Sunday, 8 February 2009

Writers versus politicians

'Men have lost faith in individual endeavour ... of any kind' (Thomas Carlyle, 'Signs of the Times').

Sorry we've been rather absent from this blog for a while ... life has been full of illnesses, babies, work, illnesses, babies, work, illnessnes, babies, work, and (now and then, when we fancy a change) work, babies and illnesses - so the time available for writing, let alone blogging, is approximately zero.

When one doesn't write, though, one thinks a lot about it, and what it means. What does it mean to write? What does it mean to be a writer? What is the point (for heaven's sake) of being a writer at this bizarre moment in that disaster we call human history? Well, I think I agree with Henry Miller, when he says 'the artist ... is the artist because he stands for individuality and creativeness.'

We live in a country and a historical moment ruled by so-called 'objective' and 'collective' forms of knowledge, such as statistics. Our whole lives are determined by the rule of statistics - public institutions like the N.H.S. decide whether we live or die based on statistics. The empirical basis of much modern science and medicine is, by definition, a statistical basis. Doctors talk about illnesses from an objective point of view, as a collection of symptoms, causes, effects. Newsreaders rate disasters by the numbers of dead involved. Politicians (and especially pseud0-Socialists) pretend to objectivity, spouting so-called objective truths, often in the form of statistics, about the people as a mass, as a collection of groups, cities, races, religions, economic classes, jobs.

Writers are the opposite of politicians, in this respect. Writers talk about individuality, about individuals, and about how individual human beings often differ from the groups to which they nominally belong. Politicians deal with types; writers deal with the exceptions to the types. Politicians deal with statistical generalisations; writers agree with Carlyle that "[statistical] tables are … like the sieve of the Danaides; beautifully reticulated, orderly to look upon, but which will hold no conclusion … [since] one circumstance left out may be the vital one on which all turned."

Writers, in short, reassert the importance of subjective experience in the face of a world dominated by scientific, statistical, political and so-called "objective" truths.

No doubt I think all this in part because I'm a memoirist - memoirists, by their nature, assert the importance of subjective experience. But I think this equally applies to fiction writers and poets. Fiction writers know, for example, that good characterisation is a matter of finding exceptions and contradictions and individuality within modern groups and types.

Of course, to assert that all writers "reassert the importance of subjective experience" is itself a questionable generalisation which fails to deal with individuality ....

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