Things I learnt.
Should you rush off now and read Alan Garner?
No, he’s my author, find your own.
As I wrote 3 posts ago, the book that shakes your world, and goes on doing so, may put
your best friend to sleep. It’s a valuable lesson. Why a thin book about three teenagers and a set of plates should have been so disturbing, and remain so decades later, after repeated re-readings, is probably unanswerable.
I think there is an objective argument to be made for the quality of his prose and his stature as a stylist. I doubt I would have ‘understood’ Heaney’s ‘Do not waver into Language/ Do not Waver in it’ if it weren’t for Garner’s books. I don’t think I would have been so receptive to Basil Bunting or Geoffrey Hill without him either and I don’t see those two as in anyway superior. I admire the man’s integrity, his willingness to hold his line, to follow the grain in the wood to where it took him. I am grateful for the way he never patronised me as his reader. All of which I suspect goes for Bunting and Hill as well.
In the Smoke that Thunders, Garner claims to have been offered two absolute pieces of advice by his Grandfather: If someone else can do the job better, let them; Take as long as the job needs.
They seem true though difficult to put in practice.
Although initially heading towards a life of classical scholarship, he makes the point in his fiction and in his other writing that Greek rationality and Logic are not the only path to understanding. They are one way, and they are essential in some cases, but at other times stories, myths, songs, the poetry inherent in the texture of language itself, the interaction of story and landscape, are powerful tools for a different kind of understanding, a different, not lesser, way of thinking. The work he did preparing Strandloper may have crystalized this. As long as the myth or the story isn’t trivialised, or made redundant by a desire to please the audience at all costs, the myth, poem and story are ways of thinking through and in language. ‘Through’ here means both ‘by means of’ and ‘by way of travelling through’.
But for this to work, there’s an element of necessary surrender on the part of the reader. An initial humility and a willingness to pay attention which are both unfashionable. And sadly, it’s the opposite to the way reading is taught in most literary programs. There are pragmatic reasons for including books in schools. They are ways of developing the ability to read, write and think in language. But how could you teach the real power and pleasure of reading, if you start by teaching reluctant readers to resist?
The lie that underwrites 'critical literacy', that somehow it empowers readers and protects them from the invidious ideological work of the text, (never the poem, the play or the novel, always the text, as though there was no important difference between The Waste Land and a Macdonald’s advert), is a complete contradiction not only of common sense but of the way people who love and value books, read. It’s a bunker mentality in which critic and student sit in their fox hole sniping at any text that approaches them, having decided in advance what is important and what is acceptable based on their preferred version of the world, or, in the case of students, their teacher or lecturer’s preferred version.
Critical literacy, as often taught and practised, is the arrogant victory of the mindless and unthinking who are too scared to risk the discovery that the world is much more complicated (and interesting) than their own ghetto mentality. It destroys the way story and poem work for reasons based on a ludicrous misunderstanding of the way story and poem work. As a way of reading it is no more admirable or intelligent than the mindless use of badly written books to pass the time and it doesn’t even offer the pleasure of the latter.
The new national Australian Senior English Literature syllabus makes the same mistake. Let us discuss ‘representations’, let us talk about the way ‘Aesthetic’ features ‘position readers’. There is no sense that literature is an art form. Or that ignorance of the history of that art form, a contested and infinitely debatable list of practitioners and products, renders any statement about the value or quality of a work of art instantly irrelevant. It is a little more than an institutionalised, theoretically justified version of the currently fashionable cult of ignorance. In an academic context, it should be unforgiveable.
The new syllabus compounds this by assessing literary knowledge through an ‘unseen exam’ in which students are expected to ‘know’ a book well enough to answer previously unseen questions without having the book present. It should be obvious to anyone that this is a self defeating way of assessing any kind of genuine response to literature. It doesn’t even assess students' memory of the book; it assesses their memory of their teachers’ best guess at what the topics are going to be. And so another generation of student readers will have the oxygen supply cut off to their brains.
Whether literary education has any value in regard to understanding how books works is still a moot point. Which is why there must always be free public libraries. There are always books waiting to be read. Readers will find their way to them, regardless of the way literature is used or abused in educational institutions. Someone is always going to be saying,..’read this’. Literary education is well on its way to becoming redundant and irrelevant and few will mourn its eventual passing.
What did I learn from Alan Garner?
Do not waver into Language
Do not waver in it.
Treasure the texts that rattle your world, not the ones that lull you to sleep by telling you what you already knew or wanted to hear.