Sunday, November 04, 2007

A. N. Wilson – ‘The Victorians’

A couple of recent blog posts (at Click Opera and Cultural Snow), in talking about cop show The Wire, had a pop or two at the Victorians by way of demonstrating how outmoded / cutting edge it is. How unfair! I thought: whether you believe Click Opera, (who see the show in terms of ‘The religiose, 19th century vocabulary of secular humanism [which] gets wheeled out time after time to justify the greatness of mega-narratives’), or Cultural Snow (‘The Wire […] has the nerve to stretch a single storyline over an entire season, and then to withhold from the audience any real notion of closure’), the Victorians do badly out of the deal. The Wire is either rubbish because it is as enclosed and as grand in scope as one of the larger Dickens novels, or brilliant because it isn’t. One of these reactions suggests that playfulness is all important, fucking with the formula art’s prime responsibility (actually it will always be a minority pursuit, if a noble one); the other advocates a realism less heightened than in Dickens (perhaps he, with his grotesques and caricatures, is a bad example, because few novelists were ever less realistic – say instead, Trollope, Thackeray, Tolstoy), less plotted in terms of (divine) reward and comeuppance, but no less involved in the length of the piece, the texture of the society represented, the number of characters. Take this quotation from the Wilson book:

To many a young Russian, it must seem hard to understand how the older generation were ‘brainwashed’ into admiring Lenin; it would be harder for him or her to see that by absorbing the new anti-communist ideology they had also submitted to a set of doctrines – for example that capitalism spells freedom – which might seem quaint to a later generation. (p. 604)

It seems quaint to us 21st century sophisticates that 150 years ago, novelists tended to resolve stuff: give to the good, take from the bad, home in time for tea. But narratives still have to do this, in one way or another, otherwise they would not be satisfying (and therefore not successful). They must intrigue us at first, evoke people and places, make us feel part of the situations they describe, and finally wrap things up so we feel that there has been a conclusion. That conclusion may be a series of marriages, or deaths, it may be the realisation that nothing much has changed, it may be Johnny Depp stepping into the mouth of a gigantic octopus (or Momus’ own stately LP closing tunes – ‘Song in Contravention’ for instance), but it must feel like a sign-off. The audience must know when to clap. We get annoyed by anything that signals it too obviously, but is this really a good enough reason to abandon mid Victorian fiction?

The closest A. N. Wilson gets to a mega-narrative in his bewilderingly diverse book is the suggestion that Victorian social policy was informed by Jeremy Bentham’s doctrine of utilitarianism and Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, which held that:

Human population grows at a “geometric” rate, as in the series, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, whereas means of subsistence must grow at an arithmetical rate – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The inevitable consequence of this, he believed, was starvation. (p. 11)

In Wilson’s telling, the Victorians were all about management: machines to manage the tasks previously performed by people (weaving, for example), institutions to either manage or export the economic problems the machines caused (workhouses, the empire). After Prince Albert’s death he despairs of the pace of change, and the selfishness which drives it on. The history proper is interspersed with artistic and literary movements (the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin, a creepy Lewis Carroll) but it is not until the 1890s that the latter manage to get into the driving seat – and it is at this point that Wilson loses sympathy with them, and that I rather lost patience with him. Most people who write about the fall of Oscar Wilde wonder why he didn’t leave the country before the second trial, at which he stood no chance of acquittal. Had he done so, he could have avoided disgrace, imprisonment and an early death. Therefore, implies Wilson, sticking to his logic like Malthus, because he acted foolishly, he is not worth our attention. He did not act for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; nor did he act for the greatest happiness of himself. He acted contrarily. But this is what is important and great and politically significant about him: that at the end of a century which argued itself into such a highly charged, acquisitive, over-armed state that the First World War followed almost as an inevitability, Wilde, when asked to compete on like terms, said to himself, ‘Relax, don’t do it.’

Think I just answered my own question about why formulas need to be fucked with and narratives need to be blown wide open.

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