On 8 December 2014, Niall Griffiths delivered his Professorial Inaugural Address at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. The text of that talk is serialised here in 4 parts. In the third part, below, Griffiths considers ‘darkness’ as a critical term applied to literature (see also Part 1; Part 2).
PARADISE IS ON THE END OF YOUR NOSE: VOICES FROM THE OUTER DARK IN CONTEMPORARY BRITISH FICTION (Part 3)
Anyway. You may have noticed, in the examples of writing I’ve adduced, a certain darkness of theme and preoccupation – this brings me to my secondary thread. Some years ago, at the Edinburgh Festival, Irvine Welsh unveiled his sequel to Trainspotting, called Porno, and Ronald Frame, author of The Lantern Bearers, delivered a lecture in which he decried the ‘clichéd brand of novels celebrating such dark subjects as cannibalism, necrophilia and sadomasochism’, and he mentioned, in this context, Irvine Welsh and James Kelman (which made me wonder how much of Kelman’s work Frame had actually read). The poet Kenneth White chipped in and named no names but referred to books that read like ‘the remains of last night’s fish supper, sauced up with sordid naturalism’. This word ‘darkness’ kept appearing; too many contemporary writers focused on ‘dark’ themes, apparently, for reasons no doubt of titillation, salaciousness, and/or to sell more books (bit of a puzzle, that last one, for reasons which I’ll touch on later). This was the gist. I was surprised at Kenneth White (as I’d been surprised at John Banville, whose work I generally like and who has been encouraging of my own work at times); in his work, he has often been concerned with ‘dark’ matters, of death and decay and predation. And one of his poems – a found poem, the primary source being an overheard pub singsong – contains these lines:
A want me hole
a want me hole
a want me hole-idays
to see the cunt
to see the cunt
to see the cunt-ery
. . . which, to me, reveals a kind of grubby fascination with the bawdy mind of the common man and the habits of his speech towards cheap rhythm and cheaper humour. There’s a snobbery to this, which I find a lot darker, in the induced dismay, than the works which earned the opprobrium of Frame and White. Besides, what is actually meant by a preoccupation with thematic darkness? To those who denigrate it, it means, I imagine, a relish for squalor, sord[idness], sadism, the splashing on of bodily functions like perfume (I should say that my own work has been attacked along these very lines). But of course, in the hands and minds of certain writers, such matters address the attenuation of the soul, the generation of spiritual poverty through material poverty, the violent and inevitable smashing of enforced boundaries, and how some are driven to abuse themselves and others in a desperate need to feel something approaching the vivid and authentic sensations which mainstream society, with its insistence on coercive codes of behaviour and diurnal repetition, and its obsessions with money and regimentation, denies them.
There are reasons for why people behave as they do, and an exploration of this is anathema to tabloid titillation. And hasn’t art always examined such themes? Death above all, but also loneliness, unfulfilled longing, illness and greed and cruelty, and hasn’t it always sought causation and explanation? To accept the logic of Frame and White is to rewrite much of western literature; Beowulf would invite Grendel to take a seat and tell him about his mother; Desdemona and Othello would attend counselling with Relate and de-friend Iago on Facebook. Link this back to the earlier notion of writing having its origins as plebeian entertainment. The same can be said for scripture; moral codes and guidebooks as much as anything else, of course. These artefacts are, originally, as far away from elitism as it is possible to be, and they seethe with betrayal, rape, murder, with what I believe we are expected to understand as symbols and ciphers and not as mere satisfactions of our nostalgie de la boue or impulses of Helotist voyeurism.
Yet the notion still prevails that only those with a certain level of formal education, and with a type of well-bred and therefore well-read, blood, can make any claims to moral rectitude. The state long ago broke its chains to the church yet our public-school-educated leaders constantly employ the language of the Victorian pulpit – the constant exhortation to ‘to do the right thing’ being one example. To extrapolate, the New Atheist movement falls foul of this; its adherents have somehow made the astonishing leap to the point where only the literal matters, which, in its aggressive incuriosity and fundamentalist blinkering, surely devalues the freedom of thought required to write a novel. Dawkins said, in 2013: ‘I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition’ (New Republic 28/10/13). And yet some novelists are forming part of a rearguard action in defence of this stance, McEwan’s most recent being a case in point, as if an exploration of the idea that there may be a dimension of human experience that cannot be explicated or calibrated by science has not always been part of the creative artist’s calling and function.
Marilynne Robinson sums it up: ‘serious religious thought brings one to the farthest limits of the articulable. . . Religion interprets the cosmos in the light of the human presence in it, not only as observer and interpreter, or as an extreme instance of the refinements of which evolution is capable, but as protagonist, collectively and as individuals’ (Newstatesman 27/11/14). And Terry Eagleton, in Reason, Faith and Revolution, as well as Ron Hansen, in his Essays on Faith and Literature, both make the point that a sense of the truth, or at least a quest for that, can be found within not just the weft but the very existence of a story. This was central to almost everything Tolstoy ever wrote. A word often used in critical tandem with ‘darkness’, in the Frame and White sense, is ‘depressing’; an imaginative and emotionally intelligent reader has no business calling a piece of writing depressing unless it is boring. Harrowing, yes, heartbreaking, horrifying, but depressing? Beckett’s work beams with the transformative and rapturous light of accomplishment.