I was visiting Christopher Middleton, the English poet now in his 86th year, and he remarked that he’d recently had a telephone conversation with a contemporary writer friend in France who had said that our generation of old writers comprised the last witnesses — meaning that in this, the second decade of the 21st century, we are the sole surviving witnesses of the end of a form of western civilization which for at least two millennia has generated progressive political institutions and produced an advanced culture in which art of a very high aesthetic quality has flourished.
As inheritors of that culture, we did our utmost to preserve it by attempting to create new work that drew its inspiration from the best that tradition had passed down to us. But now that it’s our turn to pass on the baton, the next generation is not even present on the track in front of us, and we’re left witnessing an abrupt end to our race in an empty stadium. It’s sad to be the only surviving witnesses of the end. When our ageing generation is no more, there will be no one to observe the corruption of values because the generation following us has become disconnected from our ideals, and consequently future generations, raised to think of mediocrity as high art, will not even have an awareness of the precious treasure they have lost.
Decadence has done its job — so the argument goes with us old writers: people today would rather see a third-rate movie than read a book. Or, if they read a book, it is more likely to be some gossipy memoir than a work of some literary significance. Besides, who reads books? Everywhere nowadays you see young people walking with their heads bowed, or sitting in a café, eyes glued to the screen of their iPhone or iPod, their fingers busily dancing on the tiny keyboard to text some frivolous message to a person who, for all they know, so absorbed are they in their social networking, might be walking or sitting right next to them and very possibly texting them. And so the sad truth is repeated when we old men get together and tragically shake our heads that the youth of today does not have the serious intellectual interest and love of art that we had when young.
But wait a minute, I say. Have I not heard this sort of mournful lamentation before? Yes, of course! Chekhov pointed this out over a hundred years ago when he commented on Tolstoy’s writing on art: “Old men have always been inclined to envisage the end of the world and say that morality had fallen to its lowest level, that art had degenerated, had played out, that people had become feeble, and so on, and so on. In his book, Tolstoy wants to convince us that art has now entered its final phase and is in a blind alley.” (Letter to A. I. Ertel, April 17, 1897).
Chekhov gets it exactly right. Surely, old men — excuse my political incorrectness, but as an old man I cannot presume to represent the views of old women — express their deep pessimism about the world’s future because very soon the world will literally have no space for them; and psychologically it must be more gratifying to see the world as a rotten place not worth living in any more instead of seeing it as an earthly paradise in which wonderful new inventions are making life so interesting that it will be sad to be excluded from an exciting extension of life.
Faced with the imminence of that eternal exclusion, it is a consolation to believe that the people who will have the misfortune to live after us will have to endure a wretched existence in an increasingly violent and morally degenerate world empty of anything beautiful, a world which mercifully we will not have to witness. Images in stories and movies representing apocalyptic reality show it to be ugly, filthy, smelly and unimaginably vile, and we old men are comforted by the conviction that this is what the future has in store for the unfortunates who will survive us.
Oh, yes, let’s face it: there’s no denying the contemporary decadence, for as another old writer states, “we have sold our souls for profit at any price, slaves that we all are to our greed,” and adds: “what wastes the talents of the present generation is the idleness in which all but a few of us pass our lives”. Now, as they say in Texas, isn’t that right on the money? The rest of this author’s book is extraordinarily enlightening, too; he couldn’t be more correct about art and what his pathetic contemporaries are doing to it.
But hold on, wait another minute! Who is this writer moaning about the present generation, accusing it of suffering from heavy-duty greed and laziness? He’s old, no doubt about it, he’s really old. The quotation is from a book titled On the Sublime, and its author is known simply as Longinus (one of two: Dionysius or Cassius), and were he alive today he would be about 1,700 years old.
The French have a phrase for the temporal illusions that confound the human mind: Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same, and, as Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is ever “the propensity of mankind to exalt the past, and to depreciate the present,” for each succeeding generation thinks the past it has been privileged to experience has been incomparably superior to the abject present to which the next generation has been condemned.
What the elderly do not appreciate, however, is that what gives the next generation its intellectual vigour is the belief nature instills in the minds of the young that they are supremely gifted to effect radical change, that it is their destiny to shape a glitteringly beautiful new reality.
From their point of view, the old have had their turn and have failed, which is the opposite of what the old believe, that they were the creators of beauty while the young are too lazy and untalented to follow the brilliant example they’ve been set by their elders.
In 1960, when I was 25, I remember saying to another poet my age, “This is going to be our decade!” And so it was. While the older generation in London, from T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender to Harold Pinter, were still producing new work, we were the ones receiving a good deal of attention. A new work by Eliot — he was writing plays then — was an event; but a new work by a writer from the rising generation (e.g., the poems in Lupercal by Ted Hughes, 1960; the strikingly original forms of B. S. Johnson’s novels Travelling People, 1963, and Albert Angelo, 1964; the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, 1966) were occasions for celebration, as attested by the superlative praise received by these works from the most respected reviewers of the time.
Midway through the decade, we, the younger writers, had become prominent in London’s literary scene. Several of us, each with three or four well-received books behind us, were invited to review books in important newspapers and journals — The TLS, The Guardian, The Spectator, New Statesman. It being a human instinct to protect and glorify one’s particular tribe, our taste naturally favoured the new generation and belittled the older.
There is a silent killer in all of us writers who review books that wears various masks, now presenting itself as learned and scholarly, now as a disinterested arbiter of the true value of things; its real name is envy. A writer reviewing an older contemporary composes his criticism with the ink of envy, unconscious that the sub-text of his cutting review is to transmit the idea of his own work’s superiority. When, a decade later, younger emerging writers took over as book reviewers, it was inevitable that they should reserve their worst criticism for those of us who preceded them and appeared the most successful, and by doing so, establish themselves. They became the present, we the past. It is a natural progression.
Present time is a problematical concept. There is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost that I often quote, “We know no time when we were not as now,” which, I believe, cannot be refuted. But within that now we have a consciousness of a time that is not-now, without which the complex we identify as the self would have no substance. It is the dilemma that Borges addresses in his A New Refutation of Time, which is an essay of timeless beauty, where he states, “All language is of a successive nature; it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, in temporal matters.”
There is perhaps some absolute reality out there in which faceless clocks keep the hours of warped time and where space is an eruption of fractals out of a black hole continually releasing a chaos of quarks, but we mortals are trapped between the square bracket of birth and death where we crawl in the persistent now, like Pim and Bom, through a sea of mud in Beckett’s novel, How It Is. Our poor successive language, with its subject-verb-object simplicity, expressed in a sequence of minutes, can never define that reality. We can only construct hypothetical pictures and theories about it in our arts and sciences. And in that shifting time zone with its perpetual now, where we are both the first and last witnesses bent on converting the transitoriness of perception into some eternal truth, Longinus and Chekhov are our contemporaries, our true witnesses.
Longinus defines the rottenness of the present which for each succeeding age seems to be a period of insecurity, turmoil, and an anarchic disregard for traditional values. Such a view results from seeing only the immediate daily drama in which, for example, there is feverish excitement over a new writer accorded stellar status, whose sudden rise inevitably diminishes popular interest in the work of one who had only recently been raised to that shining level. Yesterday’s star is abandoned for tomorrow’s meteor.
Learning from Hollywood’s promotional techniques based on the assumption that it is not talent alone but clever public relations that persuades the popular audience it is looking at a supreme artist, publishers will sometimes launch a work by spreading some unsubstantiated news about the writer that prompts general curiosity. The proliferation of literary prizes and festivals, the creation of lists, book tours and book signings are all part of the promotional hype to create stars that glitter, not in the eternal firmament of canonical literature but as gold in the publisher’s pocket.
That creation of instant celebrities generates a need that there be newer ones, a continuing parade of the famous for whose signature we line up at book signings. Where literary prizes used to announce a short list, now they announce a long list first; where newspapers used to print one weekly best-seller list of 10 books, now they list 20 in each of several categories, including such bizarre ones as the best-selling books aimed at young adults — and perhaps there will soon be another for middle-aged adults. The parade gets longer and longer. Most of the literature produced at any one time is of the throwaway variety, however much light is forced to flash at us from the celebrities of the day. This has always been the case.
Guy de Maupassant wrote in his introduction to Prévost’s Manon Lescaut: “What a number of other novels of the same epoch have disappeared! All that the ingenious writers invented to amuse their contemporaries have been consigned to oblivion. We scarcely know the titles of the most celebrated, and we cannot recall their subjects.”
Chekhov, who witnessed a similar parade towards oblivion in his own time, would have agreed. It’s just that the throwaway literature of one’s own time seems to get taken seriously and, driven by publishers’ promotional tactics and their own pushiness, some mediocre writers receive high honours. Another contemporary in this eternal present, Shakespeare, would have agreed too, for he makes Hamlet, in his famous speech, refer to “the spurns / That patient merit of th’unworthy takes”. It’s enough to make one think we’re witnessing the end.