Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The Other Side of Language"

I thought the intense concern with the relevance, and especially the political efficacy of literature was a pragmatic American thing, but here’s J.M.G Le Clézio in his Nobel Lecture taking it global:
The idea that literature is the luxury of a dominant class, feeding on ideas and images that remain foreign to the vast majority: that is the source of the malaise that each of us is feeling—as I address those who read, who write. Of course one would like to spread the word to all those who have been excluded, to invite them magnanimously to the banquet of culture. Why is this so difficult? Peoples without writing, as the anthropologists like to call them, have succeeded in inventing a form of total communication, through song and myth. Why has this become impossible for our industrialized societies, in the present day? Must we reinvent culture? Must we return to an immediate, direct form of communication? It is tempting to believe that the cinema fulfils just such a role in our time, or popular music with its rhythms and rhymes, its echoes of the dance. Or jazz and, in other climes, calypso, maloya, sega.

[…]

To act: that is what the writer would like to be able to do, above all. To act, rather than to bear witness. To write, imagine, and dream in such a way that his words and inventions and dreams will have an impact upon reality, will change people's minds and hearts, will prepare the way for a better world. And yet, at that very moment, a voice is whispering to him that it will not be possible, that words are words that are taken away on the winds of society, and dreams are mere illusions. What right has he to wish he were better? Is it really up to the writer to try to find solutions? Is he not in the position of the gamekeeper in the play Knock ou Le Triomphe de la médecine, who would like to prevent an earthquake? How can the writer act, when all he knows is how to remember?

J.M.G. Le Clézio, Brittany, 4 November 2008

4 comments:

Nada said...

I'm a little suspicious of the notion that one writes (poetry) to "make a better world." In fact, I criticized the otherwise wonderfully uppity authors of the "Neoliberal Poetry" essay in the new Crayon on that very point.

It just sounds so do-goody. I can accept that one writes poetry to create alternative paradigms, to build fantasies, to narrow or widen focus, to drive a wedge into, to collapse or overturn, to celebrate, etc. (this list could go on and on). I just don't think it's about "making a better world," which makes me think of nothing so much as Disney's Tomorrowland.

rodney k said...

Hi Nada,

One thing that intrigues me about Le Clezio’s speech is that he tips his hat to the “must make better world” idea while fully recognizing that most peoples of the world don’t need literature to do that—they’ve got movies, or myth, or storytellers to do whatever socially useful things it is that that art does. That’s a weird bind to place the writer in, whose ability to even “remember” or bear witness or whatever, let alone change the world, becomes kind of superfluous. A desire to "have an impact upon reality" instead of a real possibility. The upshot's not a better world, but writerly malaise. That seems like a weird (and very possibly true) thing to say.

If you read the whole speech, I wonder what you make of this “Elvira” he dedicates his prize to (among others). Elvria is an Amerindian storyteller Le Clezio witnessed in performance in the Embera forest of Central America. I admire his humility and generous angle of vision, but why then aren’t we hearing from Elvira? Is Le Clezio’s (the novelist’s) global role just as middleman between cultures? It reminded me a little of that moment at the end of Heart of Darkness where the African “queen” that Chinua Achebe talks about in his critique of the novel gets to keen, but not talk. Not sure how to feel about all this … one reason I like it.

konrad said...

From a review by Declan Kiberd of Flann O'Brien's first book: At Swim-Two-Birds is "the work of an author less anxious to say something new than to find a self that is capable of saying anything at all."

Isn't "acting through writing" the same thing as "saying something new?" Perhaps writing really asks that question: can you do anything at all?

konrad said...

I thought i posted this last night, but perhaps there was an error.. There might even have been an error in transcription also, so lucky to have a second chance, i try again:

Declan Kiberd wrote of Flann O'Brien (regarding his first novel At Swim-Two-Birds), that the author was "less anxious to say something new than to find a self that is capable of saying anything at all." (wikipedia)

"Saying something new" is code here for "doing something" (as opposed to doing nothing, or doing the same old thing).

The negativity (addressing the doubt, rather than claiming novelty) is a critical "act" that does have an "impact on reality" -- but with a dialectical force, not a positive one, or a 'progressive' one.