An excerpt from the last chapter of my Forecasts of the Past, ‘Realism in the valley of its saying’. See the Overland launch of the book.
Forecasts of the Past: Globalisation, History, Realism, Utopia
[W]hat travels under the sign of defeat and demoralisation turns out, more often than not, to reveal itself on closer inspection to be an assumed relationship between realism and the notion of the inspirational text. It is customary to conclude studies of various forms – science fiction here as much as realism, metafiction as much as romance – with an appeal to their inspirational qualities, their ability to convince their readership that ‘another world is possible’ or, with all its variations, that ‘now is the hour for all good men to come to the aid of the party’. But do we need to conclude in this manner?
Firstly, and most damagingly, it is a case without any evidence to support its claims. ‘Hardly anyone’, as Raymond Williams dryly observes, ‘becomes a Marxist for primarily cultural or literary reasons, but for compelling political and economic reasons’1. The demand for inspiration, with this insight in mind, starts to feel like a demand much more for wish-fulfilment and comfort than it does for political efficacy. The record of those cultural works that have earned an enduring presence in the workers’ movement adds little to the inspirational case either. The Internationale, The Red Flag, Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Florence Reese’s ‘Which Side are You On?’, Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: the great cultural works of the international workers’ movement demand resilience or insist on political choice and action, but few of them offer inspiration as their primary effect.
Readers in the Space of Realism
It is common at moments like these to use Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ as an aestheticist stick with which to beat inspiration, but ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ can also be read in a way which opens a space for offering some conclusions on realism’s uses that don’t rely on inspiration’s platitudes and vagueness. Contrary to how he is often deployed, Auden’s great poem does not argue for art’s uselessness. Rather,
[…] poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.2
Set in its proper context the line suggests that art creates a certain space of its own from where we can then ‘flow south’. In offering a ‘way of happening’ art in turn allows us to model challenges and ethical problems from the social world in a slightly removed space where this world’s immediate demands will not overwhelm us. ‘The valley of its saying’, on this reading, is what the Althusserians used to call relative autonomy, and suggests to me a way we can view contemporary realist practice. The novels I have studied in these chapters aren’t moments for vague inspiration but are, more productively, models for thought and political action. In an era when strategic and epistemological paralysis – what is globalisation and, within it, what is to be done? – afflict great swathes of the international left, models and thought experiments may offer themselves as the most useful aesthetic experiences of all.
Dougal McNeill. Forecasts of the Past: Globalisation, History, Realism, Utopia (Berne: Peter Lang AG, 2012), pp. 227–229.