What is Literature?

[This was first delivered as a lecture to the Creative Writing MA students at Birkbeck on 5th May 2015. As preparation for this, the students were asked to look at Keston Sutherland’s reading of HOT WHITE ANDY on YouTube.]


When I choose a subject to talk about, in this summer lecture, I try to find something that gets missed, in the rest of the syllabus. Last year, for example, I talked about ‘Swing’ – a quality, learned from jazz, that some writing uses to delight and make meaning, and other writing entirely lacks.


Before that, I’ve talked about ‘Sympathy’ or ‘Sympathetic Central Characters and the Dark Art (Mastered By J.K.Rowling) Of Creating Them,’ ‘Souls’ or ‘Why D.H.Lawrence Might Have Been Onto Something’, ‘Sentences’ or ‘Semi-Colons Aren’t All Bad’, ‘Sensibility’ or ‘Why You Should Examine Your Unique Personal Relation to Time’ and ‘Minimalism’ or ‘Why the Author Known as Raymond Carver Should Henceforth Be Known as Raymond Carver as Produced By Gordon Lish’.


You’ll notice that all but one of these had titles beginning with an ‘S’. I’m not sure why I like to arrange things like that, I just do. For what I’m going to talk about today, I mainly considered ‘Sport’, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about and writing about recently. I may go into it next year – the idea that writers might have something important to learn from sports people, even though sports people can seem frustratingly opaque, not to say dumb, much of the time.


For today, though, I decided that I would try to approach what you might call the Big Question: What is it, in writing, we’re doing? What are we trying to do? What are we attempting to make?


Early on, and thinking about breaking with the ‘S’ titles, I wondered whether there wasn’t something to be got out of taking a really old-fashioned sounding concept: Posterity.


Posterity, which always seems to be welcoming a feeble Shakespearean or Beckettian pun on fundaments, on bums.


Posterity was what writers used to bear in mind when deciding their subjects and phrases: ‘What will Posterity’ – as if it were a person ‘What will Posterity make of this?’


I may be wrong, but my sense is that it was the Eighteenth Century that was most concerned with the idea of What Will Last. The verbal artists of the Eighteenth Century – Swift, Dryden, Pope – were engaged in a neo-classical project. In order to see what would last in future, they looked back to see what had lasted from the distant past. They wrote in classical forms that we have abandoned – the pastoral, for example (which of you has considered writing a dialogue between A Shepherd and His Love?) [None of the students raised their hands]; they translated Homer and Virgil; they hyped up classical values of balance, regularity, good sense. It’s easy for us to mock this or take it apart. They weren’t historicizing literary greatness, they were in quest of Eternal Values.


I have quite often, in teaching, used Dryden as an example. How many of you here have read any Dryden? [Two of the students raised their hands. Or perhaps one was just scratching their nose.] How many of you have read Dryden since studying him at University? [One student moved their hand slightly.]


Yet Dryden is, by most estimations, a major English poet – technically impeccable, the writer of the only great opera libretto in English before Auden.


But, and probably quite rightly, you feel he’s a waste of time, because he has nothing useful to teach you – certainly not as much as you can get from Raymond Carver, or Raymond Carver as Produced by Gordon Lish.


As an example, though, Dryden is extremely useful because – for his time – he was the equivalent of Carver. What he did was What Writing Was. The things that, to us, seem extremely and sometimes wearyingly artificial – all those rhyming couplets, all that chiseled eloquence and silken elegance – that was How It Should Be Done. Partly, it was this because it was an attempt – as Milton had been – to write English as if it were Latin. Latin is a language that enforces accuracy. You can’t speak it without saying exactly what is doing what to what, and when. Dryden didn’t go as far as Milton in warping his syntax, he was more accommodating of the grain of English, but he did want a language that had been purified, perhaps even petrified, by its encounter with the scald of Latin.


Why write a pure language? Because, quite simply, it is more likely to last. One of the main reasons the Eighteenth Century writers were so concerned with Posterity was that they could see Chaucer and Shakespeare becoming less and less comprehensible. Dr Johnson was, quite frankly, terrified of this. It spoke of degeneration. Why was language becoming ruinous? Was it possible that, in a few hundred years, our strongest poets would be as comprehensible to native speakers as were Hindoos or apes? If the living language could, in some way, be regularized, made logical, kept still, then the future would be more likely to understand it. A big dictionary would help. As would a regularized edition of Shakespeare’s plays.


As the example of Dryden, and our current non-reading of him, shows, this effort was clearly misguided. But it’s not an effort, I’d say, that has gone away – you probably encounter a version of it yourself, when and if you make a word-choice that errs away from the achingly modish. For example, you avoid those words that – each year – are featured in the news as having made their debut in the Oxford English Dictionary. For 2014 these included ‘side boob’, ‘mansplain’, ‘clickbait’ and ‘amazeballs’. Such words will timestamp your prose just as certainly as ‘McJob’, ‘Sloane Ranger’, ‘wally’ and ‘Yuppie’ did for the 1980s.


There is also, I’d say, a predisposition – in the international book market – for the most successful novels to be easily translatable and therefore written in an open access style. The most successful books are already part-translated. That is, a writer such as Haruki Murakami writes (as far as I have been able to tell, not reading Japanese) in a style highly influenced by the clarity and directness (though not the freewheeling slanginess) of American detective fiction and by more recent American minimalism. He’s culturally international. He travels several thousand miles across the Pacific, even before the work of translation begins.


It is far easier to translate clear, classical writing than gnarly, slangy, defiantly local writing. This is why Dostoievsky travels worse than Chekhov, and why Camus is always going to impress us more than Celine. This is why someone looking to translate, say, Trainspotting into Finnish is going to have to find a lot of equivalents that carry a whole lot of their own, uniquely Finnish cultural implication. W.H. Auden called Dryden ‘the master of the Middle Style’. There is a middle ground language. ‘Moon’ and ‘spaghetti’ and ‘jazz’ and ‘sad’ are going to come across fairly directly. ‘Radge’ or ‘skag’ or ‘lash’ or ‘doss’ will suffer – not to mention the almost infinite nuances of hate, envy, ridicule, and fondness in ‘cunt’.


This is one way in which Dryden is useful as an example. But there’s another, and it’s also another in which Raymond Carver comes up. It’s very easy to believe that we, as a generation, see things more clearly than they did in the past. But what Dryden shows is that, each generation also has particular blindspots and that – could it be more obvious? – they find those blindspots almost impossible to spot.


Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of criticism for his definition of ‘unknown unknowns’ – and I’d criticize him for almost everything else he ever did or said – but in this case, he was accurate. Blindspots aren’t ‘known unknowns’, they are ‘unknown unknowns’.


If this is the case, you may say, then why not just accept that we’re not going – ever – to be able to see what we’re not seeing, so why don’t we just focus on what is most centrally there – whether that is wallies and Sloane Rangers, or nimbies and metrosexuals, or blisters or whatever.


But, and this is where I’m going to get back to the title – this is where Literature comes in. Because you are able, through intense engagement with the books of the past, through going back and looking at them in their original form – you are able to get a very close look at both the obsessions and the blindspots of previous generations of artists. Qualities pass in and out of literary fashion. And it’s possible for us to get a sense of where our blindspots may be by examining closely the things they talked about a lot in the past but which we never seem to mention.


It may be that some of these things – say, the Pastoral, Shepherd and His Love form – go away for reasons that are easy to historicize (our almost total cultural divorce from the seasons, the land; the industrialization of farming; a less sentimental or patronizing view of agricultural labour). But other forms, I would bet, will make unexpected resurgences, and may even become central again. They may go from Not Worth Doing to What The Thing Is.


In Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time quartet, he imagines a future – strangely like the decadent, Yellow Book world of the 1890s – in which humans have solved all problems of scarcity, and so dedicate themselves to a kind of mad soap opera of identity-swapping, hermaphrodite pleasure-seeking. Within such a culture, or something close to it, wouldn’t a return to the Pastoral be entirely appropriate? As appropriate, say, as our current obsession with Apocalypses, Zombies, Superheroes and Victims?


Before I move on, I need to put this very directly: When you’re writing your next Show Don’t Tell Epiphany short story, be aware that it’s 100% certain you’re doing something as culturally limited as Dryden was when he wrote elegant good sense in rhyming couplets. And if you write in an already part-translated middle style, you are only performing our version of the classical, not guaranteeing that you’ll be comprehensible – and certainly not guaranteeing that you’ll be interesting – to a reader as distant from us, in time and culture, as we are from Dryden.


So, Literature.


I feel I am, in some ways, uniquely qualified to address this subject (sorry if that sounds immodest – hang on one minute) because, from an earlier age than most, I was aware of Literature. Capital L.


The question I am most often asked, after readings, is whether my name is real.


For a writer, mine is an aptonym. Like Bolt for a sprinter, Blizzard for a meteorologist, D’eath for an embalmer.


When I am asked the Is It A Real Name question, I say that if someone doesn’t believe my name is real, they can ask my father, David Litt. (His name is even more apt, but for a Professor in a university English department: he missed the chance to be D. Litt, D. Litt.)


One of the taunts that came my way at secondary school – by which time it was clear that I liked books – was ‘Toby Literature’.


It’s painfully direct: Toby Litt – to be literature.


I may, I acknowledge, have internalized this in some early, psychologically warping way. If I was to be anything, if I was to live up to my name, then I had to do what it demanded of me. I had to be Literature.


And what, then, is the Literature I had to be?


I am not going to dodge this question, but will give a very direct answer and offer a very clear example. The answer will come partly through engagement with ideas about Marxism, and the example will be Keston Sutherland, a Marxist writer.


Whether or not you think there is any value in Marxist ideology – and I won’t hide that I think there is – you need to listen to the next bit quite closely, because everything that follows depends upon it.


The French philosopher Alain Badiou is a Marxist, more accurately he is a Maoist. He believes that society, as it exists, is based upon property relations and therefore power relations that are excruciatingly unjust. He believes this can and should be changed, though collective revolutionary action. He has written extremely intricate works of philosophy to expand on his concept of the Event. The most important of these is Being and Event – a title that takes on, and maybe has a patricidal relationship to, Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Badiou is not modest; he wants to occupy a central position in philosophy, and to displace others. A lot of working philosophers would agree that he has achieved this centrality and that, whether you think he is close to the truth or not, his is a point of view to be reckoned with.


Badiou also writes more approachable works – ones that are engaged in contemporary debates and respond to ongoing events. Among these are The Rebirth of History, Philosophy for Militants, The Communist Hypothesis. A condensation of some of the ideas from The Communist Hypothesis – some of his populist ideas about the Event – was given, at Birkbeck, as part of a conference that took place in March 2009. And an essay, ‘The Idea of Communism’ was published in a collection of papers, from the conference, of the same title.


Before I borrow Badiou’s shorthand definition of Event, and apply it to Literature, I am going to suggest a few definitions of my own – ones with which Badiou would disagree, but which show the clearing where we’re going to end up, after we have entered the philosophical forest.


I’m still writing and rewriting this – some drafts are:


Literature is the attempt of something that knows it cannot be alive to be alive.




Literature is the pathetic attempt of something that knows itself dead to convince itself, by convincing others, that it is alive.




Literature is the attempt of something dead to be alive.


Alive meaning, capable not only of change, growth, but of engendering further and different life.


In a sense that I hope will soon become clear:


Literature is eventful.


Over to Alain Badiou:


‘I call an “event” a rupture in the normal order of bodies and languages as it exists for any particular situation (if you refer to Being and Event [1988] or Manifesto for Philosophy [1989] ) or as it appears in any particular world (if you refer instead to Logics of Worlds [2006] or the Second Manifesto for Philosophy [2009]). What is important to note here is that an event is not the realization of a possibility that resides within the situation nor is it dependent on the transcendental laws of the world. An event is the creation of new possibilities. It is located not merely at the level of objective possibilities but at the level of the possibility of possibilities… Another way of putting this is: with respect to a situation or a world, an event paves the way for the possibility of what – from the limited perspective of the make-up of this situation of the legality of this world – is strictly impossible… We might also say that an event is the occurrence of the real as its own future possibility.’


[Alain Badiou, ‘The Idea of Communism’, The Idea of Communism, Verso, p6-7]


I probably need to make clear here that my idea of what counts as Literature is quite restrictive. It’s influenced, I’ll admit, by both Modernism and Romanticism. Literature isn’t simply Books That Have Lasted. There are many Books That Have Lasted that were never events, they were simply popular and beloved. For me, and particularly me as the writer Toby Litt, who was formed by wanting to live up to his name – for me, Literature is only Books That Are Events.


‘An event,’ says Badiou, ‘is located not merely at the level of objective possibilities but at the level of the possibility of possibilities…’


When I first read this, I was amazed that I had never heard the quality expressed so exactly. Not possibilities but the possibility of possibilities. In other words, not merely what can be extrapolated from what has already been achieved, but what leaps off away from it into a previously unknown unknown.


And yet, Badiou’s is not, in itself, a new idea. Here is a similarly astonishing piece of writing from the year 1821.


‘All things exist as they are perceived; at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.’


And here is how Percy Bysshe Shelley concludes his Defence of Poetry – in a passage that has often been ridiculed as ludicrous, deluded, but which, looked at through Badiou’s definition of event, seems to me a statement of great force and truth:


‘Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moved. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’


Shelley, too, was a radical – not a Communist; that would have involved time travel. But a believer in the radical transformation of human society, partly through the intervention of the inhuman or non-human.


In pushing his language as far as it could go, Shelley dared the word ‘legislators’ – and that caused many of the intellectual objections to his argument. The debate goes on, and is a central one for you. You are writers. What, as I asked at the beginning, are you doing? What are you hoping to do? W.H.Auden, a self-conscious anti-Romantic, fighting strong Romantic urges in himself, put it as blankly as ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. But I think that a reading of Shelley’s ‘legislators’, back through Badiou – whom I am certain he has influenced – will show it to be an entirely accurate word choice. Shelley is not talking about the Thou Shalt Nots of Acts of Parliament – he doesn’t mean the speed limit on the motorway – these laws are not what poets, unacknowledged, write. Instead, in a Badiouian way, poets – through writing eventful works – create the new conditions of possibility, or the conditions of new possibilities. Things are only legitimate (only subject to laws) if they are conceivable; if they are inconceivable they remain unknown unknowns, blindspots.


Shelley’s other word choice, ‘unacknowledged’ also – it seems to me – ties in with, and is almost defined by, Badiou’s statement that ‘an event is not the realization of a possibility that resides within the situation nor is it dependent on the transcendental laws of the world’. To be a conventional, that is an acknowledged, legislator, one would obviously be realizing possibilities that lie within the situation. We have cars; they can go more than 70 miles an hour; the human beings who drive cars are fallible; motorway accidents that take place at below 70 miles an hour are this much less likely to be fatal than those above 70 miles an hour; the same holds true for 60 and 50 miles an hour, but human beings are also impatient to get where they’re going, and to ignore a law that makes them too impatient; therefore, we can legislate; therefore, we can have a speed limit.


The word, the verb buried within ‘acknowledged’ is know, just as the verb within ‘legislators’ is is. Poets are unacknowledged not in the trivial sense that, during their lifetimes, they are not sufficiently read or reviewed or publicly venerated. Poets are un-ac-know-ledged because, at the moment they are writing, writing Literature, writing eventfully, they are not within the realm of knowledge.


Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’


Robert Lowell, making the worst confession of guilt a poet might make, said, ‘My eyes have seen what my hand did.’


Acknowledged knowledge is possibilities, horizons, gaps in the market, opportunities to expand, not the bringing to being of the possibility of possibilities. My understanding of Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged’ – which I’m going to try to clarify by reference to the painter Francis Bacon – is beyond the realm of knowledge: unknown to themselves, unknown to the world.


Perhaps instead of being worldly, Shelleyan Poets enter what one mystical writer of the Middle Ages (whose name is beautifully unknown) called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’.


And this raises the question, embarrassing and not easily answered, certainly not within a Marxist context, of where the new knowledge, the new possibilities come from. The Romantics had whole theories of Inspiration, which have been debased and discredited, because these theories related to possibilities of possibilities, not to what was already legitimate. Yet inspiration of some sort seems necessary, because without that ‘in’ – without that being taken possession of by what is outside – then this whole construction will collapse.


Briefly, it seems to me that the outside is what we are always already within – language. And that language is capable of saying many things we are not yet capable of saying. And it is only by pushing language to extremes that this new-saying will take place.


I hope you can begin to see my argument coming together. And I also hope that you can begin to use my definition of Literature – as a way to define yourself as a writer, probably to define yourself against. My definition makes writing a perpetual attempt at the impossible, taking place within an absolute lack of certainty.


As Henry James put it in the mouths of one of his writer-characters, ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’ (‘We work in the dark’ – imagine a craftsperson working in the dark.)


Literature is, in the very best sense, unreasonable.




Before getting to Keston Sutherland’s HOT WHITE ANDY, I’d like to go briefly to David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon (reprinted as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon.) It can be a dangerous thing for artists to take analogies from other artforms, but I think Bacon articulated his practice – or less artspeakfully, he spoke about how he did what he did – in a uniquely honest way. He was one of a doubtful generation, that of the post-War, that of the immediately post-Auschwitz. There are definite commonalities between how Bacon painted, and what Bacon thought painting was, and Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin. And, looking outside London, with Picasso, Alberto Giacommetti, Jackson Pollock. They all had a working relationship with accident, with the possibility of possibilities that was granted them by their engagement with the physical stuff of oil paint.


Here is one section from the first interview:


FB   You know in my case all painting – and the older I get, the more it becomes so – is accident. So I foresee it in my mind, I foresee it, and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I use very large brushes, and in the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity.


[p16-17, David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1962-1979, Thames and Hudson, 1985. Some parts can be listened to or watched online.]


For Bacon, the overly controlled mark, the acknowledged mark, was merely illustration – and illustration, because it was consciously intended, because it was already legitimate, could not create the possibility of possibilities. Illustration is incapable of being an event. That is why it fails to affect the viewer as viscerally. Bacon wants to ‘return us to the fact more violently’. The fact being Being – the fact being, among other things, what is in front of us that we don’t see. For Bacon, art is the attempt to paint blindspots.


DS   Could you try and define the difference between an illustrational and a non-illustrational form?


FB   Well, I think that the difference is that an illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.


[p56, David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1962-1979, Thames and Hudson, 1985]


Just, in your mind, glance ahead to Sutherland’s HOT WHITE ANDY. Doesn’t that, too, work first upon sensation and then slowly leak back into the fact? Isn’t it – whatever else you might think it – isn’t it defiantly non-illustrational?


As it appears in Interviews with Francis Bacon.

As it appears in Interviews with Francis Bacon.


Here, I think, is Bacon’s most important statement on art:


FB   Well, if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyze it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of facts is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks. And you can’t will this non-rationality of a mark. That is the reason that accident always has to enter into this activity, because the moment you know what to do, you’re making just another form of illustration.


[p58, David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1962-1979, Thames and Hudson, 1985]


He continues from this, and all he says is worth attending to, but for my purposes I’ll break him off here.


Beneath what I’ve been saying is a distinction I haven’t yet made, but which Bacon has approached – and that’s the distinction between, in books, in stories, illustrational and non-illustrational writing. Or, to put it another way, between Entertainment and Art. This is not a simple distinction to make. What, in one age, is taken to be straightforward entertainment can – later on – be recapitulated or maybe simply recognised as Art. Some Art enters the world disguised as Entertainment and much Entertainment masquerades for as long as possible as Art.


We have emerged into a clearing – the light here is making distinctions obvious.


I’d like to try a little experiment with you. It’ll take a while, but I think it will be worth it. Everyone in this room is going to stand up, twice; everyone is going to speak, twice.


[You may do this at home, on your own, out loud, to your screen – it’ll still be worthwhile. Stand up. Speak as you feel like speaking. Better, though, would be to try it out with a group of friends. You’re hearing these words come out of you, in your voice, as public statements.]


First, I would like each of you to stand up, look at your peers, and as confidently as you can say:


‘I write stories and I hope you enjoy them.’


Now, I would like each of you to stand up and say, looking at your peers, as confidently as possible:


‘I am an artist and I am going to change the world.’


Think about how you felt as you said each of those things. Which statement did you feel most at home with? Which shamed or embarrassed you on the deepest level? Which terrified you? Think about it later, in a year, or ten years.


Think about how you said each of those things. Did you mumble one? Did you mock yourself as you did it? Did you emphasize irony, try to get a laugh? Did you state it as a simple matter of fact?


Entertainment or Art? Illustration or Non-Illustration? Possibilities or the Possibility of Possibilities?


This is the stage of the argument where Theodor Adorno is usually brought in. And if this concerns you, this area of fissure, you should read him. But all I need from him, for the moment, is to mention ‘the culture industry’ – because it comes up a little later. ‘The culture industry’ is based on illustration but also co-opts non-illustration. For Adorno, nothing escapes co-option.


Possibilities or the Possibility of Possibilities.


The sensible decision, for you as a writer, is to do what you think you can do. Entertainment is what people want – artworks they are already equipped to appreciate and enjoy. The well-made literary novel is this, just as is the technothriller, the zombie apocalypse. It will – if it is successful – give great pleasure to your contemporaries, just as Dryden’s verse gave to his. And your contemporaries are the only people you’ll ever have to live with. Posterity will not come to your house for dinner, and you won’t need to go to Posterity to ask for time off from your day job in order to write. Posterity – which depends on basic literacy, which depends on the ability to concentrate for extended periods on black and white text rather than colourful, moving screen pictures, which depends on a meaningful culture – Posterity may not last all that much longer. The sensible decision is to write the writable book, and not attempt to do the impossible thing.


But, Keston Sutherland.


It is obvious to me that Sutherland is not saying ‘I write stories and I hope you enjoy them’ and that he is more than prepared to say ‘I am an artist and I am going to change the world’.


One of the points of the Birkbeck educational experience is obviously to make you feel that Birkbeck is the centre of the intellectual universe, and that everything important that happens happens here.


Not coincidentally, then, the statement that I’m about to read was made by Keston Sutherland at the Militant Politics and Poetics Conference in London, in May 2013 – a conference that took place, like the one Alain Badiou attended, at Birkbeck.

History is at a different stage for Sutherland than it was for Shelley. He is speaking here, I believe, to the same subject – poetry and legislation. What Can Be Changed, and How Can It Be Changed, and Can Poetry Change It? Sutherland, as I said earlier, is a Marxist poet – and he exists within a high Capitalist culture that profoundly unnerves and disgusts him. He has seen it endure long beyond what once seemed credible. He has, within his lifetime, which is also your and my lifetime, seen it claim triumphant ascendancy over all other possible forms of social existence.


For those of a nervous disposition, we are about to leave the clearing and re-enter the thickety forest of philosophy.


‘Point 3.


‘Hegel, in the chapter on “Culture” in the Phenomenology of Spirit, describes it as the unfortunate destiny of what he calls “the unhappy consciousness” – and he means by “the unhappy consciousness”, that consciousness which can never reconcile itself with its involvement in state power but must remain for ever on the fringes of institutions, on the fringes of states, and in obdurate and inflexible opposition to them – he describes it as the destiny of that form of consciousness that it lives forever at what he describes as the so-called “point of revolt”; in other words, the unhappy consciousness is permanently, intractably restless, and occupies forever this point of revolt – as he describes it; but that point of revolt, I think, is conceptually and historically and in living psychological and emotional experience in need of serious illumination through poetry. First of all, the word point, I think, is powerful but might also be in some measure misleading. I think the point of revolt is massively temporally extensive. We have been living at the point of revolt for a really fucking long time, some of us, at least; depending upon how old we are, and when we started caring about these things. But to feel permanently and absolutely obdurately opposed to the forms in which power is now exercised under Capital, and exploitation is perpetuated, is a very trying and difficult experience – or can be. I think first of all that needs to be acknowledged and secondly, I think, poetry needs to be able to inhabit the full unfolding and temporal extension of this “point of revolt”. I say the word point is also, conceptually, a powerful name – rather than simply the wrong name for this existence – it’s temporally extended but nonetheless it always feels, again and again, like the same point being yet again reasserted, yet again reproduced. ‘Here we are, yet again, at the very brink, the very point. Now we must act. Surely we can’t go on any longer after this fucking mess,’ whatever it might be. So it is a point but it is a point which is endlessly reproduced and temporally stretched out and extended, not a stage, then, in the unfolding of consciousness, as Hegel tried to represent it, not merely a punctum, but something that can potentially stretch to the entire extent of our existences. I think the subject must, in turn, exert itself such that it is itself at full stretch so that it can somehow endure the temporal extension of the point of revolt. (This is something, incidentally, which I think Danny Hayward described brilliantly in The Journal of Innovative British Poetry.) So, how to endure, persist; how to carry each other on; how to bear with the continuity of exploitation. Not just, then, aggressive explosions; not just cataclysms; not just the heady thrill-seeking of the exploited punctual moment but how can poetry, technically and psychologically and intellectually, fashion its own means of stamina and remain in an intimate permanent interrogation with all of the real material forms of constraint which lock us up in that point.’


For Sutherland, as you can see, at least in his illustrational theory, there is no great hope of individual inspiration. For Sutherland, there appears to be nowhere, no outside, from which this might come. He is self-historicizing, and does not pretend (in the sense of aspire to the throne of) – he does not pretend to be able to elude or escape history. If the historical period of Capitalism is to be escaped, it must be escaped within society as a whole, and collectively.


What, then, can poetry do? Keston Sutherland wrote a Statement for the conference Revolution And/Or Poetry in October 2013. Point IV was a clear definition of the do-able:


‘A poetry that tried energetically to occupy the commons of sensation and desire might aim at least to interrogate, and sometimes, where it can do so to true communist purpose, to defy, every form and instance of deadening proscription and disallowance that would confine it to the use of compulsory or approved techniques, compulsory or approved trivialisations of technique, compulsory or approved evacuations of technique, and their common use value. The legal advice that you can’t do x, y, or z any more (rhyme, use your own voice, write about experience, etc.) because art history has long since advanced beyond them (out the alphabet and by means of upward mobility into space) is thoroughly harmonious with the spirit of capital and with the mentality of its career-savvy managers, who are likewise corporately on the lifelong lookout for efficiencies in best poetic practice. Poetry can be theoretical, musical, conceptual, nonsensical, clamorous, abstract, tender, rageful, confessional, formally complex, suspicious of pronouns and determined to risk their use, erotic, satirical, timid, rational and delirious all at once, not because it is an ideal plateau of already free and unenclosed expression, or a virtual world beyond the impediments, suffering and division of labour in which we get our reward by entering into the joy of possessive freedom, but because it is a perpetual exertion of imagination and of desire: the subject at full stretch.’




I hope you’ve read it, and watched Sutherland’s magnificent, theoretical, musical, conceptual, nonsensical, clamorous etcetera reading of it.

First, I will simply state that – of all the writing I’ve read in the last five years – Keston Sutherland’s seems to me the most likely to be seen, by the future, by Posterity, as Literature. Because, and this is far more important, right at this moment it seems, with the greatest amount of energy, to create the possibility of possibilities. Because, as I asked you to glance ahead to the point we’ve just reached, it is non-illustrational, because it pushes language to try to say what it hasn’t said before. And it does this more than anything by Haruki Murakami or any Show Don’t Tell Ephiphany story. And one of the strongest reasons I believe this is because, in a good way, it seems unreasonable and incoherent. It puts me, as a reader, in a cloud of unknowing – because my capacity for right judgement has been called into question.


‘Lavrov and the Stock Wizard levitate over to

the blackened dogmatic catwalk and you eat them.’


It’s a bit silly – sometimes it seems bad, adolescent. I don’t, in the most basic sense, know How To Take This. And yet, because of my literary education, I do. I can put HOT WHITE ANDY into a Modernist art-lineage that prominently includes T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, and I can remember what I’ve learned about the reception of that poem: the lines read aloud, though a megaphone, by Anthony Blanche, to annoy the hearties in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; and this section (page 57) from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden where the influence of one of his contemporaries, Tom Driberg, is recounted: ‘During [the summer term of 1926], he showed Auden a back number of the Criterion dating from 1922, which contained The Waste Land. The two of them read the poem together – “read it, at first,” recalled Driberg, “with incredulous hilarity (the Mrs Porter bit, for instance); read it, again and again, with growing awe.”


But Modernism isn’t a lineage within which Sutherland would be at all happy to be contained. He does not want to write an inaccessible poetry, for the elite, for the privileged. He wants, I am sure, to be YouTubed just as much as to be small pressed, and far more than to be academically studied. His argument, I believe, is that so-called difficult poetry is not beyond the understanding of so-called common readers, it’s that – through a complex ideological nexus – difficult poetry is kept away from common reader, and the common reader is kept away from difficult poetry, because the common reader would understand it only too well.


I am aware that Sutherland, quite likely, would disagree with some of the presumptions underlying my definition of Literature. Perhaps he would, even in its mutated form, dislike the hierarchical implications of that word. It’s a debateable quality.


Similarly, and as a necessarily brief aside, I think there is a real question over the relationship between the creation of the possibility of possibilities and Cultural Imperialism. This is something to be engaged with ‘if we want,’ as Jon Marshall put it in a recent issue of The Wire, ‘experimental music’ – and I think we can substitute writing that aspires to be Literature – ‘to be more than research for the culture industry’.


In this, Sutherland is perhaps closer to Bacon than to Shelley, or to me, in demanding that art returns the viewer more violently to the fact. My mutation of this is that ‘the fact’ is the fact that the viewer lives in a legislated world, where they are denied the possibility of possibilities.


‘Lavrov and the Stock Wizard’ – one of the easier ways Sutherland has started to be assimilated into ‘growing awe’, rather than remaining in ‘incredulous hilarity’ is that he is one of the first post-search engine poets. The Waste Land, as all undergraduates know, and writers fifteen years ago were meant to get excited about, is hypertextual; it includes footnotes, and the reading of it sends you (as does David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) on a head-turning, tennis-like back and forth from the front of the book to the back, from line to note, line to note. Sutherland doesn’t bother to footnote ‘the Stock Wizard’ because he knows that the hypertext is out there for us to find, through Google or Wikipedia or whatever comes after them. Things can go past faster, now – if we want to slow them down, we can.


I’m not going to do a close reading of any part of HOT WHITE ANDY. I want you to take the poem as a whole, and what it stands for – in relation to verbal art – as a whole. It’s a test case.


Instead, let’s start to conclude by saying some dumb things, because dumb thing are always useful to get out of the way. Sutherland’s poems are full of words I don’t understand unless I Google them. Some of them are in foreign languages I don’t know; some are technical words, some are abbreviations or acronyms; some are words in unorthodox orders or fragmented, interrupted words; some are words that I understand separately but, when they are jammed together or piled up into multiple vehicle car-crashes, I don’t properly see how they work; almost no words, which I think is worth saying, are either entirely Sutherland’s invention or portmanteau words, coinages, neologisms. [Afterwards, a student pointed out at least one word that doesn’t appear elsewhere – ‘phlegmophrenic’. Perhaps there are more.] However strange or extreme his language may appear, on first viewing, it is more the given language of the world than it is a private or eccentric language. We may find HOT WHITE ANDY obscure, but it’s not Finnegans Wake or the later poetry of Paul Celan . I have probably forgotten some category of words that the poem includes, perhaps entirely normal words used in a way that seems to drive them until their normal meaning can’t keep up – for example ‘hot’ and ‘white’ and ‘beige’.


Okay, this is where we’ve got. And a question has been begged. Why? Why is any of this complexity necessary? In the words of an interviewer (Hans Keller) to Pink Floyd, ‘Why has it all got to be so terribly loud?’


I will give you Sutherland’s direct answer, but first I will quote what I take to be his sideswipe at poetries he despises:


‘Retrogression beyond this is just dada to a brick wall,

heartsquirt and neoplatonic drivel about the origin.’


I don’t have time to pick this apart, but if you look closely you’ll find a condensed history of poetry going back through the experimental twentieth century (‘dada’), to self-expressive Romanticism (‘heartsquirt’) to neoclassicism (‘the origin’).


Sutherland’s answer to Why Has It All Got To Be So Terribly? was given in an interview with Natalie Ferris of the magazine The White Review. She asked:


‘One critic noted that you represent ‘what the future of British verse should look like’. What do you think the future of British verse could look like?’


Keston Sutherland replied:


‘I deeply hope that I don’t know. I want it to be inconceivably astonishing to me. I want to encounter it as the most threatening and primitive freshness, I want to be so comprehensively confused by it that it takes me forever to learn to live with it and to reconcile the world that I already know with whatever this poetry is and does… I suppose, to be honest, that is my ambition as a writer for the future of my own poetry. I hope that the future of verse in this country, and everywhere, will be a future of more and more resolute, more passionately principled and more ardently dedicated confrontations with the injustices and machinery of capital, and that its interrogation of the structures of capital in living experience will be conducted more and more thoroughly, vibrantly and vitally. But I suspect that what will continue to happen, for a long time at least, is that lots of anxious and conservatively rather than radically narcissistic poets will go on writing verse which, with more or less justification, is meant to encapsulate and preserve in the aspic of sentimental memory and sensation the trivia of working-week-life and their surface profundities, poems that may only distantly touch upon the complexity of social relations, and then with a defensive, pretty archness. Or the audience will go on uncritically accepting that poetry is and ought to be in this way a modest and circumscribed art and, in its end, a comfortingly politically inert and ineffective one, from which the best we can hope for is lukewarm consolation.


‘I hope not. I hope not. I hope that, in Britain and everywhere else, amongst people who care about poetry, we might be persuaded, sooner or later, that there is no part, or detail, or potential of experience which cannot be radically addressed and transformed through the sheer delirious and euphoric momentum of powerfully expressive verse. I hope that might eventually become a collective ambition for readers and poets alike: to radically reconceive and feel again human relations in honour of and in the brilliant light of the power of poetry. The fundamental transformation of human life, that’s what I hope for.’


Why Has It All Got to Be So Terribly?


Because ‘I am an artist and I am going to change the world.’

4 thoughts on “What is Literature?

  1. Dear Toby,

    Re: Your latest post:

    There is the work and there is talking about Literature.

    All that matters is the work. The rest is commentary. Your post below is good commentary.

    Keston Sutherland is completely correct about Literature. He is also completely wrong about Literature. I understand his need to be coherent in his incoherence. I do not expect his work to mutate into anything like the music of The Waste Land anytime soon.

    My best wishes to you


  2. Pingback: Reading Keston Sutherland | tobylitt

  3. Pingback: Keston Sutherland Material | tobylitt

  4. Pingback: Sport – or, What Can Writers Learn From Athletes and Coaches? | tobylitt

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