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Time and meaning

From a long time ago …

I was recently given the task of responding creatively to the phrase ‘Time sinking‘. I would have far preferred to address a different topic because I have never spent much time dwelling on the concept of time. And the idea of ‘time sinking’ seemed to raise the particular problem of what I imagined was a kind of ‘directed’ or ‘directional’ time. In the end I began to resolve this by imagining how my times have, in a sense, been sinking. (Fading away) In this respect I thought, for example, of the time past that I had experienced in Paris in 1960, then Venice in 1970 and finally New York during the year 2000. But whilst I was puzzling over how to give creative expression to the idea that my times were and are sinking I was also reading Elena Ferrante’s novel, ‘The story of a new name‘. Her striking and acutely perceptive text noted some of the different ways in which we experience ourselves in time: sometimes, for example, it is fluid, sometimes it is glue-like … some of us live in a linear and sequential unfolding of time, whilst other lives are characterised by ruptures, schisms, retrogressions and so on …

However, at the very end of the novel, Ferrante – quite possibly in an autobiographical moment – makes an observation about time and meaning. She does this as we follow the life trajectory of her central character, Lenu Greco, who has returned, from the north of Italy, in order to visit her family in Naples.

During this visit, Lenu, who is fresh from enjoying singular and brilliant academic success and who, in her early 20s, is about to have her first novel published, decides to go to see her long-standing childhood friend, the fascinating and mesmerising Lila Cerullo. Lila, by contrast, is working in the dreadful conditions of a sausage factory.

They meet in the factory and Lenu notices that Lila is ‘bundled up, dirty and scarred’ whilst she has ‘dressed herself’ as if ‘disguised as a young lady of a good family.’ They are now, as it were, inhabitants of different worlds. Their exchanges are both affectionate but always testing and sometimes harsh. On leaving the beautiful Lila, and after their brief meeting, Lenu, in a moment of terrible insight says to herself:

I had made the journey [to see her] mainly to show her what she had lost and I had won … But … she was explaining to me that I had won nothing – that in this world there is nothing to win … and that time simply slipped away without any meaning …

On reading this paragraph I put the book down and thought, for a long time, about the implications of that almost chilling closing remark: Time sinking – or time slipping away – ‘without any meaning’ …

If on a winter’s night a traveller – and more …

The cover of a book

Titles? Titles make a difference; often, they can help make sense of a work of art or they can simply evoke a fascinating or enticing image – a prelude to an unknown ‘something’; they can be delightfully memorable: amongst the titles I have particularly liked are ‘Those who leave and those who stay’, ‘Darkness at noon’, ‘The waste land’, ‘Famous blue raincoat’, and ‘After the gold-rush’.

By chance I have to hand a copy of Italo Calvino’s ‘novel’ or text which has one of the best titles I could ever imagine: It is: ‘If, on a winter’s night, a traveller.’ It’s a great title because I can actually imagine ‘a winter’s night’ and ‘a traveller’. And the title leaves me in a mood of anticipation: What is going to happen?

But then, as I began to read his text I realised that his introduction to the book applies to me! Directly to me! As Calvino prepares a reader for the experience of reading his new novel he tells us about a person (who is now a version of me, myself) and their (my) anticipation of his text:

As if speaking for me, he writes:

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything from anything.

There are plenty younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the general conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs.

What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.

Yes – this is more or less how I look at things; just as Italo Calvino’s subject (me), despite his habitual but albeit limited pessimism or stoicism, still has the pleasure of expectation vis-a-vis a new book, so I, too, have a certain pleasure of expectation at the prospect of opening a book and getting stuck in.

At the moment I am reading two astonishingly good books. The first is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. The second is Elena Ferrante’s ‘The story of a new name’ – which is the second volume in her ‘Naples quartet’.

Dostoyevsky’s work tells us the story of the three Brothers Karamazov, namely, Dmitry, Ivan and Aleksey; his characterisations of the brothers – as well as the many other persons who feature in the book – are virtually unsurpassed. In addition he furnishes us with an image of an old and strangely enduring Russian culture as well as a lesson in applied theology. Iris Murdoch observed of this genre of literature that ‘we don’t write like this anymore’ – and she is correct: The Brothers Karamazov requires patient engagement and a willingness to grapple with the often complex debates that are threaded throughout the text. Some pages have not one paragraph and this makes for demanding reading. And, on top of this, people don’t seem to conduct themselves like his characters anymore. They are often portrayed in the grip of intense emotion – the like of which are not so commonplace in our modern world.

At the same time I find it a relief and a pure form of enlightenment to read Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary portrayal of Neapolitan culture and relationships – as it is experienced by children and young adults. In her ‘The story of a new name‘ she also manages to underline why it is that ‘we’, wherever we are, benefit from an education that cultivates the mind and shapes perception accordingly.

So, I too, continue to share Calvino’s reader’s optimism – and positive expectation – when it comes to reading a new novel or an old and critically-acclaimed one.

A tiny gnome-like reflection on kitsch.

A choir of gnomes – somewhere in the south of England

Kitsch remains to me something of a mystery; I have the sense that it increasingly permeates reality and, the oddest thing of all is that I even begin to ‘see’ that the art that is supposed to be serious overlaps with or looks like Kitsch.

By chance I came across a short note on Kitsch that helped me grasp more clearly its identity: written by the conservative and traditionalist philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, it neatly summarised the reaction against all-things kitsch that was part of the modernist agenda. The modernists of the early 20th century devalued any art that beautified or prettified the world; Instead, art was to eschew sentimentalism (and all those big dewy eyes) and show ‘things as they are’; in the course of this a new sensibility emerged, a sensibility that expressed derangement, horror, disfigurement, angst and cruelty. (In other words, lots of artists made things that looked horrible.) And this modernist agenda was shared across the arts: So, as the high-priests of culture such as T.S. Eliot insisted, ‘The task of the poet was not to provide nostalgic dreams but to wake us up to reality.’

Scruton finds that in their quest to reject the old ways of doing things the artist had, at all costs, to avoid kitsch and this ‘became the first precept of the modernist artist in every medium’; Kitsch was reviled, tabooed and made abject. It follows that the fear of kitsch is one reason why so much contemporary art is deliberately offensive or disturbing. In doing this it satisfies the requirement not to be kitsch. Scruton goes on to claim that despite the fact we cannot easily define kitsch we recognise it when we come face-to-face with its manifestations. He provides the following examples:

The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair. And, unsurprisingly, he mentions that at Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch. And we are! (I will underline this shortly.)

What, though is going on as ‘we’ engage with the kitsch-ridden things, objects, places and kitch-laden moments of this world. In a key passage in the text Scruton writes:

‘Kitsch … is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.’

His analysis continues with his observation that this transfer of emotion from object to subject – of the loss of precise and real emotion and its replacement by a ‘vague and self-satisfied substitute’ is why modernist artists had such a horror of kitsch. (The real had given way to a curious hybrid.) And Scruton drives a stake further into the heart of kitsch-dom by declaring that:

‘Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all.’

Nonetheless it turns out that it is difficult to avoid kitsch because the very business of trying to avoid it – by being ‘truthful’ (perhaps in the style of Nietzsche) or subversive (in the mood of Warhol) – can, itself, easily lead to another version of fakery: fake significance, fake originality, fake sincerity and a kind of loud ‘look at me’ advertising. None of this, as Scruton observes ‘touches the deepest regions of the human heart.’

Another strategy adopted by contemporary artists is the genre of ‘pre-emptive kitsch’ – a kitsch that is so obvious that it isn’t real kitsch but a meta-kitsch – kitsch commenting on kitsch. This can earn you a lot of money and cultural cachet – and that’s where it’s all gone pear or gnome-shaped. On this I agree with Scruton.

So, what are we to do? I really don’t know. I find myself watching TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and marvelling at the sheer spectacle, the over-the-top-ness of it all. Is it real kitsch, or is it just pure aesthetic spectacle? And are all those Father Christmases and gnomes on sale for Christmas a way of poking fun at ourselves. After all they are, as objects, rather fetching – faintly ludicrous and relatively harmless. I wonder: is it the case that if we simply get so used to a phenomenon over time it becomes part of the reassuring furniture of our lives. And perhaps that is a good thing.

International kitsch – from somewhere in China