Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Book of Shadows

These days poet Don Paterson is as well-known as any contemporary poet can hope to be, and I am increasingly subject to that twinge of jealousy you get when a personal "discovery" becomes public property.

One of my favourite books of his is not a book of poetry at all, but his collection of notebook jottings and aphorisms called The Book of Shadows, which I often mine for thought-provoking nuggets when I am at a loose end towards the end of the day. I like aphorisms, they're a very un-British genre. The true masters of the form are nearly all European -- Kafka and Lichtenberg spring to mind. They display a condensed cleverness that is deeply embarrassing to the Anglo-Saxon psyche. Paterson is a Scot, of course, which may help.

I was recently struck by this observation of his:

"If only poets and novelists could be translated into musicianhood, even for a few seconds; then we'd see the vast majority, after only a few notes, revealed as a bunch of desperate scrapers and parpers without a tune in their heads or the rudiments of technique. God, the time we would save..."

Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows

How true that is, and how strange that it should be so -- that competence in music should be instantly apparent, whereas incompetence in writing can go undetected for years. In wondering about its more general applicability -- say, to photography -- I realised that this aper├žu reveals Don Paterson as a believer in the Real Thing. An essentialist, no less.

I suspect he has not made allowance for the contemporary aesthetic of self-maimed art, of work that is afraid of its own authority, that is intentionally less than competent. Not so much "so bad it's good" as embarrassed by its own self-belief. Quite often, these days, a superficial competence is a marker of kitsch, not art. Even, I'm sorry to say, in music.

It's a strange world we have invented for ourselves, where the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Now where have I heard that before?


Kent Wiley said...

Your mention of "the Real Thing" brings to mind a well written, longish piece by Paul Schrader which appeared in "Film Comment" in 2006, titled "The Film Canon". You can find it here. Schrader defines the historical reasons for the demise of artistic canons, then proceeds to define the seven qualities that can be used to rebuild a Post Modern, Postart canon. He explains how Beauty, Strangeness, Unity of form and subject matter, Tradition, Repeatability, Viewer Engagement, and Morality should be our guides. He comments towards the end of the essay, that "There is no equal-opportunity canon."

Mike C. said...

Thanks for that, Kent, looks like an interesting read -- I'll return to it when the late December time-squeeze has relaxed its grip on my throat... That's certainly a thought-provoking set of categories, though.


Kent Wiley said...

Don't be put off by the film centric nature of the essay. I think it could easily be expanded outwards to photography and even literature. While long for casual web perusal, I found it to be a very helpful analysis of how we got where we are today.