What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Grumble 8/Interlude: Duties of Creative Types under Modernity

This isn’t a proper grumble and it isn’t a proper interlude.

In the past few posts I have been excoriating the lack of decent literature. I have also been raising issues with the promotion of what I see as bad music by Classic FM in Australia, and the ignoring of good music as a consequence of this. Both of these phenomena I have diagnosed as a lack of virtue in society, which, it is obvious, is also responsible for our so far meagre efforts as a society to dig ourselves out of the rather deep ecological hole we are currently in (and for allowed us to get into it in the first place).

It should be clear that I am recommending that everyone in society should attempt to align themselves with virtue (in the sense I am using it here) and take to necessary actions for this time and situation. Composers and writers will continue to produce their works as part of this imperative.

Composers’ duties are clear: to keep on producing effective music, despite the fact that large part of the (classical) music industry is smitten with kitsch and seems to be on a mission to propagate only this type of music. The existence of record labels interested in effective music and a small, but sympathetic, listening public is a guarantee that effective music will continue to be performed and recorded. The same argument would apply to handicrafts—although the predominance of the mass-produced is a hallmark of modernity, there exists a small market for items produced in alternative ways and with regard to the niceties of craftpersonship.

The duties of writers are harder to perform because in modern publishing the enforcement of stupidity is that much more rigorous than in other artistic spheres. Add to this the problem that whereas music and handicrafts are, to an extent, not restricted to their own time, yet the written word is necessary identified with the period that produced it because language is time-bound.

A good metaphor for the writer’s task is this: in Ecuador archaelogists have discovered artefacts made in Pre-Columbian times which seemed to be made of platinum. This was astonishing as the high temperatures required to smelt platinum could not, it was thought, have been reached in the furnaces of the time. The answer that emerged when the pieces were analysed was, if anything, even more interesting than the supposition of highly-advanced Pre-Columbian furnaces. It seems that the craftspeople of the area had employed a technique known as sintering: they took nuggets of platinum (which could then be found in stream-beds along with nuggets of copper and gold) and ground them to a fine powder. They then added a small amount of powered gold and heated this mixture in a crucible. The gold melted, even though the platinum did not, and flowed around the fine particles of platinum producing a piece of metal that looked like smelted platinum, but was in fact a mass of platinum particles cemented together with gold.

This I take it is the ideal state for quality written work: the timeless particles of wisdom held together by the slightly less precious gold of rhetoric. What we have in modernity, of course, is work that is almost always base metal, almost never contains any precious metal, and whose rhetoric is anything but golden.

As many writers have noted, words are fleeting, and the written language documents the changing nature of language over time. Although many works have been lost over time—the complete poems of Sappho, for example—many have survived, and where their language has become outdated or disused people have taken the trouble to learn it so they can read and perhaps translate these older works. Recently for example I was reading a translation of Sumerian poetry written in the Third Millennium BCE. The language itself became extinct in the Second Millennium BCE, but by studying translations made into later languages scholars from the C19 have learnt to understand Sumerian again.

We can hope that as we now have sophisticated means to store and perpetuate written records we can now look forwards to a future in which no works of valuable literature are lost and people can rely on scholars and translators to continue to keep alive the words of the past. On the other hand it may be that this steady state future will not eventuate and works of literature will just have to take their chance, as they have done previously.

Meanwhile writers have to keep on writing and serving virtue and the Way as they see fit: provoking thought, overturning outworn ideas and renewing language.

One problem for writers is that languages such as English and French, which have been written for centuries, are being held back from necessary change. For example how many times have you heard the argument: ‘we must distinguish between “uninterested” and “disinterested”, “disinterested” does not mean “without interest”, it means “without financial or other involvement”’. In any normal language this distinction would have been lost a long time ago and two new common words meaning ‘without interest’ and ‘without financial or other involvement’, respectively, would have emerged. Now all that happens is people who don’t write well don’t distinguish these two, those who do, distinguish, but there is no vernacular way of expressing this difference.

English is in fact being held back from changing across the board by its written form. English is a Germanic language which has absorbed an enormous amount of vocabulary from French and other Romance languages and Latin and Greek. In the normal course of events borrowed words would be assimilated to the pattern of the language, but, several centuries on, English still has a very mixed inventory of word forms and is sadly polysyllabic. What needs to happen is for all these polysyllables to contract into dignified one or two syllable words, as is done in the spoken language (‘rehab’ for ‘rehabilitation’, for example). After several centuries of unchanging form English is getting old and tired and words that were once noble and purposeful have been applied to too many enormities over time for them to have preserved their freshness.

If you add to this handicap the handicap of generally foolish and unlearned publishers, you can see the extent of the writers’ difficulties. Really one could carp about this topic forever, but suffice it to say that the publishing industry generally can be relied upon to find and promote stale rather than fresh writing, crass rather than wise writing, and best sellers rather than works of value. (Best sellers, of course, are forgot almost as soon as the millionth copy leaves the bookshop shelf. Remember the Da Vinci Code, anyone?)

But virtuous writers will, of course, keep on writing, and their writing will, eventually, work its purpose.

Next week: Grumble 9: Freedom from religion

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