Sunday, 28 December 2008

Clever and stupid? Pinter and his intelligence

Minette Marrin's column on 'Pinter and the odd literary law of geniuses with crazy politics' in The Times today raises some interesting points.

Marrin asks why it is that, so frequently, our admired, adored creators – be they artists, musicians or (especially) writers – often espouse extreme, distasteful opinions and causes outside their work.

Pinter's a good example. A brilliant playwright. But his extreme, vitriolic anti-Americanism is rabid and slavering. It is one thing to criticise the invasion of Iraq; another to extrapolate that the governments that sanctioned such an invasion are therefore pseudo-Nazi, evil, as dangerous and malicious as the worst dictatorships.

How – the key question – does a man capable of intelligent, nuanced writing adopt so horrendously reductive and willfully blinkered a worldview?

Marrin puts it thus:
Wondering about Pinter’s dotty political positions, I began to understand an odd natural law of literature: creative writers are often silly political commentators. This is puzzling, because we tend to turn to creative writers for wisdom and understanding of the world. However, it is surprisingly often true that they have nothing sensible to say outside their fiction.
The line she takes in explaining this disparity is that creative intelligence is a very different thing from 'critical, logical analysis' – and that writing may indeed be 'an unintellectual knack that some people have naturally ... but which lots of clever people can't do.'

Agree? Sort of.

She's right about different varieties of intelligence. People may be clever in a great variety of ways. Clever with their hands, their quick witticisms, their numbers, their imaginings ...

But I think she overemphasises this line. It is not convincing to argue that writers such as Pinter simply possess 'the gift for [verbal articulacy]', simultaneously lacking 'critical, logical intelligence'. Yes, these are two different forms of intelligence. And, yes, we shouldn't expect brilliant political thought simply because a man has shown himself capable of brilliant drama and human observation.

But there is nevertheless a link between power of expression and power of analytical thought. Surely this is true. The construction of sentences is itself logical. To call something an 'unconscious knack' is a verbal sleight of the hand. The greatest mathematicians, it may be, are unable to explain how they instinctively see patterns in figures – but their mind does it automatically. A great sportsperson does not think through, calculate and rationalise each movement; his or her instincts simply guide unerringly.

The greatest creators – from craftswomen to poets to dancers to composers – are able to harness their instincts and channel this raw talent.

Indeed, logic and critical analysis are like shovel and trowel alongside the JCB of instinctive intelligence. When we reason something out or construct a logical argument, we find ourselves mired in slow, painstaking work. Intuition, by contrast, is chaotic, penetrating, immensely powerful.

There is no such thing, I submit, as 'logical, analytical intelligence'. Intelligence implies a spark of inspiration and of intuition. Logic and analysis imply deliberate pedestrianism. Which is in no sense to demean these fine tools. How many Egyptian tombs would've been excavated by JCBs?

But those who are gifted in the realm of logic and analysis possess an enviable degree of patience. Of restraint. Of measuredness and orderliness.

And this quality is in marked opposition to the ability to make conceptual leaps. To use the power of instinctive intelligence (the 90% of our brains that deals with unconscious thought) suddenly to surge above the gridlocked city streets of rational thought, into the realm of inspiration, insight, creativity, invention.

I do not seek to argue that rational analysers are incapable of intuitive leaps, or inspired creators incapable of reasoned argument. But there is a pattern discernable in human advances – be they literary, scientific, political – throughout history: inspiration forges ahead; analysis then consolidates. Those that make the leaps are seldom those that carry out the meticulous post-rationalisation. Who fill in the gaps. Thus our 'geniuses' tend either to be chaotic and farseeing or methodically neat and more modest in their scope.

There are, of course, exceptions. Einstein. Shakespeare. Joyce.

But Pinter – to get back to the original subject – is no member of that select party. He is of the chaotic, instinctive school.

We need to think about what it is that drives a person like Pinter to creative greatness.

It is not enough that a great writer should simply possess a brilliant, fluent, distinctive, original writing technique. He/she often also needs the ability singlemindedly, doggedly to pursue an idea or theme – often in spite of criticism, derision, indifference ...

One kind of person that tends to rise to the top in creative spheres is the kind that is very good at establishing an audacious new idea or methodology – often pretty extreme – and sticking to it. Someone with an extraordinary persistence alongside a new way of looking at things. And, frequently, iconoclastic tendencies.

These people burn with the force of their conviction, requiring no other fuel. They are sustained by their grand concept, casting aside objections and hindrances, pursuing always the shimmering ideal.

Is it, then, so remarkable that such people as this be seduced by extreme creeds and dogmas? The pattern of their creative craft is to cede the full force of their intellect to the unquestioning service of their inspiration.

In a realm such as politics, sadly, it is all too often the extreme, the divisive, the aggressive arguments that glimmer most seductively, with a conceptual purity that belies their smallmindedness.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

A la recherce des odeurs perdus ... OR ... Through The Nose Of A Child

Mmmmm. Nice. This one's for you, ladies.

I been away a long time.

The closing words, if memory serves me right, to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest – uttered by a narrator who has finally made his escape from a mental asylum.

(Please do not read too much into this allusion.)


Returning to my parental home for Yuletide, I discovered that I'd been away a long enough time for my bedroom to have been refurbished. Or, more accurately, stripped bare, in preparation for refurbishment.

This discovery affected me relatively little (I suffered, I confess, no great pang of loss. Heartless, non?). Until, that is, the consequential olfactory deprivation struck me.

For numbered amongst the items cast into the abyss (quite reasonably) by my parents was a certain, exhausted deodorant. Possessed of the kind of scent that only a blocked-nosed eskimo might be fooled into considering 'citrussy', it had nevertheless provided a nasal counterpoint to many of the leitmotifs of my teenage years.

My first foray to Birmingham's mighty clubland – bedecked handsomely in two-tone shirt, acrylic black trousers clinging with static to my spindly adolescent legs? It was with me then.

My school's (misguidedly entitled) Leavers' Ball – held, grandly enough, in the school dining hall – at which I found myself exchanging more words (and certainly more lucid words) with my teachers than the hoodlums of my own age? It was with me then.

My first student 'bop', at which 'ironical' youngsters gyrated alarmingly while condensed sweat dripped from the stone ceiling? It was with me then.

I confess that it had become the Intellectual Hooligan's habit, when returning to the parental abode, to avail himself of a surreptitious – yet narcotically intense – nostalgia hit from this venerable item, for which 'body spray' is too cursory a denomination. It was my homecoming.

And now it is lost.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Does [Merry Christmas] Offend You (Yeah)?

I've been reading and commenting upon the latest thought-provoking piece on Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist blog.

(This blog, incidentally, is one of my RSS staples. I'd struggle to identify an RSS subscription which more consistently delivers intelligent, stimulating, original content to my feedreader. By no means do I always agree with Ms Trunk's post (though often I do); I simply always want to know what she's writing about. Win.)

Anyhow, rhapsody aside, the post that caught my attention criticises the pro-Christian bias inherent in making Christmas Day a mandatory holiday. Rightly, in my opinion.

What I want to write about, though, is an issue that arose in the comments beneath the post. And it is this: a good number of people seem to take offence from being wished 'Happy Christmas'.

Is it only me that finds this utterly bizarre?

How can one possibly, genuinely, take powerful exception to another human being demonstrating positive sentiment towards them? If I wish someone a merry Christmas, I certainly do not assume them to be Christian. I do not assume them necessarily even to celebrate Christmas. What the greeting means – to my mind – is:

'This is a time of year at which many people, including myself, celebrate and exchange good wishes. As you are someone whose wellbeing I care about, to whatever degree, I join in the custom and extend my good wishes to you, pegged arbitrarily enough on the fact that it's Christmas.'

Heck, maybe that's what I should say. Christmas cards next year are going to be RSI-inducing.

(Who'm I kidding? The Intellectual Hooligan never gets round to sending Christmas cards.)

Would anyone be offended if a member of a faith other than Christianity were to extend good wishes on the occasion of their own religious festival?

I guess the issue is that, in traditionally Christian-dominated cultures, ubiquitous Christmas wishes may have the effect of intimidating Christmas non-celebrators.

But ought our efforts to be channeled into promoting acceptance of the festivals and customs of all faiths and cultures – rather than taking offence (rather wilfully, it seems to me) at what is surely a positive sentiment?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Comedy Photomashup

The above image, courtesy of The Times blog, prompted an intellectual snort or two of laughter (the original image is from the film Ghost). So I thought I'd share the snorts.

I think – more than anything – it's the look on Blair's face. Fantastic.

Read the full Fantasy Face Swap post on the Times Blog – there are a few more amusing/disturbing mashups. Boris Brown, Hillary Putin ...

Negligence of the highest order

My dear blogprodders, may I apologise profusely for neglecting y'all of late. It's been – by turns – a busy and sickly time for your favourite (dare I presume to be your favourite?) hooligan.

By means of apology, I give you:

The Evil Actifed Guy

PS  The Evil Actifed Guy is the one on the box. Don't pretend you needed me to tell you that.

PPS  Don't spend too long looking at my hand in this image. It's a little like something by MC Escher, in its 'is that physically possible?' quality. Or possibly HR Geiger, in its eerie, tortured hybridity of organic and pseudo-mechanical. Troubling.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Hamlet -- regurgitated

Now, many months back (in the sun-soaked days of June), the Intellectual Hooligan penned a paragraph or ten on the subject of Hamlet. It's a play. You may've heard of it.

The collection of paragraphs was entitled: Shakespeare Hated Hamlet

(Provocative? Me?)

Since then, the kind folk at Bardblog saw fit to include the post in their Shakespeare blog carnival. To them I raise my glass: many thanks.

Last night, I received a lengthy and considered comment on that original post from an individual named Willshill. Read it, if you please ...

... And I started replying to Willshill. Indeed, I notched up a few paragraphs in my initial reply. But – as ever, as ever – I found myself with too much to say.

So this post was born:

… Hamlet – Regurgitated

The story of Hamlet wouldn't have been new to Shakespeare's audience

As a result, they would have had expectations of a play called Hamlet

Specifically, they'd have been expecting a bloodbath. Low on the thinking, high on the gore. Like turning up at the cinema to a popular thriller.

Even more specifically, they'd have had expectations of the Hamlet character himself. They'd have expected him to be a heavyweight. A fighter. A Bruce Willis in Die Hard type chap.

This is because Hamlet fitted into a hackneyed type of character in Elizabethan drama: the Revenger. There was a whole genre of Revenge Tragedies – basically, an excuse for a slaughterfest. Everyone dies at the hands of the bloodthirsty hero.

SO ... audience turn up at Hamlet expecting a thriller. A simple, easy-to-understand, eye-for-an-eye, gaping-flesh-wound type play.

The (amazing, inspired) first line of the play – 'Who's there?' straight away alerts us to the major theme of the play (one of Shakey's faves): identity. Nobody knows who is who.

This extends to the audience themselves. They do not know who is their hero. They are expecting – remember – a macho killer.

(It's easy for us to forget this, because we're so familiar with Hamlet, thanks to centuries of Shakespeare reverence. So Shakespeare's Hamlet is the one conjured up in our minds. But the original audience would have had utterly the opposite preconception.)

When Hamlet does show his colours, in Shakespeare's play, it becomes clear, fairly quickly, that he is not the Revenger the audience has been expecting. He is all talk and thought. He hesitates. He doesn't do anything.

This is a major, major subversion.

Imagine turning up to the latest Saw movie (I've never actually seen any of these, so forgive me a rather vague analogy) and finding that instead of horrific violence, you got some guy who kept rhapsodising about the nature of life and death, and whenever he did kill someone, it was pretty much by accident and almost comical.

This is what Shakespeare was doing. Audience-baiting of the highest degree.

Hence my irreverent turn of phrase: he gave the audience an emo-kid rather than a muscleman.

But where he is brilliant – of course – is in showing us that this is far, far more interesting than the tedious revenge tragedy we were expecting.

Showing us that drama just as powerful may be created without a barbaric, raving lunatic of a lead character.

(Taking Arnold Schwartznegger out of Terminator 2 and replacing him with, oh, I don't know – Jake Gyllenhaall).

I believe, then – to bring this back round to Willshill's thought-provoking comment – that Hamlet is emphatically not a paralyzed person of action. Indeed, the point is (in my reading) that he's not a person of action, full stop. He never has been.

He's not paralysed by indecision, or freudian tension or cowardice or anything; he is simply not that kind of guy.

Because, to be fair, how many of us are?

The audience's gut reaction, perhaps, would be disappointment: Hey! No fair! Where's the blood, the drama, the melodramatic rhetoric? What's all this realism? We came here expecting good, honest, simple blood'n'guts!

But Hamlet's enduring appeal proves: psychological tension and complexity is more interesting. No surprise.

In my original post, then, I wanted to bring it around to the fact that – when Hamlet does finally start acting like the cliched revenger ("Now could I drink hot blood!" he cries – pretty extreme (and pretty unconvincing), from the guy who gave us 'To be or not to be?' an act or two ago, right?) – when Hamlet starts to go into cliche revenge mode – then Shakespeare loses patience with him.

After all, everyone knew how the story of Hamlet ended. And there really did have to be a bloodbath. Old Bill Shakes couldn't avoid it in the end.

But once Hamlet starts acting like a cutout figure (acting, in other words, in the way that a lesser playwright would've made him act throughout the play) – it's at that point that Shakespeare takes away Hamlet's soliloquies. Because he's become two-dimensional. Boring.

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