COLUMN: What’s it all about?

Updated February 05, 2017

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Reviewing a new play on the radio, a drama critic described at length what the play was about, that it was about a soldier returning home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan to find that while he was away his father had had a stroke, that his sister had transformed herself to become his brother, that his mother…, well, you can imagine the state she’s in, and possibly even hear the hysterical dialogue being shouted on the stage.

Giving a lengthy synopsis, as if the play contained strikingly original subject matter and was not a compendium of contemporary clichés, the critic then added a brief comment that the play was amusing, even funny, yet sad, and very relevant to contemporary life in America. He had not a word to say about the quality of the writing or whether the play had any literary merit. All he was eager to convey was a laudatory account of the play’s sociological content as if the platitudinous expression of such current preoccupations as transgender politics makes for great drama.

Here we are in the tail-end of the second decade of the 21st century and a person presumed to be a literary critic, one speaking to a large audience whose taste may be significantly influenced by what he’s saying, is talking as if there were horse-drawn carriages outside being driven by gentlemen in top hats and Anton Chekhov had yet to write his plays that changed the course of drama.

There was nothing new about this review, and I cite it as a random example — which I happened to have heard by chance when I switched on the radio — of the common reviewing practice nowadays, whether of plays, novels, or works of art, of summarising the content with a special emphasis on sociopolitical matter that is the moment’s obsessive talking point of the contemporary audience. Not only reviewers, but also teachers of literature — including university professors — present summaries of a work’s content as the principal basis of their critical assessment. What a work is about becomes the dominant question in the general public’s mind, and often when people read a summary of what the new work is about, they conclude that they know all that needs to be known about it, and therefore do not need to read it.

To say that a work of literature is about something is like saying saag gosht is a culinary delight composed of spinach and meat; it says nothing if it’s beautifully done, about its aroma, or the sensation it stimulates in one’s taste buds that lead to a vibrant experience of profound pleasure deep within one’s mind as if all the senses had suddenly begun a dervish dance there.

For the writer, the subject matter is what the ingredients are to the chef, commonly available to everyone; the art is in the transformation and literary critics who can do no more than enumerate the ingredients used do not fulfil their primary function, which is to cultivate a generation’s taste and teach it to disregard writing that’s been tossed up mindlessly like a fast-food hamburger. The best answer to what a work is about is the one Tom Stoppard gave when he was asked, “What is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about?” and he famously replied, “It is about to make me very rich.”

It ought to be self-evident that what a work is about is inconsequential unless the style in which it is executed shines with an originality that excites new wonder in the reader’s or the audience’s imagination. Writers as critics have been saying this for centuries, and proving the correctness of their assertion with their own work.

The most notable example is Gustave Flaubert who elaborated his ideas upon style as the governing aesthetic of literary composition in his letters, from which I’ve often quoted. There is one letter in which Flaubert arrives at his essential doctrine, which is so perfect a synthesis of modernistic aesthetic theory that it ought to be known, and believed in, by any writer, critic or reader who cares for literary art and does not confound it with frivolous, cheap entertainment about some supposedly relevant topic that will be one more dead insect on the windscreen of the mind speeding from one trendy idea to the next.

Listen to Flaubert: “What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style ... The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result.” He goes on to predict that “the future of Art” will arrive at that abstraction, and then declares his cardinal belief, that “style in itself [is] an absolute manner of seeing things”.

His prophecy proved true and his belief took on a religious acceptance in much of 20th century art, as exemplified most vividly by abstract painting of which some of the most notable examples are the works of Mark Rothko, Anselm Kiefer, and Sean Scully, which make us see not a representation of the images of reality, but absorb us within a singular vision of reality itself.

In literature, there is a similar fusion of what is experienced and the style in which the writer envisions it, and the intensity of the reader’s immersion into the depth of the created language always depends on how well that seeing and that style are fused. All of Samuel Beckett’s novels would appear to be very silly if we were told what each was about, but the absurdity that makes them look silly takes on a metaphorical richness and what each was about becomes irrelevant when we are immersed in their language, for then our experience of the text comes to us as the imagination’s simultaneous reception of subject and style, that ultimate creative purity of which Beckett was the supreme master.

One could say that Beckett succeeded in achieving Flaubert’s ambition to write about nothing, just as Rothko succeeded in painting about nothing — though, of course, there is deep personal experience behind each nothingness and far profounder matter in their work than in that of anyone whose work is overflowing with what a generation believes addresses its problems; there is a private, unstated anguish too, in Beckett and Rothko, as one can guess even without knowing either’s biography, for no human being who’s driven to create an objective realisation of an obscure inner experience can be exempt from attempting to project an idea of the self with all its tormenting mysteries.

All art confronts its audience with a very special language, which is not always understood as what is commonly known as meaning, for it is an intuitive reception within one’s mind of an inexpressible knowledge. Perhaps that ‘inexpressible’ should be substituted by ‘spiritual’ since what the entranced self of the individual witnesses in that timeless moment is a revelatory communication, a transmutation of nothingness into the core of a private belief that redeems the self from its existential despair.

Perhaps that is what it’s all about, though even the most eminent philosopher of our time is sometimes unable to say that it is indeed so, as evidenced by an anecdote narrated by Valerie Eliot about an occasion when her husband T. S. Eliot, taking a taxi in London, was recognised by the driver. On being asked by Eliot how he knew who he was, the taxi-driver answered that he had “an eye for a celebrity” and added, “Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about’, and do you know, he couldn’t tell me.”

The human belief that language is the medium of revelation that gives us an access to meanings to the most complex questions is no more than a presumption. Being our own invention, which we have programmed to be responsive exclusively to a grammar that we ourselves have imposed upon it as a kind of divine sanction, language cannot exceed the robotic function of mechanically assembling words that represent observable facts. We may congratulate our genius that enables us to twist the structure we have devised for it, revise dictionaries to extend the subtlety of meaning, give new definitions to old words or render them obsolete, be prolix when defending our prejudices — we can do a million things with language, but we can never escape the fact that we are encaged within an existence where the words we hear are no more than the clicking of a robot’s mechanism which we keep well-oiled with a belief system composed of fictions. In the end even the philosopher is obliged to be silent.

In order to meet an assignment to produce a short story, a creative writing student in one of my courses brought me a wastepaper basket filled with balled-up papers on each of which there were some crossed-out sentences. I accepted that as a work of fiction, understanding the writer to say that if language is a sequential combination of words with which we attempt to recreate experience, then all his attempted combinations had failed and since I, the reader, when looking at his wastepaper basket, had imagined a writer make those repeated attempts only to find that each one needed to be rejected as an inadequate expression of the idea in his mind, his presentation therefore suggested that no assemblage of words could tell his story and that the real fiction was the human belief that language could convey truth. But he said nothing, and for all I know, he might have been making a symbolic comment, perhaps he’d written down my ideas and presented them back to me as trash.

Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist, and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and short story collection Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is professor emeritus at the University of Texas.


Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 5th, 2017