The Meaning of Recognition

BOOK: The Meaning of Recognition
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To Ian McEwan

No fixed idea except to avoid fixed ideas.

Robert Musil



The Meaning of Recognition

Polanski and the Pianist

Fantasy in the West Wing

Pushkin’s Deadly Gift

Great Sopranos of Our Time

A Memory Called Malouf

The Hidden Art of Bing Crosby

Larkin Treads the Boards

The Iron Capital of Bruno Schulz

Criticism à la Kermode

Fast-Talking Dames

Rough Guides to Shakespeare

General Election Sequence

Primo Levi and the Painted Veil

A Big Boutique of Australian Essays

Slouching towards Yeats

Cyrano on the Scaffold

A Nightclub in Bali

Our First Book

In Memoriam Sarah Raphael

Aldous Huxley Then and Now

Formula Zero

A Man Called Peter Porter

Weeping for London

Attack of the Killer Critics

Philip Roth’s Alternative America

The Miraculous Vineyard of Australian Poetry

The University of the Holocaust

No Way, Madame Bovary

The Battle for Isaiah Berlin

Save Us from Celebrity


Since retiring from mainstream television at the turn of the millennium – always pick the busiest moment to do a fade – I have been able to devote more time to
essays and poetry. Each of the two forms, I like to think, holds territory in the other, if only through the requirement that it should be written with a care for the connection between theme and
craft. Any poem which is all writing and no ideas is a pain in the neck, no matter how adroitly done; and any essay which is all ideas and no writing is dead before it hits the page. It should go
without saying that a poem takes more effort to put together than the reader can guess. It is hardly ever said that an essay needs a similarly disproportionate expenditure of energy. The
expenditure takes time. The essayist must be free to pause, finish reading
Joseph and His Brothers
, sleep in the afternoon, spend a whole hour on a single paragraph, watch
in the evening, and then work far into the night, until finally he produces a piece of writing that shows no more signs of strain than the easy outpouring of some dolt who bungs down the
first thing that comes into his head. The essayist’s fluency, however, is only apparent, like his simplicity, which is, or ought to be, a work of synthesis, and not of subtraction. To the
extent that it can make a clear argument while remaining faithful to nuance, his readability, if he can manage it, is his tribute to the complexity of experience: a legitimately lyrical response to
the tragic. I hope the pieces in this book, when they look simple, do so without seeming light-minded, because most of them were written with a heavy heart. After the Berlin Wall came down, many of
us who were already growing old had hopes that the young would grow up in a saner world. One of the signs of a saner world would be that there would be less call to consider contemporary politics
when talking about the arts. It hasn’t turned out that way.

The first and last pieces in this book are concerned with the difference between celebrity and recognition. I tried to keep politics out of both of them, but it shouldered its way in, because
celebrity is a frivolity, and the frivolities of Western civilization are at the centre of the question of how freedom can be defended with a whole heart when you find yourself sickened by the
vices that arise from it. The answer to the question, I believe, is that those who attack liberal democracy, whether from without or within, loathe its virtues even more than its vices, and should
therefore not be conceded the moral advantage even when they are granted their suicidal determination. But I don’t think it’s an answer that should be reached too easily, and many of
the pieces assembled between the two bookends are concerned directly with just how reprehensible, even in its culture, Western civilization has been before, and still is now. There are one or two
pieces that could be said to have no political dimension, unless you think that an article about Formula One motor racing might itself be a comment on the unforeseeable aftermath of World War II,
evoking as it does the paradox of watching, on a Japanese television set, a German driver dominating the world at the wheel of an Italian car. Nor was Bing Crosby a notably political figure, except
if you believe, as I do, that the influence of its popular culture was the one aspect of American imperialism that was neither planned in the first place nor possible to resist. But in most of
these writings, politics invades every sphere, even the world of poetry. Not that poetry was ever a separate world – such a notion would have seemed very strange to Dante – but there
was a time when it suited the cultivated to think it might be. Now nobody thinks that about poetry, or even about being cultivated. Politics gets into everything. It reaches even those people who
have nothing to do with their lives except hope that the next distribution of food will not turn into a massacre. Especially it reaches them, leaving their bodies lying in the dust for the vultures
and the television cameras. One day those birds will have electronic eyes, and the insatiable viewer of reality TV will be able to see from the inside what civilization looks like when it ends
– the bloodbath before it started. Which raises the question, since the subject is so desperately serious, of whether somebody without the proper qualifications should talk about politics at

The answer to that question is that he must, and that the value of what he says will depend entirely on his tone of voice. Whatever the subject, whether apparently piffling or unarguably grave,
his way of speaking will either be true to life or it will be a tissue of lies. There are essayists who can be faithful to the world’s multiplicity even when they are writing about
the Vampire Slayer
. There are other essayists who can’t report a war-crimes trial without writing flummery. In its printed form, a tone of voice is a style, and a style is a spine and a
brain, not just a skin. If this book keeps coming back to poetry, it’s because it starts there: because a poem without style is inconceivable, and only style can register the flow of history.
Much of history’s flow, alas, is the flow of innocent blood. For a while we might have tried to think otherwise, but it was wishful thinking – and wishful thinking was the fatal human
characteristic with which the critical essay, a far more analytical instrument than the poem, was first designed to deal. Immured in his beloved library, Montaigne might have preferred to read
instead of write. The turbulent world wouldn’t let him. A gifted diplomat much sought after by his government, he tried to shut himself off from politics, but it got in through the walls. And
so he invented the form we practise now, always asking ourselves what we really know, and answering with what we have learned. One thing we are bound to learn, unfortunately, is that no amount of
age will bring sufficient wisdom to cover the unpredictable. There we were, fearing that our prosperous children might lose sight of the value of liberty because they would never see it threatened.
Nice thought, bad guess, wrong fear.

London, 2005


If the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal is the biggest single honour with which an Australian writer can be graced, it is because of the stature of Philip Hodgins himself. Born in
1959 and dead in 1995, he had a cruelly short lifespan in which to accomplish so much. An acceptance speech for the medal should be mainly about him and what he did. In the following speech I tried
to make it so, but I thought to make a start by establishing a general context of argument. For that context, I had to draw upon my own experience more than upon his, because I didn’t really
know much about what it was like to be a young poet burdened with the knowledge that he was condemned to an early death. Later on, with the context established, I could bring him and his poetry to
centre stage. But at the beginning, I was the man with the microphone. Well aware that I was far too comfortable in that position, I did my best to say something useful. There I was, hogging the
spotlight as usual. My main subject would be a dedicated young man who had never done any such thing. How to resolve the anomaly? Well, there was a related subject: the spotlight itself. So I began
with that.


There is a difference between celebrity and recognition. Celebrities are recognized in the street, but usually because of who they are, or who they are supposed to be. To
achieve recognition, however, is to be recognized in a different way. It is to be known for what you have done, and quite often the person who knows what you have done has no idea of what you look
like. When I say that I’ve had enough of celebrity status, I don’t mean that I am sick of the very idea. As it happens, I think that the mass-psychotic passion for celebrity –
this enormous talking point for those who do not really talk – is one of the luxurious diseases that Western liberal democracy will have to find a cure for in the long run, but the cure will
have to be self-willed. I don’t think that it can be imposed, and certainly not from the outside. I didn’t much like Madonna’s last television appearance in Britain. Billed as the
acme of sophisticated sexiness, it featured Madonna wearing high heels, a trench coat and a beret. She crouched like a pygmy prizefighter while snarling into the microphone as if anyone listening
might be insufficiently intelligent to understand her message – a hard audience to find, in my view.

I thought of this performance as an attempt to prove that a knowing sneer can be made audible while discrediting the French Resistance. But Madonna’s slow paroxysm of self-regard, a
flagrant example of Western decadence though it undoubtedly was, did not inspire me to fly a hijacked airliner into her house. Here indeed was a celebrity gone mad, if not celebrity itself gone
mad. But she will have to realize that herself, through her sense of the ridiculous, if she still has one. A violent attack would produce nothing but more Madonnas: spiteful spores in berets. An
awareness even more sophisticated than the aberration is its only cure, for her and for the phenomenon of celebrity as a whole. Until the moment when mocking laughter does its work, we will be
stuck with celebrity being called a phenomenon, or, as even the journalists are now quite likely to call it, a phenomena. Really it would be just a bore if it were not so toxic. But to know that,
you have to be genuinely interested in the sort of achievement whose practitioners you feel compelled to recognize in a more substantial way. The cure lies in that direction if it lies

While we are waiting for the cure, I am quite content to go on having my life distorted by my own small measure of celebrity, which has mainly come about because my face was once on television.
Your face doesn’t have to be on television for long, and in any capacity, before you become recognizable not just to normally equipped people but to people who are otherwise scarcely capable
of recognizing anything. You will find out why posters of the ten most wanted criminals can be so effective. How is it that the lurking presence of a fugitive master of disguise is so often
detected by the village idiot? The answer has to do with a primeval characteristic of our sensory apparatus. If the human brain has the outline of another human face sufficiently implanted, that
other human face can be picked out of a crowd decades in the future, whatever has happened to it. Once you have appeared on that scale, nothing is harder than to disappear. On the day you realize
that you can vanish only through never emerging from your motel room, and that even then the pizza delivery man has recognized you through your floor-length facial hair, you will realize that
celebrity really amounts to a kind of universal mugshot. While it resolutely misses the point of what you would like to think you have done, it is an indelible picture of who you are.

BOOK: The Meaning of Recognition
6.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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