Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics




By Geoffrey Heptonstall


The Montréal Review, February 2018


The Naked One (Oil on canvas, 2015) by Patricia Van Lubeck (www.vanlubeck.com)


Strange Fruit is a remarkable song. Its extraordinary artistic and popular success has tended to eclipse Lewis Allen’s other achievements. He wrote well but never as well. He did write one of the great songs of his century. What is so striking about Strange Fruit is the power it gains by metaphor. The imagery is as shocking as the photographs the song alludes to, the lynching of mutilated Afro-Americans in the Deep South. Stated directly, the protest loses its power. Retold as poetry, it burns into the conscience of a nation.

‘What is hidden cannot be loved,’ Derek Walcott observed in his Nobel lecture. It is on public utterance our private thoughts are sifted and refined into coherent shape and reasoned direction. The jejune, the awkward and raw utterances of the first draft are processed into something more dignified and intelligent. Between the scribbled notes and the typed script lie so many inner conversations between imagination (the writer you) and reason (the editor you). The contrast between initial ideas and final expression may be marked. Can these two have been written by the same person? The raw is cooked. The wild is tamed. Anger becomes disdain. Desire becomes love. An impulse is transformed into an arrangement of words.

One motive for writing is to gain the respect of others, a hope that presupposes a more generous world than ours. We have a perception of the world we need to express. A perception is a way of looking. It is not an objective statement based on evidence. The truths of literature are truths to the inner feeling garnered by outward experience. Art re-creates. It reshapes. It expresses an imaginative response to the world. Journalism, by contrast, communicates experience. By definition, journalism details daily life. It is required to be accurate and measured. A journalist cannot invent and remain true to an ethical standard. A writer must invent to be truthful. Writing is the imaginative response to the bewildering mass of experiences that perpetually confront us.

Journalism is written in the heat of the moment. The response is instant. Copy has to be written to meet the deadline which is fast approaching. There is no real time for the kind of reflective consideration which is the finely-honed essay. Journalists, like learned counsel in court, must think on their feet. They cannot go back and revise a week later. A week later it is old news and life has moved on.

The disciplines of journalism are exacting. It is no easy task to ascertain the facts of a situation, to assess the truth, and then immediately to write an articulate and reasoned account of it. Little wonder that so much journalism tends to the superficial, the emotional and the inaccurate. There is insufficient time to check the facts. The apparent becomes the obvious. All that seems to matter is what is happening at this moment. Good journalism requires qualities many may aspire to but relatively few possess. To be calm in the storm is a rare gift.

Writing is driven by passion as much as by reason. I once heard Thomas Mann quoted concerning a writer’s responsibility. Mann was alleged to have said that a writer must be apart in order to retain a sense of dignity in the chaos of public events. I looked up the quotation. What Mann actually said was that a writer must be involved in the world’s chaos in order to sustain his integrity. Not the same thing at all. Good writing requires qualities many may aspire to but relatively few possess. To be lyrical in the cacophony is a rare gift.

Instant responses to the news are not on the whole what writers do. A very few can forge out of the heat of political events exceptional words exceptionally written. Carol Ann Duffy can do it with incandescent ability. David Hare can do it. But generally, instant literary responses are first drafts at best. At worst they are, to borrow Capote’s famous phrase, not writing but typing.

Consider again Derek Walcott’s observation. What is hidden has no role in human community. Communication is dependant on a certain candour in public utterance, and on openness of meanings and motives in public affairs. An honesty of intentions is required of those who enact and of those who report those actions. Discovering the whole truth takes time. There are witnesses to be heard and facts to be to be measured against the general picture. Some distance in time and space allows for a mature and sympathetic assessment. ‘All my thoughts are second thoughts,’ said Aldous Huxley.

Literature is concerned with expression through metaphor. The novel we think of as realist in the tradition of Defoe whose quasi-journalistic style was legerdemain of genius. And yet his supreme achievement, Robinson Crusoe, can be seen as an allegory. What looks to be an adventure, a recasting of a shipwrecked mariner’s tale heard in a Bristol tavern, becomes on closer reading a plea for capital and empire. That is not to reduce its stature as one of Western literature’s great narrative myths. It is possible with such a mythos to rework it, as Adrian Mitchell and Michel Tournier both did, with greater emphasis on Friday, and in the light of modern conjectures and explorations of the psyche and of social relations.

Crusoe is morally complex. It has the richness of literature open to varying and continuing interpretations. A metaphor is not literal truth. Its approach is oblique because there is so much in plain sight we cannot see. If Thomas Mann cannot be quoted accurately what does that say about the highly regarded journalist who misquotes him? We only see what we want to see. That applies to all of us involved in the world’s chaos.

That is why literature works by allusion and implicit comparison. The truths it seeks are those that lie behind the observable facts. We need those facts. We need accurate presentation of the facts. We need information about what is happening, and that means all that is happening not simply what conventional wisdom thinks we ought to know. When we have an accurate picture of the world we may search for the uncharted continents of the imagination, the imagined realms where undiscovered truths explain our realities.

The question of relevance is ill-defined. There is a woolly notion that art must relate directly and immediately to current concerns. It is redolent of run of the mill discussions where complexities are ironed out in received opinions. The relation between cultural expression and its social context is a complex interplay of aesthetic, moral and social questions.  An historical perspective is requisite. The work of Leo Lowenthal and Raymond Williams is of continuing relevance, but of course there are others to be considered. The questions are radically important.

‘Is it relevant?’ is a question neither radical nor important. It has a desperate edge to it, a clutching at straws. The supposition is that art serves an immediate social purpose, and that is literature’s primary function. It would be better to say that one primary social function of literature is to stabilize and to shape the conversations taking place in public discourse. Random thoughts and vague surmises are tested in the crucible of the carefully written word. Ideas and values cohere in capable form. The obligation falls on each of us to relate to that form. We do so according to our personal mindset. However we relate to a work of art, we acknowledge the obligation of reaching out beyond our private sphere and into a social world that may not be familiar but which is sure to develop our responses to the more familiar spaces we occupy.

There is, however, an empirical concept identifiable as social relevance in art. It has value in the process of communication between the creative act and the social world. It is not the primary function of literature to offer a social prescription. Social experience is translated into art by way of metaphor.  [Picasso’s Guernica is a prime example.] Art may be translated into social experience [especially in revolutionary practice: ‘Imagination has seized power.’]  These are dynamic processes in the mechanisms of social transformation. They are not aesthetic principles. We do not regard literature by subject matter alone. Nor would we require of literature that it simply confirm our preconceived notions of the world.

‘Choose a subject that is suited to your abilities, you who aspire to be writers.’ That was Horace in his Ars Poetica, written in the light of remarkable experiences that few can hope to equal. An ally of Caesar’s assassins, Horace became an intimate of both Virgil and Augustus. He wrote from the bittersweet knowledge that hurt him into poetry. The alternative was something wilder than metaphor: the assassin’s blade, the traitor’s smile, the demagogue’s tirade. Even the higher aims of public life eventually fade into self-advertisement. Metaphors taste better than platitudes.


Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of Heaven's Invention (2016, Black Wolf Edition & Publishing Ltd.).


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911

about us | contact us