Sunday, April 07, 2013

Writing the "I" in Contemporary Fiction

Does fiction have a role to reflect the times? Not just the physical reality of the times, but its language, its undercurrents? Are we even aware of the fundamental shifts that take place from time to time and begin to distance us from our parents, our grandparents, the forgotten ancestors?

We are living through an unprecedented period of peace in the west, however much that is down to outsourcing any wars since 1945, and so the real traumas of our lives are not pitted against a national tragedy. The financial crisis seems somewhat existential, though, with the cuts coming through to welfare this week, in the UK at least (and already in Greece, Cyprus, Ireland) they are being tangible, as our dependence on a monied world (or a debt-based world) seems now total. When we've had something of a natural disaster (the Icelandic ash cloud) or a man-made one (the truckers strike) the fragile supply chains of late capitalism are laid bare. We hear in the news that we are two weeks away from gas shortages, but its not like any of us, on this cramped island, have the wherewithal to live long without our regular incomes.

This is part of a wider pattern where late capitalism is no longer content with the movement of goods, labour and money but is in some ways creating an industrialisation of private space and private life. From dating sites to internet pornography; from labour saving devices to a new domestic class: personal trainer; sandiwch maker; the web of transactional demand is necessary to feed the supply industries.

How does a fiction work in this context? I think we have to look back a little. A lot of this is about the unique role that fiction has in terms of art in showing consciousness. For of all the art forms it is the one that most often, and for longest, has tried to show us how we think. We may see - as Harold Bloom did - that Shakespeare teaches us how to be human; but though we know what Hamlet or Othello or Lear is thinking through the sleight of the soliloquy, we don't really know why they are thinking that. Shakespeare gives us action predicated not so much on emotion (which I'll come back to) as on base instincts and desires. For Othello "jealousy" is an actual thing not a feeling, and in the politically-charged scenarios of Shakespeare's staged worlds, these headline emotions are behind so much of the play's dynamism. There's not a massive distance here from mummers plays with depictions of human venalities in life-like forms; obviously what Shakespeare does with this is far more; but he is restricted by the show of the stage; so that our soliloquy's are examinations of action and motive - character is action in Shakespeare. Whether it is later in James, who used the phrase, is another matter.

The novel came of age in the 18th century and there's something of Shakespeare's layering of societal corruptions on the morality plays of the age in the (im)moral fables of Fielding or Defoe. They have no doubt about the Fall of man (or woman), but the consciousness we see in Tom Jones or Moll Flanders is a winning one, that wants to excuse their venality (if that's what it is) through circumstances. "I'm bad, but I didn't mean to be," seems to be our new found sense of self. If a Shakespearean hero's fall is pre-ordained by the deadly sins, by fate; for Moll Flanders it is an accident of circumstance. The 18th century hero(ine) is prone to regret, but also to ask for forgiveness. It is an interesting reductionism of the Christian compact. That man is born with original sin, and so rather than try and live a good life, is undoubtedly going to live a bad life, but in the living will grow wiser. The 18th century writers were men (and women) of the real world and their characters reflect that. Again though it is action rather than thought that determines character. Moll Flanders tells us she is a bad woman but wishes she wasn't. The moralists of the time could condemn her actions, whilst real people would recognise themselves and their friends in her justifying of her situation. In a less fevered sense this is the lessons of "Pride and Prejudice" as well. Characters don't purport themselves well, whilst at the same time aiming at being beyond blemish (for reasons of "reputation") yet have the capacity to change. That Elizabeth Bennet's sin seems smaller than the priggish Darcy's is part of the comedy of manners, and the reality of the times - where a person's individual thoughts were less important than their institutions.

Where the individual's consciousness is in contrast with the age's, then the conflict appears - and in many ways the Victorian novel reflected this. George Eliot lived in "sin" and wrote as a man; so her own life was a radical one for the times  yet her characters also have to face the consequences of their choices. The good doctor Lydgate in "Middlemarch", and the serious Dorothea, both marry badly out of a misplaced sense of their own consciousness. Lydgate fancies himself  a man of science rather than of fashion, Dorothea as acetic rather than the sensualist she is. The Victorian novel gives us consciousness and consequence, and the two have to run their course - unable to shift the times or society they live in. The utopianism of a 19th century hero is simply about rising beyond their original class: so an orphan becomes a Lord; or a beggar picked off the streets of Liverpool ends up ruling the family he was brought into.

A consciousness that was less societally restricted could only be found elsewhere. Perhaps this is the utopianism of William Morris's "News from Nowhere", or more likely in the enclosed worlds of the school in Jane Eyre of The Way of All Flesh. Modernism gave us a consciousness that was able to exist outside of the restrictions of society. Partly this was because of a changing world - and "modernisation" created educated archetypes who had no place in the world. Thus the narrator of Knut Hamsun's "Hunger" would have been a priest or an academic in a previous age, but as a precarious writer, slipping down the food chain, all he is left with is a sense of self. A hundred years later J.M. Coetzee would speak of the same hopelessness in apartheid South Africa with his "Life and times of Josef K." This uncoupling of the "hero" of a novel from societal norms is exacerbated during the early 20th century. I think its also a result of the more capital driven society and urbanisation and its consequence.

For Conrad travelling down into "The Heart of Darkness" the soul of man could be exposed only through some kind of extremis; yet Woolf proves in Mrs. Dalloway that the same journey can take place purely through consciousness and during the inauspicious day planning a party. The autobiographical heroes of "Sons and Lovers" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" want more - they want to change the(ir) world as you might expect from writers emerging from the working class and Ireland. The reality of consciousness is being explored elsewhere as the emergence of Freud's theories gives the "mind" a substance that religion had previously given to the "soul." Character was no longer a moral quality so much as a mental one. Later, we'd find it was a chemical one - in the lost souls of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" perhaps.

That a writer like James might imagine what its like to be a young woman is partly a result of this better understanding of our consciousness as no longer being just a social construct or a moral one. The mind itself, of which we all possess one, is the factory of ourselves. Shakespeare's unfathomable Iago and the flawed Othello seem to be ahead of their time - maybe Iago is a sociopath and Othello autistic?

What modernism provided was a sense that the mind was as fertile a location to explore as the Congo or the drawing room. The world after the First World War was one that how little our individual desires actually meant - not because of some social construct - but because of the social destruction that a mechanised warfare brought with it. Those other "ordering systems" of fascism and communism had a similar dim view of the self. Consciousness was barely allowed in these belief systems - and the "I" was distrusted as autobiography - and autobiography was proof of what you were, a Jew, for instance, or against the regime. The distrust of the "I" in fiction made its way into America's post-war paranoia and the crimes of McCarthyism where the formulisation "I am not and have never been a communist" was given the status of holy writ.

No surprise then that our trust in consciousness in fiction, the role of the "I", changed again in the 1940s and 1950s. The new "I" was a rebellious loner. An "outsider" in Camus or a "catcher in the rye" according to Salinger or a rolling stone, gathering no moss in Kerouac. This template feeds into writers with an eye on the societal. For Portnoy it is sexual gratification, against the wishes of his religion; for Augie Marsh it is seeing the world different than his family do. The generational and societal changes of the 60s, as well as the enduring American myth of self-creation feed into any number of fictions. In Britain the writing is less certain of being able to change things, but as equally aware that your own personal desires are more important than the restrictions that work or family want to put on you. Cinema with its external focus on its Alfie's, its Poor Cows, has no problem with pretending it can see what we're thinking but is less inclined to this than even in Shakespeare's day; and the "I" is therefore now one that has a Micheal Caine or Clint Eastwood or Dustin Hoffman as a stand-in, whether as "everyman" or one-off. Fictional delusion comes in - the ego, if you like - in the fantasy novels of the period, where an individual can change themselves and the world, either through a roll of the dice ("The Dice Man") or the creation of a religion ("Stranger in a Strange Land.")

Female and gay emancipation created other kinds of "I". The multiple strands of "The Golden Notebook" allows Lessing to give us different layers of self - as a woman can share a hidden consciousness with the reader. In the sociopathic "The Collector" Fowles gives us narrators who we believe whilst they are speaking, but who act as convincers, con artists to our understanding. The consciousness can lie; even to itself - after all, how else can we do such terrible acts?

In the 40 years since Watergate I wonder whether our protagonists can now believe in being able to change the world any more than being able to change themselves. There are, it seems, fewer Holden Caulfields or Portnoys or rather the validity of self has itself become a commodity. The late 70s coming to consciousness of the Stepford-wives like witches in "Witches of Eastwick" feels more like a metaphor than a reality. By "London Fields" or "American Pastoral" the uncertainty of what an "I" actually means is compounded by characters acting as in-novel surrogates in order to tell the story. The author, embedded with his battalion has abandoned "I" for his character's thoughts and wants it to act as a direction-finder for a collective modern consciousness: or rather - "this is the world as I see it."

The internet has changed things again, for the physical "I" is no longer necessary the feelings of the character but some kind of construct. When a character is in the midst of the action of their own life they only seem able to tell us it now as a story, as a construct. The holding back (the "false memory") you find in Anne Enright's "The Gathering" or Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" for instance. Yet American writers, assailed with so much information, are almost unable to write character now without an intrusion of the whole world. Like Conrad having to send his characters into an extreme place to discover who or what they are, the contemporary writer almost needs to find an isolation zone: a hospital bed ("Girlfriend in a Coma"), death ("The Lovely Bones") or war ("The Yellow Birds") to actually think and feel anything real. For the young or new writer coming up the tendency is to circumvent all this worry and just write in the present tense. Consciousness as sensation. Not "I am..." so much as "this is happening to me."

What does consciousness now mean? We kid ourselves if we think we have the freedom of some of our previous generations - for freedom means change and for too many people life is now about a certain unchanging tension. Will our job/relationship/fertility last? We can no longer go "on the road" or slip into Tangiers or Mexico, because everywhere is exactly the same as where we are. We are being told what to think based upon the detritus of news stories and extreme lives on Jeremy Kyle. Our personal life, and therefore our consciousness, is seeping into the public domains via Facebook and Twitter.

In this world I'm suspicious of using the "I". It is no longer the authorial-biographer of the modernist; nor is it the voice of a character in a malleable situation. "I" has become a construct of "stuff" that may or may not be about the individual character. Too many books - even by great writers like DeLillo - are unable to distinguish one consciousness from another, like we are all parts of a bigger creature. This is not so unusual. Shakespeare would have recognised it, but felt it was an irrelevance, because the influences on our lives - jealousy, envy, fear, ambition - were so much stronger than what we actually "feel"; James would have fretted, wondering how to make sense of a senseless world, and probably finding, as many of our contemporary novelists do, solace in constructed worlds: workplaces, cities, virtual environments. The contemporary "I" seems to have more in common with the way Burroughs uses it - as a camera on a stick prodding anywhere into human existence - or as in early Gibson, as a node on the network.

When our existence is an IP address what is it that we actually feel? I'm not seeing the fictions that are addressing this.


Tim Love said...

I use "I" in my stuff though I don't understand it. It's just a device, like "You", that readers might relate to. Sometimes its supposed uniqueness/individuality matters, as do the factors that shaped it. Sometimes its a stock character, something that makes "plot" possible.

In "Reality Hunger", David Shields wrote that "As a work gets more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren't prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art - underprocessed, underproduced - splinters and explodes". I think he dislikes the hidden, omniscient author, the "cooked" novel, thinking it more psychologically honest for the author to follow the twists and turns of thought across genres (using quotes, anecdotes and fables to illustrate points). He points out that Proust's Marcel plays a similar role to the "I" in poetry as regards the stance viz a viz the author.

Wendy Mulford wrote "How far did the illusion of selfhood, that most intimate and precious possession, reach? How could the lie of culture be broken up if the lie of the self made by that culture remained intact?". But surely one can write about the self (or at least write like Proust) without trying to break up the lie of culture.

Adrian said...

Thats an interesting quote from Shields as (though I don't agree with his thesis) its pretty similar to my thoughts on contemporary writing (if not contemporary experience.)

The Mulford quotes more problematic I think. Whats wrong with the "lie of culture?" sometimes it becomes the truth. (See the amount of 80s songs and Loadsamoney clips being used to illustrate Thatcherism.) I suppose what I'm edging towards is that "I" or particularly the present tense preference in some contemporary writing seems to put a premium on the lived experience of the moment over the felt experience of memory/culture - and I think although to the reader it feels "real" its quite a hackneyed construct in itself.But there's that other point you make: what if the writer is writing about self? What then? (Not just Proust, but think of Burroughs or B.S. Johnson.)