Permitting waste in the realm of verse

The Literary Review newsletter of 2/11/16  held a review of a biography of Jonathan Swift, exposing one of the striking cultural prejudices of the last century, which still hangs in the air of our own times:

“In his everyday life Jonathan Swift was fastidiously clean. In his writing, however, he was capable of what was disapprovingly called an ‘excremental vision’. Yet this at least showed him to be less hypocritical than his ‘grubbier’ contemporaries, who ‘refused to permit the filth, decay and human waste around them to enter the realms of verse’, suggests Freya Johnston in her review of John Stubbs’s ‘sensitive and capacious’ new biography of Swift.”

In a strong reaction to the earlier Victorian prudery, which was generally understood as hypocrisy (i.e. knowing that ‘life is miserable’ but not ackowledging it in literature and art), younger generations in the last century indulged in digging-up all the messiness of life which in former times was considered inappropriate for cultural endeavor, at least: not suitable to treat openly and concretely in poetry and literature. It was thought, in those more cautious times which had seen ample real-life horrors, that civilization rested on order, harmony, and that the best art should reflect the better sides of the human character and be aspirational and inspiring to develop these better sides. The best novels from those ‘suppressed times’ are the novels where these darker sides are strongly present but behind the words, so to speak, driving the narrative forwards with their conflicts, drama and tragedy (Balzac, Zola, Fontane, Mann, Dostoyevski etc.). This can be compared with the degree of dissonance in music: the undercurrent of chaos, which adds to the drama of the music as long as it is embedded in a consonant overall formal principle. Where dissonance and concrete debris gets dominant, form falls apart, and the civilizational influence of order is gone.

Merely writing about the mess of life and writing random dissonances, ends-up with Tracey Emin’s dirty bed which almost won the Turner Prize but was merely exposing human deficit. In other words, there was a good reason for protests against 20C writers like Henry Miller and 20C composers like Stockhausen, protests which have always been labelled as a bourgeois lack of understanding of modern times, but which could as well have been a common sense and correct understanding where it was all about.

Is holding to a sense of order and harmony, in spite of the misery of life, hypocrisy? As the great works of art from the 19th century demonstrate, harmony can exist while exercising its force against and including the forces of chaos which are always there. This makes such art more true to life than cultural products which merely present a one-sided and thus, incomplete vision of life, and stop where the attempts at civilization should begin. Much of 20C art – as presented in the established institutions – seems not progressive, but regressive, in all aspects.

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