The new John Lewis Ad has been making the rounds. Already the legend is surging through the wifi waves that women across Middle England are crying into their John Lewis handkerchiefs and clicking the YouTube replay button incessantly, barely able to control their politely voluble sobs. Uniting The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph in awed wonder, what is it that this ad has done to cause such a stir?
It shows the life of a white middle-class female from (literally) the cradle to old age – but not the grave, a point to which we’ll come back. The song is a cover of Billy Joel’s ‘Always a Woman to Me’ sung by Fyfe Dangerfield in a hauntingly moving rendition. But it’s a bizarre choice, since it’s about a woman whose character is dubious at best; here are the lyrics used in the advert:
She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child,
But she’s always a woman to me
She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth
But she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her, as long as it’s free
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she’s always a woman to me
She is frequently kind
And she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases
She’s nobody’s fool
And she can’t be convicted
She’s earned her degree
And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me
They miss out such lines as ‘Then she’ll carelessly cut you/ And laugh while you’re bleedin’. Understandably. Indeed, the literal sense of the lyrics, which is essentially that of a masochistic lover serenading a bitch whose capriciousness is such that he has to reassure us every 30 seconds that she is in fact a woman despite her transgressions of conventional expectations of femininity (passivity, politesse, consistency etc.), is transformed by the context of the mournful melancholia of the voice and the sun-bleached images. And so what was originally an odd meditation on the limits of the feminine in the form of a pop song becomes, uncannily, a pure embodiment of the middle-class woman.
I don’t want to focus too much on the content – the obvious points about the commodification of modern life, how we effectively live even the most personal, private experiences via the medium of large capitalist corporations etc. etc. (just think Fight Club Ikea scene) – but rather on the form. Firstly, those sun-bleached tones: they have about them the aura of a dream, but also of aging and authenticity. Like the enthusiasm for sepia-toned photos, which is effectively a symptom of a society with no sense of history, for whom sepia is the colour of all things past and fulfilling, this bleached feel gives it that blurred-edge lightness of nostalgia. But it is the sun that is crucial: in almost every scene of this 90 seconds, the sun is present, bathing the girl-woman in a constant maternal light. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the sun in this ad becomes coterminous with John Lewis (‘Our lifetime commitment to you’): there for us come youth or old age, in sickness and in health. Like a certain Mr Yahweh used to be back in the day.
But even this doesn’t explain what has made people cry. On one level, yes, it is the content – those maternal instincts, the growing old, the family and so on. Yes, it is the memory of loved ones present and past and those carefully chosen moments (marriage, university, career, retirement). But I don’t think that this alone can account for the dramatic reaction. I suspect it has more to do with the form: the presentation of an (idealized) human life in its entirety. This is something one almost never sees in real life: normally, we die after our parents and before our children. So to envisage a whole life in a single meaningful unit is moving in itself because we are not accustomed to it. But more importantly: the rhythms of late capitalism are such that the only periods we can think in tend to be either those of fashions or of decades. Beyond that, we are unable clearly to conceptualize a total human life, we are unable to find the narrative tools to recount it. Not that this is that new a phenomenon: Walter Bejamin wrote a long time ago that such was the cause of the demise of the traditional folktale.
In the same essay, he wrote about the disappearance of death from our daily lives. How in the Middle Ages it was almost impossible to be in a room where someone hadn’t died, whereas today it’s impossible to be in one where someone has – death is confined mainly to hospitals and hospices, isolated buildings away from the high street, away from John Lewis. And the advert doesn’t show the woman’s death, which is crucial: John Lewis commits to you when you’re alive because when you’re alive your designer purse is too. But when you’re dead, the John Lewis sun cannot transform your reeking corpse into the beautiful money-trees of Middle England.
Only those cartwheeling granddaughters can do that, when they step forward to chuck dirt on Grandma’s shiny coffin in their brand new JL shoes.
This is an extract from the very end of an imaginary interview with a character called Javier Marías. The interviewer is a character called Daniel Hartley. The extract, all I could find of this long-forgotten interview that never took place in a Madrilenian café, begins at the point where interviewee transforms into interviewer.
JM: So what type of man do you think I am?
DH: I think you’re the type of man who finds it unbearable to sit in a café or a restaurant if there is someone sat behind him, because his eyes should always be the last pair in the room, unwatched, but all-watching. You’re the type of man who mistakes habitual introspection for profundity and precise prolixity for compassionate intelligence. You’re the type of man who takes upon his shoulders the pain and badly hidden neuroses of a room of strangers, who suffers on their behalf, but does so constantly with one eye on the hidden gloriousness of that suffering. You’re the type of man who knows it is pretentious to be photographed in black and white behind a typewriter with chin in hand in thoughtful equipoise, but who knows also that without the ironic indulgence of this bohemian cliché, he would fall to pieces, like a dead soul shorn of its ghostly carapace. You’re the type of man who is trapped in legends, and who can’t get out. And in every beautiful phrase you write, there is a lonely boy peering out, wondering how his father could be so genuine when the only thing that he can do is act. You are, in short, a man who longs to be a Hamlet, and therefore Hamlet shall ye never be.
Paper-clipped to this extract I found a scrap of notepaper in Daniel Hartley’s handwriting. It said: ‘Met JM today. Was like talking to a mirror.’
If there is one essay which captures all the contradictions currently at work in the literary world, then this is it. Sven Birkerts, with admirable eloquence and integrity, has unwittingly mapped out the extremities of the situation in which we find ourselves. I want, not only to challenge particular points of his essay, but also to suggest that each one of them is a star whose total constellation remains just beyond his purview.
His essay divides into roughly two halves. The first half deals with the effects of that incessant digital hum of information which constitutes the fabric of our everyday lives:
I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well.
Two kinds of thinking are opposed: the type we use on the internet, when we click from one page to the next at breakneck speed, skimming the surface of the screen with nothing but a cursory glance and on-the-spot makeshift turbo-hermeneutic, and the more leisurely, self-indulgent act of meditation or contemplation which is an end in itself. This reminds me of nothing so much as the two narrative codes Roland Barthes outlined in S/Z: the proairetic and the hermeneutic. The former is the sequence of actions that constitute a plot (the what happens of a novel) while the latter is what constitutes the mystery or questions (the what does it mean or the whodunit). At the extreme, the schoolboy adventure story can stand for the proairetic, whilst the detective novel can stand for the hermeneutic. What Birkerts is referring to is a sort of wrenching apart of the two codes (if we think of them now as more general cultural phenomena) achieved by the digital age of late capitalism. Actions and deeper meanings come apart at the seams.
This leads him to the following argument:
This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.
What we have here is essentially a rerun of an argument that can be traced back to the early 18th century and the foundation of that great discourse which Baumgarten named ‘aesthetics’. With the demise of political absolutism and the rise of a new bourgeois order, the cold Enlightenment reason which had been necessary to overthrow the mystifications of kings and popes alike now threatened to turn back on itself. What had once seemed a new and exciting scientific rationality, a genuinely liberating force against the dogmatic slumber of incense and mitre, was, on beginning to achieve its aims, struck suddenly hollow. It had become a frigid instrumentalism, incapable of binding a people under a global hegemony. And so, without more ado, enter aesthetics: a form of reason with the capacity to insinuate itself into the deepest fibres of our being, into our very bodies, hiding the iron fist of pure reason inside the velvet glove of sensation. Aesthetics, in other words, was a new form of ideology. (That it was an ambiguous one which also harboured a certain revolutionary potential is undoubted, but I have no time to go into that here).
So it is that every time a ruling ideology gives way, aesthetics or literature must step in to bear the brunt of those dying mechanisms of control. In England, for example, from at least Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) onwards, literature was called upon to assume the hegemonic burden which religion was no longer able to carry. When your people demand bread, educate their sensibilities through books so that they don’t shout quite so loud.
Unfortunately, Birkerts is in danger of unwittingly suggesting just such a solution to our current dilemma. He correctly deduces that certain shifts in our social and technological make-up (notice that emphasis on technological changes is almost always a way of not talking about economic changes) have altered our capacities to think and to perceive, and he understands these changes as negative or debilitating in some human sense; his solution to this is not to challenge the concrete historical situation, but to offer literature as a sort of supplement to appease our alienation, as a humanizing palliative in a world of dehumanizing machines.
But having done so, he then squares the circle in the second half of the essay by attempting instrumentally to justify reading novels – those very ‘antidotes’ to the ills of instrumentality! Not that you can blame him. This problem is the classic one confronting all literary scholars: how do you justify getting paid to read books? The truth is that, historically, it really is unjustifiable, so any justification is likely to be pure ideology. A non-scholar (i.e. unsalaried non-professional reader) could answer the question on the point of reading thus: ‘There is no point: reading is an end in itself, a revelling in language for language’s sake, a joyous bathing in that invisible extension of our bodies in the world’. But if you said that to the Vice-Chancellor of the university (who in all likelihood is also on the board of some oil company), the very man paying your wages, it is unlikely you would achieve tenure. And so you clutch at straws: you do a Birkerts.
What is a ‘Birkerts’? A Birkerts is when you quote approvingly Nabokov’s talk of reading as ‘aesthetic bliss’ and then immediately admit that it sounds ‘trivial’, and so try to shore it up with yet more of that very instrumentality you set out to overcome: you engage in a project which attempts to deduce the rational (maybe even neurological) ingredients of aesthetic bliss!
The contradictions at work in this wonderful essay are the contradictions of our current historical situation. They will not be overcome until the latter itself is radically transformed.
The following was inspired by a post by Ben Myers:
I recently wrote a paper on the concept of cliché in Proust. Without getting into the boring minutiae of the paper itself, it might be interesting simply to point out the history of the word ‘cliché’, which had three main stages.
The word first arose with the advent of stereotype printing. Unlike previous forms of printing, stereotype used type-casts (often made from plaster of Paris) taken from a plate rather than the plate itself. The net effect of this technique was massively to increase rates of productivity and total output. ‘Cliché’ was the word French print-workers coined to imitate the sound of the matrix dropping into the molten metal, and it soon became synonymous with the copies themselves. In other words, cliché was originally onomatopoeic. (At this point in the paper I made all sorts of pretentious comments about onomatopoeia constituting ‘sealed, impervious phono-monads in which the tessellation of sound and sense is so exact as to deny all alterity’…). Cliché printing was effectively the copy of a copy; it was originally a simulacrum. (Cue postmodern canned cheers).
The second stop on the fateful journey of this outcast word was in the world of nineteenth-century photography. Here, cliché was the word photographers naturally turned to in order to name the new-fangled photographic negatives, since the principle of material inscription appeared sufficiently similar to the world of printing. Finally, it was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that cliché became used regularly as a synonym for ‘banal commonplace’. This was thanks primarily to the associations of cliché in both print and photography with mass reproduction, and hence with mechanical repeatability.
In terms of Ben’s taking notes of his own clichés the better to avoid them, it might be worth remembering that this insidious fear of repetition only really arose (in France at least) with Flaubert. He was the first to instigate what Barthes calls ‘writing as craft’ [écriture artisanale]. And this was mainly due to the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-1850, which made it impossible for bourgeois writers to go on writing in the manner which until that point had been undergirded by outright class hegemony. For Fredric Jameson, following Barthes, this was the moment at which rhetoric, a precapitalist mode of linguistic organization, a preindividualistic standard of fine speaking shared by a ruling class with a homogeneous public, gave way to what we now know as style: a truly bourgeois, highly individualistic, quasi-physical, solution to ‘the sapping of the collective vitality of language.’ (Jameson himself is a fine stylist).
It seems it has become an automatic reaction of certain critics to compare the work of Javier Marías to that of Proust. This is mainly on the strength of the former’s recent trilogy, entitled Your Face Tomorrow (Tu rostro mañana in the original Spanish). Here, I’d like simply to make a few remarks on why this might be and why it is or is not justified. At the outset, I must stress that I’m no expert on either, and that my reading of Marías is based on the first volume of the trilogy alone, the only one I’ve read thus far.
The most obvious reason for the comparison is that most people, quite understandably, haven’t read Proust. And of those who have, most have read only the first tome, and the few who have read it in its entirety have read it through the lens of received interpretations, which on closer scrutiny turn out to be questionable at best. (For example, À la recherche was first translated into English with the title Remembrance of Things Past, which suggests that Proust was concerned with reconstructing a lost past, but anyone who’s read this great work carefully will know that it is the present of which Proust is in search, one capable of a mythical self-plenitude). The result of this situation is that most people think they know what Proust is about without having read him or without having read him carefully.
So it is that whenever an author writes a long book about time, memory and the frailty of identity, especially one using long sentences, it is almost always compared to Proust. But there are three points on which Proust and Marías differ. Firstly, those long sentences. I was delighted to come across a blog by Steve Mitchelmore, who seems to share my view of the incompatibility of Proust and Marías, in which he quotes from an article he wrote for the TLS:
If Proust also sent us on long journeys without too many fullstops, his sentences at least clarify and enrich the context of a specific observation. In Your Face Tomorrow, they tend only to accumulate superfluous qualifications and synonyms. Indeed, the series itself seems to be one of accumulation rather than development.
I agree with the general observation, but I’d prefer to make it a little more precise. Proust’s great, snaking periods, which Walter Benjamin once referred to as ‘the Nile of language’, are predominantly hypotactic. This means that they consist of innumerable sub-clauses, all of which sketch myriad details – either temporal or spatial – surrounding the initial observation, idea or description of the main clause. Marías, on the other hand, as Mitchelmore rightly points out, does not engage in hypotaxis; rather, his sentences are driven by a sort of neurotic parataxis, full of thesaurus-like lists of synonyms and vast arrays of permutations of a single idea. Proust aims to capture an object in language by spiralling it with an increasingly bloated boa constrictor; Marías tends to do so by making alternative avatars of a single idea bounce off one another, in the hope that the consequent vibrations will give rise, like a desert mirage, to the unnameable.
Secondly, there is the concept of identity. Simply put, for Proust there is no basic identity. Our ‘self’ is in such constant flux through time that it is impossible to say we have a single identity; ‘I’ is an illusion, an enforced habitual unity masking a vertiginous multiplicity. But the very title of Marías’ trilogy (adapted from Shakespeare’s ‘thy face tomorrow’ of Henry IV Act II, Scene II) betrays his own conception of identity: the self may well be inconstant, but it is not necessarily multiple. I may not be able to foresee your face tomorrow, but it will still be your face tomorrow; for Proust, on the other hand, even this small consolation remains elusive.
Thirdly, there are those philosophical digressions. The first volume of Your Face Tomorrow opens with a masterly disquisition on the secret act of faith involved in telling anyone anything, but it is not Proustian by any means. Marías’ digressions, for all their protractedness, are mere aphorisms compared with their Proustian counterparts. But quantity is not the only difference. There is a certain philosophical exhaustiveness about Proust’s musings, the sensation of a mind at full intellectual stretch, a real straining for truth in the laboratory of life. Marías, on the other hand, is nonchalant in tone and timbre, apparently (but only apparently) much wiser and more knowing in outlook, less penetrating. The difference is that between a hypochondriac in a cork-lined room, racing against death to communicate eternal truths, and a Madrilenian sat at a high apartment window, coolly smoking a cigarette and looking down on the world, bemused and supercilious.
Ultimately, however, this whole game of comparing modern writers to past writers is idealist to its very core. It ignores the dramatically differing historical situations to which the respective writers were responding, in no matter how conscious or unconscious a manner, and presupposes some Platonic realm where Great Writers from all epochs converse with one another in an eternal, pristine dialogue. Beyond that, it enables the legions of literary critics to maintain a steady wage; by publicly flaunting their entropic systems of name-dropping and historically rootless stylistic comparisons, they conjure the impression of an arcane literary know-how to which witless literature graduates the world over can aspire.