

And yet. Even on a casual, disinterestedly frustrated reading, there are some wonderful images and moments in the poem. 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust' is possibly the most striking example, but crucially every reader has to find different meanings in the jumble of the poem, which means that different lines will strike them as beautiful, or poignant, or brutal.

This is not simply a lucky chance either. It's tempting to think that TS Eliot had a gift for a beautiful image or turn of phrase, but spoiled it by being so irritatingly dense, but I think the illogical flow of the poem is crucial to the beauty of its isolated fragments. As an odd piece of supporting evidence, when Noam Chomsky was challenged to come up with a completely meaningless sentence, he produced 'Colourless green ideas sleep furiously'. In its provocatively enigmatic imagery, the sentence strikes me as more memorable than the vast majority of 'meaningful' sentences.

But there's more value to these texts than these flashes of brilliance. There's also the necessity of trying to understand them - 'what is The Waste Land about?' might be unanswerable, but in reading it we instinctively try. If traditional realist narratives represent the way we view the world, the process of understanding The Waste Land might actually be closer to how we experience our surroundings - an ongoing barrage of conflicting signals, which we struggle to trim down to something which makes sense.

But the most important part of these texts, in my view at least, is not the intangible "process" of understanding them, but rather their stubborn refusal to be understood. Cathy Caruth writes very insightfully about traumatic events, and argues that when something truly traumatic happens and we cannot put our feelings into words, it is because the act of expressing something verbally reduces it by making it comprehensible. It's inevitably impossible to come up with a concrete example of this, but I find it easiest to visualise in terms of dealing with the loss of a loved one - as soon as we talk about it and describe them as having 'died', they begin to be subsumed into the homogenous mass of other dead loved ones - you can say to a friend that your wife has died and they will react in a certain way, and you will react back, and life goes on. True trauma is a refusal to put feelings into words, a refusal to accept that 'life goes on'.

If this is true on an individual emotional level, it is also true of far broader events. Theodor Adorno wrote that 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric', and I think part of what he meant by this (in a far broader essay) is that to treat horrifying events in traditional narratives, which as we have seen inevitably simplify them, does not do them justice. 

In this context, then, modernist poetry strives to bridge the gap between expression and the inexpressible. It accepts that trauma cannot be belittled and reduced by being put into a nice ordered story, and instead tries to represent the incomprehensible nature of the world. Of course it can never perfectly succeed in this goal, but maybe if the occasional beautiful line leads us towards a mature acceptance of the world as it is, rather than as it is described, then this failure might be worth more than you might imagine.

If you've managed to read this far, you obviously have great stamina, and should celebrate this with a comment sharing your views! Or, for very tangential further reading, this essay was inspired by this article (which, while almost unrelated, is very thought-provoking), while Cathy Caruth's book is called 'Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History' (John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1996)

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