23 November 2009

My Waterloo

This afternoon I was walking down the shiny wet street when I was hailed by a voice, and looking up, discovered a fracquaintance. This is one of my favourite things that happens in
WhereIlive: I love meeting people I know by chance on the street or in the shops. I don't know if I would love this if it occurred elsewhere (the couple of times it happened in Otherhome it was nice to see the person, but I didn't have the same feeling of warmth about the meeting itself), but here it somehow gives me a feeling of belonging, of being so much a part of the community here that I meet people I know anywhere I go.

In fact, I was on the street coming from a seminar at which we had been discussing a book by my friend J. J. is the sort of scholar who has his books talked about as the topic of whole seminars (in other words, he is a famous scholar), and I wanted to go because I wanted to see what they would make of him. As it happens, they made a good deal more of him than I, because I didn't get a chance to read the extract, and I haven't read the book for years. So I must read it again soon. In addition, though, I found the seminar interesting because as part of it we got into a short discussion/disagreement about whether "history writes literature," and I've been thinking about this topic ever since.

This disagreement started because one of the men at the seminar objected to his sense that J. believes that history writes literature; he said, "History does not write literature." Now, obviously this is a tough statement to respond to truthfully without knowing what he means by "history," and in my usual articulate way I asked him what he did mean: "Do you mean, things that happen to people?" Nice. What I meant, and eventually half-managed to say, was, "Do you mean historical events?" - although what I also meant and mean is, Day to Day Events and Alterations that Arise from Historical Events. As far as I could determine (for the conversation became rather crowded at that point), Yes, he did mean that. So what he meant was, Historical events don't write literature.

In which case, I must say, I believe that history does write literature.

We are our backgrounds, surely? We are other things besides them, but we must ineluctably be where we came from and what surrounds us. I confess here that I just can't imagine how anyone could argue against this now, how the notion of a person as an untouched island can exist. And if we are our backgrounds and surrounds, then it follows logically that what we produce is, too. After all, as a product of the self, what we produce has the same influences as the self that produced it. While I wouldn't argue that literature is simply a flat reflection of history, I would argue that history influences what is written - in terms of subject matter, but less obviously, and I would argue more frequently, in terms of how it's written and how subjects are approached. Indeed, one can validly argue that without the French Revolution Lyrical Ballads would never have been written, not just because the Revolution inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge, or because it opened up society to them in ways that made plain utterance the speech of the common man interesting, but because it forced writers to focus on England, since they couldn't GET to Europe, and the notion of examining the poor of England, rather than some great European sight or theme, arose (or was suggested, or was implanted).

Of course literature also transcends history. We may be our backgrounds and our surrounds, but we're not just our backgrounds and our surrounds. But of course, as I pointed out in the only decent observation I got out in the whole seminar, that's the contradiction of literature: Literature is trascendent, and that's why we study it; but literature is not transcendent, and that's why we study it.

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