Blog On Avoiding Absolutes

Printed in The Student 23 March 2010

Avoiding absolutes

Professor John Carey, author of What Good are the Arts?, talks to Susan Robinson about his biography of William Golding, the perils (and benefits) of reading and making culture inclusive

Professor Carey’s admiration for William Golding was apparent when he discussed his latest biography, The Man Who Wrote Lord of Flies at Glasgow’s Aye Write! Festival. Following the event, I ask Carey –who has published studies of canonical authors such as Donne, Dickens and Thackeray- what motivated him to write about Golding? “I’d never written a biography of a living author before, someone I had actually met while he was alive.” What appears most exciting to Carey is having access to the private thoughts of Golding, he talks of the “inexhaustible” archive, comprising of a nine thousand page journal, plans and three unpublished novels. It took Carey six months to read the journal and he explains his dedication towards the task ahead of him: ‘I had never actually tackled a figure who was quite unknown before, and dealing with material that was quite unknown. You come across something and think, ‘my god, I’m the first person to have read this’ it’s like finding a Shakespeare sonnet…amazing!”

Carey’s enthusiasm is the result of a long wait to realise an ambition. He wanted to write the biography while Golding was still alive but his family “wouldn’t hear of it”, Carey explains, “He died in 1993 and no one has looked at the stuff and I think the reason, one reason is because of David [Golding’s son]. Not so long ago, any kind of mental illness was absolutely not talked about and shut away. I think that Ann, his wife,  really would have not wanted anyone to look at the journal, because there really was a lot about David.” Carey considers the biography his greatest achievement due to its comprehensiveness but also, “I’ve never done anything like this before and suppose I never will again, you’ve got to find an archive no one’s touched.”

Carey also wrote about Golding in his work of cultural and aesthetic revision, What Good are the Arts? He recounts how a group of book-shunning young offenders responded to the themes of exclusion and isolation in The Lord of the Flies and advocates reading as a remedy for boredom and apathy: “People are starting to realise more and more that reading has therapeutic potential. It’s not only for young offenders, people in prison, but also people in hospitals, people recovering from breakdowns particularly and that idea that you get out of yourself into some other kind of world.” Carey recognises benefits of film and music but argues literature “gives you ideas in the way that other arts cannot always do. I find that with books they change because you change, as you get older, as you develop new parts of yourself you find something different.”

Despite widespread concern about the decline of reading, Carey remains positive: “I can’t believe that books are any different than when I first started out and I don’t think that people are any different. I think people have imaginations and curiosity. I don’t think literature is a frail flower that needs protecting I think it’s enormously dynamic and that that there always will be young people who respond to it.”

Carey draws a distinction between making and appreciating art, suggesting that participation in the creative process makes culture more inclusive and productive. In that case, can innovations such as blogging be beneficial by giving a platform to a new demographic? “At the Oxford Literary Festival  there was an event which I took part in where there were two critics, me and John Mullan, and two people who run literary blogs and they were terrific. They were having very serious public discussions of literature. Obviously blogging can become very trivial and abusive and so on but it didn’t seem to happen in these blogs. It seemed to be people having a voice that hadn’t had it before. It’s a way of starting a kind of creativity because once you start thinking and writing about a novel or any work of art you are in a sense creating because you’re interpreting. I think the internet will change things for the good, I don’t think it will replace literature.”

Carey has written extensively about cultural elitism but also the relation between academia and the public in Intellectuals and the Masses. Did his own background, being from a non-academic family, give him a different perspective from his peers? “It makes you very intolerant of the kind of exclusiveness that used to be in universities and the kind of assumption that people without backgrounds in cultured families are somehow inferior.” However, it’s not a one-sided divide: “I think it has to be said, separates you from your family, a lot of people find that. I found that teaching students from families that never sent people to university. Seamus Heaney writes about it in his poems and how, the more books you read the less you have in common with them. Of course, some families will react with great positivity and are glad to learn themselves but sometimes it does cut you off, both from the family that you belong to and the new community that you have joined, who’ll never quite accept you.

Carey is emphatic about the love of his own family and how this did not impinge on his own academic life, however his peers were not quite so forgiving: “I started reviewing for the Sunday Times in 1975 and have done it ever since. And that is looked down on.  And writing, as you do have to if you write for a newspaper, writing for a big public and not writing just for academics. And I don’t see the point in writing just for academics. That’s something that academics don’t like, that you should question the worth of it. I think what I’ve felt disapproval of.”

He credits his school masters at Sheen Grammar School as a strong influence, “looking back I think about how brilliant they were, how they engaged your interest right from the start and made you want to know what they knew. And that’s the great secret -heaven knows how you do it- and it seems to me once you’ve done that, once you’ve really made someone want to learn, then you can go home really.” Otherwise, Carey asserts “I think it’s the authors you read who really captivate you that teach you and in my case it’s George Orwell.” Carey devoured Orwell’s collected letters and journalism throughout his twenties, “He seemed to me someone who always believed in something and always the right things, never really gave up on his beliefs, never, like so many authors, turned into a reactionary but was completely true to his beliefs. I thought he was terrific and still do. And think he is also a great stylist, he teaches you how to write in absolutely lucid prose even about very complicated things.”

Orwell’s influence is apparent in Carey’s highly readable style but is there an identification of ideas? “Absolutely, yes. Mind you, when you say identification, one of the things I think about literature is that you don’t necessarily have any ideas yourself. When I was an undergraduate I don’t think I had any ideas at all. I just read the stuff and thought, my god, how wonderful!”

“I suppose by the time I read Orwell perhaps I had got some beliefs and ideas and there probably was some matching there but more it was still learning from him. But that’s what I feel about the issue, it’s a kind of another life which you live through the book and that changes and adds to you.” I suggest that is comforting for an undergrad to hear from someone such as Carey that it took him time to formulate ideas, he expounds: “How was I expected to have ideas? When you read, I don’t know, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, you read these great authors and think, ‘for heaven’s sake if I could only think and write like that’ and that’s what keeps you going. You want to learn but the idea that I would criticise them in those days made no sense at all. I’m not sure it does now with writers like that.”

It is hard not to be intimidated by great authors but perhaps approaching their work without an agenda is not necessarily a disadvantage?  “What’s the point in reading if you’ve already got the agenda? It seems to me that ideally you should read with an open mind.” He notes that this is sometimes easier said than done: “It does seem to me there’s a sort of limit that we really shouldn’t be able to allow that’s disgusting, anti-Semitism say, or really any other pernicious belief.” He recalls a discussion with Anthony Julius (“terribly clever bloke”), lawyer to Princess Diana, author of Trials of the Diaspora and, incidentally, Jewish about T.S. Eliot: ‘there’s a good deal of evidence that Eliot was actually anti-Semitic to a degree. And I remember Anthony Julius saying, ‘could you consider that a book could be great but at the same time also deeply anti-Semitic?’ And I said no, but a lot of people would say yes. A lot of people would say you’ve got to judge it apart from what your particular beliefs are, it seems to me like saying you’ve got to make yourself inhuman.” Carey admits there are two ways of looking at it but “the way I’d look at is at some point something you might call a moral judgement has to come into play.”

“Particularly with D.H. Lawrence, I don’t think Lawrence was evil at all, I think he was desperately anguished by the First World War and things that were happening to mankind so he said things that I think he would have denied, or withdrawn, or corrected when he was in a calmer mood. The trouble is with Lawrence is he’s so powerful, so animated, and passionate. He says these things, says them with enormous power and thought, about his hatred of mankind and you can be carried along by it and you see how he felt. In the last resort I do still think Lawrence is a great writer, even if you have to dissent from some of his views. I think I would try and plead for the times he was writing in and what he was going through. He’s the most acute case apart from Ezra Pound.” Perhaps you can only sympathise so far? “Exactly, and if you sympathise beyond that point that would be quite a worry.”

He explains that this is why he is pleased when people agree with What Good are the Arts ?, “I think not agreeing with it and believing in absolutes is terrifying in a way, particularly when you’re applying it in moral matters and religious matters then it becomes dogmatism of a quite ugly kind.”


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