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|Famous Reporter # 33|
Blog: A Fugitive Phenomenon
Friday, May 26, 2006
When I was an undergraduate, those who were teaching me literature and imparting their conviction (as was fashionable at the time) that literature made one a better person were not leading by example. We were being exposed to the beautiful thoughts and carefully teased-out, finely-spun observations of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster and Katherine Mansfield, of Chekhov and Tolstoy and George Eliot, and it was supposed that we would absorb by a process of osmosis their finely wrought moral sensibilities.
Two things immediately became clear: (1) that the departmental Woolf-worshippers, Forster-favourers and Tolstoy touts imparting these views included among their number several people who habitually indulged in some of the pettiest, shabbiest behaviour I have ever seen before or since, and (2) that Virginia Woolf, God love her and her genius, was a Grade-A bitch, and Katherine Mansfield made her look like a beginner. I didn't mind their bitchery at all, not least because it was of the finest, but I wasn't under any illusions about either of them, or about the morally elevating effect that their work was allegedly going to have on me.
It was only years later when I came to read around in theories of narratology that I understood all this a little better. The notion of the 'implied author' is a useful one: it's what might be called the writer's best self, her wisest, her most adult, her most knowing and self-knowing self. In fiction or poetry the 'person who is speaking' just is not the same as that flawed being who ignores the dishes, fobs off her editors and creditors, loses patience with her elderly father, and swears at the person ringing from the call centre in Mumbai. None of this stuff makes its way to the pristine page: the implied author is a construct, a sort of distillation of all the best (and only the best) stuff that the writer has to say.
So it was a bit odd to be driving down
Grand Junction Road on a Friday morning listening on the radio to the writer Aleksandar Hemon
talking to Ramona Koval from the Sydney Writers' Festival about whether literature in
particular and art in general were morally uplifting, for I've never been able to see how
it could be or why it should be asked to carry so unreal and unreasonable a burden. No
matter how many languages are spoken or instruments played, no matter how many books are
read or operas attended, people will find a way of rationalising, and then doing, whatever
it is that they want to do. They will find a way, as Hemon pointed out, to send you to
Auschwitz or Birkenau even while they listen to Beethoven's Ode to Joy.