Literature

An Alcoholic’s Anthology

I thought I would write a little post on the subject of alcohol as I am quite fascinated by the relationship between alcohol and creativity. But then I remembered that I’m sober, so I thought I would just compile the more poetic thoughts of proper writers on its consumption instead…

Alcohol Creativity


‘A Drinking Song’ Beer Goggles by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.


‘Be Drunk’ by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) in translation 

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”


[A defence of] ‘Drinking’ by Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

Wine bottleThe thirsty earth soaks up the rain,

And drinks and gapes for drink again;

The plants suck in the earth, and are

With constant drinking fresh and fair;

The sea itself (which one would think

Should have but little need of drink)

Drinks ten thousand rivers up,

So fill’d that they o’erflow the cup.

The busy Sun (and one would guess

By’s drunken fiery face no less)

Drinks up the sea, and when he’s done,

The Moon and Stars drink up the Sun.

They drink and dance by their own light,

They drink and revel all the night.

Beer bottle

Beer bottleNothing in Nature’s sober found,

But an eternal health goes round.

Fill up the bowl, then, fill it high,

Fill all the glasses there, for why

Should every creature drink but I?

Why, man of morals, tell me why?

Advertisements

Is creativity more important than criticism?

This post was inspired by the ‘Critical Theory’ module I’ve been taking for my English literature course at university.

An underlying similarity between the Humanities subjects is the notion that there are, more often than not, no right answers. Or to be yet more assuring, no wrong ones. This is the thought I equip myself with when I sit down to write any essay. It’s how I, as a student, conjure the sheer arrogance to do battle with reputable critics, theorists, historians – authorities with often decades of knowledge in their respective fields – on topics I was perhaps only introduced to last week, by way of a 90 minute lecture. It’s certainly a liberating concept. But it’s also an immensely frustrating one. To be intellectual (or try to be) is so often to resign oneself to the grey wish-washy area between A and B, for and against, yes and no. It’s a dissatisfying place, but our destination today.

In my previous experience of debate, however informally, whether in an academic environment or in an-early-in-the-morning-after-a-few-drinks setting, I’ve found myself being that awkward guy who undermines the conversation by objecting to the premise of the proposed question itself. The following question, taken directly from a university discussion, falls into this shot-down category.

Is creativity more important than criticism?

I should specify here that I’m primarily concerned with literary creativity and criticism. The question itself is phrased in a way that leans already to the former option, presumably in light of the fact that you can’t have criticism without a creative subject to analyse. The mouthpiece my university module chose to fight this corner was the 19th century critic, Matthew Arnold, who wrote clear as day, ‘The critical power is of lower rank than the creative’. (He also defined criticism as ‘a disinterested endeavour’ which super confused me – the image of an apathetic scholary-looking type, half-hearted churning out some bitter review, springing to mind – until I was informed ‘disinterestedness’ in this case meant objectivity… Why didn’t he just say that?).

The arguments raised in my seminar class in favour of creativity boil down to two points. First is the promotion of creativity as a personal exercise, detached from criticism. You don’t have to be a published author to get a deep sense of satisfaction out of the creative production of art or just words. Even if nobody ever read your piece to offer any form of criticism, its composition would be nonetheless worthwhile for the experience and pleasure of the creative process itself.

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man.” – John Steinbeck.

A second popular argument for creativity is a cultural one. Society has always held authors, playwrights and poets above their critics. This suggests that, at least socially, creativity is indeed more important than criticism. There has always existed a stigma of hypocrisy surrounding the critic, who’s job it is to criticise creative feats we assume they themselves are incapable of. It might seem immensely ignorant to dismiss Arnold’s criticism in the view that he himself could be considered only a second-rate poet. It would be. But undoubtedly you would have been more likely to have heard of him if he were a first-rate poet, and perhaps only a second-rate critic.

In my seminar discussion little defence was raised in the corner of criticism. Strange seeing as we were all there ultimately to be trained as literary critics… Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

While I completely agree with the first argument in its value of personal, private creativity, it completely fails to acknowledge the value of personal, private criticism. A critical discussion about a film upon leaving the cinema with a friend, or a review of a book that you write for your blog (I’ll shamelessly advertise one of mine here), can be just as rewarding as the published critiques of a scholar. Furthermore, a 1,000 word review can be just as rewarding to write as a 1,000 word short story. No concrete evidence suggests otherwise. In response to the cultural argument, I would contend that the term ‘critic’ broadly encompasses other titles such as the theorist and the philosopher. Individuals who likewise criticise ideas and judge phenomena. The names of whom – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx – stand up culturally alongside your Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, to dispel the argument that society values criticism over creativity.

nietzsche-marx-freud

I have a final point to add in the defence of criticism. While it is evidently true that without creativity there would be no criticism (a statement even truer than it first appears, I will expand on this shortly), without criticism there would be no distinction of literature – that is, a literary canon. Without the recording and therefore development of literary criticism, it is highly unlikely, impossible, that the great writers would have acquired their status as such. Academic criticism is the flashing neon signs that draw our attention to particular texts in history’s ever expanding library. Without his legacy in criticism Shakespeare would not have reached our classrooms today.

Having reviewed both sides of the argument, I cannot withhold from entering the middle ground any longer. It is time I object to the question outright.

Creativity is no more important than criticism, and vice versa, because criticism is a mode of creativity, and while perhaps less obvious, creativity is a mode of criticism.

“The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.” – Oscar Wilde

A critic’s response to a text is unique therefore it is the critic who creates this meaning. My earlier attempt to open up the word critic, to encompass theorists and philosophers, was influenced by the notion that criticism, in its novelty, is a creative process. The critic is the author of a response to the text in the same way that a theorist is the author of an idea. This is easy to appreciate, but in what sense are authors critical? This sense: an author is the very first critic of his or her work. The interior editing and censorship that goes into its composition is undoubtedly the most important stage of all criticism. The academic critic values the final product of a piece of art; its creator during its creation values the piece as a work in progress.

“There is creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”   – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is another sense, a cultural one, in which an author might be considered a critic. The author is consciously or unconsciously a critic of the world he or she lives in, or at least the ideas and experiences he or she has been exposed to. The meanings behind a creative composition, whether intended or not, can be seen as a critical statement of an existence outside of the text. This is the fundamental flaw of New Criticism’s ahistorical nature. Context matters.

Is creativity more important than criticism? Yes or no? I object.

It’s a faux-dichotomy. Insert unsatisfactory answer: the question is a false one that assumes a division of the intrinsically linked.

Why any human should read ‘Any Human Heart’

…or at least watch the TV adaptation.

It was a pleasant surprise when my A-level English teacher announced at the start of one term she would be hand-picking a novel for each person in the class to read. The following week we were greeted by a sack of books from her personal library. It felt like Christmas. Naturally, we immediately started guessing who would be given the longest book – which appeared to be me until my friend was given The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (which I had at home anyway). The whole exercise was a curious one because it felt somehow like her choice reflected her own impression of you. Imagine setting your friend up with another friend – only that friend was a book.

SHOCK HORROR: Any Human Heart by William Boyd was the novel she assigned me. I cannot recall what she said as she handed over the copy, but in hindsight I wish she had warned me to cancel any plans I had for that weekend. I had been prescribed a 500 page addictive drug.

George R. R. Martin wrote that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” and I strongly recommend that you live Logan Mountstuart’s. You will find the experience effortless as the novel takes the form of his journal, recounting over half a century of his life, from the ages of 17 to 85. It appears almost a work of non-fiction in its depiction of the 20th century; it is also partially drawn from Boyd’s personal history. This mode of delivery, capturing a whole world by tracing a single character’s life from its beginning to end, is a possibility so rarely explored in literature. It has the effect of layering the story to the extent that the novel becomes plot-less. Boyd disperses with a predictable story-arc, leaving lose-ends all over the place, to achieve raw realism. He even has his narrative voice evolve throughout to reflect the aging Mountstuart, and in doing so captures his own “thesis that we [humans] are an anthology, a composition of many selves”.

I feel like I read this book at the right time in my life. I opened the journal at the same age that Mountstuart puts pen to paper. I was aspiring to read history, or rather be a writer, just like him, and had even naively visited Oxford earlier that year. I remember loving the opening chapters, immediately relating to Logan as an adolescent. But I also remember wondering whether I could possibly enjoy the book as much as the protagonist aged. I need not have worried as Logan’s story really is just the story of any human heart. It will have you thinking about the past and your future.

As a reader you live Logan’s life with him. You get to write the book you always wanted to. You get to meet literary figures from Ernest Hemingway to Virginia Woolf. You get to travel the world. You get to fall in love. But you also experience the suffering of the war. You find yourself wrapped up in dirty politics. You taste poverty (it tastes like dog-food). Not to mention get your heart broken over and over again. Any time in your life is the right time to meet Logan Mountstuart, I would like to re-acquaint myself with him when I am 85, but I suspect I will many times before then.

If I am yet to convince you to get hold of a copy for yourself, well firstly I have done this book a great injustice, but secondly I would urge you to at least check out the TV adaptation, featuring the likes of Jim Broadbent as (old) Mountstuart. I would not usually make this kind of recommendation, but the show is in its own right brilliant, almost certainly because it was written by Boyd himself.

Find all six glorious hours of it here:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/any-human-heart/episode-guide

Never say you know the last word about any human heart

A critical reader knows when to quit

CONFESSION: I am a book-snob. Since the age of around 13 I have predominantly read the books you would find in the quiet – I mean classical or “literature” – section of a library. I am not particularly embarrassed about this. One day it will serve me well in a pub quiz, you just wait…

But I have another confession to make: I am also the kind of reader who tends to feel they have to reach the last page of a book. When coupled with my preference for stories of the ‘chunky classic’ variety, this can often make reading tiresome and even un-enjoyable.

Most recently I struggled through Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I read it assuring myself the whole time that it was going to all come together for me on the next page. It never did. I persevered only so I could tick it off my ‘to read list’. Worth it? Nope.

As a reader you approach a “classic” with a certain set of expectations. You know it has earned its status for a reason; you know there is depth and meaning between the lines. You dive in wanting to enjoy it, wanting to identify every piece of symbolism along the way. Hoping to build up some grand analysis by the time you emerge, so that you can recommend it to all of your friends. But sometimes it just does nothing for you. You find yourself heavily wading through a murky plot, where all the treasure the critics claim to have found is either out of reach, or appears disappointingly glorified. This can often be disheartening, even alienating. ‘What have I missed?’ ‘What did that mean?’

Enough is enough. I am making it my resolution from now on to be more willing to give up on books that aren’t doing much for me, providing they aren’t on my university syllabus that is…

An author has the opening few chapters of a book to convince you that their story is worth a considerable investment of your time. Whenever you pick up a book you are making a purchase: trading your time in hope of an experience of enjoyment and escapism. Like any purchaser, you have a right to be critical and sparing with your investment. If you are unsatisfied after a fair test of their product, you should return it to the shelf and pick up something else. Years ago I abandoned James Joyce’s Ulysses and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. This is not to say they are not brilliant books – I simply wasn’t getting out of them what the authors put into them (I assume I was too young). And at 264,965 and 169,481 words respectively it was the right decision. I probably read five or six ‘normal-size’ books in exchange. I urge you to be a more critical and sparing reader too.

Let’s be quitters together.

The road is life

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.

Yesterday I opened up my A-level results. After a tough two years filled with ups and downs, that piece of paper was worth it after all. Today I reflect upon everything. Tomorrow I start to look forward. In five weeks’ time I will be reading English and History at Southampton University. It is with my ‘life-contemplating hat’ on that I want to tell you about my favourite novel.

Bob Dylan himself had this to say about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “it changed my life like it changed everyone else’s”. Now I am not someone who goes in for hyperboles, but when I started reading this book, one of a few I studied as a guest at Cambridge University last summer, I knew it was special. To date I have convinced two friends to pick up a copy and maybe this post – though hardly a review – will persuade you too. (Disclaimer: a third friend of mine actually refused to read past the first page, on the premise that she objected to the character name “Dean”. While I believe this to be a great tragedy, if you are of a similar partiality this book might not be for you.)

On the Road was published in 1957. It tells the story of “the sordid hipsters of America” – the Beat generation. Based on the real lives of Kerouac and his friends, it captures one sub-culture’s rejection of everything ‘American’ about America at the time. Nowadays the word “hipster” refers to the kid who listens to the bands no one has heard of, and fills their wardrobe at charity or thrift shops. But these guys were the true bohemian hedonists that the hippies of the ‘60s would only seek to emulate. In other words, they were basically cool before it was cool to be cool.

Reading this book is to relive one of the most exciting movements in modern culture: sex, drugs, hitching and all, delivered with a certain rhythm that mimics the era’s jazz soundtrack. Kerouac writes restlessly with erratic punctuation, slicing through sentences that try to run and run. He creates his own words like “yangling” and “dingledodies”. It is such freedom in expression that recreates his generation’s rejection of conformity. Even the manuscript of the novel was composed unconventionally, to say the least, typed out on a 120-foot scroll over the course of just three weeks.

Kerouac labelled his own style “spontaneous prose”. His explanation being: “it’s not the words that count but the rush of what is said”. I cannot pitch this book to you in a finer way. You must approach it as an experience instead of a story. You will be rewarded with an outlook that has you revalue life’s road in terms of the characters you meet along the way and the thrills you chase together.

“The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road