The title is from Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion
I’ve been thinking a lot about Winterson, because I just read Why Be Happy When you Could be Normal, which is her autobiography, of sorts. It’s an amazing triumph of a book. The kind of book you finish reading and know that things will never quite be the same again.
Winterson writes a lot about stories, and truth and the imagination. The power of these things. The importance of these these things.
One of my best friends doesn’t really read fiction, because (and I’m clumsily paraphrasing here) in general it lacks the power of writing which comes from lived experience. I think this attitude is pretty common, I’ve also heard fiction described as ‘lies’ and wherever you live I’ll place money on the biography section of your book shop or library being be one of the most popular.
Those of you who ran into me on Friday will know that I was in a play*. Not acting in it, because as far as I’m aware hell hasn’t yet frozen over, but in it, in the background as a character, with one of the experiences from my life being recounted on stage. I was there, there were other characters who I know IN REAL LIFE (Chris Howson
and Emma Adams and Jane Earnshaw) and this made me think about how, if I was standing on stage the story you would have received would have been different. Not because Hannah was lying. Just because of my different perspective and experience and the fact that the place where I was standing was just a couple of feet along from her. The story you encountered would also have varied dependent on your own perspective and experience as a viewer. This is not a world shattering revelation, but for me it was a powerful reminder.
It got me thinking about personal stories, the (im)possibility of objective truth. And then from there the collapse of ‘grand narratives’; the belief systems which seek to find a ‘singular explicable truth about reality’; party politics, religion, economics.
I studied English at degree level. As a 18/19 year old undergraduate literary theory blew my mind. Post structuralism blew my mind. With Derrida, Kristeva, Lecan and Foucault the stability of language was overturned, the binaries of gender were obliterated, the author was dead and so was the canon, the grand narratives of capitalism and communism and knowledge and rationality were being questioned and burnt and fuck, wasn’t that liberating?
An essential, stable value system or knowable static reality
was impossible. The authorities of church and state and law and morality being hacked away at. History is nothing but the story of the victor. But. I read post structuralist theory alongside Primo Levi, also one of my favourite authors, and the problems with this theoretical approach quickly became apparent. Levi was a Holocaust survivor. In the Periodic Table he writes, so, so eloquently, about the need to testify. About the extreme lengths the Nazis went to to disguise their guilt, to escape the judgement of history. Objectivity may be problematic, in post-structuralist terms it is perhaps impossible. But how do you deny the truth of a corpse? Doesn’t this flight from objectivity play into the hands of the guilty? Holocaust denial is a criminal offense. The truth of this history is inscribed by law. It is a story beyond question.
I’ve been to conferences and seminars where academics and professionals bemoan the inability of the general public to ‘read’ news anymore. What they mean by this, is that many people lack the education or the ability to recognise the biases of a text. So media and news are consumed as objective truth.
This, as far as I’m concerned, is bullshit. From the conversations I have with my extended family, who actually read the dreaded red tops, newspapers are now read like fiction. I asked the seven year olds I read with if they thought everything that was written in the newspapers was true and they laughed.
The problem is not that people believe everything, it’s more that no one believes anything anymore.
And who can blame them? Things are coming apart at a rapid rate at the moment. It feels like we’re going into freefall.
Politicians lie. They have, probably, always lied. But has the public confidence ever been so low? Have voter turn outs ever been so low? The general opinion is that they are all useless and on the take; expenses, backhanders, corruption.
Newspapers lie; we learnt this with Leveson. The BBC lies, we learnt this with Saville. What happened at Hillsborough showed the police lie (but again, for many people this wasn’t revelatory), the abuse scandals within the church show they lie, prolifically too. I think of Jenny Holzer; ‘The abuse of power comes as no surprise’.
When you look at what’s left to believe in, you’re not left with much. And there don’t seem to be any alternative ‘grand narratives’ coming along to fill the gap. We’re (at least not yet) discarding capitalism and jumping over to communism. Because that’s been discredited too, right? Another grand narrative, right?
From a post-structuralist perspective this should be liberating. But it doesn’t feel that way right now, not to me. Because what this country is left with isn’t hedonism, or anarchy or a glorious overturn of the status quo. It’s the coalition government. And they are using our cynicism and dis-engagement to destroy our health, education, welfare structures. This is a government without imagination. They don’t have policies so much as wrecking balls. They don’t seem to actually believe in anything.
Aneurin Bevan helped found the NHS as our country came out of World War II. Our national debt was proportionately higher than it was now. It was a project that was beyond ambitious. It was a product of a nation which believed in something. That believed that a better, fairer world was possible.
I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important, so I’ll risk repeating myself; it’s easy to point out what’s wrong with this world. And whilst it is important to do that, it is definitely important to do that, thinking about alternatives, what world we actually want, is as important, if not more so. And artists and writers and theorists should be out there stoking those flames, as much as politicians. I looked at the questions on Andy Abbott’s project about Erewyrehve and I was shocked at how hard I found it. I just wasn’t used to thinking about how I’d actually like my reality to be. It’s like I hadn’t even let myself go to that place. And that’s a problem.
The state of the UK right now is pretty heartbreaking, it really is. And where things are at globally is as depressing.
Right now we need to give people something they can actually believe in. Something beyond this. Stories of something better than this.
* A Conversation with My Father by Hannah Nicklin