Hay Festival Talk by the Author to James Naughtie of BBC Radio 4
Sunday 4 June 2017
The author was interviewed about his award-winning novel ‘Gods without Men’. I myself have not read the novel; this essay I am about to write refers to this interview led by BBC’s presenter James Naughtie on Radio Four as above. It was recorded at The Hay Festival of Literature and The Arts 2017.
The Festival phenomenon; musical and literary and arts types are today merely events forwarding their respective commercial industries; known here collectively as ‘The Creative Industries’ which is a title for them which is heavily laden with ironies; since the fact of life for most persons working in these industries; the hoi polloi who actually do the humdrum work behind them; are allowed precious little of the freedom from constraint and from oppression which are the prerequisites for creative work to be possible.
These hoi polloi, the likes of clerks, factory workers, delivery drivers and so on; as soon as they walk into the works building in the morning until they knock-off work the following evening; are to a man and to a woman wage slaves. They do as they are told; with severe penalties if they do not do as they are told; the work hours are set by their employers; they cannot elect to improvise or else do something not regulated; their next pay packet affords them yet another month’s freedom from the creditors and from the nagging worries about bills to be paid; and were one paycheck to be stopped or lost they would be in severe difficulties to keep their homes and families together.
This is the truth of the matter. Thus these Festivals for the most part belong to the froths of society; to those who are light and aery and are buoyed up on top by the rest of things, and they sail leisurely on a light wind wherever their lives lead them. They are an abomination; and their thinking exposes this abomination.
I do not want to attack any person in particular; I want to write about the interview as I heard it broadcast today; and about how I felt about it and about the ideas it threw up. Many were related to the novel and to its content and form; and many were conjunctive to its themes and were quite often ‘topical’ and ‘in the news’.
By writing about the interview I want to suggest that it shows itself to be a good example of that ‘lightness of being’ which typifies the thought of our present generation ‘thinkers’ on such things as ‘life, the universe and everything’.
The author as he expatiated on his novel made it plain that there were many strands of ‘plot’ – I use the word ‘plot’ with some looseness – and which deliberately so come to nothing. This character of the book was picked up by audience members who were questioning him; and whom I tend to think ‘did not get it at all’. A fairly general audience response to this massive fragmentation of stories, their almost anecdotal nature, but without a punch line, and which taper off and die; without them being fully resolved or developed; was that the audience was disappointed and wanted the full stories relating to the threads and fragments; or else was seeking ‘a sequel’ to the novel from the author in which might be developed and rounded-off these multiple strands in it which were somewhat left hanging.
The author said there was to be no sequel.
The questioners I heard from the audience failed to understand the deliberateness of this loose ended many threaded idea; nor did they understand the purpose of its being there in the book. They wanted what one might call an ‘old fashioned’ story where threads come together happily in a resolution of joy and/or sorrow at the close of the work. In this regard I see these questioners as having been expressing a need most of us want in our lives; post-modern deconstructionism etc etc notwithstanding. We want to make sense of our world, our lives; we do not or maybe cannot accept the intellectual position which allows that only shards and flakes of the mirror of life are available to us; and that these necessarily offer us at best only fragments, fragments portraying life, each and all, from different and incongruous angles; angles which are not able to be ‘made sense of’; and maybe, just maybe, shows us occasionally some short ineffable flashes of insight on which hope might be based – perhaps?.
To be more correct about these scant flashes of insight and the author; I believe he was more than half sceptical about their significance, other than as them being a basis for wishful mind constructs to be built upon; their actual metaphysical meaning I believe he would have denied and perhaps was pooh-poohing this metaphysics-making in his book?
He referred once in the interview to ‘grand ideological edifices’ in a negative way, seeming to imply that such things are also follies of the mind alone.
The loose ends and threads I believe were meant to ‘teach’ this lesson of his that human experience is a ragbag of fragmented shards bearing different angles; and from these no Big Picture is plausible. He spoke approvingly of us ‘accepting the limits of our knowledge’ and with assurance that ‘ certain things are (de facto) unknowable by people.’
To be fair he spoke of relationships between people although somewhat confusingly. He spoke of the great blessing/privilege (? can’t recall the exact wording) of being able to come close to another person and of getting some understanding of them. Yet he also put forward that our minds on the whole are very private to each of us as individuals, alone and only. Somehow he did not reconcile (for me) these two apparently conflicting statements of his on human relationships?
Nonetheless, there are certain strands of thought I want to draw out from what he did say; and I want soon to consider whereabouts, which situations, they might lead people to when they follow them.
He spoke of deserts and of their solitariness; of how one gets , or how he himself,got, to know a desert quite closely; and about what goes on in them undetected by visitors to them not yet initiated into their environments. The author told of a certain quirk of wind raising a small but strong vortex of sand and which brought it racing towards him, and of this being a moment of uncanniness; even though since the event he has become well aware of the ‘meteorological’ causes of such phenomena.
Such an experience was for him an example of the necessity for ‘gaps’ in life, when life is looked at more clearly than most of us look at it. That is: in the loose threads and hanging strands way.
Now these ‘gaps’ seemed to me to be gaps in our understandings; but not gaps within which metaphysical propositions might justly be fitted. He avowed himself a ‘materialist who reads a lot of books of religion’. So he’s pretty fast and loose in that he was attempting to mollify, I think, his message that ‘gaps’ are just ‘gaps’; unknowable things in our lives; but unknowable because of our human incapacity rather than as them representing or being UFO type things. I dare say this is where religion stands in his beliefs.
He had been an avid reader of science fiction as a youth. He had a deep interest in UFOs and in Alien sightings; but not per se; but rather as utilities made use of by secretive (military) authorities at outposts and establishments which the authorities want to keep hidden from the common knowledge of the people etc. Conspiracy theory stuff – Authorities encouraging people to believe in UFOs and Aliens so as to take the heat away from what goes on at their own military testing grounds. Just encouraging ‘grand ideological edifices’ of SF that’s all.
So what do we have then? What is here in fact? Well, quite a lot.
James Joyce in his novel ‘Ulysses’in the 1920s was giving sentiments to his protagonist Buck Mulligan which deprecated ‘big words’; and he expressed strongly how he was ‘distrustful’ of them. This is pretty much a prototype for distrusting ‘grand ideological edifices’.
Then there is The Absurdist Movement and after this Post Modernism. The Absurdists claimed that life was not able to be made sense of; that we are all in an absurd world and in an existential quandry. The Post Modernists took the hints from Joyce and from The Absurdists and worked them into their (illogical) conclusions.
An attempt was made by the Post Modernists to deconstruct Western culture; like taking an engine apart to every single piece and then not bothering to put anything back together; saying that it was all a fabrication, a myth, a convenience and a sham. There has been huge destruction and havoc wreaked by such smart-arsed analysts.
The impression the great majority of Post Modern aficionados give when one reads their works, is of each of them as an author attempting to outHerod-Herod by them trumping the convolutions, the divisions and distinctions, and the torture of language of their colleagues and rivals in – what shall I say – in egoist self-preferment. This is not too strong an analysis of mine; it is very measured; indeed so many academic writers write to be someone and do not write to seek comensuration with an actual situation or topic. Reputation. Reputation. Reputation; is all the buzzword.
Indeed nothing new is added by their works; they are only YMCA (Yesterdays Muck Cooked Again) in a different saucepan with a fancy French name for the dish.
I go as far as to say that many, many of their works ought not to have been funded, written, published. At best insidious at worst sheer vainglory.
Of course there are some few exceptions; whose works are truly enlightening; but like in Plato’s Republic no person who is under thirty (for ‘under thirty’ read ‘well read and having deeply digested’) ought to be given them to read. One needs a firm foundation on which to digest their content; a foundation which is not forthcoming in youth; and which is perhaps not very common in age?
The Post Modernist writers began this tearing down of the house we had lived in comfortably and which didn’t need replacing with a Shard or a Gherkin; and which would have served us well for many years. As it has done so for so many years.
But the problem is not one of utility; although for the majority of persons who never make that Firm Foundation I spoke of, perhaps utility value is the most they might benefit from living in the old style building? In this life.
The problem is that there has been a placement on that pedestal which had held our venerated and venerable God and Saviour Jesus Christ; a figure erected which (temporally) has supplanted Him; this being an idol to nihilism for the intellectuals; to consumerism for the plebs (‘plebs’ is not my own perspective – I am a ‘pleb’ in these terms – but this is indeed the perspective of those whose ideals in life are based on nihilism); and to materialism for the scientists. An unholy trinity.
Nihilism is a road which leads always to materialism, hedonism, and worst of all to self-preferment before all else in life. The inevitable end of nihilism is self-centredness sometimes to a point of self-worship. Hence it is truly an antithesis; an unholiness; a sacrilege and an abomination. A sin.
Please see my most recent essay called ‘Anger Despite and Frustration’ where I write in some detail about how a closed self-contained self-referential ideology of materialism cannot be sustained logically nor empirically in our world and to circumscribe our existence.
But this author of the book ‘Gods without Men’ mentions crucially in his interview his understanding of an ancient belief which he says ‘the Ancient gods were thought in Ancient times to grow weaker in power as progressively less and less people believed in them’
I say this is a crucial statement from the author because it throws appropriate light on the title he has chosen for his novel ‘Gods without Men’. Of course under the author’s logic for the Ancients and their gods, God himself without men dwindles to zero power and so in effect ceases to be, or at least ceases to be God, as he is commonly understood to (have been?) be. Of course its merely in fancy dress something like that chestnut about ‘In the beginning man created God’.
St Paul gives the lie to this when he says (rightly in my opinion) that ‘let all men fall away and not believe; yet God remains True because He cannot be otherwise than True’.
This novel of the author’s then, of fragments and loose threads, of unresolved stories, characters, situations, its gaps and its scepticisms about moments of enigma in our lives; is no more than a fruit of harsh taste and of no food value come of the tree of Post Modernist nihilism.
Is it to be the norm in future that we shall have stories made for us which do not resolve themselves except in terms of satisfying the romancings of Post Modernist intellectuals? Stories which lay readers cannot make sense of and grow confused and distraught with in their reading?
Where does this Post Modernism and its nihilism go to? Eventually? For us all; with us all? I think it may well grow another head and so begin to crumble the edifice out of which it was first born: i.e. science and the scientific method. Our Enlightenment has ended in our Outer Darkness. If reason is not able to help us in us making connections of ideas which interpret the world for our sakes (ideologies, Utopias etc) even though these things might themselves be little more than idols themselves in most instances; then ideas about cause and effect, about logical induction and about Laws of nature etc the ideas on which science is based; are also open to corrosion and demolition by the nihilists.
This is especially a possibility in the light of what mainstream science believes about quantum physics and about sub atomic physics right now.
There’s a kind of inverted and inverts romanticism about all this loss of belief concerning reasoning and logic and thinking. Just as the 1890s saw the decadence of literary romanticism in its last throes before Wyndham Lewis and T S Eliot and Ezra Pound flashed onto the scene and broke the old failing mould forever; let us hope that we also are on the cusp of a new and renascent epoch for faith; for belief that God made us; and in his Image; and that thus God himself is reasonable, and so he has made our world and our being likewise reasonable.
“Man does not live by bread alone; but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”