05 October 2006

Dear James Joyce

Bafflingly, reviews of John Carey's What Good are the Arts are cropping up everywhere, some three or four months after it came out in paperback. I thought of you.

An article on Crooked Timber examines the Ribena theory: I prefer Ribena to Chateau Lafite and no-one can tell me otherwise; who am I to insist on the superiority of James Joyce over Barbara Cartland? Good question. The Crooked Timber post answers it by arguing that Chateau Lafite requires great dedication and skill to produce, and great experience to appreciate, whereas Ribena is mass-produced to appeal to the broadest possible palate. Cf. Ulysees and Her Throbbing Passion (not a real novel as far as I'm aware, but near enough in a Richard Hoggart-esque sort of way).

This argument is all very well. I'm quite attracted to it as filling a need for an answer to Carey I haven't managed to come up with for myself. But it does end up as something of a Pseud's charter. I'm fond of Ulysees, but by the measure advanced it comes out far inferior to Finnegans Wake, which took you longer to write and has been very thinly read. "If you don't understand The Waste Land", TS Eliot apparently said, "go away, read more, then come back and read it again." Personally, I prefer Prufrock.

The purpose of any theory of art being to justify the aesthetic prejudices of the theorist, I'm keen to find one allowing me to prefer Ulysees to both Her Throbbing Passion and Finnegans Wake; Prufrock to both The Waste Land and Tea With Kingsley Amis. The best I can do is to suggest that while cultivating one's palate is a rewarding activity, any work of either literature or viniculture that requires more of disparate knowledge than cultivated experience is pushing its luck a bit. In requiring us to learn about forty three languages to get the full experience of Finnegans Wake, you're taking the piss, I'm afraid. Whereas the majestic final section of Ulysees can be appreciated with or without having read Homer, but not without having spent some time developing one's literary palate.

And here's an unfashionable notion: that final section surpasses the rest of the book by such a distance in part because it's not entirely deaf to the requirements of Her Throbbing Passion's readership. Sure, their tastes are for the more immediate, for the quick release. But in this section of your book we have a human being in need of love, something so simple and immediately accessible as to be almost entirely unique in your ouvre. "Ulysess as romantic novel" (with a small r on romantic) would be an intriguing seminar paper and would begin to home in on my emergent theory of art.

Great art has to acknowledge the popular, but it has to broaden it. It has to engage with what the masses want, flirt with them, but not necessarily give it to them. The good popular artist knows what the audience want and gives it to them. The great artist understands what the audience want and, without frustrating them, is able to give them something else, something they didn't expect. Shakespeare, Dickens, Brecht: this is what they did. By engaging with popular forms they were able to broaden popular understandings of both art and society.

You engaged with forms popular among the literati and broadened their understandings of art. This makes you important, but it doesn't make you great. When you were great, you were great by mistake, you were great because your humanity crept in despite ferocious efforts to keep it at bay, because what made you important suddenly for a spell and by coincidence also made your work true. You were great for the last 60 pages out of 930.

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