December 25, 2004

Four thoughts

I said I wanted to hear Eliot read aloud. No sooner had I said it than I was given the chance. A couple of weeks ago I went to a reading of the Four Quartets at the Calder Bookshop in Southwark.

I've been to a few readings and other literary evenings in London over the past year or so. They're one of London's little worlds-of-their-own that contribute much of its metropolitan mosaic. If you going to live here - and for choice, I'd live some way north - you may as well explore some of the different worlds that exist within it, be they the hidden-away rentier world of Chelsea or Marylebone, the South London suburbia where I play much of my chess, or the life of small specialist bookshops and the wider, but still small and semi-hidden world of publishing of which those shops are part.

Michael Moorcock wrote twenty years ago in a pamphlet, The Retreat from Liberty, that you could believe in anything you wanted in London, provided you stayed in the right places. Go to some of these places and you can see what he meant. I can walk less than a mile from Brixton to Dulwich and in doing so go from a smashed-up estate to the world of tall hedges around large gardens - long driveways and preparatory schools and Dulwich Picture Gallery. But it is quite possible to live a lifetime in either without ever visiting the other or being more than intermittently aware of its existence.

I cannot be in one without thinking of the other, because of one of the consequences of an Oxbridge education after a comprehensive school, or a series of low-paid jobs after an Oxbridge education, is that my lifetime has been lived in a combination of the two. Like a writer, I have lived in one - not always the same one - and criss-crossed the border with the other, and spent much of that time pondering the relationship between them. But for most people in either of these worlds, the other is the Other, alien, uncomfortable, threatening in one sense or another.

The world of publishing has rather more of Dulwich about it than it has of Brixton. Or at least it is clothed that way, with silk scarves and cravats and suits that look as though they were purchased yesterday but designed forty years ago. It's hard to work out why. The small bookshops are usually empty and there's not supposed to be any money in books. There certainly isn't for authors.

I never liked publishers much, partly because they usually wouldn't publish the books I wanted to write, partly because even when they did, the money I got for working hard on them appeared to be less than their editor got for working on them as little as he could. It seems to be a world of cheap and unpaid labour on the one hand, and on the other, of permanent book launches and parties and lunching for a living, Brixton and Dulwich in the same trade, the same building, the same office. Most worlds are unhealthy that are not built on people working full-time for a solid living - they are divided and dysfunctional, manic, parasitical. On those criteria publishing is worse than call centres and almost as unhealthy as the world of rock 'n' roll. And yet, they bring books to fruition, and care about books, and have people read the Four Quartets, and with that on the credit side of the ledger, they can at least be half-forgiven.

We were in a back room behind the shop counter. To my surprise it was packed. There must have been about a hundred of us in there. Each Quartet was introduced by the owner of the bookshop, an old man who, he said, met Eliot himself a number of times, and each was read by a woman with a silk neckscarf and a man in a poloneck. (I like polonecks. I think the only time I have ever been complimented on my attire was when I was wearing a poloneck once.) They read alternately, or on one occasion together, changing voice - as far as I could see - for no particular reason made necessary by the text, or even by fatigue, since the turns differed enormously in length. Perhaps the reason for the variation was simply that - to vary, for the benefit of the listeners, to break it up at irregular intervals so as to keep us alert.

Because it is difficult, to listen to huge chunks of poetry at a sitting, especially when one is unfamiliar with most of the verse and has no time to digest it, the poem continuing as it does and allowing no time for reflection. (Harder still without the text in front of you. I had printed it out and brought it with me, but forgot to take it out of my bag and didn't want to rummage around while the reading was in progress. We were on to Little Gidding before I managed to retrieve it.) No sooner has one caught hold of an idea then one is presented with the choice - either let go of it straightaway or lose track of the poem. There is time, perhaps, only to hear echoes of other lines in the spoken lines of Eliot, before one moves on, to be reminded of the same idea one has heard before, in other forms, in other words. There was something in Eliot's parcelling up for death of all the great and good -
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
that brought to mind Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody, which, for similar reasons but in a different way, reminds the wealthy and powerful of their powerlessness before God.
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
And on hearing Eliot's distrust of experience:
.....There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
I found myself thinking of Crass and Punk Is Dead:
Movements are systems, systems kill.
It doesn't matter that the echoes are partial, serendipitous, tangential - they are all one has time for. One follows the poem, or at least the rhythm of the words, and it lulls. So they break it up as best they can.

For all that, I found it a little monotonal, at least until they got as far as East Coker and its more discursive passages. When the poet speaks plainly (and Eliot can speak both plainly and allusively, to the nth degree in either case) then it is possible to follow his thoughts, to think them through at the same pace as he is doing, to dispense with:
...The intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.
The poetry does not matter, not so much much when you're so close up to it, not when you are fighting to keep a hold of what the poet is saying, and he is fighting to get his point over to you. That is what East Coker is about, that is why he stops himself in his tracks (as he does in Prufrock) and makes himself point the point more plainly. First he rebukes himself -
That was a way of putting it-not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion
and then the listener:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again?
because this is urgent, this is desperate, things are wrong, as wrong as things can be.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
It is an enormous cry of despair, East Coker, as are the Quartets in general - I know of no poems of similar stature which are so entirely enveloped in gloom, which pass so soon from life (go, go, go said the bird) to dark (humankind cannot bear very much reality) and to death (they all go into the dark) and stay there. Eliot calms down towards the end of the second Quartet, his mood becomes more meditative, but no more optimistic:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate-but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
And that is the passage which stopped me, which cannot be evaded or ignored or pushed away. Twenty years largely wasted. One has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say. There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious. I know what most of that means, or at least, I have my own meaning for it, and I have the feeling, if not quite of entre deux guerres, as of having been through one war and not yet having returned, not entirely, not whole.

Towards the end of the fourth Quartet, Little Gidding, a man in the audience got to his feet. The reading of the final section had begun, and the man in the poloneck had begun the passage that ends, despairingly, with the phrase Every poem an epitaph, as if everything were death or the preparation or the recognition of death:
...any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
and he got up from the front row. I thought at first that he was going to heckle, to intervene in some way, to express contempt for the reading or the reader or for Eliot himself, but instead he headed toward the exit, as if he couldn't face any more. But just as he reached the door, he stopped and crumpled and fell to the floor.

He was - I don't know, part-ushered, part-dragged - into the main part of the bookshop, and an ambulance called. As it transpired he had only fainted - the room was stuffy, and full. But I thought for a moment that he had died. I thought for a while that Eliot's poem on the theme of inescapable futility and death had ended in the demise of one of its listeners.


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